‘I’ve never been for a job interview’: Martin McKay on betting the family farm

Texthelp founder named EY Entrepreneur of the Year before Christmas

Dressed in a checked tweed jacket, purple polo-necked jumper and paisley scarf, the dapper Martin McKay’s colour schemes are more than enough to brighten a wet and windy January morning in Belfast. In the restaurant of the Hilton Hotel, overlooked in the near distance by the twin Harland and Wolfe cranes that dominate the city’s skyline, the Upperlands, Co Derry, native’s sartorial panache makes him stand out.

Was he always a snappy dresser — “a peacock”, as he himself ventures? “No. Do you know what, a few years ago I decided that if I was going to be at the front of this thing, I had better smarten myself up.”

The effort has been worth it, or so it would appear.

The company employs 350 people, the majority of them in Antrim town and about 100 people at its main US office just north of Boston

Having once been content to work behind the scenes of Texthelp — the assistive educational technology company he founded in 1996 — as the chief technology officer, McKay stuck his head above the parapet in 2020 when he moved into the hot seat as chief executive. The company generated revenues of £27 million (€31 million) in 2021, up 22 per cent from a year earlier, and expects to double its 2020 turnover in 2022. With operations in the UK, Sweden, Norway and Australia, the company employs 350 people, the majority of them in Antrim town and about 100 at its main US office just north of Boston.


It has also grown substantially in recent years, after acquiring Sweden-based assistive tech group Oribi in October last year; the ed-tech division of Don Johnston, a US-based assistive technology company, in January 2022; and Danish firm Wizkids in July 2021. All of this has been made possible by injections of cash, most recently from Five Arrows Capital, the private equity arm of Rothschild & Co, which led a funding round in December 2020.

“I think the market we operate in needed to be consolidated,” says McKay. “Lots of markets go through that phase and I think I was fortunate enough to find investors who believed that I could get it done.”

He says the integration of those companies has been “very successful” for the business, giving it a 20 per cent slice of the overall US market for assistive literacy software. But Texthelp is also focused on organic growth, McKay says, with plans to introduce its maths programmes to current users and expand its footprint, particularly in the US. “We could easily grow our market penetration from 20 to 40 per cent and introduce the math products and that would deliver a good deal of growth.”

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To top it all off, McKay was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year (EoY) at the annual awards ceremony in November, the first to take place in person since the start of the pandemic.

Since then, “it’s been crazy”, says McKay. “LinkedIn has been bonkers. So many people have reached out to me and it’s really helped us to get noticed. It’s given us a lot more visibility. It’s really helping to open doors.”

For anyone who knows anything about him and his business, there was an inarguable sense of symmetry to McKay’s victory in the weeks that followed. Shortly after the ceremony in the Powerscourt Hotel, his 81-year-old father, William “Willie” McKay died at home surrounded by his family. It was Willie’s own long-term medical circumstances that had provided Martin with the initial inspiration for Texthelp.

When Martin was 11 or 12, his then 39-year-old dad suffered a debilitating stroke on the family farm. “It was a profound disability to get a young age,” he says. “It had a huge impact on us. It wasn’t just the physical disability — he wasn’t able to farm and do things physically anymore — but he couldn’t communicate. Communication was really difficult for him.”

The following Christmas, McKay, the quintessential 1980s “geeky kid”, was gifted a computer. “It was a good wee yoke,” he says. “It had text-to-speech and so I was able to start playing around with it and thought about making something to help him communicate. Now, he never used it,” adds McKay, laughing. “He wasn’t very technically oriented. But that was always in my head and as soon as I was old enough, I started it as a business.”

I had gone to my family and asked them to help me and they backed me with the deeds for part of the farm

—  Martin McKay

More than just the inspiration for the business, McKay’s father and family also made a more material contribution to the business in its early days.

“I needed some capital at the very beginning,” he says. “So I had gone to my family and asked them to help me and they backed me with the deeds for part of the farm. So they kind of bet the farm.”

But that wasn’t the end of the teething problems and Texthelp faced a cash flow crisis shortly thereafter. “I remember being in a meeting and thinking that this isn’t going to work out. I was actually rehearsing going home and telling my dad that it hadn’t worked.” Happily, McKay was able to secure additional funding to help the company out of its hole and guarantee its survival.

Willie, unfortunately, was too ill to attend the EoY awards ceremony in December to celebrate his son’s success. “But do you know what,” McKay says, “my family were all at home and they were able to stream it for him. So he was in his bed, but he was able to watch it live on screen before he passed away.” For this at least, McKay, who begins each day by writing down his daily “gratitudes”, is grateful. “I think [he and his three siblings], were all very impacted by my dad,” he says. “I ended up doing what I’m doing. My elder sister got into healthcare. My younger sister did psychology and then computing and she actually worked in the business for a little while. And my brother continues to farm and he’s very successful.”

Getting into business for himself was always McKay’s main ambition and, in a way, his only option. He could never picture himself having a boss, and agriculture wasn’t going to work either. A self-described teenage tearaway, McKay says his academic history was “colourful” to say the least.

“I started out doing agricultural microbiology at Queen’s, did that for a year,” he says. “I really didn’t like it. I don’t even know why I did it. I think I was too young and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So then took another year and did a couple more A-Levels and switched and did computing. I only did two years of that and then I dropped out. I’ve never been for a job interview. I’ve never applied for a job. I just don’t think that’s in my psyche. When I was growing up, everybody who worked around the farm, they were all self-employed. Like, I had an uncle who built a house and [everyone who worked on it] was a family member. One guy was a plumber. Another guy was an electrician. I never saw people who worked for other people.”

The business really started with a focus on helping people like his father whose communication and literacy skills were affected by profound disabilities

Texthelp started in an office in the village of Kilrea, Co Derry, not far from the McKay family farm. Martin’s uncle owned an insurance company in the area and he began letting an office from him, allowing him the space and freedom to write software every day.

The business really started with a focus on helping people like his father whose communication and literacy skills were affected by profound disabilities like cerebral palsy, motor neuron disease and stroke.

“My first customer for assistive technology was Musgrave Park Hospital,” explains McKay. “They have a rehabilitation centre there and they had an open day and we showed them the software. And that’s where it started.”

Everything changed when he met a teacher from Scotland, to whom he credits the vital pivot that Texthelp would make. “She said that she had one student with cerebral palsy and about 200 with dyslexia,” he says. “And there was really nothing there for them. That’s where the whole thing started off because some of the software that we had written — the text-to-speech and word prediction, which was really meant to accelerate the typing for people who couldn’t move — turns out that’s really useful for dyslexic people because they start to type a word, we complete it for them. They don’t have to wrestle with it, make spelling mistakes and typing twice as much.”

In those days, his hero was Bill Gates. “I just thought he was incredible,” he says. “He had a really good, clear vision of the future. I completely copied some of [Microsoft’s] marketing ideas. Well, maybe not copied but, you know, imitation is a sincere form of flattery.”

Routines and finding terra firma is important to McKay, who has spent a lot of his time at Texthelp travelling the world, pitching to investors and dealing with customers. The business is truly global, generating more than half of it in the United States last year and he’s been travelling back and forth there on business since the late 1990s.

It is no secret that the issue of education and its funding are increasingly becoming hot-button political issues in the US, another theatre in the so-called “culture wars” that have gripped American politics over the past couple of decades. How does Texthelp manage to navigate this increasingly treacherous terrain? It’s all about developing relationships, he says.

I have this breathing thing that I do. I meditate and then I sit down and write down my gratitudes and what I’m grateful for

—  Martin McKay

“When you get to the state level, it does become a little bit more complex. There are kind of more political things you have to deal with. Understanding who the state players are and what their motivations are and what they’re trying to achieve and then making sure that you’re in alignment with them [is key], because if you’re in alignment with them, you’re going to make them look good,” he says.

There is a clear urban-rural and coastal-heartland divide, explains McKay. “If you go to the rural states or the midwest where there’s more agricultural economy, there aren’t as many huge cities and there are a lot of small school districts. Then, you often don’t have that kind of kind of superstar vision for kids in special education and we have to work hard there. That’s often where you have to get to the state level, influence them and kind of get someone who believes in that vision.”

With numerous plates spinning all the time, McKay — who sticks to a strict regimen at the start of each day to which he credits his best ideas — has a need to stay grounded.

The clock goes off at 5.30am each day at which point he goes walking for an hour with his dog near his home, a rebuilt farmhouse in the countryside just south of Belfast.

“Then I breathe,” he says. “I have this breathing thing that I do. I meditate and then I sit down and write down my gratitudes and what I’m grateful for, what I’m looking forward to and make a bit of a plan for the day. By that stage then, my wife is up and we chitchat. Then I go to the gym and have an ice bath.

“The ice bath is probably the hardest thing I do in any day,” he says. “It makes difficult meetings a breeze. If you get into the cold water in the morning, that’s always the hardest thing. It’s just that my wife is not that happy that it’s in one of her spare bedrooms at the moment.”


Name: Martin McKay.

Age: 52.

Family: Married to Fiona, they have two children, a 20-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son.

Lives: In the countryside just south of Belfast.

Hobbies: He loves to fly fish in the summer and does some shooting in the winter.

Something you might expect: He wants to reach one billion people with his assistive technology.

Something that might surprise: He’s a bit of a party animal. “I do like a social occasion. Nice food, a splash of drink and a bit of craic.”

Ian Curran

Ian Curran

Ian Curran is a Business reporter with The Irish Times