Sunday 4 December 2016

Mobile solutions can lend a helping hand

Dublin-based software firm Diona was ultimately shaped by personal challenges and a knowledge of technology, writes Sean Gallagher

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

Graham Stubbs of Diona Technologies with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Fergal Philips
Graham Stubbs of Diona Technologies with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Fergal Philips

Very often what interests me most about interviewing successful entrepreneurs is not so much what they do but why they do it.

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In many years of being in business and around entrepreneurs I have found that some of the most successful, most impactful businesses are those born out of a genuine desire on the part of the founders to help improve the quality of life of others. And these businesses often have their roots and origins in the personal experience of one or more of the founders.

Drawing motivation from their own challenges and utilising their unique skills and contacts, they come up with solutions to these challenge and then strive to share these solutions with others who are facing the very same challenges. In doing so, their passion becomes their purpose. Their mess becomes their message. This is one such inspiring story.

Graham Stubbs is co-founder and CEO of international software company, Diona. Put simply, the company develops software solutions for mobile phones and tablets that allows members of the public easy access to a range of government services - such as claiming unemployment benefits or scheduling basic appointments with government agencies and service providers. In addition, their software is used by government social workers who operate in complex areas such as child protection and family support.

"Our software is like a deep app," says Graham. "Deep, in that it is integrates into back-end IT systems of government agencies. While very complex pieces of technology, the whole idea is that they are delivered to the public and government agency employees in a way that is very easy to use," he insists.

Founded in 2012, the company already employs over 120 staff between its offices in Dublin, Canada, the US and India. And with its revenues set to reach $14m in 2015, the company has been named as a finalist in this year's EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.

Graham Stubbs grew up in Ballybrack in south county Dublin. After school he studied economics in Trinity College, after which he expected to have to travel to find a job - possibly in either marketing or finance in London. However, fate intervened when he and his then girlfriend, Sheelagh (now his wife) both got US green cards in the Donnelly Visa lottery programme.

"We ended up in San Francisco - purely by chance. My first job was delivering coffee and sandwiches to engineers on a HP project in Paulo Alto," explains Graham.

During a chance meeting with one of the engineers, he was asked whether he had ever thought of starting a career in technology. Before long, he found himself taking the minutes of meetings and doing on-site testing for the very group of engineers to whom he had once delivered coffee.

A second job offer soon followed from EDS, a company set up by US businessman Ross Perot (later sold to General Motors). He joined a graduate trainee programme that included a three-month coding bootcamp in Texas and another six-month secondment to General Motors in Detroit before he was sent back to the company's offices in Silicon Valley.

"It was a roller coaster of a time and right in the middle of the dotcom boom," explains Graham. "Over the next few years, I got involved with a number of exciting and dynamic tech start-ups - many of which ended in failure," he adds.

However all that changed when Graham and his wife had their first child, Owen, who was born with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. With their new baby now their priority, the couple decided to move home to Ireland to be close to the support of family and friends. Apart from learning all they could in order to best look after Owen, much of their time was now spent filling out endless forms and documents in order to try to access the key services he needed.

"There was no holistic approach across government at the time," explains Graham. "So Sheelagh and I began to wonder that, if we were finding the whole process frustrating and repetitive, then so too must most other parents in the same situation. And that got me thinking about what I could do to change that," he adds passionately.

Around that time Graham met two entrepreneurs who had set up a new social tech company, in Dublin, called Cúram Software. For the next 10 years, Graham travelled throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific region helping the company pioneer overseas markets until 2011, when the company was sold to IBM.

Instead of joining IBM, Graham and two of his colleagues from Cúram - Anil Singaraju, and John Polakowski - decided it was time to go out on their own and so set up Diona.

"We wanted to continue our journey of helping to transform the way health and human services programmes were delivered and, in particular, to give governments around the world the tools to engage more effectively with their service users," says Graham. "Our mission was and still is, to help governments help people," he adds.

Today, all of their work is export-focused. Many of their customers are government health and social service agencies in the UK, Europe, India, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada, the US and the Middle East.

But setting up a new business, even if you have the technical know-how, is never easy. And access to capital is a big challenge.

"In 2012 the banks simply weren't lending so we ended up pooling whatever savings we had and begged and borrowed the rest from friends and family and anyone that would help," admits Graham.

"While a real challenge in the early days, this experience taught us a very valuable and strategic lesson; that if we were to survive, we had to develop a cash-generating business right from the very beginning," he adds.

To achieve this, he and his two co-founders began offering consultancy services in order to generate cash to reinvest in product development. With customers and revenue from the very outset, after only two years they were in a position to approach venture capital firms for funding. With a great idea, relevant skills and a proven track record, they successfully raised €4m in Series-A funding to help them build out their management capability and invest further in the development of their software.

"It really enabled us to recruit top talent including seasoned leaders from major players in our industry such as Accenture and IBM. This helped complement our own abilities and really raised the company to a whole new level," explains Graham. "It also sent a clear message to our customers, partners, and competitors that we were serious about being the global leader for mobility solutions in our market," he adds.

"Part of our success comes from making a number of other key decisions," he says. "Among these has been our clear focus on what we were doing. Although we are constantly being presented with interesting and appealing parallel opportunities, we stay absolutely focused on our core objectives.

"While our competitors offer larger, expensive, risky, bespoke multi-year projects, our out-of-the-box solutions provide faster, safer, and cheaper ways for government agencies to deliver better engagement via a mobile channel to employees and the public," he adds.

With Graham in Ireland, Anil in India and John in Texas, what is the next step?

"Our main plans centre on expanding both our market reach and our product lines. In particular, there is a real market opportunity in the US and Canada at the moment and we are looking at significantly expanding there.

Winning in business is important for Diona. But it is seeing their products being used, and seeing how they make a difference in people's lives, that matters most.

For Graham, his personal circumstances, while constantly challenging, have equipped him well to know what service users really need. Today he remains as passionate as ever about fixing the problems he sees in how government services are delivered. His experience and expertise in technology, has also given him the tools he needs to develop solutions that really work.

Without his personal challenges, Graham Stubbs may have ended up living in a different country. He may even have taken a different career path or business journey. However, it was these very challenges that led him and his co-founders to start a business that is now making a major contribution to the lives of so many people around the world.

His approach and his attitude to life is testament to what makes entrepreneurs great. For they know all too well that, while none us can ever control what happens to us, what we do about what happens is what really counts.

For further information see diona.com

Graham's advice for other businesses

1 Do what you know

"Find what motivates you. Build your business around solving problems in an area that you know and are passionate about. Passion makes you push on when otherwise you might give up and being personally committed to an area helps you keep focused."

2 Hire people you know

"Hire people known to you who are already tried and trusted. This is important in the early days. Surround yourself with a team with complementary skills to yours and who bring a diversity of backgrounds, education, skills and outlooks."

3 Measure success

"In business, you can only win in the long-term when all your stakeholders win. When measuring your success, ensure to measure the impact on all your stakeholders including your employees, your customers, your partners and your investors."

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