Since university Ivan Seselj has had a habit of dreaming up business ideas. One idea in particular stuck fast, and today, with business partner Richard Holmes, Promapp is quietly changing the way the world manages business processes.
By Glenn Baker.
Like many people Ivan Seselj played the ‘wouldn’t it be good if you could…’ game, wanting to devise new ways to solve problems. Even today he still records his business ideas.
At just 22 years of age and fresh out of university Ivan took his top three ideas, formulated rough business plans for each, and ran with what he thought was best. It involved a pitch to the Ministry of Education.
“The idea was based around the purchasing power of schools and their students, and the businesses that seem to thrive off schools in what to me looked like a lop-sided relationship,” Ivan recalls. “I proposed to set up market-like structures so the private sector could still provide services/products/marketing campaigns aimed at schools, but in a more market-driven manner that shared the spoils more fairly.”
However, Ivan never got to implement his concept – he acknowledges he didn’t have the nous back then to do what needed to be done. “Selling the idea to different school boards and suppliers was just beyond my skillset.”
The idea for Promapp, a web-based app that makes it easy to create, navigate and change business processes, first came to Ivan when he was working on a major process re-engineering project for British Airways on his OE.
“The idea evolved when I returned from my travels and worked on projects for Auckland City Council,” he says. “I always knew I was going to have another entrepreneurial turn, so I quit my job at Auckland City Council, and developed my top three business cases again. Promapp came out on top.”
Promapp was the short working name for idea number three and stands for ‘process management app’. So where did the idea come from?
“All the projects I’d done as a business process analyst, and all the companies I’d visited as an auditor had one thing in common. Nobody looked at the procedures manual,” he explains. “Nobody even really pretended to look; it was sort of known that this stuff was produced for me, the auditor, to read – then put away. I thought that was squandering a massive opportunity. This information was hugely valuable if you could leverage it in a better way.”
Only smart businesses succeed, says Ivan, and that means having smart processes. “Smart processes aren’t a set of documents, or a state you achieve and then you’re done. It’s an attitude.”
Companies with happy customers and slick operations don’t just happen by chance, he says. “It takes time to debate processes, improve them, and write them down in a way that teams find simple, and quick to retrieve.
“A good tool like Promapp helps drive a smart process culture.”
Sharing the lessons
Promapp was founded in 2002. Ivan had partnered with Richard Holmes, whom he had met at Auckland University. While Ivan had worked as an auditor for Deloitte, Richard became a chartered accountant.
The pair admit to being on a slow learning curve, particularly in the early years. Looking back, Ivan says they should have secured board members for regular meetings (even if informally in coffee shops) much earlier than they did. “It forces strategic discussion, reviews and measurement at a time when you can be busy ‘being busy’. Months just race by.”
Don’t under estimate the importance of selling either, he says. “As a process analyst I had a rather romantic professional view that I knew I was right, and this new way was much better.
“After the first few times people don’t return your emails or calls you realise reality is slightly different. The ability to execute the full sales process through to invoicing and dollars in the bank is very different to pitching a good idea.”
Along the growth path Promapp has benefited from having a clear set of core values, says Ivan. “We agreed as a team what was important to us; how we set out to behave. It really helps with big decisions when you refer back to challenge them against your core values.”
Growth has happened fast at Promapp. In 2010 it was a Deloitte Fast50 winner, and in the same year it was a winner in the Deloitte Asia Pacific Tech Fast500.
Export business has been key to growth. This year exports exceeded 50 percent of turnover for the first time. “The first few overseas clients all came through relationships with our New Zealand clients, so they were relatively easy wins,” says Ivan. “It’s a big deal for us to keep all of our customers happy. It’s much easier to win a new client via word of mouth than to start from scratch.”
Australia is performing well for Promapp, and a new office has just been opened in San Francisco. A CMO with North American market experience was recruited to drive marketing strategies.
“Our [marketing] focus is on doing the fundamentals well,” says Ivan. “If you provide thought provoking content and ideas, and distribute these through the right digital channels, you build a following over time. We also work with clients to share their success stories at conferences around the world, and via web conferences, and these work well.”
As for distribution, Promapp believes in having local people in the markets they serve.
“We’re not big on sales distribution channels,” explains Ivan. “We prefer our own teams talking with potential customers, it just feels like they care more and give better service.”
Overseas-based staff are brought to New Zealand as part of the induction process to soak in Promapp’s culture, way of working, processes and attitudes.
“We’ve also partnered with US-based consultants to help our clients implement Promapp and shift their process culture,” says Ivan. “It’s important to be on site to help with this.”
Although they feel like they’ve been ahead of the pack in recent years, Promapp is deploying major new capabilities in 2016 to keep them in front.
“Some of the new capabilities will likely make Promapp a more attractive proposition for certain types of larger organisations,” says Ivan. “So we’re feeling pretty bullish about export growth for the next few years.”