'There have never been so many opportunities'
Another week, another crisis in the on-going saga of the economy that's about to sink without trace, but some young Irish people are making serious money. Carissa Casey meets them
Published 14/05/2011 | 05:00
Aodhan Cullen was a 16-year-old schoolboy when he came up with the idea of creating software which would track visitors to a website.
Now 28, Cullen's company, Statcounter.com, is worth an estimated €3m. That valuation puts Cullen and his wife Jenni, who jointly own the company, in the top 20 young Irish rich people.
The young couple are proof, if it were needed that, 'there's no recession online'.
This is the mantra of many young Irish people who have set up web-based businesses. And like the Cullens, they are reaping the rewards of having a global focus at a time when the Irish economy is in the doldrums.
"It's not that we've been completely unaffected by the recession," explains Jenni. "But our main market is the US and after that Europe. Things aren't so bad in either of those markets and that's helped."
Statcounter is entirely self-funded since the early days when Aodhan borrowed his dad's credit card to buy hosting space on servers. It employs 10 people in all, four in Dublin and the rest in the main customer markets. "We have to have people in different time zones to service customers," says Jenni.
About 1.5m people worldwide use the free version of Statcounter on websites or blogs. The company makes money by selling advertising on the pages where customers find out the statistics for their website. Larger companies pay for a broader service and more advanced features.
"We certainly noticed in the last few years that some clients have had to downgrade to the free service. But the recession has also made people much more aware of the potential of the internet for generating sales," says Jenni. "A lot of small companies are amazed to find that a lot of people visit their website but just don't buy or make any kind of contact. By analysing what visitors are doing, they can change the site to make it more customer-friendly."
The Cullens also adapted quickly as soon as the recession began to bite. They sought better terms from their suppliers and were able to offer an expanded service to clients at the same price.
"It's not been easy to watch some of the websites we used to deal with go under," says Jenni. "But there's so much scope online for making sales and it would be great if more small Irish companies saw the potential of that. It's really the future because it allows them to get into the American market at very little cost."
While they've had plenty of offers to sell, the young couple are determined to stay independent for the time being.
At 32, Dylan Collins now qualifies as a serial entrepreneur. He's already sold one of the companies he founded, DemonWare, for $15m (€10.5m) to computer gaming giant Activision. That was in 2008. More recently, another gaming giant, Game Stop, made a major investment in his next company Jolt Online.
Collins finished with Jolt Online a few weeks ago and is currently looking around for new ventures. "It's a really vibrant time," he claims. "There have never been so many opportunities."
"If you look at the big internet brands like Facebook, they didn't exist four or five years ago. The number of internet users, the amount of money they're spending online, those figures are just going up and up," he says.
Collins isn't even a techie. He studied business at Trinity. He was still at college when he co-founded his first company Forest, which developed and sold software to allow firms market to their customers using text messages.
In 2003 he established DemonWare, which created software to allow gamers connect online, a huge developing trend at the time. The company was based in Dublin and had offices in Vancouver, Canada, and Los Angeles in the US. At its peak it employed up to 40 people.
After DemonWare was sold, Collins set up Jolt Online, an online gaming website.
"It's never been so cheap or easy to set up an internet company," says Collins. "You can launch a company for a few thousand euro or even a few hundred. And you're not restricted to the Irish market, there's global potential. In fact for an internet company to work you can't look at Ireland as the main market. It has to be Europe and North America."
Despite the success of their business, the Cullens have a pretty modest lifestyle. They live in a three-bedroom terraced house in the centre of Dublin and drive an '01 car.
"The thing is that the business is only really worth something if we sell it and we don't intend to do that. Also we both work really hard -- late in the evenings and sometimes in the middle of the night if there's an issue in another time zone," explains Jenni.
In fact the couple didn't even have a honeymoon. "The most we ever manage is a weekend and then it's normally in Ireland. We've only been abroad twice, once to England and once to Copenhagen on business," she adds.
Greg Turley and his brother Niall have also seen the huge benefits of setting up an online business. The Turleys' father ran the Argus Car Hire business in Ireland but the family sold the company in 2007 to focus on creating an online booking system for car rentals.
The company they founded, CarTrawler, is now used in 175 countries worldwide and had a turnover of €141m last year.
Just four years after it was established, in the midst of the worst economic crisis ever to hit Ireland, CarTrawler was sold earlier this month for between €100m and €110m to ECI Partners, a British private equity firm.
Greg and Niall made about €40m each from the sale.
The Turleys, like the Cullens and Dylan Collins, might be rare examples of business success in an otherwise stagnant economy. But as they are quick to point out, there's no reason anymore for Irish people to focus purely on the Irish economy.