"Covid has been a blessing in disguise for us," says Narrative CEO James Broadbent.
At first blush, it's hard to see why.
The Auckland wedding photographer co-founded software startup Narrative in 2017.
He was frustrated that for every day he spent shooting a set of nuptials, he would have to spend another four behind the computer - one of those selecting the best images from thousands shot on the fast shutter option employed by all professional photographers these days.
There was no tool on the market for automatically weeding out dud pics, so he decided to build one himself with co-founder and software developer Steffan Levet.
The idea is that Narrative's AI (artificial intelligence) smarts automatically cull the dross - photos where someone's eyes are shut, or are out of focus. It now claims 98 per cent accuracy, with machine-learning used to learn a photographer's style, and the style of photo they prefer to shortlist.
Last year, the two-man company raised $700,000 in an angel round led by The Icehouse's Flux Accelerator, with Peter Thiel's Founders Fund participating.
Now, it's just closed a $4 million seed round, this time led by Thiel's fund.
In the meantime, Narrative had grown to 15 staff, poaching software engineers from companies like Google and Uber, and now has a free beta version of its product being trialled by around 10,000 photographers.
Broadbent says the $4m will be used, in part, to hire another 17 employees as Narrative gears up for its commercial launch in a few months.
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Although New Zealand is a much cheaper place to hire a developer than Silicon Valley, he says he's still looking at salaries of up to $180,000 bracket for seriously-skilled staff.
For the $4m round, the number one question on investors' lips was: How are you going to find those staff in a pandemic?
That's where the blessing in disguise comes in. Broadbent says Narrative has been inundated by Kiwis living in the US, UK and elsewhere who want to return home. Soon he could tell potential backers that the talent question was solved.
"I mean, where else in the world would you want to be right now?" Broadbent says. "It's an amazing time to be cashed up."
Naturally, he maintains his product helped.
"The artificial intelligence-powered image-selection software we're building for professional photographers is a powerful tool that has caught the imagination of investors. We provide tools which drastically decrease a photographer's workload, in turn making them more money," he says.
But he also gives dibs to our pandemic approach. "I'm sure our country's efforts to shutdown Covid-19 and quickly reopen the economy helped with the appeal of investing here."
Initially, the outbreak seemed like bad news.
As Broadbent started to make initial inquiries, he was told to close the fund as soon as possible before the situation deteriorated. In headline terms, that advice proved correct as Techcrunch and other tracking sites recorded VC activity pulling back sharply.
The co-founder had to cancel a planned flight to the US, and a week-long round of face-to-face meetings. But he found the industry-wide switch to Zoom worked in his favour. He could fit in more meetings per day and, suddenly, had no geographical disadvantage with the thousands of others pitching to the cluster of venture capitalists around San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Thiel is, of course, a big name in technology. The multi billionaire co-founded Paypal, was the first outside director on Facebook (where he still sits on the board) and his latest venture, security software outfit Palantir, which bankers value at up to US$43b, has just registered for what will likely be one of this year's largest IPOs. His Founders Fund took early punts on Space X and Airbnb. His local tech investments have included Xero and Vend, which helped to ease the way to his fast-tracked Kiwi citizenship.
But although a passport holder with several properties around Queenstown and Wanaka, Thiel is an infrequent visitor to his adopted home country, and he's one of the most pitched-to (or attempted to pitch-to) people on the planet.
However, another Founders Fund partner, Scott Nolan, makes an annual trip to NZ to scout for startup opportunities. Through a mutual contact, Broadbent was able to get onto Nolan's radar through a mutual contact, and the Founders Fund participated in last year's $700,000 angel round.
Nolan was sufficiently satisfied with progress since that he took a personal stake in the $4m seed round just closed, on top of Founders Fund leading the raise.
Icehouse Ventures, NZ Growth Capital Partners (the Crown-backed fund formerly known as NZVIF) also participated.
Broadbent says there are an estimated five million professional and freelance photographers worldwide - with most of them taking the sort of people pics ripe for Narrative's machine-learning.
The only direct competition is an AI product in the works from Canon, the Narrative co-founder says. It was originally due to be launched in March, but has now been delayed. The pandemic has not been a blessing for everyone.