Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Parking Sense's Paul Collins on having an idea that needs to happen

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 Parking Sense. We chat with founder Paul Collins.

Henry Oliver: I gather Parking Sense helps people find car parks. How do you do that?

Paul Collins: There's two ways. We have an informal, information app that leads people to car parks that use our particular system. Once they arrive at the indoor car park, we have a system of signs, electronic signs that will point them in the direction of where the parks are. Then we have a light above every space indicating whether it's vacant or full. It's nothing new. We actually put this system all through Auckland and we've just recently put a new system into Sylvia Park. It's tried and proven.

Where did the idea come from?

It came from my previous company. I've been around eighteen years in this business. I had a company called  Meter Eye that became Car Parking Technologies that floated. That was four years ago when I retired. I took the technology that was emerging and developed this new parking system. It's more designed around changing the way that people look for spaces and how they pay for parking spaces.

You sold your previous company and I'm assuming was happily retired. What made you get back on the horse?

This is the interesting thing. Ask most retired people. The first thing you do when you retire is you start looking for a job. I knew that I hadn't finished. I knew that there was more to be done.

What made you realise that this was the next opportunity?

Once again, the amount of years I've been in the parking industry globally. I realized that there was a change coming that would remove the heavy hardware and the effort in finding spaces inside car parking building, i.e. remove the gate so you don't have to go through a gate and pull a ticket, remove the fact that you have to go and walk to a machine and put your ticket in the machine to make payment. Our new system, it's very clever. The sensor, the light above your spaces connects to your smartphone app via Bluetooth. You make payment at your space via your cell phone or your smartphone. Removing the need to go and find a parking meter to pay or removing the need to go through a barrier gate. Just go and park and accept the charges and move on.

What decisions did you have to make to get this started as a business? Did you just know that you wanted to get active again? An adventure? Did you have to give up on anything? Any sacrifices you had to make?

To be honest with you, it was a situation that this needed to happen. I could see that five years down the track, parking and parking habits were about to change. I don't know if I had to give up too many luxuries, i.e. I was already retired. It was just a matter of applying myself to the technology. For me it's been a lot easier, this transition, than it is for a lot of new emerging entrepreneurs.

What's been your motivation to do it?

More than anything, it needed to happen. It's just a very very clever product. As people become aware of it and start using it, they will agree. The thing we have to remember that when we go somewhere, the first and last impression you have of your outing is your parking. One of the first things you do before you decide on going to a restaurant is, "Where am I going to park and can I park there?" With our new system you'll make that decision before you even leave your home. "This car park has spaces available. I'm going to book one of those." and you'll move on.

If I'm going out to the movies, I can look at the car parks at the different theaters and know which one is going to be easy to park at?

Providing it has our smart equipment in it, absolutely. Not only that, you'll know exactly how much it's going to cost you to park there as well. You'll know if there's any special rates on. It's quite a change in the actual parking habits.

Were there any early failures or any roadblocks that slowed you down initially?

It's interesting. There's always roadblocks and failures as you go along developing products. One of the early hurdles that we had is that we had some very clever business opponent try and steal our IP and then try and release it on the market. One thing I would put out there to the new entrepreneurs and new people trying: don't believe everything that you hear. There are people out there that are going to promise you more and deliver less and believe that they're on a financial win for you. Really all they're doing is trying to feed off your enthusiasm and your hard work. That was one of our biggest trip-ups that we had. That happened a few years ago. It's stayed very close to me going forward.

You've dealt with that?

Absolutely and learned from it. I've passed on those experiences to many other people in and around this new innovation type entrepreneurship.

What made you realize that you wanted to look for external help?

That was an interesting thing. We had been meeting with Vodafone over a technical issue that we had. We were trying to find a way that we could have a mobile router, a cellular router, but have a Static IP address so that if indeed the power went down we didn't lose the IP address. From those discussions with the technical arm of Vodafone, we were then introduced to the xone who liked what we were doing and introduced us. From a very early encounter with Vodafone they actually introduced us to two major companies based out of America. One of them Braintree, which handles the financial transactions for Uber because we have a payment app. The next one was PayPal. Vodafone has relationships with both of them. Through that relationship that we had with Vodafone, it made dealing with these companies so much quicker. It was like a warm intro into it so things progressed really quick. At that point, I realized that partnering with Vodafone was going to be beneficial on a global roll-out base.

What have you learned from your experience with Vodafone xone?

This is the interesting thing. I've never met a company that actually hasn't been in it for something for themselves. Everywhere you go whether is be manufacturing or design or it doesn't really matter what it is, there's always a fact that they'll tell you what you want to hear but ultimately, they're there for themselves. Vodafone xone has been a completely different experience. They're actually there for the good of the entrepreneurs or the businesses. It's been a very positive outcome for us and a very very positive relationship with them.

What are you doing differently since starting working with a mentor?

Interesting enough I've been in the business such a long time I didn't think I needed any guidance. That proved to be completely incorrect. We have been able to gain access to the right people at an earlier stage. People that sit higher up in the industry that we're trying to get into. For instance, the financial markets in payment processing, relationships with banks and so forth. What they have done for us is that they have taken us to a higher level of communications, the right people at an accelerated rate is probably what we can use.

What's the thing that you know now that would have made the biggest difference to you if you'd knew it already?

Good question. Once again you're talking to someone that thinks he knows it all in this industry. What we now know is that with the involvement with the xone and Vodafone is that it's opened up and made us more aware of the possibilities out there with communication and technologies. How you bring them both together to accelerate where we're trying to get to. If indeed I wasn't introduced to the xone and didn't have communications within Vodafone, I certainly wouldn't have the relationship I currently do with Braintree and Vodafone and PayPal. I certainly wouldn't be in the position now that we are where we have reached a merchant bank and we're processing credit card transactions because of them. That's the biggest plus for me. Also, they solved our Static IP address issue. On a technical side it's been fantastic and on a global relationship side it's been fantastic. For instance, we were recently in America. We needed to get a cellular connection. We needed to have a very strong network so we could operate our management system. One phone call to Vodafone to a Mr. Steve Summers and that was dealt with in minutes. It's been very positive.

What's the one piece of advice you'd give to someone with a really good idea that wants to turn it into a business?

I've been pondering that question. My business has always been based on loyalty. I believe that you need to create a very loyal, strong relationships with whether it be your manufacturers, your design team, your legal team, your bank team. It has to be very very loyal. You have to listen to all advice that comes. Good advice, bad advice and indifferent device. You have to take it all in. In the end, you have to run with your gut. The last piece of advice, your idea's worth a lot more than you think. You just need to manage the relationship and the process well. That's my advice to young entrepreneurs going forward.