Teamwork’s Daniel Mackey: Coding Cork’s digital culture

22 Dec 2016

Teamwork co-founder Daniel Mackey. Image: Clare Keogh

Cork’s tech scene punches above its weight, but has always lacked a focal point. Teamwork co-founder Daniel Mackey says the company’s new incubator space will help fix this anomaly.

The Teamwork story is one that should inspire future generations of school and college-leavers, especially in Cork, a city whose history over the last 30 to 40 years has been synonymous with that of the global tech industry.

Unlike Dublin, which has its Digital Hub and Silicon Docks districts, the city has lacked a real focal point. Instead, Cork’s silicon chutzpah is seen in its people and in particular, in the global exploits of Cork entrepreneurs like Pat Phelan of Trustev and Liam Casey of PCH; or high-flying executives like Intel’s Ann Kelleher and Margaret Burgraff, and Apple’s Cathy Kearney, to name a few. And don’t forget CoderDojo was founded five years ago by James Whelton and Bill Liao at the National Software Centre in Cork.

‘We always wanted to be a product company; we never wanted to do consultancy. We just wanted to make stuff’

But a new narrative in Cork’s digital story has been brewing for nine years now.

Teamwork – notorious for buying the domain for €500,000 two years ago – is one of Ireland’s fastest-growing tech companies and a global brand in productivity software.

There are over 268,000 companies using Teamwork products across the globe, with almost 2.8m users. Customers include PayPal, eBay, Disney, Forbes and Spotify.

The Teamwork story

Teamwork’s Daniel Mackey: Coding Cork’s digital culture

Teamwork founders Peter Coppinger and Daniel Mackey. Image: Clare Keogh

Founded in 2007 by Peter Coppinger and Daniel Mackey, the company is entirely self-funded and hasn’t taken on a cent of venture capital. Since its founding, it has increased turnover year-on-year and in 2015, Teamwork is understood to have recorded €8.8m in revenues and projects worth €12.4m for this year. It is eyeing a €20m revenue target by 2020.

The company invested €2m of its own funds in a new state-of-the-art building – with the unique position of giving every programmer their own office – and plans to turn its old offices into an incubator space for Cork software start-ups.

‘It has never been easier to start a software company. All you need is AWS, a laptop and a clear vision of what you want to build’

The move, Mackey hopes, will provide a place where start-ups can get space to work, but also where a community will develop and entrepreneurs and techies can coalesce and help to sort out technical and business problems.

“Through the years in Cork, we couldn’t just go out and meet people in our industry and just talk shop, no one we could bounce ideas off – there just wasn’t that kind of a community,” said Mackey.

“Hopefully, with this new incubator we are launching, it will be the kind of place where software start-ups can meet, have coffee and talk through tech problems like caching or whatever. We also got a bit disillusioned with the meetup scene in Cork, where the same people attracted by the idea of start-up culture [rather] than the reality would turn up every time. We want to build a place where people can hang out, foster ideas and build something.”

For Mackey and Coppinger, it was always about building stuff. They met in college in 1998 at Cork Institute of Technology.

“He was one of the only other people in our class who was genuinely interested in coding. Everyone else joined the tech courses because they were told it was a good idea to. We had been running separate web development businesses to make money during college and kept finding we were competing. It was the kind of work where you would get three hundred quid for doing a website for a bar or restaurant. It was only one day when we spoke in the lab for the first time that we realised we had a lot in common and hit it off.

“We both had a passion for game programming but quickly realised it would have been impossible.

“We always wanted to be a product company; we never wanted to do consultancy. We just wanted to make stuff.”

To make ends meet after college, Mackey and Coppinger set up their own consultancy business.

“We found that we became busy fools. A lot of consultancy businesses fall into that trap, running around pleasing everybody.”

It was when trying to implement a productivity platform to keep themselves organised that the idea for Teamwork was born. As the story goes, they reached out to the software vendor with suggestions to improve the platform but were dismissed with a lofty attitude. “We said ‘Screw those guys, we are going to do this ourselves’. And we did,” Coppinger recalled in a recent interview.

Now the company has grown to 73 people and recently announced plans to create 50 new jobs.

The only investment in Teamwork has been time

Teamwork’s Daniel Mackey: Coding Cork’s digital culture

In a first for a tech company in Ireland, developers at Teamwork are to get their own offices so they can work without interruption. Image: Clare Keogh

“When we started, we had no idea how things would go. The first month, we made €186 and the following month, we doubled it. This became €30,000 a month, then €40,000 and we just kept growing to the point where we are bringing in revenues in the region of €1m a month.

“When we started, we were young and naïve and we had no idea what went into building a product. There were no cloud services like AWS around at the time, we didn’t think of all the language support that would be required and dealing with all the time zones.

“But that is more than made up for, by the fact that we don’t have people telling us what to do; we can build the best product we want to build. The only investment we made in Teamwork was our time.”

Mackey and Coppinger share the view that anyone with the skills can establish a software company and the barriers to entry are much lower, thanks to cloud services.

“It has never been easier to start a software company. All you need is AWS, a laptop and a clear vision of what you want to build. That’s why we are using our old offices as an incubator because we want to give people like us a place where they can work away from home and use their money to pay for hosting or get a new laptop, and we’ll look after the light, heat and the rest.

“Hopefully, this new incubator will help drive a new chapter in Cork’s tech story.”

Returning to the €2m building where developers will get their own office, Mackey believes it is time to call a halt on cubicle or open-plan culture for coders and programmers.

“Being developers ourselves, we understand the importance of concentration and being in the zone and being able to concentrate for 10 hours without interruption. It’s amazing what you can accomplish in that time. Other roles in the company like HR and testing are more collaborative and that suits open plan, but we always believed developers need their own private space to get in the zone.”

Mackey credits software authority Joel Spolsky of the Joel on Software blog as sparking the idea. “We make software, we are not plumbers. What programmers do is a lonely, personal thing and they need to concentrate.”

A pet peeve of Mackey’s is Teamwork being labelled as a start-up. “We are nine years in business, yet we still get labelled as a start-up. Fair enough, the tech industry is a glamorous business right now, but I’ll never understand why people go to tech conferences to hear someone who has been in business for a year or two discount sage advice. I mean, a plumber in business 15 years will never be asked to speak about their business in a fireside chat, would they?

“We are nine years in business and we still don’t have all the answers.”

Mackey said that the Cork entrepreneurial scene has so much potential yet no one hears about it. “There are lots of young companies you never hear about but they are plugging away and building steadily.

“We are lucky in [that] what we created only required the skills to do it, and we never had to take on investment because we had the consultancy to bootstrap us. It began as just one day a week and the weekends while we looked after clients the rest of the time and eventually Teamwork became more and more the full-time job.

“If an investor offered us €10m in the morning, we wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

As previously mentioned, Teamwork, or TeamworkPM as it was originally known, famously spent €500,000 on the domain.

“That was every single penny that we had in the bank at the time but we knew it was the right thing to do. People thought we were lunatics but our attitude was that if it didn’t work out, we’d just try again because we have loads of ideas and will just build something else.”

Next on the horizon for Teamwork will be a new set of complementary products to the company’s existing line-up of chat, support desk and workflow platforms.

“Our guiding principle is that there are products we could use, but we know we would do a better job of building them ourselves, so let’s do that.

“Our golden rule is this: only work on things that make you excited.”

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