They won the prestigious EY Entrepreneur of the Year recently but the founders of Irish technology company Teamwork.com readily admit to having initially been clueless about how to run a company.
"We were terrible businessmen in the early days. We knew nothing about VAT, proper invoicing, staged payments and so on. We literally made every mistake imaginable," says Peter Coppinger, who established the company along with Daniel Mackey in 2007.
“I actually remember one time having to go to the bank to beg for a car loan that we then used to pay the VAT,” adds Mackey, shaking his head in disbelief.
Teamwork is a Cork-headquartered software company that makes products that help organisations of all shapes and sizes be more organised and efficient. It employs 230 people and counts many of the world’s most influential companies among its 24,000 paying customers across 183 countries.
These include Disney, Netflix, Forbes, Paypal and Spotify.
Instead of getting a guided tour of their funky Cork office, which includes slides that employees use to travel between floors, we’re stuck in an anodyne boardroom in Dublin. The lads have brought the colour with them, however, sprinkling the conversation with occasional swear words, willingly admitting to previous mistakes and insisting they’ll keep doing the right thing by their employees and customers.
While both are informal and friendly by nature, they admit to having had to become a bit more serious as their company has grown.
“We held our first Christmas party for children last year and I remember standing in the midst of the chaos and thinking ‘Jesus, every decision we take affects all of these people’. I thought this isn’t just about two lads having the craic anymore and what we do doesn’t just impact on us and our friends. There are families with kids who trust us with their careers so we have an obligation to do the right thing,” says Mackey.
This duty has led the two to establish a set of core values, something they could never have imagined doing earlier on.
“A few years ago, we were just a couple of hard-nosed developers and, if someone had mentioned core values to us, we probably would have punched them in the face. Now we understand they are absolutely critical to who we are and, just as importantly, ensures we don’t bring any dickheads into the company,” says Coppinger.
This is pretty critical for a business that lists “don’t be a dick” as one of its most important values and one the founders temporarily ditched on urging by senior advisers.
“We were told it was a little juvenile and might not resonate with corporates, but we reintroduced it because everything we do comes back to that,” Coppinger explains.
A privately-owned company that has never received any outside funding, Teamwork has big ambitions. Coppinger and Mackey are intent on maintaining the 40 per cent annual growth rate that Teamwork has achieved over recent years. They’re targeting turnover of $50 million (€44 million) by the end of 2021 with the ultimate goal of hitting $450 million in annual recurring revenues within a decade.
“This isn’t just a figure we’ve pulled out of our arses,” Mackey says. “As long as we stay close to our current growth rate, we will hit that. We have two new products out next year and are looking to get to 10 products at some point. To do all we want to achieve, we will need to triple our workforce.”
The pair, who happily refer to themselves as "two boggers from Cork who are hardcore developers", both got into computer games at a young age. Coppinger's first forays into the world of business came as a pre-teen when he started selling games he had created in his bedroom via the Irish magazine PC Live!
The two first met as rivals – college students who had independently started building websites for small businesses in Cork.
“There was a bit of an arms race going on with the two of us going out to every pub and restaurant in Cork trying to flog websites. Once we were introduced, we realised we had a lot in common and decided to drop out of college and join forces,” Coppinger says.
This was around the time of the late 1990s dotcom bubble and business took off quickly. They progressed over the next few years to developing ecommerce sites and databases for customers that included Pfizer and Eli Lilly.
As the Celtic Tiger began to roar, however, it seemed that everyone was getting rich but them.
“We had a consultancy that had lots of work and a good reputation, but we weren’t making any money,” says Mackey, who reels off various other side projects that came and went including selling hotdogs on the streets of Cork and running an internet cafe.
The pair wised up, doubling their fees and taking on more valuable projects, enabling them to take on staff and begin to build a proper business. The idea that really set the two entrepreneurs on their current path came about by accident.
“We had so many projects on and being as disorganised as we were found ourselves struggling to stay on top of everything. We saw a couple of fledgling project management applications and tried out what was then the market leader. We discovered pretty quickly that it didn’t do nearly enough of what we required,” Coppinger says.
“I politely emailed the guys who made the software to ask if they going to be adding in other features but got a sneery, dismissive response. I couldn’t believe their attitude. We figured we could probably build a better application ourselves, so we set about doing that.”
They quickly got excited about what would eventually be the flagship application in a full suite of products. They worked all the hours they could on their new project and, one night in 2007, having put together a website and hooked it up to PayPal, they launched at TeamworkPM.net.
“In the first month we made $186 so that proved there was a market out there for the project management software we had created, but we didn’t know how big it might be. We were keen to move away from consultancy to making our own products so we continued pushing it, even to the point where we passed on our consulting work to another company for free to let us focus on Teamwork,” Mackey adds.
The two only realised they had secured their first major client when the head of IT at Disney called them out of the blue a few months after the website had launched.
“We were getting a few hundred sign-ups every month when we got what we first imagined was a prank call. What had happened was that one person in Disney had started using Teamwork but she passed the message on and suddenly there were so many sign-ups that the head of IT intervened. He asked us for an enterprise version of the software and we dropped everything to make sure we delivered. Within a short space of time we had them as a client without once ever having met anyone from the company,” Coppinger says.
Others quickly followed, but with such a clunky internet address, potential clients had trouble tracking them down.
In what is now a well-told tale, the guys paid €500,000 to an individual who owned the Teamwork.com domain address. This wiped out the company’s savings and only came about after Coppinger had talked him down from an asking price of many millions.
“Everyone thought we were crazy to spend that much on an internet address. It took me two days to admit to Dan I’d gone ahead and bought it, but I didn’t want to spend my life regretting that we didn’t have the URL to go with our company name,” Coppinger says.
In hindsight, it was a smart move. If not a household name, Teamwork has become a well-known business, in part due to having a brand name that succinctly explains what the company does.
As well as providing project management software, Teamwork has expanded to offer helpdesk and collaboration solutions as part of an ever-expanding platform. It is busy expanding its presence in the United States, where it has just opened an office in Boston.
“We are getting fantastic traction from companies there with anything from 200 to 1,000 employes. We are targeting those because there are huge revenues possible, they tend to stick around longer and are generally more open to using a whole suite of products, rather than individual solutions,” Coppinger says.
Having bootstrapped the business, the founders admit they may need external funding and are open to the idea of venture debt as it would leave them in control. While an eventual exit from Teamwork via an initial public offering (IPO) is a possibility, Mackey says they won’t want to even begin that conversation until they have worked up to $100 million in annual revenues.
The businessmen have had a long journey to get to where they are today, but it is obvious they still enjoy each other’s company.
“We’ve done well to be as good friends as we are considering all we have weathered. In the early days, it was just two lads and no formalities at all with decisions being based on ‘best idea wins’. We used to have blazing rows, but have learned that it isn’t the best way of communicating,” Coppinger admits.
“We still have arguments, but once we stop and look at the bigger picture we realise that we both really want the same end goal. We might have different ideas about how to do that but having the same ultimate aim unites us,” adds Mackey.
Why in the news?: The co-founders of Teamwork.com recently won the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award
Name: Peter Coppinger
Family: Married to Claire and they have one-year-old child Lucia, with another on the way
Name: Daniel Mackey
Family: Married to Olive with three daughters, Emma (4), Aoife (2) and Ellie (6 months)
Something you might expect: With both having young children, they have little downtime, but movies and gaming are among the ways they escape.
Something that might surprise: In spite of both hailing from the rebel county, they "hate the whole Cork is the centre of the universe thing".