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From start-up to creating apps for eBay: Roam talks taking a New Zealand tech company abroad

Roam co-founder Ben Morreau

It’s not always easy taking a Kiwi company to the world, but after stints abroad at companies like Skype and the BBC, Roam co-founders Ben Morreau and Chris Moore are old hands at it. They talk growing a company from start-up to an international with Roam and lessons learnt along the way. 

Co-founders of Roam Ben Morreau and Chris Moore both flew the nest to work abroad in the 2000s.

After working in Silicon Valley at Ericson and in London at Skype, Moore decided it was time to pack his bags, come back to the motherland and start up his own venture.

He founded a small mobile app company, which ended up doing a bit of work with another mobile app company that was led by now Roam co-founder Ben Morreau.

Morreau had been honing his skills at agencies in the UK, working on the likes of fashion site Asos and the BBC before also deciding to come home.

Moore’s company had more of a developer focus, while Morreau’s was more design led.

They decided they’d form the perfect marriage in wedding them together, and Roam was born.

Roam begun with five employees out of a shared working space in Auckland’s CBD in 2013.

The pair both put in $50,000 each, aiming to create an app development company that had both form and functionality, something often lacking in developer companies.

“In the early 2000s, a lot of outsourcing was around cost,” Moore says. “Now people have realised cost isn’t actually the factor. It’s around quality, and they’ve gone beyond that and realised it’s about the user experience, which is design.”

Fast forward to 2017, and Roam now has close to 60 staff on its roster, its own offices in Auckland and further abroad in Berlin, as well as a joint venture about to start in Sweden and an enviable international client list. About 25 percent of its business is from offshore, such as Sweden, Canada and the US.

Recently, it redid Ebay’s app last year, which Moore says has about three to four million users. Roam had to spend a big chunk of its time pitching and getting in buy in from the team, as well as three weeks in Sweden to help set it up.

“That was a massive digital project to come out of New Zealand,” Morreau says.

But Moore says while working out of Aotearoa is a lifestyle choice for tech companies, it is still entirely possible to run a global business from the South Pacific.

“I don’t actually think of Roam as a New Zealand business, I think of it as a global company, it just happens to be sitting down this end of the world,” he says.

Morreau says despite Roam transitioning from a start-up to a fully-fledged business, the company still thinks like it did in its early start-up stages.

“I think we’ve kept that start-up mentality in terms of the way the business is structured ­– we’re using the Spotify model with tribes or squads, where we maintain a small group of people, but leverage the might of some pretty heavy technical elements. We have quite a bit of Intellectual Property Rights now and back-end infrastructure to deliver the products.”

This mentality has also contributed to Roam having its very own internal “start-up factory” called Foundry.

Each quarter, some of its staff are assigned to work purely at Foundry on product ideas or research areas that Roam wants deeper knowledge on, such as AI or fintech.

“We do the research on our own a lot of the time at Foundry and then we own the IP around it,” Moore says. “Our head of product management has a backlog of areas we should look at and trends, like Bitcoin, as well what our current client make up is, then we go, ‘What is in that backlog that would apply here? Lets do R&D ahead of time.’”

Morreau says because staff get so into it, it adds a lot to the company culture.

“It’s about being smart about your downtime, for us as a consulting company, we’re not working on projects 100 percent of the time, so we need to be smart about how we use it. [Foundry] drives the heart of Roam, we’re really inquisitive and always pushing and exploring new tech.”

One of the biggest challenges they’ve run into is finding talent. Moore says it’s a problem for the industry, with big companies such as Xero, Vend and Orion Health acting as a “vacuum cleaner” for talent prospects.

But without giving away some of Roam’s trade secrets, he says there are great programmers coming out of places like the Media Design School that might get overlooked.

Going forward into the future, Roam is focused on its R&D, as well as a business intelligence play that will be launched later this year in the fintech space in partnership with one of New Zealand’s banks.

The pair say watch this space. 

“There’s a lot of interesting things happening overseas that financial institutions need to start getting ready for,” Morreau says.