Leaders’ Insights: Brendan Dowling, Digital Trading

16 Oct 2015

Brendan Dowling, Digital Trading

Brendan Dowling is a serial technology entrepreneur, an executive coach and a programme director and speaker. He has been an entrepreneur for the past 30 years, having founded and scaled a number of companies, such as Nautique Aftershave, Imagine Mobile, DVM Media and most recently Digital Trading, of which he is CEO.

Dowling also works with the Irish Management Institute (IMI) as an executive coach and speaker, and most recently has been helping to design a new programme with the IMI and Irish Software Association / Skillnet, called the Zenith Strategic Funding Programme, which is designed to teach CEOs of scaling technology companies how to navigate their funding journey.


Describe your role and what you do.

I am the founder and CEO of Digital Trading, as well as an executive coach and speaker with the Irish Management Institute (IMI). Digital Trading has developed a Customer Relationship Engagement (CRE) service that we sell to financial services companies, who integrate our service to the payments systems, giving their retailers the ability to engage their customers in targeted and personalised communications, offers, payments etc. The service has just gone live in Ireland. For the past number of years I have been working with the IMI, on a part-time basis, as an executive coach and speaker on executive educational programmes, designed to help CEOs and their leadership teams to accelerate their company growth. Today I am working with a number of companies as their coach on various programmes, helping them to scale through setting their vision, value proposition, strategy, leadership etc. I have helped design a new programme with the IMI and Irish Software Association / Skillnet, called the Zenith Strategic Funding Programme, which is designed to teach CEOs of scaling technology companies how to navigate their funding journey to maximize the companies potential and their own return on their personal investment. We launch this programme over the coming weeks.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I have a crazy diary, in addition to running my own company, Digital Trading, I am currently coaching six companies, working with some private coaching clients, directing the Zenith Funding Programme, I do speeches / training programmes for various corporations and I am the chairman of a number of companies (CarTow, Simply Workflow and My Good Points Charity). I am married to a full-time farmer and have four children, so life is hectic all the time.

Over the years I have learned to deal with everything immediately, I sometimes feel like I am playing the hammer game in a fun park where the heads keep popping up and you need to hit them with the hammer to put them down. As calls or emails come in on my mobile, I reply immediately, that way I stay on top of everything. If something requires a more comprehensive response I put it on a “to do list” and then I set aside a day to work my way through this list one by one until I am finished.

It works and people often say, ‘wow I never expected such a quick response’, but I am so used to dealing with people who can take weeks to respond, or who never respond at all, particularly if you are trying to sell them something. I will always respond to an enquiry immediately, if someone is pushing something that I don’t need I will say that and let them move on, I personally think that more people in business need to be more like this and either engage if there is something that you are serious about or say no thanks if not, we would all be much more efficient if we acted like this.

‘I sometimes feel like I am playing the hammer game in a fun park where the heads keep popping up and you need to hit them with the hammer to put them down’

One thing that I have done recently and which has made a huge different to my work-life balance is I stopped commuting to Dublin and significantly reduced down the amount of international travel that I do. I have always had an office in Dublin (also London and New York at times) but I live in south Kildare, it could take me from two to three hours each way to commute to work, that’s between four and six hours of my day wasted in the car. I recently build myself a 1,500 sq ft office with a boardroom, kitchen etc in the garden and it takes me a few seconds to get to work, that gives me back nearly 20 to 30 hours a week. My engineers and operations team are in the UK and Pakistan, but I have never had such good communications in a company as I have today. In all my previous companies we had the big open-plan office with all the engineers sitting in the centre and the management glass offices in a circle around that. But think about it, will an engineer stand up from their desk and walk down to the CEO’s office in front of his colleagues and his boss and walk in to ask a simple question of the CEO? Today, using Skype etc, every one of my team will IM or talk to me about the simplest issue to clarify what they should do, because it is private and so instant our communications have never been better and we get things right first time.

I also lived on a plane for years, travelling all over the world selling my technology to large corporations. The recession helped to reduce this considerably because the large corporations pulled back their own travel budgets so they did not expect smaller companies to travel to them as they did in the past. Today I am able to deal with large corporations using Skype or other Webinar technologies and deliver interactive demonstrations of our service online to their top executives remotely from my home (although I could do with better broadband but that’s another story in Ireland).

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

Funding is always one of the biggest challenges for any business, I have been an entrepreneur for over 30 years and I have seen booms and busts, but I have never experienced anything like the recession we have just come out of (and we are out of it, thank god). It was the most difficult trading environment I have ever seen and I don’t think we will ever see the likes of it again: banks were closed for business, friends and family were bust, large corporations stopped spending on innovation, you could not remortgage the house (the last resort in the past) etc. On the positive side, you do become very creative and it makes for very resilient and successful companies if you can come out the other side of this, so apart from Enterprise Ireland (who are great, by the way) and my own funds, I was forced to scale the company using customer money, which meant doing things that were slightly off the company vision to get us to where we are today — with a finished product live in the market that represents the vision we had over five years ago. I suppose the good news is that I still own 100pc of Digital Trading, which gives me lots of options in terms of how we now scale in internationally, in a growing market for what we do, that is getting hotter by the day.

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

I have been in the telecoms and media industry until recent years selling my technology to some of the largest mobile phone operators in the world. But the telecoms industry has taken a hammering and is in rapid decline, but instead of innovating (as they should be) they are cutting costs and returning to old business models that have worked in the past but will not work going forward, as such I had to bail out of the telecoms industry and go where there was money being spent on innovation. We now operate in the fintech market, selling our service to merchant acquiring banks, we are live with our first customer and in negotiations with a large organisation that will cover the rest of Europe, and another in the US market. The fintech space is very hot at present and they are spending significant amounts of money on innovations as they see companies like Apple and Google coming into their space, that has been very profitable for them for many years, so they are desperate to innovate and are spending significant amounts of money. It’s a bubble, I know, but with business you need to ride the wave when it is here because it does pass you by over time, like the heyday of the telecoms industry.

‘The fintech space is very hot at present’

In Digital Trading, we also placed a big bet on consumer data protection becoming a huge issue globally, as with all my companies the investors disagreed with me, but we invested over the past five years in a solution that facilitated trusted relationships between enterprise and consumers that complies with current and future data protection legislation, allowing the consumer to be in total control of the relationships and communications channels that they open to enterprise. Today this is a huge issue and our bet has paid off, we hope that this will catapult the growth of our company as the market searches for solutions to this industry-wide problem. Needless to say there is an element of luck in this, I have been wrong in the past, some years ago I developed a business that delivered audio newspapers to consumers online, but it was way too early and no one would buy the service so we had to diversify to survive.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

I love inventing the future, having a vision of how things might be with a new technology that I have dreamed up in my head then seeing this come to life and customers going ‘wow’. To this day I still get a huge buzz out of bringing new ideas to life and watching them being commercialised as they scale internationally and revenue grows. But I have learned a lot over the years, some through boom and some through bust, but all the learning comes together for the latest venture. In the past I have built companies in the mobile technology, digital media, advertising, social media etc. Today, Digital Trading is a combination of unified communications, CRM, advertising technology, payments systems etc, all of which I have worked with in a past life. This gives us a unique ability to combine all of these technologies in to a single solution that will take others a long time to copy. You always get copied if you are successful, I used to get upset about this when I was younger, now I get upset if people don’t copy me, it’s the greatest validation of your new service being on the mark when others try to copy, the secret is to be so far ahead of them, with new innovations being released all the time, that they cannot catch you.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

My biggest mistake was listening to a large funder and losing control of my business too early, because I thought they knew a lot more than me. In one of my companies I raised €50m, but the largest amount of these funds came from a US venture capitalist. The company was very successful, I was the founder and CEO, and we had lots of customers and revenues were growing fast, but the investors got greedy and said that this could be a billion-dollar business, if we brought in a new CEO from the US. I believed them and stood to the side to let this other guy take over (but had no choice because I had given over control to the investors), but I knew within weeks that I had made a very big mistake, within two years he had run the business into the wall by pursuing a different vision / strategy than what we had originally built the business on. I lost a lot of money in that venture and had a very difficult time with investors, board meetings, travel, stress etc. But I learned a huge amount and this learning has stood to me, I also got some work-life balance back in order and life was actually better once I got over the initial financial impact of the crash.

‘My biggest mistake was listening to a large funder and losing control of my business too early’

But this and other experiences like this is what has compelled me to work with the IMI and the Irish Software Industry / Skillnet to help them design and run the Zenith Strategic Funding Programme, because I want to make sure that other CEOs don’t make the same mistakes that I made. Funding and your funding strategy is a major component to building successful company, but most CEOs like me are making all of this up as they go along and learning on the job, so we get screwed by professional investors. If only I had talked to CEOs or entrepreneurs who had gone before me I would have learned a huge amount and avoided some very costly mistakes. But I did not know any other entrepreneur that had travelled the same road as me, so I continued to make mistakes until I figured out what worked and what did not work. I hope that any CEOs of scaling technology companies who read this article sign up for this new programme and meet people like myself and Denis Murphy, another well-known entrepreneur who claims the title to having the biggest exit in Northern Ireland and the biggest bust, Denis is also one of the presenters on the programme.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I am privileged to have worked with some amazing people and still do. But this is not an accident, I compare it to asking people to get in to your boat to go on your journey, but to achieve a shared vision, something that will change the world, something that no one else has done before. It about having every single person in the company focusing on the same simple and clear vision, once they know they role in the overall vision everything else is easy. The single biggest trait that I look for in people I work with is trust, everything else is taken for granted in terms of skills, knowledge, personality etc, but if you can really trust the people you work with then you never need to check how to get the best out of them, it simply happens all the time.

I let my team get on with the job in their own way and using their own personal skills, because they are the experts in their field and they know better than me how to get the job done. So, if someone decides to stay in bed for the day on a Monday but work late on a Saturday I would never question them; I know they know what they are doing and I trust them. It has worked for me in the past and it works for me today, I can call on amazing people that have worked with me in the past and ask them to leave the comfort of a great job in a large organisation to get into my little boat to go out into turbulent waters to try to find new land that we can conquer and they do. I often think of Steve Jobs when he said “don’t just turn up for life, make it count”; in all my ventures we always made it count, even in failure.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

I am a witness to the changes that are happening, my eldest daughter has just started engineering in UCD, she had the points to do anything she wanted but chose engineering, she is sports mad so she is far from a swot, she just loves maths, physics and chemistry, but more importantly she loves to solve problems. This new generation will be so much better than my generation, there is so much opportunity but also so much freedom with technology, travel etc. As an entrepreneur, when I started there were so many barriers to entry such as needing huge money to buy a telecoms switch, needed a license to enter the market (telecoms, media, banking etc). The barriers to entry to markets today have effectively collapsed, a kid in a bedroom can create technology, a song, a TV show or anything that can be sold all over the world in seconds if it is compelling enough. This is an amazing world to live in and the next generation is going to create amazing products and services, I have no doubt that this is happening and that it is in safe hands with the current generation.

‘The barriers to entry to markets today have effectively collapsed, a kid in a bedroom can create technology, a song, a TV show or anything that can be sold all over the world in seconds if it is compelling enough’

I listened to a speech from the Dean of Engineering in UCD recently and he said that the intake of females this year was the highest ever and rising, he also said the calibre of intake was very high and getting higher, so they are very happy and Ireland is producing some very talented engineers that corporations all over the world want to hire. So, in fairness to the Government and the Department of Education the message is filtering through, the bonus points for Honours Maths was a good idea that is working, like all good ideas it can take time to filter through but my daughter is a good example of the results and two of my children coming behind have said that they too will be engineers (I don’t know where this comes from given that I an entrepreneur and my wife is a farmer).

Who is your business hero and why?

I must admit Richard Branson is probably my hero when it come to business, I started Imagine with a vision to create the world’s best mobile phone service but he brought it all the way with Virgin Mobile, I started DVM with a vision to deliver digital content over mobile and PC but he brought it all the way with Virgin Media, the list goes on. I have had a great career as an entrepreneur but I am not at the races in terms of someone like that. One thing I learned very young in life is that no matter how good you think you are there is always someone better, but that’s okay, we can still have our dreams and make them a reality and if it does need someone else or some large international corporations to bring it all the way, that is success. Many Irish technology companies sell out early and someone else brings it to its full potential. but this is success. I think it is very difficult for an Irish technology company to dominate the world, we simply don’t have access to the level of capital and markets that are needed to make this happen, so if we need to sell out to others who do have the scale it is still a huge success that comes out of our creative entrepreneurs in Ireland.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Unfortunately I don’t get much time to read, and when I travel I use my Bose noise-cancelling headphones (great invention for people who are always in the air) to block out the world and get lost in a good movie (which I can’t do at home). But when I do get a chance to read I love reading books about the polar explorers, one in particular which is An Unsung Hero, written by Michael Smith, that tells the story of Tom Crean, the Irish Antarctic Explorer who accompanied Scott and Shackleton in their expeditions to the South Pole. There is something in these books that captivates the imagination, why would anyone want to go on a crazy journey with little chance of success or any type of monetary reward. For me, it is all about a vision to conquer new worlds and to claim the knowledge that you were the first to get there, not public recognition, it’s more a private journey and personal reward that only the explorer can really understand (hence the book about Tom Crean who was the unsung hero). The modern world of a technology entrepreneur is today’s version of Antarctic explorers.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

This is an easy one, my wife, number one, and the children, number two. Without the support of my wife I could not do what I do and enjoy it as much as I do. I also need a good car and good technology but my wish is that someday Ireland will come in to the 21st century and give us broadband that works. I live in Kildare and you would think I lived in the sticks, it can be very embarrassing when you are talking to customers in the US or other countries and you are apologising for the quality of our broadband and the demo disintegrates on the screen or freezes for a few seconds. As an innovative technology company selling internationally to massive technology companies this is something that holds us back as an economy. In fairness, the Government has recently promised to correct this, but I suspect by the time it is resolved I will be retired as a technology entrepreneur and working full time as an executive coach.