He describes himself as an accidental entrepreneur, but Pat Lucey has hit upon a winning formula with Aspira, his first ever business.
In the 14 years since its launch, the company has grown to employ 162 people in Ireland, Holland, Malaysia and the UAE.
When 54-year-old Lucey established Aspira with co-founder Colum Horgan their vision for the start-up was very different. The pair had worked together in high-ranking roles at Motorola in Cork up until its closure in 2007.
“I’d moved from Limerick in 1990 to work with Motorola and then we were all made redundant when the Blackrock [Cork] plant closed,” Lucey said.
“I remember thinking ‘it’s now or never‘. Colum and myself had learned a huge amount delivering technology projects all over the world. Rather than join another multinational, I thought ‘why can’t we do the same as an Irish company?’”
The decision to get into business for themselves didn’t feel like a particularly brave move at the time, Lucey said.
“Everyone at Motorola in Cork was being made redundant. I probably never would have had the guts to leave a good job like that if I hadn’t been pushed.”
Starting out, he and Horgan planned to develop their own software. They set about designing their first product, recruiting former Motorola colleagues to build a collaboration tool for software developers.
During the 18 months it took to ready Project Collaborator for the market, however, they had also begun to manage IT projects for other companies on an outsourced basis.
“We thought Project Collaborator was going to make us millionaires, but we needed to feed our children in the meantime,” Lucey said.
“We knew we had a great product in the works, but we hadn’t really done what we should have done, which was the proper market research.
“By the time it was ready to rock, we found that the potential customer base was actually really small. We did make a few sales, but it was a huge lesson for us.
“From that point on, we said ‘right, we‘ve got to stop getting carried away with technology and be more rigorous about gauging market demand’.”
In focusing on this demand, Lucey and Horgan discovered that they had already inadvertently unearthed a lucrative niche. In the years since, the project management services they introduced in Aspira’s early days have become the company’s main focus.
“We see ourselves now primarily as a services company. We don’t develop our own products. Instead, we make our team and our expertise available to our clients,” Lucey said.
“Our business is probably split 70/30 between project management versus software development and IT.”
Aspira began to expand its footprint overseas about two years ago with the opening of a UAE office in Abu Dhabi and a Dutch office in Amsterdam.
The pandemic has brought further growth. Late last year, Aspira opened a second Dutch office in The Hague and new Asia-Pacific headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.
“It was actually through our Amsterdam office that we picked up a really significant contract with a global flat-pack furniture company that is now taking us into Malaysia,” Lucey said.
“They needed to build up their e-commerce function really quickly because of the pandemic and now they want to focus on Asia because it is the fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world.”
Aspira’s broad customer base has also helped to insulate the company from the worst effects of the pandemic.
According to Lucey, its clients span the energy and pharmaceutical sectors, medical devices, finance, banking and insurance, retail and fast-moving consumer goods.
“We started to move into aviation about two years ago. This time last year, we had five companies in that sector. When the pandemic hit, they were amongst the first to go,” Lucey said.
“At the same time, pharma and online retail went bananas, so while we have lost out on some fronts, we’re busier overall. We’ve been very lucky.”
Aspira is now in recruitment mode with plans to create about 40 roles globally in the next 12 months. Lucey and Horgan are also considering further expansion in North and South America in 2021.
“It’s hard to set down concrete plans with the way things are at the moment but we’re very keen to keep pushing forward,” Lucey said.
“Our expansion thus far has taught us the importance of groundwork – the boring stuff – before we decide on any new market.
“We’ll choose maybe 15 possible locations in a region and rank them all based on factors like transport, education, access to employees and tariffs. Only then do we make a decision on where to open a new office.”
Aspira is a client company of Enterprise Ireland and has used the state agency’s overseas services to support expansion overseas.
“I remember when we were doing our on-the-ground research in Amsterdam, they had us driven around in this big black car. It was like something out of The Apprentice,” Lucey said.
“We got as much done in a day with their help as we would have in a week on our own. It was really fantastic.”