Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Haptly's Rab Heath on moving quickly and finding your passion

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. One of the lucky ten is Haptly. We chat with co-founder Rab Heath.

Henry Oliver: Farming with drones seems like both super practical and also super futuristic. Did the idea come from a Sci-fi movie or from your toiling in the field?

Rab Heath: Kind of in between. The idea came from doing a due diligence trip at the end of last year, looking at what kind of commercial opportunities there were that we're globally focused taking advantage of being of New Zealand. We kind of went to LA, San Fran, Colombia, Boston, New York, London and Hong Kong. We came back and we kept just landing on drones in the primary sector. It kind of stemmed from there. We ended up just calling lots and lots of farmers. It was a need.

What was their need?

They need to know how much pasture they had, how much dry meadow, which is essentially the feed that grows on their farm. Currently, they have to manually go and inspect so, they're really interested in how to get that information without having to spend 4 or 5 hours at a time going and walking paddock to paddock.

What does the drone actually do?

Drones, to be fair, are a vehicle for capturing data, what Haptly does is more around analyzing and interpreting the data captured by sensors and giving actual insights. The drone flies off and captures all of their farm information with a multi-spec and a bunch of other sensors. Non visible light. Our algorithms and machine learning essentially interpret that into actual insights so that farmers have the information they need.

How did you realise the idea that you had could be turned into an actual business?

The quality and quantity of pasture is the staple, or the keystone in pasture farming. It's the most valuable resource farmers have and we saw an opportunity to optimize the use of that resource that they have. It really just stems from that.

What was happening in your professional life at the time when you had the idea?

I had taken a bit of a break from commercial projects and I had previously been working a charity that teaches to kids. I had been waiting for the next big commercial project. Leading up to Haptly was really that trip that I did around the world to kind of find out what was going on and where the next project was going to come from, which is what Haptly turned into.

Did you have to make any sacrifices?

Any sacrifices? Yeah, for sure. Everything is out of your own pocket, right? Nelson and I, Nelson is the other co-founder and CTO of Haptly, we've both been doing everything out of our own pocket. Coming into the zone program and it's definitely a personal cost in terms of long hours and very little resources coming in. Definitely stressful.

Where does the motivation come from to keep going through that?

I guess it comes from just a desire to create value. I get pretty bored easily. The ability to work on hard problems and do things that excite me and keep me on my toes is definitely where the motivation comes from. It's the variability of startups that's most exciting, right? You never know what's going to happen from day to day.

Did you have any early roadblocks or failures?

Haptly originally was looking at being a beyond line-of-sight platform that people could develop for specific applications. Doing a lot of altitude traffic control type things. We actually pivoted into what we're doing now with pasture monitoring for a number of reasons. We have more advantage in terms of relative advantage in pastoral systems, and farming and, prime ministries in New Zealand. There's a bunch of other big competitors that we're already well funded. It made more sense to move into an area where greener pastures so to speak where we had advantage.

What prompted you to look for help externally?

It's always a balance between staying the course in terms of seeing how far you can boot strap before raising private equity. When we heard about the xone program, they had really good terms, right? They gave us a nice little $25k packet of seed funding with our equity. We also get to work with them so, it was more of a ... It was opportunistic to a certain extent. Timing was really good and we were looking for how we were going to fund the first kind of 3-6 months of boot strapping and R&D. It all lined up really well.

What have you learned from your experience with the Vodafone xone?

What I've learned ... It's awesome to see corporates kind of taking their part on taking some risk. They didn't have to do this with us or any other companies. They're not taking equity. Obviously, there's no benefits in other ways but, I think It's exciting to see the nature of corporates in New Zealand being led by Vodafone in this kind of instance to work with us.

What have you been doing differently since you started working with a mentor?

In terms of mentors, to be honest not a huge amount to date. The program has only been running for a month. It's still super early days. We've got a bunch of different mentors. Some of them come from Vodafone, some of them come from White Industries as well so, it definitely helps to have sounding-board, right? To check for no reason.

From your experience, what's the one piece of advice you'd give to someone who has a really good idea and wants to try and turn it into a business?

Do something you're passionate about, right? It's the real cliché stuff but, it's going to be hard as hell doing something where you feel like you create value and it excites you and you want to wake up and work on it in the morning is going to be the main factor to your success because, it's going to be challenging.

Are you passionate about drones or cows?

I'm passionate about how we meet the worlds growing need for food and how do we meet ... by 2050, there's a 70% increase in demand. How do we meet that demand while also minimizing impact on the environment?

You said that you pivoted, what were your earlier ventures?

Before Haptly, I co-founded OMGTech with Michele Dickenson. We did that a year and a half ago we started, I think. Previous to that, I've done all sorts of random stuff. I originally had an idea around references. How I got into startups was originally having your references online for flatmates because it's a really bad flat. I tidied it up and did everything while everyone was out partying. I was pretty bitter about that but, I invalidated that at the time I thought "This business thing is really cool. Maybe I'll go to University and learn how to start business." The factor of the matter is business school is great for learning how to operate within a business but not how to start businesses per se. That's changing a little bit now. I accidentally turned up an hour early and it was computer science 101. By the end of that lecture, I thought "This comp-sci technology stuff. I should get up on this bandwagon."

I started doing that alongside my business degree. I met a guy, I started a web dev company. I ended up giving my half to him because it wasn't quite the right founder dynamic. I ended up doing a bunch of stuff in e-commerce. One of them was Mustache wax and beard all company called Mustachio Co, which sold stuff in the US, UK, Italy, Australia even supplied Movember. Ended up doing some adtech stuff through affiliate networks. We started making some decent money at the time. I ended up dropping out of University, which is the usual cliché as well but, I ended up taking a break from the ad side of things. I felt like it wasn't creating tangible value for the world. I didn't feel like it was really creating anything except for a bit of money for me and bit of money for these companies that we were working with. I took a break and came up to Oakland and did some kind of contract consulting work within the startup ecosystem, I ended up meeting Vaughn and Michelle and then ended up meeting Nelson and working on Haptly. All sorts of random stuff.

You said you traveled looking for an idea. What did your travels teach you?

I traveled looking for opportunity more than an idea, right? There's lots of ideas but, the thing that became apparent during that trip I guess is what I learned is that New Zealand definitely doesn't leverage our social capital like they do in San Fran or New York and some of those bigger tech sectors. This huge opportunity in New Zealand, we're mavericks, right? We kind of fight the status quo to a certain extent but, we're also quite proud and a little bit too terf-protection-y. Though we have the right profile to take risk and come up with good ideas and give it a punt, we don't share enough with each other.

We don't collaborate and kind of put ourselves out there. Even telling stories, New Zealand is notoriously bad at pitching what you do in terms of your business or whatever else. If you look at what it's like in San Fran, people's elevator pitches are dialed in. Everyone's building the most amazing next big thing and we've got that kind of ... I think it probably comes from World War One, we're quite humble, don't blow your own trump kind of thing. If we want to compete globally from New Zealand at the bottom of the world, we're going to have to shout pretty loud. I think that's probably the biggest thing. New Zealand could really learn globally around our story-telling. Because, we've got a great story to tell.