iPad document library venture is one for the books

Stellar Library is a cloud-based document storage and sharing system created by a pharmacist and backed by a guy who made his money from travel agencies.

Many pitches cross the desk of Andrew Bagnall, the multi-millionaire entrepreneur who made his packet from selling Gullivers Travel. The pitches that don't immediately pique his interest get discarded. Brett Fordyce's didn’t.

The cloud-based system doesn’t sound that sexy – it securely manages and distributes document libraries on iPads. But it clearly interested Bagnall, who has just injected more than $1 million.

The product's simplicity was worth a million bucks, Bagnall reckons. Using Stellar Library, librarians (not those bookish types who tell you to shut up, but anyone who manages an organisation's documents) upload files to folders housed in the cloud.

The librarians can then invite readers to see files using an iPad app, where each folder is displayed on a welcoming virtual wooden bookshelf.

Once downloaded, files can be modified and annotated, then parked back in cyberspace. And document managers can track file changes, see when files have been read and set access permissions so information stays in the hands of those it's meant for. “I thought it filled, at an economic price, a real need in a lot of industries,” Bagnall says.

“The difficulty in most innovation is it improves what you do now, rather than necessarily doing things totally differently. This seemed to be a product with elements of totally doing things differently and in a large number of cases improving what we do now.”

But what attracted Bagnall to this investment wasn’t just the product, but the producer – Brett Fordyce. Fordyce isn’t a techie by training.

He qualified as a pharmacist, and spent 13 years running the Rotorua branch of big chemist franchise Life Pharmacy. Bagnall met Fordyce at a pharmacy industry conference last year, having taken a $5.25m chunk of Life Pharmacy's parent company in 2007. (Bagnall floated Gulliver's Travel in 2004, and sold his 27% stake for $67.7m in 2006.)

But instead of discussing cold remedies, the two men got talking about Fordyce’s new document storage venture, the product of a mid-life MBA Fordyce finished in 2011. 

Fordyce and fellow MBA student Johnny Louie searched for a document-handling system (like Dropbox, for example), where information owners had more control, and security was tighter. “With Dropbox, people can download it and send it to a friend and it goes around in circles. With ours, it can't go outside the iPad and it's secured within the app.”

Brett Fordyce (left), Johnny Louie and Gary McAuliffe (Photography: Marcel Tromp)

The radical departure from a pharmacist norm appealed to Bagnall. “I love the way that in the middle of his life Brett was prepared to take time off from running a pharmacy in Rotorua to do an MBA fulltime,” Bagnall says. “That says to me: 'Here's a person who really wants to further themselves and get ahead.' I just love people like that.”

Fordyce says the product started to get noticed by influential people early on, catching the attention of Steven Atherton from Australia’s Apple University Consortium and Ian Taylor, head of New Zealand computer animation company Animation Research.

“We went out for lunch at the end of my thesis and Steven Atherton was over and we showed him what we'd built. It was like, 'Who are these guys?' Twenty minutes later he was saying, 'This is seriously cool.' “We were also invited to the Create World conference [for academic and technical staff in digital arts] in Australia. I presented my thesis and set up the live demo of Stellar Library. People were blown away by how easy it was to use. That spurred us on to thinking, well, this is a really good product."

Taylor has become an unofficial ambassador for Stellar Library after using the product to send a proposal to UK-based media company B Sky B.

Now 20 companies with more than 800 users are on board on both sides of the Tasman, with organisations charged $8 per user per month.

The aspirations are global, although the product hasn’t made any money so far – in fact losses have been significant. That said, he and Bagnall are in for the long haul.  

“I look at this as an annuity-style product,” says Bagnall. “You have to play a long game to start off.”

​Fordyce says marketing and development spend will determine when Stellar Library gets into the black.

“We're very cautious on over-engineering the product and making it complicated. If we can remove a button or a click, we'd rather do that. You see a lot of products where they add new features all over the place, so that their core focus has changed. We're trying to stay quite narrow.”