Invested in UX: the story behind Optimal Workshop’s NZ$10m investment
It’s going to be a big year for Optimal Workshop, with the recent announcement of a NZ$10m investment by New Zealand private equity firm, Pioneer Capital. We caught up with Andrew Mayfield, Optimal Workshop’s CEO, to find out the story behind the investment, why now, and what it means for the future.
The Tech start-up route isn’t for everyone but you’ve been part of Optimal Workshop’s success story from early on when it was ‘just 4 people in a windowless room’! What appealed to you back then?
“I worked on the initial prototype for Optimal Workshop with our founder, Sam Ng, in 2007 and eventually joined the team myself to take over from Sam two years later. When I was handed the reins the brief was simple: create ‘kick-ass tools that make life easier.
With this focus on tools to make life easier, life online especially, we settled on a suite focussed on user experience research. It’s turned out to be a field that’s grown an average of 40% year on year so there’s no reason to leave that field. In fact, I’d say Optimal Workshop has been a strong part of enabling the UX field, and user research especially, to grow as it has.”
So, that early focus on user experience was a good call, ahead of the curve even?
“It was timely I guess. People were just starting to appreciate user experience as a key differentiator. I’ve always thought of it as a necessary shift in the way people think about design. That you’d consider your users and you might follow specific methodologies so you can do that consistently and inclusively. Ideally, much of what we call user experience would eventually be considered a natural part of any good design process. It’s just good practice as a designer to consider the real, diverse, and evolving needs and context of the people who actually use what you make.”
When you put it that way it feels pretty compelling, even common sense. Fast forward 14 years, what’s the attitude towards UX now?
“What’s interesting now is there are so many people practicing user experience. When we started there was no UX-specific education, no university courses. Everybody in the field had come from some other field and they were all bringing their influences from somewhere else and I found that very interesting.
Every person I spoke to provided a different lens. It seemed to me that everyone had entered the field, even if it meant dropping some other illustrious career, because they cared about trying to make things, digital things primarily, substantially better than what was available at the time. And by and large they did this by listening to real people doing real things, in real contexts.. Simple, but almost unheard of at the time.
The field of UX has matured a lot over time but there’s still a long, long way to go. If anything, good information is getting harder to find so we still have a lot more work to do.”
Clearly, you have big plans for the future. You’ve just announced pretty exciting news – getting an investor, Pioneer Capital, on board. Why now?
“We are in a big market and from the start our users have almost pulled the product out of us. It has never felt like we’ve needed to push anything uphill. We’ve grown organically to a point where we now feel comfortable that we have all the foundations in place for a truly great company. The team is hungry to have a greater impact and to grow fast — so it’s time to put some more fuel in the tank and get on with it.
Pioneer Capital is a great fit for us as they want to help us build a great company that’s fit to endure, and they’d already had us on their radar for some time.”
Sounds like good timing all-around. What kind of growth are you hoping to achieve with Pioneer Capital’s support?
“There’s been a real elegance in growing organically because you only do what is necessary and what customers absolutely appreciate. We’ve been growing our team at the speed of revenue growth. This means we’ve only really been able to hire for roles when we really need them. Now with funding, we can look ahead and hire for what we expect to need tomorrow, instead of what we needed yesterday.”
Exciting times. What’s the key to keeping Optimal Workshop ahead of the game?
“Keeping our customers at heart. Many companies say it, and it’s addictive once you start doing it. Once you start listening to people and give them what they need – which isn’t necessarily what they asked for – it’s very gratifying. That’s what we’re going to continue doing.”
You can find out more about the NZ$10 million investment by New Zealand private equity firm, Pioneer Capital in our media release.