Crossing the ocean, reaching a start-up dream

22 Dec 2011

You don't have to row solo across the Atlantic to start a tech business, but for former senior Dell executive Sean McGowan the experience both emboldened him and removed any fears he had about his future

As the first Irishman to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo, Sean McGowan has the grit and stubbornness to see his tech start-up vision realised.

Sean McGowan was the first Irishman to row solo across the Atlantic. His adventure took him 118 days, one hour, 14 minutes and 59 seconds. Now, as he embarks on a new journey, that of a technology start-up based on an idea he had while on his epic trek, has his experience set him up for the challenges that await?

During his time with Dell as a senior EMEA manager in the software division, McGowan worked within a division that saw its revenues jump from $2bn to $4bn within months. But those towering waves were nothing compared to what he encountered when he took it upon himself to row solo across the Atlantic.

“It didn’t go exactly as planned. I was hoping to do it in 70 days, and I told everybody I could do it in 100 days or less,” he says.

DNA includes stubbornness

McGowan, who spoke at the 10th anniversary of DCU Invent recently, says stubbornness is part of his DNA. He already runs a successful consulting firm called Future Perfect with Dick Keely, advising more than 200 firms on how to reorganise and save money. His next big adventure is a start-up called B Located, which will develop GPS devices, like watches, that can be applied to Alzheimer’s patients and which will alert carers by mobile phone if the patients leave a defined area.

Recalling his cross-Atlantic adventure, he says: “I always look for a really big challenge. If something’s not difficult then it’s not worth doing. And the reason why I really went for this was I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. There’s an Irish thing in me when people say you’re not going to be able to do it – the more they told me that the more determined I became.

“The other part I was thinking about was the adventure and really challenging myself.

“I think on the third day I went into my first storm and saw 40-foot waves, and that wasn’t too bad. On the fifth day at about 6.30am, I got hit by a rogue wave and that capsized me, broke my oars and took me out of the boat. It was 60 feet high and came from my left-hand side. Luckily, I was tied onto the boat (I’m not a strong swimmer and if you get separated from the boat, that’s it), but after that it was just a nightmare, absolutely horrific, I ended up with scurvy, and ran out of food after 73 days and I didn’t have water. At one point I went through the back end of a hurricane, it was a complete and utter nightmare.

“Somebody asked me after what was it like: 90pc of it was absolutely horrific, 8pc not too bad but 2pc was just incredibly beautiful and wonderful.”

Deciding to row across the Atlantic

Deciding to embark on the journey involved a lot of soul searching. With four young children he wondered if was he being selfish. It was a hard decision.

“It took me seven years to plan for it and most of that was talking to my wife. To be honest, she was the one who was a rock. Without her I wouldn’t have got to the start line.”

Crossing the Atlantic on a boat on his own was as mentally arduous as it was physically draining. “You have too much time to think when you’re at sea, sitting and thinking about the world; about what you’re going to do if you survive this. I was rowing 20 hours a day, sleeping for four to six hours. I would be two hours on, with a 15-minute break. At one point, I spent 24 hours straight just trying to get through.”

The same stubbornness that got him across the ocean was a factor in him deciding to go into business for himself. “The division I was in grew to $4bn in just 18 months. It was a really fast, aggressively growing business. I joined Dell as an engineer and worked my way up to the senior management team and that journey was always one of challenge and innovation and doing things differently. It was an exciting time and I had reached a level I had always dreamed of, but within a few months I began to realise I wasn’t really happy and I wanted something else, another challenge.”

What you need to set up a business

Getting set up in business, he insists, requires a stubborn streak. “Often people will come to you and tell you your idea is great, but that doesn’t mean they will do anything more than that to help you.

“We are developing a GPS watch you could put on an Alzheimer’s patient that if, for example, they wandered to a certain part of the house, it would alarm a relative or carer’s mobile phone. B Located has gone into partnership with another Irish company, Digimed, to develop the device and bring it to market.

“I got the idea while I was out to sea using GPS to navigate and I was thinking about my own kids. Some 760,000 children went missing in the US last year, in 90pc of cases it’s the other parent who takes them. When I started investigating and doing the work on the project I realised the Alzheimer’s market was also a key market to address in terms of getting a return on investment.”


McGowan says the ocean-crossing trek only served to add to his stubborn streak. “I guess I am unemployable because I don’t think I can go back and sit in an office and be told what to do. You become very independent when you do something like crossing the ocean. You get a great amount of self-esteem, self-belief. I prefer to work for myself.”

McGowan says the B Located and Digimed partnership has resulted in a working model.

“It works extremely well and in my view it’s the best in the market. It’s just phenomenal. I worked with a lot of ex-Dell guys to develop this.

“When working for yourself there’s a tenacity point – so many people will tell you that’s a lovely idea but you get very little help until you are established and able to produce money. I set up a co-op with people I worked with before, some excellent engineers, software developers and if it works, it works.

“The reality in business is nobody is simply going to give you money, you have to have that tenacity and pig headedness because there’s lots of people who’ll tell you that that’s a ‘lovely idea’. Even the enterprise boards, who will give you €40,000 but you’ll have to have spent it before they’ll give you half back – when you’re starting a company that might not be the best option. Ireland needs to become more welcoming for start-ups.”

‘Take your day hour by hour’

I tell McGowan that it strikes me that his journey of crossing the ocean of pain and fear is a suitable metaphor for the journey Ireland can and will make in navigating the uncertain economic straits.

“The way I got across the ocean and the way I’m doing my business is when you’re in really tough times, when you are steering and rowing for your life, the only way to get through those is just try and get through the next hour. You’ll cry, you’ll feel you’re in terrible trouble, everything will happen to you, but all you’ve got to do is say ‘give me another hour, just work through another hour’ and if you do get through the next gets easier.

“When you wake up the next day and it’s just as difficult as the previous day, just do the first hour and take your day hour by hour.”

He concludes: “The most important thing is when something good happens is to stop, reflect on it. Even when someone says thank you, really enjoy those moments.

“I think our country isn’t enjoying those small moments and people are down, they’re not working through the next hour. They’re thinking two months or two years down the road.

“Just get through the next hour and keep going hour by hour, day by day. You’ll eat the elephant bite by bite but you’ll get there.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years