In the modern era of television, the viewing public is often inundated with mindless "Reality TV" series that appear to serve no purpose other than to provide something to watch.
Where is the creativity and the relevance? It is refreshing, then, to know that a new series is on the cards from the Start-UP media that is not only thought-provoking and locally-made but has also been developed for the sole purpose of nurturing and encouraging emerging online start-up businesses to make the world their oyster.
Not an easy task! We speak to the finalists of the upcoming Start-UP TV series.
Using a business accelerator format and a resident panel of experts, Start-UP TV lays down a series of challenges for the participating companies in order to get them to "go global". With the barriers to global expansion diminishing every day, there is a false perception - both within and outside the online community - that breaking out of New Zealand is easy.
Sometimes the biggest hurdle is a company's ability at the outset to outline their strategies, discover the gaps in their strategic thinking, make valuations, create metrics, and decide how they are going to achieve their goals.
That is probably why, from a pool of 86 applicants with international aspirations, only 20 were shortlisted. The five companies profiled below have had to continue the day-to-day running of their businesses, while putting their heart and soul into completing the unique challenges set before them.
Allow us to introduce: AliveWorld, Litmos, Mob.co.nz, Nexx and SameSpeak.
AliveWorld is a Web 2.0 site created to provide practical support to people wanting to make a sustainable, positive change in their lives. From quitting smoking to de-stressing your life, losing weight to reworking your career whatever the change, AliveWorld provides support through three main components: experts, friends/family and an online community.
Founded in 2002 by Mark Feenstra and John Allen, AliveWorld started life as Palm Pilot software, transitioning over the last six years through desktop applications to its current online platform (currently in beta phase until 2009).
Operating with a global team of 21 people, Allen says it has been a challenge trying to facilitate the smooth running of the business. Communication has been vital for decision-making and this has been tricky with a virtual team. However, this virtual environment has allowed a unique culture to evolve within AliveWorld, where everyone is passionate about the concept and their contribution.
Initially seed funded by the two co-founders, they later applied for angel investment and venture capital. Allen cited "funding, funding and funding" as the three major challenges they faced throughout the development of AliveWorld, which is not uncommon for an online start-up.
It was important to partner with investors who held the same view as them and were passionate about making the idea big. Allen's advice when communicating with future investors is to ensure all communication is clear and concise around what the business does and how it is going to succeed.
With that in mind, the Start-UP TV process has proven incredibly helpful to AliveWorld, enabling the organisation to focus on their product and their process. It also created urgency around achieving business objectives. Prior to participating in the Start-UP TV series, AliveWorld had a relatively unknown local presence. Since taking up the challenge, they have found that the networks and exposure provided through the process have been fantastic.
The challenges ahead for AliveWorld will be around their ability and agility to scale quickly while operating as virtual teams. Will they have to redevelop their organisational model?
Litmos is an "on-demand platform to deliver training to a wider audience" says founder Rich Chetwynd. Trainers can upload existing materials or build new materials for their courses online. They can then monitor their trainees' progress via a reporting suite. Operating on a SaaS platform allows Litmos "the ability to supply a high quality service at low cost to the end user".
Chetwynd says the idea was created from a solution he and friend Dan Allen put together for a specific customer, Telnet. It continued evolving while they were away on their O.E., with further development creating it into the platform it is today. Rich's wife Nicole joined the team while they were overseas and Litmos operated remotely from both the UK and Canada. Getting sick of "fielding calls from the slopes," they decided it was time to take the business seriously and move back to New Zealand.
As they were following the classic bootstrapping self-funding model, the financial juggle has been a huge challenge for Litmos with Nicole working fulltime to support the venture. Initially the team decided they preferred to bootstrap in order to focus on organic growth.
Being part of Start-UP TV "has really got the ball rolling for Litmos" says Chetwynd and participating in the series has created a fundamental shift in their approach. The process has forced them to focus on their business and justify all the decisions made to date: why did we take that approach? What is our marketing strategy? What is our core value proposition?
Litmos has now found they are better equipped with a fresh strategy and tactics. "This is our model, our product and the path we have defined to reach our goals," says Chetwynd. Litmos is one to keep an eye on - they have picked the narrowest sliver in a niche market to deliver value.
The question is: can they maintain their organic growth to keep it viable?
Mike Rishworth, founder of Mob.co.nz, says he "stumbled into business, almost by accident". Prior to the official 3G iPhone launch by Vodafone a few months ago, the only way to get one was through importers like Mob.co.nz.
Through a string of events Mike found himself at the launch of the iPhone in the US last year and, after arriving back in New Zealand 48 hours after the launch, he was one of the first Kiwis to own one. Subsequently he made another trip to the US for a conference and bought a further 15 iPhones to pay for the trip, selling them through Mob.co.nz. Rishworth eventually quit his job and focused on Mob.co.nz, however, the launch of iPhone 3G, saw sales stall, as he then had to compete on price.
Since then, Rishworth has focused on developing an iPhone application of his own. 'Open Home' is a location-aware application designed to solve the problem of researching places to buy or rent in your area.
When he initially pitched to Start-UP TV, Rishworth didn't actually have a product so he had get cracking and deliver one as fast as possible. Being in front of the camera made him do what he said he was going to do, although developing the application himself has been tough. "It's a moving target," shared Rishworth.
Rishworth cites motivation as one of the challenges he has faced to get up and keep going. Mike's advice to others who are on the cusp of leaving their job to go out on their own is: "make it as big as possible as fast as possible".
Two Auckland University mates, Ben Milsom & Glenn Riddell, decided they wanted to enter the Spark entrepreneurship challenge. However, they didn't feel they had enough life experience to create something new. Despite their initial misgivings, their business, Nexx, grew out of their investigations into emerging industries, of which they settled on peer-to-peer lending, and they entered it into the Spark challenge.
So what is this concept all about? Peer-to-peer lending allows everyday people to loan money to one another. This is done through utilising an online platform where lenders and borrowers meet directly. This way both parties' overhead costs are virtually zero, in glaring contrast with utilising a bank. This then equates to more favourable rates for both parties.
With such a brilliant, simple idea, the Nexx team won the Spark Challenge. One of the prizes was seed capital, and another was time in the University of Auckland's business incubator, The Icehouse. Nexx shifted in to The Icehouse within the last year and have recently secured their second round of angel investment most notably receiving the exact amount they were asking for (a rare event). They have also expanded the team to include James Wallace and Mark Catly.
This little fairytale is not surprising. Meeting Milsom, you can tell there is a lot of high-level strategic thinking taking place. The biggest challenge thus far has all been regulatory. With this idea, Nexx has pushed the regulatory barriers although Milsom concedes: "it is serious business dealing with other peoples' money every hour, every day."
Nexx is used to moving at an incredibly fast pace but the Start-Up TV process has made them slow down and focus attention on the business. Milsom also says "getting external input has been great".
Discussing the lessons gained from operating online, Milsom says "having good people cannot be underestimated. You know you have a good team when they're in the office at 3am on a Sunday working on a presentation for Monday morning." Milsom also reinforces the value of being polished in your presentation - you need it when you're a bunch of 22-year-olds launching a revolutionary way of lending and borrowing money.
After observing the difficulties her partner had conversing in English with a Japanese peer, Rowan Pita came up with the SameSpeak concept. The idea seems simple enough it's a system designed to connect people who want to practice speaking an international language with a native speaker.
A people-friendly process, a trainer registers as a speaker and is then matched to a student who has selected a conversation they wish to practice, in an array of languages. Paid for by the student, this is a neat concept unlocking the long tail of English speakers so anyone, anywhere can teach colloquial English and English-As-A-Second-Language speakers can learn colloquial English in a way they never could before.
At an New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE) conference earlier this year, Pita heard about Start-UP TV and submitted an application even though the deadline had already passed. Pita threw all caution to the wind when she received an eleventh hour phone call from Start-UP TV the night before casting, asking if she was prepared to pitch. Was she what?! Pita accepted the challenge.
Pita has found the experience a real personal growth curve and she offers these words of experience to other would-be entrepreneurs: "if you have a concept in your head, get it down on paper, and plan it out in front of you visually."
Pita brims with enthusiasm as she describes the concept, how simple it is and how she knows she it will unfold. She's also learning quickly as she goes especially in doing due diligence on prospective tutors for hire. "Research the people you hire, even Google their name," says Pita, "this will really save you time and money."
She urges all entrepreneurs to keep the inspiration going - surround yourself with people that will push you and keep you motivated. Remind yourself of your self-belief and seek friends that will help when you need them.
The Start-UP TV process has accelerated SameSpeak from being stagnant, with a poorly-developed website, to an effective online business with a public launch planned for October. When she first came up with the concept, Pita contracted a developer to create her site. Unfortunately, the end product was far from what she had envisioned, and Pita was disillusioned with the process.
As part of the Start-UP TV challenge, she was encouraged to have the whole site redeveloped. This has forced her to work on her business every day, and given her the nudge to set goals, run and go for gold.
Pita says she has learned to find "what works and what doesn't work, but also just to keep taking those steps."
These companies each share a passion for their business idea, and a vision for where they want to be a global online success. Join us on the journey it promises to challenge and entertain you!
Start-UP TV will be screening later this year on TV1. For more on Start-UP TV go to www.start-up.co.nz.