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Startups: It's not just geeks who inherit the earth

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Garry Moroney, chief executive officer of Clavis Insight, is thinking big and on a global scale.

Garry Moroney, chief executive officer of Clavis Insight, is thinking big and on a global scale.

Jason Clarke Photography

Garry Moroney, chief executive officer of Clavis Insight, is thinking big and on a global scale.

With all the buzz around startups and the plaudits handed out to IT entrepreneurs, you could be forgiven for thinking that the geeks had inherited the earth. But a good business brain can be just as important when it comes to growing a successful business.

Garry Moroney is the living proof.

Over a decade ago he was working in the Irish office of McKinsey, the global management consultancy, when he decided he wanted to start his own business. Today he has two successful tech startups on his CV. Having sold Similarity Systems to Informatica in 2006 for $55m, he went on to found Clavis Insight which counts some of the world's biggest brands among its customers.

McKinsey may have honed his business acumen but it was working in the oil industry in the 1990s that blooded him. Setting up operations in some of the most remote corners of the world - including a two-year stint in Siberia - taught him a thing or two about overcoming obstacles.

"More and more startup founders come from an IT background and it is a major advantage," he says. "But I have taken a different route that is business focused. To be successful you ultimately have to be market driven, not technology driven, looking at what your customers need today rather than in 10 years' time and at what they are prepared to spend money on."

A former colleague from McKinsey, Dermot Berkery, had joined Irish venture capital company Delta Partners and was involved in raising seed money for Similarity. In 2009 Delta backed him again as part of €2.1m funding round for Clavis, together with Scottish Equity Partners.

So what makes Moroney a good investment? He is extremely good at gathering people around him and focusing on a business opportunity, according to Berkery. Spotting the gap is his other core skill. "People think there's something special about software and technology but it's the same as any other business. As Garry shows, it's about coming up with the right customer proposition and selling it," says Berkery.

Both his software companies have been focused on data. Similarity was about cleansing it while Clavis collects it and turns it into insights. But it took a classic start-p pivot - where a business changes direction to take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself - to achieve big success with Clavis.

"We were engaging with FMCG [Fast Moving Consumer Goods] companies that saw the massive potential in e-commerce. It became obvious to us they wanted more intelligence and insight to focus on doing it properly," he explains.

Clavis Technology became Clavis Insight, providing a service that Moroney describes as "secret shopping on steroids". Its software scours each client's presence in leading online stores, a massive data collection exercise that delivers comprehensive insights into how products are performing across multiple digital channels.

The volume and speed of the data that's crunched gives long established brands the vital information to grow their businesses in a virtual world that's still relatively new to them.

"We tell them what they need to do to improve sales with particular online retailers, the products to push and the way to make them stand out from the competition," says Moroney.

What makes it so audacious as a startup proposition is that the business model cut straight to the chase by going after some of the biggest companies in the world from day one.

"He went for the top of the pyramid because working your way down is key in this sector rather than trying to work your way up from the bottom," says Dermot Berkery. "The trick is to try and open doors and if one opens, be ready to walk right through."

The door opened in North America with Unilever. "We had some initial technology and started out in the States as we had always planned," says Moroney. "We put a business development person on the ground and Unilever became our first customer."

Closing the deal validated the product and the strategy. With a high profile reference customer on side, the sales and marketing team went after similarly large customers in the same sector. Eight out of the top 10 now use Clavis Insight, including Coca Cola and Nestle.

Global brands have a global footprint with different online channels in every country, which Moroney had identified as way to grow his business globally.

"It takes time to land these companies but if you can do it there is a massive opportunity because each becomes a market within itself - we work with some of them in more than ten different countries," he says.

Headquartered in Dublin, the company also has an office in Shanghai as well as one in Massachusetts. China is a big market for Clavis clients so Moroney recruited Chinese students with master's degrees from Irish universities in data analytics to start analysing the top online retailers before he ever set foot in the country.

He speaks highly of the contribution that his 100 employees have made and a rich cultural mix that has proved useful.

"We employ 13 different nationalities which is massively helpful in trying to develop a service that focuses on multiple markets - not just the language capability but the general knowledge and attitude. We have a great team and a great culture in the company," he says.

With early mover advantage in an increasingly competitive space, Moroney says Clavis is a market leader with plenty of room for further growth. An entrepreneur with one company sale behind him and a thriving new business, the inevitable question arises. Is Clavis likely to be sold?

"We've been lucky enough to have VC partners who came in at an early stage and had deep enough pockets to continue to work with us. My aim is to continue to work with them and build a global leader, headquartered in Ireland," he adds.

"I want to grow fast enough and get to a scale where there are a lot of different options for the business and our investors."

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