Dublin business Mail Metrics has acquired two businesses in Ireland and the UK and now has its sights set on North America. A finalist in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards, CEO and co-founder Nick Keegan expands on setting goals and following the business plan.
There is something about Mail Metrics’ CEO Nick Keegan that just screams “persistence pays off.” The finalist in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards 2023 in the international category has demonstrated over his career that sticking to what you intend to do gets you the results eventually, although not often in the way or the timeline you first expected.
For three years’ running he made it to the top 30 of candidates for the Irish Army’s annual cadets intake of only 20 cadet places. He eventually achieved his ambition of becoming a commissioned officer in the Army by joining the Reserve. But his crowning achievement as an entrepreneur has been to stay the course for years, despite burning through venture capital funding and having tried every avenue only for, when all seemed lost, a single customer to finally bite which served as a turning point for his firms’ global success today.
“We ultimately believe this can be a €1bn turnover business. It took me a while to get comfortable saying that. We can see this happening through our acquisition strategy”
This year Keegan joins a cohort of 29 people representing 24 companies who are on the shortlist for the 2023 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards employ 5,000 people and generate revenues of more than €700m per annum. The overall winners will represent Ireland at the World Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in June 2024.
His business Mail Metrics provides outsourced customer communications to organisations such as financial institutions, government and utility businesses.
Power of positive thinking
After clinching the vital first customer he and his co-founders managed to scale Mail Metrics at pace and in 2021 this scale was accelerated through the acquisitions of two businesses, Dublin secure printing and document management firm Persona and Scotland and Northern Ireland firm Forth Communication. The acquisitions of majority shares in the business added €12m in annual recurring revenue at the time and grew the firm’s headcount significantly.
Today Mail Metrics is on the verge of further acquisitions that will take the business into the North American market for secure customer communications.
Keegan began the business in 2016 with the vision of creating a kind of secure digital mailbox where consumers could keep all of their bills in one place. “We did the whole dog and pony show. We went to Enterprise Ireland and got HPSU (High Potential Start-up) funding, raised €700,000 from venture capitalists and angel investors and we launched to great fanfare. It was a total flop.
“We failed. It was because it was like a chicken and egg scenario. We needed service providers to get on board to provide the bills and statements. We needed users to get on board to generate demand. But the service providers wanted to know how many users we’d got and the users wanted to know who was on board. Critically, the big mistake we made was to focus on the consumer problem. So for the first three years of the businesses we had no customers, no revenues.”
A pivot was on the cards towards secure communications for service providers and the decision was made to reduce the team down to Keegan, his co-founders and a few software developers.
The money had almost run out and Keegan and his fellow founders were about to call it a day when one day the phone rang. It was an insurance business they had pitched to a year-and-a-half earlier who had decided that Mail Metrics was the solution to a problem they had: that the only communication with customers was by letter and there was an urgency to digitally transform.
Mail Metrics whirred into action. It build an MVP (minimal viable product) and tendered for the contract. It landed the business and this provided the leverage and runway to win more big customers who needed a secure, digital and physical way to communicate with customers.
“Our sweet spot was helping businesses highly regulated businesses like banks and insurance firms that had a problem with the amount of paper that was going through the organisation and wanted to digitise all of their customer processes. The crucial thing is we powered multi-channel communications in high volumes.”
Because of the success of that initial customer’s onboarding, Mail Metrics was able to go with a proven case study to other financial services providers and the business managed to grow organically.
But when you consider initial success was three years in the making, Keegan and his fellow founders wasted no time in catching up and scaling up.
“I had the idea that we could potentially supplement our organic growth through acquisition. We realised that organic growth was great but it was slow. And because our customers are highly regulated financial services companies, they don’t move as quickly to sign up. These businesses are traditionally risk-averse and so our sales cycle could be 18 to 36 months. We had a good pipeline but one of the other obstacles facing these businesses is the highly-regulated nature of what they do and because we’re an outsourced provider, regulatory approvals are required.
“So we had a printing partner in Dublin that would look after the printing fulfilment for us and we realised that this partner actually had all of the customers that we wanted access to and they’d been around for decades. Their future lay in software and that’s what we were doing. So we entered negotiations.”
While that was happening Keegan applied the learnings he made from the negotiations as a kind of synergy for a second acquisition of a UK business.
“Both of them were reverse-takeovers for want of a better description.”
The acquisitions were initially funded by venture debt and subsequently Bank of Ireland came on board as a partner.
“Bank of Ireland has backed us ever since. What has really worked well is the partnership approach they have and this has really been the wind beneath our sails. In the same way you can tell your business partner everything, the same dynamic works with the bank. It has been great because we now have the confidence that when we’re looking at these deals that we have a partner who will help us and understands the parameters involved.”
The focus now is on international scale. “The challenge in our business with organic growth is that if we landed three customers a year, that would be an average year. These are large, multi-year contracts. Customer retention is king. It’s a competitive environment but once we’re on board we stick with a customer. We’ve never, ever, lost a customer.”
Keegan says that an additional ace up Mail Metrics’ sleeve is it’s ability to work with legacy systems of various financial service providers who are also all in the transition to newer digital systems.
“We’ve developed APIs that mean that when we link with these systems there’s no massive integration required. This is precisely why we’ve done well in financial services but also in industries like telecoms and utilities. We understand the complexity involved but we’ve developed technology that makes this less complicated.”
In 2019, when Mail Metrics landed its first customer contract there were only five people in the business. This year the business is approaching 150 staff.
Having endured the long slog to landing the first customer, Keegan admits he draws on the same levels of resilience and focus that saw him gain his earlier military rank.
And, as the business scales exponentially into a trans-Atlantic entity through acquisition, he needs to be on point. He says there are a lot of parallels between the military and business, although it doesn’t look like that on first glance. Crucially, in both senses you need to be organised.
“As an army officer, when you are setting a goal or an objective you need to drive a group of people towards, often in very difficult circumstances, you don’t always have the full picture and you don’t have all the information to hand. But you still need to be able to adapt and overcome and to do that you have to motivate people who sometimes they may not want to be there because things aren’t going very well. If you were to just overlay that exact comment into the business world that would be perfectly analogous.
“We’ve been very lucky. We’ve got a great team who are excellent. We have a site in Dublin and Bangor in Northern Ireland as well as people in Edinburgh and about 40 members of our tech team in Poland.
“We’ve a great leadership team and when you have grown at the rate that we have in just a few years having a team of leaders working around me who can manage their own functions means I don’t have to worry any more about the day-to-day mechanics.”
That strength of leadership team has allowed Keegan to devise new avenues and mastermind future acquisitions, this time in other geographies.
“We’ve had lots of challenges with scaling but running out of money or having no customers in the early days gives you perspective. I don’t take anything for granted. While it’s been challenging there’s a great positive vibe about the place and everybody’s really excited about the pace of growth and where we can go with the business.”
Joining the EY Entrepreneur of the Year network has already been rewarding for Keegan who joined alumni earlier this year a retreat in Singapore. He says it is a real fellowship. “Just being able to talk on a level with a group of people who’ve been there and done that and who add value by just sharing their experiences has been amazing. There are no egos. Everybody is open and willing to share and be vulnerable.”
Keegan said that in 2019 Mail Metrics achieved its first €1m in sales. Last year it would have finished the year with €20m in revenues. Keegan says the business has strong profit margins, which it doesn’t disclose for competitive and negotiating purposes, but by sticking to a business plan written in 2019, the company has kept its scaling pace and knows where it is going.
“We ultimately believe this can be a €1bn turnover business. It took me a while to get comfortable saying that. We can see this happening through our acquisition strategy. We have found a really interesting approach to feeding our customer acquisition pipeline and it’s exceptionally scaleable.
“We formed our business plan in 2019 and we’ve pretty much done everything we said we’d do.
“Our business was massively profitable but because we were bootstrapping the business we knew that we couldn’t get customers into the pipeline fast enough because of the nature of those industries. We have built a business plan around acquiring partners and that took off in 2021 when we made our first acquisitions. Hiring a good CFO was instrumental in navigating these acquisitions and we have a formula that works.
“The plan now is to double down on that formula because this one lever will allow us to really scale.”