Days to the General Election: 20
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.

John Campbell of Gopher tells Andrew Patterson how they built a new force in online advertising and took it global

John Campbell of Gopher tells Andrew Patterson how they built a new force in online advertising and took it global

By Andrew Patterson

Take two entrepeneurs who’ve been friends since school, add in some clever technology which they’ve developed along the way, mix in a vast market of SMEs globally trying to make sense of a plethora of online advertising and social media options and you’ve got the recipe for one of the country’s fastest growing digital technology businesses.

Ranked at number 17 last year in Deloitte’s listing of the country’s 50 fastest growing businesses with a growth rate of 304% over the last three years and placed 20th in the Asia-Pacific region in 2010, Gopher is unashamedly a brash, ambitious challenger brand, with a ‘new kid in town’ personality to match.

But make no mistake; there are no actual gophers to be found working for Gopher.

It’s unlikely they’d last more than a few minutes in a world where adrenalin junkies fit perfectly into an environment best described as frenetic. More on that later.

Starting from scratch

Launched as an online business directory in 2007 by founders John Campbell and BJ Sveistrup, the two entrepreneurs have been close friends since their school days at Dilworth.

Spying an opportunity, they were motivated to start a business targeting a huge potential catchment of customers with a simple proposition: launch a fully integrated one stop shop that would create effective online profiles for NZ based small and medium businesses using the very best technology available.

Starting with a borrowed computer and a ton of passion, in just five years they’ve seen their staff compliment grow by more than 700% to 160; with revenue growth to match.

Not content with simply focusing their efforts in NZ, the business has recently expanded into Indonesia and is shortly set to open offices in Thailand while its business model has also expanded and evolved. Not only does Gopher offer business search advertising services, but also social media and mobile advertising optimisation as well.

As CEO John Campbell describes it, while Gopher has evolved into a digital advertising technology company, it’s always been a business with a big vision.

“While we started out with a goal of world domination, our more immediate goal was simply to level the playing field for small to medium enterprises and give them an alternative to the incumbent Yellow Pages. We had a similar idea to another tech entrepreneur Shane Bradley. He set up Finda around about the same time we established Gopher. I think we were both probably doing our due diligence at the same time.”

“At the time, our ultimate goal was simply to become a significant player in the industry and claim a certain percentage of the market. But after setting up the business, we discovered that SMEs were after a much more extensive solution. It wasn't just a directory listing they were after; they wanted everything else to be integrated as well. So we set about meeting that demand.”

Integrated offering

Key to Gopher’s success has been the integration of its suite of product offerings and a 12 month fixed price contract option.

“What business owners in New Zealand are realising is that integration of your advertising messages is now an essential part of your marketing approach. So it’s not just a matter of having a directory listing, it’s all your social media add ons as well.”

“How do I get my business noticed? How do I capitalize on a particular market? How do customers find me? These are all really important questions SMEs are increasingly asking these days. And then there’s mobile as well, mobile search and more recently for us it's been about Google ad-words. We're one of three accredited Google premier partners in New Zealand. It’s another great product that we've added to our suite.”

So how does Gopher position itself in a market that is crammed full of advertising and marketing offerings? 

“While we started out as a directory company we see ourselves as much more than that these days. We’re a digital advertising technology company. And that might be hard for some people to differentiate, but that's definitely what we’ve evolved into. In this industry you have to evolve which is why we’re constantly adding new offerings to our product suite. Hopefully, we're also educating people about our evolution from a directory company so articles like this will certainly help.”

Global expansion

Just getting started in the NZ market might be enough to keep most businesses satisfied for a while. Not so Gopher. Sticking with its mantra of “world domination” and not content with simply being a domestic start-up it’s already fulfilling its global ambitions with the audacious launch of a new operation in Indonesia. Plans for establishing its business in Thailand are already on the drawing board.

But the advice they received about launching in SE Asia was hardly encouraging.

“We were advised that we shouldn't go into Indonesia. At the time we were considering a range of different markets including Australia, South America, South Africa, and even the UK. But when we saw what was happening in South East Asia, it became obvious where we should be directing our efforts.”

It’s not hard to see why. The world’s fourth largest country by population with 17 million SME businesses, 97% of whom don’t have a website. It doesn’t come any better for a business in the digital advertising space.

“So we went to Indonesia and did some reconnaissance missions a couple of years ago and everyone told us don't do it, it’s just not going to work there. The infrastructure just won’t support it and the culture won’t allow a telesales model because business is done face-to-face which is very different to Western business culture.”

“All of this was like red rag to a bull for us. So the more you tell us we can't do something the more we're going to go and actually do it.”

Adapting to Indonesia

What happened next is almost straight out of the entrepeneurs play book. Sometimes it’s best just to trust your instinct; however that approach often comes with its own set of risks.

“The simple thing was that we didn’t want to try to run a separate business model in Indonesia. Our goal was to transport our template across and use the Gopher DNA to drive our growth. So our approach was to use what helped us be successful in New Zealand and implant that as best we could then splice it with the local culture and some of the infrastructure and give it a crack. That was our thinking.”

“We thought, we're fast learners, so if we need to change, which we’ve had to do in some areas, then we’ll do that. For the most part, it’s really all about being able to adapt and I have to say it's worked brilliantly.”

“There are some synergies between the way we do business in New Zealand and the way we do business in Indonesia and the way Indonesians do business generally. But ultimately it's because both nationalities have a desire to help and overcome challenges the outcome has worked really well for us.”

The arrangement has even extended to reciprocal staff exchanges between the two offices.

“We regularly send people from New Zealand up to Indonesia and vice a versa. Mostly the offices run the same in both countries and one of our real success stories has been one of our super star employees in Indonesia who is just 23 and has worked for us for two years. She started out in sales and then got involved in a couple of different areas of the business and now she's up there running the whole show.”

“At last count we have something like 50 or 60 staff up there. It’s actually growing so quickly I sometimes lose track. So our goal is to eventually replicate the model in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand as well.”

Feel the vibe

Step into Gopher’s Auckland offices in Stanley Street and you immediately feel the energy of the place. People walking round everywhere with telephone headsets engaged in conversations with prospective clients, repeated bursts of applause and a very Gen Y office environment. Definitely not a place for the shy and retiring.

“We’re certainly not ageist. Generally we'll employ anybody that has a good cultural fit, high energy and plenty of enthusiasm. But we need that to be reflected in their phone manner; as hopefully businesses that have been on the receiving end of calls from our team will verify.”

“We want our people to be super excited, really passionate and to have New Zealand businesses best interests at heart while knowing that we've got the product that can really deliver for them and reflect that enthusiasm on the phone.”

While Gopher keeps some aspects of its business model well under wraps, particularly much of the IP it has developed, Campbell explains there are multiple revenue streams involved.

“I can't tell you all our trade secrets, but we are different to a traditional agency model. Traditional agencies are after the big spenders and so they want that top 5%-10% percent of the market. We're actually after a long tail. We want volume. We want to help small to medium enterprise in New Zealand and Indonesia. And that's one of the biggest challenges we've had is to try and overcome - the challenge of scale."

“New Zealand has a few hundred thousand small to medium enterprise throughout the country, depending on whose numbers you believe. In Indonesia we're talking literally millions of SMEs."

“So we had to spend a lot of time over the last year and a half rebuilding our platforms to cope with the massive scale they require for a market like Indonesia. We've been testing, and breaking, and rebuilding, and retesting every platform from our proprietary CRM software to our android platform right through to literally every product we have."

“Our model is low cost, high value, pre-packaged solutions for the masses verses the agencies who offer much more customized solutions so that's probably the key difference between us.”

Adapting is key

The tech space is well known for its speed of change. Fail to adapt and you’re out of business very quickly. So how does Gopher keep pace with a market that’s constantly moving at warp speed?

“Well, that's it, you just have to try and keep up with it. I’ve heard a day in our business described as being like a year in other people's industries. It moves so quickly. We obviously can't keep across everything that’s going on so we employ super smart people whose job it is to keep across trends, not just what's happening now but what's likely to be coming up.”

“And that's all part of future proofing in the tech space. You've just got to try and hold on and enjoy the ride, though it does get pretty wild sometimes."

“So my advice is, don't get into a fast-growing tech company if you don't like roller coasters. If you're not an adrenaline junkie, I would not recommend it, but for an entrepreneur I don’t think there’s a more exciting ride.”

One imagines Gopher’s staff probably go bungy jumping in their spare time just to relax.


Gopher was placed 17th in the 2012 Deloitte Fast50 Awards.




Sector: Digital advertising technology
Ownership: Private (Founders and key staff)
Founded: 2007
Turnover: Not disclosed
Growth: 100% (2012) and excludes Indonesia
Biggest market: NZ
Fastest growing market: Indonesia
International offices: Jakarta, Indonesia
Domestic / Export split: 90% :  10%
Staff: 160 (84 in Indonesia)
Profitable: Yes
Likely to IPO: Possibly
Recent highlights: Ranked 17th in Deloitte Fast50


We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.

Days to the General Election: 20
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.