Location intelligence firm Gamma has been changing the landscape of business. Here, CEO Feargal O’Neill maps out his journey in business.
What is your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
Following a childhood in lovely Howth, where I grew up with nature around me, I studied Geography and Economics at Trinity in Dublin. I then completed a Masters in Regional and Urban Planning in University College Dublin and Herriot Watt, Edinburgh. After my Masters, I worked in planning consultancy for a short spell, but was then offered a job in a campus start-up that had been recently set up by one of my old Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lecturers at Trinity. The company was called Gamma.
“We tend to inflate the significance of our working lives in our own minds. In reality, it’s our relationships with family and friends, our principles, and the good we leave behind that truly defines our success”
Over the years, we built up our reputation and actually became the first company to develop and deliver location intelligence solutions to the private sector in Ireland. 27 years later, I’m still here – albeit as CEO following a management buyout with a colleague in the late 90s. We’ve since been founders in other companies together, including Bizmaps (now known as Autoaddress, the leading supplier of Eircode address solutions) and BERWOW (a deep retrofit technology company).
Since the age of 14, I’ve worked in some shape or form. At that age, it was all part-time and seasonal work, but these roles really helped me to develop character and get some great experience. As the years went by, I ended up with quite the CV – including seven years in the family pub, working in the college bar, doing security, painting, industrial cleaning, making BMWs in Germany, stacking shelves for Dunnes and Switzers, and (one of my more unusual jobs) selling aftershave and perfume office-to-office in Toronto. Well, a boy has to eat!
“Tenacity can make a big difference. Most people fail because they give up on their dreams or plans too easily. My advice is to keep at it, but change course along the path if your path isn’t working”
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
From the very first time I saw GIS systems and their ability to overlay maps to create new insights, I was hooked. I thought it was the most incredible thing. I’ve dedicated my working life to the application of location intelligence (or location analysis, GIS, spatial analysis – I’m not quite sure what the current trendy term is) to help solve business and global environmental problems.
Our development, data science and consulting teams at Gamma address real problems by analysing data based on its location. These problems range from helping insurers understand the true risk of environmental damage at any property location to helping retailers decide where to put their next store or plan their store networks to better serve the ever-changing market.
We develop cloud native solutions with maps and often address entry components across a range of sectors including government, advertising, telecoms, banking and distribution. In fact, we can apply what we do for any customer that has an idea that involves using location analysis or maps. Sometimes we deliver a system or a service. Other times, it’s creating a model using Artificial Intelligence (AI) or a dataset. Then there are occasions when it’s all three. Whatever we deliver, our aim is to provide high-quality data which helps to solve problems, lower risk and inform business decisions.
If you ask me, our USP is our world-class ability to create cloud-based location intelligent solutions and services, underpinned by significant data models and geocoding expertise. If you asked our clients, I’d hope they’d say that we deliver a reliable, trustworthy service and take an innovative approach to their unique challenges, drawing from our experience in many sectors and markets.
“I think my early life working in family businesses and part-time jobs set me on a path to be entrepreneurial and helped me understand people from all backgrounds and with different personality types”
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
For years, we self-funded through reinvesting our profits in Research & Development (R&D), as well as business growth. We’ve been assisted along the way by Enterprise Ireland and EU grant aid, and more recently by government-backed bank loans. However, we’ve yet to take on external venture capital.
We entered the UK market in 2020 and are steadily growing our presence there. Last year, we opened an office in Manchester. This year, the focus will be adding to our customer base in the UK and then expanding into other markets from 2023 onwards. As for Ireland, we plan to diversify our offering to move into some new sectors, leveraging our AddressLink data and models.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I am creative – possibly too creative, which can make concentrating on one thing difficult. But I’m good at identifying new opportunities and direction for R&D and I bring an innovative or inventive energy to the team – most of the time! I’m also fair and honest, and I don’t think any of my former employees or clients would contest that.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I think my early life working in family businesses and part-time jobs set me on a path to be entrepreneurial and helped me understand people from all backgrounds and with different personality types. This is really useful in business. With regards to mentors, I would say my first boss at Gamma, Paul Mills, was great and really developed my knowledge and appreciation of GIS, as well as what it takes to run a small business. I’d include my business partner too, Pat Donnelly. He’s a useful fellow to bounce ideas off and working together as joint CEOs for many years made life both easier and more difficult in equal measures.
“When the pandemic hit, I made sure that my staff were looked after, that they felt reassured and were set up properly to work from home”
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
We tend to inflate the significance of our working lives in our own minds. In reality, it’s our relationships with family and friends, our principles, and the good we leave behind that truly defines our success – not how many photocopiers we shifted. A dear departed friend taught me that.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
Tenacity can make a big difference. Most people fail because they give up on their dreams or plans too easily. My advice is to keep at it, but change course along the path if your path isn’t working. Eventually you’ll find success. It’s also important to recognise what success means for you too. For some, success is financial gain, but I think its happiness through being fulfilled and having a good work-life balance.
“I would tell my 21-year-old self to find something that you can be the best at globally and grow quickly. I’d also say don’t fret the small stuff and make sure you have fun too. Oh, and buy Apple shares!”
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
Sales and cashflow proved challenging at the start. Getting the first few customers to believe in and take a chance on your product is always difficult, but very rewarding when it works out. It gets easier when you become the market leader, like Gamma has. The thing with cashflow is that it always has the potential to turn you from “promising start-up” to “unfortunate lesson”, so making sure that you are funded enough to become established is critical.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
Firstly, I made sure that my staff were looked after, that they felt reassured and were set up properly to work from home. As a cloud-native technology company, that was fairly easy as all of our technology is cloud-based and we were up to 100% operationally by the end of March 2020. We haven’t gone back to the office since and our performance metrics have shown that we were more productive working remotely than from the office, which is an interesting thing to consider now that workers are slowly returning to workplaces.
To ensure we could ride out the storm if our cashflow was impacted, I sought every Government aid and loan offer that we were eligible for. We were fortunate that our clients kept operating during Covid-19 and it was largely business as usual. However, there were quite a few proposed new pieces of work that were put on hold. While these impacted us financially, we survived and kicked on again in 2021, which turned out to be a good year for us.
In terms of lessons, we’ve learned that we can work remotely – very well. In some ways, it’s easier when you are trying to grow into new international markets, as you don’t have to commute over and back all the time. It became acceptable to pitch over Teams and I think it will remain that way. Being able to hold meetings online was a great leveller in terms of competing with local providers in the UK. I’ve also learned that we have a great team in Gamma who are resilient, adaptable and quite brilliant technically.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
As a cloud native technology company, digital transformation has been everything to us in scaling the business. Especially as we grow in new export markets, it becomes more and more significant. Our new all-Ireland address database technology AddressLink, our APIs and our other web applications (Perilfinder and Storecast) enable our clients’ own transformations. I think Irish companies have embraced digital well and most sectors are nimble enough to adapt when it’s beneficial.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would expand internationally sooner. We spent many years focusing only on Ireland, not realising that we were ahead of the game globally. I would scale quicker and probably develop a solution for a larger country first (such as the UK or the US). It’s often only the same effort to develop a technical product for a large country as it is for a small country like Ireland, so looking back, I would start bigger and bolder.
Who inspires you in business today?
There’s so many to admire, I can’t possibly pick one. In general, I’m inspired by the visionaries who invent, who dream, who disrupt and who leave something substantially beneficial to mankind in their wake. With Gamma, I’d like to think our contribution with BERWOW and AddressLink will leave a positive and lasting effect in the face of climate change.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
I’m not a fan of social media in my personal life – I don’t use Facebook or Instagram and I don’t tweet either. I like to use social media for business purposes, so I use LinkedIn a lot. I find that it’s invaluable for keeping in touch with the business community and sharing work related ideas or news.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
Our planet’s greatest challenge for the future is climate change adaptation and mitigation. Technology will be a big part of this and there will be significant impacts both in terms of finding technical solutions to assist these challenges and in reducing the carbon impact of technology itself. At Gamma, we’re already involved in helping our clients assess climate change risk, and in helping homeowners identify their carbon footprint. We are constantly researching and updating our proprietary databases and one example is AddressLink. The AddressLink database will help researchers identify and measure the potential impact of climate change on homes and businesses on the Island of Ireland. In turn, this will allow them to make better informed decisions and take effective actions. It’s clear that climate change is the next big battle and we are excited to be on the frontline.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
I would tell my 21-year-old self to find something that you can be the best at globally and grow quickly. I’d also say don’t fret the small stuff and make sure you have fun too. Oh, and buy Apple shares!