Fast 50 Launch
Awards celebrate the explosive growth in Irish technology
David Shanahan, Partner and Fast 50 Programme Lead, Deloitte outlines how Fast 50's raison d'etre of recognising rapid growth is more relevant than ever
Each June, Deloitte puts out its call to the Irish tech sector and so it's Fast 50 time again, with the fastest-growing companies recognised for their contribution to the national economy and the global technology industry.
David Shanahan, a tax partner at Deloitte, and Fast 50 programme lead, said the key to the awards programme, which is now in its 20th year, was its credibility, and that this derives from the fact that it is based on objective measurement of the financial performance of the entrant companies.
"It's not just picking the companies randomly or subjectively," he said. "We look at revenue growth over the last four years and validate the accounts. It does give a high level of credibility, and makes it extremely useful externally."
Shanahan, who first led the Fast 50 in 2018, said that taking over the programme was a highlight of the working year.
"I'm very excited by how it went last year: I was delighted to see record revenues, record application numbers and to see the level of growth in the tech industry," he said. "I'm incredibly excited this year also because I now know what's involved and have an even better appreciation for the entrepreneurship and the innovation on display."
Shanahan's own background feeds into this. Working with Deloitte, he has been able to cultivate his existing interest in ICT.
"I've always had an interest in technology and, as part of the day job, being a tax partner, I've been exposed to a range of areas and it has had piqued my interest," he said. One thing that is noticeable is that more and more Irish businesses are moving from being start-ups to become ‘mini-multinationals'.
"It's unbelievable," said Shanahan. "To see that happening at such an early stage, it's incredible - but it also means they have more complex issues to deal with.
They often need professional support and a wide business network and that is something the Fast 50 can provide."
Shanahan said that, in fact, these mini-multinationals and the major multinationals have actually developed symbiotic relationships in recent years.
"The indigenous tech sector and the multinationals have become very intertwined. Often, they scale up get acquired, and then you have an environment of serial entrepreneurship; Ray Nolan of XSellco is a prime example of that," he said.
Shanahan said that Ireland's tech sector is now breeding success stories.
"It really gives you confidence in the industry," he said. "Then you have other companies like First Derivatives: they've been ever-present throughout the Fast 50. To keep that level of growth year on year is incredible."
The road ahead
Fast 50 also acts as a barometer for trends in the near future of the tech sector in Ireland.
"Looking at the fact that we had a record number of applications last year, it's fair to say that there are more emerging tech companies than ever. The ecosystems and environment there is very, very strong," said Shanahan.
Naturally, the sub-sectors themselves are in a state of flux: when the Fast 50 was inaugurated, mobiles existed only for users of the likes of the Nokia Communicator and the term social media had yet to be coined. Today, fintech is riding high.
"In the early days we saw opportunities particularly with telecoms deregulation, whereas now we're seeing a lot in fintech," said Shanahan.
How the internet is used has changed dramatically in this time.
"Initially the internet was used as a marketing base, then it was used to sell products, and now financial services and what we're calling fintech has really emerged. Cyber-security is also a huge area, of course," he said.
Another change that the Fast 50 has documented is the growth of growth itself: more companies are growing faster than ever.
"Another trend is that companies are scaling up sooner than they were ten years ago," said Shanahan. "We're seeing the benefits of IPOs also; what's interesting is we're also seeing a lot more M&A (mergers and acquisitions) activity between companies which have featured on the list."
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Fast 50 forward
In the run-up to this year's Fast 50, it is worth reflecting on the competition's past - and its relevance to the future. After all, working out the shape of the future by measuring the recent past is how it works. For Shanahan, the Fast 50 has become a key date for Irish tech businesses, precisely because the awards mean something. It has been running as a programme for 20 years.
"It's got a reputation for being objective, but also I think it's become a key date in the tech calendar. We have a genuine interest in the companies and want to demonstrate this," he said. "We have the Fast 50 list and within that we have special categories that recognise specific achievements."
Indeed, over the years, Deloitte has introduced new categories, such as fintech and, in 2018, cyber-security. The real future, though, is the companies themselves, and this is precisely what Deloitte's Fast 50 is intended to encourage.
"The winner can call themselves the fastest-growing technology company in Ireland, and that really helps.
"I spoke to one company that won the export award and they were out in Asia a week later and the award gave them a level of external validation.
"The biggest benefit, though, is probably the networking, not just with us, but with each other," said Shanahan.
"Fast 50 is not the end, though: the fastest growing of the winners get to enter into the Fast 500, which is our EMEA programme.
"In the end, though, more than anything, the Fast 50 represents a changing business sector, and this is something we are seeing within our own business, and in the way our clients do business."
'Even the big guys don't have this connectivity'
"I think the Fast 50 does put you on the radar," said Ray Nolan, founder and president of xSellco, a firm that develops and sells software to people and online sellers who use marketplaces like Alibaba, Amazon and eBay. "We power e-commerce."
xSellco enables sellers to offer support levels matching those of the major multinationals.
"Before us, they would have had to log into separate systems for each marketplace, but we put all of their tickets and then we use cool AI to look at the query and make it easy to answer," said Nolan. "We collate the order data with the query, [so] instead of having to find it, it's all right there in front of them."
xSellco's AI analyses the content of messages to provide likely answers alongside a 'confidence score', whereby the software says how sure it is that a query is about this or that issue.
Nolan said the most important thing about the Deloitte Fast 50 awards was that it was a purely objective measurement of a company's success.
"It's interesting, really: it's black and white," he said. "It's not subject to any kind of views or opinions; it's on the numbers."
The result of this is that the award has a practical value, he said. "These things are not just baubles. It's ideal for the tech industry. It's not the game or a media game, it's not based on judges' opinions and it's not an obscure scoring mechanism."
The specific mechanism is, of course, growth, measured over the last four years of trading. xSellco has enjoyed great success in this area, with growth in the region of a staggering 4,000 per cent.
The reason for xSellco's success is its usefulness: present in more than 60 countries, its software enables smaller retailers to work as efficiently as the giants – or perhaps even more so.
"Even the big guys don't have this connectivity," said Nolan. "E-commerce is not an easy place to be for a smaller seller. You need the tools. Even if you sell only on your own site, you have support there and on Twitter and Facebook. One bad review can mess up your sales."
'We believe you cannot shrink to greatness'
The Deloitte Fast 50 celebrates growth, so you'd be forgiven for thinking that most entrants appear not long after their foundation only to settle down to a slower rate of growth as they mature. You'd be mistaken, however. The very first Fast 50 winner, First Derivatives, continues to make the cut.
Adrian Toner, chief operating officer at First Derivatives, said gaining recognition in the Deloitte Fast 50 was a real string in the company's bow.
"Thankfully, First Derivatives continues to win many awards that recognise our technological innovation or working environment, so it is pleasing that the Fast 50 awards celebrate our rate of overall revenue growth, indicating a clear and consistent market demand for what we do," he said.
A global software and consulting business with more than 2,400 employees located in 15 offices across four continents, First Derivatives is listed on the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange and has a capitalisation of £900 million, making it one of the 20 largest companies on AIM.
"We believe that success is often built over the long run, so being ranked for 16 years in the Fast 50 is proof of our continuing growth and success.
"The Fast 50 has been running for nearly 20 years now. We were the inaugural winner back in 1999 with annual turnover of £370,000 and 20 employees. Today our turnover is £217 million with over 2,400 employees," said Toner. "In our latest financial year we delivered revenue of £217 million and adjusted EBITDA of £39 million."
The company's growth is not only financial: First Derivatives last year recruited nearly 400 graduates to continue its expansion, making it one of the largest graduate recruiters on the island of Ireland. Indeed, continued growth is a key year-on-year goal for the business: the company's strategy has delivered an average 25 per cent annual growth in revenue each year while also delivering growth in profits at 25 per cent compound in the same period.
"We believe that you cannot shrink to greatness," said Toner. "Growth is what our shareholders expect, and is the natural result of our strategy to take our analytics software into new markets while enhancing our leading role in capital markets."
'As a measurement, it is very objective'
Founded in 2013, mAdme Technologies, developer of a digital engagement channel that helps enabling mobile operators take control of customer engagement, made its debut appearance in the Deloitte Fast 50 in 2018.
With offices in the United States as well as Ireland, the firm fits the profile of a 'mini-multinational', a concept that barely existed before the information technology revolution of the last two decades.
Chief executive Triona Mullane said that being recognised in the awards was no small thing. mAdme can now tell clients and prospects that it is the third-fastest-growing tech company in Ireland, according to Deloitte.
"It's a particularly nice awards programme because it is based on actual numbers - and because it's with Deloitte," she said. "As a measurement, it's very objective."
Being recognised in the Fast 50 had three particular benefits for mAdme, said Mullane.
"We waited and quietly built the business and then decided it was time to go out and spread the good news about the business. It allows you to tell your customers that they made the right decision in choosing to do business with you, and it adds credibility with prospective customers," she said.
The third benefit was no less important.
"It also - and this is essential today - demonstrates to potential employees that we're a place that is investing in research and development," Mullane said.
"There's huge competition for talent. It's not always about money; of course the packages need to make sense and things like stock options are great, but if you leave that aside you have to answer questions like 'what will I be doing?' and 'Will it be interesting?'."
For a small company based in "a small island off the west coast of Europe", demonstrating that an interesting career is possible is essential.
"What we're doing, frankly you'd have to go to Silicon Valley to do it otherwise and that's what winning the disruption award, as well as placing third, tells people. These are markets that are, let's be honest, dominated by multibillion dollar multinationals, so you have to be disruptive," Mullane said.
Entrepreneurship and innovation awarded
The Deloitte Technology Fast 50 Awards for 2019 have now launched. The awards are one of Ireland’s foremost technology award programmes, celebrating innovation and entrepreneurship. Now in its 20th year, it is a ranking of the country's 50 fastest-growing technology companies based on revenue growth over the last four years.
To enter the Fast 50 Awards, companies must meet the criteria listed on the website, fast50.ie, where entries can be submitted.
Entrants may also apply for the MNC award categories. These are:
1. Innovative New Technology Award in association with Google
2. Export Award in association with Intel
3. Impact Award in association with PayPal
4. Women in Technology Advocate Award in association with Vodafone
5. Disruptive Technology Award in association with Facebook
The Deloitte Technology Fast 50 Cyber-Security Award
This year marks the return of the cyber-security award, open to companies that have been in business for a minimum of three years. Focused on developing cyber-security solutions and that devote a significant portion of income to R&D, the award is an acknowledgement of the innovative and cutting-edge solutions that are being developed by Irish companies.
Fintech award in association with Silicon Valley Bank
For the third year running, Deloitte and Silicon Valley Bank are partnering in the FinTech category to attract new entrants in this dynamic, vibrant area. Financial services are key to Ireland’s future economic growth and these players are influencing this space with their technology and innovation.
The award will not only raise the profile of winners, it aims to help them scale and evolve by providing support from both Deloitte and Silicon Valley Bank on a global scale. The winner will be brought to Silicon Valley on a trip tailored to suit their growth trajectory where they will meet with key investors, strategic partners and prospects.
Full details can be found at fast50.ie
This article first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on Sunday, 30 June 2019.