The Interview: ‘You have to invest the time and have to go through the pain’
Irish tech entrepreneur, Paul Kenny, a partner in groundbreaking online retail venture AYM, tells Louise Kelly that finding his feet in Dubai with his first online startup wasn’t a walk on the beach
At the age of 25, Paul Kenny founded online coupon website, Cobone. It was later sold in a multimillion-euro deal to the US-based investment firm Tiger Global Management.
For the Galway man, finding a scalable business model that could be replicated in the Middle East was the golden ticket.
“At that time, post and packages weren’t delivered to addresses, they were physically delivered to where you are,” said Kenny.
“It was also a highly cash market so customers couldn’t pay online – these were two big challenges,” he said.
“When I saw Groupon getting big in the US, I thought a voucher programme could work so set up a company and called it Cobone – a play on the word ‘coupon’.”
The company raised just over €1m in May 2010, and had become the biggest ecommerce company in the Middle East within a year, and grew to €33m in two years.
But it wasn’t a smooth ride.
“We had to print out the coupons, put it on a motorbike, and deliver it people to all over the place.
“But, also, because customers still weren’t paying online, we were sending out valuable coupons and collecting the cash.
“It was a huge cash operation run on motorbikes across the region.”
A fortuitous family holiday to Dubai while Kenny was still in college sparked a grá for the region, and the beginnings of a business plan, as he realised the opportunity for ecommerce even then.
In 2011, he packed his bags when former Jumeirah Group boss, Gerald Lawless, who had gone to school with his father, gave him his first job in Dubai.
“I was 22 or 23 and it was about the opportunity, not the money, so I packed my bags and didn’t complete my masters. I didn’t know anyone there at the time and I remember being picked up and not knowing where I was going.
“There was no data on phones and no internet in the place I was staying and I didn’t know the area at all. It was really daunting.
“I’ve never felt so alone – I didn’t even know where I had to go to work,” he said.
Kenny’s entrepreneurial spirit was fostered at an early age.
His grandmother Maureen set up the renowned Kenny’s bookshop in Galway more than 75 years ago – and it’s a family trait that everyone gets involved.
“I remember being in the store at a really young age, washing windows and watering plants.
“I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was constantly absorbing their entrepreneurship. I only realised when I left Ireland how much I learned,” he said.
Something definitely stuck as, before the age of 30, Kenny was a founding partner of four companies, including Emerge Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on high-impact early stage and Series A investments in emerging markets.
More recently, he has partnered with Middle East entrepreneur Majed M Al Tahan and Irish developer James Whelton to build a tech and logistics platform AYM Commerce.
“We wanted to build the equivalent of Ocado in Dubai so we teamed up with the leading retailer in Saudi Arabia, the BinDawood Group, and its supermarket brand Danube.
“It’s quite a large organisation with over 400 staff and our workforce is predominantly female which is a very big deal.
“We’re heavily part of the Saudi Arabia 2030 vision – and we’re bringing very advanced tech to a country that consumes and loves it.”
AYM is expanding across industries and is opening offices worldwide.
According to Kenny, many of his existing team have stayed with him since he exited Cobone, or that he has worked with over the last eight years.
“I am absolutely terrible about detail and they pick up after all the mess that I make.
“A lot of the team are Irish – the Irish are the only ones who get my sense of humour,” he said.
Kenny will be setting his feet back on Irish soil next month to share some words of wisdom at the Arab-Irish Business Forum, which will be held at Dublin’s Mansion House.
“Ireland has some amazing products, so why can’t businesses bring brands and companies out to the Middle East? I want to show those entrepreneurs how to do it,” he said.
Kenny has set down his own family roots in Dubai with wife Yuki and their daughter Myla.
Is the Middle East now home for him?
“Dubai is home now and will be for the foreseeable future, but I will never say never about Ireland.
“I’m planning to come back and do business with a number of Irish companies,” he said.
“Companies are always looking to other markets to expand in and the Middle East is often the forgotten one.
“You’ve got to go where no one else is going – I don’t think people are going to the Middle East.
“But it’s not going to be easy, you have to invest the time and have to go through the pain. Not every enterprise works out.
“I’m really so humbled as to how it all happened for me.”
The 2018 Arab-Irish Business Forum will feature speakers from the Arab states in addition to business leaders from Ireland who are already doing business there. The event will take place in the Mansion House in Dublin on October 3rd.