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My Griffith Story: Cian O'Dowd: A meeting with Ireland's richest man that changed my life

5 min

For the past 18 months, Griffith alumnus Cian O’Dowd has been at the helm of Digicel’s new eCommerce business RedBarrel, which is the Caribbean’s first online marketplace. He is certainly flying high with his current venture and its success so far!

Identifying an eCommerce opportunity

In his current role as eCommerce Commercial Manager, Cian’s main focus has been on innovation and development. In 2016, Cian was asked by founder of Digicel, Denis O’Brien, one of Ireland’s leading businessmen and Griffith College honorary fellow, to explore potential eCommerce opportunities in the Caribbean, in order to diversify Digicel’s traditional telecommunications business. 

After hearing Denis speak at a Dublin business event Cian had made a point of introducing himself. At the time, Cian was studying a BA in Business and Law at Griffith College and was keen to get some career advice. This exchange led to them keeping in contact whilst Cian continued his postgraduate studies in China and the US. Cian was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with O'Brien and after meeting up in New York to discuss what opportunities there might be, Cian soon found himself moving to St Lucia to establish Digicel’s recently opened eCommerce office. In response to the devastating hurricane in Haiti in 2016 that destroyed 200,000 homes, O'Brien challenged Cian and the team to develop a business that would quickly bring humanitarian aid to the 1.4 million people in need.

The result was Food Transfer, an online store purely for Haitians, Haitian diaspora and people who wanted to donate, to order and deliver food and essential products to Haiti within two days. This successful venture confirmed that establishing an eCommerce business was possible even in a country where the infrastructure had been destroyed. 

The evolution of RedBarrel

When Cian arrived in St Lucia in 2016 he soon identified problems caused by the lack of eCommerce. He discovered that local businesses, such as taxi drivers, were vulnerable to closure because they could not easily obtain replacement parts locally and ordering from overseas was a lengthy process. He also realised that overall the local retail market was weak. Even commonplace products like televisions, were hard to come by. I

In fact, without services such as Amazon, Alibaba or eBay operating in the Caribbean, local inhabitants – that is 50 million consumers with an average age of 25 - faced a complicated and expensive process if they wished to purchase products online. When RedBarrel was launched in November 2017, covering the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad, communities in this region suddenly had access to one million products with guaranteed delivery within 3-5 days. Ultimately, the establishment of RedBarrel has changed people's lives for the better.

RedBarrel’s legacy

RedBarrel has had a profound impact on the local economy. Currently staffed by a small team of ex-pats in St. Lucia, the hope is that local graduates from St Lucia, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad will eventually take over the running of the business. Cian hopes RedBarrel will make a small contribution towards keeping talented young Caribbean people in the area and reversing the emigration of skilled labour in the region.

How has Cian’s qualification from Griffith College helped him professionally?

The knowledge Cian gained whilst studying for his dual BA in Business and Law at Griffith College was invaluable as he embarked on the long process that culminated in the launch of RedBarrel.  He was able to research the market, carry out a SWOT analysis, establish relationships with strategic logistic partners DHL and eBay and recruit and train local people.

Knowing how to interpret legal documents; understanding how trade, taxation and data protection laws impact on an eCommerce business; and having a thorough grasp of Human Resources issues all contributed to the success of this venture. Cian is grateful to Griffith College, especially to Diarmuid Hegarty and Ronan Fenelon, who encouraged him to enrol on a degree course. He believes that his fortuitous meeting with them set him on his present career path, and his experience as an active member of the Griffith College student community strengthened his determination to engage with others and never miss an opportunity to network.

Cian’s working day

Cian’s role is no average 9-5 job. He explains that starting a business is “super-fun” but also very demanding and all consuming. Usually working 6-7 days each week means he’s not had much chance to enjoy the Caribbean beaches and still has what he describes as a “start-up tan” from spending all his time in the office! Managing two development teams, one in India and another local team, plus reporting to Digicel senior management based in Jamaica and Ireland, means that scheduling meetings across multiple time zones can be tricky.

An average day for Cian may start with talking to the Indian team about development and designing code, then discussing banners, advertising and online strategies with the Trinidad-based marketing team, and after that reviewing how they can serve customers better with the customer care team in St Lucia. Next on the list might be talking to strategic partner DHL on how to manage their Fulfilment Center in Miami and get packages delivered quicker. Cian loves the challenge of working on multiple aspects of the business. 

 eCommerce – a burgeoning sector

Cian points out that although many of us access online business services every day it is still a niche sector that holds exciting long-term prospects for entrepreneurs, especially in emerging markets. Worldwide eCommerce has experienced explosive growth over the past decade and in 2016 the IPC predicted that global eCommerce sales would increase by 141% by 2021. Unlike any other sector, a huge amount of consumer data is available and affects how you approach the market, market your business, and sell your product. So Cian believes that having an expert understanding of how to analyse this data and draw conclusions that are going to steer your decision-making is essential.

The future

Ultimately Cian’s ambition is to start his own business. Starting a business can mean many sleepless nights, but as Cian has seen first-hand with RedBarrel, it is also incredibly exciting. It won’t happen just yet though as he feels there is still plenty to learn before he takes the big leap.

We look forward to hearing about Cian’s future successes in eCommerce!

If you would like to get in contact with Cian to find out more please visit his linkedin profile or find him on the Griffith Alumni Network.