‘The forced remote working test will be a good experience for most organisations’

21 Apr 2020

Brian O’Doherty. Image: Netsso

Netsso’s Brian O’Doherty discusses online security, leading a remote team, and starting a business later in life.

Brian O’Doherty is an economist and entrepreneur with more than 20 years’ experience in senior roles with Córás Tráchtála (Irish Export Board), which later became part of Enterprise Ireland. There he worked as North American director, European director and assistant CEO.

O’Doherty went on to run an economic development consulting company in Brussels, and was also director of a number of technology transfer and trading companies. He later moved into security software development and most recently established Netsso, a cloud-based web application designed to secure web activity through a central platform. He is based in Donegal, but his team works remotely.

‘Those of us with more years behind us should focus on taking advantage of the wisdom that comes with age’

Describe your role and what you do.

I am the founder and CEO of Netsso, a cloud-based web application that provides productivity and security for individuals and organisations. Netsso is a small team. We have three full-time staff, alongside three part-time, spread across three countries, each of whom are remote working.

Good management therefore requires personal, sensitive motivation and timely coordination to ensure that everyone is up to speed with everyone else. My background is in marketing while the rest of the team are specialists in programming, coding, cryptography, design and illustration.

Our own product, Netsso, is perfect for remotely conducting our team work. We are Netsso’s makers and testers every working minute of the day, something I oversee alongside the team.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

At this stage in life, my work is devoted to enhancing my new product Netsso. We work on doing this remotely, across time zones, with one member of the team online between 7am and 11pm, seven days a week.

I prioritise the development of Netsso, and I rarely take a break; no more than a few hours on a Sunday morning. But, on the other hand, I don’t always have to be in the office. I can receive questions, answer problems and enter discussions on any computer, anywhere.

Nowadays, I take winter holidays in the sun, but I make sure I contribute to the team for a few hours every day. Netsso has been quite a big project, but has reminded me that work-life balance is important – as is doing something you are passionate about.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

One of the biggest challenges is that our ‘sector’ of the internet services market is extremely broad. So, how does a little Donegal start-up distinguish itself?

I think probably in our security. It is rather unique, and what makes Netsso a secure and valuable tool. We are lucky to have created a product that complements numerous online file storage services such as Dropbox etc.

Another major challenge is to find ways to store and distribute files securely, without losing data or information, and yet without having to manage complex security structures and defences.

Our solution is to encrypt the data itself, end-to-end, in a non-complex, nothing-to-download system, worked by simple clicks, after one SSO (single sign on) member password.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused an astonishing surge of interest in remote working and, for that, the number one need is security, which is one of our major selling points. Of course the virus will be defeated eventually, and we can all go back to more normal working conditions. But I think remote working is here to stay, at least to a considerable extent.

I believe this is for two major reasons: today’s forced test of the method will be a good experience for most organisations and individuals, and climate change requires us to disperse the working economy away from its high-density centralism of today so that we stop transporting tens of millions of workers billions of miles daily to and from congested cities.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

In my early career in Córás Tráchtála (CTT), I managed a few hundred executives dispersed across nearly 40 separate offices, many of whom were around the world but a few were at home too. We mainly provided one-on-one marketing and business planning services to up to 2,000 Irish companies annually.

In the second half of my working life, I have been involved in quite a lot of interesting new areas and activities, and one of these is cryptography. From that, I came into software using cryptography, an evolution which led over a few years into Netsso.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

During my days in New York with CTT, my team was making major strides promoting Irish consumer products. I wrote up a proposal for a franchise chain of Irish shops across the country. Despite receiving a commitment for financing from an Irish investment company, I ended up dropping the idea and took my next promotion back in Dublin instead.

Thinking back, I wonder if this was a mistake. I’m pretty sure the franchise would have been successful. Nonetheless, I can’t say I regret my subsequent career, which was full of adventure, intellectual challenge and some satisfying success as a private entrepreneur.

The lesson of this? I think, probably, to take courage in your convictions. And certainly, don’t look back – to this day I can’t say for sure if this was entirely a mistake or not, but I can say that there’s no good in stewing over it.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I believe in them as we have a shared vision for Netsso. The guys I work with are all extremely talented and joined this enterprise purely because they believed in the concept.

We don’t share office space, so communication and trust are both especially important for us. We’re in a unique position whereby our remote work and collaboration take place via use of our own product, which is probably key to our efficiency and productivity.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

I’ve certainly witnessed the benefits of diversity in business. From the beginning of my career, I’ve worked with a diverse range of people from all over the world. I was particularly fortunate in CTT, where approximately 50pc of those employed overseas were local men and women. CTT was notably one of the first Irish institutions to appoint female executives to managerial positions on the same salary and terms as males.

However, I’ve also seen another side of it in tech where, for example, ageism prevails to a certain extent. Nonetheless, there are studies indicating that the average age of new start-up founders in the US is much closer to 40 than 20, while the average age of founders of successful start-ups is 45 – all in all, not exactly kids out of college.

Such stats should encourage those of us with more years behind us to instead focus on taking advantage of the wisdom that comes with age. We’ll only benefit from a more diverse industry of people of all ages.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I’ve never had a mentor per se, but I have been around the world a few times, worked in many countries, often travelled alone and always found people willing to help. In particular, I enjoyed living and working in the US, for eight years in total.

I found Americans to be the most friendly and hospitable, and often met business associates in the US who were valuable to my career development. They were always willing to provide information, advice, contacts and genuine help. One in particular who was pivotal was an immigrant from Derry named Jim McGilloway. He was the man who brought Toblerone to market and made Twinings Tea into a top brand. Thanks, Jim.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I read a lot on varying topics, but a couple of recent reads were great:

  • Quantum Physics for Poets by Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill, for a simple history of physics as well as a more detailed explanation of quantum theories
  • Lug’s Forgotten Donegal Kingdom by Dr Brian Lacy, for some speculation about the origin of some of the peoples of Donegal – including the O’Dohertys of Inishowen
  • I’d also recommend any of the books on neurology by the great Oliver Sacks, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My freedom as a remote worker means I’m not restricted by specific office hours or a commute, and I’m lucky that I work from home with all the tools I need at my fingertips. The downside of remote working is I don’t have the face-to-face reassurance that an office might offer, but the online tools we have help to bridge that gap for me.

Otherwise, what I find most useful for myself is my to-do list. A clear list keeps me grounded and helps me keep track of my priorities. I set myself a weekly list and find that it’s a great way of keeping the faith in myself, my work and my ambitions.

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