Sam Minnee: From startup mouse to big cheese

Sam Minnee: From startup mouse to big cheese
Eleven years after Sam Minnee co-founded SilverStripe as a 17-year-old, he's taken the reins of the 40-strong business as chief executive.

Eleven years after Sam Minnee co-founded SilverStripe as a 17-year-old, he's taken the reins of the 40-strong business as chief executive.

You wouldn’t expect a bunch of 17-year-olds to actually come up with a good business idea, would you? And you wouldn’t expect that business, 11 years later, to be employing 40 staff and have offices in Wellington, Auckland and Melbourne – not to mention the fact you wouldn’t expect the newly-installed CEO to be a 29-year-old. Wellington-based web company SilverStripe may have humble origins, but this doesn’t appear to phase co-founder-turned-boss Sam Minnée.

It all began in February 2000. Minnée, who’d just finished his first year at university, along with friends Tim Copeland and Sigurd Magnusson, who’d both just finished high school, decided they wanted to do “something with computers”. Minnée says the big advantage was that all three were young enough “not to really have any sense” of the risk involved.

“We just jumped in with both feet.”

That “something with computers” grew into building websites and applications, content management systems and frameworks – open source ones, at that.

Minnée admits the trio made a lot of mistakes starting out, with a lot of learning by trial and error. But the advantages of taking risks while young is that the consequences of failure can be low.

“You can take risks and you can try things out.”

Failure, thankfully, never entered the equation, but Minnée says the learning experience of those early days was invaluable. Although he was studying at university part-time, he believes his business experience was more “diverse” and “real world” than anything he could learn inside a classroom.

Eleven years on, Minnée pinpoints 2006 as a milestone year for SilverStripe: it was the year they decided to go open source. They also took on a staffer who had more experience in Silicon Valley, and growth ramped up “substantially”. Deciding to jump on the open sourcing bandwagon wasn’t easy. Minnée was initially skeptical about the idea of giving their product away.

“It sort of had an intuitive appeal, but I was concerned about making sure that we made a decision that was sensible – that made business sense as well as being a fun thing for developers to do.”

Projects got bigger and bigger in terms of both scale and profile; SilverStripe has built websites and applications for the likes of Air New Zealand, AA and Plunket.

Minnée’s highlight? Helping build the Democratic National Convention website in 2008. Of course, it was at the Democratic National Convention that Barack Obama was selected over Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic candidate in the landmark 2008 US presidential election. The website got 2.6 billion hits during the week of the convention, and 35,000 hours of video were viewed on it.

“You just don’t see that kind of traffic very frequently in New Zealand, so I think really it helped put us on the map.”

So what’s changed since Minnée took over as the Big Cheese?

“Well, I write less code, you know,” he laughs. He’s trying to leave it to other developers to focus on, but he still dips in and out with direction from time to time – although he admits he doesn’t need to meddle too much these days. It’s not just the letters after Minnée’s name that have changed. There’s also the greater weight of responsibility on his shoulders.

“The buck really does stop with me. On one hand, that’s inspiring, and on the other it’s a challenge.”

Eleven years is a long time when you’re 29. It’s also long enough to get a sense of what’s working and what’s not in a business. His advice to the next generation of crazy kids with master business plans?

“I would say do it. Don’t be afraid if you fail.”

You’ll learn a hell of a lot more that way.

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