With a $US55 billion industry in front and a track-record of success behind, WhipAround is the US-based Kiwi start-up we all dream of. Vincent Heeringa met with CEO Noah Hickey to get the full story
It’s 3am, sometime in 2017. Somewhere in Auckland, a developer is asleep. But Noah Hickey is not. The CEO of WhipAround is desperately trying to find someone, anyone, but especially the developer, to fix the WhipAround app which has gone down.
“I drove to the developer’s house and was knocking on the door, knocking around the house, and ringing everything. I got some people out of bed and it turned out he was away. It was pretty awkward! But they found him and he was like ‘can’t we do this tomorrow?’ and I’m like ‘no!’”
The developer did his magic and the app was soon back online. Reputation saved.
It’s a telling story from a Kiwi start-up eager to prove its worth in the world’s biggest market. “Those moments matter,” says Noah. “You have to be absolutely focused on delivering because we’d signed up some big customers. It’s critical for them and, also, I had to set the tone internally. I had to say: we don’t do that, we don’t have our platform down.”
Burning the early midnight oil is part of the job when your business is spread over multiple time zones. As CEO, he’s based in San Diego, California. The company headquarters is in Charlotte, North Carolina. The development team is back in New Zealand.
And then there are the customers, operating 24-7 in all parts of the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and New Zealand. Like rust, the freight industry never sleeps. Late last year, WhipAround recorded its 26th million vehicle inspection, providing digital records for well over 150,000 ‘assets’ across all parts of the globe.
The fleet management business alone is expected to reach $US55 billion by 2030. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder WhipAround is up all night.
Which is just how they like it.
WhipAround started in 2016 by digitising the paper-based, walk-around inspections truckers must make before and after a delivery. The compliance regime creates a mountain of paperwork and suffers from its reliance on human box-ticking. By digitising the process, WhipAround improves the reliability of record-taking and introduces a wealth of data previously not available to managers.
The company now manages well over 150,000 assets that include trucks, pick-ups, trailers, forklifts and other machinery. And that base is growing not just in number but in scope. Noah says that once companies see the benefits of managing the vehicles, they start asking what else WhipAround could manage. “In fact, one company just realised they could manage their inventory of road cones.”
Looked at this way, there’s no limit to what could be included in the WhipAround solution. All assets need managing and without measuring there can be no management. But Noah says sticking to the fleets provides WhipAround with more than enough runway. “There are circa 140 million commercial vehicles on the road in the US alone. When you add trailers, forklifts, or generators or other things that they want to measure, then you can see it’s a really, really big opportunity.”
As if to prove the point, during our interview Noah was getting texts from co-founder James Colley about a partner they integrate with who has 3.2 million assets under management. “If it works for their trucks then why not their trailers and their other things.”
Ah, SaaS, you’re a beautiful thing.
It’s this potential for growth that caught the imaginations of the WhipAround founders in 2016. Back then, James Colley and Tim Boyle were friends. James was working for Toll and later DHL and saw the clunky inspection system first-hand.
In the cab of a vehicle, he asked the driver about the booklet used for the inspections. ‘What, do you do this every day?’ he asked. The driver replied: ‘yep. There are three copies: this one stays here, this goes into the office, this one goes to the fleet manager.’
Surely it should be on an app.
“James has an extremely curious mind and he’ll go and breakdown anything to make it happen,” says Noah. “With Tim he created an app and managed to get about six customers in the US along with NZ customers by the time I met them in 2017.”
Noah, a one-time professional footballer with 33-caps with the All Whites, had just finished working with Pushpay, the donations app, and was looking for opportunities in tech as an investor and executive. “I knew James and Tim already. They came down to see me and poor James was really sick and coughed most of the way through the presentation. I’d already seen lots of pitch decks, but this was special. I was meant to go surfing the next day and I stopped everything and just did due diligence.”
Like James, Noah was amazed to see a sector so ripe for digitisation.
“The boys had done a really good job and one of the key things was that it was really simple. The app is incredibly simple to use and the information and how it could be used was incredibly valuable. So, you know, simple and valuable – you put those two together…”
If Pushpay has taught Kiwi software developers anything (and SaaS developers especially) it’s that the sooner the USA is engaged, the faster you get to the finish line.
But did Americans want it?
In late 2017 the team sent James stateside with a simple challenge: get 20 customers to prove its worth. That would be pretty impressive for any company but for a pioneer with no connections, no history and a funny accent it was a real test of the product. Within a month he returned with 24. Proof of concept: nailed.
The success emboldened investment. They convinced Peter Drummond – former Watercare chair and infrastructure specialist – to come in as an investor and chair. And they headed back to the US to cold call on prospects.
So how did this cold calling work: Hi I’m James from New Zealand. Wanna see my app?
“Pretty much!” Noah laughs. “James has an absolute tenacity and resilience to go and go and go and go. He’d been in sales before and there’s something about salespeople when they can do a hundred calls, get nothing, get up the next day and go again. That’s what he did.”
The response continued to be positive. An early win was being invited to the annual expo for 1-800-GOT-JUNK, the largest junk transporter in North America. Another was securing Don Evans as investor and board member. Evans had held senior roles in CH2M Hill, a large US engineering firm that, among other things, managed the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2007. Evans runs a nationwide consulting company and his appointment opened more doors.
The shift to North Carolina occurred in 2018 when WhipAround employed SaaS sales specialist Mike Flournoy, who built a professional sales team in Charlotte, NC. From 2018 to Flournoy’s departure in September last year (to set up his own consultancy) the company grew to 92 staff and 4000% in revenue. The company has just replaced him with San Diego-based Jason Lazarski.
The accolades built. The company won multiple awards including 2019 Startup of the Year and 2021 Emerging Company of the Year at the Hitech Awards. Its products receive five-star ratings on Apple App Store and in software reviews.
But the explosive growth was demanding on capital and personnel. “I was getting up at about one am every day, after about three hours of sleep because I was still working the East Coast. And then when nine o’clock clicked in, I’d start to do capital raising in New Zealand and you’d work all the way through till about nine o’clock, go to bed and just be on repeat. It was pretty tough for a while.”
It held a Series A, followed in December 2021 with Series B when Punakaiki Fund led a $US14.5 million ($21 million) round, alongside US venture capital firm Amplo, whose investment include well known software businesses such as Intercom, Robinhood and Sharesies.
The demands of the job means Noah’s not playing a lot of football. He had to give up his involvement with the Phoenix but instead coaches his son’s team in San Diego. The family of two kids and Noah’s wife Susie spent time there in 2018 and returned for a wedding on the eve of the 2020 lockdowns. In 2022 they moved to San Diego as a family where they have set up a new office.
“There certainly is a lot of travel,” he laughs. “It’s already pretty busy. You could work 80 hours a week if you wanted to. There’s always more work to be done and always something to worry about. But I was away so much when we first got back to America. I realised I needed to make it to soccer practice, being there for what’s actually important. That’s been a big part of San Diego as well. And, we now have some leaders around that can help make that happen.”
The year ahead looks rosier than ever for WhipAround.
“The next 12 months are really exciting for us. I think we’ve probably got the strongest leadership team in America for some time. And then back in New Zealand, we are focused on the development of a suite of features that will provide customers an understanding of the total cost of ownership of their fleet and the ability to customise the system to work within their own processes and workflows. The share volume of inspection, maintenance and parts data we are collecting each minute is enabling our teams to start looking into what’s never been possible in fleet maintenance before.”
Has the competition also got stronger?
“It’s a bit weird – because we’re so early we haven’t had crazy competition up until now. But even if we do, it’s welcome because it simply educates the market.”
Beyond the direct sales one of the most exciting areas of growth is through partnerships with established players.
“We were recently awarded as a premier partner of Geotab. They’re the largest telematics player in the world and recently announced 3.2 million connected assets on their platform and we’ve got a smidge of their customer’s assets integrated, comparatively but it’s growing quickly. So we can go in there and get alongside the biggest players in the market who we already integrate with. That puts us in a place that we’ve never been and we’ve had good growth up until this stage already.”
WhipAround was already impressive but post-Covid, with the world opening up, the road ahead looks broad and long.