From one-man-band to many employees

Vend founder Vaughan Rowsell talks about growing a start up from one to 14 people in 18 months

It seems appropriate to meet Vaughan Rowsell at the same cafe in the back streets of Parnell that he and his team patron daily. Rowsell, who founded the cloud based point-of-sale software Vend, jokes that his team go there so often it has become the company’s unofficial meeting room.

It has been 18 months since Rowsell launched Vend in New Zealand, initially to a handful of boutique stores in Central Auckland and Hamilton.

Rowsell says the company is now growing 20 percent month on month, and is signing up to 1000 new accounts every month from around the world.

But he says this is only scratching the tip of the ice berg for Vend.

“Adding 1000 accounts a month is one thing, but adding 10,000 accounts a month is a completely different thing. That’s the next level for us,” says Rowsell.

This may seem an ambitious goal for a New Zealand company, but Rowsell has been surrounded by some of the great stories in New Zealand’s technology start-up scene.

Only a few years ago Rowsell was the CTO of Vianet, which would go on to become TradeMe’s travel site, Travelbug.

It was while working at Travelbug that Rowsell met TradeMe founder and serial investor Sam Morgan, and long time TradeMe dev and venture capitalist Rowan Simpson – both now investors in Vend.

“I wanted to do my own project, and eventually settled on a project where there was a huge hole in the industry – cloud based POS,” says Rowsell.

“Firstly we had to prove the product could work. Investors won’t put money in an unproven company, and we didn’t want to waste time flogging something which didn’t work.

“The only way to really test it was to get customers who were willing to pay money; essentially I needed to bring a functioning beta to market.”

Rowsell says his 15 years of web development experience came in handy when it came to developing Vend on his own in those early days, but he soon realised he needed support to continue with the project.

“That’s the advantage of being a technical founder, you can get your product to market quicker and without the assistance of anybody else,” says Rowsell.

“Getting it that far is ok, but you very quickly need to get supporting people in behind you.

“To build a grown up business it can’t all be about you. No matter how talented you are, you are not scalable.”

He says after the initial beta test, he went straight out to seek investors in his fledgling business.

“The only way to grow a business like this is cash flow, and up until that point I was doing it all out of my own pocket,” recalls Rowsell.

Vend went on to fulfil initial investment through Morgan and Simpson. In August of last year Vend announced it had received around $1 million in funding from German consortium Point Nine Capital. It was enough to grow a team in New Zealand and establish a sales presence in San Francisco.

Rowsell now plays less of a role in developing the Vend product, and instead focuses on sales and managing his team (although he baulks at the term ‘manage’).

He leads a team of 14 people, including developers, customer support, and sales staff – mostly based in the Auckland office.

Rowsell says what he enjoys doing now is growing his team to compliment the needs of his business.

“I hire people to alleviate pain points in the business. Initially that was support, I was receiving 60 to 100 emails a day and there are only so many emails one man can answer,” says Rowsell.

“Once we had investment we brought on more developers, and a UX person, and now we have a sales person working from the States.”

Rowsell predicts his team will grow to double the size it is currently; he expects the make up to remain much the same with one third support, one third development, and one third sales.

He says the key to attracting and maintaining the right talent at a start-up is transparency.

“It can be unnerving for people joining a start-up. They’re always wondering ‘will there be a job for me in a few years time, will this position crash and burn’,” says Rowsell.

“I think we need to keep things transparent. Everyone in the company should celebrate the successes, and everyone should know when things aren’t going smoothly.

“We have a dashboard on the wall which shows everyone how many accounts we’ve signed, and how our finances are looking to keep people in the loop.”

Rowsell’s advice for people wanting to start their own technology company is move quickly, and not let the small things stop a product from reaching the market.

“What people don’t realise is start-ups are much harder than they look. You burn out really quickly and lose motivation really easily,” says Rowsell.

“There will always be an excuse not to bring something to market, but every excuse is a wasted opportunity, you’ll never know what your product is capable of unless you bring it to people.”

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