Stuart Dempsey, founder and CEO of GamerFest, shares his life and business lessons.
Stuart Dempsey is a marketing expert with a keen sense of entrepreneurship and a creative eye. He spent 15 years in a variety of marketing and creative roles with a range of international and national brands including Papa John’s Pizza and Supermacs.
In 2017 he spotted a gap in Ireland’s gaming industry for a live gaming festival which led to the establishment of GamerFest. However, during Covid-19 as live events ceased, he used his extensive knowledge of the gaming event business to create a new online esports tournament brand named Legion Esports + Media.
“It was an extremely painful time losing a family business and it remains very raw even today”
In its first full year of trading Legion Esports attracted 3,500+ users, achieved over 100,000 live stream views and has secured commercial partnerships with An Post Money, Trust Computers and Virgin Media.
GamerFest is returning to the RDS 22 and 23 October for the first time since covid and will attract 5,000 gamers with some amazing special guests lined up including Brenda and John Romero, Dee Bee Geek, Antitinkerbell and many more.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
From my teenage years and throughout university I had a pretty clear path towards joining the family business. My father had created a very successful concrete manufacturing company here in Galway, employing 70 staff, over a period of 30 years and after graduating from NUIG in 2005 with a marketing degree I began a role initially as Marketing Executive and then Marketing Manager, enjoying every minute.
When the financial/construction crisis hit in 2008 everything changed overnight – revenues collapsed by 80% and bad debt skyrocketed. After four years of relentless stress and firefighting we were ultimately left with no option but to cease trading, with the business closing in 2012. It was an extremely painful time losing a family business and it remains very raw even today.
From there I sought to further upskill and completed a Master’s in Marketing Practices while working full time, and had a handful of marketing and brand management roles, most recently with Supermacs. Despite the previous challenges with the family business I was determined to start something myself and I felt that all the experience I had gained would give me a chance of success.
“Gaming is a great space to be in, and it’s become a key pillar of pop culture, no different than music or live sport.”
In 2017 I saw the growth of large scale gaming festivals internationally and felt there was potential for something similar in Ireland. I created the event GamerFest on a part-time basis which began to get strong traction and pursued it on a fulltime basis from 2018. We are now looking forward to GamerFest returning to the RDS this month with 5,000 visitors expected, working with great sponsors including Lucozade, Eir and McDonalds.
I also launched an e-commerce business called GamerStore.ie during the pandemic which sells gaming equipment to Irish gamers. It’s still early days but it’s growing pretty quickly.
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
It seemed fairly clear in 2017 that the gaming industry generally was on a really strong trajectory, and that’s definitely proven to be the case. Today the value of the gaming sector is more than the movie and music sectors combined.
Gaming is a great space to be in, and it’s become a key pillar of pop culture, no different than music or live sport. The gaming community are really passionate and the atmosphere at our events is always incredible, we’re really proud to have a really diverse, inclusive community.
“Keeping a focus on developing long term relationships, rather than short-term wins, is really important”
Live gaming events offer gamers the opportunity to meet up in person which is really important. If you can imagine all the incredible relationships and friendships that develop around online gaming, GamerFest then provides the opportunity to meet up in real life and have a great weekend.
I think our USP is to keep a firm focus on our community and our brand partners. We listen to our community to ensure we have the right content, games and special guests. Equally our brand partners are incredibly important to us – we work really hard to understand what the strategy and objective of a particular partner is, and we develop partnership opportunities that align with those objectives. It’s an approach that has worked well for us to date.
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
When I originally created the GamerFest brand I managed to get the website developed for €500 and from there started selling tickets. I re-invested the ticket sales into more marketing and gradually grew the events from there.
We are expecting 5,000 visitors to GamerFest this year but we are targeting 20,000 visitors in the next 24 months. We’ve just commenced discussions with a number of potential partners and investors to help achieve that kind of scale within that timeframe. We are planning to have funding in place by Q1 next year that will facilitate that level of growth.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I think the experience and skills I’ve developed over my career all lend themselves to the GamerFest business. My background is in marketing and sponsorship management, so this has been helpful in terms of both ticket marketing and sponsorship development.
“If you do a good enough job yourself, you don’t need to worry about the competition, everything will take care of itself”
Keeping a focus on developing long term relationships, rather than short-term wins, is also really important. For example we have a great relationship with the Dutch gaming company Trust Gaming. We are in the 6th year of our partnership and they have grown their involvement with GamerFest as the event has grown. Likewise with our gaming community and network of special guests, they know they can depend on GamerFest and that we will do everything we can to support them over the long term.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I think my father was my greatest inspiration. He was a natural entrepreneur who had a fantastic relationship with all stakeholders whether they be staff, suppliers or customers. He had great empathy for those around him, and despite never attending third level college he was incredibly knowledgeable on all aspects of business whether that was finance, marketing, HR, operations etc.
He was also very good to staff. There were multiple people in his company who were there more than 30 years which says it all really.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Early in my career I was obsessed with what the competition were doing. Even worse was that I sometimes had a mentality that the competition were better, almost putting them on a pedestal. Prior to setting up GamerFest I was in a meeting where someone said that if you do a good enough job yourself, you don’t need to worry about the competition, everything will take care of itself. That was a real lightbulb moment for me, and I’ve focused on myself and my business ever since.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
What I’ve learned is that sometimes success or failure can be completely out of your control and you just have to keep going, regardless if you’re in the middle of a financial crisis or a pandemic. You’ve got to persevere no matter what comes.
“GamerFest is still based at the Portershed today and I’ve loved every minute here. There’s a great atmosphere, great comradery amongst start-ups and there is a fantastic management team running the place”
Really important things that you can control include getting the right team of people around you. Business can be difficult enough with a great team. What hope have you with a poor one?
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
I think the financial pressure is well documented amongst those starting a business, particularly if you have a young family and bills to pay.
For me personally I was apprehensive about the loneliness of starting a business. It looked as if I would be running GamerFest from my home, and this was pre-pandemic when remote working was not as widespread as it is now. I had visions of working alone at the house for the most part with limited engagement with others.
Fortunately the Portershed had just opened here in Galway in 2018, which is a fabulous co-working space. I took a desk and it has been an absolute blessing. GamerFest is still based at the Portershed today and I’ve loved every minute here. There’s a great atmosphere, great comradery amongst start-ups and there is a fantastic management team running the place.
Remote working hubs are now much more widespread which is great to see, they’re a really important part of supporting the continued development of start-ups in Ireland.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
Like any live events business we faced massive challenges. It was apparent early on that the pandemic would be a long-term problem so we looked towards other avenues for the company.
First and foremost we began running online esports tournaments for games such as FIFA and Fortnite which was incredibly successful with 4,000 gamers taking part. We also secured some great sponsor partnerships including An Post Money and Virgin Media so this helped us navigate the pandemic while also staying engaged with our community. We had gamers participating in or tournaments from as far away as Iraq.
“It was a steep learning curve but the team here pulled it off incredibly well with over 100,000 viewers enjoying our live esports content”
We also created the e-commerce brand GamerStore.ie We had a relationship with many of the gaming companies that manufacture gaming monitors, headsets, keyboards etc. so we began selling this equipment to our audience. As you can imagine there was huge demand for gaming equipment during lockdown so this is a business that has grown really quickly for us. There are also natural synergies with our live events business, for example at GamerFest this year visitors will also see a significant GamerStore.ie stand selling the latest gaming products.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Operating in the gaming space is very much digital and tech focused so it’s really been a part of our business from the outset, though we are constantly challenged to evolve and move with digital trends. When we ran our online esports tournaments during Covid, for example, we streamed all of those games live on the streaming platform Twitch. It was quite the undertaking and not dissimilar to a traditional sports production.
“I say the most important thing is to be yourself and put your stamp on things. After that it’s about providing them the resources and platform for them to excel”
We had commentators, producers, video editors and special guests all working remotely and we had to co-ordinate the live broadcast for our audience. It was a steep learning curve but the team here pulled it off incredibly well with over 100,000 viewers enjoying our live esports content.
In terms of Irish firms generally my sense is that digital transformation is taking place, but the pace of change can sometimes depends on the sector.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Generally speaking I definitely try to look forward at all times. I’ve made a couple of errors in terms of choosing business partners but it’s all a learning experience.
Who inspires you in business today?
Willy Walsh at British Airways and Bob Iger at Disney are both leaders that I admire, though both have recently retired!
Willy Walsh did an incredible job at BA, it was an almost impossible role when he took it but he managed to transform that business and subsequently created IAG, combining a number of global airlines to create a really robust group of companies.
Bob Iger did something similar at Disney, assuming control when the company was a particularly low eb. Amongst his achievements he successfully acquired Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel and brought them under the Disney umbrella, all hugely successful acquisitions. He also oversaw the development of Disney+ just prior to the pandemic which has also proven to be another hugely successful move.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
I say the most important thing is to be yourself and put your stamp on things. After that it’s about providing them the resources and platform for them to excel.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I’ve always struggled with business theory books on management / leadership etc. I vividly remember learning about management principles of Drucker and Porter in university but it just never captured my imagination.
I much prefer to read business biographies which provide much more insight into the realities of business. The last great book I read was Bob Iger’s Ride of a Lifetime, I would highly recommend it.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
I use a good app called Evernote to keep track of notes and important information. It’s very handy and easy to use.
After that my calendar and email are really important obviously. On the whole I try not to get bogged down in too many tech solutions, sometimes I feel we are reaching saturation point with technology tools.
I’ve also retained a number of apps on my laptop but removed them from my phone – if it’s important or urgent enough I’ll pull out the laptop.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
LinkedIn is very good for networking, particularly international networking which is important in the gaming space. It’s also good for making occasional announcements to keep stakeholders updated on developments within the business.
I used to browse Twitter a lot, though never really posted / tweeted content. More recently though I’ve removed it from my phone as it was becoming a distraction, and as a parent I’m trying to set a good example by not staring at my phone 24-7. I’ve even resorted to putting the phone in a drawer when I get home, it seems to stop me constantly reaching for it…
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
Overall I have reservations about the direction of technology, particularly its impact on young people. Everything seems to revolve around smartphones – sometimes young people will send a WhatsApp to a friend at the same table rather than talk to them, and that can’t be good. I’m definitely concerned what things will be like in 15 years’ time. That probably sounds a bit hypocritical from someone in the gaming space but balance is key in terms of using technology & social media but also having a healthy, outgoing life.
On the flipside, from a business perspective, as a company we need to continually keep abreast of technology in the search of a competitive advantage. Particularly in gaming and gaming events technology is more important than ever. At GamerFest we will have close to 150 gaming consoles and PCs that all require network and broadband. We will also be live streaming the event to our international audience. So all of these things keep technology front and centre for us.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Buy more crypto.