This week on Leaders’ Insights, John McDonnell of Ripplecom tells us how a niche provider can keep up with the big names in telecommunications.
John McDonnell is the managing director of Ripplecom, leading the Limerick company in offering 21st-century communication solutions since 2009.
McDonnell is well versed in the managerial field, having held directorial roles at electronics manufacturer Suparule as well as Crenell Consulting Ltd and Shannon Development.
He is also a board member of Technology Ireland, an IBEC sector group.
‘A crowded telecommunications market has turned connectivity into a commodity’
– JOHN MCDONNELL
Describe your role and what you do.
As managing director, I am responsible for overall strategic direction and all aspects of company development and operations. Telecommunications is a rapidly changing space, so the key challenge is to stay ahead of the curve. For a niche provider like Ripplecom, it can feel like playing David to the communication Goliaths, but we have a strong track record of innovating, taking risks and responding to customers’ needs.
10 years ago, risk-taking meant consolidating two regional wireless internet service providers to create Ripplecom. Pushing out the boundaries again, we acquired Ice Broadband and Last Mile Ltd to gain near-national radio coverage to deliver broadband services into rural Ireland.
More recently, innovation has taken the shape of an almost total shift from the residential to the business market, layering of services and creation of new, value-added products. We have carved out our own space in the market by coupling the extensive roll-out of fibre with our radio expertise to extend the high-speed data footprint and deliver high-quality services across the country.
‘Last mile’ extensions via our radio network enable us to bring broadband to 600 primary schools across Ireland for the Department of Education. Our radio network was vital in creating the connection that live-streamed the winter solstice from Newgrange to the world just before Christmas when no one else could do it.
Our field team and network engineers are natural problem-solvers; they get their kicks out of the connections that pose a challenge. Their ability and our network create our very own Obama effect – when everyone else says, ‘No, we can’t’, Ripplecom says, ‘Yes, we can.’
How do you prioritise and organise your working life?
Investment in our infrastructure has resulted in a very stable network so our work is no longer reactive, allowing me to schedule my week. I spend a lot of time meeting potential customers because I believe that, ultimately, people choose to do business with people.
At the moment, we are looking for channel partners to bring our new product, Orion, to a wider audience. Typically, these are IT services companies or VoIP providers who want the product for their own customer base. These relationships are crucial, so we are investing a lot of time in strategically identifying the right partners.
‘Constantly check what you are doing against the market and be mindful of trends. Be sure you are always playing on the right pitch’
– JOHN MCDONNELL
What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?
A crowded telecommunications market has turned connectivity into a commodity. The positive for customers is that prices are being driven down. With tighter margins, however, companies have cut headcount so, when their customers encounter problems, they cannot get hold of anyone on the other side of the telephone.
By contrast, Ripplecom offers a supported service backed by experts who are accountable, contactable and responsive. Our reach, flexibility, expertise and unique products, like the Orion auto failover, are helping us to stand out from the crowd, but it can be a real challenge to convince prospective customers that a genuine alternative exists in the market. When companies take the time to get to know us, they appreciate that we are here for the businesses who want a high-quality, supported service.
The long-running Government-driven planned intervention through the National Broadband Plan has effectively sterilised investment for smaller companies in the broadband market over the past five years. It has also bred uncertainty into the residential marketplace as many potential customers wait for a fibre connection. Rather than waiting with them, we have focused on our B2B solutions and are now providing services to companies like Glanbia, Regeneron and Munster Joinery, who appreciate our reach, flexibility, expertise and unique products.
The other challenge that arises is the public perception that fibre is the only acceptable solution for the delivery of high-capacity broadband services. Carrier-grade wireless links can equally deliver high-capacity services at affordable prices. Unless fibre is passing the door, its deployment is massively expensive.
On the other hand, we are sourcing radio equipment from global manufacturers at more competitive prices than ever before. Deploying radio-based connectivity solutions from our own core network infrastructure empowers us to tailor our service to customer requirements and deliver synchronous speeds that are a much better fit for businesses uploading to the cloud than the standard asynchronous products on the market.
What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?
Cloud computing has transformed our customers’ priorities. Businesses have so many applications in the cloud that they cannot afford an outage. The ‘what if?’ is really playing on their minds. ‘What if the builders down the road dig up my connection? What do I do then?’ The tales of JCBs cutting through a cable and businesses being left with no connection for two weeks or more – those aren’t urban legends, these are the people we meet every day.
That requirement for resilience led us to introduce a new product called Orion into the market. Developed in-house by our own engineers and unique to us, Orion gives the customer two diverse paths to the internet coupled with automatic failover from one to the other in case of outages. This is all controlled through the Ripplecom core network.
This kind of resilient connectivity is something that large companies and multinationals have been building into their infrastructure for years, but Orion will bring it within reach of smaller businesses for the first time. We know there is a real appetite for it and we believe it will be an enormously popular product.
What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?
One of my first jobs was with Wang Laboratories. Their EMEA manufacturing plant was situated in Castletroy, Limerick, at a time when their mainframe and minicomputers were in high demand. Being exposed to world-class manufacturing standards in a US multinational at that early point of my career has been hugely beneficial to me over the years. I then spent 12 very rewarding years with Shannon Development and remain a passionate champion for the economic development of the mid-west of Ireland to this day.
I have been with Ripplecom since day one, when the company was formed. Past financial and management experience is valuable when considering the commercial sense of every option from a customer’s point of view, rather than the pure engineering possibilities of a project.
What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
I worked with Wang at the height of their success but witnessed how alarmingly quickly a company can decline. Wang’s demise came through misreading the market, in not anticipating the shift towards desk-based processing power and believing that their paperless office product could save them, when, in reality, the world wasn’t ready for it. It taught me the biggest lesson of my career: constantly check what you are doing against the market and be mindful of trends. Be sure you are always playing on the right pitch.
How do you get the best out of your team?
To me, business is all about how you get along with people, and trust is the key ingredient in any relationship. Being trusted by your team only comes from being open, fair and honest in professional dealings and personal interactions. We have 30 people working for us across network engineering, field operations, technical support and customer service, supported by in-house finance, sales and marketing. Most have been with us for quite a few years; they know the business inside out. Every single one of them is an expert in their field and they constantly bring ideas to the table. I trust them, and I believe they trust me.
STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?
Geographically, Ripplecom has embraced diversity with key team members from Poland and Brazil. Across the industry, gender imbalance is still a reality. As a country, we will continue to have a skills shortage in this area unless we actively support girls undertaking STEM subjects in schools and colleges.
On a positive note, I do think there is a new awareness and an appetite for change. My daughter just started her first job as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry and I believe she will experience a very different working world over the course of her career.
Who is your business hero and why?
Without a doubt, Denis Brosnan, founder and former chair of Kerry Group. You must admire anyone who can start a business in a little caravan outside Listowel and turn it into a global power with 23,000 employees and a turnover of €6bn. Not many people can put that sort of success on their CV!
What books have you read that you would recommend?
The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith centres on the causes and consequences of the great stock market crash. A ‘classic account of financial disaster’ may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea but it is compelling evidence for the theory that history repeats itself. It’s a pity many more people in Ireland, particularly the policymakers and politicians, didn’t read this book back in 2004. It could have diminished the impact of the recession on so many individuals. Hopefully, we have all learned important lessons from the last decade.
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?
I couldn’t do my job without the hard work of all the team at Ripplecom. We are lucky to have a great working environment. We moved to new offices in Limerick about 16 months ago and fitted the space out from scratch. We like to invite customers in to see where and how we work, to demonstrate our products and meet our staff. Away from the office, my smartphone is invaluable in terms of being available wherever I am.
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