Listening to Customers is the Key to Innovation
Gary: Aidan, can you give us a run down of your career so far?
Aidan: After an MBA in TCD, I started work with Andersen Consulting in Dublin – which subsequently became Accenture – and then I moved to Belfast to work for McDonnell Douglas Information Systems, which became Northgate. I became the sales manager, then general manger.
And then I set up Beckinridge in 1994, a training company, which is still going. And finally I co-founded Aetopia in 2005.
Gary: And along the way you found time to be Chief Executive of Momentum, the ICT Trade Association?
Aidan: Yes, I was temporarily Acting Chief Executive for a short period when they were between managers.
Gary: So tell us little bit about Aetopia.
Aidan: We develop digital asset management solutions for customers in the publishing & media sectors. Our main product is MediaCore – a Cloud-based, hugely scalable, versatile repository and work-flow/distribution systems for digital assets – i.e. any large rich-media files – not just images – but also audio files, and a whole range of media formats – TIFFS, pdfs, jpegs, whatever.
So it’s a secure, searchable repository for the storage of those assets, but it also allows the owners of those assets to engage with other participants in the work-flow to manage those assets, to route them and to get better value from them (or as they say across the pond – monetize them).
Aidan: Mainly newspapers, large photographic agencies and companies that need video management. So for a newspaper, for example, our main usp is that because of the versatility of the core product, we can offer 5 rich applications in one
First, it’s a central asset management which can be used as an image or video repository for interal use by Editors or Picture Desk staff.
Then you can generate revenue by licensing images to the public or you can distribute your assets under controlled access to other organisations within your syndication network. So a newspaper might sell reprints to the public but syndicate the digital files to other newspapers within their group.
Thirdly, they can also launch their own “Local TV” channel online. One of our customers (PSCA International) has already done this – they use it to record and exhibit all the videos of the events they run for the public sector. And we’re about to launch this for newspapers – they are beginning to realise – why don’t we have “Dundalk TV” or “Dungannon TV” – this is where local news is going.
Fourthly, it has a newspaper archive module with powerful OCR and text searching capability that allows publishers to put their entire archive online (from PDF’s or scans) and generate subscription revenue and page reprint sales.
And finally, on the back end we have a module which enables newspapers to better capture & organize the acquisition of the images or videos from the field. So a newspaper covering Ulster versus Leinster at Ravenhill can create an event, assign a photographer & manage the whole process.
Gary: Is this a competitive area?
Aidan: Yes, but at the same time there is a massive global growth in the generation & consumption of digital assets so we are riding the wave of massive interest in this. We’ve seen the impact of YouTube – now organisations are saying – could we not have our own YouTube & expose our videos to our customers, clients, and staff in a controlled and managed way. Then there’s the whole area of video based learning. There are some established players in each of our application areas but nobody can other the whole suite that we do (as far as I know). Also they are typically client-server based, whereas we’re Cloud based and available to everyone inside or outside and organisation.
We’re also very competitive cost-wise against these bigger players, so we’re in a good competitive position at the moment.
Gary: So your market is worldwide? How do you do that – how do you sell outside Northern Ireland? That’s always a challenge for NI tech companies.
Aidan: Yep. Indeed. We have a very big customer in Holland – and we got that through the help of Invest NI, through their in-market support programme. But our more immediate market is in GB and after that we’ll look farther afield, for partners to help us get into other markets. Currently our sales model is direct at the moment, but we’re moving towards indirect.
Gary: So what are the big challenges for you?
Aidan: It’s finding the right partners in those international markets and taking the product to the next level where it’s easier to be installed by third party partners. We’re working on the R&D for this at the moment. Invest NI again is helping us with this.
Another big challenge for us is getting staff in Northern Ireland – there’s a shortage of skilled Java programmers. They are being eaten up by some of the large IT companies. There is no doubt there is severe pressure on skills at the moment. And this brings with it pressure on salary levels which makes it very difficult for small companies to compete.
Gary: You’ve had many years’ experience in all sorts of companies, which you’re started and run – what’s a good management style for this industry?
Aidan: You need to be flexible. You need to be multi-skilled. You also need to be creative.
Gary: What is the key to successfully managing technology people?
Aidan: The really important thing is that they are engaged with the work they’re doing. You can’t give them boring work & expect them to stay. They have to be part of what you’re doing. The sort of people we employ aren’t content to sit in a production-factory type environment – they’re creative people – so we have to make sure they’re bought into the vision of the company and that they feel part of it.
Gary: So innovation is vital, to Aetopia?
Gary: If you were starting Aetopia again, what would you do differently?
Aidan: I’d get more funding. You don’t realize how quickly you can run out of funding.
You always underestimate the amount of money you need. That’s a hard lesson you have to learn when you start a business. Time, complexity, gremlins – it all means that it takes twice as much funding as you thought at the beginning. And of course the VC’s know that so you get hammered in round two.
On the other hand, we have largely boot-strapped our way with customer contracts and that’s good for founder equity, thankfully. There’s no right answer. We were very fortunately to get the former managing partner of Accenture, Ireland as our Business Angel (my first boss). He has been a great help in many ways.
Gary: Of course, funding is one of those big issues for technology start-ups in Northern Ireland.
Aidan: Absolutely. One of the big limitations to starting a technology business here is funding. The total VC fund in Northern Ireland is supposed to be something like £10m. I like that quote from David Kirk: He said “£10m? That’s a good weekend in Vegas!”
Gary: If you’re in the technology industry, you have to be global and if you’re global you’re competing against companies in the US which have access to funds…
Aidan: They’ve got big budgets and can invest more in R&D, marketing…yes it’s difficult. But then we can be better and leaner. Right now we are up against a US based company (that started in Israel) for a major deal in England. I am quietly confident.
Gary: What are the key qualities to be a successful leader?
Aidan: I’d say vision, first of all. And then communication skills. Not saying, of course, that I have either of those! But that’s what’s needed. And also to be a good motivator of people. This goes back to what I was saying about making sure your people are really engaged and feel part of what you’re doing. Very important. Making sure people feel they’re making a contribution.
Gary: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Aidan: Well, this is pretty boring – but the hard fact is that the biggest recurring challenge for most small businesses is cash flow. And that’s as difficult as it’s ever been just at the moment, so it’s constant challenge. It’s tough & that’s where it is at the moment.
Gary: Are great salesmen born or can they be taught?
Aidan: As you know I’ve done a lot of sales training – including training sales people in Silicon Valley. And one thing I’ve learnt is that you can’t teach an antelope to hunt, but you can teach a young tiger. So it’s a bit of both – some people are never going to be sales people, but if someone has some innate ability or is entrepreneurial, you can teach them sales skills. Same applies to management to some degree – although management may be easier taught than sales – although a better word here is modelling. The best way to produce good managers is to give people a good example & a model to follow. I was lucky to have worked under some good managers in my time – I just wish I had listened and learnt a bit more.