Hadleigh Ford has harboured a global mindset since circumnavigating the world as a 17-year old in the Merchant Navy. Nowadays he’s successfully piloting his visitor management app SwipedOn into markets worldwide.
For Hadleigh Ford the first 20 years of his career was an ongoing series of dream jobs that took him to exotic locations worldwide. It began when, at just 17 years of age, he embarked on officer training in the merchant navy. The first container ship he trained on sailed around the world twice within six months. Then came the cruise ships – more his style – following the sun to exciting destinations such as the Mediterranean and Caribbean.
The next dream job involved sailing a newly built 160-metre superyacht out of its home port of Dubai. As a qualified ship’s captain, he then found himself in Germany, helping equip and commission another superyacht owned by a Russian billionaire. It was there amongst all the yacht’s opulence that he noticed a rather antiquated paper-based visitor’s book – which would prove the genesis for his SwipedOn cloud-based iPad visitor management app many years later.
But a lot of water had to pass under the bows before that app came to fruition.
Hadleigh parked the idea and sailed the yacht around the Mediterranean for a year saving his wages, before returning to New Zealand in 2011 for the birth of his first child (he knew his wife Diana back in his Warkworth school days and they had reconnected in Dubai where she was a hostess for Emirates).
While working ‘week-on, week-off’ as harbour pilot for the Port of Timaru he found time to resurrect his ‘visitor book’ app idea. It appealed to his penchant for solving problems – a desire fostered by the superyacht association, where price was no hindrance to technology adoption.
He quickly engaged an Auckland company to start developing the app. “I hadn’t even used an iPad before signing the contract,” he recalls.
“That was probably being a bit gung-ho, but I didn’t want to overthink things. I just wanted to get on with it.”
There were only New Zealand-centric competitors in that space – but Hadleigh’s focus was global, and on a subscription-only, SaaS model.
Meanwhile he managed to extend his pilotage in Timaru – a pragmatic approach which helped him learn from his mistakes during the business’s infancy; to get everything right from the get-go.
Development was boot-strapped – the current SwipedOn platform was launched in January 2016 with co-founder Ben Scott, who also came from a superyacht background.
A capital raise in December 2017, led by K1W1, raised NZ$1 million, (more recently Callaghan Innovation has chipped in with a 20 percent rebate on R&D expenditure).
The app model was rebuilt, based on feedback from customers. After that, things took off and Hadleigh was finally able to give up his day job. Looking back he attributes much of the app’s success to good timing. “Being a first-mover and putting plenty of smarts into AppStore and search engine optimisation made all the difference – as did reverse engineering how the marketplace worked,” he says. That said, SwipedOn was no overnight success; it took a couple of years to get established.
CHALLENGES AND LESSONS
Hadleigh and Ben based the business in Tauranga, a more affordable base than Auckland. Today there are four directors and a board chaired by technology evangelist/investor Ben Kepes. Having good people around him helped Hadleigh develop both his business and technology knowledge. It also helped define the market opportunity, which is niche, but also linear – any organisation with a visitors book.
He says the biggest driver for the product has always been “a better first impression for visitors”, although health and safety regulatory requirements, and security requirements, have recently come into play.
“Also GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) requirements around data privacy in Europe means paper-based visitors books no longer comply there. Our GDPR-compliant technology has been a real driver in that market.” Hadleigh predicts similar regulations will follow elsewhere, particularly in the US where non-disclosure and confidentiality are big issues.
Today the SwipedOn team numbers 17 worldwide, with 14 based in Tauranga (also serving Australian customers), an office in South Africa and another in Boulder, Colorado to allow for global time-zones. Revenue more than doubles each year, and more than 90 percent of revenue is generated outside New Zealand.
The company has an eco-conscience too – planting a native New Zealand tree through Trees That Count for every new customer gained. “We go one step further than saving trees through our technology, we plant trees as well,” says Hadleigh. “I feel it’s incumbent on businesses in 2018 to give back to the planet in one way, shape or form. We’re proud of the fact that we do and our customers love it.” In August 2017 the whole SwipedOn team helped plant 600 trees in a single day.
SwipedOn has had NZTE assistance to tackle the US. Marketing has simply been via the App Store, AdWords and paid referral channels, such as the Gartner network.
“This is where you manage ROI right down to dollars and cents,” says Hadleigh, adding that they didn’t take on any sales staff until they had annual recurring revenue (ARR) of $1 million. “Marketing automation plus live customer support chat got us that far.”
His advice for other tech exporters is to not let New Zealand’s location restrict ambitions. You don’t necessarily need feet on the ground in markets either, he says, with SwipedOn’s growth almost entirely digitally driven. It’s a matter of speaking to the right people. When targeting the US, Hadleigh says homework is paramount.
Consult with NZTE and maybe spend some money on tax and/or legal advice. Take advantage of the Stripe Atlas billing system too, “which is a powerful merchant services platform which also allows you to set up a US subsidiary in a cost-effective manner”.
A PEO (professional employment organisation) can also help when employing people on the ground, he says.
Going forward, he sees bright prospects for SwipedOn, and a strong possibility of opening up the addressable market beyond English-speaking countries.
The product’s simplicity, competitive SME pricing, strong New Zealand brand and identity, and support for not-for-profits are all USPs that will ensure it will succeed for many years to come.
Story by Glenn Baker, editor of NZBusiness.