Inside Track: Paul Hackett, ClickandGo.com chief executive

Inside Track Small Business Paul Hackett, ClickandGo.com chief executive and co-founder

Paul Hackett: ‘Banking in Ireland is dead from what I can see, especially for SMEs.’

Paul Hackett: ‘Banking in Ireland is dead from what I can see, especially for SMEs.’

 

Dublin-based travel company ClickandGo was set up five years ago to take the hassle out of booking an online holiday. It now employs 25 people.

What is special about your business? We’re an Irish-owned company operating in a sector totally dominated by major British and US players. We’re an online business but we also give our customers the option to speak to real people seven days a week if they need assistance or guidance. Holidays are a major expense. Sometimes people want more than a great booking engine when making a decision about where to go.

What sets your business apart in your sector? We give the customer the holiday price up front. The first price they see is the price they’ll pay. Our competitors require maybe four or five selections before you get to the actual price.

We also differentiate ourselves by hand-picking all of our accommodation. We don’t want thousands of hotels on our site, so we pick the best across the price range and customer demographics. We do the hard work by weeding out accommodation with poor reviews. We also put a huge emphasis on location. All our city hotels are just that, right in the city centre. If you are visiting a city for a weekend you don’t want your hotel at the airport or in the suburbs.

What has been your biggest challenge? Getting to break-even and profitability as fast as possible. We hit break-even in 2013 and made decent money in 2014. Our next biggest challenge is the unreasonable demands made on us by the merchant service providers.

The travel industry is regulated by the Commission for Aviation Regulation so customers are fully protected should a company fail. However, the merchant service companies, some of whom are not based in Ireland, want even more security in the form of cash deposits. As your business grows, they want larger and larger deposits so you get penalised for being successful.

What has been your biggest success? We’ve had a few. In 2011 we made it on to the Enterprise Ireland list of high potential start-ups. We also began our partnership with Aer Lingus under the Holidays with Aer Lingus brand. We retained this contract in 2014 following a highly competitive tender process where we were up against some very well known big international brands.

What key piece of advice would you give to someone starting a business? Keep to the basics, stick to what you are good at, perfect that and don’t get distracted.

Who do you admire most in business and why? I admire anyone self-employed or who starts or runs their own business. That said, if I had to pick one person, it would be Gerry Robinson, the former head of Granada. I love his no- nonsense, pure common sense approach to business.

What two things could the Government do to help SMEs in the current environment? Come up with a way of giving more support around hiring staff when you’re in the start- up phase. Investment in people at a key point in a company’s development could lead to multiple jobs down the line. We also need someone to regulate the merchant service companies, as they seem to operate outside the scope of the Central Bank and are operating in an anti- competitive, anti-business manner.

In your experience, are the banks lending to SMEs currently? We have no debt and no overdraft. Our turnover this year will be in the €18-€20 million range and I have never met the manager where we bank! They have never once phoned to say: “I see you guys are growing fast. Is there anything we could do to help you drive that growth?”

Banking in Ireland is dead from what I can see, especially for SMEs. I get really annoyed when I see banks’ advertising campaigns telling us they are there to “back your business”. I see absolutely no evidence of this.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business? Not always sticking resolutely to the knitting. Sometimes opportunities can look very attractive and you end up pitching for something too soon that eats time and gets you nowhere. But I’m very lucky now as we have a team of 25 great people and a very open style of decision-making. That’s definitely cut down on potential mistakes.

What is the most frustrating part of running a small business? It takes longer than you think to hit breakthrough events and get established. It’s hard when you are burning through your money and not seeing the hoped for growth or sales numbers.

What’s your business worth and would you sell it? Based on last year’s ebitda, probably €5 million. It wouldn’t be the right time for us to sell, it’s very early days and we’ve tonnes to do before we get to a point where we’d consider selling.

Olive Keogh