Mike O'Donnell: A timely lesson in what works for tech businesses
OPINION: About eight years ago I was involved in buying an online booking business called BookIt.
It had been crafted by a young geek from Manapouri with a strange interest in booking software.
He'd got the support of serial entrepreneur Ian Taylor and was joined by a young AgResearch geek.
At the time I was chief operating officer at Trade Me and BookIt was a tourism booking and payment business that looked pretty interesting.
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The acquisition took an inordinate amount of time as Trade Me had been bought by Fairfax, which were struggling with the aftermath of the Rural Press.
Fortunately, the BookIt guys had the patience of saints and the deal went ahead.
As part of the deal we employed the two Dunedin geeks – Ryan Baker and Andrew Schofield – who had the dubious pleasure of working for me for a few years. They proved smart coders, but had entrepreneurial blood charging through their veins.
It was no huge surprise they left Trade Me after a couple of years to birth their next venture, a company called Timely; pinching one of our wiliest coders to do so.
Last week, that company won the 2017 Hi Tech Award for the best emerging technology company in New Zealand, edging out the likes of SilverStripe and Harmoney.
It's the same company that six months ago won an New Zealand Trade and Enterprise International Business Award.
No mean feat for a four year old "Software as a Service" (SaaS) company. More impressive is that fact is that it's now regularly trading profitably (on a cash basis), something that most SaaS companies will never do. Ever.
Timely provides a cloud-based booking and payment platform for personal services businesses – think here the people that cut your hair, give you a facial or provide personal training.
Alongside calendar scheduling, messaging and point of sale billing; it's got out-of-the-box integration with the likes of Xero and Quickbooks.
A more colourful feature of Timely is that it has no head office, or any regular sort of office at all. Everyone works from home.
When you've been with the company for a year you are given a dressing gown, because you're welcome to stay in your pyjamas all day if you want.
They don't care how you dress – if at all – it's how you do your job.
Beyond the strange choice in corporate attire, it's interesting to pop the bonnet on Timely to take a look at the recipe that enabled two Southern boys to build a multi million-dollar company with over 7000 customers in 90 countries in four years.
First up is the importance of picking a niche. Timely picked health and beauty, predominantly at the SME level. A level that often sees people juggling multiple roles from stylist to receptionist to bookkeeper.
This made them an ideal target for a service that gives time back.
The next factor is an obsessive focus on the customer and removing pain. Timely's customer support team seek to turn every customer complaint into a retention opportunity.
Meanwhile, its tech team wrap the delivery pipeline around the lists of requests it gets from clients, so clients determine what the company builds and when.
Another factor is a zealous belief in frugality and bootstrapping. Being founded by a Dutchman and a Scot, Timely is often accused of having gorse pockets.
But this frugality translates into an operating rhythm that focuses on results and reinvestment.
While the team did take on board some initial funding from outside parties, it has mainly funded development of the company through internal cash flow.
The company were also clear that it would be global from day one. This means a user experience that's internationally focused and hasn't been throttled by our piddling little population.
Culture is everything at Timely. They call it "Timely Life" and – consistent with their product aim of giving their clients time back – it's about treating staff like adults.
Staff are actively encouraged to do important stuff like taking your kids to the park or going surfing during your working day.
So long as you pull your weight, and obsess about the customer experience, you can manage your own day.
Staff are encouraged to tweet about their day under the hashtag #timelylife. This means everyone feels connected and gets to see the bigger picture of their workmates as mother, father, mountain climber or painter.
I'm biased as hell, but I reckon Timely provides a useful window on what works in tech businesses. Picking a niche, obsessing about the customer experience, frugality, global orientation and irreverent culture together provide five useful rules of thumb.
They've also got one other great ace up their sleeve and that's the power of two co-founders with total trust in one another.
Many times this dynamic doesn't scale, but when it does, it can really make a business crank. Timely is one of two businesses I know that make this work.
Meanwhile, if you ever get approached by a couple of Dunedin geeks, do yourself a favour and hear them out. Just ask Ian Taylor.
Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an e-commerce manager and professional director. His Twitter tag is @modsta and he's rather proud of being chairman of Timely.