BusinessSeptember 8, 2017

How to run a tech business from a lifestyle block in Kawakawa


She’s done customer support from the school pool, a kayak, the beach and the Twizel RSA. Rebecca Stevenson finds out how Helen Beech went from holding a tech golden ticket to hocking original art from the Bay of Islands.

Helen Beech is the unlikely face of a tech company.

Ducks, goats and the blue-hued paintings she posts to her social media accounts speak to an idyllic farm life. But behind the art and animals is a software business with a history that reads like the parable of the computer program; how a profitable superior product can be swamped by the inferior, and the free. Beech is not obviously the tech type. When called to chat about her businesses, her first mission is beating a hasty retreat from her 16 Pekin ducks in search of a quiet and sunny spot so she can speak without interruption.

Based in Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands, Beech presents like an earth mother. She grows vegetables, her hugely productive hens provide plenty of truly free range eggs, and while she’s not a “prepper” or survivalist, she aims to live off the land and provide for those living around the six acres she calls home. And yet, she came to be the Kiwi face of the music industry’s answer to Microsoft Word. The 45-year-old found herself grieving her dad, and thrust into running his Auckland-based music software company which held the highly-prized rights for music composition program Sibelius.

“Computer Music was my dad’s business,” she says, “I was sort of thrown the phone and they said ‘here you go’. I had seven kids. I was living on an organic farm… I didn’t even own a place.”

Released the same year as Adobe’s pervasive document management program Reader, music composition program Sibelius brought innovation and ease of use to making music in much the same way Adobe captured document control with one program. Developed by British twin brothers Ben and Jonathan Finn, Sibelius allows musicians to write, score and even play back, with realistic orchestral sound, their original compositions. It quickly became ‘the’ music program to have, and had a particular grip on the education industry after the brothers’ targeted Acorn Computers, widely used in UK schools at the time.

Beech says the program is “just like heaven” for musicians. It’s used by professional composers like James Horner who used the program to create the soundtrack for Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, but it’s equally at ease with the at-home musician. The company originally sold Sibelius plus instruments and computers, but over time Beech’s father had whittled the business down to its most profitable bit, Sibelius. And Beech, a trained teacher with a musical bent, took it on.

“My dad told me I would never make any money being a musician, which was funny because I ended up in the music business anyway.”

She sold Sibelius and was customer support from anywhere, including up a scaffold and from the local school pool. The Kiwi company mimicked the (English) Finn brothers’ business model, selling to schools across the country, with Beech running seminars and tutorials at schools around New Zealand. Even today Beech says Computer Music has retained a stronghold in the education sector in New Zealand, with about 90 per cent uptake from secondary schools.

The interface that started it all.

After a few years, she and her partner, Alan Fish, purchased the company from her mum. It wasn’t a software business many would recognise these days. Back then, Beech says, her partner was mostly in charge of logistics – ordering, shipping and organising the boxes of floppy disks that would come from Britain.

“I did the talking,” Beech says.

But the online software revolution was looming. And again, much like Adobe’s Reader, Sibelius faced intense competition from new programs and saw its status eroded by the arrival of online, and free, programs. The tech golden ticket the company held was downgraded to silver, as Sibelius started to be sold directly by its owner. A bricks and mortar retail store has also cut into Computer Music’s market.

But the company’s long relationships with its customers has seen it carve out a space in the modern music composition industry, but now instead of selling boxes of disks it sells code and farms clients for yearly subscriptions. Beech still mans the phone from her farm in the Bay of Islands, but the need to leave her plot of paradise for seminars are fewer these days. Now Computer Music has turnover of about $200,000 a year, but Beech says “we’re plenty tired at the end of the day”.

It’s not her only income. From her bit of land by the Kawkawa River inlet, Beech has now launched another small business based around another artistic endeavour; painting. Beech had joined a painting group in Helensville, unlocking a creative side of her that had fallen by the wayside as babies, and life in general, took over her time. Now she draws inspiration from her home, which she shares with the ducks, hens, one rooster and a few goats – with plans for some woolly mates to join her.

Beech’s acrylic paintings are priced “for everyday people”, and sell on TradeMe for between $300-$900. But how can you make more money from your art other than the original? An invitation to an incubator for Northland artists has seen Beech monetise her work in other forms. Beech’s paintings are now printed onto scarves, which she sells for $60, and she’s exploring other items that could leverage her creativity into cash. Sounds simple doesn’t it? You have a print, you put it on something, and you flog it. But it wasn’t, Beech says. Finding a material that gave a good result once the design was printed on it was a process of trial and error. Eventually, she settled on silk. Then a manufacturer had to be found. Beech says it was impossible to find a New Zealand company that could make them for her, quickly.

Shawl thing: Beech has sold about 150 scarves.

This was a disappointment, she says, as New Zealand made was her goal, but she’s made a pragmatic business decision after failing to find someone here, and the scarves are produced in China. Even finding an offshore manufacturer was fraught. It took months to find a company that could take the art image she supplied, print it onto silk, and get it shipped back to New Zealand within a short timeframe. In the end Beech ended up on the behemoth of buying, Alibaba.

After months banging up against language barriers attempting to source a supplier she was approached by a global silk scarf manufacturer, based in China. Now, Beech can create a scarf design from one of her paintings, and have it ordered, made and in New Zealand to sell in about three weeks. She has three designs for sale, and has had about 150 of them made. Selling them via social media leaves a nice fat profit margin for her. A relatively new e-commerce site has not done as well as she hoped. The mum of seven also sells her art on TradeMe, Beech surmises there’s something about the artificial deadline of an auction that brings out the buyers.

And it’s still a partnership with Fish. “Alan fabricates the boards I work on, which is fantastic and keeps costs down.”

Beech is going back to the artists’ incubator this year, but this time she’s talking about how the scarf sideline is going. “That’s made me realise how much my confidence has grown,” she says.

Challenges? There’s been a few, Beech says. It was her mum who inherited the business, not her, and she “worried” about it. A stint with a business mentor saw a clear succession plan drawn up, and in 2008, Beech and Fish officially took over. Being self-employed has also been a hassle. Her sons, when they were teens, went to live with their dad. Beech says working with the Inland Revenue Department to pay child support with a fluctuating income was stressful. But those days are in the past, with her youngest now 18. Her kids have helped out off-and-on with the business, but there’s been no succession planning for the next generation.

So what are the next steps for Beech? She has her first “big” solo art show coming, she’s working with an Australian author to illustrate a book, she has plans to make more products based on her artwork, and she has got to sort out that website. One thing she is certain of, is that she’s not missing out on anything being so far aware from the action of a city. Beech says all her business is done over the phone or online, and even claims the cell phone coverage is better in the Bay of Islands.

“Being here, and being away from Auckland, means we are way more laid back about everything, we are not so strung up.”

She is mostly on the farm now – and that suits her just fine.

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