Reflections on 10 years in business

Ten years ago this week I started

After leaving the world of politics I worked for three years as a corporate PR practitioner. As my wife and I planned to start a family, I yearned for more from work. I wanted to build a company that made something. One of the biggest challenges of the communications profession is its ephemeral nature. It’s always changing and is very difficult to nail down. Ten years ago, I longed to roll up my sleeves and make a product. Something that would last and have a real effect on the industry I work in.

For many years I had been a customer of the ‘Irish Media Contacts Directory’ — started by former RTE London Editor Mike Burns and his late wife Lynette Fegan in 1991 — it was widely regarded as the “Bible” when it came to media contacts in Ireland. Like all great things it was started with an EU grant. Mike was asked to pull together a pamphlet listing media contacts for a number of candidates running for the European parliament elections. In the pre internet days the 8-page leaflet fast became very popular, and soon grew into a very large spiral bound directory of media contacts.

My vivid memory of that time 10 years ago was how I agonised over whether to buy the ‘Irish Media Contacts Directory’ business off Mike Burns. I approached him in the summer of 2005 and asked would he be interested in selling the title to me. Mike is a decisive person and we came to a quick understanding — when he retired a year later I would be given first refusal to purchase the directory off him. Mike was independent minded and favoured the project in the hands of someone similar, and not a large media corporation. Over the years he told me he’d been approached by many large media companies to buy the title but he refused them all.

The big decision

Early in the summer of 2006 we reconvened our conversation and agreed a deal. I spent many evenings that summer bringing my new dog Maxi on long walks wondering whether buying a book that published media contacts in the golden age of the internet was a wise move. I reasoned that I could just start my own directory. Surly it wouldn’t be too hard, and it’d be a lot cheaper. Thankfully wiser council prevailed. My good friend Gerry McCaughey reminded me that it was many times harder to win new customers than keep existing ones.

One large bank loan later I arranged to meet Mike in an underground car park off Kildare Street to transfer the ‘assets of the publication’. I drove away with five boxes of books wondering if I was clinically insane.

2007, our first year of trading, was tough, very tough. Getting to grips with book publishing, and being a new dad, as the economy contracted, was in a word — difficult. I can remember the ongoing disappointment at realising an email notification for a new online order was often for just one or two books from huge organisations with many PR professionals. We had built a website to sell the book for the first time, and while it was great to get orders online — there weren’t enough of them to sustain us. I was still earning my salary from corporate public relations.

I often describe working in a daily newspaper as a ‘slow asylum’ — the tyranny of producing a print edition will eventually drive you mad. Now imagine substituting all that interesting newsprint for a telephone directory. Trust me — it speeds up the onset of madness by decades.

No future in books

In the middle of the getting-to-grips phase, something very interesting happened. Ken Robertson, Paddy Power’s self-styled ‘Head of Mischief’ called the office one day looking for me. He got to the point very quickly:

“Jack when are you going to pack in this book lark and make an online media directory? There is no future in books for media intelligence and if you make the jump online I’ll be your first customer.”

In truth, I had promised to bring the book online in the press release announcing my purchase of the directory. There was one problem I had no clue how to do it. Ken’s call left a significant impression on me. I knew that Paddy Power had a deep, and detailed, understanding of digital businesses and they were demanding an online directory. I was convinced it had to be done — the was no other option.

At the end of 2007 we looked at a number of US technology providers, but none of them were a proper fit for what we were doing. We made up a shortlist of Dublin agencies based on the awards they had won. We picked a company called Lightbox, because I liked and instantly trusted their founder Tom Hayes. My hunch proved right, as our business relationship and friendship was one of the cornerstones of how we grew the business over the last 9 years.

Project money pit

Throughout 2008, as the economic situation worsened, we were building the first version of MediaHQ. I remember it as stressful time, and in my mind it was project ‘money pit’. For 14 consecutive months I kept writing cheques, before the first workable version of the product was ready in February 2009. Thankfully it became successful very quickly and within six months was outselling the printed directory.

The company was just over two years old and the trend was set. We were in the business of embracing change and continuous evolution. Without getting all “Oprah” about it, I’ve always seen business as a journey where you have to watch and observe what the audience wants and try your best to be one step ahead of them. You have to introduce the future to them.

“Selling talk above in Dublin”

Just as the world exploded in September 2008 we had made another big change. We decided to get into the world of communications training. On a weekend away in Leitrim, a guest house owner happened to have, on her reception desk, a small marketing contact card that we had produced. She wasn’t a customer, which made me even more curious. She opened up and expressed her stress at how complicated doing your own PR actually was. When I inquired if training would help –she jumped at the offer. It was a lesson. When some people have problems they are not just talking about themselves — they’re an ambassador for thousands of people with the same issue. They don’t realise it, but they are a beacon for a universal problem that needs a solution. If you’re listening in these moments you can develop business that will last a very long time. The timing was also perfect for us. As we were making the jump from being an analog to a digital business it was essential that we brought our customers along with us. Delivering training was the easiest way to do that. I love training, essentially because I love talking to people. My dad Joe passed away this year. When he didn’t understand what I was doing he would tell people that I was “selling talk above in Dublin”. That sentiment will always make me smile. Training can also be a fun and engaging way to share the real issues that your clients have and spend quality time with them.

Between 2009 and 2013 we got involved in the media conference business. This was hugely enjoyable, very stressful and not at all profitable. It thought me the lesson of how important it is to play honest broker in business and if you have a vision to bring people together you can be very influential. We brought some of the most senior editors, journalists and executives from the world’s largest media brands to Dublin, and brought a new perspective on the future of the media to thousands of people.

Surrounded by great people

Over the years I’ve learned the importance of hiring great people slowly, and surrounding every project with talented committed staff. In a very competitive market it can be difficult to attract talent. We formed great relationships with my alma mater UL and with NUIG, DIT, and DCU. These bonds have helped us find the type of people that want the excitement of working on a small team and getting their hands on important work early in their careers. I’m hugely indebted to everyone who has worked on the project since it started.

When you are growing a business, family support is essential. Over the last 10 years my wife Alison, and two daughters Matilda and Gwen have been a massive support. None of it would be possible, or worth it, without their support and encouragement. My mam and dad are the reason I’m in business. All I ever saw growing up was their commitment to our family business.

This year — our tenth has been very difficult personally for me. My dad passed away in October. For over 50 years he worked in our family’s farm supply business. He was as passionate about the project on the last day, as he was on the first. Every day he lived the values of hard work and honest endeavour. I’m determined to keep them alive.

A milestone moment

Last year when hit the milestone of 100,000 stories shared by client’s, I had an epiphany about the true nature of communications. a thought lodged in my head and it wouldn’t budge. It was at that moment that I knew it was time to grow a new storytelling agency out of called “All Good Tales”.

So what did I discover? The previous 7 years and 100,000 headlines on fused into a single thought about how stories are created and shared. I realised that a fundamental change was taking place, as the traditional dividing lines between public relations, marketing, and advertising were blurring beyond recognition. I noticed how communications is moving away from dependence on traditional media and towards a golden age of storytelling. Our new agency will focus on creating stories driven by communications from the heart of brands and organisations. It will work on identifying what the ‘magic slice’ of attention is for brands and organisations. It’s a project that I’m as excited about as I was about starting out in 2006.

The other thing I’ve learned is that innovation and idea creation never stops. This week as we approached the 10-year milestone we were working on turning on the latest feature on — the MediaHQ newsfeed. Imagine a Facebook or LinkedIn style newsfeed focused on the media and PR industry. In one stream you will get the contacts on the move, as well as media lists, new, helpful tips and interesting articles from around the world.

I would like to leave you with 10 simple lessons I learned from the first 10 years of

  1. Always have two good ideas up your sleeve. They will keep you sane on the bad days and drive you on. It’s also a proven recipe to be happier.
  2. Trust your gut instincts. They are rarely wrong and a window into what you truly believe about what you do.
  3. Keep innovating and never follow the crowd. Keep trying to improve what you do. Never slavishly do something because “that’s how everyone else does it.” Ask yourself:

“How can we be different?”

  1. Hire talented young people and trust them. It’s also essential to support them. We now use a business coach that mentors and build confidence and ability on our teams.
  2. Be obsessive about your product. How can you make it better so that customers will love it even more?
  3. If it’s not working don’t be afraid to ditch it. Never be afraid to ask “why are we doing this again?” We have stopped doing things because they weren’t working or their time had run out.
  4. Being purposeful is more important than being busy. This will shock you but 37.5 hours is enough work in the week. Ask yourself “what of purpose will I achieve this week?” Stop talking and acting busy and be purposeful.
  5. Have a mission. What do you believe about the nature of your work? Why do you exist? If you could recite the prayer of your organisation every day what would it sound like?
  6. Give the customers permission to engage. Ask: “How could I make it easier for people to find my product or service?” and “What obstacles are in the way?”
  7. Measure like crazy. Know all your numbers and what you need to do to improve them.

Here’s to the next decade and many more.