Former Dublin football player – and All-Ireland medal winner – James Brogan qualified as a Solicitor and practised for a couple of years before setting up his first company, a sports marketing agency, with his cousin, Bernard Brogan. He’s now CEO of their second venture – PepTalk, a team-building technology platform they developed – and based in its recently opened New York office.
About James Brogan
Tell us a bit about your education and early career
I went to St Declan’s CBS in Cabra, where my dad and all my cousins and family went to school. It’s a big GAA school but I got a great academic grounding too. Sport was a big part of my life and my family’s life and helped me in so many ways. In particular you get a lot of life lessons from sport. You lose, you have injuries, you’re not selected for the team and you learn how to interact with team-mates. I had a lot of injury setbacks through my career and I think this did help me develop build resilience and the ability to deal with setbacks. This is a key trait for business and for life!
I did a BComm in UCD and got to spend a few months in Calgary in Canada as part of my degree, which I really enjoyed. It was very cold though – minus 30C. Back in Dublin I got a summer job in a law firm and they asked if I’d be interested in doing the solicitors’ entrance exam. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college so I said yes. I spent a couple of years doing the exams and then did an apprenticeship at Gartlan & Furey, a commercial banking firm. I had a passion for sport and an academic qualification in law so I thought about doing something in sports law. When I qualified in 2012 I did an Online Diploma in Sports Law from Du Montfort University in the UK.
Then I practised for about a year before setting up – on the side – what started as a sports sponsorship agency called Legacy with my cousin Bernard Brogan. Bernard was a chartered accountant, I was a solicitor and we had a decent network of sports contacts. I’d already been looking after his commercial stuff for a while and doing that for one or two other players on the Dublin football team too.
I was playing a little bit with the Dublin team and Dublin as a commercial brand was beginning to expand its horizons. I got involved with a couple of projects that exposed me to brands interested in working with sports organisations and sponsorship ended up being a very natural fit for us. We probably had a bit of creative flair that we didn’t know we had as a legal person and an accountancy person.
I was starting to realise I wasn’t brilliant in a very structured environment, which is kind of the bedrock on which law is built. I was introduced to Fran O’Reilly, a Career Coach who was working with the Gaelic Players Association, and did a number of sessions with him at a time when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. His idea when you’re trying to move into something else is to work in your day job from 9 to 5 and spend the rest of the time focusing on what you want to do in the future. So, while I was making the transition, I did my job and in the evenings went to talk to people, did my own research and worked on some of the things I was thinking about. I was so energised and excited.
In early 2014 I went into the business full time and we pushed the agency forward and brought in new people, including Kevin Moore who’s now running the company day-to-day and has been instrumental in building out the team. We’re now one of the larger marketing agencies in Ireland, and we’re independent. We’re very proud of where it’s gone to from a fairly basic start.
Meanwhile, Bernard was still part of probably the greatest team ever to play GAA and was being asked a lot by senior leaders in organisations about culture and leadership development and creating great teams. We started to think there was business potential in this but we decided that if we were going to run with it we were going to do it big and we’d use technology. So, with Michelle Fogarty we started PepTalk, a technology company that’s focused on helping companies build culture, understand morale and design behavioural change programmes built through the platform we have developed. We have in recent months been focusing in the US on the construction sector and that has been getting great traction. We opened a US office at the beginning of this year and I’ve recently moved to New York to manage things here.
What is your role?
I’m the CEO of PepTalk. My focus is on working with our team of about 20 people and developing and implementing our strategy. In the US I’ve been quite focused on building our network, business development and bringing in new customers. As the company evolves my role is changing all the time. For example, I’m doing a bit more sales than I was back in Ireland. I enjoy the entrepreneurial piece and the sense that every day is a little bit different.
What motivates you?
From a personal perspective, I have two young kids and a very supportive wife. Being able to keep them front and centre is very important to me. What gets me up in the morning is trying to build something that allows me to provide and create the right environment to hopefully give lots of opportunities to my kids and to have a journey with my family.
Outside of that, I like working with people. I enjoy unlocking their potential and solving problems. I’m motivated by working in a team and delivering for other people in that team.
Lastly, I do enjoy the creative side to this. I enjoy starting things and creating something new in the world. And I’m very happy to be in a space that really does have an impact in terms of helping people feel better about their work environment. What we’re doing is making a positive impact in the world.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I like to think I’m very collaborative. Ultimately, the success of any business isn’t going to be down to one person. It has to be a team game. And what I’ve learned from lived experience is the power of a team. My role is about collaboration, communication and creating a supportive environment where people can come up with ideas. We talk a lot about psychological safety – the idea that you can express an opinion without being shot down.
But after the collaboration and communication there is a time where we need to make decisions and I’m happy to do that and push things forward.
Who or what has influenced or inspired you?
I have definitely had some important people on the journey with me. I’ve mentioned Fran O’Reilly who had a big impact in that development phase. Bernard, who I work with day-to-day is someone I’d lean into. He’s a guy who’s bubbly, he’s a great personality. And you need those people around you. And I have three or four mentors and advisors who I talk to every quarter or so. These include our PepTalk chairman Larry Quinn, who’s been a very successful entrepreneur. Having a few people who’ve been there, done that and worn the t-shirt to be able to knock some ideas around is great. I’m also part of a number of different leadership development groups. As you evolve you need to try to meet new people with new ideas. I think it’s a good idea to always be trying to refresh who you’re collaborating with to push you to get to that next step.
Is ongoing learning important?
I had no background in marketing and I set up a marketing company. I’d no background in technology and I’ve established a technology company. So, I’m learning all the time. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to get out of the law without a fairly big appetite to learn. My career has been one of lifelong learning. I’ve had to learn on the fly.
What career advice would you give?
I think anyone trying to develop their career needs to have a real thirst to learn and a genuine interest in what they’re doing. Very early on, I did an interview for an apprenticeship in a solicitors’ firm and the partner asked me if I read the newspaper. I replied that I read the sport section. At the time I wasn’t reading the business section so I had no idea what was happening in the world. That was a real wake up moment for me. I realised if I was going to work in law I had to understand what’s happening in the world.
You need to take your qualifications and build on them but you also need to marry up with what’s happening in the world. If you want a career in a particular industry you’ve got to understand the industry. And that’ll mark you out as someone who’s interested and has an appetite and is not just looking at it as a career. I started reading the business pages in the newspaper after that interview and it opened a whole area of interest and new horizons that I never knew about before.
Another thing is to network, go to events and talk to people. My career has been propelled by relationships. It’s important to build a network of people around you who ultimately want to help you. I would also say, you don’t have stick with something forever if it’s really not for you. And sometimes go to people other than parents for advice if you are thinking of changing. They’re usually more interested in making sure you’re financially safe and secure than encouraging you to take a chance.
What is your biggest achievement?
I have two gorgeous, healthy young boys (Noah and Zach) who are four and two. And I’ve a very supportive wife, Niamh, who is a nurse St James’ Hospital and has joined me on this adventure. My number one achievement is having a very supportive family to go on this journey with me.
Professionally, I’m very proud of taking the first step and trying something different, because I think that first step is the hardest. It’s brilliant to be here and to see how the businesses have grown and who knows where they’ll get to in the future. But the biggest thing was just starting and getting out of a career that I wasn’t sure I wanted to do.
What is your plan going forward?
We’ve just moved our business into the US so it’s really about focusing on trying to get established here and building the business on a daily and weekly basis. If we make the right decisions day-to-day we’ll start to achieve some of the broader ambitions we have in terms of extending our customer base here and everything will follow on from that. I personally feel I have a lot of work to do to build this business and become a better CEO and a better leader.
I would also like to be able to continue to try to pay it back down by spending more time helping the next generation of leaders come through and build their businesses. Hopefully, in three or five years’ time I’ll be able to sit down with people in Dublin and chat about what we did and the mistakes we made and they’ll be able to learn from that and maybe be inspired to go on their own journey, and into the US in particular.
How has your degree benefited your career and/or personal life?
It was a super introduction into the world of business and to meet different people from different backgrounds all with different ideas and ambitions. It gives you confidence to go out and explore even if you’re not sure of the final destination.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Quinn School?
It’s funny, we did some great projects on different companies and regions and I made some super friends but I remember how amazing it was that you needed a laptop at the time to be part of Commerce. This was unique at the time; all our notes and lessons, etc, were digital and I guess it set the tone for how progressive the course and college was!
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
Really important, even more so now that I am based in the US. I have been lucky enough to connect in with some other alumni over the last few months.
What are your main interests outside work?
Outside of family time it would be music, movies and sport.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
What is your pet hate?
What is your favourite band?
What is your favourite dish to cook?
What teams do you support?
Dublin, Man United and more recently the NYC Jets.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Westport, Co Mayo! Super town, we used to go there regularly and now that I am in the US I think places like that at home become even more special!
Where is home and why?
Dublin will always be home, proud to be from there and have great memories of supporting the team.