Bright idea puts Kiwi farmer on the global map
Getting your car serviced isn't normally a life changing experience, but for Colin Brown the 2005 routine check on his Mazda paid rich dividends.
Needing to kill time, he popped in to Thomas Electronics and saw a global positioning system being used to track road sweeping equipment. Sensing the potential for the technology in agriculture, Brown pulled a Victor Kiam – he bought the company.
"At the time I didn't appreciate how big the opportunity was, but I definitely knew there was an opportunity there," Brown said.
"We built a prototype, took it around and showed it off, got some support locally, and decided to take the next step and build a proper commercial model rather than a prototype proof of concept."
Brown – a former farmer who had just left an agricultural consultancy firm – was at a loose end. He poured his heart, soul, and no small amount of cash into the product, selling his house, shares, and ultimately Thomas Electronics itself in May 2006 as he went full steam ahead with TracMap.
The first unit of its first product – a GPS system to track fertiliser spreading – was installed in a truck in October 2006.
"Today we have 450 fertiliser trucks running our system, and about 150 agricultural spray systems," Brown said proudly in his office at the firm's Mosgiel base.
"Around 1000 farmers are using our equipment for things as diverse as shifting irrigation sprinklers through to fencing stock over the winter.
"Agriculture is the mainstay and core business of what we do, but we have diversified into other markets where we can take the same technology and apply it into other fields.
"That gives us the sales we need in order to be able to continue the ongoing research and development needed to stay up to date."
As it turns out, agriculture was only the beginning of what TracMap's technology could be applied to. Truck spreading systems were soon adapted into helicopter and fixed-wing plane top dressers, and then moved into whole different fields of endeavour.
Variations of TracMap are now used in search and rescue missions (where it shaves 30 per cent off time to find something in water), in timber plantations to plot plantings, to survey Antarctic ice melt, and track aerial bait poisoning in Alaska – among a myriad of other projects.
"When we first started, I wanted to build a system with capabilities that exceeded what the current market requirement was, because I could see it had applications in other areas – but we didn't have the resources in terms of time or money to pursue those," Brown said.
"What has happened as we've moved forward is we've realised we are unique in the world at what we do and we have made it easy for any operations manager to send any vehicle to any job, with minimal training of the operators.
"That gives us a large number of market opportunities, but we have to be very selective about which ones we pick, otherwise you can go off like a shotgun."
Simplicity of use is key to TracMap's success – a five-minute demonstration gives most people the basic knowledge required to use the software.
The hardware is specifically designed for use in difficult environments: a low-glare screen and a few large buttons are two examples of user-friendly innovation.
Word of mouth was TracMap's best salesperson, but getting the company where it is today – an internationally recognised, multiple award-winning firm with 25 staff – was still a lot of work, Brown said.
The sky seems the limit for TracMap, which is boldly aiming to double the size of the business this year, in terms of turnover.
- © Fairfax NZ News