Starting his own business wasn’t part of any great master plan, but Darragh Richardson has embraced his new path since co-founding Agile Networks, following a management buyout of the Irish operations of Telindus in 2011. Since then, company revenue has grown by an average of €2m a year and won numerous awards, while Richardson was a finalist last year of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year.
About Darragh Richardson
Tell us about your education and early career
I did my undergrad degree in business studies in DCU and followed that with an MBS in strategic international marketing in what was then the very new Smurfit School. As soon as I’d finished – with a first, much to my surprise – I went back to DCU to lecture in marketing for next four years.
Then I was pushed out into the real world and I spent the next 11 years in the UK working for a number of multinationals, including Datatec, 3Com and ICT services and solutions company, Telindus.
After a couple of years with Telindus in the UK, the company sent me back to Dublin in 2007 to set up an Irish operation.
How did that lead to the management buyout?
We got the business up and running operationally but the next three years were really difficult, as they were for almost everybody else. So it wasn’t going terribly well. The business was at a point where we needed to either cut it back and manage it remotely or try to expand in Ireland. The company decided to expand and to hire some extra sales people.
Six months later and three days after my second child was born, the bosses came over for a review and told us they were going to shut down the Irish operation.
There were six of us in Dublin and three in Belfast at that stage and we were offered jobs back in the UK. But I had no intention of moving back to the UK. So I sat down with the other five guys and told them I thought there was a business here but we needed to do things differently. I was hoping a few would join me in the business, but they were all up for it and all wanted to know how they could invest in it. They’ve all become shareholders since then.
That was July 2011. By November, Agile Networks had opened in the same building with the same people and we had seven customers that we had brought over.
We had lost something like €1.3m in the previous two years and in our first year we broke even. We grew the turnover from €900,000 to €2.3m in our first year, then to €4.7m in our second and €7.5m in our third. We’ve just finished our fourth year and that’s going to be €9.6m. Headcount has also increased to 21 people.
What does the company do?
We’re a specialist network integrator for customers that would typically be larger companies with at least 200 employees. Put simply we design, build and support customer IT networks – so connecting workers to their applications, the data centre and to each other through wired or wireless networks. In the last four years we’ve grown effectively from start-up to being the largest independent integrator in Ireland with over 1.8 million people relying on a network supported by us every day.
What are the next steps for Agile Networks?
We’ve been growing very well in Ireland and we don’t see any glass ceiling here yet. Having said that, we are looking to partner with bigger providers on larger opportunities where we would become their networking arm as part of a broader bid.
We’re also developing our own intellectual property around managed services, where we’re providing our own independent monitoring tools to keep customers’ networks healthy, make sure they’re always on and predict problems before they occur.
We already work with a number of partners in the US where we try to capture transatlantic business. That’s how we would see ourselves expanding into America. But we are also looking at nearer markets like the UK. It is on our agenda, but it’s likely to happen when the right opportunity arrives. And we have loads to keep ourselves busy here.
Tell us about some of the company’s achievements to date
We’ve won 17 awards since we started, including various vendor awards. In the Tech Excellence Awards, we won Startup of the Year 2013 and Reseller of the Year in 2014 and 2015. We’ve won the Grand Prix at the Bank of Ireland Startup Awards and Emerging New Business 2014 at the Small Firms Association Awards.
But the big one was being a finalist in the Emerging category in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015. All the awards have added to our story and our brand recognition, but the EY one is at a different scale. There are so many different stages to the programme and I found it massively beneficial. And then, when it’s finished, you become part of the alumni club and you have access to this incredible network of people.
Was it always your plan to set up a company?
No, I’d actually describe myself as an accidental entrepreneur. I worked for multinationals for 12 or 13 years and never saw myself becoming an entrepreneur.
But, looking back, there were certain behaviours that made it more likely that I’d end up running my own business. I’m not great at taking advice from other people, I’m a bit stubborn, I don’t take no for an answer and I do have very fixed views on what works and what doesn’t work. And I suppose I always want to do more and have never been satisfied with second best.
0ur vision for Agile Networks from the start was that if you have a relatively small number of relatively talented engineers supporting a relatively small number of relatively large customers, you can give them the kind of experience that the really big guys can’t give. That’s really what’s behind the business.
What is your philosophy in business and life?
I think your philosophy or bias in your professional life is driven by where you started out. If you began as an engineer or an accountant or, as in my case, a marketing person, it’ll influence very heavily what you do, no matter where you end up later on in your career. So, for me, it’s very much about customer satisfaction and customer orientation, finding out what they want and finding a way to deliver against that.
We’re not looking to be the largest company in the world, but we do want to be the best.
What is your leadership style?
It comes back to your foundation. My first job was in academia lecturing to intelligent undergrad and postgraduate students. I learnt very quickly that if you sat up at the top of the lecture theatre and talked down at people for two hours, they’d stop listening to you after a while. My job was to set up an environment where they would learn so I changed the curriculum around to people coming up and presenting what they were learning.
That style worked very well for me when I was lecturing and it’s what I’ve brought through in my career. I’m not really a top-down, hierarchical kind of person. In Agile, there are two people who manage and everybody else reports into one of those two people so it’s a really flat structure. That’s my style. Your job as a leader is to enable people to learn, to give them the tools they need to succeed in their jobs, and to let them at it.
What are your tips and advice for success?
What worked very well for me was being able to make an awful lot of mistakes on somebody else’s payroll. I was very fortunate to work for three big companies and I saw things that worked well but I also learned a lot of lessons along the way. If I’d started my business at 24, it would have been an absolute disaster.
So, my advice would be to learn from early jobs and placements, register those lessons and remember them so that when you do start a business you have them baked hard into your DNA.
I also think the people you have around you, particularly in the early days, will either make or break you. If you’re fortunate enough, like I am, to have brilliant people with you from the start, you will make it.
Who or what are your influences?
I was never really inspired by working for a brilliant boss. In my career, I kept waiting to get a manager who was going to be brilliant. Eventually, when I got into management teams I got behind the magic curtain to discover they were just a bunch of regular people, struggling with the same things as the people out on the shop floor. So I learnt not to wait for other people to inspire you. It comes down to you.
But yes, there are business people who I would admire more. For example, I think what Fergal Quinn did in terms of quality of service and what he was trying to do in the retail environment was ahead of everyone else and he built up a fantastic brand.
What are your interests outside work?
I have a youngish family – they’re seven, four and two – so that takes up a reasonable percentage of my spare time. I’m actively involved in rugby with our local team Suttonians and with Leinster. I pretend to play golf with my Dad but it’s just an excuse to hang out with him on a Sunday morning. I’m not a good golfer but I enjoy getting out and having a bit of fresh air. And I follow the political world quite closely.
What are your plans for the future?
We’ve grown a really successful business quicker than we thought we would. Hopefully, we’re going to keep growing.
But in IT nothing stays the same. We might see something attractive out there and we might make an acquisition. We might look at expanding geographically. Or somebody could come knocking on my door.
What I’ve learnt is, never say never in this industry. What I’m 100pc sure of is that we won’t be in the same office in five years time. We’ll either have outgrown it, we’ll be out of business or we’ll be part of somebody else.