Michael FitzGerald – CEO, OnePageCRM
Michael is CEO of OnePageCRM and co-founder of the PorterShed. He also lectures part-time at NUI Galway on Digital Marketing, Entrepreneurship & Innovation
Tell us a bit about your background, your path to where you are today...
I suppose I've had a fairly checkered past, but it all leads to what I am now and it's all given me various skills. You know the three legs of the stool for anyone setting up a tech company - there's the commercial, the product and the tech, and I've got a mix of all three.
I qualified as an engineer in NUI Galway, then I studied in WIT and got a job straight after that in University of Limerick as a sports science technologist, helping set up the National Coaching and Training Centre. I designed equipment for testing athletes - so ergometers; I built an underwater weighing tank for weighing athletes under water to determine their percentage body fat. I built lots of ergometers for wheelchair athletes, Paralympic athletes, which was super interesting because it's a totally different ergonomic problem, so it's really specialised. That was probably the birth of everything.
My first boss ever was this really really bright guy who had travelled from the States to set up this institute in Ireland. We were dealing with the Olympic athletes of Ireland, we were testing the Irish rugby team, and I was developing equipment to test these top athletes. I worked with Michelle Smith, Sonia O'Sullivan. Anthony Foley, who's now the manager of Munster, and then played with Munster - he was on the development squad when I was there, testing them. So I was dealing with really great people; I was surrounded by the top physiologists and doctors in the country. The main guy who was a physiologist was just a super mentor for me - the way he dealt with things - he taught me a lot. I was given full freedom to just go create things. I was the only technical person in this government body and I had to have experience of electronics, mechanical, software. I had my sporting background - I played inter-county football for Waterford. So they gave me full reign and I just taught myself loads of stuff.
Did you feel confident at the time, as a 21-year-old?
No, but I was probably confident enough - if you're playing inter-county football, it gives you a bit of confidence. I was dyslexic and didn't know it, so I did have my little insecurities, definitely about speaking; because with dyslexia, I jumble up words and if I think too far ahead, then I miss out words, so that would shake you a little bit. But in social circles, I've always been confident.
How did you end up back in Galway?
The work gave me a great grounding of this mix of electronics, mechanical and software - things that led me to think I was going to be a product designer. I then went back to do Mechanical Engineering in UCG, and after that, got a job straight out of college designing bicycle components for SRAM down in Tipperary, it was my job to do manufacture design for assembly.
After two years of that, I got a phone call out of the blue to go back to Galway to Slendertone to be one of their inventors. We had a concept department, and it was my wonderful job to just come up with concepts for products and that's really interesting. I love dreaming up concepts and I can leave the finesse and the finite elements to somebody else; once I believe in them, that's fine. We used to be walking around with stuff strapped to our heads and our bodies testing them all the time - there was a great mix of doctors, physiologists, me on the product side, manufacturing. It was a great little team and we started working on great products, and then after two years, the company just had no money. I wasn't let go, I was working on important products, but a lot of people were, so a doctor who worked in the other department and I decided that we'd do something ourselves; we'd just go create stuff.
So we started a software company that was helping people to read faster on the computer. We did this thing like auto-skim - so we'd subtract about 50 per cent of the words out of the English language - you don't actually need them. We had other innovative things, like being able to learn languages on computers as well, so we'd replace words subliminally. Both products were consumer products, which is really difficult to get places with. You need deep pockets and it's more or less a free product, so you nearly want the up-sell or the chance that some language company would buy you out - but you'd have to cling on until then. We got on very well together, but if anything, we were a bit too similar, and two product people starting a company isn't good. Although we're still really good friends. So that failed; he went back into medical device research and I stayed on in the internet and started applying what I had learnt so far into building websites and building stuff for clients.
So you started out on your own...
Initially, it was to put money on the table. Then I got this taste for creating products for software - I thought, 'I just need to get better and I need to stay away from certain industries'. But I'm a really natural product person - I'm addicted to products. I understand product very well, which is probably one of the weaker legs of any stool of people that form companies, but it has had to be our strength because in OnePageCRM, if we don't have a good product, we're gone, we're blown out of the water because there's such competition.
We started off doing client services for people and initially, I didn't really want to build a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system; I was actually looking for one to grow in my client services company, but when I looked at the market and and saw that they were all just good ways of holding information, I thought, 'Excel can do that, Excel doesn't make you get up in the morning and go at sales'. So I sketched out a plan on a napkin.
We had already tried to bring a product out and we failed at bringing it out. I polished it too much in the garage. With CRM, I had these new rules; I was influenced by Seth Godin, who believes in building in shipping as a feature. And that confused the hell out of me first and then I thought and thought about it and I said, 'Wow, that's actually something', because if you take an ordinary product, just like this little device you have here recording my voice - if shipping was one of the main features in that product, what other features would you let out to honour that feature? So you've got about ten buttons there - maybe you only need two buttons - on and off, record and stop. Or maybe you just need one button. Maybe you don't need as much in display. The idea is to just get it out on that date. People working on products get carried away working on too many features. When you have limited resources, you actually can come up with better product because you hone in on what is important and you leave out the other stuff. If you choose a shipping date, it will actually make you focus to deliver - and putting it in the customer's hands is the main thing. But it also helps you to cut the crap and to make better decisions - about copy, about your position, about everything.
The other person who influenced me was Reid Hoffman, he's the founder of LinkedIn and he said, 'If you're not half embarrassed by your product, you left it too late', and I thought; 'Wow', I was afraid to expose my art and this forces you to put it out, put it out on a date. Maybe you think it's not ready, but does the customer think it's not ready? Maybe the product isn't worth pursuing and you shouldn't spend too long on it, so maybe you find out sooner that it's a failure and you move on. So I picked a date, bought everybody in the office ice cream, said; 'We're starting a new product today and we're shipping it on 22 March. This was mid-December, so three months to build a CRM system is next to stupidity; it's crazy, in an impossibly crazy market as well, but we did it. I took the first design from my designer, even though I wasn't actually mad about it and she normally did great stuff and I said, 'OK, we're coding it anyway'. And then I more or less built it so quickly that it was possibly sellotaped together, but on that date, we pushed it out. I remember Fiona in the office got fairly thick with me and said, 'There's bugs' and I said, 'OK, but we picked this date and we're going to ship it anyway, that's it'. So we put it out there anyway, and I had a bit of a following on Twitter and it started getting retweeted and people started creating accounts and taking screenshots and saying, 'Look at this interesting product from Galway', so ever since, we've just iterated and iterated. We've made huge mistakes - we built it for the wrong market to start with, we've done everything, but it's been this journey in the customer's hands, not outside the customer's hands, building something that costs a lot and then getting it wrong. Of course, yes, we got it wrong, but the customer guided us to get it right. We've hit that 6,000 paying customer mark now and next is adding another zero to it, so it's a big ask.
So it's more than ease-of-use, it's the whole experience
I believe in being remarkable - that's a form of marketing, that's a form of sales, that's a form of spreading, that's a form of creating a tribe. The product that we build now is remarkable. It's not a generic product - it has a way about it, it has an opinion and it has an opinion that people talk about. We put almost no spend into marketing; we have 6,000 paying customers worldwide, and that's because we do two things: we put so much emphasis on getting the product right for the current market, and we also put huge emphasis on customer service - so again, worth talking about.
The CRM industry is very broad and very busy and there are big gorillas in it. The 800 lb gorilla in the corner is what they call your main competitor. We've one in each corner and basically they're very large CRM systems that do loads of stuff. We decided to zoom in on a product that would help you sell more. We found that our competitors were all good at storing information and they had nice interfaces and they looked nice and were fancy, but they were still just somewhere to help you store information. We wanted something that gives you a kick in the morning - 'Get off your ass, go selling'. So you get hit in the morning at 7am with your list of today's sales actions and it's just like punching out those lights. So we've turned a product that is normally very complicated into to-do style lists and basically the mission of the product is to be as easy to use as email, because CRM has such a bad name. People hate administrating databases, they hate typing in information, they hate managing data, so our main thing is to approach zero administration and also to be as easy to use as email, so we deliberately look a little bit like an email account to make it feel like it's as easy to use as email. So that's what we've done in the marketplace so we do stand out as product- we do have a USP. We're not just a little bit better, we're quite different. Sales in the past year have doubled and our staff has doubled and the company is in a nice position at the moment and we're still growing nice and strongly.
Is this part of a vision that you've always had or is it just developing as you go along?
The product vision is there with a good while; it's just realising it and you're trying to knock the edges off it and kind of keep bunches happy and move on a bit. Vision-wise as a company, I don't feel like an entrepreneur, I don't even use the word entrepreneur, I just happen to have a business and that's the way I see it. I'm actually an inventor and inventors usually just want to go to the garage and close the door and solve the problem. So all of a sudden you have to start working with people, and it's like, 'Ah', and it's not that I don't like doing it, it's just that I like creating the concept; I like solving that concept and then giving it to someone else. Now you can't just give it to someone else; you have to work with them and work with it and that has been a huge journey for me. It's actually been an enjoyable journey - it's one that I thought I'd never do. So I never had a vision for that. Of course I have always loved the idea of having a big company, but I thought I would come up with an invention that some company was just going to go crazy for it and they would pay me royalties and I would sit back like a fat cat. But there's no way getting out of product; you have to roll up the sleeves yourself and you have to do all the dirty stuff like raise the money, hire people, get the premises, stick the stamps on the envelopes, post them. You have to do everything and there's no other way.
And where do you see the product going?
It's kind of adding zeros, I guess. We want to get to 60,000 from our 6,000 paying customers. That may take investment. We're estimating the size of the company to run that 60,000 users takes about 80 people, so that would be the goal within the next three years. We may not achieve it, but we have to set a goal and as they say, the big hairy audacious goal - we have to go for something.
You have a huge amount of enthusiasm and energy - where does it come from?
I don't know - you should see my sons and you'll know what energy is! I do, I suppose. I am passionate about what I do. I'm doing what I love. My dad passed away a good few years ago and we were sitting at his wake and someone said, 'He didn't work a day in his life', and he was probably the most hard working man that I know. But because he used to do stuff that he loved, maybe it didn't feel like work. He was an unusual man - he lived out in the countryside, but he didn't drink and he was into photography and stage set design and classical music. He was doing all these different things when everyone else was down the pub. He played lots of sport as well, so he was a big influence on me. I probably have a bit of his character - he had lots of energy and was great at business as well.
You're involved in a lot of community projects over the years too ...
I'm a natural community person. Churches, GAA clubs, country pubs, even the local hardware store - they were communities and they're dying. Online communities might be growing, but nothing beats the good aul getting together, sharing information and helping each other. I've always been involved in community projects; I've just naturally been drawn to getting a group of people together than can actually share and help each other. I'm doing it now in the tech space, because now I've gained some experience and I can pass it on; I rarely refuse anybody. I want to help, probably a bit to the detriment of my own spare time, but I'm naturally like that.
One of the first ones I got involved in was BizCamp with David Kelly and Paul Killoran. It was like an unconference - startups helping startups where people come and give talks and go to talks. It basically brings people together. Then we had a Startup Weekend, again bringing people together. The idea is to encourage people to move on and move up and create something. Then there was Startup Galway, which I'm involved in and again, brings people together and puts on inspiring talks that people can finally say, 'OK, I'm not alone in doing this thing'.
I always take one thing from talks and meetings, because I think that if I don't take one thing, I'll take nothing. If I try to take more than one thing, I'll take nothing. So at all these talks, maybe people are getting one thing that someone said that they get something from it. The PorterShed and the Innovation District is another such one and I give my free time to Enterprise Ireland for judging for funding for other startups. I was recently judging for the agricultural ideas grants, which is really interesting for me - coming from an agricultural background and I love everything to do with agriculture and food. It's one of the biggest new challenges in the world - how do we feed the world in the future because there's too many of us. And yeah, it feels like a lot but I guess it's part of me, and it's part of my life.
Tell us about the Portershed, Galway's newest tech hub...
It's like a timing and a fusion of people, so John Breslin, one of Galway's gems, had this idea about cities having innovation districts. He was already looking at a building in NUIG at Nun's Island and maybe that could be a co-working space. At the same time, I had designed a nice office and could see that to attract the best people, you need a good environment. At the same time, Paul Killoran across the city is maybe looking at what I did, and was looking for a cool space, somewhere he could run talks in the evening. Then you have someone like Maurice O'Gorman, who was looking at the city as a whole from the Chamber point of view, seeing how could Galway be a place that his kids could aspire to stay and work here, rather than having to leave and go to Dublin. The 5th person is David Cunningham, who is very much a community person, in the yoga community, but also business community and he was looking at the idea of an incubation space for startups that he got introduced to through me and Paul and thought, 'There's loads happening here in Galway, how come we don't know about it and how come we're not exposing it?'. So the five of us got together and this fusion happened. In one of our meetings with other key stakeholders in Galway, like the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, it came up that there's a building available behind the Merick in Eyre Square so we immediately went down and had a look at it and said, 'Yeah, let's go in there, lets take it on'. It was like a quagmire inside, but we have a great, great architect with Stephen Walton; he's just one of Galway's best, he's one of the most creative people, he's a great guy and I've confidence in him. So we got Stephen involved and he has a great vision for it and when we cleared it out, it's just an amazing space. It's now just starting to get legs. It's a large open plan, and emphasises everything myself and Paul Killoran and David Kelly had been doing with our group, MOWAG (Mobile & Web Applications, Galway). This is nearly the manifestation of that with the other guys - Maurice, Dave Cunningham and John Breslin. So it's really about timing - there's a need. We had companies visiting Galway and the IDA would sometimes bring me out for dinner with them and halfway through dinner, they'd turn to me and say, 'Well Mic, come on tell us, why should this company come to Galway?' And while I would praise it and they would love the idea of Galway, a lot of it came back to, 'Well, where would they set up? We don't see anything around'. They would start talking about what they saw in Dublin in the Guinness Enterprise Centre, so a lot of what we were looking to solve is the where; we have everything else. We have the lovely mix of culture and arts, we have a great city in a great location beside the sea and it's not too far from airports. The best thing about it is the people as well; they're open and they're creative and there's a good ethic in this city - everyone wants to get on with this. So it was timing and fusion in a good city and a good space where something can happen and it has happened.
So what do you think it's going to bring to the city?
I think it can be a shining light. We're not just trying to be a good building in the city, were trying to be one of the best spaces you can visit in Ireland to see the new way that people work. The world is changing completely, the big parks outside are kind of a little bit gone for a lot of companies. The size of companies are getting smaller and smaller and they're breaking up. The very, very large corporations are going to be undone by these upstarts. These upstarts aren't stuck outside in parks with long commutes. They want to maybe not have a car at all. They maybe want to go to work on a bicycle, they want to live in and work around the same area and have a really good work life balance. They want to work in an environment that's not closed about information, that's more open, they want to work in a good environment. We only get to live once and we spend more time with people we work with than our own family, and it can't be any other way - we're not going back. So we're going to have to embrace that head on and be a shining light example for work spaces, because we spend 8 hours sitting beside somebody and we go home and have three hours sitting beside our wife. So it can't be a bad location, it can't be a bad environment.
You're already dedicated to providing an exceptional working environment with OnePageCRM.
Yes, it comes out in the company, it comes out in the building, it comes out in the space, it comes out in what we do. We have to give people time, we have to listen and we have to have fun - that applies to anyone you want to make a connection with. We can't have a workplace where we don't connect and where we don't align and don't try and achieve something great. So we try to do as much as we can to create a good culture, a good environment, to treat people with respect. We give people free gym or we put money towards well-being, and we try to be flexible for their working environment. But we still have targets; we can't be all fuzzy and have a great time and not have a product and then we all lose our jobs - then it's no good having this great place. So we try to work hard and we try to play hard. We go for pints and pizza and we try to climb mountains and do stuff together. We don't want it to be just a display, we want it to be real.
What drives you?
I just have this thing that you only get one shot at this world; I'd love to be a Buddhist and believe that I was coming back and I get to build something else, but I have this feeling that I want to achieve. I put myself under a bit of pressure to try and achieve things. So I devoted myself for ten years to be the best sports-person I could be and then at 30 you get to intercounty levels, the training goes up and you have to move on and then I started dedicating that energy that I used to give to sports to other stuff and it's possibly gone to community and business and product. But the drive is definitely an internal drive for excellence. I hate mediocrity - I don't like when people run 80 metres of the 110 metre hurdles and the last 2 hurdles, decide, no there's no point in pushing it. It's like buying a great fast car and then not putting petrol in it, you've got to finish it out and that's not being a perfectionist - that's just saying, you get a vision and you try to aim for that vision and you just go for it. Now I know the most important thing is getting other people aligned with that vision and maybe that's my learning, that's what I have to learn. I have the vision; maybe I keep it too secret and then it's trying to get other people on board. But I don't want the PorterShed to be just great; I want it to be 'Wow, that's fucking great', and I want people to say, 'Wow, that's fucking great' about our product. It can't be just that little bit better, it has to make its mark.
Any major influencers and mentors?
I have a list of mentors and I have it in a calendar that repeats every month and I look at my mentors and I say, 'Who do I need to talk to this month?'. And they're listed by priority - my biggest mentor is my wife; she's the rock, the solid one that I bounce everything off, and she brings me back down to earth and gives me that lovely good balance. So she's my first mentor, but I have ones for different things. David Kelly and Paul Killoran are mentors for my product and business stuff, the nitty gritty stuff, then there are other people I can ask for finance stuff, for wealth or for other things. I have one brother in particular who is probably one of my best friends as well, so I've had lots of mentors.
I probably think too much. I try to be a high achiever. I'm quite sociable, but then I retreat and I'm the opposite, so there are all these contradictions. I'm sociable, but then I'm so happy in my own space it's unbelievable. I can close my eyes, I can soar over the world, I can travel, I can do whatever I want to with my eyes closed. My imagination has never let me down. I've never been bored once in my life, and yet I love meeting people, I love chatting, I love asking them questions all the time and then I go home and I can be left alone for a day. I'd be philosophical. I'd like to think I'm a bit spiritual, I'm not really religious, but I like church from the community aspect.
Do you work on instinct or do you think things through?
I totally go with gut, but I think a lot. Before I make a decision, I will do really intense thinking, but I'll make the decision quite quickly; I won't ponder for days. But something will consume me for a short while, and then I go, 'Yeah, that's the best thing to do' and then I go 100 per cent behind it. I found my wife in one date! I'm probably quite good at lateral and deep thinking. I don't find it difficult to make decisions - I'm strongly opinionated. I don't always believe I'm right, but I believe that if you go in a direction with strength, then you align the universe a little bit and people will follow you ...just like Forrest Gump started running across America, he didn't have to say why he was running, he just looked like he knew where he was going and people started running after him and that's the way the world is and I believe that if you start moving in a direction very strongly, you'll polarise the world and maybe you will become right, whether or not it was the right decision to start with or not, but you can polarize.
With regards to Galway, how do you think being in Galway has affected you creatively?
I tried to leave it and I couldn't and I would want to be in a creative place, I wouldn't want to be somewhere that's not. So how it affects me? It's not only the people; it feels like I'm in the right place. It's a short answer but it's quite a loaded answer. Sometimes we do things in life and we're questioning ourselves and we're questioning the things around us and we're questioning are we with the right person, are we in the right place - I feel like I'm in the right place, I feel it's a place to drive a stake in the ground, and I can get whatever I want from this place, creatively or from the people or fulfilment. I can get it all here. I have no questions about being anywhere else and that goes for creativity as well and the people.
You obviously feel strongly about the place, what would you like to see happening for Galway?
I think we're a great sized city to actually do things right - we're not that big city that's sprawled out of control, we're not gone out of control in any way, so we should get it right. I know everyone talks about traffic, I'd even go a step further and say we should have a huge emphasis on sustainability and sustainability practices. That doesn't mean packing people into a big highrise that's easy to heat, no, in fact, it's quite the opposite - it's about breaking it up and encouraging local food production and encouraging local employment in little clusters. Why can't Spiddal be a place that you could just go and live and not have to commute, and have the whole village of Spiddal not demanding anything and generating its own electricity? Local people could provide for the local people and it's this little balanced spinning wheel. The city is not too big to be like that as well. From every point of view - from how we build, to how we eat, to how we commute, to how we live and interact and socialise. The wheel can get bigger then. We're trying to create a culture in a company, create a culture in the city, and there are certain cultures we can start because we have not one out of control yet. It's a great size of a city so we can do things and we can do them differently and fairly and sustainably. I would love if Galway was self-sustainable and then it could grow in a self-sustainable way with regards to food, transport, in living, in its use, its treatment, its environment, its animals - everything.