Model behaviour: taking software to the States

A Kiwi developer has answered the casting call of model agencies around the world with a seamless cloud-based platform for this fast-paced industry.

Less than a year after its public launch in 2014, Syngency was a winning finalist in BNZ’s Start-up Alley at Webstock in Wellington in February 2015. Then Idealog talked to CEO Ryan Marshall after winning the TechNode Taiwan Demo Day start-up pitch in May, which gave them a free booth at TechCrunch in Shanghai in June.

Marshall spent the beginning of the millennium studying communication and multimedia at AUT and rounded out the rest of the decade creating websites for numerous Australasian clients. He even had time to be a bass player in rock band Battle Circus for seven years, which toured the world. A stint as web and IT manager at Clyne Model Management in 2007-8 was the catalyst in Marshall developing a sophisticated booking system that is Syngency today.

The company has now started building a customer base in the US, from San Francisco-based Kiwi Landing Pad.

Syngency founder and CEO Ryan Marshall

Idealog: How did Syngency start?

Ryan Marshall: Syngency started in 2011, and we developed the platform alongside Clyne Model Management over the next three years. They were our first and only customer through what was essentially a private beta phase. During this time we literally worked in the same room as them and it made such a profound difference having the people who use it right there next to us as we developed it. It’s given us a definite advantage over our competition.

Was entering the US market something that evolved naturally or something you had planned from the beginning? What opportunities did you see?

New York and Los Angeles are renowned fashion capitals, so the US was always going to be a key market and eventual destination for us. We’d visited a couple of times in the last year and attracted a considerable amount of interest from agencies even in the few days we were there. It made us realise the potential of what could be achieved if we were here on the ground full-time. The biggest agencies in the world are here, running software that was designed in the ’80s. Getting Syngency in front of them is the best move we could make.

What challenges/obstacles did you have to overcome?

As a boot-strapped start-up, the omnipresent challenge is to continue to make gains here while meeting the costs of existing in what is currently a very expensive environment. The cost of accommodation alone is just terrifying when you compare it to what you’d spend in New Zealand.

We’ve also had to overcome the reluctance to cold call potential customers, which is a really powerful tool here. Honing your cold call skills is essential, but it’s an ongoing challenge. You have great calls and terrible calls, there are plenty of highs and lows! When we first arrived at Kiwi Landing Pad we would overhear Jason Jones from Promapp making dozens of cold calls each day, and he just owns it. Sian [Simpson, community manager] has referred to him as the Cold Call Master − he just has an amazing presence and delivery. I’d love to be able to get to that point.

Ultimately though you just need to pluck up the courage and confidence to do it, knowing full well it could be a total disaster or make all the difference to the business. When you have unlimited minutes on a phone plan, and a list of thousands of businesses you can potentially call, you just need to do it.

Visas can obviously be a challenge if you’re an overseas business here. I’m fortunate to be a American citizen (thanks Mum!) so that takes any visa issues out of the equation for me.

Ryan Marshall at TechCrunch, Shanghai, June 2015

How has Kiwi Landing Pad helped and mentored your business? Have you received assistance or funding from other NZ support services?

The environment, support and camaraderie KLP offers NZ companies here is just amazing. It’d be such a different experience coming to the US if they weren’t around. The network you instantly have access to puts a lot of people you’d likely never get the opportunity to meet within relatively easy reach. Sian introduced us to the first VC we met with, and has an extraordinary list of contacts everywhere. The minute I told her I was heading to Vancouver for a few days, she had connected me with a Kiwi member of the start-up community there, and arranged a meeting for Kenny [Williams, Syngency CMO] with [NZ entrepreneur and change agent] Claudia Batten while she was in San Francisco − something he found huge amount of value in.

The team at The Icehouse in Auckland has also provided us with such huge boost. When we were starting out they took a great deal of time to talk through our business model with us, invited us to incredibly valuable seminars, and were genuinely so excited about what we were doing. Kevin Park has really championed us, and it’s made all the difference to our confidence in taking on the world.

We haven’t received any funding as yet, but the support and mentorship NZTE has provided so far has been superb. Simon Ansley and Cheyne Gillooly were instrumental in helping us prepare our pitch for Start-up Alley at Webstock and almost everywhere we travel in the world they’re able to connect us with local NZTE reps who can offer valuable inside knowledge on the local market and make key introductions for us.

What's the key in getting noticed in a big marketplace − what's worked for you?

As I mentioned, the cold call can make a big difference. Americans are very open to it if you are clearly solving a big problem for them − and you get the delivery right.

Make sure your brand, marketing, message and voice are all very strong, polished and consistent, regardless of how much budget you have to spend. The resources that are available, especially online − that allow you to do this at a very high level and at very low cost − are just massive.

We approached an international modelling industry site and paid them less than $100 to put a giant Syngency banner at the top of their “modelling software” directory page, where all our competitors are listed as text links. I’m very keen to find and leverage more opportunities like that, even if it’s just to make it known to our competitors that we’re now here and coming at them.

Our industry in particular is one that is very visual and the right aesthetic makes all the difference. We make a point of positioning ourselves as a provider of solutions within the fashion industry, rather than just another software company. The decisions around how our product looks and operates are always very design-lead, and you can see the impression it immediately makes on customers. When the software they’re used to using is so archaic and awful-looking, a clean, intuitive, sleek interface makes them feel empowered when they use it − it’s the best possible impression we can make.

Has your NZ origin helped or hindered your impact in the US market?

It has absolutely helped. We seem to have a collective credibility here and playing the New Zealand card can work wonders. I love that our US customers know us as “the Kiwis that’ve changed the way their US business works”.

Our accent can be a bit of a stumbling block for some, but at worst it usually just means you may have to repeat your coffee order. There’s a wonderful irony in pronouncing “Americano” with short vowels!

What advice can you give to other Kiwis looking to start businesses in the US? Any secrets to working in the American culture?

On the business side, many start-ups establishing themselves as an entity in the US market commonly incorporate in the state of Delaware, thanks to its flexible corporate laws and business-friendly state government.

Personally, I’d say you need to magnify your confidence and command a presence as much as possible in American culture. The voice that’s needed to cut through here is much stronger than what may usually be necessary in the South Pacific or Asia, and it can take a bit of getting used to.

Be short, concise and direct on a call or in a conversation. Always be wary of any rambling you might lead yourself into − Americans are sure to cut you off almost as soon as that starts to happen, and it’s a quick way to weaken your position.

More than anything, really push the fact that you’re a Kiwi company doing amazing things in the US! As New Zealanders, we’re often instantly regarded as a genuinely likeable, charismatic, low-bullshit bunch − make the most of that. Build a great story and get exceptionally good at telling it, so others will be inspired to share it.

How are US sales? What are your long-term projections and objectives for the market?

Our US sales are the largest of any market, and we’re working hard to grow not only sales, but also our presence here. So much of how this industry operates is based on relationships, so we’re putting a lot of time and energy into forming connections and positioning ourselves to make the most of them. For instance we’ll be on the ground in New York running a campaign in the lead up to, and throughout NY Fashion Week, which will provide a fantastic platform to pitch Syngency to some of the biggest agencies in the world.

The long-term objective is to cement Syngency as the industry standard software for modelling agencies in the US. We want anyone opening an agency to know they first thing they’ll need is a Syngency account, and any agency not using it to be ever uneasy that everyone else has a competitive advantage they don’t.

Syngency Mobile gives models all the info they need for jobs and castings at their fingertips and access to their portfolios.

What further support or resources do you think NZ companies need for landing in the US market?

Any way to secure accommodation in advance or reduce establishment costs would be a huge help. Some kind of locally based accommodation broker for NZ companies relocating to the US would be a massive help.

Any advice you can garner from people in more established NZ firms here, or those in key roles within US companies, will make all the difference. The Flat White Meetup in San Francisco and New York is a wonderful forum for making this knowledge available to newcomers − such a great idea.