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From superyachts to SaaS: SwipedOn CEO Hadleigh Ford talks selling his visitor software company for a cool $11 million

SwipedOn CEO Hadleigh Ford.

SwipedOn is a visitor management software company that was founded by former master mariner Hadleigh Ford, who wanted a sophisticated tech-based solution to visitors checking into the superyacht he worked on. Now, the Tauranga-based company has just been bought by UK-based Smartspace software for $11 million. The company will keep its staff and operations in New Zealand, but will use the leverage of being owned by a public company to continue its growth globally. We chat with Ford about the acquisition and Smartspace’s unlikely origin story.

SwipedOn’s cloud-based software works by replacing paper visitor books with an iPad application that lets visitors sign in electronically, speeding up and simplifying the process. This kind of technology is crucial to companies in 2018, as health and safety regulations are far more rigorous when it comes to keeping record of who is actually in the building in case of an emergency.

The company originally begun with no financial backing or a sales team, but at the time of acquisition, it had 2300 customers in 39 countries, with 100 new paying users joining every month. It also now has 20 staff on its roster and counts global companies such as Hugo Boss, Estee Lauder and Mitsubishi as clients.

In January, it raised $1 million through Tauranga’s Enterprise Angels, K1W1 and NZVIF – and as of this week, it has now been sold for eleven times that sum.

SwipedOn’s success is particularly inspiring when considering Ford’s unconventional background – he refers to himself as ‘not your typical tech founder’.

Prior to SwipedOn, he was a master mariner (or ships captain) who begun a career in the marine industry at age 17 working on board merchant vessels, cruise ships and superyachts.

He says the inklings of an idea for SwipedOn were born when he was helping set up a brand-new $100 million superyacht in Germany.

“The yacht had a huge price tag and the typical opulence that goes with that – however, we simply had a paper visitor book to register individuals on and off. The idea really sprung from that moment,” he says.

In 2013, he founded SwipedOn in Tauranga, which he says was a strategic decision to combine sun, surf and software.

“At that time, we already had customers around the globe and we didn't see being in New Zealand as an impediment to this. Since we were already hidden away in a corner of the earth, we thought we'd take it one step further and move away from the main centres,” Ford says.

“I had a suspicion that it would also assist in attracting talented individuals, that wanted more of a lifestyle balance. That's proved to be true and we also find that we're attracting the right people culturally – the people who want that lifestyle balance perfectly fit into our ethos and vision.”

He says SwipedOn’s point-of-difference from its competitors is because it begun as a very lean operation from day one, the tech was made to be as simple and seamless as possible.

“[This is] partly because we didn't have the capital to build out 1000 features and we felt if we delivered five or six core functions really well, we'd really appeal to the small-to-medium business market. To this day, they make up the vast majority of our 2300 paying customers,” he says.

“We also like to bring back the human element to software, it's about making connections and ensuring people have a delightful experience – both with our product and when interacting with us personally. We do have a huge amount of customer loyalty and goodwill from the relationships we've built over the last five years.”

He says marketing SwipedOn has never been a huge issue, as it had the advantage of being one of the first to market in the visitor management software space.

“As with all of these things, it really was right place at the right time,” Ford says. “The App Store is a very large marketplace and when we launched we were one of only a handful of companies with such products. While it's now far more competitive, we're actually growing faster than ever.”

But building the business hasn’t been without its challenges, either. Just as the company was starting to scale, Ford was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

“Thankfully, in Ben Scott we had an extremely dedicated co-founder who took over the day to day running of the business,” Ford says.

“His efforts really allowed me to concentrate on recovery and get back to full health in as quick a time as possible. I guess these things just add to the rich tapestry of life and to be honest, I really enjoy the balanced perspective it now gives me.”

This year, Britain-based workplace management software SmartSpace was casting its eye around the world for strategic acquisitions that would complement its pre-existing suite of products.

It was lacking in a dedicated visitor management software – until it came across SwipedOn.

“From what I understand, they surveyed the competitive marketplace online and we ticked all of the boxes,” Ford says.

“That being, pay-and-go with few on-boarding touch points, a global presence and a size that fitted with their acquisition ambitions. It really helps that as businesses and individuals, we're extremely well aligned culturally.”

SmartSpace CEO Frank Beechinor echoed these sentiments.

“There is a great cultural fit between our businesses and I am delighted that Hadleigh and his team are staying with the group and will provide us with additional experience and knowledge of creating a successful high-growth SaaS business,” Beechinor said.

“They have done an amazing job building SwipedOn to be one of the fastest growing SaaS businesses in New Zealand and one of the leading visitor management solutions globally.”

SmartSpace is paying $8.6 million in cash for the sale, while the remaining sum will be paid in shares in Smartspace to Ford, co-founder and head of product Ben Scott, CTO Matt Cooney and head of marketing Paul Hansen.

Ford says the acquisition will allow SwipedOn to continue to grow at a significant pace.

“While we exited, the fact that myself and the management shareholders took a portion of our holdings as equity in SmartSpace leaves us significant skin in the game, which was absolutely key for us,” he says.

“The backing of a public company allows us to invest in each arm of the business, more staff, dedicated lease and really accelerate our marketing efforts – in both existing and new markets. We really look forward to seeing what's possible.”

And as for being a true regional success story, Ford says he hopes SwipedOn’s story proves that building a globally successful tech company can be done outside of New Zealand’s main centres.

“I love turning up to work every day and if anything, we're a slightly larger fish in a smaller pond. That has its benefits and I'm positive we would have faded into the background if we'd set up offices in Auckland CBD,” he says

“There are some extremely passionate entrepreneurs in the Bay and the local eco-system has flourished, it's even noticeable in the last few months. There are some exciting up-and-coming companies that I'm keeping my eye on.”

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