Michael Whitehead, a category winner in the 2014 EY New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, explains what brought him success as an exporter, and shares some of his less celebrated failures.
WhereScape’s metaphorical trophy cabinet is bursting at the seams, with the most recent win (ExportNZ Services Exporter of the Year, over $10 million) adding to an already illustrious list.
The international analytics and big data automation software company also notched up Best of the Best Excellence in International Trade Award at the 2016 Westpac Auckland Business Awards, and Best Medium Business as well as the Supreme Award at the 2016 New Zealand International Business Awards.
And in the middle of all this recognition is Michael Whitehead, president and founder of WhereScape Software and chair of NOW Consulting.
With offices in New Zealand, the US, UK, Europe, India and Singapore, WhereScape is no stranger to export markets. Whitehead credits an Australian deal as being one of the pivotal moments in growing the company.
“Looking back, signing a master distributor relationship with Steve Hitchman of MIP in Australia was a real lightbulb moment,” he says. “The amazing sales that followed made us realise our product really was great, but our own sales and marketing just wasn’t up to speed. It was a useful wake-up call early on in our growth.”
Whitehead cites the creation of a world-class business from New Zealand as one of his major achievements (he’s also a seasoned marathon runner, but is unlikely to win any awards for that). Software is weightless so it is ideal for exporting from New Zealand, he says, and businesses all around the world want to make better decisions by unlocking their data.
“We knew there was a gap in the market for software which would help businesses gather data and organise it to make better decisions, and our ‘big idea’ was to automate much of the complex-yet-rote work involved in the building and running of data systems.
“This cut time and cost by as much as 80 percent and helped business realise value from their data that much easier.”
Big brands like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, MGM Macau and VW number amongst WhereScape’s eclectic international client list, along with Sky City, the University of Auckland and ASB Bank in New Zealand.
Looking back on ‘lessons learned’ Whitehead says the first step for fledgling exporters is to really think about what it takes to succeed internationally.
“Do the planning (and redo it). Think about how you are going to establish a market. Make sure you have the plans and resources to be serious about it, and always remember there is no one answer – different export markets require different strategies.”
The key to success, Whitehead says, is that people buy from people, even with a perceived impersonal offering like SaaS.
Being from New Zealand doesn’t matter. Using an analogy, he says you don’t go out to buy beer based on a country; you buy [a brand] you’ve bought before, or because someone told you a particular beer was good and you should try it – or perhaps because you like the label or shape of the bottle.
“It’s the people factor that permeates all your transactions. Your challenge is to figure out how you cut through to that people-to-people position that is the foundation for business growth, especially in exporting.
“And clearly when you are looking internationally you don’t have the same networks available as you have at home, so you need to figure how you are going to do that in a strange new market.
“At WhereScape we used networks in the US through friends we’d made from working in multinationals.
“In the UK, we worked with another company who had friends who were willing to play ball. We always kept in mind one question: why should that person buy from us?”
Where is WhereScape now?
Whitehead believes they are at the top of their game and firing on all cylinders.
“But for us it is all about NOW. Seriously. We’ve spun off NOW Consulting that gives Kiwi companies access to world-class expertise right here in New Zealand. We’ve won awards because of our international success and the fantastic companies we work with, but I’m extremely proud that we are applying that expertise and giving New Zealand companies access to solutions and people at the top of their game.
“For those who want to dip their toe into the world of unlocking data and making it work, NOW has the answer in terms of an outcome focus.
“We know cost of entry has always been a challenge for Kiwi businesses looking at the competitive edge analytics and big data can bring and we’ve addressed that.
The launch of NOW a few months back is opening a new option for New Zealand businesses – many of whom have been reluctant to commit full-time resources to what they see as an unknown, but yet have an intuitive recognition that data projects drive value into their businesses.”
WhereScape naturally reflects co-founder Michael Whitehead’s unique style and values. His vision for the business has put a spotlight on where the company should be and driven its success.
“We went down a lot of blind alleys, and yet that’s not always a setback, as long as you know you are actually in the alley.
“But you have to set explicit measures and be very honest right through the process so you know if you are on the right or wrong path. The problem is, there’s always one more corner that looks as if it might contain the Holy Grail. However, you need to be true to your plans and know when to pivot.”
That can be a major problem for start-ups who naturally look for a degree of positivity to justify where they are going, explains Whitehead. But if you are working to a plan, take two steps back and see if you are hitting the goals you should be hitting at this stage.
Whitehead says having an external board is a robust process and helps in being honest with yourself in business and valuable as an exporter.
“Ask yourself, what does success look like? Is it sales in this market within a year? ‘X’ number of clients? It can be anything – but work with your board or advisory group to provide an external view and keep you on target.
“And master the art of the pivot.”
Photo: Michael Whitehead with Sanchia Yonge, NZTE's GM Internal Partners.