CEO Q&A: Keith Mahon, TheTaste.ie

Business, Interviews | Wed 13 Dec | Author – Business & Finance
Keith Mahon, Co-founder and CEO, TheTaste.ie (left) and Francis McSorley, Sales Director, La Rousse Foods (right)

Keith Mahon, TheTaste.ie, talks building a digital business and adapting content to suit the ever-changing habits of the reader.


Q. What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

I have to ensure that all of the magazine’s content matches its brand strategy and positioning. Ours is a luxury magazine that shows readers the best places to eat, visit and stay in Ireland, and also abroad. TheTaste.ie was born at a time when the country was suffering economically but from the outset, we were focused on showcasing luxury products and services and we have always continued in that vein. Affordable luxury is at the heart of TheTaste.ie’s content offering.

The commercial viability of the magazine is my biggest priority. We have a team of great writers but no sales staff, which is very unusual for a media outlet. Much of my time is therefore spent generating revenue, managing client relationships and identifying new opportunities for the business.

Q. What are your biggest challenges as a CEO?

One of my biggest challenges is trying to compete with national media titles on a very, very lean marketing budget. We have had to be highly innovative in order to find new, cost-effective ways of connecting with clients and readers. Our business model is unlikely to have survived had we launched ten years ago, as social media has played a significant role in our success.

TheTaste.ie is a positive voice for the food, drink and hospitality sectors in Ireland. We review hundreds of products and establishments every year and if we don’t think they are good enough or of a suitable standard, we don’t write about them. That was a challenging decision to make as we like to support Irish, but holding firm on that policy has been really important, as our readers trust us and that’s crucial to both our success and our credibility and as independent voice.

Q. How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

We are very lucky to have such a talented team behind us and I believe in empowering people, constantly looking at how we can help them to improve. Staff will stay motivated if they feel that their career is progressing and celebrating both individual and team successes is important. It’s a real motivator.

I also think that you should be there for staff when things are not going according to plan and I don’t believe in a culture of blame. We all make mistakes and how we deal with them and learn from them are what’s important. 

Because our writers manage their own time and schedules and are responsible for the work they produce, a culture of trust permeates the business and again, that helps to keep everyone motivated.

We also have an office dog – although I’m not sure if he is more of a distraction than a motivator.

Q. What are the challenges facing your industry going forward?

Whilst people might spend a lot of time online, the amount of time they spend reading individual articles has fallen considerably, so the industry is having to adapt how it publishes and presents content to its readers to keep them on their sites for longer.   

Video, photos and short text are becoming the norm. We are currently writing short pieces for our daily editions and reserving longer features and interviews for the monthly edition of TheTaste.ie. So the challenge is being able to continually adapt by looking at different ways in which to keep the reader engaged and online.

Q. What new trends are emerging in your industry?

The trends have emerged in direct response to the challenges, and video content is now as important as written content, if not more so.

High-quality video output is really expensive, so we are now seeing media platforms investing heavily in their own studios, which will ultimately produce long-term cost savings.

Writers and reviewers are also having to upskill and many are now multi-skilled, shooting photos and producing their own videos.

Q. Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

I don’t think that online writers get enough credit or respect for what they do. There is a perception in some quarters that if you are writing for an online platform that your skills are somehow inferior to those of a print or broadcast journalist.

There are times when the online world does itself an injustice by publishing poorly-researched articles – although that practice is not exclusive to the online world – so there is obviously work to be done on both sides. Thankfully attitudes are changing, albeit slowly.

Q. As an employer are you finding any skills gaps in the market?

We are really lucky in that we look for writers with flair, a passion for food, drink and travel and we encourage and nurture them to become positive voices of the industry. We’ve never had an issue sourcing great talent as great writers also love to eat, drink and travel.

It is estimated that the online domestic luxury escapes market is worth in the region of €6.5 million, so there is huge opportunity for growth in this sector, and I hope to capture 25% of that market over the next 12 months.

Q. How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

We started out with no backing at all, as it was impossible for a fledgling business like ours to get any support at that time. We had to be really cost-efficient and grow in line with the economic conditions of the day, so it was a cautious and extremely lean first six months. In fact, it was six months before I could draw down a salary but I had great belief in the brand and whilst I knew it had the potential to grow faster, we simply didn’t have the resources to drive that early growth.

However, economic frugality provided us with an advantage. Our readers still wanted to enjoy themselves, so we were able to provide them with amazing experiences in Ireland’s finest restaurants and hotels at a price they could afford. Whilst we have experienced considerable growth since those early days, our strategy has not changed.

Q. How will Brexit affect you, or have you started to feel the effects already?

We have more than 300,000 readers in the UK, many of whom purchase the luxury experiences available on TheTaste.ie. However, in the past ten months we have seen a slight but tangible slow down in sales from Northern Ireland and the UK. This could be related to currency or caution but either way, I don’t believe we have seen the real effects of Brexit as yet.

Q. How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

For me, success is beating last month’s performance, every month.

From a revenue, traffic and subscriber point of view, we have been very lucky in that we have a business that people enjoy and the growth is constant.

But it’s not just the commercial side of the business that drives me to succeed. The feedback we receive every day, good or bad, helps us to improve and it’s actually a great source of motivation for the team. People are invested in our brand and the content we deliver, and we take what they say seriously.

Q. What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

Hire people based on the spark you get from them rather than their experience and always follow your gut feelings. I also feel it is better to be taking part and making mistakes then sitting on the sideline waiting for the perfect plan or the perfect time, which will never arrive.

Q. What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

Without a doubt, the biggest highlight for TheTaste.ie was winning the Gourmand Award for the Best Digital Food Magazine in the World. It has really changed how people perceive the magazine and it has also given us the motivation to raise the bar even higher, each month.

Q. What’s next for your company?

In the past three years we have attracted almost 11 million unique users to the site, nine million of whom are international users. However, in terms of our content, marketing and sales, we are almost exclusively focused on the domestic market.

Interestingly, we know that a lot of leading international chefs are reading our content so there’s a global appeal to what we do. With this in mind, we want to tap into the overseas market and produce an international edition of TheTaste.ie. We’ve already dipped our toe in the water with reviews of some great restaurants in Europe, interviews with food producers in Australia and travel features from a number of fantastic destinations. But we need to start building on and growing this content and that’s what is next for TheTaste.ie.

Q. What opportunities or plans for growth do you see in 2018?

It is estimated that the online domestic luxury escapes market is worth in the region of €6.5 million, so there is huge opportunity for growth in this sector, and I hope to capture 25% of that market over the next 12 months.

We are in a good position to do this as we have 45 of the best 4- and 5-star hotels in Ireland on our site and we are really having an impact. In the past three years we have generated more than €4.3 million in direct sales for the hospitality industry in Ireland, which includes restaurants and hotels. I know that we can grow sales to multiples of that figure.

Q. Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

I would love if we were not only recognised but accepted as the leading platform for food and drink in Ireland. I would also like to see our international edition fully up and running and gaining ground. I’ll let you know how we get on!