Marie-Claire Andrews whips into the office like a minor Wellington tempest, curls bobbing, creamy English skin radiating energy from every pore.
“I get bored easily,” she announces.
“When I started working I had about nine permanent jobs in three years. My parents asked me to stop sending them my new email addresses. They couldn’t keep up.”
Instead the Honours and Master’s philosophy graduate from Leeds University, with a promising career as a concert pianist (until the stage fright vetoed it), travelled halfway around the world and landed in Wellington’s IT sector.
She revelled in the confidence and trust New Zealanders have in young people and their willingness to give them a chance.
“I was only 26 and my bosses sent me to CEBIT, the biggest trade show in the world, in Hanover, on my own.”
That trip convinced Andrews that working in IT, especially at the buzzy trade show end of the business, was her future.
Her next job with Investment New Zealand, led, three months later, to a role with economic development company Grow Wellington.
“My role introduced me to heaps of Wellington’s high net worth individuals,” she says, laughing at the terminology too.
“People like Sam Knowles [founder of Kiwibank and chairman of Xero] who want to help new companies get started. We’d see 200 companies a year, all struggling for capital. About 25 would get to present to the group and they’d invest in maybe seven.”
Soon Andrews and ShowGizmo co-founder, Frances Manwaring, “the strategic nous to my rip, snort and bust side”, were at the fundraising end of the equation themselves.
And their specialist idea convinced the investors. “All up we’ve had almost $1 million in funding, including founder money, government grants, plus investors.”
Andrews and her fiance of 17 years sold their home in Silverstream, shifted into an old shipping trawler at Seaview marina, Petone, and put the balance into the business.
“And then,” she says, “we wasted a desperate amount of that money on a terrible product.”
She doesn’t even want to mention Virtual Expo, the idea that entailed holding trade shows online, that sank without trace.
It didn’t take her long to realise that the real efficacy and importance of trade shows comes from the physical energy of people who attend them getting together and making things happen.
So, out of the ashes, when there was still enough money to get it going, came ShowGizmo, which hooks into that energy and harnesses it.
By then it was 2011 when, Andrews reminds us, smart phones were only just coming up, the world was deep in the recession and the events industry was in a mess.
“People weren’t travelling or spending to go to trade shows and the idea of putting email and marketing programmes into your phone hadn’t been thought of.”
Two-and-a-half years later ShowGizmo is one of the top smartphone app providers in the world. It started local then quickly went global.
“We’ve had customers from the beginning and are just about to hit 400 events, most in Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East, “ Andrews says.
“We did all of IBM’s global events last year, 23 events in nine different languages all inside one app. You can download one app and see IBM career prospects in Tokyo, New Zealand, Korea, Czech Republic, Hungary and all the other countries they’re in.
"The app can also synthesise data across all their events and work out what’s popular in different countries.”
Andrews concentrates on the Middle East because she believes it’s the events hub of the world.
“Also companies use English: frankly they’re full of ex-pat Brits. Their events industry wasn’t suffering. And the Middle East is not that comfortable with our main competition coming out of America, because of the global terrorism conflict.
"Good old New Zealand is perfectly neutral. Our apps are as good as the Americans, so it’s easy for Asians to choose us.”
Importantly this is one IT venture clients are happy to pay for. ShowGizmo charges show organisers between $500 for their most basic package, to $8000 for a fully customised event.
It sounds a bargain given the thousands of exhibitors who then have access to the app, but Andrews is well satisfied.
A few weeks ago she and her team of eight won the contract to supply the Formula One Grand Prix event in Bahrain in April.
“It’ll be the biggest use of our app so far – millions of people will be using it.”
But still she doesn’t see a need to charge individual exhibitors for the ShowGizmo app.
“This way it’s clean and simple. Profit is all about land grab. There are 20 million events round the world. We only need a small percentage of them to do well.”
SmartShow also won the rights to the Hamburg Book Fair. Back home the app has greased the wheels of The Baby Show, the Deloitte Fast 50, Wellington Fashion Week and more.
“We’ve now got clients coming back to us for the third year, and every year we can add new and exciting features. The challenge is to keep new features in sync with our customers’ needs – and our funds,” Andrews says.
The moves ShowGizmo can make appear endless.
“It extends the life of the event by keeping the connections and the momentum up. With this, organisers don’t need door scanners, they don’t have to hire people to get feedback.”
New developments are produced by three smart software engineers.
“Those guys are our biggest resource, the cool thing is they’re in-house – they get to innovate all the time – and we’ve stayed ahead of the pack.”
She shows off their latest invention, a scanner designed for ‘lead capture’.
“We’re one of the first developers in Australasia to get our hands on beacon hardware - low-cost doodads that continually beam out a Bluetooth signal and run for a year on a tiny watch battery,” she says.
“This technology allows mobile apps to recognise when a phone’s near a wireless sensor and the ShowGizmo app will interact directly with them,” she says.
“The beacons open up the possibilities of tracking VIPs around exhibitions (giving organiser’s ammunition against whingeing exhibitors who complain no-one turned up), sophisticated indoor mapping, automatic check-ins to sessions, promotional coupons and more.”
As to the future, this fast-moving entrepreneur wants to carve out a thick and profitable slice of the Australian and Asian markets before her US competitors find a way in.
“Our competitors have raised funds of tens of millions of dollars and some companies employ around 120 people… They can afford to get on a plane and move into our territory so we’ll have to be faster and more aggressive.”
And yes, she’d be happy to see ShowGizmo snuggled up to a bigger investor or partner which can provide the financial muscle it needs to take a major share of the Asian market.
“We’ve got two choices: raise a lot of money right now or find a partner, meld our company into their operation, and either way, watch it fly.”
ShowGizmo is a specialist smartphone app that acts as a paperless catalogue, guide and communication point for trade shows and conferences.
The app lists exhibitors and provides their contact details, plus a virtual map of where they are located at the show.
It also circulates updates and news about upcoming events, helps members find people and set up networking opportunities with those they want to meet.
Exhibitors can use ShowGizmo to showcase their products, promote their ideas and send out pop-up alerts.
Once the show is in progress the app runs continual data showing how many people visit each stand and how long they spend there.
ShowGizmo is available across a variety of platforms including mobile web, I Phone and android devices. So far it has been used by over 400 show organisers in 11 countries using nine languages.