‘I’ve never worked longer hours but I’m very excited by what I do’
ternity 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 nineyear-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 oneyear-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.”
We’ve had to grow the team quite quickly, that in itself brought challenges