Podcast Ep 36: From humble origins in west Cork to a nationwide scale-up with offices in Cork, Dublin and Galway, Conor Buckley says Granite Digital’s scaling journey is only beginning.
In the teeth of the last financial crisis of 2008, four online travel firm executives in Cork – Conor Buckley, Seamus White, Rob Carpenter and Ger O’Shea – acted upon a hunch and decided to start their own business Granite Digital.
“We were getting lots of queries from people asking us what we knew or did we know anyone who could help them with websites, with their search engine optimisation (SEO), AdWords and all of these things in the online space,” recalls CEO and co-founder Conor Buckley. “The more we were asked the more we realised there was a real market for this kind of stuff.
“There was an opportunity we saw back during uncertain times, in the teeth of a recession, but we were certainly ambitious to grow from the beginning”
“We approached our employer and asked could we do this as a spinout, and would they be our first customer.”
One customer became five customers and five customers became 10 customers to now today Granite Digital is one of Ireland’s pre-eminent digital agencies with 1,000 customers including Enterprise Ireland, Dublin Bus, Uniphar, St. James Hospital, UCC and UCD.
Earlier this year ThinkBusiness reported how the company is creating 50 new jobs as part of a €2.5m investment.
The digital agency has experienced significant growth lately, more than doubling its revenue over the past three years with plans to double it again to €10m by 2022.
The advantage for Buckley and his colleagues in the early days was having spent the best part of a decade figuring out the way the internet, and particularly online giants like Google, worked.
“The team started with four people and it quickly grew to 10 and we got a lot of help in the early days from the West Cork Enterprise Board. We then opened an office in Cork city and followed the customer and today we have a large office in Dublin too. We probably have more people in Dublin than Cork today.”
Joining dots and making connections
The interesting thing about Granite Digital’s trajectory in recent years has been its acquisition strategy. Last year the company bought Galway app firm Apps Made Easy in a move that would triple its revenues from apps alone. In recent months it acquired creative marketing agency Connector from Conor Lynch, cementing its position as Ireland’s largest independent digital transformation agency.
Buckley said that the nature of Granite Digital is it will go where the customers are, and it will go to where the skills are. “We would have very strong elements in business development, mobile app development, design, SEO, marketing, hosting, all elements that would support each other. But the one area we were never really strong in was social media. And in that brand engagement piece Connector is very strong.
“When we had the opportunity to talk to Connector we said ‘this is going to be a perfect fit for us’. We have a large client base we built up over 10 years or more and a lot of the blue-chip clients we work with would be perfectly suited to the type of brand engagement Connector is known for. It was a really good fit.”
Fortunately for both Granite and Connector negotiations had already commenced before lockdown began in March. Final negotiations moved to Zoom and Adobe documents and the final deal was signed electronically.
Expansion is still on the cards. Buckley said that having acquired Apps Made Easy in Galway last year there is the prospect of growing an office in Galway city. He said Granite is also eyeing expansion opportunities in the UK.
The crucial difference these times have made is that digital transformation has moved from being an enterprise buzzword to something that impacts businesses of all sizes.
“With Covid, for example, lots of restaurants had to suddenly go online and offer local delivery or click and collect services that they never had before. Some of them have realised they can do quite well with delivery and don’t need to wait on tables.”
Buckley said that this is also prompting a lot of firms in the direction of using their data better, building dashboards and getting the value out of their business information.
“It’s not the enterprise digital transformation we would have talked about six or seven years ago, but for these companies it is a very significant development and can have a really substantial impact on their business. One moment they have to go digital and build a website, the next thing all of a sudden it has revolutionised their business.”
From a humble start in west Cork to today it is Ireland’s largest full-service digital transformation agency, I asked Buckley was this all part of the plan?
“I think in the early stages our focus was just to get going and get up and running. There was an opportunity we saw back during uncertain times, in the teeth of a recession, but we were certainly ambitious to grow from the beginning.
“Our attitude was that we wanted to always grow strongly and just see where it takes us. But gradually we found ourselves competing with the big guys in the market and we’ve continued to grow and go with it.
“When you’re small, it’s easy to grow very quickly. But as you get bigger, it gets a bit harder, but we’ve continued to grow. The appetite continues to be there.”
As well as acquisitive growth, Buckley points out that growth of Granite Digital is quite organic too. “When you combine both you get a reasonable growth level.”
In little more than a decade, Granite Digital has grown from a company in rural west Cork to a nationwide digital firm knocking at the gates of the UK market.
Buckley predicts it will be drawn deeper into the UK market as the company wins more projects there. “Digital transformation has been happening for the past 20 years and if anything it has been accelerated by the virus.
“Things will be resolved but they will also be different and technology will definitely play a greater role.”
By John Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published: 17 November, 2020