Career development

Living on the Edge: The Cutting Edge

Tim Duggan discusses his serial entrepreneurship and how it brought him to his current venture developing software for oil and gas. He also discusses the success factors for an entrepreneur

hand using cellphone against colorful background

I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Growing up, I was saturated with the challenges and daily struggles but also the excitement and certain freedoms that entrepreneurship can bring. It was incredibly thrilling around our dinner table listening to stories from my dad, mother, and sister, who all were in business for themselves: Dad would teach me about oil exploration and drilling, Mum would teach me about handling staff and cash flow, and my sister would explain to me about growing value in a product.

By definition, an entrepreneur starts a business by taking on great financial risk to turn innovation into reality. Managing the risk and ensuring the business does not fail are the exciting parts. With great risk can come great reward, but beware that sometimes risk only returns intangible rewards of knowledge and experience rather than tangible, monetary ones.

At the age of 21, I started my first media company, Mercury Boy Inc. After 3 years, it grew to the point where I made a nice living for myself, while my friends went to college and traveled around the world.

Still in the pre-iPhone era, I then had the opportunity to work for a small mobile marketing and technology organization called Mount Wilson. At the young age of 24, I was fortunate to be given a lot of control and a large development investment budget. Soon thereafter, I was learning the ropes of the mobile and tech business from my older colleagues. In the organization, we worked with large global names to deliver quite a number of deployments across Internet, iOS, Android, and Blackberry platforms, but I was always looking for a product I could personally bring to market. Having identified creative ways to deploy apps, I sought the opportunity to apply the technology unhindered by established or onerous protocol.

After 3 years in the company, I decided to leave and start a software and Web services company, Mercury Digital, with a focus on Web/mobile-platform design and technology.

Throughout my life, my father—Peter Duggan, a senior drilling supervisor—shared insights with me regarding the oil exploration industry and gaps where technology could be used. I had understudied him my whole life and quizzed him about exploration drilling over the dinner table or when we were on holiday.

One day after my dad came back from a drilling operation in the North Sea, he told me about a €6-million problem the operation had experienced due to a stuck pipe incident. He said he could prove it was due to some errors in the calculations of a junior engineer.

When I asked my dad how the calculations were validated, he said it was done the same way everyone else did it: They used a pen, paper, and some Excel sheets.

I was amazed to find out there was no calculation database, no automated quality-checking method, and no sharing or reporting of these calculations, which are mission-critical for efficient and safe drilling.

I rapidly started thinking of a solution to fix this problem. I traveled around Europe to talk with senior drilling engineers and drilling planners—and found out everyone experienced the same problem as my father. At that point, I realized I was on the cusp of something big.

While developing and introducing this change to the oil industry, I learned a lot about drilling and exploration from top-notch industry experts, some of whom I now count as advisors to my present company, Skynet Labs, which I formed to help change how oil and gas drilling calculations are being deployed. We started with mobile applications that deliver field calculations to field engineers’ mobile devices. Our larger products facilitate bringing field data back to the office, enabling smart analysis of drilling and field data.

Success Factors

Personally, I have found that three things need to be in place simultaneously for success to occur: a relevant idea in a high-value industry, access to financing for the idea, and timing.

Regardless of the industry or idea, if two of these three things do not align, it is impossible to move ahead.

Good concepts and ideas are a dime a dozen; execution is the key consideration in determining a concept’s success.

Value Your Mentors—Having a sound and sage group of mentors around you is particularly important for an entrepreneur. I have a group of eight business mentors who help me when I need advice on key parts of the oil and gas business.

Mentors act as a sounding board for your ideas. They give your ideas a health check to see if they can surmount existing and potential future barriers. They also help test your hypotheses and help you stay on course.

Fail Fast—There are many lessons I’ve learned over the last 9 years in business, but one sticks out the most: Fail fast. If you have an idea and get some validation early on, this is great. I have had what I would call soft failures in business whereby it was my money that was lost on concepts that did not go anywhere.

I started a content website around 2004 with two partners. We all put in some investment of money and time and, while the business was a runaway success, there was not a large business there. So when we were offered a large content contract, we took it and delivered on the contract.

However, we later identified that while it was good then, it would have been best to wind up the business at the end of that contract as the model would not scale.

Deciding not to fail fast can waste time, energy, and money, which are valuable commodities in starting up a business.

Face the Realities of Entrepreurship—Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle and impacts every waking hour (and probably impacts the quality of sleep you get).

You will forget to return close friends’ phone calls. At times, when deeply focused, you will forget you have loved ones back home.

Every day in a startup is like waking up to a new world where you drive to an unknown destination. Most of the time this is exciting: sometimes this is scary; and sometimes it is the greatest thing in the world.

To enjoy it, let it be something you are passionate about, and let it be this that makes you almost run into the office while keeping in sight where you want to drive to.

Final Note

To summarize, entrepreneurship is not something for everyone, and there are many clear pitfalls.

Coming from someone who has gone down that road, I’ve found you do need to give everything you have to it for it to be successful; however, it is possible you may never get to the level of success you desire.

In order to be successful, you will have failures, but hopefully they are not career-ending, and you have enough mentors and friends to pull you back up again so you can try again.

Tim Duggan is the founder and chief executive officer of Skynet Labs, a venture-capital-backed technology startup developing secure real-time oil and gas analysis and optimization software. In 18 months, Duggan has led the company through two accelerator programmers: one in Dublin, Ireland, and the other energy- and oil-technology-specific in Houston, Texas. He has secured investment funding, sealed partnership contracts, and fostered a multinational team of 18 dedicated professionals located in Dublin and Houston offices to deliver software product to market. Duggan’s expertise in business development and digital technology is broad and deep. He learned about the oil and gas industry, specifically exploration and drilling dynamics, at a very young age from his father who was a 45-year industry veteran. Duggan also has 10 years’ digital media experience.