CASE STUDY : A Licence to Grow – Exports built on Overseas Experience

When Hollie McDowell and Ross McConnell left New Zealand in 2001 with physiotherapy and engineering experience under their respective belts, the business that last year earned them finalist placing in the NZ Export Awards was not even remote possibility. Now it’s remote reality – 30-strong company that, from its central Auckland headquarters, is supplying services to multiple countries worldwide.
While there’s lot of talk about how New Zealand’s geographic isolation no longer presents barrier to global services provision, their experience provides an interesting example of how it can work.
Holistics Group, co-founded by the couple in 2004, is preferred supplier of license profiling services to Microsoft worldwide. After going from one employee to five in its first six months of operation, the enterprise quickly quadrupled in size and made it to number 15 on the Deloitte Fast 50 within three years. It now generates several million dollars year in export revenue, can boast multinational/multilingual staff (14 countries/16 languages) and runs satellite offices in the United States, Argentina and the United Kingdom.
The seed for its birth was planted not long after the couple started on their two years of allotted work time in the UK. Because they had no definite plans, McDowell decided not to go for physiotherapy registration but to explore her interest in IT. That’s when she started working for Microsoft.
“Hers is really classic OE story,” says McConnell. “Going overseas, being open to new experiences, trying something very different and landing in role she turned out to be really good at.”
Licence research was then fairly time-consuming experience, but McDowell created software tool that allowed Microsoft to quickly and accurately generate an Effective Licensing Position (ELP) for any customer. McConnell believes it was case of coming in with clean-slate perspective.
“She didn’t know what she didn’t know and when someone said you can give this try but others have failed, she took it on and came up with solution. decent dose of Kiwi common sense and can-do attitude probably helped.”
Within two years, their lives took another turn when he opted to do an MBA, choosing Berkeley rather than Oxford because the former offered scholarship and, with location near Silicon Valley, was more in tune with the “knowledge wave” business models he wanted to explore. While it wasn’t planned, that shift became the catalyst for the remote aspect of McDowell’s work. Because Microsoft wanted to keep her on, she continued the licensing work from their Berkeley flat.
“Our move provided reason for the separation but over two years it proved to work really well,” says McConnell, “not least because of time-zone differences. request would come in at the end of the day, be taken care of overnight and be back in their in-box the following morning – great customer service.”
When they returned to New Zealand two years later, the pattern was already set but this time the couple chose to use this existing expertise as the basis for business – offering their services to Microsoft clients worldwide. While recruiting, they stumbled across “goldmine” of new Kiwis who not only had necessary nous in applied, computer-based research – they were also fluent in other languages.
“When we made our first hires, we didn’t go specifically looking for languages – we were looking for research analysts and were starting to get people with very technical expertise applying, which wasn’t really what we needed. Once we started recruiting for languages we got much broader capability spectrum applying and that proved better skill match.
“Ours is such niche offering. We look for qualities like good online research skills, bit of an eye for detail, then we teach them everything they need to do the job. With about 500 percent growth over two years, it was bit of scramble, but we very much honed our processes for bringing people into the company and training them as quickly and effectively as we could – and I think that’s real strength we developed in-house.”
In-house staff now cover full range of languages – Slavic to Spanish, German to Japanese.
“We have Russian who also speaks fluent Japanese; Dutch and Belgians who speak five or six languages. We feel like we’ve stumbled across this little goldmine here in New Zealand with people who’ve migrated to this country, but because of our very domestically focused economy don’t necessarily have an outlet for their linguistic expertise. And obviously that’s resulted in quite nice multicultural feel in the company. I think from the 30-strong team, only six of us are Kiwis.”
By mid-2006 the fledgling company (then called Crystal Solutions) had succeeded in its bid to become Microsoft’s preferred supplier and it now takes care of around 70 percent of the company’s total worldwide volume in customer licence research. It can be fairly complex task, particularly in larger organisations where lot of merger and acquisition activity takes place, notes McConnell.
“That’s why it’s important to do meticulous customer research right at the start – it’s about understanding the customer first before we go in and try and solve the problem. It is quite an holistic approach.”
Requests and reports are all handled electronically which is why the work can be done from anywhere in the world and Holistics is now developing its own satellite offices – in fairly organic manner.
“Our very first hire is now back in the US and working for us from there. Another employee who started with us here is an Argentinian national who’s gone back home and is now establishing formal branch for us in Buenos Aires. We have another satellite individual working out of Oxford and one of our senior members is now based at Microsoft HQ and acts as liaison for our key managers up there.”
Maintaining flexible structure and adapting quickly to changing market needs is very much part of the company DNA.
“There will inevitably be an increasing level of competition in our area and we really focus on finding ways to do the job better and more effectively as our primary competitive edge. That’s the culture that’s been injected into the team here and we are very focused on being as responsive and producing as high quality of service as we possibly can. That’s probably how we can best manage the downside risk of having all our eggs in one basket.”
In October 2006, McConnell resigned from his role as chief executive of KEA (Kiwi Expats Association) to work full-time in the business as its CEO – but he still wears both hats when he talks about the seeds of his company’s business model.
“Our experience has shown what it is possible to do. The key to this business was the existence of relationship and expertise developed in offshore markets which we were able to bring back to New Zealand. And the quality of those relationships and of the expertise allowed it to survive and thrive over time and distance once we came back. I think that is crucial.
“Putting my KEA hat on, I can’t say enough about the value of international relationships and connections and the know-how and expertise that can be developed through offshore experience and then the value that can be secured in New Zealand by embracing the know-how that does come back. It’s particularly passionate topic of mine.”
It’s also something he’s keen to explore further.
“Something I’m really interested in doing is to find more people around the world who have these sorts of niche opportunities that can survive over time and distance from their clients, then plugging them into our multilingual research engine to access new and different types of international markets. We have million or so expats around the world and I’m sure many of those people have relationships and expertise that can be plugged back into New Zealand to achieve the sort of thing we’ve done.”

Vicki Jayne is 3media Group’s editor at large.

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