Former civil engineer Brad Booysen is the founder and CEO of Storkk, a software applications company that helps lawyers and other professionals plan and manage their professional development. The company recently partnered with LexisNexis, a global leader in legal content and technology, and the New Zealand Bar Association to provide the continuing professional development solution to New Zealand lawyers. The company was founded in early 2013 and currently has six employees.
I understand you used to be a civil engineer. How and why did you come to start a business in a relatively unrelated field?
Having worked in the civil engineering industry for 10 years, I had reached a ceiling where I wasn't learning any more and my career was not moving forward as quickly as I had hoped. I decided that starting a business would give me the freedom to create my own path.
I started a company in the health space - an area I was personally passionate about - that ultimately failed. The lesson for me was that creating a product and then going in search of a market is the wrong way to do it, yet funnily enough this is how most people start a business. I went back to the drawing board determined to figure it out. Shortly afterwards, I discovered the lean startup movement, which was being pioneered by Eric Ries and it intuitively made sense to me. His book The Lean Startup is a must-read for any aspiring business owner.
On my second go, I spent a significant amount of time interviewing a range of professionals and business owners to understand what tasks in their day were taking up the most amount of time and what was costing them money. I would go and sit with business owners and observe them work, seeing for myself what tasks they were spending lots of time and/or money on.
Lawyers were in need of an easy way to manage their professional development in the face of new legislation that made it mandatory for them to achieve a minimum number of professional development hours each year. They seemed to have the biggest pain that needed addressing right now. We set out to build a product that simplified compliance for lawyers and the firms they worked for. The legal industry is going through an interesting transition as technology starts to transform the way many firms do business. We want to be at the forefront of that shift.
What skills or experiences gained from your civil engineering background have you found useful in establishing Storkk?
Relationship building - the old saying 'it's not what you know, it's who you know' rings true when starting a business. I had learnt to build productive working relationships during my engineering career and this skill was invaluable when starting out in business. Many aspiring entrepreneurs want to keep their new business idea secret in fear of someone else stealing it. I say tell anyone who will listen. People you speak with will know other people and you'd be surprised where opportunities might present themselves. At the end of the day, ideas are a dime a dozen; execution is the secret sauce. Sales was also a key skill I had learnt in my time in engineering and it served me well when I needed to get out to first customers.
On the other hand, what new skills have you had to learn?
Marketing was never a strong suit of mine and so much of the early success of any company comes down to marketing. One of the best decisions I made was to reach out to the team at Massey University's ecentre business incubator who were invaluable during the validation phase. They helped us understand who our customers were and how we should reach them.
I've since learnt the best marketing trick and I'm going to share it with you: build a product that your customers love.
What advice would you give to someone else considering changing tack?
Spend as much time as possible with your potential customers before spending money on product or marketing. Understand the daily schedule of your customer - what they do, when they do it and why. Get inside the mind of your customer. The closer you get to your customer, the better understanding you will have of their issues and the better product or service you can provide them. When we were building the first version of Storkk, we spent hours every week at our clients' offices getting their feedback on every aspect of the product, from feature set to button colours. Small, seemingly insignificant details matter and the better you know your customer, the better the experience you can provide them.
I strongly believe that almost everybody is capable of starting a business. Yes, it's not easy and it's a daily grind but it's all worth it. It's empowering when you realise that all of the products and services you use in daily life were created by people no smarter than yourself.
Coming up in Small Business: I'll be looking at ecommerce - talking to small business owners about their experiences of establishing their online presence. What's worked? What hasn't? If you've got a good story to tell, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.