Born in Wales, John Warburton went to college in London and then moved to the States for 10 years, working with Litton PRC, a provider of scientific, engineering, and information technology-based solutions. So why move to Ireland? “I met my future wife and she was a home bird, so we moved back to Ireland and haven’t looked back since,” says Warburton.
Having found a job in the Wexford local authority as an IT project manger, Warburton says he was fortunate to meet a young developer there called Fred Karlsson.
“Fred was always talking about developing websites, commercial websites, but he had this really ‘weird’ idea at the time that he wanted to create a website that had classified ads, like the local newspapers carried.”
The next part of the story writes itself. Fred leaves his job and with his wife Geraldine, also an IT project manger, sets up DoneDeal.ie, initially a free classified ads website where people could buy and sell all kinds of second hand goods.
The year was 2005, there was a sniff of economic optimism in the air. “DoneDeal soon got to a level where it decided it needed help. Fred had worked with me and liked me as a manger and approached me and asked me if I’d be COO of DoneDeal in March 2010 (Warburton was recently appointed CEO of the company).”
With Warburton’s more structured approach to business, they used various processes to build the company.
“But it wasn’t just about processes, it was very clear early on that we were also building a company culture. I think Fred wanted a different type of manager, someone with the same ethos he had and someone who could, along with himself and Geraldine, employ like-minded staff to grow the business.”
A site on steroids
And grow it did. DoneDeal.ie, for want of a better word, is an exception in Irish digital circles. It is one of a few Irish companies that can claim to be successful by the fact it is purely online. Does Warburton recall the ‘tipping point’, the moment when they all realised it was going to get bigger and resources needed to be employed?
“Customer and user growth was very rapid, sometimes at 400% per year,” he says, “but it was manageable. I think the realisation that we were involved in something big was when we hit a million unique users per month. The media reaction to this announcement was pretty impressive.”
Did this elevation into the million-high club show any tangible results at a business level?
“Yes, is the short answer. It made it easier to do business in the digital advertising marketplace in Ireland. Those who weren’t willing to talk to us before the one million mark, suddenly started communicating.”
However, Warburton is quick to point out that DoneDeal’s new-found desirability, when it came to advertisers, didn’t result in a sales rush.
“We were also able to control the deals a bit better. I was in charge of sales, and our customers always come first. We won’t take ad revenue if it interferes with our customers’ experience on the site. We now had bargaining power and it meant we could be true to our ideals and our customers’ expectations.”
With a new sense of identity and viability, DoneDeal was inevitably approached by various, more powerful, media organisations. “We were approached by a number of different companies, whose names I can’t mention, but they are all big players in the Irish market today. Fred and Geraldine felt it was good time to take a serious look at the offers and structure this process. “
Eventually it was the Scandinavian media group Schibsted that bought a controlling stake. “The main things from the start, we felt, was that they were going to be very hands off but very supportive. They had lots of experience in online classifieds, but also in the media space. If we were going to grow, we needed expertise in a lot of different areas. It’s fantastic to be able to openly discuss all the aspects of the business with one of the biggest players in the world. They support when they need to, they trust what we do, and they don’t try to fix what’s not broken. It’s a very good fit.”
At the time DoneDeal.ie had more than €3 million turnover in the fiscal year that ended 30 April, 2011. It was still experiencing a growth of 124 per cent year on year.
Today there are over two million unique visitors a month to the site. In 2011, over €1 billion worth of goods was sold online through DoneDeal.ie. It represented an increase of over €300 million on the previous year.
What does the future hold, is DoneDeal happy with the Irish market, does it have international ambitions? Does it have any new services in the pipeline?
“We don’t have ‘international’ plans but here are a lot of plans,” says Warburton. “The future is bright. I don’t want to say too much. I can say, however, that in 2013 we’ll be offering a lot more new products and services that will knock the socks off Ireland. Many industry observers will be surprised.”
Can he be more specific? “Let’s put it this way. We want to replicate [online and on mobile] what a person wants to do in their everyday life. You can buy and sell products and services on the high street. Our job is to replicate that experience online and via mobile. So whatever the goods and services you can buy on the high street are, you should be able to do that on DoneDeal.ie.”
A cynic may point out that the Irish market is small and quite saturated with retailers and online stores. Surely there’s no room for expansion, aren’t we looking at saturation in many respects? “Not even close,” he says quickly. “One of the great insights from the Schibsted media group is that we can look at what they’ve done and we can look at the size of other countries and their potential markets and say quite concretely ‘there’s lots more to do in Ireland’. You will reach market saturation if you limit your expectations. There are plenty of opportunities available in this market.”
Ireland’s digital future
We ended our conversation with a chat about the ‘Internet of things’, convergence and ubiquitous computing, mobile payments and licensing online.
“15 years ago in the US when I heard the terms convergence and ubiquitous computing, we talked about how the ‘Internet of things’ would be delivered by TV sets. No one back then could have predicted the importance of broadband and the rise of the smartphone and the tablet.
“Also, new approaches to licensing have opened up the web to innovative creative development as never seen before. Spotify is a good example of a business that has benefited consumers [and itself] from changes to licensing laws.
“I just hope that the same philosophy and effort will be granted to the likes of mobile payments. Banks and governments need to open up and allow developers to create mobile payment products that are seamless for customers. For some reason they are still making it difficult. We need to give freedom to payment gateway developers, and the mobile payment space is something we at DoneDeal are looking at.
“As a digital economy I hope we don’t get held up again on something like archaic licensing laws. This time there’s issues like mobile payments. We need to open up our traditional industries to the development community. It’s only then we can disrupt markets, bring better value to the consumer and create services we can be proud of.”