'I gave a developer €20,000 of my savings and didn't get a line of workable code. It was a disaster'

This entrepreneur learned that it’s important to pick your battles when launching a business.

By Grainne Barron Founder, Viddyad

I GREW UP in a household where we lived and breathed television, news and video production. In fact mum and dad even met in RTÉ, where they both worked in TV production.

My dad left RTÉ to set up his own television and video production company when there were no private ones in Ireland, so there is definitely an entrepreneurial streak in the family.

He was always looking at how he could use technology, which was of course very different in those pre-internet days, to make the existing video and news production more efficient.

I think seeing how he went about business definitely influenced the latest company I set up, Viddyad, which is a cloud-based platform where you can easily create and distribute customised videos.

Mistakes

That came about in 2013 and, of course, there have been many bumps along the way. I’m sure I make mistakes all the time still, if I’m honest, but you have to keep focused and move on.

When I first started, I had €20,000 in savings and an idea. I remember working with a developer who promised they could build the platform. But after months and months, I didn’t have a line of workable code. It was a disaster.

The developer had over-promised, under-delivered, and I was now out of cash having stupidly and naively paid them upfront. I had a choice – I could fight it out in the small claims courts to try to get some money back or I could suck it up and move on. I chose to move on.

I often wonder if Viddyad would be around if I’d gone the other route. Sometimes you just have to pick your battles, even if you know you’re right and the other person is wrong.

Innovator’s dilemma

I’ve always been fascinated with how improvements in technology and rapid growth often lead larger companies to the innovator’s dilemma – and, more excitingly, the opportunities this creates for smaller, more agile startups.

In my father’s day, professional cameras were upwards of $100,000. But the decreasing cost of camera equipment was making content producers out of students overnight.

I did very well financially as sales director with Windmill Lane and later as a director with another TV and video production company I set up through a management buyout. But I knew an inflection point was coming.

I could see how it was becoming harder and harder for the traditional production model to survive given its high labour intensity, overheads and the pace at which equipment like editing machines was quickly being replaced by newer, cheaper models.

So I did an MBA to brush up on all areas of business and then set up my own production company thinking, well, at least I’ll have more control over my overheads so I can charge lower prices and bring in more business. But bringing in business wasn’t the problem. Getting the videos produced was.

I suddenly had my very own innovator’s dilemma. The more business I brought in, the more freelancers I had to hire and so my margins went down. For me, I knew the solution was automation in the cloud, but how?

Instead of looking at existing solutions, I focused on what was not yet built. I went to Getty (Images) in New York and told them I needed access to their content, all of it. And, on top of that, I wasn’t going to buy any of it – not yet anyway.

At first, of course, they laughed and thought, ‘who is this crazy Irish girl?’ But long story short, when I met them and explained my vision, they got it and gave me access to 500,000 videos and images. Today, we have in the tens of millions of videos and images available for our users to create content instantly online.

Capture Grainne Barron
Source: YouTube

Why did they give this little Irish startup access to all their content and great rates? Because even as a multi-billion dollar company, it had innovator’s dilemma. Their current customers were big agencies, marketing companies and advertisers. They priced high because they know it was a price those clients were willing to pay.

However, they could see that eventually, small- and medium-sized businesses would want to create content using stock footage too, but to price for these customers now meant eating their own lunch. So, I think they realised Viddyad was a good company to back with a partnership as it opened doors to a new market, indirectly.

Taking advantage

You have to take advantage of the innovator’s dilemma in today’s market-space because it means we can go in and grab market share while bigger companies are still trying to figure out what to do with legacy bureaucracy.

I recently met with the head of L’Oreal USA and his first question to me was, “How soon can we start using the Viddyad platform?” L’Oreal, which has so many large brands, knows it needs to customise existing content more efficiently for local markets. They need to be more ‘scrappy’ – their term, not mine – and dynamic.

We suffer from it too. We’ve spent millions of dollars creating an easy-to-use video creator platform that’s priced for small business but can often be seen as too cheap for bigger brands – therefore who do we focus on? Or who do we give up market share from to gain elsewhere? This is something we think about at Viddyad and are always cognisant of.

It reminds me of what I learned from a very wise farmer friend. He told me once: “Try to hang onto your cash as long as you can when you’re a startup. If you can do something of value and barter or trade your skills for another, then save your cash for when you can’t; you’ll survive longer.”

I’ve taken this lesson and applied it where I can. For example, I noticed that lots of Silicon Valley investors, who fly or have planes, keep them in Hayward (Executive Airport) – a non-commercial airport just for private-plane use.

I also noticed that Hayward had large TV screens at the base with really bad, static content and text overlays. So I told the airport they can create some free Viddyads – but that each free one would have the Viddyad branding on the content.

They were delighted with the free video to replace the static boring images, and I got to target Viddyad’s brand to a very selective group of investors, quite subliminally. Whether you’re a billion-dollar multinational or a small business, you can do a lot more work through partnerships, like this, than trying to do it all yourself.

Give and take

I remember going to Norway to meet with a stock image and video provider. I was on my own in Oslo, and with the Norwegian krone so high against the euro I couldn’t even afford a McDonald’s happy meal.

It wasn’t a great meeting. After two hours of telling them all about my ideas, they turned to me to say they really liked the idea but that they would now probably do it themselves. I felt humiliated and cheated.

The funny thing is, that same stock company tried to build my idea and failed miserably. They didn’t stick to what they were good at and partner up on the rest. Lesson learned; don’t reinvent technology somebody else has done and where you can partner up faster and share revenue instead.

Grainne Barron is the ‎founder of Viddyad. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on business mistakes and what can be learned from them.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.

Comments