Paul Kenny: Early developer grows in stature

Profile: Paul Kenny, the man behind the Cobone.com daily-deals website, has shown he has a lot of nerve. He launched the start-up with little experience of the market and none at all of running a company. Today, he is a major regional player. And he is not yet 30 years old.
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National

Paul Kenny rises at six every morning to hit the gym. He has to stay fit if he is to stay on top of his hobby, which has turned into an all-consuming passion.

"My hobby is business. My hobby is making money, if I'm totally honest," he admits.

Mr Kenny is the chief executive of the biggest company of its kind in the Middle East, Cobone.com, a daily-deals website.

He was recently nominated for the global Entrepreneur of the Year award 2012 by Ernst and Young, as well as the Gulf Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 by Gulf Business.

As a commercial ambassador for Ireland, Mr Kenny encourages start-ups from the region to set up in the Emerald Isle, while he himself invests in small businesses throughout the region.

He is 28.

Sitting down for breakfast at 8am in a French cafe, Mr Kenny orders English breakfast tea, orange juice, viennoiserie, a sort of bread, and a mushroom omelette.

He has been to the gym already, so is understandably hungry.

Wearing a casual polo shirt and jeans, Mr Kenny claims to be quite timid, despite the accolade of nominations and the seemingly constant public relations drive to raise the profile of Cobone.com.

"What's weird is I'm an extremely shy person," he says.

"But when I'm in a business environment I'm not shy. If you put me in this room and said, 'Go and speak to someone,' I'd hate it. It was a huge step up for me to run this company ... it's still quite daunting."

As daunting as it may be, in just less than two years, Mr Kenny has grown Cobone from a start-up daily-deals site to a business with 1.6 million email subscribers.

In the UAE group-buying market with more than 20 sites, Cobone battles with just one major competitor, Groupon, the global leader.

Mr Kenny is not shy in keeping his ear to the ground and appears always abreast of everything that goes on in the industry.

"I always want to make sure my competitors wake up thinking about me more than their business," he says.

"You know you are doing something right when you are … stepping on toes. Any entrepreneur would know that you are there to disrupt the norm."

"If people don't want to compete, then don't play. You can't expect to go into a company and never have a competitor," he adds.

It is certainly fighting talk from the softly-spoken Irishman.

But it has to be because Cobone is working in an incredibly competitive daily-deals market that only last month claimed the scalp of LivingSocial, generally deemed to be the second-biggest player worldwide.

The company, based in Washington, exited the Middle East, having bought local startup GoNabit for an undisclosed sum last year.

Mr Kenny started Cobone some months after GoNabit had launched in the Middle East at the end of 2010.

But it was a case of job-hopping for Mr Kenny before that point.

Originally from the west of Ireland, Mr Kenny first set foot in Dubai in 2004 when he was on holiday with his parents, who work in and are part-owners of Kennys Bookshop and Art Gallery, which Mr Kenny claims to be the second bookstore in the world to have gone online.

Even in 2004, Mr Kenny was thinking about possible business ideas.

"First thing I did was go online and see if you could buy a book online. And you couldn't," he says.

"I came up with the idea of exporting books from Ireland to here. Stupid idea. Yeah, for whatever reason, that didn't come true."

Mr Kenny stayed with his parents at Emirates Towers and it was there he became acquainted with the Jumeirah brand.

In his second year of a masters degree in management information systems at National University of Ireland, Galway, he applied for an internship at Jumeirah Group and was hired on $1,000 (Dh3,673) per month.

The silver-tongued Irishman then sweet-talked his way on to future leaders fast-track programme, called Aspiro at Jumeirah, and was well on his way to becoming an executive within one of the UAE's best-known brands.

But then he needed to get some new tyres for his Jeep Wrangler.And that threw a spanner in the works.

On his wage, he could not afford the Dh3,000 outlay and asked for a pay rise, which was rejected, so Mr Kenny promptly quit.

"I have no patience when it comes to these perceived ladders that you need to be an assistant manager before you can become a manager before you can become a director," he says.

After a short stint at AMEInfo.com, a business information portal, Mr Kenny landed himself a job at Emirates Group as an online marketing consultant.

But the bureaucratic ceiling got in the way again and so he quit to start Cobone.com.

He approached Oliver Jung, an entrepreneur from Germany who invested in Facebook early on and had previously asked Mr Kenny to help set up Sukar.com, the invitation-only e-commerce website.

Mr Jung and Jabbar Internet Group agreed to fund the project and offered Mr Kenny support.

There was only one problem. Then 25, Mr Kenny had never done anything like it before.

"I had never raised capital before in my life. I had never managed someone before, I had never had a team. I didn't know what to do. How to set up a company. I had never really hired anyone before. All these things you would expect of someone about to launch his own company," he says.

"I had a bank account full of money and they said, 'You've sent us a business plan now hit it." I was like what do I do?"

But he soon found his feet and Cobone is now a well-recognised name throughout the UAE.

It is not yet clear if the website is profitable and rumours circulate in the market suggesting Mr Kenny is looking for a buyer. But he dismisses such talk and says the website has a three to five-year plan that he needs to execute.

He has a turn of phrase that would not be out of place in a business book. "I always hire people that are 100 times better than me because at the end of the day I look good in front of my board," is one example.

"There's two types of people in the world. There's managers and there's entrepreneurs. I spend 95 per cent of my time being a manager and 5 per cent being a entrepreneur but it is that 5 per cent that changes the company. That 5 per cent is more valuable than the 95 per cent," is another colourful quote.

But Mr Kenny has read or written no such book and he is not relaying cliches. These attitudes are just ingrained in his entrepreneurial spirit.

Golf might go a long way to explaining Mr Kenny's personality.

At the age of 15 at school in his transition year, a year when school children in Ireland work in the community, study different subjects and do a lot of sport, Mr Kenny decided to pursue a career as a professional golfer, having won a nationwide tournament.

Up at six every day, playing as much as three rounds of golf, he certainly built up a self-sufficient mentality that is evident today.

When he realised he would not cut it as a golf pro, he went back to school to do his final two years,.

His decision illustrated one of the classic characters of every successful entrepreneur - knowing the extent of his abilities.

rjones@thenational.ae

Published: September 21, 2012 04:00 AM

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