When a company grows its revenue 1116 percent in three years it's obviously young. But software developer Alphero is wise beyond its years thanks to co-founders Caroline Dewe and Kostia Shinderman, well used to specialising at the big end of town.
How did the partnership start?
Dewe: I was the CEO of Fronde Anywhere, the mobile solutions subsidiary of Fronde Systems. I go way back to early market evangelism with Ericsson in the late 1990s. I was presenting to boards about the potential of mobile and what you could do one day. I rode the market through many years of hype — the technology and devices were basic and functional but there was this vision of what might be possible.
When I left Fronde I was interested in seeing if we could found a business where we could combine strategic thinking with creativity and hardcore technology delivery capability. I found it quite frustrating talking to organisations about the same thing for two years and how you could shorten that innovation cycle.
Shinderman: Caroline and I met when I was at BNZ. It was one of the providers to Fronde for a mobile notification and messaging gateway. I started with Telecom Xtra two years after it started and was their creative director, then I set up the interactive division of the New Zealand Herald. Afterwards I spent six years in the UK working on the future strategy of their government- wide content management system. I came back to New Zealand to start a family and banking was an area I hadn't focused on so I joined BNZ. When the GFC hit the bank had to re-evaluate and it transformed into a massive investment in digital.
Not many new ventures can claim Westpac and Vodafone as early customers. How did that happen?
Dewe: Kostia and I tapped into our networks. It's been supremely ironic for us, given he's the ex-banker among us, but I'm incredibly networked with all the other banks and I brought Westpac through and a smaller bank. It boiled down to leveraging our personal networks and the challenge was for people engaging with Kostia or Caroline to people engaging with Alphero . I've always had as a bit of a mantra that if you're thinking about growth and wanting to be ambitious one of the starting points was to sell projects bigger than you are. Always be aspirational in terms of what you go for.
Kostia engaged very quickly with Vodafone. One of the first projects we got really early was with Motor Trade Finance. Kostia did some strategy work and part of that was defining the road map. We delivered some apps and then a big web network. In the early stages it was very much Kostia's track record and mine and it became very quickly the business track record. We moved very quickly out of the 'couple of consultants working together' stage.
Shinderman: We were also focused around the value we provided, which was unique to the market. A lot of my experience in these organisations was working with the C level and helping them understand what they're trying to do. That makes it easier to come back in. There's a trust level that happens at that early point.
Alphero isn't a creative agency that's gone digital, nor a typical digital agency. How does the software development focus define the business?
Dewe: We did well with some of our early clients. When you've got Vodafone and Westpac in the first 12 or 14 months or so, you've suddenly suddenly you've got some credible names. Once we got that, others wanted to work with us. It was, 'if those guys trust you, that's good enough for me'. Although we're in the digital space and we very much specialise around mobile, we don't just build websites. This is the joy with Kostia having a banking background and me working with Fronde , where integration and security are important, along with good software development. What sets us apart from a lot of the agencies is they might be a digital agency, but they've got a marketing and website focus, or they focus on marketing apps. From a mindset perspective, yes we're delivering mobile-specialised digital solutions, but we build software.
Shinderman: From when we started we had a very clear focus on what we were going to deliver and where the market was. If you look at what we're like now compared to those slides in the early coffee conversations about what our objectives were, it fundamentally hasn't changed at all. A lot of agencies can provide trust around delivery. When you have to define strategy and change the culture within an organisation , delivering end to end from 'we need to change' to 'we've actually changed', I think that's one of our key points of difference.
Dewe: It's really that hardcore strategy capability, but also the development capability. If you look at a lot of digital agencies they'll do the design or they might build bits, but they tend to pass off to one of the big IT services companies. if it involves security or hardcore integration performance. One of the points from day one was that we actually did that stuff.
How high can you ride the mobile wave?
Dewe: If you look back years ago, talking to organisations about what might be possible, now it's quite real. A lot of the clients we're dealing with at the moment say it's mobile first, with a capital M and a capital F. It's becoming a known term and it's gone from the CIO to the CEO and down through the organisation .
It means actually starting to say strategically, 'how are people connecting?' Is is via fixed line broadband or out and about? There are big shifts in usage from the desktop to the tablet. We're starting to see real cannibalisation of desktop channels. The organisations really starting to move to mobile are seeing a huge shift in customer behaviour . It's a rethink about constant connectivity, plugging in any time and the context of what people are doing. It can be quite personalised but it requires a lot of thinking for these organisations .
Shinderman: Quite often the conversation starts with, 'we need a mobile app'. A lot of people have an impression it's gamification or it's based on an activity. A phone is a very personal device and a channel for a big organisation to have a one to one relationship.
Dewe: Personalisation and targeting of services becomes very important with mobile. It's screen real estate, you can't just squish down what you had on a desktop screen. You have to have very clear goals based on the experience with the device. That's where the fun is for us from a design perspective. The banking sector latched on to mobile early, as well as online and self-service channels. A lot of them have the baseline in place and are now iterating and enhancing in mobile to suppport the business.
Is digital innovation a difficult process for Kiwi organisations?
Shinderman: A lot of the companies we deal with have an intent to be very agile and innovative. That's not necessarily the way it comes across. Some of them work a lot better than others. Some government departments need a push to say, 'how brave can you be?' My experience in innovation is executives have the same attention span as a five year-old kid, not in a bad way, but we need to do the work to make it really easily understood.
On a simple level that comes down to designing it up front, and at some points we'll do an actual working concept . That tends to be the most innovative way of getting things through, producing something that's easy to share in an organisation . Then how do have a really defined roadmap ? What can you deliver first and will be the biggest success for the business? You chose the right things that get them to start being braver than they might be initially.