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CLIENT NEWS - From student flat to international success story – Rocketspark turns 10

From student flat to international success story – Rocketspark turns 10

A bootstrapped Kiwi software start-up has succeeded where eight out of 10 IT start-ups fail, launching an international company from a student flat in Hamilton.

Waikato-based website builder Rocketspark, has customers in 20 different countries, provides websites for many of New Zealand’s top restaurants and has recently attracted a growth grant from the Government’s Callaghan Innovation, for 20 per cent of its research and development.

Rocketspark Director, Grant Johnson, says 10 years on from Rocketspark’s launch, the Callaghan funding is a nice vote of confidence for a humble bunch of guys who just like building stuff.

“Software development is expensive. It’s estimated only around two of every 10 IT start-ups will go on to make a return. We’re certainly not an overnight success story, but tenacity and lots of hard work is now seeing really good results,” says Grant.

Last summer Callaghan funded two research interns for Rocketspark, to develop a prototype using artificial intelligence. This summer they hope to build the user interface and commercialise it.

Grant lives in Papamoa, near Tauranga, with his wife Andrea and journeys down the Kaimai Ranges twice a week to Rocketspark’s Cambridge office, where 17 staff work. They moved into their own office three years ago after working remotely, bootstrapping the business up on $39 subscription fees and web development work.

“We did it a little differently. Many would have spent their time pitching to investors to accelerate growth. We moved slower, but it gave us an amazing understanding of our customers along the way.”

Rocketspark was started while Grant was on his OE, in 2009. After a ski season in Canada and some time in London, Andrea took a job with the America’s Cup in Spain. Grant, who previously worked in marketing for Vodafone, says he needed to get stuck into something with purpose

His brother Jeremy, who had his own graphic and web design business, was flatting with Richard King a web developer at Torpedo 7 and Lee Reichardt, a student at Waikato University. The friends say they pulled Lee off the couch and founded the business.

“Our first version had very limited functionality. Looking back now it’s amazing that people bought it, but we balanced those feature gaps with great support.”

To generate cash for the business, they took on custom web development work and developed the online programme guide and website for Freesat in the United Kingdom.

During leaner times, sometimes the founders would miss out on payday to make sure the team always got paid, leaning on mortgages to help pay the bills. The hours have been long, but it taught them if you really focus on your customers and look at how you can improve things for them, it makes up for any features you might lack, says Grant.

“In the early days we’d do things manually for people if they wanted certain features on their sites, that’s pretty unheard of, but we wanted it to work.”

They also learned they needed to network and not be afraid to ask questions or seek advice.

“We’re humble and we’re product people. We like building stuff. There are lots of companies that are selling the sizzle before they have the sausage, but we’re pretty sure we have the sausage now.”

He says Rocketspark has always had global aspirations, but there is also huge potential in the New Zealand market with more than 500,000 small businesses.

His advice to other start-ups looking to bootstrap their way up. Research your customers. Provide outstanding support. Don’t be afraid to ask and draw on others’ experiences and surround yourself with good people.

Grant says they have one team member in South Africa and one in the UK. Both have been with the company since early days and wanted to move for family and their OE.

“It’s amazing what you can craft with a keyboard and an internet connection. The international aspect of work doesn’t need to be so daunting. We are proof you can be doing your OE and launch a successful business.”