Tom Fitzgerald shares the history of the company
The Story of Bárd: Part I
In September 1994, having returned to live in Ireland after more than 23 years living in the US, I urgently needed to find work. With my wife Sally and 2 children, Kate (8) and William (5), being unemployed was not an option. The job that lured me back to Ireland fell through at the last minute; the company had opted for Brazil instead. The kids were already in school by the time I found that out. Even though I had an M.Sc. in International Management and Marketing, as well as considerable experience in IT, jobs in Ireland at that time were very scarce. Adding to the pressure was a debt overhang from the previous year in school.
In December of that year, I got a consulting role through one of my most recent employers. It related back to my time as IT training manager at BTNA. While the job was based in Atlanta, and my contact in San Jose, it required work in London and Paris. More importantly, I was asked to set up a company. I promptly created Areelin Ltd. based in Ballymore Eustace, in County Kildare, Ireland, where I lived at the time.
After a successful 18 months, I decided that there was an opportunity to set up a more long-term company structure. In 1997-98, I set about getting contract work for various companies in Silicon Valley, with an eye to bringing the work home to Ireland. Nortel turned out to be the right client, and I worked for them for several months in late 1998 and early 1999.
Meanwhile, we had to move from our rented house in Kildare, because the owners wanted to sell it. I decided I wanted to work out of the Gaeltacht and prove that good quality jobs could be created there, and perhaps do something for the Irish language. Since I grew up speaking Munster Irish, and since Muscrai seemed the most central Gaeltacht in Munster, we found a suitable house near Bantry, and Ballingeary was to become Bárd HQ.
I found Building F in the Ballingeary Údarás Park and applied to use it in December 1998. Údarás na Gaeltachta (“Gaeltacht Authority”) is a regional state agency responsible for the economic, social and cultural development of Irish-speaking regions of Ireland. Údarás asked me to complete a business plan, and then a layout for the building. By mid-January of 1999, we had an agreement, and I expected to start work there in April 1999. When I arrived at Building F in early April, I was ready to work, but the building was not. It was bare cement floors with some debris still around from the previous occupant – a bakery. A four-legged furry fan of the bakery was still in residence in the attic, but we finally got him out.
Undeterred, I set up shop in a small corner office and began to fulfill the technical writing contracts I had taken on. As all you writers know, sometimes there’s really no other choice. Within a few weeks, I hired Maureen Cronin to work with me from Galway: Maureen was the first contract tech writer with Bárd, and she’s still with us now.
During the summer of 1999, I hired my kids Kate and William and my nephew Ciaran (17) to help get the building in order. Kate worked as an admin, and William, then 10, was helped put furniture together, get computers set up and generally doing what had to be done. Ciaran did some programming and web work.
By August, we had several desks and computers in the building and a good deal of work in progress. Údarás informed me that they needed us out of the building in September so they could do the necessary rebuilding. We shoved all the desks to the middle of the floor, covered them with sheets and left them at it…
The Story of Bárd: Part II
…By September 1999, the Nortel writing project was well underway and going well. We had plenty of writing work to keep us busy.
By early October, Dara and I returned from California to find the Bárd building still incomplete. The builders had knocked broken concrete into the building so it was a mess. Computers that we tried to cover up with sheets were now covered in concrete particles and dust. We selected a small corner office in the building, sealed it off from the construction, and Dara and I worked from there. Maureen Cronin was working from home.
After seeing the problems with the construction work, I felt that it was imperative that I stay in Ballingeary until it was done. The construction crew wasn’t familiar with IT equipment or wiring, and data wiring was not part of their skill set. Dara and I had to run our own data cables through the electrical conduits. We made our own RJ45 connectors and hooked up the data cabling throughout the building. Because we had both worked as hardware writers, this was not too far a stretch.
Meanwhile, I also started work on the Irish language side of the company. I had taught the Irish language in both San Francisco and Silicon Valley in the 80s and was aware that it was next-to-impossible to source Irish language books outside of Ireland. In 1997 during a consulting job, I discovered that the Irish government had an Irish language book distribution center in Dublin. They were 99%+ focused on the Irish market and had no online presence.
We started the process of setting up Litríocht, the very first online Irish language bookshop. I drafted my nephew Ciaran and my sister-in-law Kathleen for the job. In early September, we went to Dublin to buy our first books for Litriocht at Ais, part of Foras na Gaeilge, the government organization responsible for Irish book distribution.
The execs at Foras simply couldn’t understand the idea of selling online (remember, that Amazon.com was relatively new and little known at that time.) They told us we’d have to take advice and help about what books we could and couldn’t sell. They didn’t understand how it was possible to make all Irish language books available on the site.
After endless discussion, I told them they could choose the first 100 books for Litriocht.com. Next day, because the Foras guy didn’t have the 100 books, because, “I didn’t know what you wanted”, I asked William (then 10), Kate (then 13), and Ciaran (then 17) to choose 20 books each from a store that contained more than 5,000 titles. They enjoyed the experience greatly, and we ended up with 125 titles for the launch of Litriocht.com.
We scheduled the opening of Litriocht for 0 hours on November 1, the first day of the Celtic year. At 9:30 p.m., with two and a half hours to go, our shopping cart malfunctioned, and we had to start over. By 3:30 a.m., we got the site live and celebrated with champagne.
Thus began Litriocht.com in the kitchen of my brother’s home in Cill Chuile, County Kerry. Litriocht.com now has more than 6,000 titles and has sold books into more than 60 countries. Litriocht is also the reference point for people who want to find out what books are available in the Irish language.
The Story of Bárd: Part III
…Bárd and Litríocht were up and running by the end of 1999. Forbes magazine says that 50% of companies fail in their first year of business. A business starting in a small rural village in Ireland is likely to have an even higher chance of failure.
While Bárd was physically based in Ballingeary (population 250), it had its roots firmly fixed in Silicon Valley and was profitable from the start. This was due to the preparation of the previous year or so, finding potential clients in Silicon Valley.
One of the challenges was the lack of IT skills in the area. Bárd’s first contract writer, Maureen, came to work for us from Galway, and our first full-time writer, Dara, moved from Dublin to Ballingeary. Others I interviewed balked at the idea of working in a remote village.
As a small company in a small village, you tend to know the families of employees. As such, Bárd has always been family centric. At Bárd, we understood from the start that people work to support their families, so we’ve always had a family-friendly approach to work. In the early years, most people worked onsite in Ballingeary, but could adjust their time to address family needs.
Because most of our customers were in other time zones, the flexibility cut both ways, as some meetings were held at late hours. The concept of flexible work hours was not that common in Ireland at the time, and it proved very popular. Nineteen years on, we have many writer who have been with us for more than ten years.
By 2001, the dot-com bust was looming. The glut of buying that preceded the expected Y2K problems led to a serious drop-off of purchasing in 2000 and onward. The issues around the Bush/Gore elections that dragged well into December 2000 didn’t help matters. Nortel, who was by far our biggest client, started to have problems.
By mid-2001, things were looking bleak for Bárd. Such was our reputation that we still had writers in Nortel even after they were laying off their full-time writers. In October 2001, I started negotiating a contract with a US company to outsource 10 writers in Silicon Valley. The president of the company was someone I’d worked with in the late eighties and also at Nortel. This was related to a product line that Nortel was selling off. In mid-November 2001, we won that contract and our future was somewhat secured.
The US writing team was augmented with six writers in Ireland. Since the original team had been 20 writers, and we had a May 2002 release date, this was a highly demanding contract.
By February 2002, it was clear that the six new writers in Ireland were struggling to get a grasp on the complex software. To meet the deadline, all six writers were shipped to California at very short notice. Several of those writers are still with us and will remember the excitement of finding themselves in Silicon Valley, having signed up to work in Ballingeary.
The Story of Bárd: Part IV
…In February 2002, six Irish writers from Bárd were shipped to San Jose to join the 10 we’d just outsourced. When I decided to ship the Irish writers to San Jose in February 2002, I didn’t know who would pay the expenses. I just knew it had to be done if we were to meet our deadlines. What we didn’t know was that our conference room that decision day was right next to the office of our client’s director. As I left the meeting, he followed me and said, “I heard what you said in there. I was very impressed by that decision, and don’t worry, we’ll pay for the expenses.” Phew! Didn’t even have to ask.
So, what a thrill! Six writers suddenly transplanted from Ballingeary to San Jose. We put them up in apartments and they stayed for a couple of months. One of the writers (we’ll call her T) had only worked for Bárd for two weeks prior to being shipped out. Only a few days after arrival, we had a staff meeting in San Jose with our 10 California writers and the six just in from Ireland.
We got about 10 minutes into the meeting when T suddenly exclaimed loudly “Wow, I just realized all these people here also work for Bárd, wow!!” Now, you might imagine that the 10 writers in San Jose who had previously worked for a global company called Nortel Networks were nervous about working for a company called Bárd na nGleann. No one had ever heard of it, and most never did figure out how to pronounce the name. While T’s reaction might not help set their minds at ease, it did break the ice on that first international staff meeting. It’s worth noting here that, for a company from Ballingeary to win such a contract six thousand miles away was no small feat.
One of the writing managers “J” that we took over in California was the techiest guy on the team, and when I first interviewed him, in November 2001, he gave the impression that he wasn’t going to stick around. Sure enough, he handed in his notice in January 2002. He assured me that Bárd “would not, could not,” succeed in getting the job done. I asked him to write me a letter explaining to me why we couldn’t possibly get the job done, and he was kind enough to do that. Though it wasn’t his intention, thanks to J, we were able to focus on the primary hurdles in our way, and when the deadline came in May 2002, we got the job done.
I’d like to give a special thanks to Emer and Sinead, who are still with us, and were among the writers we shipped out and their supporting team in Ireland.
The Story of Bárd: Part V
For this part of the Bárd story, we need to start around April 2000. I overheard a conversation at a grocery store in Silicon Valley about Cisco outsourcing tech writing to India. I contacted a friend of mine who was an editor for Cisco and arranged to get a meeting with Ben Jackson, a senior writing manager at Cisco. Ben and I had a very promising conversation and a deal was about to happen. The dotcom boom was still going.
For the next four months, I had several meetings with Cisco and the prospects were looking good. Ben even introduced me over the phone to Neville Fleet, a new writing manager that was being hired in London. Given that Bárd was based in Ireland, we expected to be working closely with Neville in London.
Starting in early September 2000, the internet/technology world began to crumble. The dotcom bust started in earnest and it was BAD. The NASDAQ technology index dropped about 80% over two years. Cisco’s stock went from $77+ in Feb 2000 to $55 by early October and on down to $10. That put an immediate end to our Cisco business opportunity in 2000.
At the same time, Nortel’s stock dropped from a high of $93 a share to $0.49 cents a share. Fortunately for Bárd, we were able to keep writers working in Nortel even as the bottom fell out of the market and Nortel laid off tens of thousands of their own employees. Indeed, it was Nortel’s sale of one of their business units that led to the long-term client that was discussed in part IV of the Bárd story.
Meanwhile in Ireland and around the world, the dotcom crash wreaked havoc. Thousands of big-name companies went out of business and almost every mother in Ireland advised her sons and daughters to stay out of technology. Many followed that advice and it led to a shortage of tech-savvy people in later years. During the dotcom crash, Bárd grew to such an extent that in 2005, we were listed as Number 5 in Ireland’s Deloitte Fast 50. We were number 80 for Europe Middle-East and Africa (EMEA).
Notwithstanding Bárd’s overall growth, it was late 2005 before we got writers into Cisco Systems, and it happened through Neville Fleet, the manager that had been hired in London five years earlier. Neville had been moved to Silicon Valley and we built a relationship that continues to this day. We had many friends in Cisco over the years and we’ve continued to work with them as they moved onto other companies. Even now, 14 years later, Cisco continues to be a Bárd client. At one time during a transition phase, we had 45 writers working in Cisco.
The impact of Cisco on Bárd was widespread, and they became our mainstay client for the next 8 years. Even beyond the Cisco era, we continued to work with various Cisco managers. We started doing business with Brocade through Neville Fleet when he moved there.
We started working with Google through Helen Cavender, whom we had met while in Cisco. Spank McCoy, who worked for Bárd as a writer, was first a client of ours at Cisco Systems.
The Story of Bárd: Part VI
The DotCom bust had been quite a challenge for Bárd in 2000-02. As an IT company, it was understandable that a massive IT downturn would give us a hit. Not only did we make it through, but we grew by 40% during the DotCom crisis. The Great Recession, on the other hand, was a much tougher battle. It caught Bárd at a very bad time. Early in 2008, our biggest client was moving all its business to Israel and Cyprus, so we were in a transition. Cisco was still in its early days as a client. We badly needed a new client, and we thought we had one.
In August 2007, we had been contacted by SAP. One of the biggest business software companies in the world wanted to talk to us. They had done a global search for an outsource tech writing partner in an English-speaking country. They decided that Ireland was the best country, and Bárd was on their shortlist.
They came to see us in early September in Ballingeary, and asked to Interview us later that month. I met them at the Galway offices on September 19, 2007. They also interviewed three other Irish tech writing companies (they never did tell us who the others were). Following that interview process, Bárd and one other company were selected as the top two and scheduled for further analysis. They sent us lots of questions and we had lots of phone calls. By July 2008, Bárd was selected as the WINNER and we began to schedule a pilot. It was due to start in October 2008.
AND THEN, the bottom fell out of the global real estate and banking market, and the world economy began to cave in. Lehman Brothers went down in September 2008, and by the end of October there were serious problems everywhere. One of the victims was SAP stock, which dropped by 20%; our pilot was stopped in its tracks. Another was Bárd’s list of prospective clients. We had 10 on the list at the time. In normal times, two or three would have come through, but with the recession, all 10 came to nothing.
While the Great Recession, officially ended in June 2009, it sure didn’t end for Bárd, and it didn’t seem to end for our clients either. Bárd revenue dropped by 50% and we struggled to keep people working. There was a general nervousness with our clients and the fog didn’t really lift until late 2011 into 2012. Bárd had a significant loss in Fiscal YE March 2009. We eked out a small profit in 2010 but had significant losses in years ending March 2011 and 2012.
Still, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. SAP came back on board and started a couple of projects around July 2010. Cisco started a major re-org in mid-2012, which led to major hiring in late 2012 and early 2013. We had 8 interns starting in Dingle for Cisco. Bárd ramped up to 45 writers with Cisco alone by early 2013. Brocade, where Neville Fleet had moved from Cisco, also came on board in March 2012 and grew from there. By YE March 2013, we had more than doubled our revenue and were able to draw a huge sigh of relief.