What happens when a self-taught businessman meets a self-taught computer programmer? The blokes behind prosperous start-up Wherewolf may be jacks of all trades but they are masters of one: automating business processes.
In a coupling comparable to that of America’s Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, programmer Wulf Solter and businessman Ben Calder are a dynamic Kiwi duo – responsible for delivering to the global adventure tourism industry inconceivably innovative automated procedures, which, as a heads up for keen investors, will be developed across wider business applications when the time is right.
For as long as it’s been proven possible, humans have been recording information about themselves. A fixed characteristic of human nature though it may be, civilisations and their communication methods evolve.
Proto-historic symbols appear on animal bones and turtle plastrons; Egyptian hieroglyphics were carved onto papyrus and wood; Neanderthal illustrations etched into cave walls; laws and languages detailed on clay and stone tablets; and more recently, kings lists and annals immortalised in books. Record-keeping is a basic human need.
Paper in its various forms has reigned supreme as the instrument of choice – until the 20th century, after which another monumental step has been building itself onto historical record-keeping’s staircase: electronic mechanisation.
Analogue recording methods including photographs, audio and video opened the door to the room of modern record keeping and digital methods like internet archives turned on the light – eliminating the need for humans’ use of paper at such scale, which is good news for both the environment and the tireless souls obliging to plant as much as they pluck.
But even Darwin himself would surely agree that human behaviour can’t change overnight – speaking on the grand timeline of human evolution of course.
Moving from something that’s been a tangible, hardy and trusted method of record keeping for thousands of years to something new doesn’t come easy, but it is happening. Slowly but surely – in both historical and business settings.
Among those literally rewriting history and implementing ease and accuracy of automation in business in lieu of unnecessary use of paper, is a company with its finger on the pulse of life.
Fittingly based in Queenstown, the tourism capital of New Zealand, Wherewolf has not only got New Zealand businesses covered, but it also has the ability to service the larger-scale requirements of global tourism providers in all corners of the globe.
Paperless business at its finest, Wherewolf is helping adventure tourism plunge into the 21st century and, as it’s finding out, when New Zealand does something novel in adventure tourism, the rest of the world takes note.
How, why, Wherewolf
Simply put, Wherewolf precisely and efficiently simplifies the management of businesses in adventure tourism through digitally optimising its operations.
Epitomising the splendour of modern technologies across its effortless, multi-functional platform, Wherewolf removes the need for paper forms and waivers.
Its pioneering program allows businesses to collect, sort and store all the necessary and client-related information it currently does manually, through an iPad app instead.
It keeps adding new features and selling to new clients; it’s now responsible for more than 2,000,000 customer arrivals every year and is excited to officially announce its plans to establish a base in the United States to better handle its Northern Hemisphere partnerships.
A new investor recently came on board, simultaneously stepping into the role of CMO, and the company is looking to add a CFO in the near future.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however.
Coming of age
The first company Ben founded was a low-risk social success. Called Big Night Out, it ran organised pub-crawls in Queenstown before expanding its operation to Dunedin and Auckland.
Big Night Out manually checked in more than 60,000 people over the years and it was here – trying to solve the problem of standing sanguinely with a clipboard to sign up new clients; a once necessary evil for businesses like his – that Ben conceived, with the help of his future business partner, the idea to build a programme that automated the registration process and captured people’s details digitally.
“The very beta version [of Wherewolf] came at the start of Big Night Out when we started capturing more info – where did you hear about us, how many times have you been before, where are you from – and very quickly I could analyse all my marketing,” Ben says.
“I realised I was spending 80 percent on print media when only 2.7 percent of my customers were finding out about it… I knew we were onto something here and I wanted to start sharing it [the software] around other businesses.”
Big Night Out very quickly became the second ‘most liked’ Facebook page in New Zealand tourism behind AJ Hackett – and ahead of well-known tourism operators Shotover Jet, Nzone and Kiwi Experience because, Ben believes, it could initiate contact and connect with individual customers as soon as they walked out the door.
“When we were able to contact customers, our Facebook skyrocketed before all of the big companies, because of our ability to contact customers, automatically the next day, this validated that our check-in app worked.”
Ben’s web developer for Big Night Out at the time – local computer programmer by day and DJ by night, Wulf Solter – was the guru responsible for writing the code that was telling businesses where their customers were coming from and where to get their marketing (aka the early origins of the Wherewolf moniker).
Wulf is the yin to Ben’s yang. Not only was he influential in refining the idea for Wherewolf but, enjoying the concept and similarly enjoying writing the early code so much, he stopped invoicing for the work he’d done and instead came on board as co-founder, and together he and Ben set about growing Wherewolf from seed to fruition.
On the sideline, keen to explore his entrepreneurial edge under cultured guidance while simultaneously growing his companies, Ben approached the University of Otago who took his business experience as the equivalent of an undergraduate degree and accepted him into the Masters of Entrepreneurship course.
While you might think that the handy blend of specialised formal education and practical, real-world experience would have prepped Ben for embarking on another entrepreneurial voyage, that’s not entirely so.
He admits there was a time when, like the more well-known understanding of the moniker, Wherewolf could have become the stuff nightmares are made of.
The year was 2015; the company had a burn rate of $10,000 per month, it didn’t raise the round it was planning to, and it had dropped in personnel, from 10 staff to four.
“When we gave a crack at raising in 2015, we weren’t successful and we feared that word would spread that we didn’t get investment and therefore we weren’t back-able, but quite the opposite happened.
“It was a hard thing to stomach at the time but it was the best thing that could have ever happened. We got to rebuild a team with confidence and we got to start our processes again and start them with scale in mind.
“While we knew it was going to be a showstopper, it did take time to give the market confidence that this is a solution that works, and that the fear of giving staff an iPad that they could lose or break is far outweighed by the benefits our software is going to bring to your company.”
Ben admits it was incredibly disheartening that people didn’t initially see the value in the company – however just because people don’t yet understand something in its full extent, or similarly just because it isn’t the right fit for them at the time, clearly doesn’t mean it isn’t a radical, revolutionary movement of the future.
What he and Wulf did take comfort in was the fact that key players could not only see the potential, but were enthusiastic and excited about it. Wulf and Ben believed in their product, and now they had the affirmation that key players did, so they kept at it, and Ben sold Big Night Out to focus all his capabilities on Wherewolf.
“It’s not like we went out and built this product and then discovered what our clients did or didn’t use – it was built from the ground up for what our clients wanted.
“I would like to think our timing has been really good because when we first started it was hard and now it’s becoming easier. Now people are looking for a solution whereas before we were saying ‘Hey we’re here!’”
Wherewolf’s first ever client, New Zealand-based Paraflights, came in 2016 and about eight months later so too did its first international client, Swiss tourism kahuna Jet Boat Interlaken.
Wherewolf has since enjoyed an impressive 16 percent growth, month on month, for the past year. It closed its seed round in mid-July and is using the funds to complete the productisation of the app and to launch the North American office.
There are, indubitably, many uses for this type of automation in business, but for now Wherewolf’s focus remains firmly fixed on the adventure tourism industry until it has garnered critical mass.
“Branching out is in the back of our minds. We know our solution will be phenomenal across, for example, the medical, health and beauty, and accommodation industries.
“But we want to do it well; we want to have thorough penetration into this market so we’re not replaceable, and only then will we think about replicating that across other verticals.”
Perhaps due to the support and guidance he’s grateful to have received thus far, Ben is full of advice for budding entrepreneurs. First and foremost? “Have resilience”.
“My opinion of entrepreneurship is that it’s an emotion,” Ben says.
He promptly follows that up with the reality of how fun a company is once it’s up and running, versus the difficulties of battling every day in the initial stages. “The enjoyment is much more prevalent when you’re absolutely crushing it,” he admits.
At the end of the day, if you don’t believe in your product, business or service and you don’t deliver it well, should you really be in business?
“Marketers are always focused on getting in front of new customers when it’s your old customers that can start word of mouth, that can share your content, that can tell your story,” Ben notes.
As he so eloquently reiterates: “Word of mouth is free – do a good job”. And the success will follow.
By Lydia Truesdale