Recessions don't only affect a company's bottom line. They have an impact across the board and companies typically become cautious and batten down the hatches. But when things went south in 2008, Piero Tintori did the opposite.
"We decided to accelerate and use the opportunity of people taking to the slow lane, as it were, to grow," says the founder and chief executive of digital marketing and web content management company, Terminalfour.
“I think a lot of people used the recession as an excuse to put the brakes on. Business sentiment became very nervous whether it needed to or not. Organisations began pausing projects and we saw our competitors pulling back.
“By contrast, we began pushing forward and took three critical steps to position ourselves for growth. We redeveloped our product from scratch, we capitalised on our knowledge of the higher education sector and decided to focus specifically on this niche and we turned our attention firmly towards international markets.”
The strategy worked. Terminalfour today employs 72 people and has more than 200 higher education clients in 13 countries, including the United States, Canada, the UK and South Africa. In 2017, Terminalfour won €4.2 million in new business with more than half of that coming from North America.
Dublin-born Tintori founded Terminalfour while at DCU studying computer applications. By the time he graduated in 2000, the company employed six people. Today, it is headquartered in Dublin with two offices in the US. Its Boston office employs 12 people and, since January, there have been two staff at its newly opened San Diego office from where it services clients on the US west coast as well as the Australian and New Zealand markets.
Terminalfour was 11 years-old when the recession hit. At the time, it had clients across multiple sectors. Galvanised by the opportunities he believed the downturn presented – specifically in the area of higher education – Tintori raised €1.2 million in venture capital from Investec and AIB seed capital in 2009 and began strengthening the company’s structure and management team to underpin its growth.
It won its first clients in North America a year later and the US market now accounts for about 60 per cent of its near €10 million turnover. Closer to home, its clients include Imperial College London, the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland and University College Dublin.
“We recognised that we needed a diverse international client base, not least because it would protect us against downturns in individual markets,” Tintori says. “We took a very softly, softly approach to the US, starting in 2008/09, and slowly built our presence there with reference clients.
“We had heard horror stories of companies spending huge amounts of money trying to break into the US market and we were determined not to do the same. From a standing start in the US eight years ago, we now have 130 higher education clients there, including the universities of Florida, Columbia and Seattle. We’re in two-thirds of states in the US and across Canada.
“We broke into the Australian market in 2012/13 and have been in the UK since around 2005 where we have 60 per cent of the market.
“The Irish market has always been competitive and a very good test bed for us before we became visible to international competitors. We have around a 50 per market cent share in Ireland,” Tintori says.
Terminalfour’s platform helps third-level institutions to maximise the effectiveness of their digital and content strategies.
“Our business is large-scale website management and ensuring that colleges keep up to speed with the high expectations of potential students when it comes to engaging with their websites and content,” Tintori says. “Managing websites is an enormous task for universities. The University of Florida has more than 3,000 sites, for example, and they need to be sure that they are all consistent and connecting with students to drive recruitment. The University of Massachusetts is a client and it has had a 300 per cent increase in enquiries using our platform.
“Essentially we ‘listen’ to what people are doing on the websites. We know where they come from, what they are enquiring about and adjust the content accordingly,” Tintori adds.
As an example, he cites queries identified as coming from law firms. “If they are browsing from a firm, then they are likely to be already qualified, so we push content about post-graduate courses.”
Terminalfour does all its software development in-house and is about to open a Polish office to focus on software test automation. In 2014, the company received a further €1 million in funding from its investors to drive international sales and Tintori’s main focus now in on bringing in new projects. To this end he flew more than 260,000 air miles in 2017.
“It was clear that our strategy was working and we had the growth and the customers to prove it,” he says. “I think our investors were willing to back us again because we have always made very efficient use of capital. With the help of Enterprise Ireland, we have applied the principles of lean manufacturing to our business and have learned from watching other companies. Without this I think we might have made more mistakes.”
Asked if the name Terminalfour has any particular significance, Tintori laughs. “Afraid not,” he says.
“I was under pressure to find a name and happened to be in what was then the impressive new Terminal Four at Heathrow and that’s where the idea came from. So, it’s a little bit random. However, in my view it’s less about the name and more about what you make of the brand.”