Anthony Doesburg: Personal touch pays for spambuster

By Anthony Doesburg

Jesse Ball is back on his feet after a four-day bout of Delhi belly.

Not that the co-founder and managing director of Auckland email filtering service SMX is complaining - you wouldn't get anywhere in business without intestinal fortitude, and that's particularly true when trying to crack developing-world markets.

Ball had been visiting the four-year-old company's Indian partner, CMC, and on his last day in the country went to a wedding as a guest of his CMC contact. While such spontaneity might be unusual in this part of the world, it's the essence of doing business in India.

"One of the things we've learned is it's important to build relationships before you build your business," says Ball.

As he left the wedding he caught sight of the kitchen where the food was prepared, and knew what the next few days had in store for him. But such hazards don't put him off that style of operating.

"I get my straight up and down business in New Zealand and Australia."

SMX is a difficult company to pigeon-hole. Its business is managing customer email - filtering out the junk mail, or spam, and viruses that have the same effect on organisations' networks as foreign bugs can have on visitors' stomachs.

Its beginnings were almost accidental.

Ball and co-founder Thom Hooker had planned to set up a secure email service. But when a business with which they shared office space complained about all the spam it was getting, they decided cleaning up email was where the real opportunity lay.

Instead of attempting to reinvent the wheel by developing its own filtering software, SMX licensed antivirus and antispam products from the market leaders and turned it into a service offering. The company does its own software development, but those efforts are concentrated on the web-based billing and management system for its customers.

In New Zealand and Australia it has 950 of them - outfits such as Transfield Services, the AA, ACC and Genesis Energy.

For Australasian customers SMX does the lot: it sells the service under the SMX brand, on SMX infrastructure and with SMX support teams.

Ball thought they would be content doing business in this part of the world. But the company's first salesman, Darshan Shetty, kept up a campaign for SMX to broaden its horizons.

Shetty, who is Indian, encouraged them to give his homeland a shot.

"He told me he wanted to go back and I said well, you're too good to let go, so let's go to India.

"I didn't really understand the opportunity. To me it was a long way away and it was all very hard. But over about six months we worked on it."

The breakthrough came about through contact with CMCTEC, a collaboration between Massey University and Indian IT powerhouse CMC. Part of the US$60 billion-plus ($86.3 billion) Tata Group, which spans everything from agrochemicals to the steel industries, CMC teamed up with Massey's e-centre in 2007 as a matchmaker between New Zealand and Indian companies.

SMX ended up in bed with the marriage broker, doing a reseller deal with CMC itself.

Over the past 15 months SMX has been building up the Indian business - not as fast as initially hoped, says Ball, but by about the middle of the year it expects to have as many customers there as in New Zealand.

Shetty, who remains on the payroll but provides operational leadership for the CMC sales team, dusted off the sales pitch developed for the New Zealand and Australian markets, when they were still unfamiliar with the managed services proposition.

It is beginning to chime with Indian customers, who now include organisations such as travel portal Cleartrip, ports operator DP World and Tata Power, one of the Tata Group's many businesses.

"Tata is revered so having one of its companies to refer to really helps," says Ball.

India, the first of the company's overseas forays, now accounts for about 30 per cent of revenue.

"First and foremost, going into India was to prove our model. It has a large population and is an emerging market in the sense that the internet is still growing by a huge amount."

Late last year SMX started doing business in Japan through partner Tsukaeru.net. Again, SMX is taking advantage of a connection with its home market - Tsukaeru.net is run by an Australian with a Kiwi second in charge.

Next up, when conditions are right, will be an Indonesian operation.

"We've spent the first three or four years proving the service in New Zealand. We use this market as a laboratory, rolling out everything we do here first - obviously already well tested."

The difference between operating in Australasia and further afield is in the need to nurture good partner relationships, Ball says.

"If you want to do market development from New Zealand, you've got to get on a plane. There's no doing it through conferences or the American way of flying in for a day with a senior guy and doing five meetings."

A fleeting interaction is fine for one-off sales deals but won't do for longer-term business partnerships.

"Both from the India and Japan points of view, the relationships are deep, and they go both ways, as well."

More of a marriage, in other words. So like it or not, exporters who want to emulate SMX should expect to attend the odd wedding.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 26 Dec 2014 14:43:31 Processing Time: 564ms