2015: The year in review

2015 has been a watershed year for the startup scene in New Zealand.  When I started this Startup of the Week blog in September, a number of people asked me, “are there really enough great startups in New Zealand to feature one every week?”  The answer is a resounding yes!

Had you asked me about New Zealand startups in 2010, I would have told you that there were patches of awesome, and things looked like they were just starting to come together. Five years on, things are really pumping, as evidenced by:

  • Thriving startup hubs in the main centres: Visit GridAKL, BizDojo, CreativeHQ, or The Greenhouse and you’ll be under no illusion that healthy and diverse startup activity abounds.
  • Entrepreneurial buzz in the regions: The BCC (Palmerston North), and Bridge Street Collective (Nelson) have been going from strength to strength for several years, and we’re seeing new players emerge in Whangarei, Tauranga, Taranaki, Hawkes Bay, and Dunedin.
  • Finally, the rise of Ag Tech startups: In prior years, there was a paucity of agricultural startups coming out of New Zealand. Now, with companies like Engender, CropX, BioLumic, eBee, and others, this sector which builds on NZ’s natural strengths looks like it’s getting to critical mass.
  • Meetups are mushrooming: I seem to be getting a couple of announcements for new startup-related meetups every month in Wellington. Startup Garage and Lean Startup Wellington how have over 1,000 members each. People are getting together, which is great.
  • Startup Weekends continue to thrive: There’s no shortage of newbie entrepreneurs starting their entrepreneurial journey through Startup Weekends. We ran 11 events up and down the country this year, with 736 participants – both records. Many of these participants are now fully plugged into the scene, some running their own startups, some working for others, and some busily hatching plans. And some qualifying themselves out, having decided they’re happier in their day jobs. Win.
  • Accelerator ramp-up: Lightning Lab ran three programmes this year – Auckland, Christchurch, and Manufacturing (Wellington). The dust hasn’t settled yet, but this is likely to have resulted in 10+ new startups achieving funding, networks, and a path to global success.  Oh, and another 10+ startups being qualified out after a short sharp experiment – to me that’s also an important success statistic. The Government R9 Accelerator broke new ground, and will be doing round two this year. Vodafone’s Xone will be opening in 2016. And there are others.
  • An explosion in angel investment activity: AngelHQ‘s Dave Allison told me that as at the beginning of December, not including any of the Lightning Lab companies, the club had 12 open investment deals. I can’t remember a time where there were more than 3 or 4 deals open at any given point in time. Given that nearly all angel club deals in NZ are now syndicated between clubs, I’m sure that the menu at ICE Angels, Enterprise Angels, Manawatu Investment Group, Venture Accelerator Nelson, and Otago Angels are growing in a similar fashion. Post-earthquakes, Canterbury Angels is also off to a great start. And there are a host of unofficial syndicates forming around the country too. There’s never been a better time to be an angel investor.

ICE Angels summarised the year’s angel activity with this nice Prezi – thanks guys!

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Victor W Hwang, author of “The Rainforest“, and cofounder of Global Innovation Week (HT: Andreas Stefanidis)

“Despite outward appearances, the Startup Movement is not just about startups. It is actually a deeper cultural shift that cuts to the heart of the human condition. It reflects a dissatisfaction with the way much of the world has gone for the last several decades. It marks a transformation in how we view our societies, how we convene our communities, how we create value together as human beings. It’s a counterpoint to the governing economic paradigm – what economists call neoliberalism – which has prized efficiency and productivity above everything else, even when it has corroded relationships that bond us together in our communities and social networks…

“Innovation is not a solo sport. It thrives in supportive, diverse, connected, pay­it­forward ecosystems. It dies in selfish ones. Building a startup – indeed, bringing any innovation to life – is hard enough already. The last thing you need is distrust, high social barriers, and cynicism from those around you. You need people who are willing to believe in you. Because human beings innovate together in teams.”

Thanks for your support this year, reading and spreading the stories of NZ startups going global.

If you’re involved in the startup scene, good on you for taking risks, sharing your energy, and pursuing your passion – you’re making the world, and New Zealand, a better place for everyone.

If you’re a bystander, a dreamer, or an armchair startup enthusiast, there are plenty of ways for you to get involved in 2016. Just contact any of the organisations mentioned above, and start forming the connections that will enable you to become part of the success story we’re all creating together of New Zealand as a global entrepreneurial powerhouse.

That’s it from me for 2015. Have a great break, and we’ll see you in February.

Timely

Appointment booking for service businesses.

timelyHere are the top six pieces of advice I give to startups: Love your problem. Know your market inside-out. Delight your customers. Start by picking one thing, and do it really well. Be global from day one. Don’t settle for less than the best cofounders, employees, investors, and advisors.

Timely never needed this advice – they just went hell for leather from the start.

Timely provides really simple cloud-based appointment booking aimed personal service businesses like hairdressers, massage therapists, and personal trainers. Customers’ clients can book and manage their own appointments online.  It surrounds this basic calendar functionality with great features like pre-appointment reminders, point-of-sale billing, and integration with popular accounting systems like Xero and Quickbooks Online.

They make money by charging users a monthly subscription. At $19/month in NZ, it’s great value. Users claim that it pays for itself on the first day of use. Like previous Startup of the Week Debtor Daddy, the key value for users is in freeing up their time to focus on charging clients for doing the work they love, rather than on tedious administration of their businesses.

Timely now has customers in over 70 countries, but they’re concentrating on three key geographies: Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. They have over 4,000 customers and are growing by roughly 10% month-on-month with a very low churn rate. Their growth strategy is based on inbound marketing, working with trade associations and partner networks. But they’re getting a lot of business coming through the door by reputation, social, and SEO/SEM which is great. There’s a lot of competition in this space, but once a customer is in, they’re hooked. What makes Timely stand out is dead-easy user experience.

What’s the secret to success? Know your market inside-out. Delight your customers. Start by picking one thing, and do it really well. Be global from day one. Don’t settle for less than the best cofounders, employees, investors, and advisors.

Ryan, Will, and Andrew
Ryan, Will, and Andrew

Timely’s CEO Ryan Baker has been round the block a few times with his cofounder Andrew Schofield. Their previous venture, BookIt, provided booking and payment services for the travel industry, and was acquired by TradeMe in 2010. The third cofounder, Will Berger, also worked on BookIt after it was acquired by TradeMe and became TravelBug. Their team is a “who’s who” of the Dunedin entrepreneurial scene, and the stellar lineup is rounded out with directors MOD (the artist formerly known as Michael O’Donnell) and Rowan Simpson, along with legal counsel Sacha Judd. Timely sets the benchmark for team quality.

I asked Ryan what their biggest challenge is as a startup and he told me without hesitation that it is overcoming obscurity. “There’s a big global market out there and we know our customers love us. The challenge is reaching them. If your readers are looking for ways to help NZ startups, get them to recommend us to their friends in NZ and overseas. Next time you’re getting your hair or nails done ask the stylist if they’ve
heard of Timely.”

Although the nucleus of the team is in Dunedin, the rest of the 27-strong team are spread out across New Zealand and around the globe. They don’t have a formal office, but instead all work from home (or anywhere) using a “remote first” philosophy. Great tools like Slack, Hangouts, gdrive, 15Five, Trello, and Help Scout encourage constant communication and team cohesion, but the real trick is creating and maintaining a culture where everyone feels they are playing in a team, and have an impact on the success of their business.

The “remote first” nature of Timely’s business culture resonates with their target market, many of whom are small businesspeople juggling work-life balance.  As more New Zealand startups expand globally, and more people generally adopt portfolio careers, I suspect this fully networked business model will become much more common.

Timely are always looking for good people to join their team, and the good news is that you don’t have to be based in Dunedin to join this great group of people making life easier for small business owners around the world.

Ooooby

Hacking the food supply chain, Out Of Our Own Back Yards.

It’s estimated that on average, food items in the US travel 2400km to get from their point of origin to your table1. This results in huge quantities of carbon being belched into the atmosphere through transportation, waste resulting from excess packaging and spoilage, and food that is less fresh and tasty.

oooobyOoooby makes it easy to create local fresh food marketplaces that source food from local growers, and deliver to local consumers. From humble beginnings on Waiheke Island, Ooooby now powers food networks in Auckland, Waikato, Matakana, Sydney, and Fresno California, and they’re just in process of setting up shop in the UK.  Across the globe, Ooooby is pumping over $3m in annualised recurring revenue (ARR).

Ooooby is a mission-driven business, whose purpose is to make local food convenient, affordable, and fair. They want to rebuild local food economies, because they believe that many of the world’s most pressing social and economic problems are caused or exacerbated by the way we produce and consume food. They also believe that in order to be impactful and help create a sustainable food system, they must first create a sustainable business.

petePete Russell does not fit your stereotype of a social entrepreneur. Prior to Ooooby, he cofounded and built up Australian specialist food importer and distributor Source Food, built it up to A$10m, and then had an epiphany – the world would be much better served by local foods, purchased in an “online farmers market”. Local food that’s as convenient to purchase as industrial food would be better for local farmers, local consumers, and the environment. Pete is joined on the Ooooby board by CTO Davy van de Vusse who has architected their core systems.

Their revenue model is to clip the ticket by 8% on all food purchase transactions that go through the platform, to cover software development, administration, and national marketing. They’ve been invited to set up shop in all of the cities where they’re active, so platform marketing costs have been minimal. And they have a steady stream of inquiries internationally from groups of local farmers wanting to transform their own local food economies.

The platform can scale quickly, and can support a virtually unlimited number of local food hubs.

Ooooby raised $285k in a PledgeMe campaign earlier this year, but they are looking for another $500k or so in the next year, so that they can rebuild the food economies in over 20 cities worldwide by the end of 2017.

If you’d like to get Ooooby going in your town, or are interested in supporting local food, do get in touch with Pete and join the movement.

Disclosure: One of the trusts of which I’m a trustee made a small investment in Ooooby in their crowdfunding campaign.

Special note: I’ve just posted an item on my main blog which may be of interest: Convince me to invest in your startup, in which I cover how angel investors like me evaluate investment opportunities.

Syngency

Cloud-based management software for talent agencies, as beautiful as the models themselves.

syngencySyngency is a cloud-based system for talent, modelling, and acting agencies. It makes it easy to manage their talent pools and market themselves to the industry. It’s a one-stop solution that covers everything from onboarding wannabes to invoicing customers. And it just looks beautiful.

When I’m evaluating investment opportunities for businesses at any stage, the single most important factor is always the same: does the CEO have what it takes to make the business a success? ryan-brighterI haven’t met many people who are as effective as Syngency’s CEO Ryan Marshall. He is the very model of a modern startup entrepreneur. First and foremost, he’s always hustling. He loves his industry and his product, and seems to be out there either selling or thinking about how to sell 24 hours a day, working networks, racking up air miles, Skyping at 3am, he just doesn’t seem to know how to stop. He’s intimately familiar with his market, having talked to most of the major players and continually popping up at industry events. He knows his product inside-out because he’s coded most of it himself. He seems to have a sixth sense for opportunity, and isn’t shy to act quickly and seize it.

I first met Ryan at BNZ Startup Alley at Webstock early this year, where Syngency was a finalist. You could say that Startup Alley is the premier startup competition in New Zealand. Syngency didn’t win (that prize was taken out by Startup Weekend alumnus Banqer – more on them in the future) but Syngency still knocked the socks off of the judges. As a result, they won a trip to the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco.

NOTE: BNZ Startup Alley applications for 2016 are open now. It’s a great place to showcase your startup, practice pitching to a big crowd, and kickstart your action plan for the year.

Syngency entered the iiiNNO accelerator in Taiwan a few months later. They were one of two non-Taiwanese companies in the accelerator, and according to iiiNNO’s manager David Kuo, were by far the highest performing company there, and earned the privilege of launching at TechCrunch Asia. While at iiiNNO, Syngency attracted a significant number of clients all over Asia, including the unfortunately named but otherwise awesome ISIS Modelling Agency. They also achieved a key milestone by scoring a local mobile development team. Syngency did a great job of raising the profile of NZ startups in Asia.

From Taiwan, Syngency continued their world tour, and set up a base at Kiwi Landing Pad (KLP) in San Francisco. Ryan now spends a lot of time dashing between New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco where their key US markets are.  KLP has been a great fit for them – see the video below for a synopsis.

Syngency’s target market is big, over $100m in the US and Europe alone. They now have customers in 30 countries, managing the talent profiles of over 40,000 models and actors and they’ll finish up 2015 with over 40x growth since the beginning of the year. Their solution is also easy to take into adjacent markets such as film production and sports.

Currently they’re executing a direct sales strategy and collecting most of their business through referrals from happy customers.

Syngency will be raising investment in early 2016, likely in a trans-pacific mix between New Zealand and California.

Meantime, they’re expanding their dev team in Auckland – they’re looking for a CTO and LAMP devs familiar with the full AWS suite. They’re excited about running a global Kiwi company from New Zealand, and they’d like you to join them!