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Small Business Can: Entrepreneurial spirit can pay big dividends

The owner of a video production firm and the co-founder of a company which makes an innovative bike light tell Lisa Smyth about their experiences

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Peter Craven traded his comfortable executive role for a new direction in video marketing

Peter Craven traded his comfortable executive role for a new direction in video marketing

@Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Keith McMenamy, lead videographer

Keith McMenamy, lead videographer

@Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Great partnership: Philip and Irene McAleese with their device

Great partnership: Philip and Irene McAleese with their device

Peter Craven traded his comfortable executive role for a new direction in video marketing

Peter Craven had a well-paid job he loved but he gave it all up to start his own business.While most people wouldn't dream of walking away from such stability, Peter is now the creative director of Blue Sky Video Marketing and is relishing the challenge that comes with being his own boss.

The company, based in Belfast city centre, specialises in helping companies use video in their marketing campaigns.

Peter (44) has drawn upon his two decades of working in marketing and his passion for video to help him launch the business, which provides a range of services to other companies.

"Essentially, we are a marketing agency that specialises in video, rather than just being your typical production company," he says.

"I spent about 20 years working in marketing roles and videos have become increasingly a part of the marketing process.

"However, frequently the videos didn't fit into the overall marketing campaign, the video was the beginning and end of the process whereas we work with companies to establish what it is they want to achieve and make sure the video is part of an overall strategy.

"We focus on integrating video into the ongoing communication plan."

Blue Sky Video Marketing not only helps companies develop video marketing strategies and produce videos, it also provides training in how to put together a professional video.

Peter explains: "It's simply not possible or necessary to outsource a lot of videos. They can do that themselves and we help them build the capability to do that. For example, if they are doing a product launch at a show, they might want a video to put on social media showing their stand and telling people where they are and to come and see them. That can be done very simply by yourself, it isn't necessary to get out a production company that has to set up a lot of equipment and then might spend three days editing the video.

"You need the video quickly, but at the same time if you want to market a high-end item on a global scale, doing a quick video in your car and uploading it onto the internet isn't going to work, either.

"If I have someone who has spent four years in R&D and they are trying to secure £1m investment, I'm not going to advise them to do a selfie video in their car. It's about knowing the message is, who your audience is and how best to connect with them and that's where we come in."

Peter graduated from the University of Ulster with a humanities degree before going on to complete a Master's in European Business, in which marketing was a module.

He went on to work in a number of marketing roles, his most recent position before setting up Blue Sky Video Marketing was as head of marketing and sales support at CDE Global, a manufacturer of quarry and mining equipment.

He adds: "I left there in June 2017, I actually left there one day short of 10 years in the company.

He started on the Ulster Bank Entrepreneur programme in February last year while he was working out his notice at CDE Global, and Blue Sky Video Marketing has been up and running for almost 18 months.

He says: "Usually when you start up a business it is because of some big life event, there's been a redundancy or something has happened in their personal or professional life, but that didn't happen with me.

"I was sitting in a senior marketing role in a well-respected company which was growing on a global scale, I had a marketing team of 14, I was on the senior management team with opportunity to travel the world, and a big marketing budget.

"You would think 'Why would you leave for the uncertainty?' and it comes down to the fact that I had always wanted to do something for myself.

"I didn't really know what that was until the idea about the video came up. I had always wanted to produce something I could sell but I was in marketing, I wasn't a manufacturer, yet this was something I could sell.

"It is something I can produce to specification, I can manufacture and deliver and there is a value attached to it.

"The more I thought about it, the more viable an idea it became and I decided that I didn't want it become the thing I didn't do.

"Of course, there was that safety net of being paid every month and then all of a sudden it's gone.

"But when you break it down to 'What's the worst that can happen?', I thought no-one was going to die, I realised I could try it and give it everything I had and if it didn't work out I knew I was still employable. At the very worst I would have blown some savings but at least I would be able to go on and do something else knowing I had given it a go."

Peter says the Ulster Bank programme has been crucial in helping him overcome any fears about setting up his own business.

"You're working with a lot of other people who have the same mindset," he says. "Sometimes you think 'Am I mad?' but when you're in a room full of other entrepreneurs it makes you feel a lot less mad. One of the things that stood out to me was a talk by someone who told us that when you are born you are only afraid of two things: falling and loud noise. Everything else is monsters under the bed. If a child wakes up and can't go back to sleep because they think there's monsters under the bed, you show them under the bed and they realise there are no monsters and go back to sleep. Once you realise the fears are created by yourself, you realise there is nothing you should be afraid of."

Peter has spent the majority of this year creating a strong portfolio which he can use to build his customer base. He currently has three people working at the company and plans to increase this by another four in the coming year.

So, does he regret his decision to leave his job at CDE Global?

"I loved it there but I can't see myself ever working for someone again," he says. I have learned to live with the uncertainty of being self-employed and certainly I'm more invested in this than anything I have been involved in before."

'I've never worked longer hours but I’m very excited by what I do'

When husband and wife Philip and Irene McAleese started their own business, they thought they could dedicate more time to raising their family.

However, the reality has been far removed as their company, See.Sense, has enjoyed more success than they could ever have imagined.

Based in Newtownards, Co Down, the company designs and manufactures bicycle lights aimed at making cycling safer.

The cutting-edge equipment reacts to the road surface and surroundings, with the lights flashing quicker when the cyclist is in a more hazardous situation, such as on uneven terrain or negotiating a junction.

This makes it easier for motorists to see cyclists, while at the same time conserving the battery power.

The idea for the bicycle lights came when the couple were living in Singapore.

Irene (45), who is originally from Brisbane in Australia, explains: “We had been living in London and Philip would have cycled a bit there but it was when we were in Singapore he found it very dangerous.

“He really was fearful, it was even more risky than cycling in London.

“He was working as an investment banker at the time and cycled to and from work as it was the only exercise that he got and he didn’t want to stop cycling so he came up with the idea of the light.

“He had originally trained as an electrical and software engineer at Queen’s in Belfast and was able to come up with the technology for the bicycle light.”

Philip ran his idea past colleagues who also cycled and the response was positive.

Further research reinforced the idea that the bicycle light could make a successful business venture.

So, when the time came to leave Singapore and return to Northern Ireland to be closer to Philip’s family, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to launch See.Sense.

Philip (44) is now the CEO, while Irene, who was on maternity leave from her job as a management consultant when they moved to Northern Ireland, is chief strategy officer.

The couple has dedicated countless hours to making a success of the company.  After developing the technology, they worked with the University of Ulster to design the casing.

“We were actually pleasantly surprised when we got to Northern Ireland with the level of support for businesses trying to start up,” continues Irene, mum to nine-year-old Marina and Lizzie (6).

“We both obviously had a lot of experience but starting up your own family business is totally different because you have to do everything.”

They registered See.Sense as a business in April 2013 and had launched their first product on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform, by the end of the year.

Not only did this help to finance development of the product, it also validated the idea when support for the bicycle light came in thick and fast.

“We met our target of £11,000 in eight days,” says Irene.

The response to the product attracted media attention and they even ended up in the New York Times.  They then made their first sale to Chain Reaction Cycles, one of the world’s largest online bike stores.

“It was quite a reasonable size, I think it was about £1,500,” says Irene.

“It was a great feeling because in the early days people did take the attitude that we had given up our careers to try and start our own business and that it was going to be something we would regret.

“We had actually thought that we would give it a few years and if it didn’t work we would go back to our old jobs.

“Our children were quite young at the time. Lizzie was just one-year-old and I rather naively thought I would get to spend some time with the children and do a bit of work with the company but it didn’t work out like that.

“I actually work harder now than I ever did.  The success we have had was unexpected and we are busier now than we ever were in our old jobs.

“We have actually enjoyed pretty phenomenal growth.”

Since launching the first product, they have developed the technology and launched a number of other products.

They have also created technology that allows users to gather data from their time on their bikes on an app.

However, it was as they gave a presentation to a potential customer that they realised exactly the potential of the technology.

Irene explains: “What is really interesting is that the light reacts to the environment and knows when the cyclist is in a risky situation.

“It does that by reading the environment around you. It can tell what speed you’re travelling, if you’ve had a crash, it can tell what the road surface is like.

“It was probably about 2014 and we were doing a pitch and explaining how it all worked to a potential customer and he said ‘hang on a minute, did you say the light detects road surfaces and conditions?’

“When we told him it did he told us it was actually a really big deal.  We realised then we had uncovered something really exciting, that there was a value to the data as it could help to make cycling safer by redesigning the cycling infrastructure. 

“We knew it could have a big impact and we got quite excited about it.”

See.Sense has since collaborated with Dublin and Manchester cities who have used data collected from lights used by cyclists using their roads and there are plans to develop this further.

In addition they also supply Raleigh and are now stocked by Halfords, as well as exporting their products around the world through their website.

Despite their incredible success, Irene says they have experienced challenges.  “Hardware is hard from an entrepreneurial point of view because there is a bigger cash flow issue than if you are working with a software business.

“Kickstarter was very important and helped us get around finance issues and allowed us to move the business forward.

“We also had to grow the team quite quickly as well and that brought its own challenges because we went from six to 16 in the space of a few months.

“It went from a family almost to having to have HR policies to deal with things like sick leave and it can be a bit of a distraction from the day to day things you have to do.

“In the early days, the manufacturing side of things was hard as we had never done that before.

“We’ve just been lucky that the product is so good because in the early days we didn’t have a marketing budget at all.”

And she explains: “I would say that you have to believe in what you are doing because it is so much work, but for me and Philip, it is something we are very passionate about.  We believe we are actually making a difference to the world, we are reducing congestion and pollution and we’re helping people improve their health.

“There are difficult days but I have won a number of women in business awards and that gives me a lift and it also makes me think that I am setting a good example for my daughters.

“I’ve never worked longer hours but I am very excited by what I do and I think that is absolutely essential when it comes to setting up your own business.”

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