What you get when you put a Master’s Degree in Entrepreneurship, a Diploma in Commercial Skydiving and a Certificate in Adventure Leadership together?
No idea? Neither did I until I spoke with Ben Calder; a Queenstown based entrepreneur, co-founder and CEO of Wherewolf, a company specialising in digital registrations and operational software for the tourism industry.
Calder holds this awesome medley of qualifications which have helped him in building and selling two successful ventures already, and to lead his latest venture as they look to revolutionise the way that adventure tourism companies operate.
His unique background and success make Calder an interesting and knowledgeable individual to discuss entrepreneurship with. Over the hour long interview, we discussed more about his latest venture Wherewolf, his experiences through the businesses he’s run, and some of the insights into entrepreneurship he’s garnered through 10 years in the game.
We started by deep diving a little more into what Wherewolf does, a company gaining solid traction in the adventure tourism market.
“We create branded arrival apps that replace the traditional paper waivers for adventure tourism operators”, he said. “However, our real specialty comes in our work on the business operations side. We’ve built a suite of products that can manage a whole host of tasks – such as equipment allocation, assigning staff and allocating people onto loads of jobs – that were previously managed by the ‘for office use only’ section at the bottom of liability waivers or registration forms. The third part of the business is a tool which collates all the marketing data from the business, manages follow up emails to customers, and provides the insights that enable a business to grow.”
I continued asking questions around Wherewolf, interested to hear the story of how this unique company came to be.
“It really got started from a desire to grow my own business. At the time I was working with Wulf Solter (the future co-founder of Wherewolf) on a web-app to gather the customer data at check in for Big Night Out.” It was this app that helped Big Night Out grow to be the second biggest Facebook page in New Zealand tourism, and Calder pretty quickly recognised the importance of word of mouth, and customer ratings and referrals, all things that they were able to influence with the app.
“I felt as though this app could be marketed and sold to businesses by itself and so we added a few more features to the app and began to sell it to local adventure tourism businesses.”
“The interesting thing about Wherewolf was that it grew from client desire,” Ben says. “We would sell it to a client with a few features not quite right, so we’d build those features into the product for them. We eventually reached a point where we had this wonderful suite of tools that served the majority of our target market. This allowed us to start speeding up the development time because a lot of the tools were already there for the businesses to use; whether it be trip manifesting, staff allocation or equipment manifests.”
As mentioned earlier, Calder has an interesting batch of experience, including some very unique qualifications, that have helped get him to where he is now. I asked him to elaborate on some of his experiences and what the some of the biggest learnings that came from it were.
“As far as previous work experience, I was a youth development facilitator, an outdoor instructor and a freefall photographer for skydiving companies”; experience which clearly taught Calder a lot about the adventure tourism industry. In business, Calder has already built and sold two companies in his 10 years as an entrepreneur; Big Night Out and Vinyl Underground, a bar in Queenstown.
“I learnt an enormous amount from building these two businesses and it would be impossible to write it all down in one short summary,” Calder says contemplatively, ”but if I was to have to pick one learning it would be the ability to choose the right response. To have the ability to pause and think about which decision is going to put you in the best position; to negotiate, to retain respect, and to leave yourself with further options. It’s everything from the conversations you have on Vodafone customer support calls, to negotiating with CEO’s and Angel investors. If you are able to slow down and choose your response, you’ll end up in much better positions.”
On the topic of decisions, I asked what some of the hardest calls Calder had been forced to make were, and what gave him the strength to make these calls. For him it turned out it was actually quite straightforward. He said that, “all decisions are made out of necessity; it’s a sink or swim situation and you have to make these calls to stay alive. It’s never easy to lay off workers, or put people on performance plans, but these decisions need to be made. For me,” Calder said “the hardest call to make is starting in the first place. Am I going to commit the next ‘x’ many years to making this work?”
This answer really resonated with me; business decisions are much easier to justify with facts and figures, things that people can understand and reconcile. It’s a lot harder to justify decisions that are made with some element of gut instinct, like starting a business so often is.
I was curious what motivated Calder to become an entrepreneur.
“Any entrepreneur knows you’re the last to get paid, and the first to extend the mortgage, or throw in savings to keep things going at times so it’s never just about the money. For it’s mainly the pursuit; a landscape gardener or builder could start with an empty canvas and create something, and for me business is very much the same. That’s why I love being an entrepreneur. Provided I can enjoy myself along the way, that’s what has always motivated me as an entrepreneur.”
What did he believe separated a successful entrepreneur from an unsuccessful one? In answer, Calder shared a quote that his mother had sent him once.
“Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” He continued; “Resilience; try and try again until you find the formula that works. Yes, there has got to be a level of intelligence to that – not pursuing a failing idea and learning from those in front of you – but you will encounter your own problems that you have to overcome, and hence that quote always rings to me. It’s the people that don’t listen to the bank manager or accountant who tells you to cut your losses and run. You’re always a week away from collapse, you’ve just got to push on and find a solution.”
Being an entrepreneur can often be a lonely game, I asked, what keeps you motivated when times are tough?
“I’ve had companies as a sole director and as a team and I can tell you that I will always involve others in future ventures for this exact reason. If you’re in the same boat you can both paddle together. If you’re by yourself you either sink or swim. You’ve got no one that actually understand the consequences. Sure, you can talk to friends or mentors but they don’t have skin in the game, so their advice is taken with a grain of salt. Having a business partner is like having a gym buddy. If you go to the gym with a buddy the results are way different. You push each other along, give each other encouragement and you get each other through. It’s the same in business.”
Calder and I continuing discussing the traits of good entrepreneurs, and it was clear to me that humility was one of his strong suits. He mentioned multiple times that he knows wholeheartedly that he will be “crap at things, and that’s okay.” This allows Calder to understand his weaknesses and mitigate those by building a strong team around him, the key to any successful business. Calder quoted Steve Jobs by saying, “‘We hire smart people, not to tell them what to do but so that they can tell us what to do’”, a quote that he seems to abide by in his own companies.
Furthermore, Calder says “I’ve always maintained the ability to take on board and implement feedback. With that comes a certain amount of sifting and sorting, as not everyone’s advice is gospel. I pick the gems from people’s feedback, but most importantly, I implement it. You can nod your head all you like but unless you actually put some of the suggestions into practice, then you’re not going to see the fruits from their seeds.”
“At first ideas might not sound all that useful. But hold onto them, let them rattle around until they reveal themselves as the gems they truly can be sometimes. Keep listening. It might be the third or fourth time that someone suggests something to you realise the pearl of wisdom it’s been all along.”
On the subject of pearls of wisdom, I asked Calder for a couple of his before the conversation ended. I first asked him what he would tell his 20 year old self with the benefit of hindsight, and to me, Calder gave a great response.
“I’m not one for regret so I’d say I’d do it all the same; but remember your health along the way. Often that let me down. You get up early to go to the office and get those emails away and you forgo going to the gym. I certainly can’t complain at the speed I’ve tracked through a few things, but if I was to do it again I would always remember my health along the way.
To close I asked him for the one daily habit that he believe all entrepreneurs should adopt.
“Obviously I’ve been one for quotes, so here is another one my brother passed onto me that I love; ‘The difference between a millionaire and a billionaire is that a billionaire checks their goals twice a day’. I really really love that. Each day must have purpose. There’s always things to do, but are the things you’re doing getting you closer to your goal? If at the end of each day they’re not, then you know you’re just busy being busy.”
You can’t argue with what Calder has achieved in his relatively short entrepreneurial career to date. In roughly 10 years he’s built and sold two businesses already, and is well on the way to turning his third into a roaring success.
Calder is patient, reflective and purposeful, and proves to me that wisdom does not just come with age. Combine this with his energy and enthusiasm for business and you realise that there are still a lot of exciting things to come from this NZ entrepreneur.♦
[Editors Note: Wherewolf secured $NZD550k in angel funding earlier this year from Flying Kiwi Angels, part of which is earmarked for expansion into the US.]