27th May 2019 in Business
Determination, problem solving, sacrifice, and continually learning are the characteristics that led Marty Neill through a journey from music journalism, marketing and design to be CEO and CO-Founder of AirPOS.
It’s an ecommerce platform, based in Commercial Court in the Cathedral Quarter, that enables small and medium sized retailers accept sales, track inventory, lower costs and enhance customer experience. In this increasingly connected world being able to pay at bricks and mortar shops, online, or even on mobiles is essential.
However, AirPOS is the result of a long journey that has seen Marty make the first stumbling steps when the internet was barely out of its infancy, develop a business with Snow Patrol, and raise £1.5m in private equity capital for various projects.
Based in Belfast’s Cathedral District, the company has partnered with the likes of PayPal, Samsung, Casio and Epson and has been distributed to more than 80 countries.
Marty has some advice that relates to his friends in Snow Patrol: “I’ve seen the guys in Snow Patrol go from playing places with the worst toilets in Scotland to some of the biggest stadiums in the world, the pain was extraordinary, but the outcome was worth it.”
The journey to developing AirPOS came when Marty was involved in doing e-commerce for other companies, including designing and selling t-shirts online for Apache Clothing.
“We were looking at how to sell things online and our boss came from solving problems because we solved our own problems,” Marty explained. “We were putting e-commerce systems into small retail shops. We weren’t paying any attention to any other systems that they had we were just bringing the stuff into the shops and like the beginning of anything it was total chaos. Then Electronic point of sale was just like joining the dots, for us and the companies we worked for.”
He can reflect now on the tech journey for himself and the sector.
“In 2009 Belfast didn’t know what a start-up was, he said. “There are 5,000 now and it’s mainstream.
“The danger is people think you can walk into a building and walk out year later with a business. You can’t, you can walk in with an idea and walk out a year later with a slightly better idea. It’s taken 10 years for me to really know whether or not this was viable.”
Part of that hard-won experience is how to deal with winning and developing relationships with investors.
“It’s the hardest thing imaginable, investment is one thing, money is all the same a million pounds from one person is the same as a million pounds from another person if all you get is money.
“Money is not the journey, this is where people go wrong, they think that money is the journey, but investment is useless without advice and experience, and guidance, wise investors don’t just give you money and leave you to it. The guys who really understand software investment they are not really that interested in tax breaks because they are looking for a far higher return than that anyway.”
“The guys that we dealt with come from a different culture, whereas Northern Ireland culture is extraordinarily conservative, extraordinarily risk averse very hard for people to step out of their comfort zone, for me it was hard but it made sense and I knew why we were doing it , and I knew more than money was world class expertise.
“I also got the money but without the expertise money didn’t matter.”
In the early days one experience still sticks in Marty’s mind about the difference AirPOS was making.
“It was the owner of a wine shop in Groomsport” he explained. “He was driving down on a Saturday picking up discs out of this old till system, driving back up, spending all his weekend inputting all these figures onto a spreadsheet and driving back down on a Sunday night.
“The guy was losing his weekends before we put the first version of Airpos, which was awful. We were doing the stuff that was mind-blowing rather than the simple stuff.
“The first time that he had sat in his house and switched on his computer and saw his sales and cried.
“He had all his weekends back for evermore and he could spend more time with his son. That was a big moment.”
Now AirPOS has developed to a more and more sophisticated system that enables companies to take control of what they do, and how they do it with seamless payment and integration of essential back office functions such as stock.
Moreover, the data enables companies to plan more effectively with virtually real time access to patterns and trends.
Moving to the Cathedral Quarter has been important step for Marty and the AirPOS team…all because of getting some quiet
“We chose the Cathedral quarter because there was no traffic noise,” he said. “We were in Donegal Pass we had an amazing building for no money, and it was dementing for everyone as there was a main road right outside.
“Cathedral Quarter has the great cafes and bars and all going on. I was one of the founders of the Oh Yeah Music Centre so I have been involved since 2005 and I have always loved it. It’s a nice place to work, it’s a nice place to have an accelerator.”
The importance of having a good team and understanding they need to have a personal stake in the work is part of Marty’s philosophy, as well as a deep appreciation of what is needed for anyone who wants to develop their own start-up.
“I think it is a mentality, you wouldn’t choose to do this,” he said. “If someone set down all your life choices in front of you and said: ‘here’s the thing that you are going to do’, that turns in a deep, deep wish
“For me it was a wish not to work for anybody else that started all of this and I never really see why you should either. It’s an ideal desire if you are going to spend 8-10 hours doing something you may as well try and maybe get rich. Do something you love.
“Everybody says that but if you can do both and then it’s happy days. I have never found out how to do both.
“I love the journey, I love learning, and I love figuring stuff out, its detective work for me. I’m a gumshoe walking through this business thinking what can I work out today. Where is my next problem and that’s fascinating, I genuinely love that.
“It’s not that I love POS systems, who says that? I would love to write books that would be great but I’ve never had the balls to do it. But if you can make a better thing that helps people then that’s great.
“It is the act of doing it, rather than the final thing really it’s seeing that moment where someone has that so-called lightbulb moment. If it all works out for me I’ll retire early and maybe I’ll get to write a book that somebody wants to read.”
For anyone wanting to emulate Marty’s success as a start-up and key accelerator he has some essential tips – based on having a plan.
“If you are sitting on your bed trying to figure this out you are away wasting your time, start doing it.
“Then come in to the Accelerator with a whole bunch of people who have similar problems. There is nothing better than being around people with the same problem.
“They will bounce off each other, they will have another one of those moments where everyone comes together and everybody sharpens iron something starts to work, people fall out of it and people come into it and we’ll do that.
“In Stephen King’s book ‘The Shining’ he says once you see the face of Jesus in the plate glass window you can never un-see it; it is always there
“Once you see the problem you understand, somewhat, how to solve the problem. It’s going to keep you awake at night you are going to have to come in, and you will have to do something about it.
“If you and that’s okay. Not everyone is going to follow that ridiculous thread but if it is strong enough you should do it. The fulfilment out the other side is worth it.”
It is a long way from when Marty was finding out he wasn’t cut out to be a plumber.
“We were given this rickety old building beside the Limelight rent free. It didn’t have a roof and it was genuinely falling down and we agreed to pay for this floor, and we’ll pay rent for the office parts but we are not going to pay you for this bit, as you do when you are negotiating.
“We were going to put 6 small companies into this, and we were just kind of thing we were literally making desks out of doors and stuff.
“I remember spending £300 trying to fix the bathroom up and it was just a disaster like something out of the Young Ones.”
Now as AirPOS continues to grow and develop Marty’s story of starting up and developing is an inspiration to anyone wanting to solve problems and maybe become a success.
For more information about AirPOS go to airpointofsale.com
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