Commercial director of Topsec Cloud Solutions Niall Mackey shares his life and business lessons.
Topsec Cloud Solutions is a major provider of managed email and web security solutions in the cloud.
The firm was started in 2002 and has grown by using the scalability of cloud-based solutions to provide best-in-class security services at an accessible price for businesses in various industries.
“As unbelievable as it sounds, religion brought me down the IT path. I was kicked out of Religious Studies for asking too many questions”
services include anti-spam, anti-virus, email security, email content filtering, sandboxing, email archiving, file sharing, and domain management.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
As unbelievable as it sounds, religion brought me down the IT path. I was kicked out of Religious Studies for asking too many questions. Then, I was given a choice to either go to the study hall or to the computer room.
Calling it a “computer room” is pushing it. This was the 80s, which meant there was one machine,one printer and three nerds. It was there I discovered Basic. I loved it immediately. I then went to WRTC (South East Technological University now) which had a really good technology programme and learned to code in RPG, COBOL and dBase 3+.
I headed off to the UK like most of my class back then (only four out of 50 stayed in Ireland).
“ was part of the team at Nokia that won a €1bn deal across Europe with one of the major global providers”
My first job was working for the Masons in the IT department of the Royal Masonic Hospital Laboratory section. The team I was part of developed the first end to end LIMS for quick clinical trial turnaround.
I also discovered that I was one of the few IT people who could talk to normal humans back then. A natural drift into management happened, where I helped teams translate management requirements into systems.
Next, I moved onto Bank of America in Richmond where we developed one of the first end to end paperless offices in the early 90s through IT innovation.
Then I had great fun working for Interoute travelling around Europe setting up / acquiring regional telecoms companies and integrating them into one seamless system across 11 countries. I learned a lot about different cultures and working styles.
Smartphones were just starting to emerge when I got the opportunity to move to Nokia. I was involved in the networks side of the business rolling out the first 3G networks and associated added value services across Europe. I was part of the team at Nokia that won a €1bn deal across Europe with one of the major global providers.
Then it was back to Ireland via Paris in the early 2000s.I had just got married, and we decided Ireland would be a better place to bring up kids rather than London or Paris.
“”Cybersecurity is in the news and it’s exciting”
I always loved sport and had horses / greyhounds in training and was approached by Horse Racing Ireland to see if I would be interested in bringing my business knowledge to the Racecourse Organisation. It was a fascinating time. Again, I learned a huge amount about how a sporting organisation and a semi-state body works – and discovered my style of working wasn’t suitable for either of us!
I moved back into the technology sphere with Topsec in the Email Security space and obviously love it because I’m still there 15 years later!
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
Cybersecurity is in the news and it’s exciting.
But as a global population, we forget that our first line of defence to keep our data safe is email security.
In no small way, incorporating email security into your cybersecurity strategy is one of the strongest ways to fortify your organisation. In fact, Deloitte has stated that “91% of all cyber attacks begin with a phishing email.”
Topsec is a managed email service provider. Our team provides an end-to-end concierge service for all email needs.
Topsec Cloud Solutions was founded in 2002. We are a proudly Irish company, with clients in Ireland, UK, Europe, Australia and the US.
Our USP is without a doubt our customer service. This is no idle boast. All of our testimonials and our net promoter scores from our clients speak of their experience in dealing with our team.
In a world increasingly turning to automation tools to service customers, Topsec combines the capabilities cloud-based solutions come with alongside real human expertise.
We know if our clients have an email security issue before they do. And we’re onto them. Not a chatbot or a queued message. One of our highly qualified engineers will take as long as is needed to resolve the issue.
“I am really curious and fascinated by everything. I also like to be organised and things to be done right, not just quick”
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
We are a rare beast in the tech sector in that all of our funding comes from our founder Emmet O’Rafferty and our funding growth comes out of our profitability so it’s a tight ship. Our growth has accelerated over the last few years, especially during Covid where our quality and timely support level was of great benefit to our clients and showed why we are different to our competitors in this space. In the last year we grew by over 50% and we have ambitious growth plans in the coming 3 years for Ireland, the UK, US and Australia.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I am really curious and fascinated by everything. I also like to be organised and things to be done right, not just quick. I really enjoy meeting people and whether you become a partner of theirs or not I always try to learn and impart something in every engagement. Even though I love technology I hate the way most meetings are now via Teams or Zoom. It’s just not the same, and I think we are losing something of value in our day to day lives.
I’m a sports nut and obviously love to compete and win but I also believe it’s all about the performance and controlling your controllables. Sometimes you don’t or can’t win but as long as you can look at yourself and see that you did everything possible in your control and try to understand the reasons you lost and learn from that. Whether that learning is to do something better / different or not to pursue a certain sector / demographic etc.. that’s hugely beneficial.
I have had a very varied career across different industries, countries and roles and one thing that has stood out to me is that business is basically the same in every industry. The end goal is the same; a smooth, efficient organisation that people enjoy working in that achieves realistic goals.
An example of this would be Topsec as our staff attrition rate is negligible, I’m there 15 years and I’m not the longest serving, some of our engineers have been there since the start and most are 10+ years.
That’s really unusual for the competitive employment tech sector in Dublin. There’s a reason for that, people like being part of a team that achieves but also treats them well, respects them and gives them good autonomy in their role and treats them like adults.
I also understand that our channel partners need to have a great experience as well if they are going to promote our solutions to their customers.
We make ourselves really easy to deal with, fantastic marketing & sales support, onboarding and ongoing support / customer success and ensure they make more margin then they would with any of our competitors. We become a high margin / low maintenance partner. What’s not to like?
These skills contribute to building the culture at Topsec where the customer genuinely comes first. No questions asked.
“Control the controllables, everything else is noise”
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
My wife Samantha has always supported whatever I chose to do with my career. She has her own career in Acupuncture and Nursing. She also did most of the heavy lifting with the kids when they were young, which allowed me to make the choices I made.
Emmet O’Rafferty, owner / chairman of Topsec, Top Security and a number of other companies has been my greatest mentor. His ability to reset and be positive and confident after a difficult period or event is incredible and inspiring. I see that trait in a lot of successful athletes and Emmet has an elite rugby background.
In the sporting world my inspiration was John McEnroe, one of the most intense competitors in the history of sport. He is someone who did it his way and evolved and adapted his career over time to now being respected as a smart, complex man.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Control the controllables, everything else is noise. You have to deal with the cards you’re dealt and there is no point in moaning about the economy, weather, sectoral issues … nobody cares. Just go out and affect what you can control to give you the best possible chance of success.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
I’ve mentioned controlling the controllables a lot. But timing is also a huge element. You can have the best widget in the world but if the market isn’t ready to support the success of that widget it won’t be successful.
Adaptability is also key. Don’t underestimate being able to pivot when your circumstances change, based on new intelligence.
Resilience is essential too. You have to believe that if you’re doing all the right things, in the right way then results will eventually follow no matter how bad things get.
Finally, I’m a believer in networking. Whether it’s getting impartial advice, business intelligence or just knowing who to approach in an organisation. The important thing to remember though is that it has to be a two way street. Most people do want to help and like the fact that someone recognises their value and the insight they can bring.
“Relaying the importance of email security is a message we constantly proclaim. It’s a challenge to get people to see how exposed they are through their inbox”
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
Business has constant challenges. Starting a business comes with its own set of challenges. Next come the scaling/growing challenges. And maintaining business in different macroeconomic environments comes with challenges too.
So challenges are constant!
Relaying the importance of email security is a message we constantly proclaim. It’s a challenge to get people to see how exposed they are through their inbox.
It’s not about doom and gloom fear-mongering. But it is about educating the population so they can fortify their digital lives.
It’s also a challenge when you know your solution is superior to your competitors but they have greater brand and marketing scale. We have to be very clever in how we engage potential clients and leverage our existing ones to show how we are different from the crowd.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
The pandemic was good for us as a business and we grew by over 50%.
It highlighted our messaging of concierge level of support.
As an organisation we were cloud-first for a long time so everyone was seamlessly able to work from home immediately. We were also able to give great support to all our customers to survive the feeding frenzy that happened in the first quarter of Covid 1.0 as we call it.
Attacks on email went up by over 600% and we ensured none of our clients were compromised. We also added some next level security offerings to further bolster our customers email defences during this tough time.
The main lesson we learned was that when the chips are down, people really do value excellent and timely service. We have a 15 minute SLA that we hit with real human beings dealing with your issues. They reward you for it afterwards through business and referrals.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Being a tech company meant we had the digital tools already in place to ensure we could grow and meet our own and our customers’ needs.
From working in a large number of countries, I actually think Irish companies are ahead of the curve when it comes to digital transformation.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Hindsight is fantastic but you have to make mistakes to learn so I wouldn’t change anything. However I have great advice now for anyone starting the journey and I’m always willing to chat if they buy me a coffee or lunch.
Who inspires you in business today?
Anyone who has the courage to leave the safety of the large organisation and go out on their own to start a new enterprise that they believe in.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
Take on as much as you can and listen as much as you can. Be a sponge, learn how to engage with people and find out how they operate. Always be curious,and seek to be involved in interesting projects. But also make sure you do the hard yards. Do all the mundane detail oriented stuff that’s delegated to you. Don’t be afraid to speak up but don’t assume you know it all either.
We nurture talent by having a very strenuous recruitment process. We nearly always get the right person and fit for our organisation as we can’t carry passengers. We give them a good structure, but also a huge amount of autonomy to make decisions and influence direction. One of my favourite things to say to them is ‘What do you think we should do?’ as too many people just wait to be told what to do and try to make every decision yours.
“In cybersecurity no one vendor has the answer. The only approach that gives you a sporting chance of long term success and security is a layered approach”
What business books do you read or would recommend?
‘Winning Ugly‘ by Brad Gilbert. Brad was an average tennis talent, but had a ridiculous work ethic and is a master of the mental game. He trained harder than everyone else and he prepared better for each match then all his opponents, he always had a tailored game plan.
His motto was recognize, analyse and capitalise. That means outthinking opponents before, during and after a match, forcing them to play your game.
Every other player hated playing him including my hero John McEnroe, there is no bigger compliment you can pay a player.
He got to No 4 in the world with a talent that was probably not top 100 and has become one of the most successful coaches, revitalising Andre Agassi’s career and most recently helping Coco Gauff become US Open champion after working with her for only a few months.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
If it’s not in my CRM then it doesn’t exist. I live by this with my tasks and calendar. If people in the organisation want to deal with me or want me to help them then they know that they have to have excellent CRM hygiene.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
LinkedIn is my social media platform of choice. It’s seen as the B2B platform and the business community we work with is active on it.
I also use WhatsApp a huge amount as well for work, friends, sport and family.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
I’m supposed to mention AI here but that’s a given. And Topsec have been doing this in our systems for years. How do you think we stop social engineering and phishing emails?!
What does concern me is the sleep walking in believing one vendor is the answer to every question.
I see it more and more in the people I engage with, and they then wonder after the fact how they were compromised.
In cybersecurity no one vendor has the answer. The only approach that gives you a sporting chance of long term success and security is a layered approach.
I’m not the first person to say this by a long way, but it’s terrifying what’s happening out there in organisations that are taking lazy advice from ‘independent’ consultants. And the vendors themselves!.
A layered approach requires more knowledge, work and sometimes, but not always, more cost. But it also makes it much harder for the bad actors to compromise you.
It’s like a burglar going past houses and if he sees a house with no alarm, no serious locks and no dogs then he will go for that over a house with a monitored alarm, good locks and a dog – a good layered defence.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Wow – it’s going to be some ride, you’re not going to remember some of it and you still haven’t grown up yet. You’re going to make some seriously bad decisions, but also a lot of good ones. You’re going to have a ton of fun, learn loads, meet some amazing people, do insane things and have a great loving family that actually get on well together after nearly 25 years.
So I wouldn’t change anything but I would say relax and enjoy it more. It turns out alright in the end, kind of!