Posted on Tuesday 5 November 2019 by Ulster Business
Serial tech entrepreneur Robert O’Brien is rapidly growing his cyber-security and compliance company MetaCompliance in his native Derry, with aims of a £50m turnover and 300 staff and expanding an already lengthy blue-chip client list. He speaks to John Mulgrew about a growing dangerous political landscape, and thinking like a Navy Seal when it comes to doing business
Robert O’Brien is now well under way with what is his fifth technology start-up – and he has big aspirations for a business he’s been growing and developing in his home city of Derry since 2005.
MetaCompliance is about to go through its third phase of growth – with 70 new staff due to bring the headcount to just under 200. It’s already one of the leading companies in its field, supplying cloud software and services for cyber-security and compliance.
“Back in 2005, the word cyber-security hadn’t even been coined,” he told Ulster Business. “We were focused on compliance. I saw increased demand for businesses to take account of their actions.
“That has been proven in the years subsequently, in the last five years, due to areas such as (the introduction of) GDPR and large financial sanctions. The reputational damage of a data breach is too serious to be ignored and now it receives board level attention.”
MetaCompliance, based at the city’s Old City Factory, counts big names such as the Home Office, tyre maker Bridgestone, Hewlett Packard and Western Digital among its clients, and Robert says he and his team’s ‘company handbook’ is a New York Times bestseller – Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win – helps embody its ethos.
“Our competitors are heavily funded American businesses,” he says. “We love going up against them and winning.
“(Landing) big customers is down to three things. We as a team love innovation, ideas and making them come to light.
“We also have deep domain expertise and we have been at this a long time. Our timing is really good, the market has a need where we have best software, content and the longest-established experience.
“Thirdly, we model ourselves on the fast growing technology companies in SF – using technology to help scale their environments. We adopt a mindset, to say, we are from Derry but we are not defined by Derry. We are actively competing against these global firms and from the outset it’s a challenge, and we are going to win.”
While Belfast remains Northern Ireland’s tech capital, Robert isn’t shy about attracting people away from it, and actively targeting workers in the North West who commute to the larger city, each day.
“If they have the talent and work ethic they can do extremely well, and are paid well above the average for the North West,” he says. “We have to compete with Belfast companies trying to take our talent.” The firm currently has an active campaign in Belfast, aimed at targeting workers with long daily commutes to reconsider staying in Derry.
MetaCompliance is firmly in growth mode. “The second phase is now over, and the third phase of growth will take us towards just below the 200 employee mark,” he says. “It’s driven by demand for the product.”
While there are software developers and those from other technical backgrounds, Robert says the majority of his staff come into the role with no expertise in cyber-security, and it has a range of extensive training schemes, internally.
Robert’s background in tech entrepreneurship began in 1990 with AMT-Sybex, based at Dargan Crescent. That led to other businesses in Dublin and Swindon, before returning to Derry in the early 2000s.
On to Brexit. Technology and software is an industry largely immune to the potential impacts of the UK’s exit from the EU. But generally speaking, Robert believes we are in a period of local and international political stasis, with no one truly able to lead.
“There are people that are trying to simplify things that are complex. I fear that people, because they are lazy or tired or disinterested, will accept those soundbites,” he said.
“What is happening here and in America is we are not seeing politicians of significant weight. You don’t see anyone that you would want to take things forward – there are a lot of vested interests.
“Attacks on the Press and attacks on the judiciary – they are all very sinister developments. I just feel ordinary people will end up the worse off.”
Back to positivity and Robert wants MetaCompliance “to be one of the largest cyber-security firms in the world”. “We can grow to £50m… 300 people. That would put us as one of the largest in the UK, if not Europe.
“Things look very promising for us. We have the opportunity to become an example for other tech companies. That’s how you create an ecosystem of positivity. You lead by example.”