Retooling the inner geek

Web-based application developer GeekIT moved its focus to match its market, and hasn’t looked back. PATRICK STAFFORD finds that founder Mary Henderson is still finding opportunities to diversify.

By Patrick Stafford

Mary Henderson GeekIT

Web-based application developer GeekIT moved its focus to match its market, and hasn’t looked back. Founder Mary Henderson is still finding opportunities to diversify.

Henderson started GeekIT Group in 2005 as a website development consultant, but quickly realised 90% of the group’s clients were marketing managers, not IT professionals. Henderson took note, and quickly shifted gears.

“I just saw a huge opportunity to recreate the meaning of online application development as an offering to the marketing department. So we’re not website developers, we’re online application developers – specifically web-based apps.”

Web applications are used on existing websites, and often include simple office tools such as document managers or events calendars, ranging to complex content management services.

GeekIT has developed applications for groups such as EGOPharmaceuticals and Macquarie University, from simple document management systems to a complete student intranet. In 2007-08 the company’s revenue was $2 million.

But now Henderson wants to take the GeekIT brand into a new sector – designer computer accessories, including laptop bags and CD cases. The GeekIT accessories are already being sold through Myer, and Henderson is forecasting revenue of $3 million in 2008-09.

Branching out

Moving into retail during an economic downturn is a risky move, so why does Henderson think a range of designer computer carry bags will take off?

“The customer will shop as long as they see value. The bags we are launching are not for everybody – it’s a niche. The only bags which are doing the same thing are the designer brands, which most people cannot afford. They’re around $1000, whereas we’re retailing from $99 to $300.

“Our customer still has quite a disposable income and can afford that price bracket, but probably won’t spend the money for a designer bag. I’m confident it will go well.”

But she says simply moving from one sector to another – marketing to retail – has its own challenges.

“Dealing with two different types of people is hard. In retail business, I have to go back to my roots, dealing with buyers as opposed to marketers. It’s something I haven’t done for many years. Retailers are quick to respond, whereas marketers are far more strategically oriented,” she says.

“You think to yourself, ‘should I be like everybody?’ You have to stick to what you’re setting out to do. There might be obstacles and challenges, but you absolutely must stand firm in what your approach should be.”

Unrealistic demands

Henderson should be well equipped to deal with fast-moving retailers, after learning to deal with demanding clients on the web app side of the business.

Web-based applications are gaining more and more popularity – even search giant Google has increased its scope with free spreadsheet and document applications.

But developing them is complex, and GeekIT’s job to create an application suite and intranet for Macquarie University brought up a new problem for Henderson; clients demanding unrealistic deadlines.

“It’s quite reactive with universities; they need everything yesterday. So timelines were a big challenge. We were expected to build a large, complex site… and it wasn’t a lot of time – we had four people working on it day and night.

“We went live, but there still were a lot of issues. It’s a work in progress even 12 months later.”

She says an honest relationship between supplier and client is crucial at managing timelines.

“When you have short time frames, you can’t clarify the outcome succinctly because you just don’t have the time – it becomes more reactive. But you just have to be honest – don’t be afraid to say that there could be implications because of the time frame. Honesty is the key to the success of any outcome.”

People problems

Like many growing businesses, Henderson’s other big problem is talent management. She says the business is only as good as the talent completing projects – a lesson she learnt the hard way.

“I think I hired the wrong people for the wrong reasons. It’s a huge mistake a lot of businesses make. When you start to get a little bit of profit, you get a little bit cocky and may think, ‘I need a PA’ or something, when you don’t. Those mistakes are big enough to create an impact.

“We hired a couple of students out of university – it was absolutely one of the worst things I could have done. I think it would be okay to have that in a large corporate where they can get mentored, but not in a start-up. You’re better off hiring one great worker than three juniors,” she says.

“Coming from a corporate, you can employ people and they come and they go – I don’t think you appreciate talent the way that you do when you start your own business.”

But Henderson says small businesses still need to operate with a big-business mentality.

“Forecasting is important. Because when you start up you think, it’s not necessary – but it’s not like that. I think you still have to run it as if you were in a corporate.”

Henderson is clearly excited about the prospects for her new accessories range. She hopes its success will help her to continue to change the way we think about “geeks”.

“The word ‘geek’ to most people references things like a nerd, ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, and so on. But for me this is just a huge opportunity to reinvent that meaning. First of all, I don’t think I look like a geek, and secondly, we’ve made what we do in the online business sexy.”




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