Ennis entrepreneur Paul Montwill talks about how he built and scaled two e-commerce firms Magico and AB Commerce and saw sales rocket 250pc as the pandemic brought more SMEs online.
Magico, the implementation team and sister company to the AB Commerce platform (Analytics Based E-Commerce) has been delivering websites to Irish business since 1999. Founded by e-commerce expert CEO Paul Montwill, its headquarters are in Ennis, Co Clare.
2020 was a pivotal year for the companies with so many businesses converting their stores online during the pandemic in order to remain operational and trading. Its motto is ‘get live fast to grow fast!
“It was a scary time for the whole industry, then suddenly we saw the online revenues of our clients growing by 400pc overnight. It hasn’t stopped since”
Magico’s retail clients in the B2B and B2C spaces have reported a 250pc uplift in sales and revenue in 2020, with some in the sports and pharmacy sector achieving an impressive 500pc increase.
They represent a widely ranging client base, in a host of different industries including the pharmacy and health sector with Molloys Pharmacy and Nourish; footwear and fashion with Vaughan Shoes and Secret Fashion Fixes; construction with Heat Merchants and Tubs & Tiles; and a variety of retail outlets such as Fancy Dress Party Store and Petworld, to name but a few.
Both companies are members of Digital Business Ireland, whose inaugural awards are currently at the judging phase. AB Commerce is a finalist in the ‘Digital Impact of the Year’ category alongside An Post, Orbidal, ID-Pal and LoyLap. One of its clients, Inish Pharmacy has also been nominated in the Health, Beauty and Well-being website of the Year categories.
From Dublin to the regions
Founder Paul Montwill grew up in Dublin, went to school in Blackrock College, studied at UCD and worked at Accenture for six years as an IT Consultant/Manager.
“I then set up Magico in 1999. We were initially a web development company, at the start of the internet era. For the first few years, we developed websites across all different industries – shopping carts, real estate websites, portals, online case management systems, photo uploading websites, and many more.
“In 2005, we won the Golden Spider Awards for ‘Best Agency of the Year’, which was a major milestone. Then we changed our business to focus purely on e-commerce websites, as by that time the internet had matured and you needed to be more specialised in order to progress.”
For the next 10 years Magico focused on custom-built e-commerce websites, as there were no strong off-the-shelf e-commerce platforms in the market. “Most retailers had to forge their own way to be better than their competitors,” Montwill explained.
Divide and conquer
“In 2015, we found that retailers were moving to off-the-shelf platforms so the company was split into two – Magico became a services company, with AB Commerce focusing on the technology side. The creation of our own off the shelf platform followed, which we launched in 2018.
“Since 2018, we have implemented over 50 ecommerce websites in Ireland through AB Commerce and all are doing very well – online sales last year were up by over 200pc on average to the previous year, and clients are generating large revenues despite Covid-19.
“We plan to grow the two companies internationally over the coming years.”
Montwill explained that the creation of the off-the-shelf platform was because clients were asking him why they had to “reinvent the wheel” when they would be happy to have a website with the same functionality as the leading retailer in their industry online.
“So we stopped doing custom built websites and moved to a shared platform.
“Our unique selling point (USP) is ‘getting you live quickly and growing you quickly’’. All the technical elements are handled by us, so clients only need to talk to us each month about what they need to do to increase their revenue.”
Montwill explained that he grew both companies through self-financing and by constantly investing a portion of revenue each year back into improving the technology.
“Our clients pay us a monthly fee and part of that fee covers their contribution to ongoing development.
“What we like about our model is that everyone uses a shared platform. We make enhancements each month and don’t have to worry about some of our clients falling behind, as everyone gets free upgrades no matter what. This was an issue in previous years where different clients were on different versions of our platform. With this shared platform approach, we surpass our competitors. As our model grows, we automatically provide a better service to our clients with the passing of each month.”
The best mentors? Staff and customers
Montwill considers both his team and his clients as his business mentors. “E-commerce is a complex area and to provide an off-the-shelf platform that provides each client with a high quality, individual feel is a challenge. So, both our team and clients have worked closely together over the years, to ensure that the new functionality we add to the platform each month is configurable enough for our clients to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
“My greatest inspiration was Tony Smyth who runs Smyths Toys. We worked with him for a number of years, from 2007 when they were entering the UK market for the first time. What really impressed me was how focused he was on what differentiated Smyths Toys from their competitors and how he kept it simple. When we started working with him, the world went into recession from the banking collapse, but he persevered with his plans to grow a UK presence. Within a few years, he had gone from no UK stores to over 20. This growth continued across Europe, into the highly successful enterprise it is today.”
His biggest challenge in the early stages was a lack of commercial experience. “When I started in business, it was for the love of technology – everything we did centred around the internet being new and the ever-evolving ideas that were being introduced. Technologies became web-based, where we had previously been accustomed to a model called client-server. The project methodology was moving to agile development when we had been used to a traditional model called Waterfall methodology. These new technologies and processes were very exciting and much quicker to implement, so we were constantly delivering new solutions across many different aspects.
“However, to grow and scale beyond a certain point, like surpassing 10 employees, brings difficulties if you are not focused and don’t approach everything from a commercial perspective. You aren’t enlightened with this knowledge in school – you only learn in practice, through trial and error, which meant that we faced many challenges and stumbling blocks in our early years.”
Navigating the pandemic, Montwill said his businesses were fortunate as shopping online took off big time. “While the first two months were slow, with many of our clients closing their doors and laying off staff, it was a scary time for the whole industry, then suddenly we saw the online revenues of our clients growing by 400pc overnight. It hasn’t stopped since.”
Leading the digital transformation journey
Montwill considers both Magico and AB Commerce as leading the digital transformation journey for Irish businesses.
“We are all about digital transformation. In our sector, with the move to off-the shelf platforms in recent years, we have seen many Irish retailers and wholesalers do e-commerce brilliantly. And with the last 12 months of Covid-19 meaning that businesses became 100pc dependent on their online channels, just to survive, Irish businesses have come a long way.
“A very well received online economy has been created, allowing Irish society to continue living normally, while in lockdowns. The online economy has taken over from the offline economy temporarily, and Irish people are very happy with it. This is thanks to Irish businesses adapting so quickly to digital.”
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would have moved to an off-the-shelf product development model about 10 years earlier than we did.
Who inspires you in business?
The business owners who are in it to make improvements in society. I don’t think business owners are in it to get rich anymore, like in the old days when society did not have as many supports and you needed money just to survive. I’m starting to see many top businesspeople like Bill Gates giving some of their wealth back; this is after they had built their businesses and provided livelihoods for tenss of thousands of families along the way, through their employees.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
This is tricky, as you want to get the balance right between fresh ideas and not trying to fix things that aren’t broken. We nurture talent by working as a close team and being open to new ideas and trying them out. But we don’t break away from a base technology/knowledge base that we have built up over many years, through trial and error.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I don’t tend to read business books as I need to switch off when I’m not working. I used to read some though and two books that I found very interesting were about the early days in Google and the early days in Salesforce. Both were very inspiring.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
Google. Once I see something interesting, I can’t help but find out more about it through Google’s search engine.
By John Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published: 26 February 2021