You’ve probably noticed by now that digital payments are everywhere. It’s not just the fancy McDonalds down the street anymore, it’s the local mom-and-pop restaurants and antique stores too.
It’s hard to ignore the trends. According to McKinsey, 82 percent of Americans use digital payments today. Even tech-averse companies can’t afford to miss 82 percent of the population.
Ciaran Savage created his business, Card Industry Professionals (CIP), to help UK businesses embrace digital-card payments. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment idea. Ciaran spent his childhood watching and learning from his mother who helped cash businesses switch to cards. After establishing CIP, he even brought his mother along as his cofounder.
Four years after its inception, CIP has helped thousands of businesses throughout the UK integrate digital payments, won a partnership with PayPal’s Zettle, and earned $1.6 million in revenue this year. Ciaran made Forbes Europe’s 30 under 30 last year and is on the brink of a meteoric career at 29.
He sat down with us the other day to tell us how it all happened.
Mother Knows Best
Ciaran credits his mother, Lyn Savage, with teaching him how to be an entrepreneur.
“My mom started in the payments industry 25 years ago,” he says. “She helped grow and scale several companies similar to CIP. She’d partner with a bank and process sales applications between them and retail merchants. I’d come home from school and see her working until late into the evening. By the time I started working, I already knew all the terminology and the names in the industry.”
Having an entrepreneurial mother had perks for his career too. When he was 18, Ciaran worked part-time as a field rep at his mother’s company, Paymentsense. While there, he met with merchants around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire to introduce them to card payments.
After Paymentsense, Ciaran followed his love of sales to work as a telemarketer for a prominent player in the electronic payments industry called Payzone UK. However, he began to realize his growth opportunities were limited. He also saw a better way of doing digital payments.
“In 2017, I couldn’t see any short route to climb the corporate ladder,” he says. “I also felt there wasn’t enough transparency for individual merchants regarding electronic payment pricing.”
Ciaran saw a disconnect between how much payments processors charged and what businesses expected. “Some payment apps like Zettle by Paypal run on a pay-as-you-go, fixed-price model. In 2017, this was still pretty new for independent businesses. There was a lot of skepticism and scare-mongering about these new systems. I thought this was somewhere I could add a lot of value and I had a gut feeling that I could do this myself.”
With no savings, Ciaran started CIP and followed the playbook he’d learned from his mother for onboarding customers. In a year, business picked up and he turned to a familiar face for help.
“In the summer of 2018, I had a lot of traction with a cluster of businesses up in Scotland. It was enough business that I started attracting sales reps,” says Ciaran. “I then asked my mom to become operations director and asked her business partner at Paymentsense, John Selby, to be CIP’s sales director.”
With 25 years of industry contacts from Ciaran’s new cofounders, the team was ready to grow fast in 2018. Fast enough to start working with banks.
“The goal was that by the end of the year we would get contracts with some of the banks and work alongside them,” Ciaran says. “By early 2019, we agreed a contract with Zettle. They’re a business similar to Square owned by PayPal merchant services. The managing director reached out to me via LinkedIn to work together to help merchants build more knowledge about the platform. We also got a contract with EVO Payments, another American payments company operating globally.”
While business for CIP increased quickly before COVID, it grew exponentially after. When the UK went into lockdowns in 2020, its businesses had to switch to digital payments or risk going under. Suddenly, everyone needed a partner like CIP to help them transition into this new world.
Ciaran says in their first year of operation, CIP’s revenue was £36,000 (~$48,000). In year two, they reached £360,000 in ARR (~$480,000). In 2021, they hit £1.2 million (~$1.6 million) with a team of 11 full-time employees and growing. That same year, CIP won multiple awards including Ciaran’s Forbes 30 Under 30 award.
Teaching Old Businesses New Tech
Card Industry Professionals helps businesses around the UK offer card payments and other payment tech in their stores. Its mission is to demystify electronic payments and make pricing more transparent for less tech-savvy businesses.
“On platforms like Zettle there are no contracts, just flat rates,” says Ciaran. “Many established businesses are still wary of these tools because they want to feel more supported. We can help with that.”
CIP reaches customers and gains their trust the old-fashioned way: cold calling and in-person meetings. “We’ll sit down with merchants, look at what they’re using for payments, and discuss their pain points,” he says. “Most merchants have one or two particular pain points like increasing costs or unreliable tech. We try to say, ‘Here is the solution for that with either some hardware or some software.’”
Though he has partnerships with specific providers, Ciaran says he still tries to offer his clients a range of products. “I’ve never wanted to shoehorn a merchant into one product that may not solve their problem. Many of our clients don’t know there are multiple options available to them.”
CIP doesn’t just peddle high-level fintech either. Sometimes businesses just want physical card readers. “If they want to push buttons on a machine, that’s okay too. We can set that up”
CIP takes a small cut of revenue increases from any new software they help bring on board. That means if a business makes $500 more than normal in a month, CIP takes a small chunk of that $500.They also earn commissions from partners like Zettle for selling hardware.
It’s not a one-time sale either. CIP stays in touch with clients to make sure they know about new tech and what it can do for their business. “After our partners have been with us a few years, we try to come in and help them update everything with either a cross-sale or an upgrade,” says Ciaran.
Marketing Through Word-of-Mouth
Building a business on personal relationships was slow at first, but Ciaran says his rapport with clients compounded growth through word-of-mouth.
“I found if I could listen to a merchant and get that long-term relationship with them, they would refer me to other merchants and family members,” he says. “The majority of CIP is self-generated in communities instead of online. Since our sell is ‘Let’s sit down together and discuss your options,’ we have trouble generating leads online.”
Is It Hard to Work With Your Mother?
Though it may sound like a headache to some, Ciaran says he has a great working relationship with his mother and he hopes to emulate her in his career.
“It’s pretty easy working with her,” he says. “While I was working under her I recognized she was quite good at management and people skills. Today she still keeps up with former employees who worked with her years ago, even if they are at rival companies. I hope that I can be like that one day.”
Why Operating at the Tail of an Industry Is Better
Ciaran says that while he stays up to date on the latest products and industry news, it isn’t his business to keep up with the front wave of industry innovation.
“I am building a company focused on the late adopters of innovation,” he says. “If I tried to get the latest technology in front of them, I think many wouldn’t want to adopt it. Open banking and P2P payments won’t be adopted by the average butcher or hair salon anytime soon. However, I hope I can help these merchants adapt faster as my network gets larger.”
The first to the market are the ones that accelerate growth, but it’s not always best to be the first.
Ciaran believes the tail end of the industry is a better place to be as a new business. “The first to the market are the ones that accelerate growth, but it’s not always best to be the first,” he says. “In my business, I can already see what is developing right now and can prepare for it.”
And even the tail of the industry has begun to evolve. Today, Ciaran says merchants in the UK are generally well-versed in card payments. They are increasingly interested in linking their card payments to bookkeeping and viewing statistics. “Even if it’s just a salon or florist they want to learn some of this stuff,” he says.
Ciaran’s advice to other founders: Don’t worry about growing quickly. There are many tools to help businesses scale at whatever pace they want.
You don’t have to be a seven-figure business straight away.
“You don’t have to be a seven-figure business straight away,” he says. “You can take it step-by-step. You just have to keep showing up and staying consistent. I still remember my fear of hiring my first employee. I didn’t realize I had so many other options I could use first like part-time employees or graduates to come into the business for a year.”
Ciaran’s business highlights a growing need in tech: intermediary businesses that help stragglers integrate technology. With everyone clamoring to make global tech solutions, it’s easy to forget about the brick-and-mortar businesses just figuring out the internet. Many of these businesses are very profitable and are willing to pay businesses to swing by and tell them what’s going on.
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