For Tina Faulkner, the business of helping children learn how to write is more than a commercial venture; it’s personal. The Manawatu teacher and mother was recently named as one of two grand prize winners at this year’s BCC Innovate competition for her start-up EpicWriter, an online programme aimed at 6 to 16-year-olds struggling to master writing.
The idea for EpicWriter was born of one of her own children’s learning difficulties. While Faulkner had no trouble finding what she needed to teach other subjects, writing was a different matter. “There are resources out there, but they’re scattered. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to bring all of it together in one place’.”
The programme she devised is highly interactive, structured around six key writing processes and with plenty of graphics and fun features to sugar the pill. Commenting on the decision to award EpicWriter the grand prize of $10,000, Innovate judge Simon Barnett said he saw “global potential” for the business and noted the “huge commitment” of time and money already invested in the venture by Faulkner and her husband Dave.
With no previous business experience, entering Innovate was something of a trial by fire, remarks Faulkner. As one of the top ten finalists, for example, she participated in an intensive ten-week market validation course run by BCC that challenged every assumption of her business model. “But I enjoyed that. You want to be challenged, to have your idea ripped up, so to speak. Better to find out early than when you’re taking it to the market.”
She has since tweaked her pricing model, but the fundamental argument for EpicWriter survived scrutiny. “Talk to parents and teachers and you quickly realise how big a problem this is. A lot of children are failing at writing.” With the website development almost finished (helped by that $10,000 prize money), the next step will be to trial EpicWriter in Manawatu schools, before going live in the new year.
Fellow Innovate 2014 winner Paul Linklater is building a business future by solving an age-old farming problem. Known as Strip Links, Linklater’s innovative strip tillage machine allows farmers to both work the soil and plant seeds in a single pass, creating prized efficiencies for commercial growers of ‘row crops’, such as maize, sweetcorn and squash. Already there’s been plenty of interest from around New Zealand, according to the Manawatu agronomist, who plans to trial the prototype locally before trucking it to Hawke’s Bay for Wattie’s and other large-scale growers to use in the late season. Full patents and manufacturing should follow in the new year.
Like Tina Faulkner, Linklater rates Innovate’s market validation course as perhaps even more valuable than the $10,000 prize money, which has gone towards product development. “It’s great to have an idea, but is there a market for it? I’d never gone down that track. The Innovate process confirmed that provided we can get the build costs down it will stack up.”
He has, however, completely rethought his sales strategy as a result of Innovate, opting for direct sales against selling through agents. “It made me come up with a better game plan instead of just shooting from the hip.”
The fact that two grand prize winners were named at Innovate this year says something about the growth of the four-year-old competition, according to BCC marketing manager Dave Craig.
“The quality of entries this year was just superb. People came in with solid business plans and a lot of drive and passion behind them. Innovate has gone from ‘throw in any old idea and see what happens’, to producing solid product and companies.”
In other words, it’s fulfilling the brief. “Our end game is to ramp up an ecosystem in the Manawatu. We want good ideas coming through and to surround them with people and money so they can grow from here.”Posted by