I never heard of Colm Lyon, or his company, Realex, but I was idly chatting over a coffee. when somebody said Come on, we’ll go and listen to this fella.
I had no idea what to expect, but what the hell. Let’s do it.
Colm is a cheerful, unassuming sort of guy with a nice line in self-deprecating humour, but as his presentation goes on, it begins to dawn on me that this guy built up a major business out of nothing and he knows what he’s talking about. Realex handles on-line payments for the likes of Virgin Atlantic, Vodafone and Aviva. In March, he says, their system processed €1.3 billion in transactions.
He quit a secure job in a bank to set up his embryonic company ten years ago and now, ironically, he’s a sort of banker. He’s about to launch CaraPay, which will allow people to send each other money without the need for credit cards or cheques. It moves cash from one bank account to another with no middleman taking a slice from the customer, as PayPal does, so it’s free to you and me.
I like it, but he’s not here to talk about his companies. He’s here to talk about his approach to building a business.
The talk is refreshingly free of clichés and management-speak. No puppies were shot in the preparation of his lecture. No low-hanging fruit was fondled. Nobody rode in a helicopter.
Instead he talks about people, about relationships, about the importance of building networks. He emphasises the human factor. He says it’s ok to ask for help. People like to help, he says, and in his case it seems to have been true. People lent him offices, gave him advice, slipped him money to live on while he struggled to establish his business and to convince even one customer that he was worth looking at. He somehow persuaded big-name law firms and auditors to work for him without payment.
As the lecture goes on, you begin to realise that this fellow has a neck like the proverbial jockey’s bollocks, augmented by a brain like that other proverbial item — a steel rat trap. Now, normally I wouldn’t like to be contemplating steel rat traps and jockeys’ bollockses in such proximity, but Colm Lyon is the sort of guy who forces you to focus, in a very low-key, unassuming sort of way.
I called him the Dalai Lama of business and he laughed. I was half-joking of course, and he was half-laughing because he does seem to have a coherent view on how to do things, unlike many business people.
He lists four things a potential investor wants to know. Are you a serious person or a fool? What problem does your idea solve? How much can the business grow? What’s in it for me?
When you’ve collected the money you need, he says, select one high-profile investor and send them back their cheque. Tell them the deal was over-subscribed. Better luck next time.
Someone asks him how he placed a value on the company shares in the early days. He grins, sucks his finger and sticks it in the air. Bobbing and weaving. Taking a chance. Telling us what we all know, but nobody was prepared to admit in the old Ireland : business is not a science.
He constantly returns to the theme of the advocate : a person who will speak well of you without prompting, someone who sings your praises because they believe in you. That’s how he got his first bunch of investors. After a sales pitch, one friend whipped out a chequebook and said, Well I don’t know about you guys, but I’m in. He picked up twenty cheques on the day — enough to do all he needed with the company, and it was a classic hawker stunt. The sort of thing you’ll see at any East London market on a Sunday morning.
Of course, there were people who laughed when he came looking for money, but as Bob Monkhouse said, when he told his friends he was going to be a comedian, they’re not laughing now.
On the other side of the sheet, he makes it plain that he offers investors a return on their money, not control of the company. He didn’t leave one job where he had to follow orders only to replace his boss with a different kind of manager.
Lyon freely admits that much of his success is due to luck, but I think there’s more to it than that. He says that ten years ago he could never have imagined doing what he does, or delivering this lecture, and I believe him. But I think only the language is new. I think guys like Colm Lyon are hardwired with the information from birth, like instinctive goal-scorers. This guy was selling newspapers from a bicycle when he was a child, just like Bill Cullen, but thankfully he doesn’t show us his legs.
People like me couldn’t work out how to make money from a goldmine, and that’s why I’m glad I blundered into this talk. I’d like to hear more from this guy, about his pet subject, the future of money. I’d like to have his views on bondholders, on saving failed banks, on why the Irish citizen is carrying the weight of a European failure.
I hope he does more of it, because at least you can be sure he won’t talk to you in meaningless jargon. He’ll talk sense, and if he doesn’t understand something, he’ll admit it.
I don’t think that problem will arise too often.