Following on from our value offering post last week, we decided that it was time the entrepreneurs in our community shared their own journeys and experiences and talk about the value of having access to a place like the Kiwi Landing Pad. Our community is all about knowledge sharing and giving back. We’ll start a series of stories around Kiwi entrepreneurship with one of New Zealand’s growing success stories, and share some of what Vend have found on their journey building a business from the ground up, expanding globally and going on to tackle the US market.
Hopping on the NZ8 shuttle back to San Francisco, who else do I bump into, other than the man with the famous moustache and cheeky smile. Vaughan Rowsell, founder and CEO of Vend, one of the coolest companies New Zealand has ever seen and also a long-term resident of the Kiwi Landing Pad. Naturally we get along due to our affinity for all things green.
Growing a $100 million dollar company is no easy feat, no matter where you are in the world. And in New Zealand, support and know-how are lean and paving the way forward is a relatively lonely journey. What I love about Vaughan is his attitude to growing Vend and taking New Zealand technology to the world.
When I asked him how he plans on taking Vend from a $100 million company to a billion dollar company he simply smiles, says “Exactly? I don’t know, but every day we get closer and closer. It’s about aiming really high,” and laughs. He continues with, “I’m not doing it personally for the money, I’m doing it because for a while now people have been saying that we need some billion dollar companies in New Zealand. And so I decided that’s what I am going to do.”
To us this seems like a mission that few people in the world actually achieve, but if there is anyone in New Zealand who is going to do it with technology it’s going to be Vaughan, the man who prides himself on doing the impossible.
In essence Vend is a retail platform with all the things that bricks and mortar retailers need to run a modern business. When Vend started out, point of sale was one of those categories that hadn’t really been disrupted yet. Vaughan saw an opportunity to rebuild point of sale onto a cloud-based platform which gives a lot of advantages to small businesses. Vend gives them the equivalent of the super powerful tools and tech that the big guys have been using for years.
For Vend, having a strong culture has been really important, even as they grow incredibly fast. Vaughan talks about how he wanted to create an environment that he really enjoyed being in. At the core of the Vend culture is a commitment to doing everything for their clients, doing the impossible and always taking care of each other.
A lot of Vend’s success can be attributed to Vaughan getting comfortable with not having all the answers in the early days. This shaped the culture as they set out as a company to hire people who were not only smarter than them, but they soon found the answers to the questions that they didn’t originally have. One of Vaughan’s entrepreneurial lessons is that it’s important to let go. You don’t need to know everything, or be in control all the time (in fact you usually aren’t), and you can trust and empower the people around you.
“You want to find people who really buy into the culture because it becomes self-replicating. Once you achieve this magical, fun culture, no one wants to let it go.”
When you go to a new market it’s really important to hire in-market. People in the local market understand the local culture and business ecosystem, and this is an advantage for your business. From New Zealand, we commonly make the mistake of thinking we can understand a foreign market by consuming their media, but this isn’t the case. The talent pool in the US is massive and very deep. You’re able to attract high-caliber people with experience that you would never get outside of the states. This talent brings with them experience from really big companies like Google, PayPal, & Intuit. These Americans can offer you perspective and an understanding of how the big corporates work and how the gears move, which is often a steep learning curve New Zealand companies face when they come stateside.
The North American market is a really hard one to crack. Vend has been working at it for the last 3 years. Over the last 12 months, since making more of a concentrated effort by having people based in the US, Vend has grown the team from 1 to 4 in San Francisco, and over 50 across North America.
“If you are looking at tackling the US market, you want to understand the market. The best way to understand a market is to be on the ground” says Vaughan. “The US market is big and highly competitive. If you’re an internet or technology based business, you’ve got to have a base in San Francisco. It’s the nexus and the hub; it’s where many if not all of the opportunities happen within technology. So many opportunities came our way by virtue of that random encounter with somebody who knew somebody who got Vend into that boardroom. This is something that doesn’t happen when you are on the other end of an email.”
“You just want to get here as soon as possible. There is no better way to learn a market then to be on the ground talking to people.”
After chatting with Vaughan for an hour, it’s apparent he really does have a passion for building from New Zealand. Naturally I asked him what he thinks the opportunity is for New Zealand, and also asked that million dollar question we are all trying to answer at the moment: How do we grow the NZ entrepreneurial ecosystem?
“The opportunity for New Zealand is to invest really heavily into hi-tech. It’s something that as Kiwis we naturally gravitate towards and are really good at. If we wanted it enough, tech could be our number one export. The only thing that is going to hold us back is talent, which isn’t an investment that can be made overnight. We need to be investing in kids today and embark on a 10-year journey and hopefully see them pop out the other end and take on high-tech roles when they are going to the job market.”
“A common mistake that people make is trying to replicate the San Francisco/Silicon Valley model but what everyone forgets it that’s been a 50-year journey over there so far. We are desperately trying to recreate in 5 years what took half a century, which is crazy. The fastest way to grow an entrepreneurial ecosystem is to do it slowly. To have the successes like the Xeros, Vends, and Orions who grow something substantial and then spin-off lots of highly skilled people who have been on the journey and want to do it themselves. Essentially Xero and Vend are both offshoots of TradeMe.”
A personal mission of Vaughan’s is to build a support network for other entrepreneurs. He is the first person to confess that building a business and the ‘entrepreneurial’ journey is really hard. Not only are you now responsible for you and your family, but also 250 other people and their families as well. “The way I try combat this is by adopting two entrepreneurs who I check in with once a month, we chat, share and learn off each other. It’s like a sanity check and is very helpful to keep me grounded,” says Vaughan.
“As entrepreneurs we need better informal support networks and we need to set up better ties between entrepreneurs who are currently doing the hard graft so that we can learn from each other. The whole stigma that by nature of being an entrepreneur is all about the hard yards, sleeping under your desk, constant flying, long nights and too much coffee. We as a nation don’t have enough examples of championing entrepreneurs who find balance. Sure, you’re thinking about your business all the time, but finding some balance between friends, family, and health is important and it doesn’t get a lot of focus in the current success stories that we are telling.”
This is what we do at the Kiwi Landing Pad. We strive to connect entrepreneurs who are doing the hard yards and following their own journey. Kiwi entrepreneurs like Vaughan provide that extra layer of support and guidance to the next generation of New Zealand innovators. To show them how it’s done, share stories and learnings, and help them blaze their own trails.
Vaughan’s last insight.
“Opportunities come about by being in the right place at the right time. For technology businesses San Francisco is often the right place and now, is often the right time.”
Vend is taking New Zealand to the world and it’s exciting to watch. Thank you, Vaughan for your time and contribution not only to our community but for the massive impact you are having on the NZ ecosystem. Good luck on that journey of making New Zealand a world-class place to build a business from.
Written & produced by Sian Simpson – Community Manager – Kiwi Landing Pad