In an Interview with Sean Gallagher, The Sunday Independent, 8th February 2015
In 2000, Colm Lyon left a secure job in Ulster Bank to become an entrepreneur. Armed with nothing more than a good idea, a mobile phone and a laptop, he set out to create a new online payments business.
Today, his business, Realex Payments, has offices in Dublin, London and Paris, employs 170 people and has an annual turnover of €20m.
His story is an inspiring one and proof of Victor Hugo’s adage: “There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
This week I visited Colm at his company’s headquarters on the third floor of the Observatory Building on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, in the area of the city now referred to as Dublin’s Silicon Docks.
His is a cool, Google-esque type office space that looks out over the river Liffey and on to two of the city’s newest and iconic landmarks, the Convention Centre and the Samuel Beckett Bridge. There’s even a staff area called Craggy Island 2.0 with a full wall-sized picture of the Father Ted House.
Now one of Europe’s most successful online payments businesses, the company processes a staggering €28bn in payments annually on behalf of their 12,500 customers internationally.
“Our customers come from a wide range of sectors that include insurance, airlines, online retail, gaming, telecommunications, financial services and even government services like motor tax payments,” explains Colm.
Among them are well-known brand names such as Vodafone, Aer Lingus, Virgin Atlantic, Paddy Power, AA Insurance, notonthehighstreet.com and boohoo.com.
While the UK currently accounts for 60pc of its turnover, the company has customers in more than 30 different countries around the world. They have also partnered with a number of international financial services firms such as Global Payments and Santander Elavon Merchant Services and many other institutions across Europe are also distributing their services under their own brand labels.
It’s been an exciting journey so far for Colm and his company and one which shows no signs of slowing down.
Colm grew up in Clontarf in Dublin. He got his first taste for business while in his teens. Each morning before school, he and his five brothers would deliver morning newspapers to houses in the area.
Apart from the money he made, he also made a number of important contacts. One of those was a neighbour who would eventually become a trusted mentor and friend. His name was John Teeling, himself a well-known entrepreneur and at that time, a lecturer in Commerce at UCD.
After what he jokingly calls a “practice run” at the Leaving Cert, Colm decided to repeat the year and with the encouragement of his new mentor, secured the points he needed to pursue his dream of studying commerce in UCD. His dream was achieved when he later graduated with a BComm as well as a master’s in management science.
Even with his newly acquired qualifications, Colm found it difficult to find work. Unemployment was high in Ireland at the time and most of his friends and family had emigrated in search of work. After 18 months of sending out CVs, persistence paid off when he was offered a three-month contract with Ulster Bank.
“That three months turned into 14 years,” explains Colm who eventually ended up becoming head of central IT for Ulster Bank markets. But the desire to start his own business never faded.
“While working in the bank, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated at the pace at which things were happening,” admits Colm. “The internet had come along and the whole world was starting to go digital. I knew the problem of online payments would be one that would soon need to be solved,” he adds.
He began to study the market and as he did, he became increasingly aware that more and more retailers were contacting the bank looking for a solution as to how to accept payments online. But the banks didn’t really have a solution.
“I quickly realised that someone needed to create a gateway to link the retailers to the banks. The simplicity of the business model just made complete sense to me,” insists Colm.
Setting up Realex Payments
In the middle of 2000, he decided it was time to strike out on his own. He left the bank and, along with John Mooney, a friend from UCD, set up Realex Payments. No longer involved in the operational side of the business, John now works as an academic in California, but remains a non-exec director.
Colm was later joined by a former bank colleague, Owen O’Byrne, and together the pair set about designing and developing the first version of their new online payments system.
By March of the following year, they had secured that important thing that all new entrepreneurs desire most – their first customer. And by the end of the same year, over 20 businesses were using their system.
The pair were on their way.
However, raising money to fund the growth of the business proved even more challenging than winning their first customer. Firstly, a VC firm almost invested. Then a high net-worth business angel was close to putting up money but the deal never got across the line.
“It was a month before the Nasdaq crashed and the dot-com turned to dot-bomb,” explains Colm.
Frustrated but more determined than ever, Colm turned to his suppliers and asked if they might consider providing their services free, initially, in order to help him get the business established. These included providers of computer hardware, firewalls, hosting, and software, as well as office space, legal and accounting support. To his surprise, most agreed. It is something he has never forgotten.
“Today, people call this a ‘lean’ approach. For us it was simply survival and perseverance,” he admits. “When you have no money and you can’t manage to raise it, you have to learn to ask for help.”
At the end of 2001, the business did manage to raise €320,000 by way of BES funding from a mixture of family and friends. It would turn out to be the only capital raised by the business.
Strategy, Company Culture, Building Capability & Core Values
As we continue to talk, one of the things that strikes me is how strategic a thinker Colm is. He talks about strategy, company culture, building capability and core values. I am not surprised to hear that in 2008 he attended Stanford Business School as part of Enterprise Ireland’s Leadership 4 Growth programme.
“Up to that point we weren’t growing at the rate we knew we were capable of,” he admits. “Many companies get to the €2m-€3m mark quickly but struggle to push beyond that. That’s when you need to focus more on strategy.
“Entrepreneurial drive gets you started but as you begin to grow and scale, you have to start developing processes for managing your business and people. In essence you have to become a better leader.”
The following year, he set up The Realex Academy – an in-house staff development programme which has now become an essential part of each new staff member’s training and the place they first learn about the company’s values of passion, innovation, security, delivery and service.
Colm has also brought his focus on strategy to life in the company’s physical environment. A series of ‘ring forts’ are located around the office, a concept developed by Colm, himself. These tall circular walled structures are where teams hold their short stand- up meetings every morning and where they go to brainstorm on possible solutions to challenges as they arise.
Called after ancient forts in Clare, and with names like Caher Mor and Caher Connell, they are entire whiteboard spaces where people write up ideas and suggestions on the walls to be discussed and developed with team members.
“The idea is that everyone is encouraged to leave their judgment outside. Here they are free not to be constrained by where we are today but are encouraged to envisage instead, where we might be tomorrow. It’s about creating a space where people can be free to come up with new solutions,” explains Colm.
“We have 22 different nationalities working in the business and the average age of them is 29. Some are leading teams of 30 and 40 people. For that reason, we constantly look to attract, develop and retain the very best staff. We want people who are not happy with the ordinary and who want to excel in whatever they are doing,” he insists.
The Future of Payments
Looking to the future, Colm sees a new generation of payment concepts emerging.
“How does it make sense that, when you buy something, you have to take out your credit card, give it to the retailer, who swipes it though a device, and then ends up getting less than you paid them and has to wait three or four days to get their money,” he says. “It’s a dated model, technology has moved on.”
His vision of the future is about enabling payments to be made directly from a customer’s account to the retailer’s account. To this end he has set up a new company called Realex Fire and has already launched a free mobile payments app for the UK and Ireland, with more products to be launched in the near future.
Like most successful entrepreneurs, Colm wants to make a difference – he wants to change the way we pay for goods and services and improve that process for customer, retailer and bank. Full of energy, exploding with ideas and bubbling with passion, Colm exudes the essence of a successful entrepreneur.
Having spent the morning with him and his team, one thing is certain: both he and Realex Payments are set to achieve even greater success.
Colm’s advice for other businesses
“Stick with your vision and your plan. By all means pivot if you need to, but do not make that an excuse for not focusing. Do not let failure get in the way. Instead, see it as a step on the journey to success.”
“Engage with everyone you can. Talk to prospects, partners and staff. Constantly circulate throughout your network and collaborate to better understand the problem you’re trying to solve.”
“First, listen to yourself. What is it that you really want? Why are you starting your business? Listen to others. Above all, don’t be afraid to develop a big vision for the future. And then, go after it.”
This article first appeared in The Sunday Independent Newspaper. You can view the original article here