Monday 15 July 2019

From textiles to tech: Poppulo chief's global vision for Cork firm

Inspired by his time at Intel, Andrew O'Shaughnessy set out to create a world-leading brand of his own. Now the communications platform is expanding here and in the US, he tells Ellie Donnelly

Expansion plan: Poppulo boss Andrew O’Shaughnessy as the firm announced a jobs boost for Cork; inset, Dripsey Woolen Mills, which was ownded by the O’Shaughnessy family
Expansion plan: Poppulo boss Andrew O’Shaughnessy as the firm announced a jobs boost for Cork; inset, Dripsey Woolen Mills, which was ownded by the O’Shaughnessy family
Ellie Donnelly

Ellie Donnelly

Most of us have probably day-dreamed about a lightbulb moment - stumbling on that one inspired idea that somehow gets parlayed into a million-euro business.

If we have, and we're honest about it, the inspiration and the million euro are the dream, while creating the business is just there to add a touch of realism.

However, it was pretty much the opposite story for Corkman Andrew O'Shaughnessy.

The founder and chief executive of software group Poppulo set out to build a business, and he had clear ideas about the culture he wanted to create. The idea, in a way, was secondary.

There's no doubt his own family background informed the drive to build up something from scratch.

The O'Shaughnessy family owned and ran the Dripsey Woollen Mills - one of the country's biggest textile concerns - for the guts of a century before losing it to liquidation in the grim 1980s just as Andrew himself was coming of an age to take an active role.

Having studied computer science at University College Cork before joining the mill, O'Shaughnessy himself was better proofed against the economic dislocations of the period.

He moved to London in 1988 following the collapse of the textile business and left textiles for tech.

"The tide was going out for textiles and all of the mills were closing. It's a labour-intensive business and you couldn't compete with low-cost countries," he says of the closure of the fourth-generation business.

Later, after moving back to Ireland, O'Shaughnessy worked with US multinational Intel in Kildare, and loved it.

"It was great because you had a global vision. They were a world leader, and that's how people acted and it was wonderful to be in that environment," the quietly spoken O'Shaughnessy says.

But he already knew he wanted to strike out on his own.

Intel influenced the type of company he wanted to set up, but it was during his time in London that the father of three knew he wanted to start his own business.

"I guessed I would do that in Ireland rather than in England."

Poppulo, formerly known as Newsweaver - a nod to the family heritage - creates software that specialises in communications systems including email, 'pulse' surveys and analytics.

The company is headquartered in Cork and has a presence in the United States. It allows organisations to plan, target, publish, and measure the impact of their communications across multiple digital channels, all in one place. Customers include Unilever, Bank of America, Nestlé, and Rolls-Royce

The idea for the business as it is today came about seven years ago.

It had previously focused on email marketing, an area that was already becoming increasingly crowded.

"There were hundreds of competitors around the world, we weren't really significant and we weren't growing globally," O'Shaughnessy says.

"We could have eked out a good business, but I was looking for something that we could be the best at, something that we could stand out at and have that global ambition that I saw at Intel."

His background in a big multinational allowed O'Shaughnessy to spot a niche that "seemed to be totally ignored by everybody else".

"It wasn't seen as important. But from my time working in large organisations in the UK and looking at all the research that was out there - which was linking the companies that were best at internal communications to outperforming companies who were not good at internal communications - it made total sense to me," he says.

"It is the employees in the companies that do everything. Having them totally aligned and knowing what's going on, what's expected of them and what the strategy is means they are going to be better able to execute.

"I could see that [market] was wide open. Nobody focused on it."

The insight "transformed" Poppulo, O'Shaughnessy says.

"We went from flat revenues into a steep growth path and we have been on it ever since," he says, gesturing upwards.

Now approaching €20m in annual revenue, O'Shaughnessy is very much in expansion mode.

Last month the company announced plans to add 125 jobs in Cork, where it currently employs more than 160 people.

The new roles are in engineering and research and development, and will support the company's international expansion.

A parallel expansion in the United States will bring Poppulo's total workforce to over 400 over the next three years. It currently employs 37 in Boston.

Clients are mostly large companies with more than 1,000 employees - big enough for internal comms to be a problem - "we'd have the whole way up from there".

In some cases client businesses might have neglected their own internal communications, and "need a system to help them to do it" he says.

Meanwhile, other firms have been doing a lot of it, but "in a non-controlled way and there is too much information coming".

"Everything is going out to everyone and that turns employees off and then they don't read it.

"The system we give them allows them to take control of that. They can ensure that employees only get the information that is relevant to them."

In addition, Poppulo products allow its customers to measure their internal communications across the different channels, for instance emails, intranet, and face-to-face meetings.

"It gives visibility of what's happening, [and] measurement so they can see where they need to change or improve their communications and get much more impact," he says.

Since its foundation, the group was largely bootstrapped until recently, when in January this year it announced a €30m funding round from a US-based investment firm.

"Way back we had some early investors, angel investors, which helped the company through the early stages of surviving and building itself into a company, but really since then we had grown bootstrapped, which is a super thing to do," Mr O'Shaughnessy says.

The €30m in funding is being provided by Susquehanna Growth Equity (SGE), a Pennsylvania-based investment firm which has previously bet more than $1bn on companies such as Payoneer and Outbrain.

"I would have loved to have continued that way [being bootstrapped], but growth costs and doing that was limiting the speed of our growth. Then we decided we would take that investment. And we had got ourselves to a size where that investment represented a minority shareholding."

Among the group's supporters has been Enterprise Ireland, whose help Mr O'Shaughnessy describes has having been "crucial".

The funding from SGE will be going into growing the business further "and building out the product vision that we have in expanding global sales and markets, in just moving fast enough. That was what that investment was about".

"Enterprise Ireland has been a big supporter all along, that was crucial support when you are trying to bootstrap a company, every bit helps.

"And they were super, not just in the finance, in using their international offices, in them making introductions," he adds.

With its headquarters in Cork Airport Business Park, around a 15-minute drive from Cork city centre, Mr O'Shaughnessy does not view locating outside of Dublin as a problem.

"Our market is mostly (96pc plus) abroad, so really whether we are in Cork or Dublin doesn't matter," he says.

"[But] to build out a business like this in Cork, it might even be easier than Dublin in that we are attracting people back to Cork from abroad and from all around the country because you can have a top-class job in a great environment.

"You are not big city, you have west Cork on your doorstep, it's a good-size place to live. You have a great quality of life here but do not have to compromise on the job.

"Our sales in Europe and the US are about equal and we see both of those growing, so we will build out both."

Looking forward, the company's challenge is around growing fast enough to meet demand, which Mr O'Shaughnessy says "is a lovely place to be". "The opportunity is to be the global leader in this space and we already have more customers than any of our competitors."

Internal communications, he says, are going to become about "hyper personalisation" for the employees at scale.

"That's where it's going and that's what we are building into the system. You are going to see more artificial intelligence come into the system and that's the vision that we have."

This, he says, is being driven by research showing that employee-focused companies are outperforming customer focused businesses in "every regard".

"Because in the end, everything is done by the employees ... the experience your customers are going to get of you is through the employees. It's that shift, that's where we are at. We have a vision for a product that does that hyper-personalisation and scale and that's what we are building out."

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