Barry Houlihan is not a technologist, or even a particular fan of technology. “I am not a techie at all,” he says. “I am one of you. I am not on the social networks... I am not so in love with the technology that I can’t take a business view.”
Houlihan, co-founder and CEO of Mobile Interactive Group, spends his days surrounded by technology and technologists. His business develops marketing tools and technologies for some of the world’s largest brands, and works with some of the biggest broadcasters and mobile phone giants.
MIG works with English Premier League football clubs, Pepsico, Marks & Spencer, ITV and Sky. It supplies services to all of the UK’s mobile networks and runs premium-rate, text-message voting for TV shows such as The X Factor.
The company is working on mobile payments, and develops apps for its clients for the iPhone, iPad and other popular devices. MIG’s success, since it was founded in 2004, has propelled the company to the top of the Deloitte 2010 Technology Fast 500 list, and its turnover is on track to exceed £100m (€120m).
MIG maintains modern offices next to London’s Waterloo station, overlooking the former Eurostar platforms, disused since services switched to the St Pancras terminal. Houlihan has ambitions to take MIG further into Europe (in February he acquired Golden Bytes, a mobile technology company operating in the Netherlands and Belgium), but is not unduly deterred by the loss of an international train station. His plans reach much further afield, to Australia and North America; even before CNBC Business sat down with MIG’s CEO in his boardroom, Houlihan had launched into a conversation about China that would be best viewed as off the record.
But then Houlihan would not have built a business in the highly competitive mobile industry without speaking his mind. MIG, for example, has succeeded in working with all the UK’s main mobile networks, when the norm is for networks to ask for exclusivity or insist on strong clauses limiting work for competitors. He has managed a similar feat in the no less cut-throat business of television.
“It is what we do, and how we do it. We are an extremely innovative business. If something shifts in the marketplace, we are in there early, working in sync with it at the technology level and developing something that is on the curve. But we are also very careful and have a strong reputation for confidentiality,” he explains. “In the same way, we provide voting platforms for ITV and Sky: we’ve brought the industry forward.”
Clients in the retail, fashion and grocery industries have also asked for exclusivity. Speaking to Houlihan gives the impression that they rarely ask twice. “It is too restrictive, and the market is too emergent,” he says.
Being flexible is part of what has allowed MIG to succeed. It grew on the basis of revenues for premium-rate text- messaging, particularly for reality TV shows. As new markets, such as mobile commerce, and the iPhone – and other – apps have emerged, that revenue stream only accounts for around a third of turnover. And Houlihan believes there is enormous potential in markets such as mobile payments and mobile advertising. The market for ‘in-phone’ payments in the UK is worth about £1bn (€1.2bn), he suggests, with an overall e-commerce market worth £51bn.
The UK market for mobile and interactive technologies is advanced, so by being based in London, MIG has benefited from being able to sell in its backyard. As many as 30% of Britons have interacted with a TV show, but Houlihan concedes that in other markets, such as the US, participation is stronger.
Houlihan points to Australia as an English-speaking market with strong potential for participation TV. For the US, MIG co- founder Anthony Nelson has been dispatched to Los Angeles to provide a foothold in that notoriously hard-to-crack environment, and MIG plans an acquisition to boost its presence in continental Europe, as well as its access to language skills. An investment in China is also on the to-do list.
“Our technology is universally global in nature. It is designed to support mobile phones, and they are fairly consistent globally. It helps us that people like Apple are growing their dominance of the market, as does [Google’s] Android. It helps with commonality of the software. Our technology is built to work on about 12,000 devices. If we have one device [we can target] such as the iPhone 4, that really helps us.”
But while Google and Apple might be helping to create a market for MIG’s services, Houlihan claims he has had far less help from other sources. The UK government, in particular, fails to back new businesses and does little to help them grow, he suggests.
MIG was founded on the back of a £125,000 loan from the Department of Trade and Industry, but “the only reason we got that was because a contact organised it for us”, Houlihan recalls. What help has the business had since? “None whatsoever.”
That has started to change since MIG won the Deloitte award. Houlihan says he was recently approached by the Scottish authorities, but they wanted MIG to invest in Scotland, rather than offering him investment help.
“It is pretty appalling,” he says of the help offered to fast-growing businesses. “Businesses are not actively supported, and we have to rely on the financial institutions and the professional services firms for guidance. And in that respect, the tax climate is not good, it’s awful.” Other countries, he suggests, look on their entrepreneurs more favourably.
Luckily for Houlihan, MIG has been largely self- funding, and the business is profitable. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that expansion may require more financial resources. “This is a very good time to be in the digital and mobile sectors, but you have to go to the venture-capital community to secure funding. Beyond that, there is no support, and the industry is full of sharks and piranhas.”
Houlihan, though, does not seem like someone who is scared to get back into the water.