The Sunday Independent, Aime O’Connor; 5th November 2017
While certain sectors of business have been radically altered over time, others have changed mostly in how they are conducted. For many years Michael Gilmartin and his partner supplied everything a law firm or barrister would need to run their business. Their two shops – one in Cork and one in Dublin – had everything from stationery to legal attire.
Michael, who was always interested in technology, saw an opportunity in legal accounting and set up a company that would design, develop and sell its own accounting software aimed specifically at the sector to which he had been catering for decades.
And after his son John joined the company it has specialised even further, making Klyant the market-leading provider of accounting applications to the legal and estate agency sectors.
John was very happy practising as a solicitor in the UK but when the opportunity arose to join his father’s company in 2009, he spent a year-and-a-half commuting from Bristol where he and his wife Marie Claire had bought a house, before the couple moved full-time to Dublin.
The opportunity the Gilmartins saw was in specialisation. There are well-known accountancy and money-management applications like Sage, Xero and Quickbooks but they cater for broad use and John wanted to develop something very specific for the legal and property sectors.
“Both industries are heavily regulated in relation to the management of client money. Proper accounting for this money in a system that will also manage their business funds is what separates Klyant from other applications,” says John.
“There are lots of great practice management and CRM solutions out there but the accounting functionality they provide, if any, is quite limited.
“At our core we are an accounting technology company. We looked at the competition and nobody had designed a true design for cloud focused on the accounts side of things. So in 2015 we decided to do just that and we developed a web-based system for law firms, estate agents and property managers called Klyant.”
Large companies have entire departments focused on innovation but in a small company a change of direction is risky.
“A change like that is serious in a small business because shifting focus inevitably means less [focus] on the existing business.” Finding a balance is key. From researching what the market wants to designing a product that will not only achieve the desired effect, be fit for market, all intended markets, and will continue to be so, requires a lot of work.
“When you’re planning to build a company that will scale you need to keep one eye on what you’re going to need in the future,” says John. “It’s really important to make the right decisions in relation to the technology. You don’t want to find yourselves in a situation where you have just transferred a product to market that you need to rewrite five minutes later.”
With the product design finalised, they were determined to build in-house, seeking specialist help when they needed it.
“Building in-house means a better, more direct ability to deal with any issues that arise for customers,” says John. This ability to deal direct with the product and the customer was a key part of the vision for Klyant.
There were many challenges along the way, some foreseeable, some less so, but they had a substantial and willing group of testers and early adopters in their customer base. “The same customers who helped us with the design were very keen to get their hands on the early versions which we gave them to test and give feedback,” John added.
Klyant launched officially in May 2016 and operates as an annual subscription. It can be tailored to each individual company, with personal training provided. “We can do some training online but we prefer to meet people face-to-face because with accounting there tends to be quite a bit of training. Because we only sell into these two verticals, legal and property, we know the industry and the professionals and we understand their day-to-day problems.”
Cloud technology means the monthly updates automatically reach all users. There is an obvious benefit to the customer but there is also benefit to Klyant. “It takes a fraction of the time compared to what it would have taken previously to roll out a release to all our desktop clients,” he says.
This, in turn, speeds up innovation. “We want to always be at the forefront of innovation and we think that that’s what will help us to grow.”
Early adopters became customers, many of whom are now into their second year. Because of the specialisation, word of mouth has been important in building the business but the firm also attends major property and legal shows and works with the Law Society, IPAV and similar professional associations. “Over the last 12 months we’ve been pushing to put more and more Irish customers on to the platform and we’re market leader already in Ireland.
“We’re aware it’s big fish in a small pond as it were but we have started winning business in the UK and have opened two new offices this year, one in Manchester and one in Belfast,” says John.
He maintains customer service and in-depth knowledge is vital. “When you’re in a particular profession and you’re relying on tech and you have made that outlay on a system, you need to know that it is going to do what you want it to do.
“When you have a problem, or need to do something out of the ordinary, you need to know you can get on to somebody who is an expert and understands your specific profession.”
Feedback from customers, especially on the property management side, is about saving time, and John feels they offer the “holy trinity” when it comes to macro benefits due the time-saving benefits of the cloud and choice when it comes to design and bespoke solutions.
Much of the early work was funded via a combination of own company funding, a business loan and support from the Dublin City local enterprise board.
“Because we’re an established company we can’t call ourselves a startup and so couldn’t benefit from the various programmes offered by Enterprise Ireland. But the local enterprise board was able to step in and have genuinely been just incredible.”
Now, with a view to greater expansion the firm has brought in some outside investment, Kevin Neary former MD of GameStop Ireland and UK and Jeremy Batt, who had global responsibility for the development of scientific software at Waters. A firm believer in working with other platform providers, Klyant has just announced its integration with practice management system Clio, something John is very enthusiastic about.
He says this is their year to “stabilise” and with the two investors is aiming to increase staff from six and two contractors by adding another four in the first half of next year.
The software does not need to be adapted for the UK but will have to be for the US. “We would recognise that we have some more milestones to reach before we launch in North America but we know we’re going in the right direction on that front and that is the plan, ultimately.”