Posted on Thursday 17 January 2013 by Ulster Business

Mark McCusker

Growing demand for its English language learning software is helping TextHelp Systems expand into an increasing number of new markets, according to its CEO.

That Mark McCusker is traveling to Guadalajara in Mexico the day after I speak with him is a fitting example of how international the business which he leads has become.

Antrim-based TextHelp Systems has appeared in the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 for 12 consecutive years and won numerous accolades for its continued growth and development.

It most recently made headlines after formally agreeing a partnership with the China Education Alliance, a provider of online education and onsite training during the high profile Government trade mission to the country.

That partnership is indicative of the increasing importance the company is putting on demand from emerging markets for the technology it has developed to help people who have difficulty reading and writing in English.

Texthelp began in 1996 with very few employees working on a small range of basic software programmes to help people overcome communication issues. It has been at the forefront of assistive software development, designing products such as Read&Write Gold.

Its goal has always been to enable children and adults with dyslexia and learning difficulties to learn to read, write, study and communicate independently. While that goal continues to hold true, McCusker says the business is looking at other avenues to maintain its growth.

"Currently the majority of our revenues come from countries where English is the first language. So we're strong in the UK, Republic of Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand," he said.

"But a couple of years ago we realised the potential of those markets was going to be limited for economic reasons, because the markets we target are in education, funded by the Government.

"So we've looked more at markets where English is not the first language, the English acquisition market, which could be anyone learning English. We're mainly going after people who have some competency in English, maybe two or three years' experience, and are perhaps in the workplace and having to read or write emails in English," he explained.

Potential growth markets for its Read&Write Tutor solution, which TextHelp is currently researching or already has partnerships in place, include China, Brazil, India, South Korea and the large indigenous Hispanic population in the US. Partnerships are necessary to help provide an efficient technical support capability in the user's own language.

"There are growth opportunities but we have to find ways of doing it economically. It has to be a viable opportunity," said Mark.

The firm's products are based around a "solid set of technology components" that are configured for each market.

"For example, a dyslexic student will tend to spell phonetically and so will someone who is learning English so we have a phonetic spell checker that is a common component that applies to both markets," he said.

The father of two joined TextHelp in September 1998 and while he did not found the company he is very much its driving force. He says he is happy to travel the globe on the company's behalf, and finds he gets itchy feet is he hasn't been overseas for a month.

TextHelp has US sales offices in Woburn, Massachusetts, and an ever expanding dealer channel that covers the UK, Republic of Ireland and Australia. But all development is done in-house in Antrim, and that is something the CEO does not see changing.

"I think we have one of the best development environments in the world, certainly within our traditional sector. Technically there's almost nothing we can't do," he said.

"The challenge is executing in the marketplace. There is no shortage of opportunities you've just got to pick the right one. Just because you're technically superior doesn't mean you're the best."

TextHelp has partnered with large educational publishers such as Pearson, McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Discovery Education to bring its Lexiflow and SpeechStream technology to millions of students in America and partnered with big tech firms like Microsoft and Apple to ensure products are compatible with their hardware.

However, McCusker thinks keeping up with the rapidly changing shape of the consumer technology space caused by the arrival of tablets and smartphones, will require all of the company's technical expertise.

"One of the challenges for a company like ours is keeping ourselves fresh and keeping ourselves working in all the environments. Over the next few years we see more and more challenges to the traditional QWERTY keyboard from the likes of touchscreens and Siri," he said. "Restricted budgets in schools have also resulted in pupils bringing in their own devices. That represents a huge challenge for the industry. It used to be that you could anticipate what was going to appear in the classroom, but now you can't. So you have to develop software that keeps you agile."

McCusker remains upbeat about the direction the company is going in. It has maintained profitability over several years and is in a good position in terms of debt.

"That gives us the flexibility to take more risks than perhaps a lot of other companies could do," he said. "We are working on a plan currently that would allow us to double the revenue in about four yers' time. Once that plan is complete we'll be starting another recruitment round."

"In the long term our traditional markets are not going to go away, but in these next couple of years it might be tough to grow market share significantly. Particularly North America, the shape of that market is going to change as BYOD takes hold," he added.

"We expect our growth to be flattish for the next few years and then go back to increase in about two years' time. We expect to maintain our margin and keep generating cash."

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