Garret Flower has always had a knack for spotting a money-making opportunity and Parkpnp was one idea he wasn’t in a hurry to park. He talks to John Kennedy.
Garret Flower would be what you could call an instinctive entrepreneur. Always trying, always curious and rarely daunted. The mastermind behind the Parkpnp app that is spreading across Europe and which recently raised €500,000, Flower is also the co-founder of the Krüst Bakery chain and catering business. This means he has feet in both camps of the digital and bricks-and-mortar business worlds.
Flower will be speaking at next week’s Startup Grind (25 March) at Google’s EMEA headquarters in Dublin.
‘With traditional businesses there is a set recipe; whereas in tech, no matter how good your idea is or how good a businessperson you are, sometimes it just won’t work’
– GARRET FLOWER
The Longford native’s origins as an entrepreneur extend back to secondary school. “Up until my teens my family would be what you would describe as comfortable and my parents had a fruit juice business, Passion Fruit, selling into big clients like Sainsbury’s, and I grew up on pallets, shipping bottles. My parents divorced and the business went downhill, unfortunately, so money became scarce.”
To keep himself in funds, Flower and a school pal sparked on the idea of buying Koka noodles in bulk and they hid a microwave in a locker so they could sell food to boarders at their boarding school in Westmeath. “We were buying the noodles for 13 cents and selling them cooked for €2. There is nothing like the waft of steaming noodles down the corridor to get a bunch of hungry boarders spending. It was a start.”
This entrepreneurial nous continued when Flower went to Dublin to study business and accountancy, and he threw apartment parties at his flat in Temple Bar based on an American concept where people paid a door fee for food and drinks for the night. “I had no money and had to come up with a way to pay my student loan,” he reasoned.
Tough lessons in entrepreneurship
During that time, he and a friend, Devan Hughes, founder of on-demand groceries platform Buymie, decided to go into business selling renewable energy products based on solar power and LED lighting. “Then the global recession came and we were deuced because no one wanted to spend money. We were ahead of our time when you look at what companies like UrbanVolt are doing now.”
They very quickly sparked on another idea of selling golf equipment and set up eSports Ireland. They acquired a shipping container of equipment from China. “The problem was, the golf industry was more affected than the light industry from the global recession and we ended up selling 35pc of the goods and weren’t able to get paid. We spent a whole year debt collecting and on the very last day we put the whole lot on DoneDeal, decided to jack up the prices to store levels, sold the remaining stock within three weeks, broke even and decided to close the business.
“That was a year of our lives that was about hard learning. We were both burnt out after it and parted ways; Devan went into the corporate world before starting Buymie and I started Krüst.”
Flower went to work at Dublin Business School for a few months after the eSports debacle and decided to set up an entrepreneurial society. “The only person who responded was Rob Kramer. He came up with some pastries to my flat one night and they were fantastic and I said, ‘Rob, we need to sell these across Dublin.’
“So, we started baking them in my apartment and selling them at the weekend into coffee shops, and within three weekends we had 30 coffee shops signed up. I will never forget the day we sold our first basket; we were literally bringing Musgraves baskets with greaseproof paper on top into coffee shops, walking the streets of Dublin. We sold our first basket, made a three-quid profit, and literally we were so delighted we went for a few pints and spent the profits.
“We now have two stores, one on George’s Street and one internally in the Department of Enterprise. We had one on Aungier Street but we sold that to Dublin Pizza Company.
“Krüst employs 25 people full-time. We have a catering business and we supply companies across Dublin with pastry and sandwich platters, coffee and tea, and we do wholesale. And we were the first to launch the cronut in Ireland, we launched that nationwide. We supply to coffee shops across Ireland, Applegreen forecourts and we then have gone on to roll-out nationwide, including SuperValu stores and Butlers coffee shops.”
From cronuts to parking spaces
The first time I met Flower was when he was a candidate for Start-up of the Week on Siliconrepublic.com and he turned up at the office with a tray of donuts from Krüst. Not that we were swayed by the doughnuts or anything but Flower told a compelling enough story about his inspiration for a parking app that would be similar to an Airbnb for parking spaces.
Recalling his inspiration a few years later, he said: “I bought a car for the first time three-and-a-half years ago and one day I was driving through Ranelagh and it was a Friday afternoon and, after 25 minutes of driving around looking for a parking space and seeing these empty driveways, I walked up to a door, rang the bell and asked them if they wouldn’t mind if I parked in their driveway. The lady said, ‘Yes, of course’, and I came back the next day with some money and a box of chocolates. I asked myself, why don’t people rent out their parking spaces more often? And my girlfriend (now fiancée) said it was a genius idea. I had used Airbnb a lot in the past and I asked a friend of my dad’s, Daniel Paul, who became my co-founder at Parkpnp, to get on board and we set ourselves a strict time of 30 days to build the MVP [minimal viable product] and a month after that we had 300 people listing.”
Zoom forward three-and-a-half years and Parkpnp boasts more than 42,000 active users across Ireland and Europe, and it is eyeing an expansion into the US.
The company recently raised €500,000 from investors that include former Europcar MD Colm Menton, bringing to €1.5m the amount raised so far. Other investors include Powerscourt Capital, BVP Investments and Enterprise Ireland.
Last year the company acquired a Belgian start-up, Sharemypark, and the company has been rolling out the technology across the Netherlands.
Flower recently returned from the Google-backed Blackbox Accelerator in Silicon Valley and is brimming with ideas about scaling the company further.
“It is an exciting time for us. We have deployed a new product called Park Office and we have signed up large businesses, including a large pharma company, as clients to help them monetise empty parking spaces.
“I visited a client one day and asked them why they were paying for parking spaces that were empty a lot of the time – I’m a fairly straight shooter – and it turned out that senior management were guaranteed spaces even when out at meetings and sick. I did some research and found that between 25pc and 40pc of nearly every car park in every company is not used. That’s a monstrous amount and I decided it was a business opportunity.”
Park Office is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform from Parkpnp that enables companies to release parking spaces when senior management are on holidays, at meetings or out sick.
“This helps firms to maximise the space and it is a green, smart management system that is enjoying a rapid take-up. One of our clients saw an immediate €15,000 saving in one office and were able to reduce the amount of contract parking they were paying for. Now, we’ve got the attention of multinationals.”
In conclusion, Flower said that despite start-ups and entrepreneurship being in vogue, it is a challenging time for founders “especially when every talented person you need is snapped up by the big tech firms with more money than you can offer”.
Crucially, having both physical and virtual businesses has given Flower an insight into how business is evolving in the 21st century. “With traditional businesses there is a set recipe; whereas in tech, no matter how good your idea is or how good a businessperson you are, sometimes it just won’t work. There can be 1,000 things that could affect a tech business. You might be in the right place at the right time or be two years too early.
“There is a huge capacity to scale fast in tech, but there is risk as well. You could have all your ducks in a row and suddenly find yourself fighting something new.”