By Anthony O’Connell (Founder)
In 1994, when I was 20, my flatmate had an amazing idea – to create a mobile office – a briefcase containing a laptop computer, a mobile phone and a printer. I didn’t have much interest in computers at the time, but the idea would allow me to fulfill a dream I had since I was young – to travel the World. Back then I had a book “Work Your Way Around The World” which described places I could travel to and get seasonal work. It was like my Bible. I wouldn’t be able to make a lot of money from some seasonal work but it would pay for my trip to a new place. The plan was to work in expensive countries and save money to travel in cheaper countries.
I loved the idea of having a mobile office and I immediately saw that I would be able to travel and make money at the same time. I’d just graduated from university with a degree in marketing so I asked my friend if he wanted to become partners. I would manage the marketing. He would manage the technology. He agreed so we decided to build a company.
We designed a big, heavy prototype and we went home to the West of Ireland to speak with our parents who gave us a tremendous amount of encouragement and support. There was lots happening with computers in the West of Ireland in the nineties. In Galway, Digital Equipment Corporation had just closed a 1,200 person computer hardware manufacturing plant that had been running since the seventies. However, they continued to operate their European Software Centre. That business is still thriving today after two changes of ownership – Compaq in 1998 and then Hewlett Packard in 2002.
I am proud to say I come from Galway, Ireland. It is a very friendly place, whether you are rich or poor, foreign or native. However, I was privileged to have a Dad who had amazingly kind and successful friends who worked with tech. Plus my friend’s Dad owned a computer hardware company and we were extremely fortunate to receive an unbelievable amount of help and support.
Most importantly, both our father’s encouraged us to follow our dreams and helped more than any children could ask for. My mother grew up in a very strict home and her parents were against her studying social science and wearing jeans. She decided to study what she wanted against her parent’s wishes and after she graduated continued her education blending social science with art. At age 65 she started a new career as an art therapist in nursing homes and at 73 she still wears jeans almost every day. She always allowed and encouraged my sisters and I to study and work at what we love to do most in life. Without such amazing parents, this story would be very different and I would like to thank them for giving me so many opportunities in my life.
Straight away I was thrown deep into the world of technology. The former Managing Director of Digital lived up the road, a few doors away from the president of the university. The Managing Director of HP’s European Software Centre was in a band with my Dad. My friend’s father owned a computer hardware company and helped us create a business plan. We were connected with owners of local computer hardware, software, and telecom companies. There was excellent government startup assistance connected to the university in Galway, and we were taught how to validate the market. Everyone we spoke to said they liked our product but we were told that the market wasn’t ready for it. Nobody we met could see any business applications that could be used in real life. We were advised to focus on something else for a few years.
My friend set up a company selling computers. He had lots of customers who were farmers and had very funny conversations with them when providing support. “Is your computer plugged in? OK. Go over to the wall and check to see if it is plugged in. OK. Plug in your computer and it will work.” I still didn’t have a huge interest in computers. I just wanted to travel the world and I thought the product was an amazing idea for people like myself. I decided not to give up. Then while I was looking for applications for the mobile office I heard about the Internet. I found out there was a company in Ireland providing internet access called Ireland on Line. They were located just outside my home town in the Irish-speaking area so they could get money from the EU. I called them up and the Managing Director came to my apartment in Dublin. He got my modem working, installed a web browser, and I connected to the Internet.
Back then the web browser was called NCSA Mosaic. All web pages were grey. All links were blue and everything on a web page was aligned to the left. I still remember clicking on my first hyperlink. I had time to think while I waited for the page to load (my modem could only connect at 14,400 kbps and there was only a few megabits line out of Ireland). I thought “If this page loads how I think it will and if I can click on another link on the page – then the internet will change almost everything – marketing, newspapers, magazines and TV. A few minutes later I shook hands on a deal for Ireland on Line to build a website to sell the mobile office.
A few months later I met with Enterprise Ireland, the amazing Irish government organisation that attracted companies such as Google, HP, Apple, IBM, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, PayPal, eBay, Microsoft, Amazon, Adobe, Yahoo and Zynga to use Ireland as a hub for their European operations. They are financed by the EU and provide grants and assistance for startups in Ireland. I met with the Head of Enterprise Ireland’s Technology Development Division who asked me how I knew the Internet was going to be around in a few years. With the arrogance that only a kid in his early 20’s could have, I said I didn’t meet with them to convince them that the Internet was here to stay, that it was plain to see how it was going to revolutionise the World. I asked them to judge my business model and myself. He was a nice guy and gave me a grant to do a feasibility study for my company. The grant paid for me to travel to America and I began living a dream of traveling and working online.
While I was in New York I was fortunate to be invited to visit the most awesome school I had ever seen. Half the classroom was taken up with a town built by the kids with wooden blocks. The kids were organised into committees and they held town meetings to discuss its development. On the day I visited, some kids wanted to knock down the hospital to build a road. So a town meeting was called and the kids worked together to agree on a new route. The teacher was amazing. She was trained in child psychology and analysed how the kids interacted with each other to determine if they were developing healthily. I didn’t have any children back then, and I hadn’t yet worked in education but I made a commitment that if I have kids I will try to find them a teacher and a school like this.
After America, I returned to Ireland for a while and set up Ireland’s first internet marketing company. I called it Indigo and I got some cool psychedelic-looking business cards made by my friend who made flyers for the night clubs. I had to change the name though because a few months later Ireland’s second ISP called themselves Indigo. Some people said that I should sue them because I had the name first. I decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea to bring them to court though because they were financed by the IRA (who are terrorists in Ireland, in case you haven’t heard of them). Later, the managing director of Indigo gave me a tour of their data centre. They had lots of money so the technology was amazing. The highlight of the tour was looking at their T1 (1.5 megabits per second) internet connection. The Managing Director was very proud of this, and I also was very impressed. It’s amazing to think I had 200 Mbps Internet to my house on an island in Thailand just 20 years later. After the tour, the managing director said if I ever wanted a job to come and see him. I told him if he ever wanted a job he could and see me too – just to be cheeky.
I didn’t stay in Ireland too long. Young Irish people (under 30) get a 1 year working visa in Australia so I sold everything and booked a ticket. I told the travel agent that I wanted to stop and have an adventure somewhere in Asia (perhaps India) but he convinced me to go to Thailand. When I was 17 I had spent a summer working in Holland I had met some hilarious Scottish guys who used to work for 6 months in Europe and spend the other 6 living on the beach in Thailand. They had described the life you could live in Thailand. They said, “For a few dollars a day you could be lying in a hammock, living in the sun, in a bamboo hut, on the beach in tropical paradise, with an unlimited supply of weed, surrounded by pretty girls who will give you massages, sleep with you, clean your hut and cook you delicious Thai food.” It sounded like it was too good to be true, so I didn’t believe them. I told the travel agent what the Scottish guys said and he said that they were actually telling the truth. I thought if even half of it was true Thailand was going to be amazing so I booked a stopover for 3 weeks in Thailand and a flight from Bali to Sydney. I planned to get a train from Bangkok to Singapore and a boat to Bali.
Thailand was more amazing than even my wildest dreams. In the first week I was there lots of bad things happened – I got stung by a scorpion. I got what looked like worms living in my arm. I got sunburned. I got a very bad stomach and I was stuck with no toilet paper. I almost died when I got caught in a current in the sea. But I was having the time of my life and I found a hut on the beach.
After about 4 months, my cash was running low so I spent a few more weeks in a hammock coming up with ideas how I could stay longer. I called my friend who had the mobile office idea and said “Hey you need a website”. His business had taken off and he was selling computer components (processors and RAM mostly) in bulk on the grey market. My friend said yes, he wanted a website and that I could build it. Then he said hold on, where are you? I told him I was calling from a satellite phone from a beach called Thong Nai Pan, at the edge of the jungle on an island called Koh Phangan in Thailand. He asked me if I could make the website from there. I said I could. He said cool, so that’s what I did.
At the time there was no internet on the beach so I had to drive through the jungle for an hour every day to do my work. Later I went to the mainland with my Thai friend and bought a satellite and some computers and we brought the Internet to our beach. My friend set up an internet cafe. I finished the website and the business went on to generate over $1.5 billion in sales. A few years later, though, it was closed down by ‘Operation Chipstick’ a joint venture between British Customs & Excise and Officers from Customs & Excise Enforcement from Ireland in the UK’s largest VAT fraud case. It was alleged that the company operated a “carousel” scheme involving the repeat charging of VAT on high-value computer components, but the VAT was not declared to the UK revenue. My friend was accused of defrauding the UK government of €232 million. I didn’t know any of this was happening. My friend had asked me to run his US operations when I was living in San Diego but I had said no because I was busy with other stuff at the time. Later he was acquitted but they confiscated his flat in London, house in Ireland, villa in Spain, £18.5 million in bank accounts, €900 thousand worth of cars, and 4 racehorses. Looking back I’m surprised I was never even contacted by the police even though I built and hosted the website. I suppose that was because it was such a long time ago.
Since then I travelled a lot, working on internet strategy, marketing, design, and development. I maintained a keen interest in education and I have positioned myself at the intersection of education and marketing for my entire career. I believe that marketing and education technology are going to merge. I believe the best way to acquire customers is to provide them with free education. I first discovered this strategy from the late Chet Holmes, an outstanding marketer who helped companies sell billions of dollars worth of products. I learned that if I want to sell anything, no matter what it is, but especially if it is high value, I can sell it to you by providing you with free education. If I wanted to, for example, to sell you a website, I would give you a free 1 hour training session and I would show you 5 ways to get more traffic to your website and 5 ways to increase the percentage of visitors who become customers. Very few people are actively looking to upgrade their website but everybody wants to increase sales. It’s a simple strategy. Build a relationship with your targeted customers by providing them free education then sell them the products and services they need. Almost all the top-earning internet marketers are using this strategy in some ways and webinars are part of some of the highest converting funnels.
The Catholic Church understands the power of education as a marketing platform. Their mission was to build schools in developing countries and provide free education to spread their religion. In Thailand the strategy didn’t work, though. The Thai’s just agreed with whatever the priests said to get a free western education and never converted. So the schools became private and expensive and now generate a lot of revenue for the church.
I am fascinated with how education and marketing are converging. Open edX (the software used to run million student courses for Harvard, Stanford and MIT) now has split testing tools (that provide the same functionality as marketing software) for testing learning activities. The best marketers are now bringing customers along a journey using sales funnels just like the best teachers bring students along a curriculum. I am developing these marketing tools so they can used by teachers to bring a student on a learning journey. I believe that just like a marketer a teacher should be watching his conversion rates (from one learning activity to the next). This is very important for elearning since course completion rates is less than 15% for the massive online courses from the big universities.
I help companies and universities sell education. First I worked with EADA, a university in Barcelona marketing their MBA programme. Later the university became part of a consortium of universities called EuroMBA to sell the first online MBA programme in Europe. They have a lovely programme where students visit universities in each country as well as study online. I helped them launch the programme and I managed internet marketing for them. I worked in Ireland marketing online TEFL courses. I also set up and managed Ireland’s first Internet research company for Ogilvy, a big US advertising agency. I conducted research for Ogilvy and clients like Unilever into marketing and technology in the late 1990’s.
In 2005, when I was walking down the infamous Khaosan Road in Bangkok I got accosted by a hilarious Chinese woman with a sign – Teachers Wanted. I told her I wasn’t an English teacher, that I built websites. She said “No worry. I have perfect job for you at Saint Gabriel’s school. One of best school in Thailand – dead Queen’s brother, 2 prime ministers, Chairman of Bangkok Bank, and Commander-in-Chief of Royal Thai Army go there. They very proud about that.” I told her I’m not an English teacher but she said “No not teach English. Teach websites and multimedia. Take a break from computer honey it will be fun.” I was surprised that a school would be teaching website design but she assured me she was telling the truth so I went to visit the school.
Sure enough, they weren’t teaching web design but they were teaching Macromedia Director which was very cool. I had always wanted to learn Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash. Flash was a very exciting technology back then. It added animation, video and interactivity to the web. I met with the course director who was looking for a teaching partner and I asked him if we could teach Flash instead. He said, why not? So we created a course to teach the kids how to use Flash to make an animated movie for the web. It was very successful. The kids really enjoyed it and made some great movies. However, I didn’t fit well into the bureaucracy of a Thai school. While I tried to make my class new and exciting I felt that the other classes were taught by rote and memorisation. Some of the kids told me that my class was the only one they liked. I loved my job and watching the kids teach each other but the pay wasn’t a lot.
Then I had a big shock. I found out I was going to be a Dad. I didn’t know what to do or how I could take care of a family in Thailand so I went back to the beach and sat in a hammock for a few weeks to decide …
Find out what I decided, how I lived in Bangkok, Koh Phangan, and Chiang Mai, Thailand over the next 15 years, and why I’m building robots and artificial intelligence for marketing, education and medicine.