Learning Pool Origins: Interview with Group CEO, Paul McElvaney

The seed of growth

Our Group CEO, Paul McElvaney started Learning Pool from his kitchen table, but he hasn’t always worked in elearning. From humble beginnings to the 260 employee strong company he’s built today, we let Paul tell his story on the origins of Learning Pool.

Paul grew up in Monaghan, a county of Ireland – province of Ulster. A hard worker all his life, Paul began by helping out on the family poultry farm. Of this experience, he has said “while my mates were out enjoying themselves at the weekend, I was out collecting eggs and washing the delivery vans.” But if it taught just one thing, it was that he didn’t want to be a farmer!

After deciding that joining the family business wasn’t for him, Paul studied Communications at Ulster University. Not only did he gain a qualification, this is also where he met his wife, Louise. Following University, Paul undertook a postgraduate course at UCD’s Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. This gained Paul valuable experience and managed to secure him a job with Electronic Data Systems, a technology company that would later be acquired by Hewlett-Packard. In this new role, Paul travelled extensively and gained a lot of experience along the way. 

It was around this time, in 2004 that Paul moved to Derry. He was working for an American tech company and Louise was with a German bank but they were never in the country at the same time. The decision to move to Derry was a tough one but Paul felt that they would find a better work-life balance in the Maiden City. Paul liked the idea of being near the coast and perhaps learning to surf. Three children and a thriving business later, Paul and Louise remain in Derry. 

 

Learning Pool was born

Now settled in Derry and a wealth of experience amassed over the years, Paul found himself providing IT consultancy services to local authorities that were investing heavily in e-government solutions. It was here that Paul saw an opportunity – to develop online training content. Thus, Learning Pool was born. 

Paul started by knocking on local authority doors across Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Learning Pool was offering something different – instead of paying fees upfront, organizations would pay a subscription fee. This became a huge selling point of the business which saw it become the successful company is it today. Software as a service (SaaS) is now the norm but at the time it was highly unusual. But Learning Pool could see that organizations couldn’t afford the upfront investment, especially within the tight budgets of a local authority. 

With momentum in full swing, Paul rented his first office. He hired graduates fresh out of college to keep costs down and bootstrapped the business. It was tough in the early years – there was constant fear of not being able to pay people at the end of the month and with the downturn in 2008, funding slowly disappeared. 

But Learning Pool had a value proposition that was a cost saver for customers and the company was also coming from a very low-cost base. The years between 2011 – 2013 were hard; the company needed to continue forward and grow to scale. We took plenty of chances in building out the team in anticipation of the work that would eventually come. It came, but it was always very tight.

By 2016, the economy had grown and investment for the company came from a private equity firm, Carlyle Cardinal Ireland. This helped accelerate the growth of Learning Pool and enabled Paul to make his first acquisition. 

Learning Pool today is made up of over 260 staff and growing, with the aim of employing 500 people in Derry (and more across the UK). COVID-19 put some pressure to press pause on expansion plans within the US, but we’re now full steam ahead with the 2019 acquisition of HT2 Labs and most recently, Remote Learner. Thankfully, the pandemic hasn’t stopped Learning Pool from obtaining new clients, in fact, it landed its largest ever client in July 2020 – an American company employing over one million people. 

He may be the Group CEO of a fast-growing technology company, but we’re sure you’re all now wondering, does Paul surf? “My children do, he says.  

To find out more about Learning Pool, visit our history page.

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