Dare to dream, dare to grow, and dare to enjoy great online success
After spawning a host of E-commerce sites, this Laois entrepreneur now helps others sell online
Ronan O'Brien is the founder of Zatori Results Ltd, a company that owns and runs a number of very successful online businesses. Talking with him this week in his central warehousing and distribution facility in Portlaoise, it seems like there is nothing he doesn't know about how to sell products over the internet.
"Essentially, we are shopkeepers who use websites as our storefronts," explains Ronan. "We specialise in helping customers who turn to the internet when they want to find a product. Then we put that item into a box and ship it to them anywhere in the world," he adds.
Among his many online businesses are TheCostumeShop.ie - which sells everything from fancy dress costumes for Halloween to leprechaun outfits for St Patrick's Day, as well as all types of party supplies. His BuyTrophies.ie business sells a variety of trophies and medals, while TheBikiniShop.ie sells a wide range of bikinis and beach wear.
There is also Mollys.ie which is an online pet store which sells pet food, bowls, collars, toys and just about anything a pet lover might need, while Clothing.ie offers a range of niche men and women's designer wear. He also runs a business called TheMobilityShop.ie, which sells and rents an extensive range of wheelchairs, motorised scooters, walking frames and bathroom accessories for those with limited mobility.
And as if that wasn't enough, he also runs a specialist business called MarineElectronics.eu which supplies radar, communication devices and other electronic equipment for boats, yachts and ships. Running a single business would be challenging enough for most of us - so how does he manage to run so many, I wonder?
"While we run multiple online businesses, our real expertise is technology and our fulfilment capability," explains Ronan.
To demonstrate this, we take a walk through the dispatch area, where he lifts up a parcel full of costumes that are ready to be shipped to a customer in Greece. Earlier that morning, his team shipped bikinis to a customer in California and a ship's radar to a yacht owner in Qatar.
Having spent the last number of years building his own online businesses, he is now using that expertise to launch a new business - Rapid Presence - helping other companies who want to sell their products online but who don't have the staff or the know-how to do it themselves.
"Some companies used to think it was as simple as getting someone to build a website for them and customers would simply come. But they eventually realised that wasn't the answer," explains Ronan.
"It's about doing in-depth market research and finding out what products or services people are searching for on the internet and what specific words they use in their searches. Then it's about developing strategies to attract these potential customers to your own site and making it easy for them to buy from you.
"Similarly, such research can also throw up interesting opportunities to offer new products or solutions to people who can't find what they are looking for online," he adds.
His new offering is aimed at those businesses wanting to sell online for the first time as well as existing businesses wanting to start all over again.
"We create a complete digital presence for these companies, from re-designing their websites, answering incoming phone calls and email enquiries on their behalf, to warehousing their stock and picking, packing and fulfilling all their orders.
"It really is a one-stop, single solution that has already been proven to work. Importantly too for these businesses, our name and service is not visible to the end customer," explains Ronan.
"Because we already have the technology developed, it usually works out cheaper for us to do it than having them do it themselves, since we already have the infrastructure in place as well as the economies of scale to drive down costs," he adds.
Ronan O'Brien grew up in Dublin. He graduated with a BComm from UCD and worked with his father in the family business - selling management information systems for use by shipping ports.
Throughout his time in university and afterward, Ronan DJ-ed in local discos and nightclubs, often up to seven nights a week. It was while DJing in a large city club that the idea of setting up his online store first emerged.
"It was a few weeks before Halloween and myself and a friend had been trying to buy fancy dress costumes for a gig we were going to. But we just couldn't find anything decent.
"Our discussions led us to the conclusion that others too, must be equally frustrated with trying to find suitable costumes for such themed events," explains Ronan.
"It seemed obvious to me at the time that there was an opening in the market so when my friend bet me that I couldn't set up such a business, I decided to prove him wrong," he says with a confident smile.
He quickly tracked down a costume supplier in the UK and within a week had them fly over a consignment of stock. However, rather than open a physical shop, Ronan decided it would be cheaper and faster to set up a dedicated online store instead and so in 2007 TheCostumeShop.ie was launched.
It was the typical and inspiring start-up story we often read about in the US - launched from the garage of his family's home and funded by maxing out his personal credit card.
But it worked. Soon he was selling costumes to customers all over the world.
Before long, he had outgrown the family's garage and moved into a small industrial premises in Sandyford. Soon he outgrew that premises too and had to move to a much larger base - this time in Portlaoise.
"The beauty of running an internet business is that it doesn't really matter where your business is physically located but rather that you have the right range and quality of products and the right technology and systems in place to enable customers find and buy from you," explains Ronan.
"After that, it's about making sure that the customer receives their purchase on time," he insists.
While he ended up employing 100 temporary staff and selling a lot of stock over that initial Halloween season, he quickly realised that the demand for costumes was seasonal, so he began looking around for other products.
"I wanted to find something that would help remove the peaks and troughs from the business. I settled on the idea of beach ware because I thought it would be a good seller during summer - that's how TheBikiniShop.ie came about," explains Ronan.
However, his bikinis didn't sell as well during the summer as he had anticipated. This was because most retail stores sold bikinis during the summer and so potential customers didn't have to go online to find them.
Ironically, it was during the winter months that he made most of his sales - because most shops had by then run out of stock. It was a valuable lesson for the new entrepreneur.
"I realised that what I had created had less to do with costumes and bikinis and much more to do with the systems and technology," he explains.
Always open and alert to new opportunities, he read in the newspaper that, due to cutbacks in budgets, the HSE was allegedly starting to cut back on providing mobility supports and aids, such as wheelchairs and bath lifts to those with mobility challenges. He immediately went online and having studied the number of searches for such products realised that there was a demand for mobility products and as a result set up The MobilityShop.ie.
"I get great personal satisfaction from the many thank you cards we receive from people with mobility challenges and their families for the difference our products make to the quality of their lives," explains Ronan proudly.
Like all emerging entrepreneurs however, learning to manage all the various aspects of a new business are challenging initially.
"In the beginning, you are expected to be an expert in all aspects of your business. From sales, to stock control to legal to accounting, the buck stops with the CEO," explains Ronan.
"But it's amazing just how quickly you learn. And while we have great products and great technology it is our people that make it work," he adds, praising his staff.
While Ireland's internet economy was estimated to be valued at approximately €8.4bn, or 5pc of GDP, in 2014, Ronan believes there is still considerable scope for traditional businesses to dramatically increase sales, customer loyalty and market reach by increasing and improving their online presence.
"It can seem easier for a business owner to spend money on a bricks and mortar shop because it's client-facing and they can touch and feel where the money goes. But with the right online store, they can reach many thousands more customers a day," explains Ronan.
Ronan O'Brien is a confident, engaging and highly knowledgeable entrepreneur. While his business may have started as a dare, today it has developed into a successful and diverse enterprise that is continuing to grow and expand.
In addition to the E-commerce sites he runs, he is now embarking on yet another exciting journey, this time helping share the expertise and experience he has gained to help others better understand the huge online potential that awaits those who manage to get it right. Like all entrepreneurs, Ronan is a prime example of someone who has spotted an opportunity and has moved to realise it.
Company: Zatori Results Ltd
Business: Online retail businesses, including TheCostumeShop.ie, TheMobilityShop.ie and BuyTrophies.ie
Set up: 2007
Founder: Ronan O'Brien
No of employees: 8
Location: Portlaoise, Co Laois
Ronan's advice for other businesses
Ignore the naysayers
"Do not allow yourself to be influenced by those who tell you that your ideas won't work. You have to trust your own instincts and judgements. Seek out other entrepreneurs and those in your industry who are seeking to grow - personally and professionally."
Do your research
"It's a myth that entrepreneurs like risk. Smart entrepreneurs work hard to mitigate such risk by first researching the market opportunity. They plan to try small and fail small first. Then, once they have proven the particular concept, amplify and scale that."
"Companies and economies are constantly and rapidly evolving. Look on change as a positive, not a negative. See where the trends are and try to look at what might be happening five years from now in your industry and position your business accordingly."
Sunday Indo Business