The multimillion-dollar acquisition of Christchurch search engine company GlobalBrain by the internet arm of broadcasting giant NBC has allowed it to expand its software development staff, roll out new tools and license its technology to other multinationals.
The expansion of GlobalBrain, which has become NBCi New Zealand since the buyout in June, has occurred despite NBCi cutting back on its own staff from 900 to 600 after the recent dotcom stockmarket crash.
“There’d been some layoffs there, but at the same time they are hiring here, which shows how they place value on the people and work we are doing here,” says founder and managing director Grant Ryan.
Since its sale, NBCi NZ has hired more than six software developers to work on its Unix and Windows platforms and is still looking to increase its 27-strong team. Ryan, who rarely gives interviews, says the company has managed to attract six staff with engineering and computer science degrees, half a dozen post-grads and others with natural abilities because “we are doing good, interesting work and we can pay well.”
Globalbrain’s search engine ranks websites by popularity and relevance using filtering technology, and also has a “keyword suggestor” which suggests alternative keywords for searches over and beyond the original plugged in.
Ryan says the number of skilled software developers in Christchurch means NBCi NZ will continue to base its development work there.
“We are trying to get intelligent about learning what people are doing and personalising the site to match their interests,” Ryan says. “In exchange for some intellectual effort millions of dollars flow into Christchurch each year.”
The company was founded in late 1998 by Ryan, who holds a mechanical engineering degree and a PhD in ecological economics, his brother Shaun Ryan, who has a PhD in electrical engineering, and Wayne Munro, who has a PhD in civil engineering.
Not long after the acquisition, NBCi announced GlobalBrain’s search and directory technology had been rolled out in NBCi’s new consumer portal, www.NBCi.com. It also said it had further invested in enhancements to both the search and Live Directory functions.
Ryan says his team has made changes to some of the internal tools inside Live Directory, which uplifts new website entries into the directory and automatically moves the most popular ones into NBCi’s main directory, using less editors than other search engines.
But the most improvements have been to the search engine itself. Ryan says the engine can now generate reports about what people are searching, the routes they take and the things they can not find.
It is being used on top of specific features within NBCi’s portal, such as the picture search function, and is planned for the shopping search function. Ryan says developers have also built a “keyword inventory forecasting tool” which lets advertisers and marketers link their messages to additional search terms.
Key for the company is that the search technologies may be licenced to other large websites after being used successfully on General Electric’s portal, www.ge.com. “We are investigating a range of business models for generating revenue from these technologies,” Ryan says.
NBCi has just done a soft launch for NBCi Recommends, which is an opt-in tool which learns types of sites users are interested in and will list other related websites next time they return to NBCi.
Some 170 NBCi developers in the US support Ryan’s team, with the Christchurch-based workers flying to the US often or communicating by reports, teleconferences and email.
NBCi is about to start another major advertising campaign about its search capabilities, following in the footsteps of a $US30 million campaign it did earlier this year which made GlobalBrain a household name.
In advice to other software entrepreneurs looking to sell, Ryan says his choice was made easy because he enjoyed working with NBCi, saw the potential further investment could reveal and got to keep his job. “But the best thing I’ve learnt is how many other good projects are going on in New Zealand,” he says.