Smart metering company's markets include Australia, the US and Africa.

Entrepreneurs James Riddell and Jedd Forbes were understandably grateful when they won a dollop of cash for their small technology company, Outpost Central, two years ago. They were also grateful they hadn't won it sooner. In hindsight, they say, lack of funds stimulated their resourcefulness and sharpened their business nous.

"[After winning the capital] we laughed about the fact that if we'd had a whole lot of money to start with we'd probably have spent it on the wrong things and blown it all," says Forbes.

"But if you've got to watch your budget and allocate resources carefully you get smarter at doing things."

The cash injection, a low-cost loan paid back over three years, was for winning the University of Auckland Business School Entrepreneurs' Challenge, and helped the pair further expand their Australian market. Now 1500 schools and 80 water utility companies in Australia use their smart metering technology to monitor water and energy consumption.

The company's cornerstone product is a device which attaches to water meters and sends real-time information to a website, via mobile phone networks. The collected data shows how much water has been used and where, and whether the water supply system has any leaks.

A finalist in the Most Innovative Mobile Product category of tonight's New Zealand Hi-Tech awards, the small firm has also made it on to the Deloitte Fast 50 list of fast-growing companies and twice on to the Deloitte Technology Asia Pacific Fast 500.

Much of that growth has been driven by water consumption monitoring regulations.

Another driver of growth is the company's business partner model.

Riddell, 33, and Forbes, 34, provide the hardware and technology to water utilities such as Sydney Water, which use Outpost's water meters to monitor their customers' consumption.

In the United States, Outpost Central partners with Rhizone, the energy management consultant for Minnesota Power, which supplies electricity to 144,000 customers.

Closer to home, the L'Eau Below group of companies uses Outpost Central's water meter to provide several hundred New Zealand vineyards with a soil moisture monitoring service.

Another partner is Canterbury-based water management and irrigation company WaterForce, which monitors water consumption for its mostly dairy farmer customers.

Riddell and Forbes always knew that partnering was the best way to grow the company.

"We wanted to scale our growth and going it alone would have restricted that," says Riddell. "[Otherwise] we'd need to have hired installation and support people who understood local best practices and regulations in each country where we wanted to do business."

One of the company's competitive advantages is that it provides the web-based monitoring platform and manages the relationship with the mobile phone company as well as supplying the hardware, most of it made in Auckland.

Another point of difference is the 10-year life of the device's battery.

The technology is also well suited to Africa, where mobile networks dominate telecommunications infrastructure. There, says Forbes, most water utilities must drive across country to read every village's water meter.

The company has dipped its toe in the African market, installing systems for several large water utilities.

Future growth will come through embedding the technology in manufacturers' own products, such as meters and moisture sensors, and taking advantage of those companies' already established distribution channels.

So far two companies, in Britain and Australia, have started embedding the device in their products.

Riddell and Forbes have come a long way since setting up the company seven years ago.

The pair met while studying at the University of Auckland, and set up Outpost a couple of years after graduating.

Riddell had studied computer science and commerce, and Forbes electrical engineering, and neither were "hard core greenies" says Riddell.

Back then, he says, they were more interested in the technology and its potential than the market.

"We were young and a bit naive. We just saw a growing market for environmental monitoring technology and decided to develop something in it."

Initially funded by family and friends, the pair kept the company afloat with various jobs, gaining experience and contacts, but unable to focus the development of their device for one market.

Eventually they built up enough reference sites and netted a couple of big water and energy consumption monitoring jobs to be able to turn down the unrelated work.

With technology, says Riddell, anything that can go wrong usually does, so to eliminate potential problems the device needs only to be plugged in to the meter to work.

The pair employ 12 fulltime staff. They are also making use of University of Auckland student talent: four final-year engineering students developed Android applications last year, and this year a group of students are working on a project for Outpost as part of their course.