Friday 20 April 2018

Specialisation was key to Agile success

When their multinational bosses shut up shop, Darragh Richardson and his colleagues turned adversity into triumph, writes Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher and Darragh Richardson at Agile Network's HQ
Sean Gallagher and Darragh Richardson at Agile Network's HQ
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Darragh Richardson never set out to be an entrepreneur. His ambition was to climb the corporate ladder at a large corporate firm. Based abroad since finishing college, his dream was realised when he was invited to return home to head up the Irish operation of a multinational company with which he was working. However, that dream was soon cut short when the company, which was struggling to survive here, decided to pull out of Ireland.

Seeing the opportunity, Darragh and his five co-workers decided to forego their redundancies in exchange for the chance to take over the ailing business. In a classic case of opportunism overcoming adversity, they set up Agile Networks. It now employs 18 staff, has a turnover of over €9m and they are finalists in this year's Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

"It has certainly been a busy few years for us," says a cheerful Darragh as he welcomes me to the company's bright and modern headquarters in Blanchardstown's Corporate Park.

"Here at Agile Networks, we design, build and support IT networks for many of Ireland's leading public- and private-sector companies," explains Darragh. "In simple terms, we provide the IT plumbing or infrastructure for large organisations to enable them communicate more effectively within their own organisations, as well as with their suppliers and their customers."

Theirs is a growing market. For multinational companies (and large corporates in particular), the need to remain constantly and securely connected to staff around the world is a key operational requirement. The recent increase in the number of people working from home or from remote or satellite offices has also led to the need for enhanced network capability. Similarly, improvements in video conferencing have led to a huge growth in virtual meetings, thereby reducing the amount of time that staff would otherwise spend travelling to and from face-to-face meetings.

For those staff who are office-based, developments in mobile and wireless technology now mean that even they are no longer required to work from the same desk or work station that they once did. Instead, they can now opt for the increased fluidity that comes with hot-desking.

"Hot-desking is part of the changing nature of work practices, where staff are provided with a locker for their possessions but work at a different desk every day. This location-independent working helps create a more dynamic environment and promotes better communication and sharing of ideas between staff," explains Darragh.

"In essence, all these technological advancements have given rise to the need for companies to have the right IT infrastructure, faster connectivity, more secure links and ongoing expert user support - and that is where we come in."

As we tour his office, Darragh shows me into the company's onsite laboratory. Here, I get to inspect a series of routers, switches, computer servers and wireless equipment that are currently being configured and which will shortly be moved to one of their customer's sites.

"We design, engineer and build our customers' network solutions here in our own office laboratory and then, once fully set up and tested, we take these to their sites. The idea is to create a parallel system on this new equipment that mirrors what the customer already has in their own offices, so that when we get to site, we can seamlessly flip their users over to this new improved system without any interruption to their staff or customers," explains Darragh.

With lots of black boxes, different-coloured cables and flashing green and yellow lights, it all looks highly technical and very complicated.

"It is," Darragh says with a smile. "But we are very fortunate that we have some of the best engineers in the country working with us.

"They are also extremely customer-focused, which is the key to deploying the right network solutions that support the customers' specific applications, their security requirements and interoperates with their other systems, including any legacy networks, servers or cloud infrastructure," he adds in full techno speak.

The company's customers are mostly medium to large corporate entities, typically employing between 200 and several thousand staff. Many are Irish-based multinational firms with headquarters in the US. In all, they have over 100 clients across 1,350 sites and support more than 1.6 million end-users every day.

"We operate across a wide variety of sectors that include tech, leisure, manufacturing, education, health and finance and we also work with a number of government departments.

"Our differentiator, compared to most of our competitors, is that they are generalist and operate on offering services that are a mile wide but only an inch deep, while we, on the other hand, are specialists in the networking space."

Darragh Richardson grew up in Raheny, Dublin. After school, he completed a primary degree at DCU and a Master's in Business at UCD. During school and college holidays, he worked in a variety of part-time jobs that ranged from bars and building sites to a second-hand book store.

"Back then, I never saw myself becoming self-employed," explains Darragh. "I was excited about the internet and how fast it was growing and I wanted to get a good job with a leading IT company, where I could work my way up."

And that is exactly what he did. For the next 14 years, he worked with a variety of IT companies.

"In 2007, I was working with a Belgian multinational called Telindus when they invited me to return to Ireland and set up a division of their company here - and for the next four years, I failed miserably," he says with a laugh.

It couldn't have come at a worse time. Ireland was in crisis and in 2011 Telindus announced it was going to close its Irish operation. And while it did offer all six employees jobs in London, all had decided they wanted to stay in Dublin, especially Darragh, whose wife had given birth to the couple's second child just three days earlier.

"I sat down with the team and suggested that if we dropped 70pc of the customers who weren't profitable and focused instead on the 30pc who were, we stood a good chance of turning the business around. And after assessing the market, we decided that the real opportunity for us lay in becoming specialists in networking," he adds.

In return for the six foregoing their redundancy payments, Telindus gave them the company's existing customer contracts, as well as all stock, equipment and spare parts it had in the business. In what amounted to a management buy-out, Agile Networks was born and Darragh and his colleagues were now in business for themselves.

While upbeat and working harder than ever, the new entrepreneurs faced a number of key challenges. As with all new ventures, it wasn't long before the problem of cash flow raised its all-too-familiar head.

"We raised some initial funding through the usual mixture of the four Fs - founders, family, friends and fools," laughs Darragh. "And we were also very appreciative of the support from Fingal County Enterprise Board."

While many commercial firms had put spending on hold at the time, they were fortunate to win a contract with HEAnet to assist in the roll-out of broadband to over 350,000 students in 818 secondary schools - something that helped keep them going as they built up the business.

However, as new entrants into the market, their biggest challenge was to establish credibility and trust among potential new customers.

"In the beginning, customers saw us as a greater risk compared to our larger, more established competitors. But we addressed this by investing in brand-building, winning multiple awards, and gaining top-level international accreditations from leading network vendors," explains Darragh.

As part of their plan to differentiate themselves from their competitors, the company developed a new operational model, called focal engineering. An innovative approach to customer service means that each customer now gets the same named and highly skilled technical engineers to work with them on the entire lifecycle of their project.

"It is standard in the industry for most of our competitors to use different engineers at different stages of a project, usually starting with the more experienced and expensive staff, moving to more junior ones as the project develops and then lower-cost engineers for the ongoing support element," explains Darragh.

"However, many customers find that this doesn't work well for them. So we developed a model which ensures customers have the very same engineers working with them from initial design stage, through implementation and execution and right through to final review and on-going support."

Looking to the future, the company is working on building its own intellectual property around proactive managed services to drive a broader and deeper relationship with customers. They are also looking to partner with some broad-line ICT providers to become their extended networking arm - something that will allow them reach a broader base of smaller SME customers without diluting their core strategic focus.

On the export front, Darragh sees potential to set up an office in Scotland in 2016 as the market there is under-serviced. He is also planning a trip to San Francisco in the coming weeks and is keen to explore setting up a presence there too.

Looking back now, how does self-employment compare to being on the corporate ladder?

"There's no comparison," he insists. "Don't get me wrong, though. Its hard work and you never switch off. You're always thinking about the business, thinking about the customers, the staff, always challenging yourself to come up with new solutions and new opportunities. But I wouldn't change it for anything.

Working for yourself is so incredibly personally rewarding" he says with a contented smile.

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