For decades, economists have been advising New Zealand that the path to national prosperity is through exports. We have taken that to mean selling primary produce for others to process and exploit, including timber, wool and dairy.
But what if that much-needed international coin could come from ideas, from bits rather than atoms, exploiting endlessly renewable resources like creativity to generate wealth from intellectual property?
There is a community of digital innovators on the rise in Wellington, innovators who are already quietly exporting to the world. Perhaps among them there are more future superstars to join digital success stories like Xero accounting and Trade Me.
Miriam Richdale and photographer Mark Tantrum visited four of these local entrepreneurs to find out how they work.
- Company name: MatterMachine
- Founded: 2012
- Key product: web-based CAD (computer-aided design) software for product customisation and ordering
- Awards: Finalist in BNZ Start Up Alley (2013)
- Next: Looking to bring in investors to help promote significant growth[/info]
Working from a caravan could mean one of two things: 1, you are able to work independently and from different locations; or 2, you are awesome. When it comes to the founder of MatterMachine, Tom Kluyskens, it is both. In fact, all of the design gurus behind the ground-breaking software work from home.
MatterMachine is a product-customisation toolkit. It provides a browser-based hub that connects designers, manufacturers and consumers together in the co-creation of physical products.
Founded in 2012, MatterMachine uses parametric modelling – a form of 3D modelling that is aware of the characteristics of components and the interactions between them. It maintains relationships between elements (like volume and length) as the model is manipulated. The consumer shouldn’t need any modelling knowledge as the designer uses MatterMachine to configure the product and create an easy-to-use consumer interface that can be embedded on any website. The consumer uses this ‘configurator’ to customise and then buy the product.
Sustainability is key to the MatterMachine philosophy. Co-founder Ross Kettle says that “It hinges upon the idea that because the consumer has played a role in the construction of the model, as a result they see more value in the product and will hold on to it for longer.”
So how does the consumer play a role in the customisation of a product? The company works with creators overseas, such as OpenDesk in the UK, who have a repository of CAD (computer-aided design) models that can be downloaded and manufactured. These designs are like a recipe, and MatterMachine joins in at the configuration stage by taking an OpenDesk model and allowing the end user to manipulate it on the fly. For example, when a user changes the volume of the object, MatterMachine automatically adjusts the dimensions of all the other variables. As you increase the size of the model, the software increases the price of manufacture.
The software allows the creation of different interfaces for different users. Those involved in design and manufacturing may need highly technical interfaces, whereas consumers prefer a simplified view that hides the underlying complexity.
MatterMachine is also expanding into house-building by collaborating with WikiHouse, an open-source housing project started in the UK, to configure housing designs not only abroad, but particularly closer to home in Christchurch where buildings have been damaged by earthquakes. Don’t forget that this all happens through clicks in a web browser.
The product was created to demistify the design process and encourage the democratisation of manufacturing. Designer Evan Thomas says that “Students at both Massey and Victoria universities are able to pick up on how to use the software effectively. You do need an understanding and appreciation of how it functions, but the aim is to reduce the digital barrier and have people at amateur or corporate levels customising their designs.”
- Company name: ikeGPS
- Founded: mid-2000s (as Surveylab)
- Key products: a hand-held device that can both measure and locate geographic features – buildings, power poles and other hard-to-measure assets. Their electric utilities product is now marketed internationally by GE (General Electric) as MapSight
- Awards: Red Herring Asia Top 100 award (2013), finalist in GE ecomagination challenge
- Next: Spike turns the ikeGPS technology into a smartphone accessory[/info]
The driver for many successful companies is the desire for simplification. How can we take a common industrial task or process and solve that problem more simply? This is what ikeGPS have achieved with their hand-held GPS systems and the latest iteration of their technology, Spike, which has brought laser measurement technology to any smartphone. Snap a photo of a building, measure the dimensions, model in 3D and share. You can do this all from the palm of your hand.
ikeGPS CEO Glenn Milnes says that “the evolution of Spike comes from a desire to solve a very specific problem within an industry, and simplify this in a cost-effective way”.
The concept of making things easier has embedded itself within the culture and processes of the company, from the products they sell through to their sales regime. Shorter sale cycles are evident, through a customer simply logging on to the website and pre-ordering products like Spike.
The company sees great demand within the AEC (architect, engineer and construction) industry for Spike. And they anticipate this demand will spread from there across a wide range of industries, including insurance and recreation.
It isn’t just Spike that is making life easier. The company has seen their GPS systems used on projects all over the world. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the US Army Corps of Engineers deployed ikeGPS for infrastructure and rescue assessment. Detailed data collection was needed to map hazardous areas, before relief missions were planned and teams were deployed.
Recently, the company received a Callaghan Innovation grant, which provides a share of $140 million to go towards research and development. They intend to use the grant to build Android and iOS software platforms for Spike.
Constant evolution is key to a company that is proud to display their older models to show how they have changed over time. A 2003 GPS model known as ‘the smurf’ is visual proof of how far the technology has come. A 2006 version of the ikeGPS also features in the display, and is the model the US Army used in the Gulf War.
With the New Zealand market being so limited, it makes sense for the company to export to the world; in the US they have a particularly strong sales team. For the teams involved, it is the best of both worlds. Milnes says, “We have the researchers in New Zealand, and our sales team are based abroad where all the customers are.”
The future means more growth and the company is actively recruiting new software engineers to help steer them towards it.
- Company name: iwantmyname
- Founded: December 2008
- Noted for: Flat hierarchy; all staff paid the same salary; staff can work remotely
- Awards: Web Host Magazine and Buyer’s Guide Editor’s Choice Award (2009)[/info]
Choose any two: utility, usability, beauty or beer. To be fair, it would be hard to pick only two. This conundrum presented itself to me on a whiteboard while I was standing in the Vivian Street office of iwantmyname. It would be easier to say that the first three options are what the company do very well, whilst dabbling in beer tasting on the side. A team of entrepreneurial thinkers, they are creating an internationally credible name for themselves in an industry that doesn’t have much glamour or a great reputation – domain name registration.
A domain name itself is the magic that turns an IP address like 188.8.131.52 into a user-friendly chunk of text like iwantmyname.co.nz. What you may not think about before you punch in your web address is the origin of it. Who is behind the back end and what web wizardry have they conjured up in order for this to work?
A customer uses the iwantmyname interface to fire off a search request to see if the required domain name is available, for example fishhead.co.nz. If available, a payment transaction is processed and details of the new domain are displayed in the – constantly refined – clutter-free dashboard where the customer can select from dozens of free and premium Internet services that can easily integrate with their new domain. From blogging to e‑commerce, iwantmyname makes it easier for individuals and companies to present themselves online.
A largely organic business, iwantmyname pride themselves on trying things out, retracting if necessary, and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t. Sounds logical, right? Co-founder Lenz Gschwendtner says, “There is no right or wrong way. Just learning, and building on an industry that is already broken.”
The industry is “broken” for a number of reasons, but loss of connection with the consumer, combined with hefty up-sells, is a contributing factor. This is what iwantmyname have set out to change.
Gschwendtner explains that transparency is fundamental to how the company operates: customers who buy a domain pay one clearly advertised price with no hidden extras; and year-to-date sales figures are prominently displayed on a computer monitor for everyone in the office to see. The company culture takes its commitment to transparency a step further – a flat hierarchy and even equal salaries paid to all staff. It’s all part and parcel of how iwantmyname are setting themselves apart from the rest.
With 60,000 customers and counting, in both New Zealand and overseas, the team have their work cut out for them. Behind the scenes, iwantmyname are creating a working dynamic that is independent of outside control, and that it what sets them apart from others. “We are just trying to make the process as simple as possible.”
First Star Communications[info]
- Company name: First Star Communications
- Founded: 1998
- Key service: Collateral designers and communicators for a wide range of international clients including Hyundai, BP and Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft)
- Awards: BP International Agency of the Year (2009)
- Next: Adding even more global clients to their impressive portfolio.[/info]
Scrawled across a wall in the First Star Communications Blair Street office is a quote: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” The 16-year-old company is taking shots and succeeding, helping international clients find new ways of connecting with customers.
Before you can communicate a client’s need you have to understand them. When asked about the First Star point of difference, chief executive Aaron White told me, “A deep understanding of our clients’ business, insight into target audiences, and then finding the intersection between strategy, creativity and technology for the communications challenge at hand. And a little imagination.”
Testament to this is Stun – a creative presentation product that produces digital content to help businesses connect with audiences and tell their story with confidence.
Launched 18 months ago, Stun gives businesses the ability to deploy content through multiple digital platforms such as Showcase, an iPad-based content-management tool that First Star has helped to develop. International mega-companies BP and Hyundai are just two of the organisations that are using Stun to connect with audiences in a new way.
First Star recognised the possibilities of new technologies early on and applied this thinking initially for the benefit of local advertising clients, then for major multinationals. It’s not just technology for technology’s sake, though; it must support a creative solution that will drive desired behaviour in target audiences. At times, the outcome may be a combination of the traditional (e.g. printed material) with the innovative (e.g. mobile loyalty solutions). It’s not ‘and/or’, it’s ‘what’s right’.
Take the Good Stuff loyalty app, used across Arco and ampm convenience stores in the USA. First Star director Adam Blackwell explains how the app functions: “Good Stuff is an app designed specifically for ampm’s core market. It uses entertainment to engage, prizes to reward and loyalty to drive repeat store visits. Off the back of that are analytics that the client can use to segment their market and adjust their marketing offers and communications accordingly.”
These are not the only examples of how the company is innovating. At the core is its ability to pull back all the layers and truly understand a client’s business. That communication and understanding is what gets the First Star ball rolling.