Book me

The market backed the Kiwi underdogs

The market backed the Kiwi underdogs

WORKING REMOTELY: James has never had an office but built up an online business that means he can work from anywhere.

Picture by Sophie Rishworth.
James Alder with his partner Elizabeth Proctor and their two children Archie and Nellie are excited about being part of the Gisborne community after moving back here last year. James grew up in Gisborne and always wanted a business he could bring back to his home town.

Picture supplied

For the fourth-year running www.bookme.co.nz made it onto the Technology Fast 500 Asia Pacific awards. Founder, Gisborne man James Alder, credits much of his success to being a hard-working, down-to-earth, friendly Kiwi guy. He didn’t win any academic awards at Gisborne Boys’ High School but it doesn’t matter when you have fire in your belly. He speaks with Sophie Rishworth about his road to success — paved in equal parts with jubilation and despair.

James Alder is 36 years old. He sits in a Gisborne cafe with his laptop open, his smart phone at the ready, his long black coffee long gone, as he recounts the journey from growing up in Gisborne to being a successful online businessman who can now work from anywhere.

He’s chosen Gisborne. It’s his home town, and the place he and his partner Elizabeth Proctor want to raise their own two children. They love the lifestyle, James is a surfer, and they all enjoy the laid-back atmosphere where shoes are optional.

James’ business is the successful tourism booking website www.bookme.co.nz. It’s like an online information centre where you can book tickets for activities all around New Zealand. For the fourth year in a row it has been named in the Technology Fast 500 in the Asia Pacific region.

In 2016 the business ranked 267 out of 500 online businesses from China, Australia, Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand. Winners are described as combining technological innovation, entrepreneurship and rapid growth.

James was excited when the business first made it in the top 500 in 2013, where it ranked 18th on the list — the highest New Zealand company to do so — but to have it stay in the top 500 for four years is confirmation they must be doing something right . . . even if he has never had an office.

Business meetings are over Skype, planning is over the phone and e-mails are exchanged with clients. There is not much that cannot be done remotely, but when a face-to-face meeting is required, it is only one hour to Auckland or Wellington by plane. But let’s back up a bit — back to when things were just starting out.

Bookme built with Gisborne in mind

In many ways bookme.co.nz was built with Gisborne in mind, says James.

“I was looking for a business idea and wanted something I could one day travel or move with and felt I might like to bring something back here eventually. It was always in the back of my mind to live in Gisborne.”

James got a degree in marketing from Otago University, graduating in 2001, an era in which entrepreneurship and the internet were taking off. Inspired by Kiwi success stories like Sam Morgan and TradeMe, James decided not to go for a traditional corporate career path.

Instead he moved to Wellington to pursue an idea for digital restaurant gift vouchers. He researched the idea while working part-time in a bar and read a lot of books on how to succeed in business. James quickly realised he needed sales skills to successfully launch a new business concept from nothing.

His first sales job was selling alarms door-to-door in the roughest Wellington neighbourhoods.

“I lasted about three weeks and two dog attacks before deciding I’d look for something a bit more progressive. It was a character-building start and set me up well for the next job I took as an ad executive with the Mountain Scene newspaper in Queenstown.”

This job promised a three-month sales training course and was also well-aligned with an opportunity to build on his marketing skills at a grass roots level. It involved cold calling businesses in Queenstown and building customised advertising campaigns to sell them into.

With no money behind him, and living on an apprentice wage, his social life was essentially the Queenstown library which was free to join, and he read every entrepreneurial book he could get his hands on.

This research put him in good stead. He was promoted to manage The Queenstown Today & Tonight Visitor Guide, and this provided a chance meeting with a local information centre.

James said the penny dropped on the business opportunity he had been looking for — and the idea for Bookme began.

Life savings funded startup

Over the next couple of years James convinced his old boss and friend, Nick Reekie, the golden days of print advertising were coming to an end. They began to develop the online idea of Bookme, Nick sold the visitor magazine and came on as an equal partner. This financial input beside James’ life savings funded the startup.

James enlisted the help of his uncle, Logan Murray, who was a software developer, and over the course of the next few years www.bookme.co.nz was built by Logan in return for a share-holding in the company.

It took more than five years to come to fruition, and was an “incredibly exciting and nervous moment” when the site finally went live. They all remember the anticipation, and confidence they would be inundated with bookings.

Nick and James waited three days . . . three very long days. Then, at 10am on November 18th 2010, the phone went bing. The date is etched in their memories. They had their first booking and from then on, they just kept on coming.

Doing well brought out the bullies

Being the new kid on the block got attention. The website stirred up controversy among existing visitor centres and booking desks.

“The major booking desks in Queenstown banded together and threatened all of the operators on our site, saying they would stop selling their products if they were on Bookme — this was about three months in. We were lucky we had signed contracts with our suppliers as this allowed us to slow things down and get the Commerce Commission involved.”

Suddenly the whole business was in jeopardy before they had even started. It also coincided with James and Liz expecting their first child. Everything hung in the balance. James says the threat was so real, he recorded conversations with the “bullying businesses”.

He threatened them with media and legal action and worked seven days a week to market and grow the business as well as dealing diplomatically with suppliers, who were worried about having their bookings shut down for supporting Bookme.

“We lost a lot of clients back then but have gained them all back and more.”

Tip for success: work hard

The upheaval spurred James to launch Rotorua and Taupo on Bookme in 2011 so the business would not be so reliant on the Queenstown market. He flew to Auckland, bought a $2000 car on TradeMe because it was cheaper than a rental car for two weeks (he kept the car for the next five years), then spent two weeks sleeping on his grandparent’s couch in Rotorua while doing as many sales calls as he could to sign up Rotorua and Taupo activities. Six weeks after the birth of their first child, Archie, the Rotorua and Taupo regions were launched.

In mid 2011 Nick joined Bookme full-time and launched more South Island regions. Then came Australia in 2012, when Greg, an old flatmate, came on board.

David vs Goliath

The next big challenge came in the summer of 2013, just as Bookme was starting to gain momentum. One of Australasia’s largest media companies approached James. It was a time of excitement. A potential deal could accelerate Bookme into the big time. But at the first meeting, excitement quickly turned to concern. James was at one side of a boardroom table with five corporates on the other side.

“Basically we were told, in a very nice way, that if we didn’t give them half of our company and work with them, they were going to copy our business. And with the size of their media power that would be the end of Bookme.”

The corporates told him stories of web companies that had started well but failed because a large competitor steamrolled their market. “You don’t want to be the next Myspace,” they said.

But James and his team were adamant — there was no way they were going to give up half the company for less than a fair valuation. Plus this approach was not indicative of a good company to be in business with. They said no.

Three months later, men in suits turned up in Queenstown prospecting their top suppliers.

“Their sales pitch was blatant: ‘We are going to do what Bookme are doing but with a million-dollar launch budget and the full power of our databases and media arms’.”

What happened next opened Nick and James’ eyes to the cut-throat world of business. This multimedia company did launch a replica of Bookme — it was branded similarly, used the same colour scheme and even had a similar name.

The men in suits went direct to James’ clients in Queenstown and asked them to ditch Bookme and move with them, as it came with the backing of their multimillion-dollar company.

It was war

These guys had multimillions. But James and Nick had passion, and a whole lot of determination.

“We had no choice, we went into total war mode. We had worked too hard to just have it taken from us — they left us no option but to fight. I studied up on military strategies to apply to our situation. I drew inspiration from the historical 1967 Six-Day War, where Israel defeated a much larger Egyptian force in just six days with a carefully-designed strategy and a huge work effort.

“We doubled down. Between Nick and I we managed to out-do the sales effort of a much larger company with full sales teams, and budget to blow. I was away every second week, and getting in front of as many clients as I could everyday, and racing to open new regions."

The good old Kiwi support kicked in. The market backed the Kiwi underdogs who were creating something new over the Australian-owned corporates and their brazen attempts to steal an idea.

“As it turned out they had under-estimated how well Bookme had become a cult brand among travellers, who are a notoriously hard market to reach. And so by 2014 the corporate raiders had all but given up trying to chase Bookme’s market.”

Winning felt great

“It is incredibly gratifying to look back on what we did that year — it was a real defining moment for us. It was so hard at the time but it really forced us to elevate our efforts and grow rapidly and compete above our level.”

As a result of wanting to stake their claim on the business idea first, and raising their profile, they entered the Fast 500 that year for the first time and ended up coming 18th on the Fast 500, the best result for a Kiwi company that year.

“We were also announced as a rising star at the NZ Fast 50 event.”

For the fourth-year running www.bookme.co.nz made it onto the Technology Fast 500 Asia Pacific awards. Founder, Gisborne man James Alder, credits much of his success to being a hard-working, down-to-earth, friendly Kiwi guy. He didn’t win any academic awards at Gisborne Boys’ High School but it doesn’t matter when you have fire in your belly. He speaks with Sophie Rishworth about his road to success — paved in equal parts with jubilation and despair.

James Alder is 36 years old. He sits in a Gisborne cafe with his laptop open, his smart phone at the ready, his long black coffee long gone, as he recounts the journey from growing up in Gisborne to being a successful online businessman who can now work from anywhere.

He’s chosen Gisborne. It’s his home town, and the place he and his partner Elizabeth Proctor want to raise their own two children. They love the lifestyle, James is a surfer, and they all enjoy the laid-back atmosphere where shoes are optional.

James’ business is the successful tourism booking website www.bookme.co.nz. It’s like an online information centre where you can book tickets for activities all around New Zealand. For the fourth year in a row it has been named in the Technology Fast 500 in the Asia Pacific region.

In 2016 the business ranked 267 out of 500 online businesses from China, Australia, Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand. Winners are described as combining technological innovation, entrepreneurship and rapid growth.

James was excited when the business first made it in the top 500 in 2013, where it ranked 18th on the list — the highest New Zealand company to do so — but to have it stay in the top 500 for four years is confirmation they must be doing something right . . . even if he has never had an office.

Business meetings are over Skype, planning is over the phone and e-mails are exchanged with clients. There is not much that cannot be done remotely, but when a face-to-face meeting is required, it is only one hour to Auckland or Wellington by plane. But let’s back up a bit — back to when things were just starting out.

Bookme built with Gisborne in mind

In many ways bookme.co.nz was built with Gisborne in mind, says James.

“I was looking for a business idea and wanted something I could one day travel or move with and felt I might like to bring something back here eventually. It was always in the back of my mind to live in Gisborne.”

James got a degree in marketing from Otago University, graduating in 2001, an era in which entrepreneurship and the internet were taking off. Inspired by Kiwi success stories like Sam Morgan and TradeMe, James decided not to go for a traditional corporate career path.

Instead he moved to Wellington to pursue an idea for digital restaurant gift vouchers. He researched the idea while working part-time in a bar and read a lot of books on how to succeed in business. James quickly realised he needed sales skills to successfully launch a new business concept from nothing.

His first sales job was selling alarms door-to-door in the roughest Wellington neighbourhoods.

“I lasted about three weeks and two dog attacks before deciding I’d look for something a bit more progressive. It was a character-building start and set me up well for the next job I took as an ad executive with the Mountain Scene newspaper in Queenstown.”

This job promised a three-month sales training course and was also well-aligned with an opportunity to build on his marketing skills at a grass roots level. It involved cold calling businesses in Queenstown and building customised advertising campaigns to sell them into.

With no money behind him, and living on an apprentice wage, his social life was essentially the Queenstown library which was free to join, and he read every entrepreneurial book he could get his hands on.

This research put him in good stead. He was promoted to manage The Queenstown Today & Tonight Visitor Guide, and this provided a chance meeting with a local information centre.

James said the penny dropped on the business opportunity he had been looking for — and the idea for Bookme began.

Life savings funded startup

Over the next couple of years James convinced his old boss and friend, Nick Reekie, the golden days of print advertising were coming to an end. They began to develop the online idea of Bookme, Nick sold the visitor magazine and came on as an equal partner. This financial input beside James’ life savings funded the startup.

James enlisted the help of his uncle, Logan Murray, who was a software developer, and over the course of the next few years www.bookme.co.nz was built by Logan in return for a share-holding in the company.

It took more than five years to come to fruition, and was an “incredibly exciting and nervous moment” when the site finally went live. They all remember the anticipation, and confidence they would be inundated with bookings.

Nick and James waited three days . . . three very long days. Then, at 10am on November 18th 2010, the phone went bing. The date is etched in their memories. They had their first booking and from then on, they just kept on coming.

Doing well brought out the bullies

Being the new kid on the block got attention. The website stirred up controversy among existing visitor centres and booking desks.

“The major booking desks in Queenstown banded together and threatened all of the operators on our site, saying they would stop selling their products if they were on Bookme — this was about three months in. We were lucky we had signed contracts with our suppliers as this allowed us to slow things down and get the Commerce Commission involved.”

Suddenly the whole business was in jeopardy before they had even started. It also coincided with James and Liz expecting their first child. Everything hung in the balance. James says the threat was so real, he recorded conversations with the “bullying businesses”.

He threatened them with media and legal action and worked seven days a week to market and grow the business as well as dealing diplomatically with suppliers, who were worried about having their bookings shut down for supporting Bookme.

“We lost a lot of clients back then but have gained them all back and more.”

Tip for success: work hard

The upheaval spurred James to launch Rotorua and Taupo on Bookme in 2011 so the business would not be so reliant on the Queenstown market. He flew to Auckland, bought a $2000 car on TradeMe because it was cheaper than a rental car for two weeks (he kept the car for the next five years), then spent two weeks sleeping on his grandparent’s couch in Rotorua while doing as many sales calls as he could to sign up Rotorua and Taupo activities. Six weeks after the birth of their first child, Archie, the Rotorua and Taupo regions were launched.

In mid 2011 Nick joined Bookme full-time and launched more South Island regions. Then came Australia in 2012, when Greg, an old flatmate, came on board.

David vs Goliath

The next big challenge came in the summer of 2013, just as Bookme was starting to gain momentum. One of Australasia’s largest media companies approached James. It was a time of excitement. A potential deal could accelerate Bookme into the big time. But at the first meeting, excitement quickly turned to concern. James was at one side of a boardroom table with five corporates on the other side.

“Basically we were told, in a very nice way, that if we didn’t give them half of our company and work with them, they were going to copy our business. And with the size of their media power that would be the end of Bookme.”

The corporates told him stories of web companies that had started well but failed because a large competitor steamrolled their market. “You don’t want to be the next Myspace,” they said.

But James and his team were adamant — there was no way they were going to give up half the company for less than a fair valuation. Plus this approach was not indicative of a good company to be in business with. They said no.

Three months later, men in suits turned up in Queenstown prospecting their top suppliers.

“Their sales pitch was blatant: ‘We are going to do what Bookme are doing but with a million-dollar launch budget and the full power of our databases and media arms’.”

What happened next opened Nick and James’ eyes to the cut-throat world of business. This multimedia company did launch a replica of Bookme — it was branded similarly, used the same colour scheme and even had a similar name.

The men in suits went direct to James’ clients in Queenstown and asked them to ditch Bookme and move with them, as it came with the backing of their multimillion-dollar company.

It was war

These guys had multimillions. But James and Nick had passion, and a whole lot of determination.

“We had no choice, we went into total war mode. We had worked too hard to just have it taken from us — they left us no option but to fight. I studied up on military strategies to apply to our situation. I drew inspiration from the historical 1967 Six-Day War, where Israel defeated a much larger Egyptian force in just six days with a carefully-designed strategy and a huge work effort.

“We doubled down. Between Nick and I we managed to out-do the sales effort of a much larger company with full sales teams, and budget to blow. I was away every second week, and getting in front of as many clients as I could everyday, and racing to open new regions."

The good old Kiwi support kicked in. The market backed the Kiwi underdogs who were creating something new over the Australian-owned corporates and their brazen attempts to steal an idea.

“As it turned out they had under-estimated how well Bookme had become a cult brand among travellers, who are a notoriously hard market to reach. And so by 2014 the corporate raiders had all but given up trying to chase Bookme’s market.”

Winning felt great

“It is incredibly gratifying to look back on what we did that year — it was a real defining moment for us. It was so hard at the time but it really forced us to elevate our efforts and grow rapidly and compete above our level.”

As a result of wanting to stake their claim on the business idea first, and raising their profile, they entered the Fast 500 that year for the first time and ended up coming 18th on the Fast 500, the best result for a Kiwi company that year.

“We were also announced as a rising star at the NZ Fast 50 event.”

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Alastair R - 2 months ago
A great article James, and a good expose of the heavy tactics often employed by the big boys. Not unlike the Bill Richardson saga on a smaller scale! If your name was David and not James then a slingshot would be an appropriate weapon! It is probably time we had another coffee in the back bar of the Novotel! Regards, Alastair R.

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