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December 10 2017 6:00 PM
Galway natives irreverently dub the laid-back city Ireland's "graveyard of ambition" - once blow-ins arrive, they inevitably never want to leave. That was the case for Emma Killian, who fell in love with the city when she moved there in 1992 from her home town of Clonmel to pursue an arts degree at NUI Galway, followed by a degree in speech and language pathology.
Emma appeared destined to become a speech therapist, but a chance meeting with her now-husband and business partner in Galway instead set her on a path as a serial entrepreneur who has thrived in her adopted city.
Despite her professional qualification, Emma had always displayed a penchant for the stage. At the age of three, she played the youngest von Trapp child in a production of the Sound of Music, went to drama classes every day after secondary school, and joined the Drama Society at NUI Galway.
Like Emma, the PwC-trained chartered accountant Eamon Crosby had carved out a professional career while maintaining an interest in theatre and music. The pair met when Eamon was auditioning for singers for a traditional Irish dance and music troupe called Celtic Crossroads. Rather than going on stage, Emma became involved in turning the act into a theatre show.
After honing their performance on the streets of Galway, the production went on the road. For six months of each of the following four years, Celtic Crossroads toured the US and appeared in two PBS television specials, the second of which was watched by 29 million people on St Stephen's Day, 2009.
Emma says: "On paper, we both looked very professional: he was an accountant and I was a speech therapist. But we were spending six months of the year on crazy bus tours of the US."
When the tour came to an end, the couple settled back in Galway and started a venture called Bentley Productions to provide professional musicians for weddings and events.
The business was borne out of witnessing first-hand how American companies held wedding band showcases and invited along wedding planners and event planners, a service unheard of in Ireland.
Emma says: "We hired a musical director who would pull musicians together, rehearse them, and they would take part in a showcase, like they do in the US. We then expanded Bentley Productions into other services, such as lighting and staging, but the music was always the core."
Despite setting up the business during the throes of the recession, Emma and Eamon found that engaged couples were still willing to fork out for bands even if reduced budgets meant cutting out other frills.
"Couples didn't go for all the extras but they still wanted a band and a photographer. In the first two years of the business, we were in some hotel somewhere in the country every Sunday afternoon so our name would get into the subconscious of our audience," Emma says.
"Also, a good Irish wedding will have 150 to 200 people at it and many of are of the same age and planning to get married themselves so you have a captive audience in the room."
These days, Bentley Productions is one of Ireland's biggest providers of entertainment and production for hospitality events and organises some 25 events a night. As well as weddings, it runs Christmas and summer parties, corporate balls, and award ceremonies. The company counts Google, Twitter, Amazon and Intel among its clients. It organises Google's summer staff parties in Dublin's Iveagh Gardens and last year lit up Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast for a Game of Thrones wrap party.
But the rapid growth of Bentley Productions posed a quandary for Emma and Eamon.
Emma says: "We nearly came unstuck because we got so swamped with admin, proposals for clients, emails and phone calls. We were using the best-in-class software tools, like Google Calendar and QuickBooks for accounting, but none of them spoke to each other. We searched the marketplace for a software platform that would manage the business of events and couldn't find one so we built it ourselves."
The result was a bespoke software platform that managed every step of hosting a wedding or event. Each client got a login to a portal displaying all the information relating to their event.
The couple soon realised that their platform had vast potential beyond Bentley Productions and set about developing it for the wider market.
The pair took a back seat from Bentley Productions, which is now "a well-oiled machine", and in 2016 spun off the software platform, called BriteVenue.com, into a new company called BriteBiz to target independent venues.
BriteBiz has since expanded to the UK and to the US, where it employs a team of nine at its Manhattan office. Emma expects the staff count at the US division to grow by five or six next year, when it moves its customer service operation to New York from Galway.
The software platform is "in a space that has been pretty much untouched by the digital revolution", Emma says. "Yet the wedding industry is estimated to be worth about €60bn in the US and €300bn globally. In New York state alone, there are 100,000 independent venues that host weddings, so it was a no-brainer for us to expand into areas such as museums in New York, and wineries in Napa Valley."
So far, the three co-founders of BriteBiz have invested €1.5m into the business. Emma expects the company to be "very profitable very soon, which is unusual in the cloud platform space".
She adds: "Even in the last six months, we have seen great growth. It's the third venture for Eamon and I, so we know the first two years of starting a business are really tough and then we can start delegating more work."
As well as growing a new company and flying back and forth to New York every few weeks, Emma and Eamon are raising three young sons - five-year-old twins and a three-year-old.
"Starting a business again while having a young family is not easy," Emma says. "And because we have a US office, we are answering emails until we go to bed." Emma is adamant that Galway is the ideal location for a tech startup, one that combines a vibrant, nascent tech scene and convenient transport links with an atmosphere far from the often-frazzling nature of a city like New York.
"Being located in the west of Ireland is a help when you're doing business so often in the US," Emma says. "We're only 45 minutes away from Shannon, so I can hop out my front door and be in New York a few hours later.
"When we were starting BriteBiz, we were based at the Bank of Ireland StartLab on Eyre Square and, on the last Friday of every month, there is a Founder Friday meet-up for local techies at the Dew Drop Inn."
At 4pm, Emma typically clocks off and walks home to play with the children. When the kids go to bed, she and Eamon resume work at the kitchen table.
Galway may no longer be the graveyard of ambition, but it's mellow enough for some semblance of a work-life balance for a tech entrepreneur.