Dorothy Creaven – CEO, Element Software
With a background in IT, a stint in recruitment in Google, and working as a freelance make-up artist for Disney and Paramount, Dorothy found her niche when she co-founded Element Software in 2010.
Can you tell us about your background, how you got involved in the tech industry?
I'm from a little town in Clare called Newmarket-on-Fergus. I went to secondary school in Limerick and went onto NUI Galway to study Electronic Engineering - I did a stint there and then worked as a software engineer for a couple of years after college. After that, I decided to get a one-way ticket to Guatemala in 2002 and spend a year and a half out in Latin America, which was amazing. In Ecuador, at the time, most of the language schools and Amazon trips didn't have any websites, so I started freelancing as a web developer out there and pretty much went around door to door in my pigeon Spanish to try to get some contracts for web development. I was doing that for a good while - I made enough money then to pack my bag and head on down to Argentina and travelled around there for another six months. I had the best time ever. I met tonnes of cool people, learnt Spanish - had loads of fun. I suppose that was my first toe in the water for working for myself.
Then I came back to Ireland - the IT bubble had burst at that stage and I ended up getting into tech recruitment. I was working for a company down in Limerick - Premier Recruitment - it's now Morgan Stanley, and from there, I went to Google and was working in their headquarters in Dublin when they first started kicking off. When I first joined the recruitment team, I was very much involved in hiring the tech and the engineers and a lot of the data centre guys as well, so we increased their headcount from about 300 to 1200 within 12 months, so that was a really intense time. But I learnt to recruit really, really well in-house, which is quite different to working in an agency, which is where I was before. Then I decided it was time to move back to Galway after that. I worked in a couple of different roles then; I was in Abbott Vascular for a while, then trained as a makeup artist and worked with the likes of Universal Studios, Disney, Paramount and also worked on the Tudors. I was doing a lot of technical make-up - war scenes - a lot of blood! It was a really fun time.
After a while of that, I decided I really wanted to get back into IT and do something full-on in the tech space again, because I was always a techie at heart, ever since I was really, really young. I had since met James - we met in college through mutual friends; he was doing Applied Physics. We had stayed in touch a little bit and then met again after he had finished his Masters in France and it was like, 'Hey, how's it going? Do you want to start a company? I hear mobile is pretty big, let's try that.' James is an absolute tech genius - a software developer of the highest epic standard, so we started this mobile app services development company - Element Software in 2010. We started off with 400 quid in the bank, ...actually, in our hands. We drove down to Limerick, bought a second hand Apple Mac computer from a really dodgy housing estate, put it in the car and off we went back to Galway and started coding. We started going out getting contracts - I was doing front end, he was doing all the coding and back end. We ended up getting some cool contracts in the first couple of years - worked with Sage CRM in Dublin, got the app contract for the Solheim Cup, which was our first international contract. It was a big boost for us and I suppose after a few years developing mobile app contracts, we began to learn more and more about the mobile app space and really understand the value that people needed, not only from the brand's perspective, but also from a user's perspective.
Initially, when mobile apps first came out, especially the brand-focused ones, it was all about how the brands can get their message to the user; it wasn't really about the user. That's really flipped in the last five years - now it's all about delivering value to the end user, so we started seeing trends in this whole area and we also saw that a lot of local companies would spend a huge amount of money on mobile apps - you're talking anywhere from 10 grand up to 1 1/2 million to develop a mobile app. Ultimately, if you have a mobile phone or a smartphone, chances are you probably have four other competing apps on your phone. If you think about news apps, you have RTE News, The Journal, The Guardian, and whoever else, so this happens across the board, whether it's for clothing apps or gaming or gambling - so how does your brand compete against its competitors? How does your brand stand out? We started figuring out that apps are a really unique way to communicate from a brand to a user- so how can you use this in a really effective way? Push notifications were a really new thing at the time, so we developed our first push notifications and took it from there - that was called our Element Wave platform and then we started selling that. We were moving from services-based business into product, which is obviously a lot more scalable, so we started working with the likes of the GAA. We won the RTE contract to supply their News Now app, which was an open tender; we beat the US market-leader, which was really great for us - big celebrations all round! So we were getting a few good contracts under our belt and really working hard to develop our brand. We boot-strapped all the way for most of our time. We got some investment from Enterprise Ireland, but we pretty much just kept going ourselves, trying to raise revenues and put in our own money all the way through, which was a pretty hard slog. We started in a recession and now we've got 11 employees and we've got International brands. We're about to launch our second product, which is called Mobile Moments - it's all about mobile marketing, really kind of intimate and customer-centric messaging, basically sending information to the user before they know they're interested in it, before they know that they need. It's very much along the lines of data mining, looking at raw data, looking at behavioural patterns of how people use apps, of how specific groups use apps and taking that information and creating insights to push it into very subtle messages to them.
Does this feel like a very natural thing for you to do, growing a business like this?
Yeah, totally. I always knew I was going to work for myself; it was a complete no brainer. The freelance make-up artistry was a really good way to learn how to be completely independent professionally, to go out on your own, to create your own website from scratch, build up your brand, go out and get customers, get repeat business, deal with big companies. It was very different to what I'm doing now, but a lot of the principals are kind of the same. In a way, I think I was always more learning on a tech side of a business, but the business side is what I really enjoy - getting the deals, figuring out how to fund the company, the wheeling and dealing, the going out there getting the contracts, figuring out a strategy for the next six months, 12 months, 5 hours. It's the excitement that I get from creating something and really building it up, building a team, pushing things forward and one of the biggest thrills I always get is offering somebody a job - it's the best thing in the world. In our first office, you could only fit two people in there and we had three people at the time, so we used to take it in turns between who would go in. Then we grew into a larger office and grew into a larger one and now we're in a beautiful office up on the fifth floor of Dock Gate. It has this beautiful view, overlooking the Bay. I've had my eye on that office for the last four years, ever since I saw it, I just knew I wanted to get in there.
Where are you in your vision for where you want to go with your business?
I'm about 5 per cent of the way there - there's tonnes more I know I'll do. I have big plans for the company in 2016. I'm just after doing 40 hours in three days of a business course in London. After that, I just have a really clear vision and strategy as to where I want to get to in the next 12 months. I want to launch the product, get a decent sales team. We're going to set up a UK sales office, we have this unbelievable opportunity with a guy in New York who's hopefully going to be our head of partnerships. I'm really buzzing now. We'll be ready to go by January 1st.
What drives you to achieve and keep going?
I guess it's the feeling of growth and progress. I love getting my hands dirty and getting into stuff, being able to grab things with both hands. Then to create something and watch it grow and enable it to grow further, and gain momentum. I think it's the momentum. I love when things start rolling and then they're rolling by themselves and you're just letting them off and you're starting to focus on something else while also keeping an eye. Or for me, right now, it's building up a team that are now able to delegate to other members of the team, so it's less reliance on me and James. Now I really see people growing into their roles. We have the best team in the world - they're an A-class team. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious - they're loyal and they're so smart and they're just brilliant people to work with, even just to hang out with. Everyone talks about this work/life balance. Work is a part of your life, I don't think they should be separate and most, if not all, of the people in Element feel the same way. People go in and have tasks to do and do their jobs, but ultimately, it has to be enjoyable, because you're spending so much time in the office doing your job, you'd want to love it, or else you'd better go do something else, right?
Who have been the main people that you've learnt from, your mentors?
My earliest mentor would have been my father - my absolute hero and inspiration when it came to business. He set up his own company in the early 60s, starting off on his own in Shannon Development. He set up his own company as part of a US company, brought it over here, creating his own products and exporting to China, so he used to spend a load of time over there. He was an absolute inspiration, and I suppose he always got us thinking about how to do business when we were young. So if we wanted something, it wasn't, 'yeah, here's a tenner', it was; 'Well, how can you make this?'. I grew up in Co Clare and every summer, we bailed hay, you'd go out and you'd do chores and tasks. We used to pick ragwort out of the fields and you'd earn a little bit of cash. He wanted to teach us that 'Yeah, you can earn your own money, everyone can earn their own money, it doesn't matter what you do'.
With your own company now - what are the main challenges you've come across while growing it?
Cash flow, hands down. Cash flow is always really tough. You'd want to hire people, but maybe you don't have the cash flow to do it. Maybe you know when the cash flow is coming in, but you still can't make that leap because maybe you haven't gotten support from the banks or whoever it is. When you're in those early stages, I suppose everything is a bit of a risk. The best thing I learnt early on was to keep a really close eye on your cash flow - know what's coming out every month, know what's coming in not even every month, every day. Because I remember back in 2011, you'd have €100 to play with and you're cutting everything down to the wire. I think that helps you then when you're growing, you're still keeping an eye on your cash flow. I think for any business at any stage, you just have to mind your cash. I think that's one of the biggest things I've learnt - especially in the first three years.
I'm a resilient and resourceful entrepreneur, and I set out to achieve impossible goals. I believe we all have the power to live extraordinary lives. I love creating that magic for me in my life as well as creating jobs and opportunities for others.
You have this confidence, have you always have it?
No, definitely not, I was very shy as a child. I think when you work for yourself, you really just have to get out there and put any issues you have aside and just get on with stuff. I love that feeling of growth. I just love learning new things and being able to create opportunities for others as well. That really buzzes, but creating opportunities for us in a company and being able to grow the company feels really good to me every day. It keeps me pushing forward.
Do you go on instinct or are you a thinker?
I like taking risks, it give me a really big high and when I take a risk, I'll feel completely elated. You have to take risks. As my brother said to me today, 'A risk isn't a risk unless it's risky'. It sounds obvious, but it's true. You have to take risks if you want to take any kind of a leap forward. You can continually grow slowly, but unless you do something different, you won't make a leap forward. I guess I do think about things a lot, I do really think things through because I have gotten burnt in the past making bad decisions, but it helps you not to make those decisions again. and you always have to learn from these things...
What is it about Galway that keeps you here?
There's something about Galway and I think it could even have something to do with the fresh air, the clean air and that's a huge thing. It's also a great place to live - it's a little hard to leave here. It's very comfortable here - there's great restaurants, great cafes. I have amazing friends here, I have fantastic family here - my sister lives in Galway and we're very close. The rest of my family lives an hour down the road. I love summer in Galway, with all the festivals and loads happening. I also really like the vibe with the tech scene in Galway - it's really coming to the fore now - there's a really good buzz happening around the startup scene.
At the start of Element, being in Galway was a very cost effective way of setting up the business. We also have really great talent here, really great staff and it's easier to retain them here than say, in Dublin, for example, where people move a lot more frequently. It's also a lot more expensive to have a business in Dublin - you're talking a hell of a lot more overheads, rates, office space. It's even hard to get office space in Dublin, so for us, it was a great place to start. It's a place where I can see us staying, at least in some capacity, especially with our engineering base. I really want to open a sales office in the UK and the US. Expansion is key to what we do - International sales is the only thing that will keep us going. Right now, 90 per cent of our sales come from geographical markets outside of Ireland - that's a really important way for us to be out there, be more visible, it will enable us to be a bit closer to our customers over there.
What would you like to see for Galway going forward?
Just from a really basic perspective, Galway needs more housing - more decent housing in the city centre as well as outside the city centre. Accommodation isn't cheap in Galway and the quality that you get oftentimes isn't great in comparison to other cities
We have to think five years down the track, where are we going to be at? What kind of culture do we want to have? Do we still want people to be complaining about lack of housing? There also needs to be more office space in Galway that's been renovated that is 2016-style and not so much 1964, like quite a lot of the office space in the city centre. John Breslin is doing an amazing job in getting this innovation district up and running; he is an inspiration and more people need to get behind what he's doing. I think the growth that will happen from people like him getting together. The guys getting together with the Porter Shed - that's another step as well. So I think more and more momentum will happen there, a big cash injection is needed to renovate a whole load of office space. There's a lot of space down at the docks where a lovely €50m building could be built. You could have huge companies in the middle of the city centre - that could be really cool.
How important is it for your employees to walk into a nice space every day?
I think it's really good for creative thinking and just to have a good environment to work in. I just think natural light is really important, it's really good for the brain. Maybe I'm a bit of a romantic but I just love having a good view just to look out the window, take a break for five minutes. It's good to take a break from your computer screen that you're glued to for nine hours and day and if you look out and you're looking over the docks and looking out to clare and you go, 'OK, maybe there's a different way to solve this problem or challenge'. You spend however many hours a day in an office and if it's grey and dark with low ceilings, holy crap, I don't want to be there. So I think the nicer you can have an office environment for people, give them decent machines to work on, it all adds to their productivity and their ease of life, pace of life and their ability to think and be creative.