Having journeyed through a whirlwind four years of pandemic, the world now finds itself squarely in the fast-paced realm of Artificial Intelligence, specifically generative AI.
Digital is only going forward - rapidly - demanding that businesses keep up with the tech.
Zeald's pioneering technology in ecommerce, automation, integration, and inbox marketing helps to build strong digital foundations on which businesses can develop and grow, and take up the benefits of digital technology as it continues to develop.
As 2024 unfolds, Zeald continues to look to the future and all its digital possibilities.
It's time to keep moving, innovating, and thriving online, together.
David and Brent Kelly (brothers) and Hamish Braddick (a cousin) all grew up in Mangawhai Heads, a small New Zealand coastal town north of Auckland. At the completion of their college schooling, they all left home to undertake tertiary studies in Auckland.
Hamish, the older of the three, was the first to leave home in 1994 to study a Bachelor of Graphic Design at Auckland's University of Technology (AUT). Following his graduation, Hamish moved to Christchurch for a profitable stint as a T-shirt illustrator before moving to England for an overseas experience as a website designer.
David and Brent left home a few years after Hamish (1997 and 1998 respectively). They studied at Massey University's Albany Campus, both graduating with a Bachelors of Information Science as some of the highest achieving students in their degrees.
Following the conclusion of their degrees David and Brent spent the summer season carefully saving their pennies and then convinced Hamish to return home from England to form a new company called Zeald. Together they had a total of $15,000 in capital and a journey ahead of them that they knew was going to be nothing short of punishing hard work. However, if they had realised just how hard, they might never have had the guts to begin!
Their vision: to build a 'world-class' business that helped small to medium-sized businesses develop successful websites.
David was appointed the leader of the small team (Chief Executive). Hamish was made the Creative Director, and Brent was charged with overseeing the technical development of the core product(s) of the new company (Research and Development Director).
Based on some good 'arm-twisting' and smooth-talking, the company managed to get itself accepted into Massey University's E-Centre; a business incubator located on Massey University's Albany campus. And so Zeald found itself with its first 'official' physical premises. (In the ensuing years that followed the E-Centre provided vital support as the company navigated the highs and lows of business development and growth. The founders of the company would like to recognise and thank all the people involved in the E-Centre, in particular, Steve Corbett and Kim Powell for their crucial support)
From the outset, the company based itself on a strong set of ethics. They were determined to build a strong business that provided good value to its client and to conduct their business affairs in a way that represented the highest in integrity and honesty.
When Zeald was conceived, David, Hamish and Brent strongly believed that a successful website contained two fundamental things. Great design and great technology! A website had to function great from a technical perspective and had to look great from a branding perspective. Following along this line of belief, they threw themselves at their vision of producing NZ's best-looking and most technically robust websites. Little did they know that this vision was going to evolve significantly before the company started to meet with genuine success.
For the first two years of Zeald's existence, the major goal was to:
"Discover a way that the company can build quality websites at a cost that is realistic for a small to medium-sized business."
Based on this the team set out to develop a complete set of website 'building blocks'. The website 'building blocks' would reduce the time and effort required to develop a new website by allowing a website to be built using the different prebuilt blocks rather than completely from scratch. The whole team was focused on developing the 'building blocks' system. Progress was slow, and the undertaking quickly proved to be far bigger and more complex than originally imagined.
Slowly the months and then eventually the years rolled on by; with all three pushing themselves harder and working longer hours than they had ever worked before. All night stints became a regular occurrence, and unhealthy doses of caffeine became part of everyday living. However, eventually, after years of gut-wrenching hard work the first version of the Zeald system emerged in all its glory! This initial undertaking had taken two long years, during which time the company had generated just enough revenue to pay the rent and basic office expenses. Unfortunately, there had never been anything left for wages.
Hamish, Brent and David would not have survived if it had not been for the incredible support of their partners and family.
They were now two years into their journey, tired and seriously addicted to caffeine, but excited about what lay ahead. They could now build amazing websites using their new system. Websites that provided true value to their clients; websites that enabled their clients to run their websites efficiently and effectively. The next major challenge: find some clients!
A meeting was called. The company needed to have someone focused on selling. Hamish and Brent decided that David was the best 'talker', and so he could become the company's official salesperson. However, before this could happen, they needed to employ someone to take over some of David's day-to-day responsibilities.
The main challenge: the company had no spare funds and was barely covering the office rent.
After many different interviews with potential employees, David managed to convince Jonathon Sim ('Jono') to come work for Zeald for a very frugal wage. Jono had just graduated from Auckland University with a mathematics degree and had developed a solid base of experience in programming and computer networking 'on the side'. And so... the team of three suddenly became four. With a Jono on the team, David needed to learn how to sell - and fast. He had never officially sold anything in his life and he was trained as computer programmer not a salesperson! A daunting journey now lay ahead of him.
So, David hit the road... and failed miserably!
Despite his best efforts, David struggled to learn this new 'sales' game and successes were few and far between. The company continued to struggle to meet its basic expenses and Jono's very small wage. Personal credit cards were 'maxed out' and often money would only arrive in the company's bank accounts on the very last day before expenses absolutely had to be paid! Many times they came close to being evicted and had their phones disconnected more than once! After many months, a meeting was called. A decision had to be made. Zeald was heavily underperforming in the sales department and changes needed to be made quickly if the company was going to survive.
It was decided that Zeald needed to do three things:
However, before this could be done, funds would be required to cover the expense of another employee. After much persuasion, one of the founder's parents was convinced to guarantee a loan from the bank that enabled the company to cover the increased wages for a six-month period. The clock was now ticking
A salesperson was then subsequently hired and together David and the new salesperson quickly started to meet with success. Sales increased, the company started to grow and with the new salesperson's guidance, David quickly learnt the ropes in the sales area. With a solid base of clients, the platform was now set. They could now promote the company to potential investors and seek someone who would be prepared to provide the company with funding for its next stage of growth. However, if they thought the first couple of years had been tough, Zeald was about to experience the emotional roller coaster of external funding and investment.
"That which doesn't kill you makes you grow stronger".
After many discussions, a private investor was located and a verbal agreement was reached. Zeald then took on extra staff to implement its growth strategy according to its business plan. Their first big funding lesson quickly followed - never make commitments until everything is signed up! Two weeks prior to the Christmas break in 2003, the private investor withdrew from the agreement. This left Zeald with only 2 weeks of cash reserves, additional commitments and nowhere to go since the rest of New Zealand was on holiday! On top of this, all three founders were down on energy and very close to total burnout!
The next 3 months were some of the defining months of Zeald's early existence.
"All the adversity I've had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles have strengthened me. You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you." - Walt Disney
Zeald survived the Christmas period but by early January the situation was looking incredibly bleak. The founders called a meeting of all employees (7 full-time at the time) to decide on the company's future path.
They had only had two options to present:
Management put in place an immediate eight-week 'battle plan' that highlighted clear 'no excuses' objectives that each member of staff had to achieve.
Key strategies were defined, and needed to be implemented to generate an 80% sales increase.
Private external funding had to be secured by the conclusion of the eight-week period at which point all staff would be reinstated to full pay.
The effect of the battle plan was electric. The whole team pulled together and despite personal sacrifice, morale improved. Within eight weeks sales increased by 120%, private funding was secured with three days to spare and all staff went back on full pay! And... for the first time in over three long years Brent, Hamish and David found themselves on a small wage!
"Serving a customer is the very essence of commerce." - Robert Laidlaw founder of 'The FarmersTrading Company'
Shortly after this incredible trial, the company made a startling discovery.
After speaking with 100's of New Zealand business owners, David had continually asked every person the following question:
"What is the number one thing that you want from Zeald as your website company?"
The answer was the same time and time again:
"We want a website that generates results! We want a website that generates more business."
The founders had always felt that the very core of what any company did was serve a client. So if the majority of Zeald's clients wanted a website that generated results ... then Zeald needed to do everything within its power to assist them. Zeald needed to have an unrelentingly focus on this one goal!
Therefore, shortly after this discovery, the company's vision was refined to the following:
"To help small to medium-sized businesses generate amazing results online, using a website and other forms of online marketing."
On the back of that change in vision, the company went from strength to strength. The team made many significant changes to its website system to assist its clients in generating amazing results using their website. The next period of time saw Zeald achieving significant success in the marketplace with many new clients coming on-board. Demand was very high for the company's services and the company desperately struggled to keep up with this demand.
Attention was then focused on how the company could service its widening client base and expand the business into new regions in New Zealand while still providing a top-notch service to its clients. The company researched setting up additional offices in other parts of the country. They considered packaging up their products so that they could be sold through other organisations. Finally though, they discovered a model that would successfully lead Zeald into the next stage of its growth and development; the development of a network of Digital Strategists.
"The judicial and legal process is often not about justice but more about who has the most money and can drag things out the longest."
However, just as plans were starting to be finalised, disaster struck once again! One of Zeald's senior managers - the sales manager - decided to start up a business in direct competition to Zeald. They located an investor who was prepared to back their operation and put up a million dollars to fund the new business. Whilst they were doing this, they continued to work for Zeald and gave the appearance of carrying on their normal duties for the company. They took some of the materials, systems, and processes that had been developed within Zeald over the years and even started quietly approaching Zeald staff members to see if they could lure them away to the new venture!
Fortunately, for Zeald, the other staff members blew the whistle! This staff member had directly violated their employment contract with Zeald in many different areas. But despite this, they knew that there was no way that Zeald could stop them from what they were doing. At the time the company had a very limited amount of funds to fight a legal battle, while the now ex-employee had as much funding as they needed to fight any legal battle that might eventuate. Zeald had just learnt another major lesson...
"If you're going through hell, keep going." - Winston Churchill
During this very hard time, Zeald made a very important decision. Very early on in the saga, they decided to do their utmost to make things right as best as they were able. However, no matter what, they would not allow themselves to lose focus on what mattered most: continuing to build a fantastic business that served all the people involved in it. As the quote goes; "forgiveness = freedom".
In the months that followed, the team met the setback head-on with an indomitable resolve. There is nothing like having a competitor in the market place with lots of your material, systems, and processes along with $1 million in funding to get you focused.
By the beginning of 2005, Zeald had done the following:
"The only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work." - Harry Golden
The plans were now in place to launch Zeald's network of Digital Strategists. However, before this could occur the founders felt that further funds needed to be raised to fund the increased levels of growth. (The original investor had since been bought out by the founders and Jonathon Sim.)
The founders opted to approach a small group of friends and family, who had been supportive over the years, and provide them with an opportunity to buy a small amount of shares in the company. This was met with great enthusiasm as the company quickly raised the necessary funds. The appropriate pieces were now in place, and the company was ready to launch its network of Digital Strategists.
In early 2005, Zeald launched a pilot of its licensee program with two founding Digital Strategists. Three months later the pilot program was concluded, and the licensing program formally launched to the marketplace. The next 12 months saw a slow but steady stream of digital strategists recruited and extensively trained throughout the North Island of New Zealand. However, this brought with it, its share of problems as sales doubled in 6 months and then doubled again! The company struggled to quickly build its operational teams and keep up with the ever-growing demand for its services.
In early 2006, Zeald temporarily suspended its recruitment of any further Digital Strategists. The company was bursting at the seams as it desperately tried to keep up with the massive increase in demand for its services. A time of 'consolidation' was announced. The company once again had a huge challenge ahead of it. All of a sudden it was one of the largest such companies in the country. Servicing a client base in the hundreds was the realm of the last few years. Skills, systems and processes now had to be developed to enable the team to successfully service a client base in the thousands! Over a year was spent focused on overhauling and enhancing just about every single aspect of the company's operational systems. The entire team focused on the systems to an almost microscopic level of detail. Systems were developed, tested, refined, tested again, and refined repeatedly and a number of experts were brought in to advise and assist.
During the following three years from 2006-2008, this became the status quo at Zeald as it witnessed a continual seesaw effect. Fast growth would be followed by consolidation which, would then be followed by more fast growth. Systems were refined again and again and a process of 'continual ongoing improvement' was relentlessly focused on in order to continually refine and improve the Zeald's systems.
After another strong period, Zeald's growth levelled out as the global financial crisis (GFC) hit and the New Zealand market went into strong recession through 2008-2009. Zeald took the opportunity to restructure the company - while also keeping an eye on what was happening across the Tasman.
With the company still in a good position at that time, Zeald was considering whether now was the right time to enter the Australian market. In preparation, a global holding company was formed to oversee different national trading arms of the company, and management structures and operations were restructured in such a way to potentially service both markets.
Taking a "softly softly" approach, Zeald opened its first overseas satellite office in Sydney, Australia in 2010, which was serviced virtually. Gradually, the company started signing on its first Australian clients.
Following the GFC impact, eventually, like many other companies, Zeald struggled to return to profitability. They were also doing a lot of free work to help provide flexibility and ease cost burdens on their clients. The company knew its two main cost centres were wages and real estate. Taking a close look at options, in 2011 they made the big decision to split the one New Zealand office (Constellation Drive, Auckland) into two locations - basing the Sales team in Albany, and Operations in Orewa.
This decision served multiple purposes. The thinking was that only one, smaller premises was needed as a customer-facing location - with good visibility, easy access, and a good vibe. This was Tawa Drive in Albany, where the Sales team was based.
For Operations, what was needed was a good space and environment to work within, in a location that would be attractive to staff. Orewa was that spot. It was a unique proposition at the time, in a location quite far from the CBD. But it was near to the beach and a bustling little village - and it was indeed attractive to good staff north of Auckland (predominantly), as a great alternative to commuting to the North Shore or into the City. It also had lower overheads.
Through negotiation, Zeald was able to bring costs right down. Finally, they became profitable again. It was win-win for both company and staff.
Around 2011 Zeald began offering digital marketing services - an exciting development at a time when marketing via social media and email was slowly on the rise. In 2011 the majority of Kiwis (80% of 20-59-year-olds) were regularly shopping online, however SMEs were only just gathering speed in their digital commerce activity i.e. only 28% of SMEs were using email marketing and promoting their businesses via search engines like Google.
These years were very focused on heads-down work, servicing an established client base, and delivering results. Perhaps the qualification of this period for the company was the awards - winning Best Web Developer at the Netguide Awards four years in a row.
Going into 2015, Zeald became tech agnostic - able to build websites on other platforms e.g. Shopify, Wordpress etc, in addition to on their own ecommerce platform, ZEST.
Side note: In the early days, Zeald fended off fierce criticism in particular from competitors, about ZEST being proprietary software. There were so many questions about ownership, and offence taken by people about Zeald retaining ownership of its technology (but never the data). However, with the arrival, uptake, and adoption of other proprietary software such as Xero, Vend, Shopify etc, the intense focus and umbrance taken to ZEST began to lessen.
Becoming tech agnostic also helped ease that pressure. At this time, Zeald also became a Premium Google Partner, the top tier of the Google Partners programme. Things were on the up, and they had found their stride again.
One of the most pivotal company plays came in 2015 when Zeald entered the Philippines. This was a strategically-driven, bold, and challenging move... and it was phenomenally hard, being 50/50 succeed or fail, all the way through!
At that point in time, in Aotearoa's digital landscape, Zeald found its biggest competitors were not companies, but one-person businesses operating from home and contracting out various roles and functions. Instead of a consolidated market, the market was fragmenting.
So Zeald was asking, "how do we function in this environment successfully?"
Their focus was to create a more efficient cost model, while tailoring staff and skillsets to Zeald's service delivery needs (rather than working with broad-function contractors).
Not being geographically limited to one physical location, they got thinking: what about exploring working with staff offshore? After thorough research and some road-testing, Zeald landed on the Philippines.
Not wanting to downscale New Zealand operations to set up in the Philippines, somehow they were going to need to manage double costs for a period of time. Bootstrapping wasn't an option. They would need to make cuts.
It was a strategic decision to downscale the company's New Zealand marketing function to find those savings. They calculated being able to manage this for 12-24 months - the time estimated it would take to set up in the Philippines. But in reality, set-up took five years!!!
The Philippines branch started with five to 10 employees and grew to around 50 highly-skilled local team members across two provinces. The Filipino team's focus was development and client service delivery, which grew to include research and development, too. Zeald staff travelled between the Philippines and New Zealand regularly over that five-year period (pre-Covid).
Following entry into the Philippines, Zeald made some more important strategic decisions about the structure of the company. Andrew Forsyth was appointed to the position of CEO having been Chief Financial Officer for nearly two years; and David Kelly shifted into the role of Chairman.
This paved the way for David to focus on his strategic and visionary contribution to Zeald, while Andrew took up the reins of daily general management of the company.
"This was the single greatest change we made as a company at that point, from my perspective - I only wish we'd done it sooner," says David Kelly.
At the same time, Zeald decided to revisit the Australian market.
While they had a number of cross-Tasman clients, their office and client servicing was still largely remote. It was time to actively increase activity and grow the client base there. So over went Zeald's head of business development to set up shop and start recruiting an on-the-ground sales team. However, despite best efforts and huge investment, disappointingly the market challenges at the time were too great to surmount - and by the following year Zeald's Australian office closed.
It was as an unanticipated, short-lived stint across the Tasman, and it was gutting.
It was 2017 when Zeald moved to a hybrid structure and service model. They started to work in cross-functional teams in certain aspects of the business e.g. client service. They also introduced profit share into some client-facing and service roles.
Why? They wanted to increase the level of service delivered to clients, in a more tailored and specific capacity, with high efficiency. This structure also suited and helped accommodate the growing spread of the company in New Zealand.
This structural move speaks to Zeald's service proposition, coined: the personalisation, finesse, and care of an agency; with the raw horsepower and efficiency of a factory.
As part of this structural progression, offices were established in both Christchurch and Tauranga. While the South Island base eventually closed, the Tauranga office remained and is still led by Jarra Borman, Zeald's Director of Strategy and Growth.
Finally, in 2019, Zeald could say its Philippines operations and new company model was working well - hurrah! Time to revisit and fire up marketing in New Zealand, and get back into growth mode.
Also approaching 20 years in business, the board and leadership were exploring different ideas for how Zeald could use its digital experience and expertise for good. As a company, they were keen to make a positive social contribution to Kiwi communities - beyond just business - in particular, in Aotearoa's regions. Through relationships and grassroots work in areas like the Far North and Tairawhiti, it was clear there was a lot of need in those places.
The following year presented Zeald with that opportunity - and fast - with the unprecedented and irreversibly-market-changing emergence of Covid-19.
The world, as we all knew it, changed in March 2020. The forever impact of Covid-19 was felt across the global, local and digital landscapes.
In New Zealand, Kiwi businesses were adapting to the 'new normal', while still trying to work out what that meant for them and where they sat in a radically different, more digital age.
To say it was a whirlwind year for Zeald, is an understatement - and that's a sentiment we know we shared with all Kiwi businesses.
For us, 2020 was marked by intense change, uncertainty, radical undertakings, and bold, new, socially-driven initiatives that changed Zeald - for the better.
Yes, we would definitely call it a "pivot".
In the face of lockdowns and restricted trading conditions for small businesses, we felt compelled to help. As New Zealand's largest and most-established website design and digital transformation agency for Kiwi businesses, we were equipped to make a significant contribution.
We wanted to offer our 20-year ecommerce and digital expertise to help small businesses and communities in New Zealand survive and thrive beyond Covid.
Four days after New Zealand first went into lockdown, we launched our Get Ecommerce Movement - the GEM initiative. We announced 500 free ecommerce websites to help struggling Kiwi businesses urgently get online and trade through lockdown and the ensuing, ongoing uncertainty. We mobilised our teams across New Zealand and the Philippines, and geared our workflow and production systems to deliver these GEM websites at scale and speed.
We also developed our GEM Academy, offering free digital training and real-world experience for New Zealanders wanting to digitally upskill. And we started our free webinar series "Keep Calm and Get Digital" to provide small business owners with regular, expert, digital knowledge and advice.
Digital resiliency is key to business survival in the face of uncertainty and post-Covid.
Digital capability is the foundation from which every business can leverage and take advantage of the many benefits and opportunities that new digital technology has to offer.
Our team is committed to supporting businesses to do digital well in these extraordinary times, and to making a lasting, positive contribution to the wider New Zealand community.
Time is short. Speed of change is everything.
The pandemic irreversibly impacted on Zeald, as it did everyone, influencing and shaping the company's present and future.
Throughout those unprecedented times, rapid digital change underpinned everything.
In response to the challenges Kiwi SMEs faced from lockdowns and uncertain trading conditions, Zeald developed its Get Ecommerce Movement (GEM) to get small businesses trading online fast and for free, which was launched in March 2020. The GEM initiative and GEM technology evolved and grew, expanding its reach and contribution across Aotearoa and into Fiji and the Phillipines, too.
In May 2021, Zeald joined MBIE's newly-formed Digital Boost Alliance Aotearoa. This led to a partnership with Bank of New Zealand and together Zeald and BNZ developed the Digital Cluster Initiative, utilising Zeald's marketplace and GEM technology. The more than two-year project combined economic clustering with digital tools to ignite productivity and growth in Aotearoa's regions, working with three Pilot groups.
This brought Zeald to 2023 - undoubtedly the year of AI.
Generative AI exploded onto the scene, hot on the heels of Covid, keeping the digital progression pace cracking. Zeald spent the year focused on R&D, integrating AI-driven technology into all aspects and tools of the business.
More than 20 years on, Zeald's founders are still involved with the business - the company's Kiwi roots firmly in place. The kaupapa of the company, the work ethic and vision for doing more and better, is what drives them.
They each always have a side project on the go, too.
Brent is involved in Zeald's software architecture and works as an advisor to a number of different internal and external projects. He is also currently installing an elaborate solar power system and extensively reworking his home's electricity process - he researches, models, and designs. Brent is the prodigy.
Hamish operates in a broad capacity, having led design, technical, and research & development components across Zeald. He is currently building swamp-Kauri kitchen tables and high-end furniture, while executing high-level relationship account management and complex business process design. Hamish is the craftsman.
David is an independent director and advisor for a number of organisations including not-for-profits. He is still involved with Zeald in a governance and advisory capacity. In addition, he is currently building his house with his wife and kids. Whatever the project, it must be big, grand, and on the edge of what's possible. David is the visionary.