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Hot four under 40: Dan Milward, Gamefroot

To celebrate our 40th issue, we found four smarties under 40 each doing their own thing. Here's how they did it and why they're choice.

To celebrate our 40th issue, we found four smarties under 40 each doing their own thing. Here's how they did it and why they're choice.

Dan Milward, creator of online shopping plugin WP e-commerce, missed out on his big break once. He came up with the idea for battery-powered mountaineering boots with heaters inside them to stop people getting frost-bite. Then the companies that made mountaineering boots did it themselves.

“Now I’m older and uglier I might be able to invest in something outside the tech field and put my experience to use elsewhere,” says Milward, who’s keen to invest in something green or outdoorsy in the future.

Growing up with computers and playing computer games, working in tech was a natural step for him, and he came from entrepreneurial stock: his father runs a couple of companies and pushed Milward in the same direction.

“Growing up he never said anything to me like, ‘Son, get a job’, he was like, ‘Son, make a flyer and get some clients’. I think upbringing and attitude play a role in these things.”

Getting started with WP e-Commerce was serendipity, says Milward, who was making WordPress powered websites and Flash games for clients.

“We’ve always used WordPress, even before it was WordPress, we were using WordPress, back then it was called b2 and it was something we used to blog and to make websites for our clients. One day one of our clients asked us whether we could add a shopping cart to their WordPress site. We did it and they agreed to letting us keep the ownership of the IP.

“Being evangelists of open source software, we released the plugin under the General Public License (GPL) and that day all our lives changed.”

Next thing they knew, they were making e-commerce software for what would soon become the world’s most commonly used content management system.

Milward, under the holding company Instinct, has recently released Gamefroot, a site anyone can use to make games for the iPhone and web.

“It’s an online HTML5 Game Creation website that anybody can use to make games. It’s going to be big. It’s going to be killer.”

So now he’s at the top of the hill looking back down from whence he came, what are the big lessons he picked up along the way?

“You need to be able to share,” Milward says. “I had to sell 10 percent of Instinct [to Japan-based Kiwi entrepreneur Terrie Lloyd] for the greater good and we’re going to have to sell more to stay alive – that’s to be expected, though.”

Investment is key – Milward reckons he’s still paying the price for taking certain shortcuts, but it’s all learning. You’ve also got to have a good team, with passionate people, and hone the ability to delegate everything you can’t do.

“Especially accounting. Delegate your accounting. Getting an accountant was the best thing I ever did.”

He’s now seeing a number of competitors out there for WP e-Commerce but the market is just getting bigger.

“To a degree we all play nicely together. I’ve met all of our competitors personally while travelling to different WordPress conventions around the world and we all have different strengths.

“Before there were any other competitors though, we were powering over 250,000 e-commerce sites that might have been on some other CMS if it wasn’t for us. So I like to think that while our competitors copy us, we continue to innovate in different areas. And that is why we survive.

“I honestly think living in New Zealand and working with people like Melissa Clark- Reynolds and Michael Gregg – two people I look up to – I’ve been able to learn a lot about innovation and number eight wire.

“Being a Kiwi goes a long way if you can play to your strengths.”

The best shepherds shoot the most dogs

“Build a kick-arse team and surround yourself with smarter people then you. Pick one idea and stick with it – don’t dilute your resources or your product. A wise Wellingtonian once said to me, ‘The best shepherds shoot the most dogs’, and I’m finally starting to really put those words into practice. It also pays to surround yourself with people that do things you don’t do and put together an awesome team from early on. And being able to roll with the punches is important. I’ve had many more fails then I have successes and if I just gave up and put it in the ‘too hard’ basket I wouldn’t be where I am today. Today, it’s good.”