Grainne Barron is one of the latest wave of Irish technology entrepreneurs to locate their start-ups in the US rather than grow them in Ireland first.
Her automated video ad creation and distribution platform Viddyad was recently name-checked by Taoiseach Enda Kenny as one of four Irish companies to watch in Silicon Valley and has clocked up a string of awards, including an Irish Times Innovation Award, since its establishment in 2013.
Barron is very upfront in saying that her UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School MBA gave her the confidence to start up the business. "The MBA added to my skillset," she explains. "It focussed things and polished everything off. One big thing it did was give me the confidence that I knew what I knew and had the knowledge and skills necessary to start up the business."
She describes Viddyad as “the democratisation of advertising”. With digital media now making it relatively cheap for even the smallest businesses to market their products and large companies still enjoy a clear advantage when it came to professional video ads due to the costs involved. And that’s where Viddyad comes in.
The Viddyad service allows SMEs to create and produce broadcast quality video advertisements for the web for as little as $99 (€73) per 10 seconds. That price includes video content, music and the ability to upload text and images.
Barron has a long history in the broadcasting and video sector and is a former director of Dublin’s Windmill Lane studios. That association led indirectly to the idea for the Viddyad service. “A friend who owns a florists said she would like to put video ads up on the net but couldn’t afford it. I looked at it and told her I could get her a really good deal for around €10,000 an ad. She nearly had a heart attack. That’s when I started to look for a more affordable way of doing it.”
The most expensive part of an ad is the professional quality video and this led her to look at where that could be sourced at a very low cost. She found that image providers such as Getty Images don’t just do still photographs but also do video which could be used in ads. She went to see the company in New York and persuaded them that her idea could work. “I told them that one day I was going to be their largest customer. That got them interested.”
This was the start and as a result of the deals she did with Getty and other image providers such as Shutterstock, Barron has created the first fully automated cloud-based video ad creation platform. "Our customers have access to more than 20 million videos and images. They go onto the site and make their ad using the tools on it. They can then view it in a watermarked version and if they don't like it they don't pay a penny. They only pay when they are happy with it."
While individual users are important to the company Barron believes the future lies in relationships with other businesses such as local cable companies and online directory services. “We are white-labelling our service to offer it as an ad creation platform for other companies”, she says. “For example, local cable companies struggle to get ads from local companies because they can’t afford the production costs. The Viddyad service addresses that issue. We have partnerships in the US, Australia and Asia and are growing all the time. We also have individual users around the world. Just the other night we had two customers in Egypt using the service to make ads for their businesses. We are a global business.”
She believes her UCD Smurfit School MBA has helped her in a number of ways, not least in how she is received by other businesspeople. “I am based in Silicon Valley and lots of people have MBAs out there. It’s almost one of the things you have to have to be taken seriously. Out there most of them have MBAs from Stanford or Harvard but the UCD qualification has an excellent reputation as well. I completed mine in 2008 and it’s been going for 50 years. The fact that it has been around for so long and has such a good reputation is very important.”
It has also come in useful in running the business. “I met the CEO of Animoto last week. They’ve raised $30 million (€22m) in funding and have loads of users but haven’t found a way of charging or monetising the business. We are in a different position. We haven’t gone in for a major fundraising. We have bootstrapped ourselves all the way. And we know how to charge our users and monetise our service. In Silicon Valley the big thing seems to be the number of users you can get. But you’ve got to be able to earn money from them and sometimes only education and experience can teach you that. That stuff brings me back to my cost management class in my MBA and that has been so important to me.”
This understanding of basic business principles has been key to her success. “One of the things the MBA gives you is an overview of the whole business and how it works. I can look at a set of accounts and am able to understand them properly. Of course we have a CFO in the business but the CEO needs to know what they are talking about. The MBA also teaches you about things like margin and how everything a business does costs in some way. We have created a margin moat around ourselves to protect the company in case of a storm.”
She says she can't recommend the MBA highly enough but says potential students should be ready for a lot of hard work. "I did mine part-time over two years as I thought it was important not to get out of the rhythm of work. That meant getting up at 6am every morning and working late in the evenings. But I always knew I could do it. People who know me will say how focused I am. I knew if I worked hard enough I could do it no bother but you have to be willing to put the work in. It's been worth it all. I have made great friends from the course and have a great support network from my fellow graduates. The professors were great as well and it was a real pleasure to receive the Innovation Award from Pro Frank Roche. " smurfitschool.ie/mba