Wednesday 29 March 2017

Voxpro's Kiely rows back on IPO as he plots course to become a global player

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Voxpro co-founder Dan Kiely counts Google among his clients. Picture: Adrian Weckler
Voxpro co-founder Dan Kiely counts Google among his clients. Picture: Adrian Weckler

Dan Kiely has changed his mind about filing for an IPO. Up until recently, the Voxpro co-founder had a plan to float his tech outsourcing company as soon as it made €100m in annual revenue.

Now that this cash target is in sight, he and co-founder wife Linda have decided to hold off. "I've revised my thinking on all of that," says the Cork entrepreneur. "We're going to hit the €100m mark sooner rather than later. In my view, we need to be a much bigger company before we consider the IPO route now. It is still something that we aspire to but at much bigger revenues than €100m."

This week, Kiely laid out some of that aspiration. Voxpro opened a new office in Dublin's Silicon Docks and announced a fresh recruitment drive of 400 people. With over 2,000 people already employed taking high-end tech support calls for Google, Airbnb and others, the husband and wife team have decided to double down on scale.

"We want to become the first Irish outsourcing company to become global," he says. "And I mean truly global. That means a presence in the four corners of the world."

Scale means a new push into Asia, he says. It also means some serious funding to fuel expansion. Kiely says that "tens of millions" is what the company may now seek. "I'm very much open to that now," he says. "Because to achieve the level of scale we're looking at over the next 12 to 18 months, you need deep pockets. Especially to do it quickly. We also need it to buy the best talent available globally." Kiely and his wife own Voxpro outright. Since its beginning in Cork 20 years ago, the company has built up expertise in high-end support for some of the world's fastest growing tech companies.

"With Airbnb, we started with a team of six but are now in the hundreds, both in the US and in Dublin," he says. "Our story has been an ability to throw our arms around them when they're growing and to provide support to small teams as they start to scale globally."

Perhaps it's hanging around with companies like this that is giving the Kielys the push to scale up themselves?

"Possibly," he says. "We're working with some of the most iconic, scaling brands in the world like Airbnb and Google. Their trajectory in terms of the next three years is phenomenal. So we'll be growing alongside them."

Voxpro has recently been signing up other up-and-comers in Silicon Valley, such as the €60m-funded stock-trading app Robinhood.

But aren't 'outsourcing' and 'support' just posh words for call centres? What does Voxpro do to differentiate itself?

"The word 'call centre' offends me," says Kiely. "We describe ourselves as a centre of excellence. What I mean by that is that we're the best performing partner for any of our clients in the world."

This, again, might sound a little buzzword-ish. But Kiely says that the proof is in the graduates they're attracting and in the offices they have constructed, including a plush new facility next to Yahoo in Dublin's Point Village. "If you can guess what we do when you walk through our door, you'd be doing well," he says. "We build out spaces that encourage people to think 'what do they do'? It could be a marketing space, a tech startup or a PR company. When people walk through the door, they say 'wow'."

Still, call centres - or "centres of excellence", in the adjusted parlance - traditionally suffer from problems such as high churn. Is that an issue at Voxpro?

"It depends," says Kiely. "On the Google contract, our retention is very high. Then you have something that's more seasonal which will have higher attrition. Recently, we were making contingencies on an account for attrition but we had to abandon them because there was no attrition at all."

Voxpro employs close to 2,000 people in Ireland and almost 3,000 worldwide. But outsourced support is sometimes seen as a business activity for developing nations instead of than top-tier ones. As Ireland climbs the industrial value chain, is it the right place to continue hosting 'centres of excellence'?

"Yes it is," he says. "If you're positioning yourself as a top-level premium player, anyway. If you're trying to compete on cost, forget it. We recruit graduates. It's premium, high-end activity. There are many partners who will pay for that."

Perhaps the biggest single issue hovering over outsourced services and customer support is robotisation and artificial intelligence. Some of the world's biggest call centres are starting to replace humans en masse with robots and beefed-up online chatbots. Will this happen to Voxpro? And if so, what happens to all those jobs?

"Automation is affecting the industry," says Kiely. "We're already looking at robotics and artificial intelligence. But I think the robots will replace the very basic transactions and interactions. The more complex technical interactions will not be replaced. In the next five years, you're still going to be dealing with a person rather than a robot."

So Voxpro will still employ more humans at its centres in five years' time?

"Oh absolutely. A lot more. I don't see graduates from universities with high-end IT skills being replaced by robots in the next five years. Certainly not by us. Complex technical support and high-end customer experience will always require a human interaction in my view."

While he waits on the robot revolution to gather pace, the Kielys are mulling over the best way to raise money. Despite the need for new capital, he is cautious about its sourcing. "There's no shortage of private capital out there," he says. "But the bottom line is you have to choose someone that's a fit for you. If we were to go down the route of raising private equity, and I'm open to it, we'd never go to the highest bidder. It would have to be with someone who we feel we can work with, someone who gets us and our team. They're far more important than multiples of Ebitda."

For now, Kiely is content to push on with his new state-of-the-art office in the Silicon Docks. He says that Voxpro is beating its rivals in the tech sector because of its "agility". "We can pivot very quickly and we're flexible," he says. "There's no appreciable bureaucracy. If one of our partners wants something, we can react almost immediately. We do things differently."

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