OpenJaw Technologies: Online solution paves way for sale

“Our view was always to build something of value and, if you do that, the exit would take care of itself.”

John McQuillan is a co-founder of OpenJaw Technologies, a company that develops software for the travel industry. A former electronics engineer turned software developer, he and his two co-founders started out in an incubation space at the Guinness Enterprise Centre in 2002. At the end of 2014, the trio sold the business to Toronto-based GuestLogix for a reported $41 million and, a few months later, spoke to McQuillan about the sale.

If you were asked to give a one-minute pitch for OpenJaw, what would you say?

The great thing about OpenJaw is the technology. It has stood the test of time for 12 or 13 years since we developed it, and has also remained a key differentiator within the industry. Our people are our other great asset, and make OpenJaw the industry leader it has become.

What have been OpenJaw’s most significant achievements?

Winning “marquee clients” from the very beginning, the kind of brands that everyone in our industry knows. In our first year, we landed American Airlines, which was a huge coup for a company of just three people. Winning big names validates you for others in the industry, and makes it easier for them to choose you. We went on to work with big names like Travelport, British Airways and Cathay Pacific.

What do you regard as the greatest challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest issue of all was surviving during the first year. We took the decision to bootstrap, so we had no external finance to help us. Our view was that we would build a great technology before trying to go out and sell it, so that first year was a challenge.

What motivated you to sell the business?

We got the right offer at the right time. It was unsolicited, we never made a conscious decision to sell. We just got the opportunity. Our view was always to build something of value and, if you do that, the exit would take care of itself. Our strategy was never built around our exit.

“You do get a little tinge of regret when you step away from the business. It is something you put your heart and soul into so it’s bittersweet.”

What did the process involve, and what kind of help did you receive?

Selling can be onerous, but we were very fortunate that our CEO, Kieron Branagan, had previously worked in venture capital, so he had a lot of background knowledge. We also had a number of independent advisers on our board, one of whom had a financial background. They were very helpful in helping us evaluate and select the professional firm of advisers we used, Mooreland Partners. The sales process itself was pretty quick, just two to three months.

How difficult was it for you to eventually sign over control of the business?

I’m here for the moment but not for the long term, and that’s a different feeling. I’m not as involved in the day-to-day decision making. But the money helped, of course.

Did stepping away from the business come easy to you?

You do get a little tinge of regret. A business is something you put your heart and soul into so it’s bittersweet. There’s also a sense of, ‘what do I do now?’, but getting well paid for the sale helps with all that.

How have you filled the void since the business was sold?

I still get up and go to work here, for now.

John McQuillan, OpenJaw

What would you do differently if you were to sell your business today?

Not a whole lot. I’d probably have sold it quicker, in hindsight, if the right opportunity had arisen. I’m thinking of the span of time I spent at OpenJaw and how other people might have started two or three businesses in the same time. I enjoy that start-up phase. I love the buzz of doing new things. As a business grows up it gets more process-driven, so you do the same things all the time.

What lessons have you learned that others could apply?

It’s going to be different for everybody and what motivates people is different, but I’m glad we retained control of the business throughout our time at OpenJaw. I’m also glad we didn’t dilute that control with equity investment. That said, if you’ve a very capital-intensive start-up, that’s not going to be the right decision for you.

What next?

I’m going on holiday in a few months. After that, I’ll start thinking about another business.

Find out more about OpenJaw Technologies.