(We are grateful to the Sunday Times for permission to reproduce this interview with Poppulo CEO Andrew O’Shaughnessy, published on January 27, 2019).
Pressing all the right buttons at Poppulo
Interview, Philip Connolly. Photograph, Cathal Noonan.
Andrew O’Shaughnessy is not one to ignore the lessons of the past.
“If you go through something painful you can either get stuck in it or you can learn something from it,” says the Poppulo boss, reflecting on one of the more difficult periods of his life.
Fresh out of college in the mid-1980s, O’Shaughnessy went to work for Dripsey Woolen Mills, founded by his great-grandfather 80 years earlier. He worked at the venerable textile mill for only a couple of years before the company went out of business, undercut by cheaper overseas competitors.
It taught the young O’Shaughnessy to “read the signs, to adapt”.
While the Poppulo brand might be relatively new, the business is not. It is the third iteration of an enterprise that started in the Cork man’s bedroom in the mid-1990s – first as an online directory called E-Search and then as email marketing company Newsweaver.
“I had seen (with Dripsey) something that had been four generations in my family come down,” he says. “There was innovation, change in designs, better technology, but really it essentially was doing the same thing in a market that was shifting and changing
“I learned to keep my head up all the time, to see what is coming.”
In 2012 O’Shaughnessy saw a gap in the market for a dedicated employee communication system. He spotted research charting a correlation between internal communications and corporate performance. He rebranded as Poppulo – derived from the Latin for people – in mid-2017 and, in his own words, bet the business on solving the communication problems of big business.
“I have seen what happens if you don’t change,” he says. “In the end, it is not about a product, it is about what problem you are solving for a customer.
“That is changing all the time, their needs are changing all the time,” he adds. “If the problem changes, the product changes.”
He saw “this wide open, global opportunity that no one is focused on.”
Based at Cork airport business park, Poppulo provides large companies with internal communications software that covers everything from mobile phone alerts to newsletters, while giving the company detailed analytics. Clients include Nestlé, LinkedIn, Honda and Rolls-Royce.
“Everything that gets done in a company gets done by people – there is a huge competitive advantage if your people can execute well,” he says.
“It is a tough job keeping everyone in a company aligned on a strategy. It is hard enough in a company like us, with a couple of hundred employees, but think if you have 20,000 or even 200,000 staff like some of our customers.
“Think about the complexity across time zones, languages, everything. You have to keep everyone aligned around a strategy – our software helps them do that,” he says.
Keen to capitalise on being first out of the blocks with the software, Poppulo hired John Curtin of Clearwater International to look at investment options.
Earlier this month, the business announced it had secured a €30 million investment from Susquehanna Growth Equity, the investment arm of an American trading and technology giant. Susquehanna Growth Equity sells itself as a different kind of growth equity investor, one that gives companies space to grow.
The deal was the first big investment, apart from a small amount of early-stage capital raised from angel investors. The new support allowed O’Shaughnessy to provide “a healthy return” to a number of those angel investors who backed him a couple of decades ago and also gave him the cash to accelerate.
“We are in a leadership position in our and it is really hotting up – there is a lot of interest globally,” he says. “There is a massive opportunity and we needed to move faster.”
Poppulo now has close to 200 staff, having been on a hiring spree for the past few years, with about 160 in Cork and the rest in Boston. According to O’Shaughnessy, the outfit had revenues of about €15.1 million for the year to September, having grown on average by 35% for the past six years.
“It is a highly profitable business but we reinvest everything, all the time. With software as a service, you have recurring revenue and it is very predictable. We have an extremely high retention rate – about 93% year on year – which allows you to be quite aggressive (in terms of expansion),” he says.
Growing up, O’Shaughnessy never thought he would end up in IT, instead believing he would be part of Dripsey, then one of Ireland’s best-known textile producers, servicing high-fashion clients around the world.
“I grew up around a business exporting all over the world – to Japan, Africa, New York – out of West Cork. I was around (my family’s mill) from when I was knee-high, my summers were spent working there. I used to run big spinning frames, weaving – I knew it inside out,” he says.
After studying computer science at University College Cork, he returned to the mill for his first job, but within a few years, the Irish textile industry found itself struggling to keep up with cheaper overseas competitors.
When Dripsey closed, O’Shaughnessy looked for IT work here. There was none. “Of my computer science year in UCC probably 90% went abroad,” he says. “It is interesting – now we are trying to hire to get people back.”
O’Shaughnessy left for London to work as a consultant before returning for a job in Ireland with Intel in the lead-up to 2000. Eight years on from the closure of the mill, however, he had an itch to break out on his own.
“In the mills, if it hadn’t closed when it did, could I have successfully run it? There was a personal thing there: could I run a business? I literally started as one person in my bedroom. I wanted to get it out of my system. Fortunately, it actually worked,” he says.
His first business, E-search, was founded in 1996 as something of a fore-runner of LinkedIn.
“You put in your details, could say where you studied and worked, and then you could communicate with each other,” he says. “It was ahead of its time, but you don’t want to be too far ahead of your time. It became one of the busiest websites in the country but it had an advertising model and when the dotcom collapse came, it was finished.”
Around 2002, O’Shaughnessy decided to switch focus, having spotted a trend while building E-Search.
“We used to create and send out email newsletters on all sorts of different subjects and we sold advertising in them.” O’Shaughnessy pivoted. Rather than selling advertising on its newsletters, the company enabled others to create their own.
“We took on software from the US and resold it,” he says. “That took off for us.”
After a few years, the limitations of working with someone else’s tech became apparent. “The email marketing space was getting very crowded,” he says. “We did not control our own destiny, we were tied to one player and a bit hemmed in. Around a decade ago we thought, this is a big enough opportunity to go ourselves,” he says. “So we built our own.”
That market, however, was beginning to get tougher. While Newswever was up and running with its own email marketing system, O’Shaughnessy saw the need to evolve again.
“I felt we had a lot of potential as a group and it had not been fulfilled yet,” he says. Our revenues were flat so we looked for a niche where we could be the best in the world, something that we could be the best at.”
Unlike the old-style mill business, everybody in Poppulo is a shareholder.
“To give yourself every chance, you need everybody taking part and giving their best,” said O’Shaughnessy. “For somebody to really work like that, they have to be part of it – not feel part of it, be part of it. People are smart, they see through things, it has to be real.”
O’Shaughnessy ploughed ahead, building up quite the client list. “Barclays and Vodafone were the big ones we go early on,” he says.
And now, with Susquehanna on board, O’Shaughnessy is focused on building out the product.
“If you take communications, and the consumer experience at home, people expect that at work as well. Industry is way behind the curve, we have a vision of mirroring that level of useability and experience,” he says.
O’Shaughnessy points to the “huge scope” for continued growth in Europe and the US.
“One of the good things about Susquehanna as an investor, they are not putting any time limit on it,” he says. “As long as we can keep it growing they don’t mind.
(An exit) would probably be more of a business decision. I have seen, especially with family businesses, if you get too emotionally attached to it and you are not making a business decision, it doesn’t always go well.”
For now, though, O’Shaughnessy is not going anywhere. “I focus on creating and building a sustainable business with a lot of runway ahead,” he says. “As long as I keep doing that I’m happy.
“When you get a bunch of people together who are aligned behind something and you have a challenge that you are up to, that is fantastic.
“Why would you leave that?”
For more on The Life of Andrew O’Shaughnessy: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/ireland/pressing-all-the-right-buttons-at-poppulo-jksnb29tr