A single-minded focus on developing a scalable and disruptive business that leverages her background in television and video production, coupled with plenty of hard work and “an amazing team”, have earned Grainne Barron (MBA 2007) a series of awards and accolades over the last couple of years, including being named one of the Irish Independent’s Forty under 40 last year and being named the Image Awards Business Woman of the Year 2012 for the start-up category.
About Grainne Barron
Meanwhile, her fledging company Viddyad, which enables small businesses to simply and cheaply create their own video ads online, has been listed as one to watch by The Wall Street Journal and was recently featured in USA Today.
It’s a fairly familiar space for Barron. “I grew up in the television and video world,” she says. “My father’s a cameraman, my brother’s a cameraman and my mother worked in RTÉ for 30 years. It was always on the cards that I’d go into something like that.”
After finishing school in Wicklow in 1993, Barron moved to New York to do her primary degree in business and law at FordhamUniversity. “Like every American student, I had three jobs. I had two waitressing jobs and an internship at NBC in Rockefeller Centre.”
When she graduated in 1997, she moved to California to work for NBC in Los Angeles. “I had been in production, but decided I really liked the business side of things and working out how to monetise and make money. I sold ads on NBC TV as my first job out of college.”
After a year or so, she returned to Ireland and worked with a production company before being headhunted by Windmill Lane in 2000 to become its sales director. “From there we did an MBO and set up a company called Animo,” she says.
To progress her long-time plan to set up and run her own company, she signed up to do an executive MBA at SmurfitBusinessSchool in 2005. “I wanted to expand my knowledge base,” she says. “And it definitely gave me a broader knowledge. The MBA gives you a rounded business education so you can dip into anything. I think as the CEO and founder of a company, you need to be able to do that.”
Starting a business
Soon after completing the programme, she turned her attention to starting her business. “I heard someone say that if you don’t leave your job within the space of a year or so after finishing the MBA, you’ll never leave and that really scared me. I sold my shares in a company I was a shareholder in and used that money to try to set up what I thought was going to be a small production company.”
Because the cost of production equipment was coming down, Barron’s initial idea was to shoot affordable video ads for smaller companies. “But I realised very quickly that’s never going to be globally scalable. And I have no interest in doing something that’s just going to be a lifestyle business. I want to create something that is very disruptive and democratises the market.
“I thought the only way to be able to make money and scale globally is to try to use technology and automate the process, kind of like the way Henry Ford did in automating car manufacturing.” However, her traditional production background initially made it difficult to figure out how it could be done without camera, lighting and sound people, she says.
“Sometimes the idea isn’t at the front of your mind. It’s percolating at the back. After months of research and trial and error you get an ‘aha’ moment. Suddenly it came to me: we take away all the labour, we create a cloud-based platform and we enable people to make their own ads. And we link in with stock companies. I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew anything can be built.”
The result is Viddyad, the world’s first fully automated cloud-based video ad creation platform aimed at small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Through partnerships with a range of professional rights-cleared content stock providers, including Getty Images, the system offers up to 10 million videos and images to choose from. It’s free to sign up and to start creating ads. Prices start at US$99 to download a 10-second ad with video content and music and to which the user can add their own logo, images, text and so on.
“You could create a suite of ads and not pay for any,” says Barron. “You can share them for free on all social media; you just can’t download them and they’ll be watermarked. We want people to create ads. If you see your ad and you like it, you pay and we remove the watermark and email you the ad within 45 minutes. Then you can share it or post it on Twitter or Facebook. And there’s a button you can click and it goes straight to Google Adwords.”
It has created a new market, according to Barron. “If you’re an SMB, you’re hardly going to spend ten, twenty, thirty thousand on making a video ad,” she says. “Basically, what we were doing was opening up a new market. And that’s what I always wanted to do. I wanted to democratise video ad creation globally for businesses. I didn’t want it to be something that only a company with lots of money or lots of time on their hands can make. No SMB I know has either of those.”
Having come up with the idea in 2011, Barron initially set about raising funding. While her team was building the software, she then embarked on a series of meetings to develop content partnerships with stock companies.
One of her first meetings was in New York with Getty Images. “It was one of the scariest things I’ve done because all I had at the time was an idea,” she says. “Another stock company turned around and said this is such a great idea we want to do it ourselves.”
The smart companies, she says, realised that providing such a facility themselves would antagonise their own key markets, the marketing and ad agencies. “So I think they’re happy for us to pave the way and do this.
“There’s an obvious exit there as well. We’ve done a lot of talking with Google and they’re looking for a professional video ad creation platform. They make most of their money from Google Adwords and they’re really going strong on the video ad creation area. Google has just launched a video ad creation marketplace and the fact that they’ve done that really shows there’s going to be a massive amount of attention here.” Elsewhere, Facebook is launching video ads and it’s an area that Twitter is understood to be interested in too.
“Everyone is copping on to the idea that video ads is the place to be for the future,” says Barron. “All we’ve really done is anticipated that market opening and we’ve built the software that enables anybody to make an ad online.”
Viddyad also plans to license its software to larger companies like Yellow Pages, which has a customer base of 18 million SMBs. “That’s the clever way to leverage your business instead of just trying to do it all on your own,” says Barron.
“For me a perfect business is a business that’s making money while you sleep. That’s finally happened. We come into the office in the morning and check and see that people in Florida or Portland, Oregon have been making video ads and it’s just money going straight into our account because we’ve built the platform.”
The company, which currently employs nine people, is in the process of setting up an office in San Francisco, where most of its larger clients are based. “It just doesn’t make sense for me especially to be here [in Ireland]. We’re keeping the engineering team here but we’re going to try to relocate sales and marketing there.”
Investors in the company so far include EnterpriseIreland and Silicon Valley angels. “And we’re currently doing another round and some really interesting venture capitalists have approached us, which I would have thought we’d be too small for, but they’re eager to talk to us. It’s pretty mind-blowing to say the least that these kinds of companies who usually do later stage, minimum of US$10m investments are interested in talking to us.”
While Barron says she’s often asked about the difficulties of being a woman setting up in the technology space, she doesn’t believe gender was an issue. “I think it was more of a disadvantage because I wasn’t an engineer and I did waste money and make a lot of mistakes because of that. But I think any non-engineer going into a technical business would have done the same thing without a CTO co-founder.”
As regards lessons learned along the way so far, Barron says she believes never having a back-up plan has stood to her. “I’ve been completely focused. When you don’t have a plan B you will make it work no matter what. Not having a plan B has driven me and, for me, that was a good thing.”
She stresses the importance of trusting one’s own instincts. “I know it’s something everyone says. But I always say it and I still don’t live by it sometimes. And it always ends up that my gut was right.”
And having mentors is vital, particularly for those who set up on their own. “A lot of time it’s a very lonely road if you’re a single founder CEO. You’ve no one to ask what you should do. I would say, make sure you have good mentors. If I was doing it all over again, it would have been great to have a CTO founder with me at the very beginning, but the thing is, I wouldn’t have known a good one from a bad one.”
Looking to the future, Barron says she loves the business and doesn’t see herself selling out any time soon. “It’s like a passion and when you don’t have a plan B I suppose I didn’t focus on other areas of my life so much. If we did get bought out, I would want to work with the company and would work wherever is best for the company.”
She would also be interested in working with other companies at some stage. “That’s the natural path – if you do well and you have some money then you start investing in other companies. I’d love to be in a position to do that some day. I’m far from it now, but having learnt so much I feel that I can really look at businesses now and figure out if they’re going to make money or not. I can see a lot of start-ups they haven’t figured out how to make money yet. I’d love to help other people, especially other women.
“Someone said to me once, leave down the ladder for the person behind you. It’s very true; everyone should leave down the ladder for the person behind.”