Serko has become the software of choice for travel management firms and their corporate clients globally. It allows firms to book and modify their own travel arrangements while still accessing the discount fares offered through travel agents.
The software also links hotel reservations and rental vehicles under the system and can adjust those bookings based on flight delays or cancellations.
Company co-founder Darrin Grafton estimates an offline travel booking costs the average company $175 in time and resources, but with Serko this drops to $35.
But the firm's latest advance - called Duty of Care - is not about those kind of savings, it is about keeping travelling staff safe, says Grafton.
The software has the ability to track staff via their cellphones and instantly update those staff on potential risks anywhere they are travelling.
The danger could include terrorist alerts, bomb threats, weather hazards or natural disasters, Grafton says.
"It's using the latest location technology which is built into most of the phones and bringing that into the travel programme so that corporates can really provide that duty of care to their travellers."
The programme gives a visual representation of what Grafton calls the "hot zone" around any high-risk area, and can track employees as they travel in and around the zone.
Notifications and warning messages can be dispersed to employees on the ground who may not be aware of the danger, giving employers peace of mind and ensuring they do everything they can to keep their staff safe.
Tracking can be enabled using either the trigonometry of the cell towers or via SMS coordinates if the phone is GPS-capable. The Serko server will plot the coordinates in real- time.
"Say if a bomb goes off in Bali they can bring that up and see where their travellers are - they can then track them and see when they enter or exit the hot zones and it will send notifications out to the required people," says Grafton.
"Employees could be in an office around the corner and there's an alert that there's been a car found with a bomb in it, to take the Times Square example recently.
"They could just plug that into the system and see instantly where their travellers were in real time and could alert them and get them out of that zone immediately."
Grafton says the Duty of Care capability will add value to the existing system and make Serko more attractive to government agencies who often put employees into dangerous situations.
Sidebar: Founders explain the Serko way
The technology behind Serko started as a back-office accounting tool in 1998 and has since grown into a world-leading business travel management solution. Led by chief executive Darrin Grafton and commercial manager Bob Shaw, the company's award-winning technology, Serko Online, is the No 1 online corporate solution in Australasia. Serko has just won, for the second time, the Technology Services Provider of the year at the prestigious BTTB Travel Management awards.
In May 2007, the founders bought back the company in a management buy-out and promptly gave 40 per cent to staff, who now number 35. Serko spends $4 million annually on research and development to stay ahead of its competitors and is planning a big sales push in Australia and Asia, including setting up a Singapore office.
Tell us about your first entrepreneurial act?
Darrin Grafton: From when I was 11 my two brothers and I would pick mushrooms on the farm at Muriwai and sell them to shops for a few dollars cheaper than the markets. It was a seasonal thing but made us money for bikes and things like that.
Bob Shaw: When I was 11, at intermediate school, the Rubik's Cube was a big fad. I got the instructions for solving it and hit the market selling them for $2 a pop to school mates. It meant they could solve it within two minutes.
What makes someone an entrepreneur?
Grafton: You have to be a risk- taker and be able to manage risk. You also have to believe in your dream and let other people share it. The key thing is to have a goal and concentrate on doing the job right and everything else follows, You have to motivate people to set the same goal.
Shaw: It's all about motivation. If you have people who are uplifting and innovative around you, that experience makes you want to be an entrepreneur. I'm inspired by my grandmother who is 82 and still in her own home. She does 50 full press-ups, 200 sit-ups and 1000 steps running on the spot every day - she is just driven, driven, driven.
What have been the biggest obstacles in running your business?
Grafton: One of the big things with Serko is the third-party technology we have to deal with. It can be a bit flaky. We have to build robust systems around that and incorporate disparate systems so that, for the traveller, the process is simple.
Shaw: We came from a technical background and creating the concept is nowhere near as difficult as commercialising it. Andrew Bagnall came in at the right time as we were creating the ideas and gave us insights into that commercialisation. He spent time mentoring us and working through business models we now apply on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.
What is your company's unique selling proposition?
Grafton: Being agile, which is a key difference to many of our competitors. We are local, agile and have a flexible strategy that we can develop quickly, commercialise and get to market. For example, if Air New Zealand is introducing new meal packages, our online tool would need to be changed for that. The United States tools would take six months to do that but we can do it in six days.
Shaw: Our selling points are innovation, fun and success. Our maxim is success through innovation. That sums us up.
Who in business do you admire?
Grafton: Andrew Bagnall, because of our background. But I also spend a lot of time researching some of the new startups and entrepreneurs, and I admire their guts in coming out during a recession and giving it a go. We now want to help them by giving free advice. Some people have approached us through word of mouth but sometimes I'll just drop them an email offering to chat about going into new markets or whatever. People did it for us and we want to give back.
Shaw: Andrew Bagnall, because he really helped us in areas of the business at an early crucial point. We've always been young compared to others in our market because we started in the IT field at just 16 and 17, building some of these products.
What do you do to attract and retain staff?
Grafton: We run an internal innovation project and annual awards scheme, where staff submit ideas to put into our product. The top three travel management companies in Australasia vote on the leading ideas and the winner gets a prize and their idea incorporated in our product road map. The last winner got an iPhone.
Shaw: A key part for me is having a fun environment. We have a flat management structure as this is not Bob and Darrin's company but "our" company. We provide lunch at company meetings each month and have social events every three weeks - the last couple were laser-tag and indoor bowls. Staff pick what they are. We have built a great team and a lot of them have been with us for 10 years.
How do you sustain company growth?
Grafton: Investment in research and development. But this year we are looking to employ fewer developers and more sales staff because you have to balance spending money on innovation and then getting that technology in front of people. We reckon it's going to cost us $1.5 million to set up an office in Singapore and, unless we get a whole lot of clients, we won't recover that.
Shaw: We constantly re-invent and refine our technology, along with new market development, expanding into emerging markets and further relationship building.
Describe a mistake you have learnt from in business?
Grafton: Setting up an offshore office in Sydney in the late 90s when it was too early for the business. We followed the book and employed the right people and a key accounting firm, but we were so busy working on the technology we left someone to run it by themselves and it didn't go so well. It closed after only two years. Eight years on we learnt from that and did it differently. We are more proactive and bring people over to New Zealand and we travel across more to support them.
Shaw: We've had a fairly good run to date and haven't made too many other mistakes because we do a lot of research and clever advertising.
Describe your best triumph.
Grafton: Our biggest success has been creating a product that is recognised around the world as one of the leading products and then signing an alliance with US-based international IT firm TRX.
Shaw: The public float [of Interactive Technologies, which later became Serko] in December 2004 was a highlight. But we were also named as most innovative product of the year in 2002 and 2003 for the Asia/Pacific region - we were the first New Zealand company to do that. When we won the Asia/Pacific region, the global winner was a Canadian firm that had 1000 developers and did a trillion transactions a day, while we had around 18 staff at that stage. So we're a Kiwi company hitting well above our weight.
What are your business and personal goals?
Grafton: Mentoring staff so, if we step aside from running the business, they will be at the point where they can run it or have the skills to run their own businesses and commercialise their own ideas. We want to push what we have learnt through other businesses in New Zealand and have more time to spend with the family.
Shaw: The continual evolution of our peers in all sorts of businesses being run out there is one of my personal goals. The financial side is not important but spending more time with the family and having more balance is.
How do you balance work life and home?
Grafton: You have to make sacrifices in the early years to do what you believe in, and you need people who will go with you on that dream or you will never succeed. We were working 120 hours a week, sleeping only four hours or so a night in the early days. You can't keep doing that, though.
Shaw: It's a different dynamic when you are in partnership as an entrepreneur. I've had times when I got things wrong and the other person will put you right and you debate issues. That relationship is certainly key in the early years. It has to be a consensus partnership.
Any tips for budding entrepreneurs?
Grafton: Don't be afraid to make sacrifices for your dream and don't be afraid to give away a piece of the pie in order to have a bigger pie. You may need to bring in three or four people. If you try to do it all by yourself it can be a very lonely place. And learn from other people. Every time we didn't know something we went and got advice, whether it was in the commercial area or technology. It may be a cost, but the overall benefit drives the company forward.
Shaw: You have to adapt because as an individual you go through different cycles in your life. In your teenage years you're able to burn the midnight candle but we couldn't do that now. We think smarter and adapt to where we are now in our life cycle. And use expert advice well. The Independent New Zealand
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