Amid the storm of recession, we turned down work to give Monsoon new focus

The path to running a business rarely runs straight and a change in direction can often be required, as Stephen Kenealy can testify.

The 40-year-old co-founder of Monsoon Consulting studied marketing and languages at Tallaght Institute of Technology, and his first job was as a marketing recruiter for an employment agency. His girlfriend helped him make his next move, when a vacancy arose at her employer, a marketing agency headed by former Guinness marketer Frank Nolan.

Working there helped Kenealy build contacts in Diageo, the owner of Guinness, where he landed his next job, as brand licensing manager for the stout. After four years at Guinness, the desire to set up a business kicked in.

“I knew I wanted to work for myself,” said Kenealy. “I like the autonomy, that ability to make your own decisions and live or die by them.”

Inspiration for the business came from personal rather than professional connections. Kenealy had been a member of Leinster cricket club since primary school and became friendly in the 1990s with a fellow member, Bharat Sharma, an Indian working in IT.

At the time Sharma had an interest in software for mobile devices, which was at a very early stage. In 2000, Kenealy and Sharma set up Monsoon Consulting, focusing instead on basic web development. Over the years, with the introduction of smartphones, Monsoon moved into developing apps and mobile-enabled websites. Kenealy’s role was to bring in new business while Sharma carried out the work with a team of software developers he had put together back home in India.

The business grew in this manner through the 2000s, to a point where it had a wholly owned subsidiary in Jaipur, India, employing 15 developers. Strategically, however, they could foresee a problem.

“As time went on, we became jack of all trades and master of none,” said Kenealy. “When the recession struck, we couldn’t turn down any work at all, so we ended up doing work that wasn’t really ideal.”

Profit margins became smaller and just getting paid was a challenge, especially when the customer was a struggling start-up company. “We managed because we had a low-cost model, but it was really difficult.”

The situation forced the pair to make some serious decisions about their business and its future direction. “We realised we needed to concentrate our skills in a particular area,” said Kenealy. Given the rise of ecommerce, they decided to become specialist providers of two nascent but fast-growing online shopping technology platforms, Drupal and Magento. The technologies suited businesses that were looking for large, scaleable systems to run online retailing.

Because the two technologies are based on open-source software, there were no licence fees to pay and Monsoon could customise the software to the needs of its customers. Kenealy and Sharma saw the opportunity for Monsoon to shift its customer base from small businesses and start-ups to larger organisations.

In 2010 and 2011, the pair began to put their business strategy into action, turning down jobs that did not fit their new profile. It was counterintuitive, particularly in a recession, said Kenealy.

Yet, using his marketing nous and Sharma’s digital skills, they used extensive digital marketing to establish their profile with bigger companies. The pair went to business networking events and, realising the importance of having a local presence, started to build a Monsoon team in Dublin.

By 2013, the company had seven staff in Dublin, and was beginning to see the benefits of the strategic shift. Revenues doubled in 2014, and again in 2015.

Monsoon now has turnover of €1.8m and a client list ranging from the Football Association of Ireland to DIY chain Woodie’s and the pharmacy wholesaler Uniphar. The company has 30 staff in Dublin, plus 10 developers in India. To accommodate the growth, the business moved last year from its initial office in Harcourt Street in Dublin city centre to a much larger space in Terminus Mills in Clonskeagh. Three months ago, Monsoon opened an office in London, where two more employees are now based.

“We tried to crack the UK in 2014 but we never really committed to that market,” said Kenealy. “We tried to go over and back ourselves every couple of weeks, but we now realise you need boots on the ground.”

In the past 18 months, with help from Enterprise Ireland, Kenealy has introduced so-called lean business techniques into the company, and a streamlined team-based structure. Monsoon has also introduced agile testing models that involve working more closely with customers to build and improve products based on continuous feedback.

“In the past, we’d sit down with customers, work out what they wanted, go off and build something, and deliver it six months later. The risk is always that they say, ‘Now that I’ve seen it, I want something else.’ Agile development, because it is tweaked on foot of constant feedback, is much more effective.”

Kenealy is bullish about Monsoon’s prospects at home and abroad. “B2B ecommerce is the unsexy area of technology but it has enormous growth potential,” he said. “So many businesses are still generating orders to their suppliers or raising invoices to customers via phone, fax or email. Many of them are ripe for migration online, using the kind of enterprise content and ecommerce platforms we provide.”

Having successfully raised their aims in business once, Kenealy and Sharma have “a big hairy audacious goal” for the future. “It’s to be the biggest content and ecommerce agency in Europe,” said Kenealy.