Agile Networks: award-winning idea pays off

At the start of 2011 I couldn’t even spell entrepreneur. If you’ve always been an employee, the idea of setting up your own business seems daunting.

Dubliner Darragh Richardson lectured in marketing in Dublin City University before taking up a position as a marketing executive in a technology company in London. He worked for a number of technology firms in the UK, before moving back to Ireland in 2007 to head up Irish operations for ICT service company Telindus.

In November 2011 he led a management buyout at Telindus and set up Agile Networks with five of his former colleagues. By early 2015, the business had a workforce of 17 people.

Agile Networks was the recipient of both the Grand Prix Startup of the Year and the Service Startup of the Year awards at the Bank of Ireland Startup Awards 2014.

What’s your business’s elevator pitch?

We’re a specialist networking company that designs, builds and supports networks for large companies. Networking is something lots of bigger companies can do, but we’re the only one that focuses exclusively on being network specialists.

We target large public sector organisations, multinationals and large indigenous companies. We tell them they can get an average service across lots of different areas from loads of companies, or they can get a specialist service from us. Given that most of our clients are highly network-dependent, they get it.

“If you focus on a specialisation and you recruit the best people you can get, you can work the ‘small guy’ advantage”

What do you regard as your business’s greatest achievement?

Winning 74 really good customers in a tough market and against very stiff competition. Our competitors are huge, names like Eircom, BT and IBM. We don’t have their deep pockets for promotion, but I’ve a marketing background so I make sure we use our budget to get the best impact and build a positive brand reputation.

We spend most of our advertising budget on LinkedIn. We produce case studies and white papers, and we pay LinkedIn to get people to click through to us. It’s a very targeted approach.

What was the lowest moment?

When the team and I were working away with our very large multinational employer in what we all thought were secure jobs, only to find they were pulling out of Ireland. We looked at each other across the desks and thought, ‘now what?’

At the start of 2011 I couldn’t even spell entrepreneur. If you’ve always been an employee, the idea of setting up your own business seems daunting. Fortunately, if you are going into a business you know really well, it’s not as scary as you think.

How have you coped with setbacks?

Joining a PLATO network. It’s a bit like AA for business people. You go in feeling you are on your own and you meet people who, though in different markets, are facing all the same challenges in relation to banks, managing people or winning new customers.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Managing cash and getting access to funding. There is a gap for us, in that we incur costs at the start of projects that we only get paid for at the end, and we have to manage that very carefully.

What’s your attitude to risk?

I’m a risk taker. If I see an opportunity, I will go for it. There is a degree of self-belief involved in being an entrepreneur, and being comfortable taking a step without knowing what you are really jumping into. Because we were involved in an MBO [management buyout], we already had our first client, so that helped. Also, I just didn’t want to have that ‘what if’ feeling down the road.

Who has inspired or motivated you and why?

The team effort our people had to put in, in the early years was way over and beyond the call of duty. To see people do that, with no certainty that it would work out, definitely inspired me.

What do you do, if anything, to switch off from the business?

I don’t work weekends. You have to have your down time. The main thing is not getting too wrapped up in it. Compartmentalise, do your best to solve each problem and then move on. Accept the knockbacks and don’t take them personally.

What would you do differently if you were starting your business today?

Nothing. We set out a five-year plan and we hit those metrics in our third year so, apart from fretting that maybe we could have done it in two and a half, there’s nothing I’d change.

What lessons have you learned in business that others could apply?

The importance of getting the right people, at the right time. If you wait too long you will stretch your existing people and your customers, and risk losing both. Go too early and you will run out of money.

Small businesses often feel they can’t compete on the recruitment front but we have found that, while young people all want to work for the big-name IT companies, after a few years they realise they are doing very repetitive tasks. When they start to think about developing themselves professionally, they realise they will get a much broader experience in a small business. We have benefited from that time and again.

Finally, if there was one piece of business advice you’d like to give to another business owner, what would that be?

If you focus on a specialisation and you recruit the best people you can get, you can work the ‘small guy’ advantage. We use it in our sales. People know that if they ring up larger companies, it can be a very frustrating experience.

With us they are routed straight through to the right engineer. It’s a personal service from someone who understands the customer’s business and the history behind the relationship.

To learn more about Darragh’s story, check out the website for Agile Networks