Founders Night Insights, Nic Gibbens CEO at PaperKite.

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Nic founded PaperKite in 2010 and has gone from running the company in its first year on close to no income to multi-million dollar business today. PaperKite has built some of New Zealand’s most successful apps with heavy hitting clients such as Air New Zealand, BP, NZ Rugby, Coca-cola, and MetService just to name a few. Also, for any beer lovers out there, you would have experienced their world class ingenuity first hand if you attended Beervana and downloaded the interactive app.

The beginnings of Paperkite, where did it all begin?

I started PaperKite in March 2010. Really it was the culmination of a huge number of factors that all came together so vividly for me that I really had no choice but to quit my job working for ANZ and to go out on my own.

 I had spent 10 years working for large companies where I was a small cog in an enormous machine and over those years I saw that these companies were built with enormous redundancy. Their job was to be stable and as such, I felt I could have fallen off a cliff and there wouldn’t have even been the faintest ripple of impact on the company.

I watched people vying for position and being pushed into roles that were unsuitable for them and realised that the values and culture of these companies didn’t align with mine and ultimately, even though I was very well paid, I really wasn’t happy or fulfilled.

Then in 2007, Apple released the iPhone and I was immediately smitten. As soon as they became available on eBay I ordered one to be delivered to NZ and I’ll never forget the experience of opening the packaging and it being charged ready for use, its hard to remember now, but this really was exceptional at the time! When the App Store was opened a year later I was fascinated by the business model that became available overnight. 

Suddenly someone could create an App and have it available to people all around the world in a few days without all the traditional distribution logistics, packaging and all the rest that was the norm for software sales at the time.

When the National Bank decided to build the first banking app in the Southern Hemisphere I made sure I got onto the project team. The app was a great success and formed some crucial thinking that went on to become ANZ goMoney. Many at the company seemed to think it was all a bit of a techy gimmick and thought hardly anyone would use it but I was enthralled about the practical implications of it, such a vast improvement on text-based banking.

By early 2010 I was thinking of little else and one day as I was driving over the Rimutakas I realised I wanted to create an App for myself. There was a lot of unprecedented ‘overnight’ successes springing up on the store and I thought that it would be amazing to develop some of my ideas into practical realities. As I drove I reflected on the genius behind the App Store, the iPhone, the new iPad and I started to glimpse the ecosystem that Apple was creating and it stunned me. Here was a brand new market where whole new businesses could be born and create enormous value from single people up to massive companies, all working in this brand new ecosystem. At that moment I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and I HAD to get involved, not doing so was just far too scary. 

Here was a brand new medium that I was simply fascinated in that I was sure would change the world and I could become an expert in it if I put my mind to it.

Ultimately I wanted the chance to build a company where I could feel of value, where I could have the pleasure of creating amazing things and being paid to do so. I wanted to create a business where I could work with like-minded people who were as excited by the opportunities that mobile presented as I was. I wanted to be challenged and to be able to work for something I truly believed in. PaperKite was my opportunity to achieve all these things and in the end, I didn’t really have a choice, once I’d thought of it I couldn’t not do it.

The transition from 9–5 stability to running a startup, what are the standout lessons learnt?

Well in the early days it felt extraordinary to have the time and opportunity to work flat out on something I was so excited about. There is always something you can be doing to improve your business and I really relished the feeling of making a tangible impact both on the company itself and the products I was creating for my clients with every single thing I did. It was amazingly liberating and I realised I’d barely been engaging my intellect for years, it felt almost illicit it was so much fun! When your hobby/passion is the same thing as your job it’s amazing how much you can enjoy every minute.

I carried on working at ANZ for the first few months after I had started the company, finishing at 5:30 and then racing home to work through the night. To be honest it was a sad reflection on my previous role that I could do two jobs without any noticeable difference in my performance! In the end, I was getting pretty worn out and later in 2010 when I felt I had enough clients to support me without my day job salary, I left my job to concentrate full-time on PaperKite. By waiting those few months I felt I’d validated the market and felt the risk of going full time was one I’d happily accept.

As it turned out, all 3 of the clients I thought were in the bag vanished on me just after I went full time and it was a pretty scary time as Christmas rolled around. My initial optimism was pretty badly dented as I realised that just working hard and having a dream might not be enough if the market wasn’t ready. That being said, it made me ask myself if I was really just playing startup or if this was what I wanted my life to be. Of course, the answer was a resounding hell yeah so I just doubled down on my efforts and pulled back on my expenditure as much as I could as I waited for the companies I was talking to come through. I carried on working as hard as I could and learnt some hard lessons on how to get my message out and who to work with whilst living on noodles…day in and day out. With a total income of $16,000 in the first 12 months, I wasn’t exactly rolling in cash but I’d genuinely never felt so happy and fulfilled in my work.

Building upon your strong company culture, what are PaperKite’s company core values?

Everyone at PaperKite has the same underlying drive: to build incredible products for our clients. Every role contributes to this aim and our company’s Purpose and BHAG speak to this desire. Our Leadership Team are currently working hard to refine our core values into coherent, specific statements but the broad concepts are as follows:

  • Don’t f**k the customer! Always build the best outcome for the end user.
  • Together. Be Smart, Hungry and Humble.
  • Ask why. If you don’t understand it you can’t build it.
  • Be the change you seek. Continual improvement is our natural state.
  • Constructive Conflict. Always be brave enough to tell the kind truth.

We are so fortunate to be where we are when we are. Mobile is changing the world in so many ways and PaperKite has an incredible opportunity to build products of incredible value for the companies we work with and the customers they are providing for. One of my favourite poems is Ode by Arthur Shaughnessy where he talks of art and how it is the world’s creators who shape and define the world in which we live. The incredible line “We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams” sums up the opportunity that we have at PaperKite. Every time we are engaged by a client we have the opportunity to imagine what might be and the skills to turn those dreams into realities. Each App and product we create should raise the bar and make a difference in the lives of the people who use it. It is my hope that this, in turn, will encourage others to aim higher in what they build and ultimately push us all forwards.

Avoiding Burnout. What are your personal top tips for maintaining a healthy work-life balance?

Unfortunately, I’ve had to read everything I can find on this topic as it is a very real problem that I’ve had to deal with on many occasions. If you can find someone who has a real and practical solution to this please let me know as I haven’t got it right yet!

The truth of it is that running your own business is, in a very literal sense, as close to an addiction as anything I have ever experienced. It is very hard to recognise that you are racing towards burnout until suddenly, one day, you look up and notice you haven’t really smiled for a long time and you would rather just hide in bed for the day or perhaps many, many days. When that happens you can find yourself making things worse by beating yourself up about it as you can’t really understand what is wrong with you. It is a really lonely place that is hard to firstly acknowledge and secondly to come to terms with. Building your way back up and out is hard and takes more time than you ever think it will so it’s extremely difficult not to try and ignore it and keep going. You feel you have no right to feel like you do. You worry about the company as you would a child and fear that not being there for it will lead to it being harmed. You feel you have to be the fearless unassailable leader that nothing can overcome.

 Of course, in reality, you are a just a normal person who is living with constant stress and fear for years at a time and in the end this burns you out if you can’t find ways to deal with it.

I have made some serious decisions to help me minimise these occasions by moving my whole family over to the Wairarapa where I have actual physical separation from work as well as space to breathe and relax. One day a week I work from home and try not to deal too heavily with the operations of the business and instead I read books by others who have run businesses or listen to podcasts as I mow the lawn! Taking this day a week has become vital for me and allows me to be far more effective for the other four days I am in the office as well as allowing me to be more present with my family at the weekends. 

I’ve recently signed up to Headspace, a guided meditation App and I’ve been impressed with its effectiveness. Trying to find time in my day where I can meditate is not natural to me yet but I hope to improve if I keep working at it. If this is the magic bullet I’ll be sure to let you know!

Get the full story

Founders Night w PaperKite’s Nic Gibbens #Techweek Edition.

Nic will be giving frank and open insights on what it has been like to build the PaperKite brand and the 22 strong team who come to PaperKite each day to work their magic.

Nic’s talk will conclude with a super informal fireside chat with BizDojo Co-founder, Jonah Merchant. This is a great opportunity to ask Nic any burning questions you might have.

RSVP your Founder Night ticket here!