An early hire at Zalando and Stripe, John Hannon is an engineer-turned-entrepreneur pouring his talents into tech for scaling drinks brands.
John Hannon has gone from early starts at some exciting 21st-century tech companies to making a start of his own with Gain Grain, a SaaS start-up he founded earlier this year.
Headquartered in Dublin, Gain Grain’s software helps drinks brands with their sales, marketing and operations in the US market.
“We’re providing a layer of visibility to an industry whose data processes come from the prohibition era,” said Hannon.
“There is a data vacuum in the drinks industry, and the incentives along the supply chain aren’t always aligned. This results in missed opportunities for these brands. What we provide is a mechanism to take the patchwork quilt of data and package it into consumable, actionable insights. We help brands get onto the shelf for the first time in a market many times the size of their home one.”
An aspiring micro-brewer himself, Hannon believes Gain Grain’s tech can give small-time breweries the tools they need to scale. The target market is high-value drinks brands selling in the US.
“There are tens of thousands of these brands and we’re looking to support their journey all the way from their initial product listing on a shelf to growing into a multi-state behemoth,” said Hannon.
With a US base in Virginia, Gain Grain started out working with craft distilleries here and in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. This private beta release put Gain Grain’s technology to work helping brands to identify the premises most likely to buy their stock, monitor stock and sales across more than 1,000 stores, manage orders and inventory, and provide CRM and sales insights.
The software, Hannon said, has been built as modular as possible. “Location is a core component of the product, especially when looking at things like ROI on marketing campaigns. We use AWS which gives us the reliability, scalability plus the ability to try new features quickly by adding a new Lambda function.”
The ultimate goal for Gain Grain, Hannon said, is to be an embedded technology within the global drinks industry. “Although the US is the target, many brands are global, and we have enough indication that similar problems are faced by brands in other markets.”
‘A normal day involves everything from coding, sales and pitching, plus juggling two boys under four’
– JOHN HANNON
While studying for a PhD in machine learning at University College Dublin, Hannon learned to have fun building cool stuff with data. He went on to put these skills to work as a founding member of the EMEA office of US start-up Boxfish. He was then recruited by Zalando as one of the first hires for its Dublin office. As this team grew, so too did Hannon’s responsibility as engineering manager of five teams.
His next move was to Stripe, the fintech founded by Irish brothers Patrick and John Collison. Again an early recruit, Hannon was the second engineering manager hired for the payment company’s EMEA team.
Hannon brings this ground-up experience to his first entrepreneurial venture, which he said is off to “a truly amazing start”. Starting out as a “solo founder”, however, is not without its challenges.
“A normal day involves everything from coding, sales and pitching, plus juggling two boys under four,” he said. “But it’s exciting, and when new team members join this journey I’m looking forward to seeing where we can all take it.”
Making the switch from engineering manager to CEO/CTO of his own business allowed Hannon to get hands-on again with product building – something he perhaps enjoyed a little too much, falling into a common early venture trap of “gilding the lily”.
“Gain Grain had many bells and whistles in V.0, none of them core to the product I was selling,” Hannon admitted. “Now those features are gone, and I’ve refined a set of features based on many conversations with customers as the foundation of the product going forward.”
Another challenge he has tackled as a solo start-up entrepreneur is time management. “I’m a big fan of Trello,” he said. “Everything I need to do is a card in various states of progress. I use this for leads, investors and product improvements.”
‘We want to be that vital team member, always in your ear, helping the business move forward’
– JOHN HANNON
To get Gain Grain off the ground, Hannon contracted some friends to do self-contained projects to help move the product forward while he improved the sales engine or worked on drumming up interest in the marketplace.
Things have moved along quickly in the start-up’s first year and Hannon sees the next three years as crucial.
“As our customer profile expands to bigger clients across more [US] states, the goal and purpose must remain the same: to provide actionable insights to businesses of any size, that result in increased revenues or adoption, however our technology is used,” he said. “We want to be that vital team member, always in your ear, helping the business move forward.”
Looking to the nearer term, this week is an important one for Gain Grain with the Dogpatch Labs NDRC Accelerator Demo Day coming up tomorrow (28 September). Previously chosen by Dogpatch Labs for the NDRC pre-accelerator, Hannon’s start-up is among 11 selected for the full six-month mentor-led NDRC programme. The midpoint demo day will be a chance for these start-ups to demonstrate how far they have come since securing an investment of €100,000 under SAFE terms.
Hannon hopes to take this opportunity to start major fundraising for Gain Grain. “With the initial funds, I’ll look to expand coverage across more US states and grow the team with additional engineering and business development roles,” he said.
The Demo Day event marks something as a full circle moment for Hannon, who worked as a mobile developer in the old NDRC at the Digital Hub when he was first starting out.
“I’ve always, in a way, worked or wanted to work in a start-up,” he said. “Zalando or Stripe from the outside look less like start-ups, but when I joined Zalando in Dublin there were only four of us and we were building desks and doing Ikea trips. At Stripe, they’d just opened engineering to Dublin, so teams were forming, building roadmaps and identifying product problems.”
Now part of the Irish start-up ecosystem as a founder, Hannon has been bowled over by the community support. “The willingness to jump on a Zoom or, if permitting, a coffee walk around the park. It’s been great,” he said.
Founders helping founders is “the first rule of start-ups” as far as Hannon is concerned, and he feels this makes for an exciting time for new Irish businesses.
“There are so many companies spinning up and with the costs related to prototyping a product so low, I can only see the velocity increasing,” he said.
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