Dulann is an innovative online e-learning company based in Wexford Town run by business partners and entrepreneurs, Damian Donlon (pictured in the middle) and Matthias Kausch (left). Launched in 2013, their initial product set out to disrupt the food safety market, by reducing costs and improving efficiencies for the SME sector in Ireland. Here, CEO Damian Donlon talks about their unique approach and their plans to rapidly scale the business over the next few years. 

“We started off in the lobby of the Talbot Hotel in Wexford, and for the first six months, we held our meetings there.”

How we started

We started off in the lobby of the Talbot Hotel in Wexford, and for the first six months, we actually held our meetings there. Matthias’s background is in learning and development. He is also a published author within food safety which became our first e-learning course and cost in the region of €100,000 to produce. Previously I had spent ten years in construction, and although that industry was hugely satisfying, you were mostly involved in building and selling a once-off product, before quickly moving onto the next project. With the arrival of the recession, what really attracted me to e-learning was the concept that you could build a product once – and still having the opportunity to sell it many times over. 

“There are 13m people in Europe operating under one piece of mandatory food safety legislation.”

We had enough insight from our market research that there was a real need out there and with the right product, we felt that we could satisfy that need. A key factor was realising that there were 13m people in Europe operating under one piece of mandatory food safety legislation which was a real indication of the potential size of the market. For us, it was about using technology to improve an existing and well adopted traditional method or way of doing things. All we have done is to apply advances in technology to reduce costs and improve efficiencies for SME’s. It was a combination of these factors that proved to be the real lightbulb moment for starting the business.  

All insurance, doctors, large multi-nationals, retail chains have been using online training for years. Companies or groups operating in these areas require massive budgets to implement e-learning in these sectors. The next tier down, i.e. the SMEs didn’t have the same access to good quality e-learning available to them. The only other people that were attempting to satisfy the SME market were the people delivering poor e-learning. We are seen as disruptors in the marketplace, and we believed that there was an opportunity to provide high quality ‘best in breed’ e-learning to the Irish SME market. 

“At the start there were massive upfront costs, however at this stage, we are debt free and profitable.”

The tech

We took the critical decision early on not to use video as the primary delivery mechanism and instead went for a technology product that was both highly interactive and engaging. All our courses are either Montessori based which is self-paced and self-directed along with a cognitive three-step approach to learning. This means that there is an exceptional learning theory process behind this approach as opposed to pure video; which can be quite linear resulting in poorer productivity and engagement outcomes. Secondly, a lot of our clients require site-specific amendments to courses which makes video impractical. The third reason why we stay away from video is that not every location in Ireland has a good broadband connection; whereas every course we offer can be accessed through a 3G connection. From a compliance and client perspective, learner activity is fully tracked and traced at all times. 

“There are no upfront costs for clients, no cost per head, no charge for maintenance or updates and importantly no contract.”

Thinking differently

Our competitors tend to focus on training or software. What differentiates us from everybody else is that we try and identify what the business challenges are. Competitors also typically charge a good chunk of money up front, because they have a bespoke product which is video based. What we offer is a subscription model which means there are no upfront costs for clients, no cost per head, no charge for maintenance or updates and importantly no contract and touch wood since we started – we haven’t lost a single customer. 

At the start there were massive upfront costs, however at this stage, we are debt free and profitable; which is something not too many other tech companies can say, after such a short period of time. We were also able to bootstrap the business and fund our expansion through cash-flow without the need for external investors. 

“Businesses no longer have to stop production to achieve compliance.”

Growing

We are great believers in promoting the business through association and awards, and recently we became the only Irish company listed at the international e-learning awards in the category of ‘best use of technology to ensure compliance’. At the awards, you had IKEA, Santander, PWC and Dulann from Ireland. This award has given us massive credibility in the marketplace which is just one of the ways we have built up the business. Another strategy we decided to pursue was to secure premium clients in each of the sectors. In agriculture, for example, we deal with some of the largest agricultural coops in the country. We offer a range of courses from food safety, emergency evacuation of forecourts, allergen awareness, fire safety and right down to safety when training horses. In essence, businesses no longer have to stop production to achieve compliance. Mandatory training can now be managed around operations 24/7, 365 days a year. 

“If you wait until your product is 110% perfect – you’ll never get it off the ground.”

Franchising milestone

One of our biggest challenges is combining our first mover advantage with the ability to capture market share to protect against the threat of either EU or UK companies coming into the Irish marketplace. We have built a suite of excellent courses, and it’s now about getting our courses out there along with delivering the service. Because of that, we are now about to launch an initiative called Oceans 32. It’s essentially thirty-two jobs in thirty-two months, using a franchising model, covering North and South of the border.  It’s to allow us to capture market share quickly and provide for super-normal expansion. 

“We are now about to launch an initiative called Oceans 32.”

It’s all about the staff

Customer service has always been foremost for us, and we are proud to say that we have an exceptional name in the business for customer service. We also acknowledge that our key relationships are with our staff – all who have been fundamental to the on-going success of the business.

For fellow entrepreneurs

I am a perfectionist, but I have learned that you need to be a little less than that sometimes. If you wait until your product is 110% perfect – you’ll never get it off the ground. So you need to go with what you have and keep on developing. 

Written by Brendan Byrne

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