Ciaron Dunne: Genie Ventures

Founder of the marketing company behind Office Genie, Dunne discusses "thrashing the opposition" and dealing with difficult HR situations...

Founder: Ciaron Dunne
Company: Genie Ventures
Website:  www.genieventures.co.uk
Description in one line: Genie Ventures is the digital marketing and e-commerce company behind four fast-growing brands, including the office space search engine Office Genie.
Previous companies: International Workplace, Outplay Media
Turnover: £2.5m
12 month target: £4m

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • Our trading is based on our proprietary technology-for-marketing platform.
  • We drive internet sales and leads to businesses on a performance (CPA) model.
  • We take the risk i.e. we pay the media spend, so we need our campaigns to work in order to earn a profit.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

The way we have developed the team. We realised early on that we couldn’t take people on who knew how to do what we were doing, so we invested heavily in reinventing recruitment, selection, training and retention. It’s a privilege to work every day with the team we have, and I genuinely believe you won’t find a better team anywhere, particularly in terms of attitude.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

Obviously revenue and profit are what get you going, but I tend to pay more notice of the indicators of change (both good and bad change). In e-commerce these are traffic, conversion rate and average order value.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

We currently do about 25% of our business in the EU and USA and we run campaigns globally. We have no aggressive plans to chase international business, but more and more customers want to sell and operate round the world and ask us to help them figure it out.

It’s definitely growing: we’ve recently taken on native French and German campaign managers to specifically focus on these markets, and I can only see this developing.

Describe your growth funding path:

No external funding ever. One of our core values is that we do business the way we want to do it, and I don’t see that being compatible with investors and banks.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

I’d say that the development of marketing APIs (programmatic media buying, etc.) has transformed our ability to scale and outcompete the market.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

We’ll be bringing in £10m+ revenue and have local offices in Europe and the USA. That would be wonderful.

In all seriousness, the most important thing is that we retain the attitude and atmosphere that makes Genie the business it is, and that is based around smart people focusing very hard on (and loving) thrashing the opposition. If we can maintain that and we’re still going well then I’ll be happy. Specific numbers and territories are not what’s important in life.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

The only thing in business that can be genuinely hard is dealing with difficult HR situations. It’s no fun telling a good person that you don’t need them anymore. These are real lives you’re dealing with, and people have real mortgages and real dependents. Nothing else in business is hard (in that sense); it’s mainly just a big game.

What was your biggest business mistake?

I really don’t dwell on mistakes, and that’s a completely honest answer. If you ask any member of staff they’ll tell you that we focus on our strengths and opportunities. We’re constantly trying things that don’t work and we’ve had a couple of relatively expensive business failures, but we’ve always taken acceptable levels of risk and I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened.

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:

In general I don’t think our business is at all hampered by red tape. I think most employment law in the UK is very fair, and I think we’re given an opportunity to succeed or fail on our own decisions but if I had to choose something, the first would be paying tax!

That’s only half a joke answer: the amount of work our accountants have to do to pay the correct amount of tax always seems ludicrous to me. The second is not being in the Eurozone.

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Believing that calling yourself an entrepreneur somehow makes you more special or better than other people. I see a lot of “internet entrepreneurs” who seem to know more about funding and networking than hard work and profit margins.

How will your market look in three years?

The office space marketplace, OfficeGenie.co.uk, is our current focus, and it’s going through big changes at the start-up and small business end of the market. The growth of office sharing, in London in particular, and the reinvention of serviced office space are helping. Providers are finally realising it doesn’t all need to be corporate grey anymore, and are offering higher-quality and inspirational environments with much less in the way of legal burden and long-term commitment than traditional leased space. So the market will expand in all directions and become much more fragmented – great for companies like us which can combine data and user experience.

Our other key brands, broadbandgenie.co.uk and geniegoals.co.uk, are all about reaching consumers at the point at which they are looking to make a purchase. They are in for a challenging time with a mass of opportunities as the way advertisers reach consumers (multi-channel, multi-device) becomes even more fragmented and sophisticated.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

This sounds so obvious, but many entrepreneurs get so wrapped up in the product that they can forget about what is. For me, the first rule of business is that you either do high-margin/low volume or low-margin/high-volume (unless you’re Apple, in which case you go high-high!).

You see so many great products and services getting launched at budget prices in niche markets. So my advice would be to know and protect your margins. Sorry to sound old-fashioned.

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

I’m not very consumerist so I don’t tend to buy stuff. My biggest luxury is a £600 Claud Butler Roubaix road bike, which I love.

Executive education or learn it on the job?

Both! I did the final year of my degree (the previous two years I studied philosophy) at the Cambridge Judge Business School, which taught me some great theoretical stuff about marketing, finance and business operations which I still use today.

However, I was incredibly lucky in that in my first proper job was being employee number one at a successful start-up (International Workplace). I became a director and got five years’ hands-on experience at growing a multi-million pound business from scratch from the inspirational MD, and still a very good friend of mine, David Sharp.

 What would make you a better leader?

Freeing up more time to spend one-on-one with team members, senior and junior. People really seem to appreciate it, and it gives me a much greater variety of feedback.

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without:

For business this has to be Wunderlist. It keeps all of my lists in sync across devices for work and home – simple, elegant planning.

For personal use, I’m going to have to say Runkeeper: I’m turning into a stereotypical mid-30s dad and getting into running and cycling – it definitely helps motivation to track your stats and desperately trying to keep up with your friends’ activity.

Business book:

The business book that has influenced me the most is a very American book called Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, which was given to me by my extremely entrepreneurial Genie co-founder Philip Wilkinson. It’s a very cheesy book, but it focuses on the message that an asset is something that earns you money. The learning is to surround yourself with assets and break the link between your time and your ability to earn. That’s become one of the cornerstones of the way I try to arrange my life.

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