Chillisoft director Geoff Cossey talks to Amanda Sachtlebenabout his ambitions for the business he built from the ground up, and the fun but disheartening experience of office pinball.
How did you get into the IT industry?
My background is actually in banking where I was for a dozen years. I desperately wanted a change and did a paper on the IT side for a year. Someone kindly offered me my first job in IT — a Napier company which wanted to set up an office in Auckland.
In my banking career I’d had a bit of a track record starting new branches or new ventures. My last job in banking was for Countrywide Bank, and I set up a subsidiary for them. I made the transition to IT around 1990. I set up this company's office and we did really well. Within a few years we were doing 40% of the turnover in Auckland.
How did your career progress from there?
From there I spent time with Eagle Technology. That was great, working for a large IT organisation. [I then] worked for a software company called Astea International. They sold service management solutions and had a very small office in New Zealand and essentially ran it out of Australia. They wanted to get some impetus over here. That was interesting but what I call a typical American company — very quarterly results driven. In fact, I remember one year getting a call from the president of the company between Christmas and new year and he said ‘Geoff, what business can we close this quarter?’. I remember saying, ‘Everyone’s at the beach’.
After that I went to work for Australian company Cybec — they were involved with the virus product VET, and they had some plans for world domination. As well as New Zealand, they were trying to set up an office in the UK and the US. It was a big challenge for them to go from being a successful domestic company to the international market. After a while I said to them that they were nuts to try and do it themselves and they should look at a distribution model. I asked if they wanted a distributor in New Zealand and I formed [Chillisoft] to be their distributor.
What was the antivirus market like then?
I think it was in many ways the same as it is now — there’s the usual 300-pound gorilla, a couple of monkeys and then the rest. That’s the same in most markets. But we had a very good product. We had near to 100 resellers who were interested in the product. They were three years into their plan and some key people at the organisation had some personal catastrophes which I won’t go into, but the owners of the company basically lost heart.
I didn’t want to be overly dependent on one product, so we picked up some things in the CRM [customer relationship management] software space and started to develop some other things as well.
VET became a CA product and I had some meetings with them about their plans for VET and how they saw it being distributed in New Zealand and I saw no future in it. Things kept ticking along and I did have reservations about taking another antivirus product but I looked at options. One of the parties I was talking to said, had I heard of NOD 32? I started having a look at it and it looked good.
You’ve mentioned a history of establishing parts of businesses — did you want a company you could build from scratch?
For most of my career I’ve been on the business development side of things — taking something and growing it. I’ve always subconsciously been thinking of new opportunities. My wife was very supportive at the time [of starting Chillisoft], and still is.
Why the name Chillisoft and how do you make the most of it?
Initially I acquired a shelf company from Australia with a vaguely IT-ish name to it. I wanted a name that reflected the personality the company would have. Often we’re putting together proposals that are in a stack of 20 and you have to stand out. I wanted something we could develop some branding around. Also I love chilli and hot food, so it worked. Sometimes we send out little bottles of chilli sauce with our proposals and we have chilli trivia scattered through our website.
What does your role as Chillisoft director entail day to day?
I sign the cheques. I provide direction for the company. I do the hard things and some of the easy things. It’s a small business with only six people. In a small company people have to be all-rounders, they have to be able to bat and bowl. I’m not particularly technical but I only have to be slightly more technical than the people I’m dealing with. But I am able to step away from the details and look at opportunities.
Do you enjoy the competition in the antivirus and wider industry today?
What I love about the IT industry is things change. Market leadership is because of technology leadership at some time in the past. It’s been achieved as a combination of technology leadership and the business success, but that shifts. People who were the market leaders five years ago aren’t necessarily the same now, especially in security where the risk is so big.
Where do you see your business going?
I’m approached regularly by companies to be their distributor, but I’ve never wanted to be a really broad company that has dozens of things to offer. I’m more interested in market leadership. We’ve also got a couple of things we’ve developed ourselves. We’ve got a CRM product called I-track. At this stage we’ve only got about a dozen customers, but it’s a model I see growing in the next couple of years. It’s a software as a service, with a low-cost entry point. We also hope to be in Australia very soon.
You have a pinball machine in the office — was that your idea?
It was. We all work pretty hard and it’s important to have micro-breaks. We don’t have any smokers in the office so they don’t get a chance to have a five-minute break regularly. We didn’t expect that [my colleague] Rachael would achieve such dominance. It’s a little disheartening when you see Rachael's score is 27 million. You sort of think ‘why bother?’ It’s a bit like New Zealand playing soccer against Brazil.