Vend's Anton Commissaris on the double-edged sword of startup cool

Vend's Anton Commissaris on the double-edged sword of startup cool
Vend's newly hired US president Anton Commissaris has seen it all in the world of tech companies, from founder plus one to big corporate; large team leadership to sales and product management; and software companies of all stripes. The Kiwi expat reckons the cloud point of sale company is poised to

Vend's newly hired US president Anton Commissaris has seen it all in the world of tech companies, from founder plus one to big corporate; large team leadership to sales and product management; and software companies of all stripes.

The Kiwi expat reckons the cloud point of sale company is poised to benefit from a perfect storm, with cloud and mobile converging to give small and medium companies better tools. So does he think the startup can pull it off — and how much difference does the startup cool factor make?

Did you know much about Vend before you started the role?

I first heard about Vend about a year ago. [Kiwi Landing Pad director] John Holt had come out to San Francisco the summer of last year and was reaching out to some of the Kiwi expats in Silicon Valley people. He talked about Vend as being an up and coming, cool company from New Zealand. I checked it out and he made an introduction to [Vend CEO] Vaughan [Rowsell].

Vaughan made his way to San Francisco a month or two later and we had coffee to chat so I could get to know the business. I was very impressed that a small company in New Zealand could have thousands of customers in the SMB market in so many countries. [The SMB market is] one of the hardest markets to crack to get any kind of mass or distribution. Companies like Yelp and Open Table have done it and when they reach a certain scale they become very valuable enterprises. But a lot of VCs turn down those kind of businesses because they don't know how they're going to reach a kind of scale.

What are Vend's biggest growth opportunities in the US?

It's the right company at the right time - you've got all these technologies converging to dramatically lower the cost and give smaller retailers the tools the big guys have. Because they have this platform and API, developers are building add-ons for Vend. There's cloud computing, mobile, and the SMB market and they're bringing it all together with customers around the globe with a low touch way of bringing them in.

Square revolutionised the space by enabling micro-merchants to accept payments via an iPhone. A retailer with one more more stores and an offline and online presence needed a more robust solution. That's where Vend slotted in.

Vend is looking for me in the US to make sure we're integrated into some of the big players in the US market. Generally [ those companies are] based in the US, with customer bases in the US. Our most successful partnership to date has been Xero because it's good for our customers to synchronise their POS data with accounting systems. We get exponential value from those kind of relationships.

We might want to do something with Apple, promoting iPads as the new hardware retail platform, or Google in the digital wallet space. And PayPal is the 800-pound gorilla in online payments. Those are the kind of large mega moves Vend doesn't want to miss out on as the POS market explodes.

We want to be the leader in that segment of retailers with two to 25 outlets, with our low touch and getting them up and running fast. A store that has 200 outlets brings up more revenue but we have more competition going after those stores and it's a much longer sales cycle.

Who are Vend's biggest competitors in the US?

The company that probably has the most potential but is not a direct competitor today is Square, they're more a competitor to PayPal as a payments platform. They're growing among micro merchants. They've got tremendous potential but they're not really in our space. They're not handling retail stores that have inventory and need to synchronise with accounting systems. The direct competitors are Shopkeep, which looks like Vend but is going more up against Square. Also Revel Systems. They all seem to fight it out with Square - there's a very big and fragmented market there to enable payments for those merchants. And there's a Canadian company in the US market called Lightspeed.

Of the startup competitors we have, most are concentrated in the US and concentrating on the US market. Even if we're bigger and going faster than them in New Zealand or Australia and other markets, if we ignore that US market we'll wake up one day and maybe we're not the global winner.

You've had so many senior tech roles in the US, why did you choose a company the size of Vend?

I've seen the whole spectrum. I worked with Mint.com at the earliest stage - I was working with just the founder. I helped him figure out the business side: what business he was in, how to raise venture capital, how big the market was, how to hire the first team members, with the culture, how to get initial traction in the market and how to keep growing and how to monetise.

Vend is much further along at about three years old. I could have chosen to go back to a startup again but I was interested in something that had a little bit more traction and stability and runway, but was still very early and had enormous opportunity in front of it.

How will Vend make itself known in the US?

In terms of brand building and awareness we haven't done much PR, because the company's been based in New Zealand. We haven't done many events. We don't go to the big events and sit on panels as thought leaders.

We have to build press in the US and that will come not because we're cool but because we've done big partnerships and have built our customer base. You can buy AdWords and do retargeting from New Zealand. You can do content marketing from New Zealand that's discovered organically. It will come from PR and building the reseller channel in the US.

Vend has startup cool in New Zealand, what's that worth in the US?

In the world of B2B, previously it wasn't worth much. But B2B and B2C worlds are converging around cloud computing. The brand and culture you project and the thought leadership you project in the market is important. It helps differentiate you from your competition. Ultimately your product will make the difference.

On the flip side the coolness of the company and the culture they're building is important so they have the motivation and the perseverance for success. If you have a work hard, play hard culture it can make the difference in a startup succeeding. A lot of people see startups with free lunches and cool t-shirts and that's all well and good but people come to work there instead of large companies where they maybe don't get that. It might be considered a perk. There's the freedom to disrupt and get things done but with that comes responsibility.

A day in a startup is important, if you're burning through money you have to add value every day or you won't be able to serve your customers. Along with that cool factor has to come intensity and focus around execution.

I've seen a lot of startup companies and cultures in Silicon Valley and it will be interesting for me to see where Vend fits. On the surface, for office space and cool factor and the website, they're right up there with the coolest kids in Silicon Valley. They've got over 8000 customers in over a hundred countries. They've raised roughly $12 million and have a team of 70 plus people. They're in pole position. Up to this point I'd give them an A, the question is whether they'll be able to execute.