Zorb inventor Andrew Akers talks about operating his business from a tourism hub, the future of his creation and what's next for Ogo.
A brief description of the business
We roll down hills in giant inflatable balls and have wet and dry experience options for all of that. We're located in Rotorua with gorgeous views out over Lake Rotorua and Mokoia Island and have been operating since 2010.
You sold Zorb and later started similar business Ogo, why was that?
It's a typical situation where the founders of a company, which is myself and my buddy Dwane van der Sluis, got some investors involved into Zorb in the early days and it went really well until the company started making lots of money and then the board of directors and investors who had a controlling share in the company wanted to go [take the business] in a different direction which was all about becoming quite corporate.
International development is extremely expensive and it wasn't really working out, it was at that point I decided I could either decide to become a corporate animal myself - go and visit lawyers and consultants all day - or do what I loved, something I could put passion and joy in to.
It was a pretty hard decision to leave my baby at the time but I'm glad I made it for my own sanity.
After that I spent a couple of years wandering around, came back to New Zealand and I saw an opportunity to do what we were doing again, which was a little bit like ground hog day, but at the same time it was without the constraints that we had in the previous company. We were then able to do a lot things we couldn't before and have had a lot more fun doing it.
Unfortunately what happens when originators sell out is often the investors aren't very happy about it. We didn't sell out for very much, it was more of a feeling of walking away. I'm getting a little bit of money from my design but the benefit of it is we now have more knowledge and are able to do things more efficiently.
What sparked the initial Zorb idea?
The first idea came from wanting to walk on water and originally we sort of thought about having big inflatable shoes that would enable us to do that, but it was just a thought experiment and we thought about hurdles such as if you fell over, the shoes [are] floating but you are not which would have been somewhat complicated. So that's when the idea of having a double-skinned sphere that you could walk on water with was born.
We started looking at how we could develop this idea, which was initially just for us and our buddies, and how we could actually turn this into a business.
The idea of coming up with a product is probably five per cent, or two per cent, of the journey, learning how to turn it into a business that works and is fun is the hard part. We originally started rolling down some hills at One Tree Hill in Auckland which was amazing and that really helped us develop the operational side.
What's the difference between Zorb and Ogo?
We're using the same technology. We always made the balls ourselves and so we've continued to develop. We have a factory on site where we build them all and so we have continued that line of development.
What's the most challenging thing about running the business?
The challenge is really in the whole ground hog day thing. I think a lot of people who develop their own businesses do it because they're passionate and because they want to do something new, work for themselves and have a connection with development. There's always a balance between continuing development and doing the basics of business, and that's what we've had to learn.
We have a lot of opportunities and it is a matter of being smart as to how we pick the people we work with and the opportunities. We have a few ideas of other activities we'd like to do around Ogo, also different tracks and different ways the ball is developed and the experience.
It was a pretty hard decision [to sell Zorb] to leave my baby at the time but I'm glad I made it for my own sanity.
What offshore markets are you looking to expand in to?
We're now in a position where our company site in Rotorua is established enough that it doesn't need our continual input and we can start looking a little further afield. We've had opportunities offshore which we can now start getting serious about. We provide consultation for the development of Ogo sites [worldwide] and provide the New Zealand made balls to them. We also have training and audit programmes for those over in North America, Canada and the US.
We have some in Ireland, Japan, etc, but I think the time has come for us to get serious about developing our own sites, to our own standard, in other locations.
Aside from financials, how do you measure your success?
One indication of success is if people copy you.
You see it all over the place; TV ads, movies and you sort of become attuned to seeing these big plastic balls. When you're in the middle of it you're always pushing, always struggling and looking into the future. But when you look back on it and at all the crazy times and interest, and all of the TV shows; they still come to us - we had a massive reality TV show from China come to us about a year ago, it was absolutely huge. It's bizarre to me because this has been such a big part of my life for so long it's bizarre to see people who see it for the first time get excited in the same way others did 15 years ago.
I always wonder if this is going to be a fad, and that people aren't going to be into it, but every generation that comes along; there's something about a crazy, stupid ball that rolls down a hill that somehow appeals to people and I can't quite put my finger on what that is.
Do you think it has put New Zealand tourism on the map?
I think New Zealand has a history of these things and if you think of jet boating, bungy jumping and this whole need to really make your own activities and entertainment and enjoyment because we're so far away from everybody.
We sort of have a situation where we're set up to have these things happen. We see ourselves part of the parcel of it. We [Kiwis] are really well known for it.
What's it like running the business from Rotorua?
Rotorua has lots of things happening, there are so many activities now that you do have to challenge yourself otherwise you'll find yourself, if you're not developing, going backwards. Our attitude is that these guys are doing crazy, awesome stuff and that makes us want to do better.
What advice do you give others thinking of starting a business?
You need to be passionate about what you do and absolutely love it.
If you absolutely love it then you'll never have to work a day in your life because you're doing what you would be doing anyway. If you're passionate about it then it doesn't really matter if you're the richest guy in the world or not because you're doing what you love.