Case Study : Provoking Solutions – Building the Business

Seven years ago Mason Pratt and four mates sat down at Wellington cafe, huddled in tight, and in whispered voices, gave each other dare. The plan was to ditch their successful jobs in the online services industry, pick up business from the yawning gap their old company had left in the market, and branch out on their own.
“If you are keen, then meet back here in month’s time, at this time and on this day,” they agreed.
It was all very secret squirrel.
Exactly one month later and Pratt sat down at the same table, ordered coffee, and waited. If he looked at his watch it was only out of habit. He doesn’t do outward shows of nervousness. Nor does he do pessimism. So when, one by one, they all drifted in, he calmly smiled and they got down to business.
It reads like classic good luck story: Five friends in their mid 20s, clawing together $5000 each start-up capital, and renting shoe box office in Manners Mall from where they started taking on the big guns in the web design game, without even the benefit of an internet connection.
There was just one computer, perched on boardroom table Pratt had negotiated (along with 18 rubbish bins, dozen chipped coffee mugs, couple of ashtrays and concrete statue of sleeping Mexican called Phillip) in contra deal with tenants who were moving out of an office space up the road. And each director twiddled their thumbs till it was their turn. Two of them were project managers, two technical guys, and Pratt, who was elected MD was responsible for sales and marketing. When it was time to email proposal one of them would run over the road to the internet cafe and send it.
“We worked hard and played hard back then,” Pratt remembers. “Most of us were single, and, apart from me, mortgage free so we didn’t have much in the way of responsibilities that would slow down or introduce risks to someone doing this now. We had the view there was nothing to lose.”
Seven years later they’re market leaders in Microsoft software development, company with 62 staff in two offices in New Zealand, multimillion-dollar turnover, aspirations to establish at least two more offices offshore, and dream to have 200 staff in six offices on three continents within five years.
Lucky? Not quite. The story of Provoke’s conception was not all chipped cups and youthful gambles. It was no more built on the accidental chaos of youth than Microsoft or Google were. Just one example: the first software the new team developed was time recording system to keep themselves on track and – almost religiously important to Pratt – honest.
Pratt walks tight line between fear of failure and an unshakeable optimism, between risk and scrupulous attention to detail. All of which seems to have been his formula for success.
And what success. Provoke is collecting awards so fast there’s no time to keep hanging them on the wall and instead they’re stacked up along the floor of its slightly chaotic Wellington office.
For starters, Provoke designed an intranet site for the Ministry of Transport that has been rated one of the world’s top 10 intranets by the Nielsen Norman Group in its prestigious 2008 awards. Provoke won the Microsoft Partner Solution of the Year award last year, massive accolade that almost makes Pratt giddy with pride, and in his 32nd year, he was named 2007 NZIM/Eagle Technology Young Executive of the Year.
Among their many words of praise judges noted their “strong hunch this will not be the only successful business this candidate will create and lead”.
Pratt laughs, today, when reminded of the comment. “For sure it won’t be the last,” he says. “My mind is going million miles an hour, and the challenge I’ve got is to try and stay focused, with my attention on Provoke. That’s the most important thing for me career wise at the moment.
Provoke’s come far since the early days when, Pratt says, the directors “pushed shit uphill” for two years before the rest of us cottoned on to what they were going on about.
In market crowded with one-man bandits and huge generalist firms, Provoke saw unique niche for itself as mid-sized Microsoft specialist in Wellington.
“We didn’t want to promise to be everything to everyone,” Pratt says. So instead they set themselves up as Microsoft partners, trying to predict which of their new technologies was likely to take off next. By pre-empting demand in new platforms, like Microsoft SharePoint, they would pick apart and play with the beta technology so, when Microsoft was ready to go to market they’d be their obvious choice to partner with on ‘early adopter’ projects.
“Microsoft knew we’d be hungry – that we’d do whatever it takes.”
Now, Pratt believes they are one of very few exclusive Microsoft Gold Partners working in New Zealand.
And there was another key point of difference. Inspired by design-led companies like Fisher & Paykel and Icebreaker, they pioneered “user centred design” as valid approach for designing software as well.
Initially, that was hard concept for many to grasp.
“We came from an industry that was all about widgets, about cutting code and solving technical problems with technical solutions for non-technical users,” says Pratt. “So we decided to adopt methodology that was based on understanding who the user was by focusing on and empathising with their needs.
“Implementing the technology is the easy part. If we can truly understand what the business problem is that we’re trying to solve, who the users are that we’re trying to make life easier for, and stick to our design-led methodology we are always going to deliver much more successful outcome.”
“We developed methodology and set of practices and set of services that the market hadn’t seen back in 2001.”
For two years they struggled to get the industry to catch on.
“We were talking and using terminology that people weren’t familiar with or comfortable with, but seven years on everyone’s talking about accessibility, paper prototyping, persona analysis and usability testing. That’s what the industry does these days and they weren’t doing it back in 2001 when we were pushing it.
“We probably didn’t appreciate how hard it would be. But we knew it was unique, that was our point of difference. We knew that that was where, as cheesy as it sounds, we could make difference in the industry.”
Though Pratt will credit his fellow directors and staff for the success, some of it could be due to Pratt’s personal philosophy: The humility noted by the NZIM award judges and an honesty and respect for staff and clients which has been crucial to retaining talent and getting the repeat business upon which Provoke relies.
Pratt wants to be the Google of the South Pacific. He runs young team with an average age of 27 who he recently shifted to half-floor near the top of Wellington’s State Insurance tower so they could enjoy better view. There’s an old 1970s’ space invaders machine in the staff room, which you get to via the “man nest” littered with whiffy running shoes and messes reminiscent of Pratt’s life as boarder at Wellington’s Scots College.
Staff are mentored (he’s big fan of informal and formal mentoring) and personally and professionally nurtured. For Christmas they will get personalised, monogrammed slippers, much like the ones Pratt forgot to slip off before he took NZ Management magazine to the cafe in his building’s foyer for this interview.
At Provoke people can be themselves, says Pratt. Along with the brand’s signature tarantula, everyone’s business card is personalised with the animal they most relate to.
(Pratt’s, incidentally, is lion. “The king of the jungle,” he says, without hint of irony.)
It’s even the thought of the opportunities that will open up for his staff that gets him most excited about expanding offshore.
And it’s the thought of losing any of them to the opposition that Pratt would consider personal failure – an indictment on his ability to provide what they need to achieve their own goals.
If they leave to start

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