Conversations with Achievers – Paul Kenny, Founder of Cobone

Conversations with Achievers – Paul Kenny, Founder of Cobone

“You see things; you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?” ― George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah’

The first thing that strikes you about Paul Kenny is speed.

Everything about him moves at a pace.

As we communicate via Skype, between Galway and Dubai, he’s all over the computer screen. He is constantly moving – so much so that his image frequently freezes on the monitor as it’s incapable of matching his velocity of movement.

And even though his image freezes temporarily, his voice continues on unabated. His pace is rapid, explosive and every sentence is content rich. After an hour I’ve exhausted a notebook, a pen and the battery in my iPad. Interestingly, my own energy levels are stratospheric. His enthusiasm is infectious.

When I mention this to him he reminds me that what I hear now is the  contained version of Paul Kenny. ‘When I arrived first in the Middle East I spoke so fast no one understood me so I learned to slow down, to be more measured, to be more deliberate.’

Speed mirrors almost every other aspect of his life.

‘I always move very fast and if people hold me up it frustrates me’.

As a 22 year old student in his native Galway he seemed to be pursuing a traditional career trajectory. He was midway through a  Masters Programme in Management Information Systems in NUIG. He was taming golf courses throughout Ireland. And he was working in the family business – the iconic Kenny’s of Galway, who incidentally were the second bookstore ever to go online.

Following a family holiday in Dubai,  where he and his Dad Gerry met another Galwegian Ger Lawless, Paul received a call from Jumeirah offering him a position as a marketing executive paying him half the salary he was being paid in the family business at home.

Ronnie O Gorman, Chairman and Founder of the Galway Advertiser, describes this as ‘The Entrepreneurs Call’. ‘Every entrepreneur can point to a call, however small, that beckoned them to the world of commerce, and that is what distinguishes them as entrepreneurs, they respond to the call’.

Paul was no exception and his decision was typically swift, emphatic and decisive. He bid farewell to Gerry and Anne Kenny promising them faithfully that one day that he’d complete his thesis for his Masters.

‘I was determined to spend time learning about marketing and the culture of the Middle East. In addition to that I was extremely  ambitious and extremely hungry.’

Within three months he was promoted to assistant manager for on line marketing and his reputation began to flourish. Eighteen months later he was head hunted by the Emirates Group. Ironically, on the day before he commenced working for the Emirates Group he was approached by two Venture Capitalists Oliver Jung and Klaus Hommels, offering him three times the salary he was being offered and equity in a business. Paul declined the offer politely telling them ‘now is not the perfect time but I will keep in touch’.

With the Emirates Group Paul quickly unearthed two critical components of his entrepreneurial DNA. Firstly, he could generate revenue and do that prolifically. ‘Within the first month I began to make them a lot of money’. In the subsequent five months he would create revenue to the value of 500 million US Dollars. Secondly, his penchant for speed began to impact his management style. ‘I realised very quickly that I didn’t like to have a boss. The mentality of slowness in senior management disturbed me because of my need to move fast’.

On month six he resigned, made contact with Oliver Jung who it transpired was an original investor in Facebook, and four weeks later he launched Cobone.

In the eighteen months since Cobone has been conceived and launched it is now one of the largest Internet business in the Middle East and North Africa and according to Paul ‘I expect it to be the largest by the end of the year’. He reels off a myriad of milestones already achieved – ‘We’ve the second largest electronics site, one of the largest travel sites, the largest Mums and kids site, the largest products site and the second largest fashion site’.

And lest you be under the illusion that Paul’s ambition has been satiated and that Cobone has plateaued, continue to watch this space. ‘I just can’t wait for the next year and a half to see what happens’.

Other commentators already have, and no doubt will continue to chronicle the legendary and meteoric rise of Cobone. The purpose of this article however is to distill the essence of what motivates and drives and creates a Paul Kenny. How could someone arriving in a distant land knowing only one person and not speaking a word of the language succeed in becoming CEO of the fastest growing company at the tender age of 25?

Robert Louis Stevenson once said that ‘a man may be young in years yet old in hours if he’s plied his time diligently’. Paul may not yet have completed his Master’s in MIT but his knowledge of what it takes to conceive and develop a massive operation in jig time is instructive beyond the norm. The following is a précis of his management philosophy.

1. Ask lots of questions.

‘I have great regard for the Jes (Alma Mater) because they enable students to bloom naturally rather than being controlled. They were unrestricted – no uniforms, no rigid rules. They encouraged you to ask questions. I spent  my Transition Year pretty much playing golf. I asked myself what does it take to become a great golfer and within one year I was playing off a 5 handicap and was the second youngest player ever to win Golfer of the Year in

Galway Golf Club. That year taught me a lot about life and ultimately about business. I learned that the only

thing ever stopping you is you. I also learned to welcome the rain, and as you know Padraic, it rains a lot in the west of Ireland. The rain meant my closest competitors would probably opt to stay indoors thereby allowing me a precious opportunity to have an  edge on them’.

‘A lot of people are afraid to ask and as a result forego enormous opportunities. The worst case scenario is that someone will say no. I mentor a lot of people and I constantly ask them the questions ‘why’ and ‘why not’. Why be happy earning 20 grand when you can earn 20 million’?

Gerry Kenny knows a thing or two about his sons penchant for asking questions. ‘Whether it was working in Kenny’s or playing golf he was always inquisitive – constantly asking questions. Take for example that infamous meeting with Ger Lawless in Dubai. I’d been to school with Ger and as we hadn’t met in years we had a lot to catch up on. And yet when we did meet, Paul led the entire conversation asking Ger question after question about Dubai and the Middle East’.

2. Build your own personal brand.

‘Work is 50% execution and 50% branding. I worked intensively at building the Paul Kenny brand. One of the idiosyncrasies of coming from a business as well known as Kenny’s is that you inadvertently become known as ‘one of the Kenny’s’. And while I am so proud of what they have achieved as a business and a family I didn’t build that business. I want to be known and remembered as Paul Kenny and what I built. I want Cobone to be recognised as the benchmark for Internet commerce in the Middle East’.

To this end he uses every conceivable means to promote and evangelise his work. He may well be leading an Internet revolution but his attention to detail borders on the anal. I noticed a tweet last week informing his thousands of virtual friends that an article on him would be appearing in next weeks Galway Advertiser – (no pressure guys). As Tom Peters said so many years ago ‘excellence can be measured in inches or millimetres’.

3. Hire the best.

‘I always hire people better than me. I genuinely have 120 people who are all more proficient than me in most areas. I’m extremely humble about this. During an interview, once I’ve established the competence of the person l spend most of the time assessing whether I can relate with that person. I even test them out for a sense of humour – if you can’t take a joke I wouldn’t hire you’.

In addition, Paul flies in the face of traditional management thinking which espoused maintaining a distance from your team. ‘What I’ve discovered is that I’ve 120 children. They cry, they moan, they phone you at all hours of the day and night. But they’ve become my personal friends and, as a team, we take on daily two massive competitors, and I can say without any hint of arrogance that we are the best at what we do and dominate the marketplace’.

4. As a leader you need to lead with enthusiasm and passion.

‘Enthusiasm is infectious. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm and I structure my business to unleash as much of it as possible. I believe that the number one reason an investor will invest in you is passion and I hire accordingly. I hire people as passionate and as hungry and as agile as I am. I ensure I give a lot of face time to people. Only last week, I spent the entire week taking calls from customers. They didn’t know I was the CEO but I learned so much about our business from them. If you don’t understand what’s motivating your customer you’re dead in the water because the customer still is king’.

As he continues to bop about the iPad screen I couldn’t help but be reminded of one Maureen Kenny (Paul’s Grandmother). For well over half a century she did little else but spend face time with customers listening to what motivated and interested them. Different time. Different technology. Different continent. Same old business philosophy.

5. Sticking to a business plan is a recipe for disaster.

‘The second your business plan touches a customer it will change. That first customer contact point should change your business irrevocably. We’re on version 13 of our current business planning process’.

Sounds like Lincoln would have concurred when he said ‘plans are nothing. Planning is everything’. (I’m not so sure about Paul’s former academics in NUI Galway however!)

‘Not alone must your business plan change but you’ve got to tailor your approach for various Market segments. We excel at this and it  has been key to our success’.

6. Get uncomfortable.

There was widespread consternation when Pádraig Ó Céidigh declared in one of these articles that we ‘should live life more on the edge’. Like it or like it not, Paul Kenny argues more of the same. ‘If  you’re comfortable in your job leave it – you’ll never learn. Stress increases speed, achievement and success. I Iive, breath and luxuriate in this business. So also does my new wife Yuki’.

THE FUTURE NEVER HAS BEEN BRIGHTER FOR IRELAND.

‘Why is it that Google, Microsoft and Paypal have all headquartered their European base in Ireland? It’s no coincidence. It has never been better value than now to start a business in Ireland. Allied to that you have the best educated talent base in the world. I have 30 uber business colleagues my age who’d return to Ireland in the morning if the media choose to up sell Ireland. Ireland needs to rid itself of the obsession of selling to a population of 4 million. There are 7.2 billion people on the planet with over half actively on line. The opportunity has never been greater’.

Enterprise Ireland are to be lauded on their inspired decision to appoint Paul as business Ambassador for Ireland in the Middle East. He may not be long out of short pants but as he’d say himself without a scintilla of arrogance –  ‘getting the right people on the bus is the first prerequisite of going from good to great’.

Somewhere amidst the corridors of the Commerce Department in NUI Galway, Professor Willie Golden, Dean of the Faculty awaits forlornly the somewhat overdue arrival of Paul Kenny’s completed thesis. It may, or may not, ever arrive. What has arrived however is a force that neither Willie nor Gerry Kenny, Ireland’s finest book binder, could ever contain within the pages of a book.

‘People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.’

― George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Pádraic Ó Máille is the creator of ‘Smácht’, Ireland’s premier business development programme. To learn how discipline is the only sustainable way to transform your business join him on a free Webinar on March 20th, 22nd or 26th. To enrol, email p@omaille.ie or contact Pádraic on 00353 87 2647817


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