Ray Nolan of XSellco: “Brexit has got to be good for us, it’s got to be’

The Malahide-born tech entrepreneur is critical of Irish politics, but is also passionate about his work on the Techies4TempleStreet charity event

Ray Nolan  of XSellco at the launch of Techies4TempleStreet, a charity event that takes place on Friday July 7th at the RDS. Photograph: Andres Poveda

Ray Nolan of XSellco at the launch of Techies4TempleStreet, a charity event that takes place on Friday July 7th at the RDS. Photograph: Andres Poveda

 

Ray Nolan isn’t what you’d expect of a successful tech entrepreneur. He’s not one of the grey T-shirt or black polo brigade. He doesn’t exactly look out of place in the Marker Hotel where I meet him, but you don’t get the impression that he’s in his element there – perhaps that’s got something to do with our meeting, or perhaps he’d prefer to be working.

“I don’t shut off at all, I don’t shut on either. I’ll be online doing stuff day and night and I never regard it as work,” he tells me when I ask about what he does in his spare time. This seems to be a trait of all tech entrepreneurs. The fact that he didn’t complete his degree – he attended Kevin Street – ticks another box in the tech entrepreneur stereotype competition (see Dell, Jobs and Gates). But that’s about it when it comes to comparing Nolan with other tech success stories – he appears to be a more down-to-earth character.

My meeting with Nolan comes on the back of the launch of Techies4TempleStreet, a charity event that has raised more than €400,000 since 2015. He’s passionate about it and assures me it’s not “a full-on geek thing”.

Upward trajectory

The Malahide-born businessman is said to have netted around €100 million from the sale of Hostelworld to Hellman & Friedman in 2009. At one stage the hostel-booking site was one of the top 20 dotcom companies in the world. Its upward trajectory has faltered since Nolan’s departure – in the last two years revenue and booking volumes have dropped at the company. But that’s not his concern. “I’ve no emotional attachment to any business – once it’s over, it’s over.”

Despite his remove, he’s not convinced that Hostelworld has been managed to reach full potential.

“The business needed to be much more strategic than it ended up being . . . when you get a private equity company in, that owns the whole thing, they just want to pull the cash out.”

While the sale made him a wealthy man, he says it’s not all about the money. “It’s an indicator that something you’re doing works . . . Effectively I’m working for the Government and for philanthropic purposes . . . You have to hope that you can build something awesome then make a difference with that money.”

Gift software

These don’t seem like empty words; Nolan once tried to gift software to the Irish Government.

“I met Richard Bruton to give [Worky. com] to him, I met the department of scratching your bollocks and they said ‘this is great, this is great’ . . . and they never followed it up.”

It’s a mess . . . there’s no leadership on either side. There’s no direction

The software behind Worky.com was said to be worth around €3 million at the time but, according to Nolan, the department decided to develop their own software.

Irish politics is clearly one of Ray Nolan’s pet hates.

“It’s a mess . . . there’s no leadership on either side. There’s no direction.”

Nolan won’t do photographs with Ministers at job launches because he doesn’t think they’re responsible for the creation of any jobs. He’s critical of what he calls a lack of joined-up thinking, which has led to Dublin becoming the hub of everything, and he condemns “the gombeen politics that has been around for 20 years and never put broadband into places”.

Just as connected

Outside of the capital you are just as connected to the rest of the world as you are in Dublin, he argues.

“What’s this idea of people driving two hours to Dublin to work in a box? It’s stupid that we haven’t worked that out yet.”

Keeping people in towns should be a priority for Government, according to Nolan, who adds that the way we work is going to change considerably in the future.

“It’s almost inconceivable that in 10 years my kids will work for one company; they’ll probably work for three or four, they will probably not go to a desk and work at that desk. So, you’re going to be working online.”

Ireland – and the way it works, or doesn’t – takes up a large portion of our conversation. He tells me that he’s often thought about developing his best American accent, because sometimes it feels like the government is working against him.

Business won’t succeed or fail based on you being in Ireland

“If you’re an indigenous software guy, and you watch the IDA bring in another tech company, that’s another 200 people that you can’t hire . . . its great PR for the IDA, but they’re competing against me.”

Asked if he thinks that Ireland is an attractive place for investment, he says, “Business won’t succeed or fail based on you being in Ireland. It’s no worse, it could be better.”

Inefficiency

Another focus of his ire is inefficiency. He says that the best you can hope for from any government is that they just get out of your way.

“Here, to register a company and get a VAT number could take you six weeks. I might have forgotten the f***ing idea by the time that comes . . . There are so many stupid things that hold you up.”

Forget Ireland. What does he think about European Union help for SMEs?

“They’ve got enough paper to move around desks without getting bogged down here.”

But these inhibitions don’t seem to have held him back. XSellco, an e-commerce business that he founded, currently has over 9,500 users.

“There’s probably 10 helpdesk products out there of note . . . the point of ours is that we connect to your e-commerce platforms,” he says. The future of the company appears to excite Nolan who sees it as being a big driver of efficiency,

“XSellco can take 70 to 80 per cent of your support time and put it in the bin so you’ve got more time to do the good stuff.”

The EU is a good thing, and the euro is a good thing. It’s good for us to be in

Not performing quite as well is Worky.com, the creation he was going to give to the Government.

“It was a disaster, still is,” he tells me. He’s proud of the concept and he hasn’t shut it off just yet – the servers are still active – but it didn’t work. He cites two reasons for this. The first is that they launched at the start of the recession and there were no jobs to advertise on what was essentially a social media site for jobseekers and headhunters. The second reason was that “human resources is hard . . . because there are people with vested interests in not progressing HR.”

Worky appears to have left a scar; Nolan has since been pitched HR businesses but he has avoided them.

Ultimate Rugby

Nolan is an avid rugby fan.When I meet him he’s just arrived back from Lyon where he went to see the Leinster and Clermont Auvergne game. Reflecting this interest, he developed an app called Ultimate Rugby with Brian O’Driscoll. He assures me that it’s not just a pursuit of passion, but a viable business.

“It’s by far the biggest rugby app in the world, it’s revered,” he claims. But, as with all media businesses, it’s starting to face challenges. The app currently offers free content and the test facing him is how to make more money from this. Some plans involve leaving content like match scores available for free, and putting a pay wall up for more detailed content like tackle counts and so on.

XSellco, Nolan’s newest business, has offices in Dublin, Frankfurt, London and a recently opened facility in New York. On the Brexit front, he’s bullish: “the EU is a good thing, and the euro is a good thing. It’s good for us to be in . . . So Brexit has got to be good for us, it’s got to be.”

But, similar to any business with an international presence, geopolitical shifts matter to Nolan’s operations.

“We put three people on a plane this morning to open our New York office and we don’t know how the visa situation is going to work out for them.”

While he acknowledges that the Trump presidency’s policy changes can affect day-to-day business, he doesn’t appear too alarmed.

“You make pricing decisions on your product and you can’t really change prices that often, maybe never. So you pick your price points and you find the bloody dollar is 10 per cent off your price point and that messes with your marketing completely . . . But it wouldn’t stop you doing it.”

Nolan escaped Ireland’s economic crash relatively unscathed –Worky was the only casualty. He puts this survival in part down to his lack of skill in the property market which made him steer clear of making any property-related investments.

Honesty

Additionally, honesty is, he says, a key part of his ethos, taken from his father, a vet.S

“Integrity is everything . . . being Irish is to be self-effacing and meek, so the few people that put their heads up, including me, will get away with stuff.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Nolan roots for the small guy. Facebook, Twitter, Uber and Snapchat don’t particularly excite him.

“The businesses I admire are the ones that started with very little money and made profits quickly and maybe grew bigger. Am I blown away by an Intercom or anything like that? No.” It’s worth noting that Intercom – a customer messaging platform – is a rival to Nolan’s XSellco.

You don’t have to have a million dollars in your arse pocket to build something any more

Tech is going through an interesting phase in that investor appetite for large multinationals like Uber, a taxi hailing company, and Snapchat, an image messaging app, seems endless, but these companies have never made money. Does this business model appeal to Nolan?

“They’re big punts. For me, I have to see revenue pretty quick and I have to see profit in the near-term, I don’t have a five-year horizon. [Silicon Valley] has that, but the valley can make 100 punts and one of them works and they’re huge.”

Infancy

When Nolan entered this market with his company Raven Computing at the age of 22, the internet was in its infancy. I ask whether it’s become more difficult to start a successful tech or dotcom business now.

“I’d say it’s easier than ever. You don’t have to have a million dollars in your arse pocket to build something any more . . . Getting marketing spend is where the problems are. A lot of the new SaaS (software as a service) world can be chunky in terms of what you have to spend to get a customer . . . I’ve seen businesses pay €10,000 for a customer.”

Things have obviously changed since he first started; he’s had to submit to some of the requirements of being a tech office in the modern world – his office has bean bags and a chalk table-tennis table. He’s not sure about the Google way of working but does buy lunch for his staff. However, “people get over having free lunch pretty quickly,” he says.

With the advancements of technology over the course of Ray Nolan’s career I ask him whether artificial intelligence will revolutionise the workplace to the extent that we’ll all be out of a job in 10 years. As has been the trend in this interview, he’s not concerned.

“There’ll be different types of jobs, and maybe we’ll all be personal trainers, but we’ll have a job.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

Name: Ray Nolan

Position: Chairman and founder of XSellco

Age: 51

From: Malahide, County Dublin

Lives: Malahide

Family: Wife Siobhan and children.

Education: Started to study for a diploma in electrical engineering in Kevin Street, but dropped out before finishing it.

Something you might expect: Ray still wishes he could be a programmer every day.

Something you might not expect: He has nine toes – one had to be amputated on a rugby pitch.