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Hadleigh Ford shares how SwipedOn got bought by an international company

What a difference a year can make. Just ask SwipedOn founder and CEO Hadleigh Ford. Founded in 2013, the Tauranga-based SwipedOn produces a slick, iPad-powered visitor sign-in platform for business reception areas, a well-overdue replacement to archaic paper-based systems. On the strength of that product, the company raised $1 million in 2017 from such investors as Enterprise Angels, Quayside Holdings, the NZVIFund and Stephen Tindall. So far, so good. Then, just a year later the company dramatically sold to UK investor SmartSpace for a cool $11 million – quite the return on its earlier six-figure raise. That’s good enough for us, so we spoke to Ford, a former harbour pilot, about growing companies, burning the midnight oil and the similarities between working at sea and working in the C-suite.

Idealog: From the co-founding of the company through to the capital raise and sale, what do you think has contributed to SwipedOn’s success the most? What have you done right? 

Ford: One thing I think we've done extremely well is we’ve always had a real handle on the ROI on every single dollar that’s been spent. We religiously measure cost of acquisition, lifetime value of our customers, churn and we live and die by our metrics. They're updated multiple times per day and looked at monthly, quarterly and on an annual basis.

Because of that, when we had investment and acquisition opportunity, we had everything ready to go right there and then. I could state what all of our metrics were, down to the last dollar. I know that our acquirers were looking at other companies and while other people they were talking to had to go away and check the number sand come back two weeks later, I could answer those questions then and there on the phone. That’s something I think we did extremely well.

That focus on the figures, did that come from your bootstrapped beginnings?

We’d managed to bootstrap the company to a million dollars ARR (annual recurring revenue), so we’d had to grow within our means. Every new hire we had to earn, and every new dollar of marketing spend as well. When you’re working like that, your confidence builds as you scale. When it comes to getting investment, there’s that level of confidence that you can manage finances, and you have a business humming, as opposed to just drawing down from a big pot of money and hoping to become cashflow positive before that pot is empty.

The UK is a long way away from New Zealand. How has this country’s geographical remoteness played out for SwipedOn?

Personally, I've seen it as an advantage. We’ve always had to think globally because, with our product and placement, it's a far more sustainable business being global from the start. So we targeted and planned to expand into the US and UK from the beginning and literally from day one, the product was available in those jurisdictions.

Can that time zone difference become punishing after a while?

Oh yes. We were burning the candle at both ends in the beginning, up early supporting the US and then up late at night supporting the UK. When there were only two or three of us, we just took shifts. One person would go to bed at 11pm or midnight and the next one would be up at five or six in the morning – and there would be a four-or-five-hour gap where there wasn't live support.

What should New Zealand companies looking to demonstrate their value to investors or buyers know?

Now that I’ve sold the business and weighed into the angel investment space, one thing I'm seeing is that pitches or ideas are often very broad and not particularly concise, often trying to offer twelve different things instead of doing one thing extremely well. At SwipedOn, we’re replacing visitor books on reception with a nice, efficient sign-in system. That’s our market and that's where the growth is. You just really need to be able to be concise. That elevator pitch needs to be able to be explained only a floor or two in.

And so, how is the post-acquisition world?

We’re selling offshore but scaling locally, so we've just secured a long-term lease here on the waterfront in Tauranga. As part of the acquisition process, it was absolutely clear from both sides that we are to continue growing scale from here in New Zealand. There was no way they were going to mess with the magic we had created, we’ve got a good team in a good environment.

Finally, you’re a mariner by trade. What are the similarities between working at sea and working in the C-suite?

Well, they actually call it a 'maritime adventure' in legal terms when a vessel departs port, and you could say that’s no different to a start-up. It’s an adventure.

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