Pete Smyth is one of life’s eternal optimists. And, more often than not, that optimism is not misplaced. A successful entrepreneur in his own right, he has backed a string of successful businesses through his investment vehicle Broadlake. He can deliver bad news of course, but even when dismantling business ideas, he manages to do it with a smile and some words of encouragement.
Tom and I had met him on countless occasions as we prepared our business plan for The Currency. He had crunched numbers, dissected projections, and participated in numerous focus groups. Pete had nothing to gain from helping us, but he did all the same, just as he has helped so many other startups.
On September 25, 2019, Pete made his way from his office in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines to our temporary office just off Merrion Square in the heart of the city. That morning, we officially launched the site, and Pete was delivering two bottles of champagne as a gesture of support and congratulations.
Pete had expected to find us in celebratory mode. After all, the entire team had been working tirelessly for months to get us ready for launch. This was the day when it was all coming together.
However, armed with a bottle of champagne in each hand, Pete took one look at Tom and I and asked a very simple question: “What’s wrong?”
As we prepared to go live that morning, it was impossible not to think of the journey that had brought us all there. Exactly one year before, I left the offices of what was then The Sunday Business Post for the last time. I had taken a full-time role with the newspaper while I was still in college, and, just over a decade later, in 2014, I was appointed its Editor. Four years later, however, I felt it was time to leave.
The paper was being sold. My great friend Tom, who had joined the newspaper upon my appointment as editor and subsequently served as the paper’s Deputy Editor and Executive Editor, and I had looked at an MBO, but we were struggling to make the numbers work. Having spent much of the previous four years driving through significant cost reductions, I felt a new owner would be best placed with a new editor.
Plus, as we went through the MBO process, both Tom and I realised that there was an opportunity to build a commercially viable publication if it had the right model and the right cost base. Bluntly, it would be better to start from scratch. We felt the opportunity lay with a purely online publication that focused on in-depth investigations, interviews, and insights. Instead of spending huge sums producing and distributing a physical product in an increasingly digital world, we wanted to reallocate that money towards journalism. We wanted to invert the cost base of traditional publishers.
Within weeks of my departure, Tom left also. We had no income. We had no tech expertise. But we did have an idea.
And on the morning of September 25, that idea became a reality.
And, as the site went live, so much of what had occurred in the previous months went through my head. The moment Francesca and Stephen said they were willing to take a chance. Our first conversation with Thomas that took place in a city centre hotel. Meeting Sean and then Cáit in the same hotel a few weeks later. The walks up and down to Grant Thornton to prepare our projections and our business plans. The initial chats with contributors such as Sam, Constantin, Alison, Rena and Anne. Building the team. Edel coming on board to manage operations. The countless cups of coffee with people who offered advice and encouragement and asked for nothing in return – they all know who they are.
There was, of course, a high-profile detour to the High Court, when Tom and I battled a hard-fought defamation action taken by the businessman Denis O’Brien against our former employer. It set back our new venture by months, but there was no way we were going to sit it out. The issues were too important – both for us personally, but, more importantly, for the ability of journalists in this country to do their jobs.
So, we sat there every day in court, working with the legal team and dealing with the strain of cross-examination. In the end, a jury weighed up all the evidence, and determined that articles written by Tom – a massive story that revealed what the state really knew about the Irish banks at the time of the infamous guarantee – were not defamatory, while the presiding judge awarded costs against the Malta-based millionaire.
There were issues and setbacks and disagreements along the way of course. But, as we launched the site that day, leading with a four-month investigation into IBRC’s epic pursuit of the Quinn family, it was easy to forget them.
And then, about an hour after we had issued a tweet saying that the site was live, the team started to get calls and texts from friends, family, and acquaintances. People wanted to join. But the site simply would not let them.
Stripe is clearly one of those ground-breaking generational companies, a business whose lofty valuation is underpinned by a model that is easy to comprehend but hard to replicate. We follow its success in Ireland because, given its two founders are brothers from Limerick, we feel a parental affinity to it. In reality, however, it is a global company based in the US.
The beauty of Stripe is that you don’t need to understand how it works. All you need to know is that it sits there in the back end of a website funnelling money from one bank account into another, acting as an invisible global conduit of online commerce.
And like any company operating in the burgeoning world of fintech, it must comply with a string of anti-money laundering regulations. And that is where the problems started.
When we launched the site that morning, we had no idea how many people would visit it, never mind how many people would take out their credit cards and become members. We had projections of course. And we had a business plan. But they were artificial numbers dotted over spreadsheets. Now we were preparing to deal with reality, and on that first morning, the reality was way more people tried to join than we anticipated – and they were trying to join at the same time.
For the algorithms within Stripe, this triggered suspicion. The large number of payments coming into a brand-new business and a recently established bank account raised flags. And a surprisingly large volume of payments was coming from overseas. Just as momentum was building in hour one, of day one, Stripe did what it was obliged to do in such circumstances: It shut down its service to us.
The trouble, however, was we did not know this was the problem. Sitting in our small single room temporary office, we were both blind and blind sighted. The immediate suspicion was that the fault lay on our side. But there were no problems on that side. Eventually, it became clear that the issue lay with processing the payments.
Normally, it takes more than a day to remedy this sort of problem with Stripe. This was simply too long for a business that was launched an hour ago, and whose model was based on an initial surge of members. Tom began working his way through his unrivalled rolodex of contacts to make something happen.
Tom and I have something of a chequered relationship with Communicorp, the radio group that was owned by Denis O’Brien until earlier this year. Tom worked as Business Editor for its Newstalk station, while I had guest-presented a range of shows over the years and contributed to a host of programmes. But in the five or so years leading up to the launch of The Currency, the invitations had dried up. And, even when we were invited on, the invitations were quickly withdrawn before we went on air.
It reached a nadir during our time running the editorial side of the Post when the station’s then editor Garrett Harte took offence to a blog that we published criticising the lack of female winners at the national radio awards. Harte was a judge at the awards and asked us to remove the blog, and tell off the writer, with the implication being there would be a price to pay if we didn’t.
We chose not to do anything. After that, I was booked onto, and then cancelled from, Newstalk on more than 20 straight occasions. Tom had a similar experience. It was just the way of things.
We continued to go on Matt Cooper’s show on Today FM, and he wrote for The Sunday Business Post on a regular basis.
However, we were keen to put all that behind us when we launched the new business. We were also determined to put the O’Brien court action behind us, and simply move on. So, we booked a large number of spot ads on Communicorp stations to highlight our launch and began working with its commercial team on developing an ad relationship.
On our launch day, I had been booked on Cooper’s show, The Last Word, to discuss the Quinn investigation. The site was still not processing payments, but we took the decision to honour the booking and go on the show to promote both the story and the product.
A few hours before the recording, however, I got a call from the station. Anyone connected with The Currency had been prohibited from appearing on any of Communicorp’s radio stations with immediate effect.
An email to producers and researchers outlined the justification: “Some of you may have already seen this announcement, there is a new current affairs and news website called thecurrency.news. This site will offer podcasts, events and news stories – competing directly with some of our brand offerings. While we have an advertising relationship (spot ads) with this site, I would ask that we don’t include members/staff of thecurrency.news on our contributors list, presenters or include in panel discussions – as this is a competitor platform.”
The email gave a link to our promotional brochure containing a full list of staff and contributors. It was a startling prohibitive and insular move. We had previously been banned from Newstalk due to a personal grievance by Garrett Harte. The Irish Times, meanwhile, had been barred for an article by Fintan O’Toole criticising the station in the wake of outrageous comments by George Hook. This was far more sinister, as it was essentially commercial censorship. It was unprecedented in Irish media, a staggering abuse of a publicly awarded licence.
This was supposed to be the first day of a new chapter for all of us involved with The Currency. It was now just after lunchtime. The site was not processing payments. And we had been banned from the largest commercial radio group in the country. Plus, we had just transferred €4,000 to that very same group for adverts, which were due to go live.
There is a knock on the door. It is Pete Smyth armed with two bottles of champagne.
As Edel and I dealt with Communicorp – including cancelling our advertisements and getting our money back – Tom had been working some magic with Stripe. The good news was that a fix was imminent, and the payment issue would be resolved shortly.
But the Communicorp ban stung. The advertisements were a key part of getting the message out that the site was live, and a showcase of the type of content it was producing. The interview with Matt Cooper had been a long-standing arrangement, designed to give us a publicity bump. The strategy was now in tatters.
So, Tom proposed an alternative strategy. Remove the paywall and let people make their own decision on the merits of our stories, and the value of a membership.
It was an inspired suggestion, and it was exactly what we did. Instead of asking people for money, we utilised the wonderful service of another wonderful Irish company, Intercom, to ask people for their email addresses. This gave us a significant database within a few hours, all people who were potential members.
And then, we took to Twitter to reveal the ban by Communicorp and our reaction to it: “In response to this move, The Currency is removing the paywall for the rest of the day. Enjoy the content for free. If you like it and want to become a member, please provide us with your email address and we will be in touch,” we tweeted.
The reaction was overwhelming. People flocked to the site to see what Communicorp felt should be censored. Other media outlets picked up on the story, something that highlighted Communicorp’s insecure stance and also brought attention to our own service. Politicians of all parties joined the debate. All were critical of Communicorp. In the days and weeks that followed, it would be discussed in the Dáil, while the Minister for Communications would write to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to state that the decision “appears to be antithetical to the concept of a free and open press”.
Lucy Gaffney, chairwoman of Communicorp Group, later said she was “surprised” that the Minister “chose to communicate with the regulator and not engage in any communication with us directly” and wrote to the minister stating that the group “did not feel it incumbent on our radio stations to promote a brand new, niche, digital competitor”. The letter was released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information act.
By December, Communicorp had lifted the ban. We consulted with the team and decided that until The Irish Times ban was lifted, we had no intention of appearing on the group’s stations.
That was all to come, of course. On the day of our launch, the Communicorp salvo had backfired badly for the O’Brien group (it has since been sold). Site traffic was through the roof. Emails of support were flooding in. The move energised our own team, reminding us all of the true value of journalism, and why it matters.
Thomas had turned up that day with a jumper stating: “Make Journalism Great Again.” It was a lofty ambition. But as Communicorp showed the worst of our industry that day, at least we felt on the right side of the argument. We stood for something.
As the issues unfolded, the team kept working, making calls, fleshing out the next story, lining up the next interview. Everyone had arrived early in the morning to prepare for day one, and they stayed late in the evening laying the groundwork for day two and beyond.
As the sun came down and the day ended, we sat down, uncorked the two bottles of champagne and shared a glass with silent smiles.
Two years later, the launch team remains robustly intact, bolstered by new recruits such as Dion, and new columnists such as Eoin O’Shea, Paul Flynn, Sinead O’Sullivan, and Tommie Gorman. Our roster of freelance writers has grown too, as has the volume of articles that we publish. We said at the outset of the project that our ambition was to keep investing as we grew. And that is what we have done. Since launch, we have spent more than €1.2 million directly on journalism – wages, freelance commissions and columnist fees. And we want to grow that to keep growing as we grow in the future.
For Tom and me – and the entire team – it has been an amazing journey. We have covered start-ups for years as part of our jobs. This time, however, we were on the inside of one. It has exposed us to the pressures and exhilaration, and the highs and lows of business. And the journey is only just beginning as the pandemic hopefully subsides.
On behalf of all the team, I want to thank everyone who supported us along the way. They know who they are. We know who they are. We could not have done it without you.