When plumber and business owner Maxwell Semmons-Russell got burned by a client who didn’t pay, he got mad. But instead of getting even, he decided to do something practical about it – not just for himself, but for his fellow tradies and contractors in the building industry.
“After having the experience of not being paid, I then had an idea of how I could stop that issue from happening again. I also spoke to more people about it and everyone had a story – there were some really bad ones too. That was my motivation for working out if it was possible to do something.”
Semmons-Russell mentioned to a tech savvy mate that there needed to be some way to put money in an account first – in the middle so no one could touch it until the job was done – and that was when Maxwell was first introduced to the word escrow.
“I then went down a YouTube rabbit hole researching everything I could about it. And I realised while it was quite common overseas, there wasn’t really anything like it in New Zealand.”
Once Semmons-Russell confirmed he was onto something, the next stop was finding an App Developer and through some fortuitous luck he landed a phone call with Steph Kennard from Charlie & Co, who not only understood what the new entrepreneur was trying to achieve – but had some experience in the field of escrow.
“Steph told me that she actually used a similar thing due to being a freelancer and working with people overseas, so she knew exactly what I was talking about.”
It’s now been a year since work first began on the new business idea, and it’s almost time to hit ‘go live’ and launch the service to the public. But it’s been quite a ride to get where Semmons-Russell is today – including the challenge every entrepreneur goes through at some stage or another, ‘is this even going to work?’.
“The drive was never about making money, it was about wanting to help other people, so they didn’t have to go through what I (and so many others) had to, with customers not paying. But there were many times I thought ‘is this even worth it?’
“I knew there had been another company with a group of lawyers who tried to do it for big construction deals, but it didn’t work. Meanwhile I was investing all of my own money, trying to turn it into something. Then one day I was talking to a friend of mine Adam Jennings (cofounder of Green Light Escrow) about its possibility, and he came back the next day with a pile of highlighted documents to fill out.
“When I knew it could be done, even though I still didn’t quite have all the workings of how to do it, it gave me the confidence to know I was on the right track.”
After securing a lawyer at MinterEllisonRuddWatts, Semmons-Russell won another raving fan for his product. He was also able to get assistance to put together all the terms and conditions for the app, as well as covering off anti-money laundering paperwork and other nitty-gritty, yet hugely crucial foundations for what Green Light Escrow would offer its users.
“Once this was all underway, we had a roadmap which detailed another two to three year journey for the business. But I was able to speed things up quite a bit by joining the Kōkiri Accelerator Programme this year, who helped me with not only the financial aspects through a grant, but kept me motivated by validating the product with real-world customers.”
Discovering Kōkiri when he was doing some ‘funding’ and ‘grants’ Googling was a rather serendipitous moment for the founder, but it almost wasn’t to be.
“It was the last week for submissions, and I also didn’t really have anything that could help to explain what I was doing.
“I made it into the top 20 and they interviewed me, but I didn’t make it into the final 10. Although they said they would give me a ring if someone pulled out.”
And it wasn’t long till the phone rang back.
“I was so glad to get the call. I received awesome feedback from the programme, with people saying how great it was. And after my main presentation I had so many people come up to me, all with their own stories and experiences of non-payers. I remember one guy who was telling me about his dad not getting paid for a big engineering job and it ended up sinking the whole company.”
At 34, Semmons-Russell is no stranger to hard work. A plumber since he was 17, he now runs his own plumbing business with eight employees. But it was after reading a book about Elon Musk, who said you don’t have to just limit yourself to one thing/one career, that the enthusiastic entrepreneur decided to jump in on more of his ideas and see them through. So while Green Light Escrow is launching late September, he also has a beverage company about to go to market.
Finding an accelerator programme has also played a huge part in where Semmons-Russell is now, especially since he had no prior knowledge of them before embarking on Green Light.
“If I was to help another entrepreneur, I’d tell them to apply to an accelerator programme. They give you a clear path to follow and also expose you to things like venture capitalists – I didn’t even know what one was before Kōkiri. I thought if you needed a loan for a business you had to go to a bank. But there are actually people out there who want to invest in you.”
Story by Erin Harrison. In partnership with Kōkiri.