Sick of accountants and programmers creating "shit software tradies would never use", Dan Pollard went about building his own tools to manage and track his plumbing business.
The 37-year-old Aucklander considered himself a complete Luddite until 2008, only using the computer to send emails and print documents. This month Pollard launched Fergus, a cloud-based tool which helps tradies manage their job sheets.
Pollard is still a plumber at heart. Our first encounter was delayed while he looked for a change of clothes after a job call out. Pollard walked in with a business shirt, shorts and paint-covered boots – quite fitting for a man juggling a tech startup and trades business.
I talk to Pollard about his two-year-old software business and the challenges of creating software for other self-confessed luddites.
(Fergus, the company mascot and namesake)
Why start a software company?
When [my wife and I] started getting into plumbing in Auckland around 2009, the team grew to about five and I knew we needed better IT systems to keep track of things. Unfortunately there wasn't anything out there that worked the way I wanted it to work, so I decided to build my own.
Did you have any experience in programming before you started Fergus?
Not really, I still can't program. That's why I've surrounded myself with an excellent team who can. What I have is 20 years of trades knowledge, a deep understanding of the systems and workflows that tradies need.
Before Fergus I went into partnership with a developer to create something similar. I invested in it while he built it, he owned the [intellectual property]. That relationship disintegrated in two years, with nothing to show for it.
What did you take away from that first attempt at creating a software company?
Owning the IP is everything. As I had nothing in the IP I took nothing away. Luckily I didn't put in a significant amount of cash.
How are you funding the development costs?
My plumbing business now has around 14 staff. It's been performing strongly and I've used that to pay for the development.
What do you need to make Fergus a self-sustaining business?
Our short-term goal is to get to 1,000 paying users to make things sustainable. Eventually we want hit out at the US, but right now we're focusing on selling it to tradies in New Zealand. We've just come out of beta with 80 paying customers, so we still have some way to go.
Are you looking for investment to grow the company?
I'm happy to keep bootstrapping it. Right now I can support Fergus without it harming the plumbing side. Bringing on investors mean they can dictate what they want and I'm too stubborn to have a boss.
(Developers Jordan Clist and Caleb Fidecaro working on a bug)
Is Fergus hiring?
We've got three developers and a sales person. If we can hit our targets we'd definitely like to bring on two more developers. We've got about two years worth of development back log I'd love to chop through.
You say you weren't tech savvy before and most tradesmen would be on the same boat. What do you have to do to attract this kind of customer to your software?
We built Fergus to solve our immediate problems, the things I was facing in my plumbing business. We made workflows that we thought would work but when the users came to it, it didn't. Everything needs to be simple. The user experience and journey is the most important thing to consider. Pain points like costing should be automatic and not onerous. If you make it easy for the customer they'll want to keep using your tool.
Then you need to consider external factors. A lot of tradies get free iPhones with their contracts. I'd recommend to them to get an iPad and use our web app but that's $1,000 business expense while the iPhone is free. We've had to develop an app which they can use easily... You have to consider the business environment beyond your portion of the puzzle.
The software connects to Xero via its API providing customers with online accounting options. Is there a risk your company becomes beholden to Xero? What happens if Xero builds a trade management tool?
There's always a risk, sure, but an API is an API. If there's a decent competitor we'll use it, it just so happens right now there isn't at least not in New Zealand.
Also I think Xero is more than aware a lot of its success depends on partnerships with other software companies. It doesn't want to fragment that support, so the risk is almost negligible."
What advice would you give others looking to start a software business?
If you're going to get into software, make sure you have someone on board who is a master of the field. Someone who can get into the mind of your end user and build with that user in mind, otherwise your product is going to be crap.
Photography by Sim Ahmed.
'Inside:' is a new series on Idealog Tech putting a spotlight on small New Zealand technology companies doing amazing things. If you'd like to get in touch with Sim, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or send him a tweet at @simantics.
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