Tech start-up of the week: Bullet HQ

13 May 2012

Peter Connor and John Farrelly, co-founders of Bullet HQ, pictured at Dublin Beta recently. Image credit:

Bullet HQ, a new venture that was set up for just €1,400 and which is aiming to disrupt the accountancy marketplace with its online accounting and payroll software targeted at SMEs, is our tech start-up of the week.

We first profiled Bullet a few weeks ago after the start-up won the People’s Choice Award when it demoed at Dublin Beta along with other new digital ventures.

The duo behind Bullet are Peter Connor and John Farrelly, and they’ve been getting lots of attention of late. Think Brant Cooper of the lean start-up movement in San Diego, who stopped by Bullet’s stall at Dublin Beta recently to check out the start-up’s technology.

So here’s a bit more about how Bullet HQ came to fruition. The business itself was incorporated in mid-2010. And the impetus to set it up was all down to a bad experience Farrelly had with an accountant.

As Connor explains: “John had hired an accountant to do his accounts. He found out that the accountant had failed to file his return. This ended up costing him a lot of money, since it is the company owner’s responsible for the accounts, not the accountant.”

Pooling resources

From there, Connor and Farrelly decided to pool their resources to set up Bullet HQ.

“As John’s a software developer, he’s pretty handy with numbers and seeing as anyone can file their own company tax once the company is making less then €7.5m, he decided to buy an accounting application and do it himself. However, he found they were difficult to use and you still needed accounting knowledge to use them. That’s when he came up with the idea for Bullet. We met a couple of months later and started working together,” explains Connor.

Market research

Interestingly, as part of their market research, it was Connor’s mother who became the guinea pig, so to speak, to test out their initial technology.

“I think she loved the attention more than anything else!” laughs Connor. “Certain people might be quick to laugh at some older people not getting tech, but to myself and John it’s a goldmine of raw reaction. Lots of tech is hard to use because it’s hard to make it easy to use.”

Bullet in action on the iPad

Bullet in action on the iPad

Building a product from scratch

He says that, when you are building a product, you can’t treat it like your baby.

“If people keep having the same problem or difficulty with your product, then there’s something wrong with your product, not the people. You need to stay objective.”

Disruptive tech?

Okay, so how is Bullet aiming to transform how SMEs and micro enterprises carry out their accountancy function?

“In a nutshell, says Connor, “Bullet replaces their accountant for the purpose of doing their books, payroll and all tax returns.”

In more depth, he claims that Bullet’s technology will give SMEs more control by automating all their tax returns – from Vat3 to B1 forms.

“The business owner just raises invoices, tracks expenses and pays staff. Bullet gathers that information and generates all the tax returns automatically when it’s time to submit them,” says Connor.

iPhone app

As well as this, Farrelly and Connor have also created an iPhone app to complement the service. It can, apparently, capture a company’s receipts and track one’s mileage. Sounds nifty enough, so how does it work?

“By using your phone’s GPS it can track your mileage, calculate the expenses and automatically add it to your payroll instantly,” says Farrelly. “We also have this service available online.”

Accountancy tech

So how is Bullet aiming to be a game-changer in the accountancy tech space? “Eighty percent of companies in Ireland are SMEs with about four staff or less,” explains Connor.

“Currently, we’re targeting invoice businesses in this group. We can automate the accounts of a large portion of the current business market. That’s disruptive, not only to the accounting or bookkeeping industry but also the invoice and business-expense tracking industries.”

He goes on to claim that if a contractor, for instance, is paying €300 a month to an accounts service company, Bullet can deliver a better service for €29.95 per month.

“That would achieve a saving of around €3,204 per year.”

And the reaction to Bullet so far? Connor says that, prior to launch, Bullet had over 250 beta users using the product.

“Recently, we had a corner stand at the Dublin Beta event and we were surrounded by some really great companies. After the doors opened, we were mobbed solidly for the whole night. We even got a visit from Brant Cooper and ended up winning the People Choice’s Award, which was great.”

National Startup Awards

And Bullet has also been nominated for two awards for the National Startup Awards.

“We also got picked by Sprouter, the North American tech site as the Hottest Startup of the Week and it’s just been building from there. Hey, now even Silicon Republic is featuring us!” says Connor.

In lean mode …

But getting the business up and running for just €1,400 does seem pretty impressive. I ask Connor did they get any advice on how to go about being a lean start-up.

“I think it was circumstances and experience that forced us into a lean start-up mode,” he says.

“From lack of money to pay graphic designers, I had to learn about design. Ironically, UI is really about what you want the user to do and less about look. I’m very limited in a design capacity, but that actually meant we really focused on function.

“John is a talented developer with a crazy work ethic and lots of experience, so he knew how to build big tech efficiently. We’ve only recently started reading about the theory behind it. When you have constraints, it really forces you to be creative. It’s been happening in California for years.”

He says that Eric Reis, the author of the New York Times bestseller The Lean Startup, was happy to put his name to Bullet’s homepage video.

“We didn’t have €5K to €10K to make a slick flash video; we also knew that every business that launches usually has to experiment with their messaging until they get it right. So we decided to use ‘cartoon drawings’ as the style. We used the medium of Stop Motion so we could easily change the message. It’s a great talking point that makes us stand out from the competition, and all for €15,” explains Connor.

And as for their backgrounds, well, Farrelly has apparently been developing computer games from about the age of seven.

Says Connor: “He specialised in data mining and Java development, running his own consulting business. I spent 10 years in Rabobank’s infrastructure department before working on RaboDirect.”

And while the start-up did glean some funding from Leitrim County Enterprise Board (CEB), Farrelly and Connor are aiming to grow the business organically.

“We got a grant from the Leitrim CEB, which was great for keeping us going once we had the product built and went full time. To be clear, we’re not against companies getting investment. After all, supportive partners, friends and family members are every entrepreneur’s initial funding, but the best and only test for a business is money in,” says Connor.

“If you don’t have any funding it forces you to be smart, focused and obsessed about building a product that people want, and will pay cash to get,” he adds.

And the plan for the remainder of 2012?

“We’re growing faster than planned, which is great. We’ve already started building for the UK market. We’re also just finishing off our Bullet Formations product, where we automate the company formations process, but we’ll be doing it in a very cool way.”

And now to the fundamentals: what were the challenges to setting up?

“Everything about a start-up is a challenge! “ says Farrelly. “Our biggest challenge has been building the product the way we wanted to build it. There’s great support out there.”

Connor points to Eoghan Jennings who runs Startupbootcamp in Dublin. “He has given us some desk space in return for some mentoring. We’re currently in the New Frontiers programme which is great, with lots of other support from family and friends.”

Mike Tyson inspiration

And their advice for other aspiring tech self-starters out there?

“Just start and keep it lean,” says Connor. “You’ll make mistakes; try to learn from them and keep going.”

And, finally, he refers to the Mike Tyson quote: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. You’ll get lots of punches, just get smarter at reading them, concludes Connor.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic