Chris Parnell does what it takes to succeed, even if that means potential failure.
That’s not to say he acts out of desperation; it means that when he sees himself heading into a corner, he adjusts the sails. Keen to start his own graphic design agency? Went to polytech for the training and started up CG Design. Predicted the introduction of smartphones would lead to the whole world going digital? Taught himself web design and coding, and built his own website which led to the birth of a second business. Another birth – child number two – came along a bit sooner than planned? Committed to commercialising his newest business.
This new business, SetSeed, was borne out of the global financial crisis.
“The global financial crisis hit and I lost all my print customers, so I started growing the web side of things. People were keen and this led to more complex requests, like a website they could self-edit.
“I started researching and trying out the various options but didn’t like any of them. They all required additional plug-ins to increase the scope and achieve anything. I loved the new design-led thinking but wondered, couldn’t you have as much as possible within, feature-wise, that doesn’t require all these plug-ins?”
Months of research led Chris to Ben Vallack, based in the UK.
“He had the same thinking as mine and had designed this little bit of software in his garage that did exactly that. His dad said, ‘It’s like set seed; you’re setting seed,’ because the whole idea is you can deploy lots of websites with features already built in.
“SetSeed’s goal is to solve the plug-in problem, and build more features and functionality.”
It wasn’t long before Chris and Ben started building sites together; the first one, for a Rotorua client, is still running today. People started hearing about what they were doing and the guys received queries and requests from around the world. They now have customers throughout New Zealand, the UK and US. Chris’ original business, CG Design, began funding the further development of SetSeed.
Then two things happened.
“People started telling us we needed to stop being so creative; we needed to commercialise. Then a big customer came in and needed something really big.”
Ten years on from partnering and creating with Ben (the two have yet to meet in person!), and playing it safe, they officially built the company, gave themselves titles, then asked themselves, ‘How do you get that skillset to go from creativity to scale?’
“You have this dream of going big but you don’t’ know how to get there. To scale up, you have to move from creativity to strategy. This year I thought, I need to do this. You’re terrified of failure and you’re terrified of success.
“In terms of scale, you need strategy and you need investors, so I started going down that road and knew I needed some help with that.”
Chris is working with Callaghan Innovation, an agency that supports New Zealand businesses to become more innovative, find funding, and more. He's also built a solid profile on LinkedIn, which is a great avenue for start-ups to gain more exposure, he says. And he’s been pitching to investors.
“People are wanting to invest. We’ve got VCs [venture capital firms] from NZ and the US that want to give us money, and potentially lots of money.”
So, Chris’ course is now set to taking his Rotorua-based business global. How does that make him feel?
“One minute, it’s like ‘this is so exciting!’, and the next minute it’s like, ‘this is terrifying! I need to raise funds if I’m going to employ people and do this, and all that kind of stuff.
“It’s a scary journey. But the excitement of it! It’s coming to that realisation that regret isn’t what happens to you in life; regret is opportunities that you don’t take, even if the risk feels outside your comfort zone, because then you realise you see others do it, you should’ve just done it. What’s the worst that can happen? Sure, you can lose everything, it could all come tumbling down, but then you find out some of the biggest and most successful founders have already had that happen to them a few times and they just don’t give up.”
There’s a perception there’s no innovativeness or tech entrepreneurs in Rotorua, says Chris.
“The internet changes everything b/c you’re accessible to everyone.
“What I’ve discovered is that Rotorua has enabled us to do this because we’ve tapped into a local community. The CG Design aspect of it has given us the flexibility to build projects that further develop SetSeed. So that ecosystem that we’ve created has got us to this point.
His advice to anyone wanting to start up a business?
“I’d say, it’ll be the hardest and most rewarding thing you do. You will become unemployable by the end of this because the journey teaches you so much that you naturally become a leader rather than a follower, hence that unemployable thing. Although you do, once a week, go, ‘I wish I just had a 9 to 5 job.’ Compounded by the fact that Ben’s in the UK, I could literally work 24/7.
“Business will ruin you for the ordinary, but it’ll also create you an entire new future. It’ll force you to be very self-disciplined to turn those dreams into reality.”