Building and developing a digital company outside a city has its challenges. But what happens when you throw a global pandemic into the mix? Letterkenny-based 3D Issue is better set up than most to handle an indefinite period of remote working.
In some ways, the marketing tools company founded by Paul McNulty has had a headstart on being 'remote' for some years.
Located firmly in one of western Europe's most non-urban regions, McNulty has had to tailor the job specification to a non-city backdrop since day one.
"We didn't have much choice," he says, as we drive over the hills of Donegal to his office above an American burger bar on the outskirts of Letterkenny.
"I wanted to build a product so I had to go looking for remote developers."
Now, 3D Issue has 17 people, 12 of whom work mostly in the upstairs office. But physical presence isn't critical: they're all set up to work on common platforms from wherever they want.
"We use the usual performance platforms and CRM," he says. "It's quite easy to see who's working at the time.
"We have all the correct protocols. But most of our staff have been with us quite a while anyway. There's a great relationship in place."
3D Issue's main product is a suite of flipbooks, used to help marketers put together sales materials or presentations. It is currently working on a more advanced product, which it hopes will put it on a higher level with some of its multinational competitors.
"Within 30 minutes, you can brand your identity and have a digital solution," he says. "It's really easy to use."
Most of its customers are in North America, with some based in Europe.
McNulty's journey to this point is not atypical. Born and bred in Donegal, he went off to work in different countries, particularly the US.
As a sales and marketing man, he started to find that the traditional methods of sending over a physical brochure to prospective clients were too clumsy and expensive. So he sat down and came up with a way of doing it digitally. 3D Issue was born.
Does McNulty think that 3D Issue could ever become a large employer in Donegal?
"Never say never," he says. "We've built all the platforms. Now we want to actually start targeting more companies and media agencies."
If he wanted to do that, wouldn't he need a substantial hiring pool? For all its flexibility, remote working is not a first choice for ambitious companies looking to scale.
McNulty concedes the point, but doesn't agree that Letterkenny is stranded in the middle of nowhere.
"If you look at the multinationals that are located around here, there's actually quite a decent base to recruit from if you ever started to reach that scale," he says, referring to firms such as Pramerica, Sita and Kirchhoff. "Besides that, the local college [Letterkenny IT] here has been very good. We've hired several graduates from there. So I don't necessarily feel that we're limited because of our geography."
Besides, he says, there is an under-reported trend of people living in rural areas but working for companies quite far away.
"There's a guy that used to work for us who is now working for a company in Dublin," McNulty says.
"But he's still living in Letterkenny. He goes up once a week to the Dublin office for meetings, but the rest of the time he's working from home. There's quite a lot of that going on."
What about official support? It's not unusual to hear firms in far-flung locations call for extra infrastructure or fiscal stimuli. Does McNulty think that Donegal is hard done by in this regard?
"I don't think so, no," he says. "To be honest, I don't really focus on that. I suppose you might say that transport infrastructure isn't great here. There's no train line, so we depend on the roads, which aren't great. But we just get on with things."
Like any other business, 3D Issue now has to factor in the economic impact that global retrenchment around Covid-19 will cause.
Although this interview was conducted before schools and pubs were closed, it was clear that McNulty was thinking of this. "It is concerning in how this is going to affect every business," he says.
"It's not just actual physical products and goods, it's everything. Like everyone else, we're facing a situation of selling something when others may be scaling back."
McNulty says that the company's new product was to be ready to go some time this summer. With a pandemic now in operation, it's harder to predict when a launch might occur.
"Whatever happens, this is a great place to build and grow a company," he says. "It was the right move to set it up here."