13 Jun 2015 | 02.18 pm
Good Time Dean For The Stags And Hens
Dean Gammell profits from hen and stag parties
13 Jun 2015 | 02.18 pm
As a teenager, Westmeath entrepreneur Dean Gammell (pictured) thought that his career would be in construction, and in a way it is. However, Gammell’s building material isn’t bricks and mortar but business ventures. Still only 28, he founded and runs multiple businesses through his DG Ventures group, which closed out 2013 with a net worth of €214,000 and a cash pile of €313,000.
Gammell’s coterie of businesses revolves around organising and facilitating group-booked events, including stag and hen nights, and package tours for overseas visitors. Underpinning these businesses is an online group booking platform that Gammell developed and sells to hotels, activity centres and others. Called ‘The Group System’, Gammell’s booking platform helped him secure €30,000 in 2014 as a winner in the inaugural, government-run ‘Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur’ competition.
The Group System currently has 19 hotels using the platform and has just begun edging into the UK market. As well as running his stag and hen party packages businesses, Gammell also operates Bumper Ballz, renting equipment to people who want to play football while encased in ball-shaped body suits.
Gammell’s latest venture is ‘Go Irish Tours’, which adapts the stag party package model for tourists, offering coach, escorted or self-drive tours with accommodation around Ireland. He operates all of his businesses from headquarters in Westmeath, managing 30 employees, and is eyeing up bigger premises to house his still-growing workforce.
Gammell doesn’t know where his entrepreneurial streak came from. “My parents had normal, everyday jobs and there isn’t a history of entrepreneurship in the family,” he says. Having done construction work while still at school, Gammell went on to study construction management at third level, all the while continuing to work in the sector.
Graduating in 2008, Gammell’s full-time job prospects in construction were grim, but he managed to land a junior project manager role with Killarney Telecommunications and worked there for 18 months. “I was the youngest project manager in the company, managing up to 30 people and the job really served me well, with regard to how to manage people, projects and problems,” Gammell recalls.
After reading about a UK firm that organised stag packages, Gammell decided to try something similar in Ireland. “I’d wanted to set up my own business since I was young and the construction sector wasn’t looking promising,” he says. Stagit.ie became Gammell’s first venture and he took his time building it, beginning by learning how to code a website.
“I didn’t want to throw lots of money into the project, so I taught myself the basics in website building and design, using books, YouTube and other sources. Back then you had to use Dreamweaver, which was difficult. I took me months to build the site, working evenings and weekends while continuing my day job.”
Gammell launched Stagit.ie in 2009 and was working on it full-time by the following year. However, he found that securing advertisers was more difficult than he had envisaged. “I was naïve to think that it would be easy, and when I asked hotels why they wouldn’t buy ad space they told me that they didn’t want to be known for stag parties and that it was bad for business.”
Stagit recalibrated and started offering packages for stag parties, typically involving an activity such as paintballing or go-karting, accommodation and nightclub reservations. “I used to do the nuts and bolts of my business during the day and then do the marketing at night – SEO and AdWords, whatever it took to get more eyeballs on the website,” he says.
In 2012, Gammell launched Henit.ie, using the same model for hen nights, and in 2013 he launched Bumper Ballz (pictured), which was one of his stag customers’ most popular activities. Between the various related businesses, Gammell was doing well, but he realised that his business model wasn’t scalable in its current form.
“We were managing all of our bookings on spreadsheets, so I needed to implement an IT system that was more manageable and automatable.” After mapping out the requirements, Gammell spent several months unsuccessfully trying to find the right software. In the end, he decided to build it himself.
The new platform enabled online and mobile payments for groups, automatically handle invites, and keep all parties informed of payments, group additions, drop-outs and itinerary details. He then brought in programmers to help improve the user experience and tweak the system. “It worked really well for us and I could see how other businesses could also use the system, so I started contacting hotels with a view to selling it to them,” says Gammell.
In all, Gammell says that the booking platform cost around €200,000 to develop and several years to fine-tune. He covered the cost without outside investors and focused on building up a customer base of smaller, independent hotels, who might not have the resources to manage and track group bookings.
“We charge customers a setup fee and a monthly subscription thereafter, or we can charge no setup fee and take a percentage of the money going through the system. The business is going steady, rather than flying out the door. We entered into the UK earlier than expected, so we haven’t really focused on marketing there yet.”
Multiple online offshoots continue to surface from DG Ventures. BudgetStags is a UK version of Stagit that Gammell launched in 2015 and he has also brought his Bumper Ballz venture to England. “They’re going OK so far. I have one person working full-time on the UK business,” he says.
Other iterations of his group-booking business model include DebsPlanner.ie, which Gammell says will be properly up and running this year, while his ChristmasBash.ie site comprises a directory of venues and special offers for Christmas parties around the country.
Failures are par for the entrepreneurial course, according to Gammell, and particularly unavoidable when you spin out so many variations of your core business model. For instance, Gammell’s attempts at founding a business to tap into the busy festive season – when stag and hen parties dwindle – have landed in the rough so far.
“I set up a Christmas gift website a while ago and invested quite a bit into it. I also hired an SEO company to help us get a better ranking on Google. Then Google then came out with an update that caused our company to vanish from the search results page, and I parked that business and cut my losses. Some people think that it’s great when you log on to these freelance websites and get SEO done for a couple of hundred dollars, but it can be very detrimental to your business.”
Nevertheless, Gammell insists that taking chances is part of the entrepreneurial game. So too, he says, is staying light on your feet and moving quickly to test markets for a business idea. “Put out a minimum viable product – even if it’s an ugly website – to quickly test the marketplace before you pump a load of money into your idea. Don’t get caught up into thinking that you need to invest a huge amount of money initially. You need to know quickly if customers will buy from you.”
Good broadband infrastructure and skilled staff are requisite for tech-focused business, and Gammell has struggled with both. “We don’t have fibre broadband in the area, though we’ve been told that fibre is on the way later this year. With all my staff waiting for their computers to load websites, the compounded effect of these delays over one year means that they could be sitting for a week twiddling their thumbs.”
For skilled programmers, he has had to hire overseas staff or to outsource projects remotely. “Finding staff is a constant struggle for my company and I spend a lot of money advertising online to get them.”
For people who are mulling a business startup, Gammell’s advice is to find a mentor. “I trace a lot of my success back to the mentorship I received. I don’t think that there’s much the government can do except reinforce the message that mentors are important. It’s essential to go out and talk to business people who are three to five years ahead of you in business. If they followed a similar path, their guidance can save you a lot of time and money.”