Nick Willis - unlocking a fortune

By Nicola Shepheard

Nick Willis began his business before he knew what it was going to be. It was early 2005; Willis had been working as a project manager in telecommunications for nine years, and he wanted out of the rat race.

"I was trying to get ahead, feeling I was treading water. I thought 'there's got to be a better way'."

He brainstormed with his wife Sarah, and worked out that simply starting a business would provide what he sought.

"So we said, 'right let's start a business'. Didn't know what in. Came up with the name [Resonance Systems] next."

Willis fixed his mind on building a successful business, confident the ideas would come.

"I've always believed that you will move towards your dominant thought. If you're sitting there thinking 'I must not hit that rock, I must not hit that rock, I must not hit that rock', you will. If you're sitting there thinking 'I'm going in this direction', you will go in that direction."

A news story about cellphones delivered the missing idea. "It was saying how they're replacing everything you carry around in your handbag; and I thought, what else do you carry around in your handbag? You carry your keys and security card."

He set about deciphering how to turn cellphones into remote control keys. Still working full-time, he used his evenings to teach himself programming, electronics and bluetooth technology - the wireless connection his system uses. He soaked up business courses, made a prototype, generated interest from overseas and in January last year quit his nine-to-five job to focus on the business.

After Willis signed a major contract - potentially worth millions of dollars - with a United States company (which he won't name), he celebrated for three days on end.

Willis demonstrates how his system works in his office beneath the red brick Remuera house he shares with Sarah and their two daughters, Holly, 3, and Charlotte, 1.

Little black boxes are installed inside your door or car locks. You "authenticate" a cellphone by pressing a button inside your door or car and registering an eight-digit password once. The black box searches for authenticated cellphones via bluetooth and measures the distance between lock and phone. When the phone comes within a certain distance, which you set, the door unlocks. Move away that distance and it locks.

Willis: "You can just leave the phone in your pocket."

Apart from the prototype, there are few signs this dim little room off the garage was the site of a technological breakthrough.

Most of our conversation takes place on the concrete patio in the autumn sun, looking on to the white-fenced front yard with a playhouse in one corner and a homemade swing hanging from a tree. Near the end, Sarah, his university sweetheart and staunch motivator, joins us.

"Charlotte was 3 months old when Nick declared he was going to leave his job," she recalls. "It was like, all right. It was an uncertain time. I was in a baby fog so it didn't matter. It became hard financially; that became stressful. We used all our savings."

Nick: "Was I able to be any more help around the house?"

Sarah replies: "No, not really. You made more dishes." She laughs. "It was just nice to have you around."

Willis is 36 with a boyish face and a slight, nimble frame (he plays B-grade squash). He speaks with the amiable, shoulder-shrugging logic of a scientist. In fact, in a former life, he was a physics postgraduate at Cambridge University, in the same department as Stephen Hawking.

Willis sat next to the brilliant disabled cosmologist and watched him slurp his tea.

"He was very pig-headed and stubborn... He would run over people in his wheelchair."

On purpose?

"You're never quite sure..."

Willis was 16 when he bent his mind to academic success. He completed a science degree from Canterbury University where he met Sarah, and won a Prince of Wales scholarship to Cambridge.

"I still went windsurfing on the morning of a 100 per cent exam and came out with top marks. Doing my best was doing my best while maintaining balance. I'm not the sort of person who'd work 24-7."

He learned this from his parents, who met when they were members of the New Zealand skiing team. His father, Paul, was one half of successful furniture retailer McKenzie and Willis with his brother and set up Porters Heights skifield with friends. His mother, Prue, was a physical education lecturer at teachers' college. Her son, however, soon became disillusioned with academia.

"When I got to Cambridge, I realised that actually there was nothing there. I'd actually succeeded in getting my goal but there wasn't anything there...

"You study more and more about less and less until eventually you know everything about nothing. You get very narrow and focused.

"Most of the big advances come from people taking ideas from different disciplines and putting them all together."

Because our smallness forces us to be generalists, New Zealanders make good academics and entrepreneurs, he says. "We're exposed to a lot of different things, so we're able to put things together... a bit of this, a bit of that."

He enjoyed the cosmopolitan college life, though. One year, he was in charge of decorations for his college's May Ball, a grand, post-exam, all-night affair with ferris wheels, dodgem cars, as much champagne and oysters and caviar and ice-cream as you can eat.

"It runs from 8pm to 8am. Nobody gets sloshed because everyone wants to stay there for the whole thing. Here, if you had unlimited alcohol people would go hard and fast and keel over by midnight."

Returning to New Zealand in 1996, Willis jumped on the IT bandwagon. Soon, he was working for Deloitte Consulting as a project manager. On one e-commerce project, he headed a team of five: four people with doctorates, one with no degree.

"The one with no degree was the most successful."

That was Trade-Me founder Sam Morgan, still a good friend.

After a stint working in London, he and Sarah returned to have their children in New Zealand.

The decision to leave his job for the business was a tough one. "It was a case of if I'm going to do it I may as well do it properly."

Things took longer than he expected, but he persevered. "I always believed it was going to work."

A cash injection came from angel investment firm Sparkbox, matched dollar-for-dollar by the Government's Venture Investment Fund.

Guidance and motivation came via Sarah, Sam Morgan and ex-Navman manager Jamie Macdonald.

Already Willis has achieved his first goal of generating his own income.

The door units, which can be attached to house doors, garage doors or cars, will be available in New Zealand by the end of the year and cost $200 to $300 each, including installation. The next focus is developing systems for mass access that could work in gyms, office blocks and parking buildings.

Beyond that, Willis is looking to adapt the technology for electronic payments, so your cellphone could also double as your Eftpos card.

He leans back in the patio chair. "It was the standard cliche: if I'd known how hard it was going to be, I probably wouldn't have done it, but having done it, I'm glad."

Nick's tips

How to get started as an entrepreneur:

* There's lots of free support available from government agencies - use it. Willis drew on free business courses and on the expertise of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and local council agency Enterprise Manukau.

* Network - make a special effort if you're working from home. Join the relevant interest groups and societies, and build up those contacts.

* Nobody's going to be as passionate about the business or as responsive and focused on it as you. Willis: "That can be frustrating, but you have to accept it."

* Focus on the business. Willis: "There's more of a challenge in making businesses than in making inventions... Once I had a demonstratable prototype, I stopped all work on product development and focused on trying to find a market for it, because ultimately that was what was going to determine whether it was successful or not - not whether it had all the bells and whistles."

* Keep on believing. Willis: "There are always challenges and knock-backs. I always believed it was going to work."

* Make success your dominant thought. Willis: "Whatever is your dominant thought, that will end up happening. So you need to put it out there, and everything will follow on behind if you lift yourself up to those possibilities that come along."

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