Musician Ben Lawrence, 31, co-founder of an Auckland laser company discusses collaborating with DJs and putting on the annual New Year's countdown animation display on Auckland's Sky Tower.
What does your business do?
Soulstorm Lasers specialises in large-scale laser displays which could be anything from a show at Spark Arena for a famous artist, a big corporate event or it could be a large public display like the New Year's show we do on the Sky Tower.
We started getting into production 10 years ago but really decided to specialise in high-power lasers in 2013, that's when Soulstorm Lasers started as it is today.
Before that we were doing lighting and something called VJing - visual DJing - with projectors and moving images but once me and my friend got enough money to buy a laser, which was small compared to what we've got now but it was a big step at the time, that's when we decided to specialise in lasers only.
What was the motivation for starting the business?
There's a lot of people out there who have a memorable experience with lasers, and for me, I always think back to a show called Symphony under the Stars which used to be at the Auckland Domain and I always remember the wonder of seeing the lasers reflecting off the smoke, and that really stuck with me.
I studied electrical engineering but I really consider myself a musician and I've always been looking for a way to combine music with electrical engineering. Designing laser shows has a really great creative side and also has a really strong technical side as well so for me it's the perfect crossover between the two. Eventually I decided I could get into lasers because the price had come down quite a bit when they changed to LEDs from gas lasers and the rest is history.
Lasers are one of the most magical types of production, up there with fireworks, and I love being able to create a special experience for people. Today, we have the two brightest lasers in New Zealand. It was a huge risk investing in the lasers but it has paid off.
How big is your team?
For a show we often have four people but it's mostly me running things behind the scenes, getting the jobs and designing the shows. It's not a huge amount of gear compared to sound or lighting or video production - it's just the two lasers, smoke machines and fans - it doesn't take a whole lot of people.
What artists and events have you put on shows for?
The two most recent ones were Kygo and Skrillex at Spark Arena last year. We've also done David Guetta, Major Lazer and Childish Gambino. It's quite hard to get those really big shows because often those artists bring their own lasers, and we would also need to understand their production and be involved in the design.
The Sky Tower laser animation show is our top feature. It's a world-leading laser show and New Zealand being the first country to see in the New Year means it is televised all around the world. It's an awesome show for us because hundreds of thousands of people see - the show has made us famous in the laser industry around the world. We're looking to make it bigger and more impressive. Last year was the fourth time we've done it. We've also done the Kea Awards in 2016, Rhythm and Vines and some TV commercials, like for NZTA.
Are there any restrictions to what shows you can put on here?
The New Zealand market is not that big so I think two lasers is the limit of what we can get in this market. A lot of the big tours and artists overseas bring in their own lasers for shows so we're competing with really large scale American companies.
We're trying to grow the industry as much as we can by doing a really good service and trying to provide unique looks. The challenge is because we can't do a whole lot of shows here in New Zealand we can't really spread the cost over a tour like you could if you were going around Australia or States. It's a challenge competing with overseas companies because they spread their cost over a lot of shows compared to what we offer for a single show. We need to offer a better service than what they are which is what we're working on doing.
What's the most challenging thing about running a laser business?
The size of the market is the main challenge. There's always limited shows and limited budgets. Often the budget isn't there to do it so it's always a challenge working to that to provide something really special. We can do an amazing show but it does cost a reasonable amount of money because the gear is so expensive and you need a lot of expertise to put on these shows. Overseas we could get a lot more shows and it would be easier to expand and grow the business.
What advice do you give to others thinking about starting their own business?
Go for it and take the risk. If you're unsure it is good to have a job so that you can somewhat support yourself through the growing stages - it's nice to have back-up.