Friday 9 December 2016

Global coverage: Why the smart money is on revolutionary paint

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

Denise Doran and Ronan Clarke of Smarter Surfaces
Denise Doran and Ronan Clarke of Smarter Surfaces

Wicklow entrepreneur Ronan Clarke spent a decade managing a successful multi-million euro construction business before the light bulb moment which led him to create Smarter Surfaces, the company which he founded first as Smart Wall Paint in 2011.

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"I was in the construction industry and we had a customer who was going to fit out an office and wanted to literally cover all of the walls with whiteboards. So obviously that had a lot of restrictions, because with room sizes all being different, you have doors and light switches and so on to contend with. That was where the initial idea came from, getting around those issues and coming up with something that could solve them," Ronan explains. "And we spent over two years then doing research to find the original coating that would do just that."

The result of this research and development was not just innovative, it was unheard of in the industry. Smarter Surfaces now produces three categories of 'smart' paint products, which add functionality to surfaces. These products include a white board paint - which turns any room, surface or building into a giant white board - magnetic wallpaper and magnetic paint, and also projector paint.

After the initial two-year period of extensive research and development, the company launched their first product Smart Wall Paint White in November 2011.

In 2014, the company filed two new patent applications for a new dry erase coating technology and that same year Smarter Surfaces launched Smart Wall Paint Clear and the Smart Wall Paint Contractors kit during the first quarter.

The Smart Magnetic Primer was the final product to be launched in 2014 and this year the company launched Smart Projector Paint, Smart Magnetic Wallpaper and Smart Whiteboard Sheets.

The pace at which the company has produced these highly in-demand and revolutionary new products, led to their re-brand at the beginning of this year - after just four years in existence - in order to reflect their growing range of offerings.

From the very beginning, Ronan considered each of these products of international scale and importance, and over these last four years the market's response has confirmed this fact time and time again.

Smarter Surfaces is creating new products in an industry where change and innovation is often slow if it is happening at all, which has given them an enviable niche in the market.

"The response has been amazing," Smarter Surfaces Director Denise Doran explains. "If you think about Ronan coming from the construction business and you fast track four years on, we are now an international company and we are 95pc export-led. We have got distributors on every continent across the world. We employ just over 20 people. We have got an extensive and highly professional team of sales and marketing people.

"A lot of people start businesses, but for me the kind of magic of what we have done is that we have taken it to another level very quickly," Denise adds.

"The global coverage we have achieved with our products and with our distributors is fantastic. We are dealing with distributors who are the leading company in the sectors for their country from South Africa to Slovenia, to Saudi Arabia, and it has been an absolute roller-coaster. There is lots of innovation these days in technology and software, but innovation in the space that we are in is quite rare and unusual."

Smarter Surfaces offers customers products which are unparalleled in not just the Irish market, but in the global industry.

"Our distributors have never seen anything like it," Denise says. "You can coat whole rooms in our product and many of our customers, be they international language schools or Ivy League Universities or multinationals such as Google, have done just that - even coating floors with our products."

Denise, who previously worked with Nortel, Hitachi and Dell, in a variety of global strategic, product, channel and marketing roles, was responsible for setting up the first Marketing Communications team in Dell UK and Ireland, Business and Consumer.

Denise also ran her own very successful consultancy company, where she worked with many of Ireland's top tech start-up companies, as well as a number of government agencies for over a decade before she was invited to join Smarter Surfaces as director and shareholder in its very early days.

"Ronan was on an entrepreneur programme and I was the marketing trainer on that programme," Denise explains. "Ronan is extremely entrepreneurial, very smart, very clever, a typical entrepreneur, a risk-taker, and I have more of the classic corporate multinational background. So together we run the business and it has been a successful recipe so far.

"We have a broader management team and we have got a great team in the office and we also plan to keep growing the company in terms of employment," Denise adds. "We are hoping to hit the number of 50 employees within the next 18 months."

Smarter Surfaces now has 33 distributors around the world, every continent is covered.

"We plan to maintain the business growth at the level we are at," Denise says. "Our most recent sign-ups have been in Brazil, Singapore, Canada and Chile, so we are getting a very wide distribution across the globe. We introduce new products very rapidly and we have introduced two new products this quarter, and later in the year we are going to introduce a ground-breaking product in our sector that we can't say too much about just yet, and we are also looking at new routes to market."

Currently the company is working on the expansion of Smarter Surfaces e-commerce operations, with all of its products for sale online and websites now live in four additional languages: French, Italian, Spanish and German.

"It is all go for us in terms of growth and geographic coverage and getting more distributors, expanding our e-commerce and maintaining our investment in R&D, because we are all about being on the cutting edge of what we do," Denise says.

"Our products are beautiful and they are seamless, they don't look like they are there, but they completely transform how a business operates or how schools might teach and students learn. They are really cool, funky, innovative products all rooted in extensive R&D programmes."

At this stage, while Denise welcomes competition and believes it has a healthy place in the market, it is not a particular worry for the company given their pioneering position.

"There are people doing different things in a similar space, but nobody who has really benchmarked the product like us. Between our distribution channels and our R&D and our brand, we have huge differentiators, so we are very comfortable in our position and don't really see anyone else catching up with us at this stage," Denise explains.

"We are still fairly new to market, so there is a way to go in educating people about the fact that our products our out there to transform their businesses and educational environments."

Smarter Surfaces is head-quartered in Dublin and all of their manufacturing is carried out in Ireland too, which is an element of the business that Ronan Clarke is intensely proud of.

"We are Irish-owned, Irish-managed, Irish-manufactured and very proud to be exporting in the way we are from a little island like Ireland," he says. "And while we are very proud of our entrepreneurial background, our mission now is to keep being a globally proven company, which is what we have grown into."

Since being awarded the Ulster Bank Business Achievers Business Start-Up Award a little over six months ago, in December 2014, Smarter Surfaces has undergone its re-brand and expanded their global distribution network from 22 to 33 countries.

"Winning the Business Start-Up Award has given us huge credibility and really helped us to position ourselves on the global stage," Ronan says of the accolade. "In the six months since winning the award, we have expanded our distribution network to South America and Australia, and that expansion is continuing all the time. Winning the award really has been a catalyst for huge change for us."

The Ulster Bank Business Achievers Business Start-Up Award is open to SMEs across all sectors throughout the island of Ireland.

"At Ulster Bank we are committed to providing support to Irish businesses, from start-ups, right up to global organisations, and these awards are at the heart of that commitment," Eddie Cullen, managing director of commercial banking at Ulster Bank explains. "The long list of previous winners includes a huge number of successful companies that won awards in their infancy and have gone on to become strong, household names, including Realex Payments, Glenisk Foods, The Sofa Factory and Tayto Park. With the 2015 Awards, we look forward to hearing the stories of many more businesses from all over the country, and recognising some of Ireland's finest businesses and entrepreneurs."

The overall winner of the award will receive a comprehensive prize package, including a €50,000 publishing bursary with the Irish Independent, business mentoring from Enterprise Ireland, a full-service communications workshop, as well as national and regional media exposure. Run in association with the Irish Independent, Enterprise Ireland, InterTradeIreland and SmallBusinessCan.com, the awards are now open for entry at BusinessAchieversAward.com.

The deadline for submissions is Friday, September 25. You can follow all the action throughout the 2015 awards using @ulsterbank and #businessachievers.

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