The Startup Blueprint series shares stories of founders and team members from some of Aotearoa's most epic and fast-growing startups. Hear about their journeys, learn from their insights, and maybe leave with a dose of inspiration.
We spoke with Simon Pound, Partner at Previously Unavailable, host of the 'Business is Boring' podcast, and an all-around creative strategy and branding guru.
If you operate or take an interest in Aotearoa's startup space, there's a high chance you've heard of, listened to, or crossed paths with Simon Pound. Simon is a Partner at Previously Unavailable, where he looks after their Venture Studio and Brand Fund 1. His day-to-day at Previously sees him work with Start-up and Scale-up companies on positioning, brand strategy and brand transformation. He’s worked on brands that are likely already (or soon to be) on your radar like Timely, aglow, Starshipit, chnnl, Seachange, and Konos.
He also hosts the award-winning entrepreneur-focussed 'Business is Boring' podcast for The Spinoff and SparkLab, and before joining Previously, led global brand, creative and communications for Vend.
For obvious reasons, Simon's brain is one we've been wanting to pick for a while so we're stoked to bring you this interview. Simon gives us the details on his non-linear career path to becoming a Partner at NZ's leading innovation studio, some of the innovation that's taking place in the brand space, why a strong brand is so important and how some of the best are doing it.
There's not really a linear path to becoming a Partner at a leading innovation studio – tell us about your life journey and what led you to where you are today.
SP: I started as a media and politics reporter and producer on TVNZ and had a production company with friends, but then moved into advertising as I loved the ability to make things people connected with - and although I loved the people, most news media is so trapped in negativity and division it really isn’t healthy.
I worked as a creative on some really interesting campaigns that helped people do things they cared about for things like Smirnoff and NZ Tourism, and worked in the digital and brand space. My last gig was on things like Spark/Telecom, Lexus and ASB at Saatchi and Saatchi -which I loved and learnt heaps from.
I got into tech as my wife is a fashion designer and I did the business side, so we’d got onto Xero and Vend very early, and I was really excited by the potential of the cloud - so I got involved with some start-ups and met the team at Vend when it was about 15 people. I loved what they were up to - and made a video for them, and then took a 75% pay-cut to go half-time there as I was so keen to get into high-growth technology. I absolutely loved it. The kind of brand work that was good for leading telcos and banks was super relevant to the point-of-sale space, where it was becoming a largely undifferentiated product and brand was part of differentiation. I was able to mix the communications experience, video and production, website writing and learn just so much about SaaS, software thinking, high-growth operations, management and life in 5 odd years of hyper-growth in every sense.
It was such a great team of people, my colleagues and also my bosses, Nick Houldsworth and Vaughan Fergusson, loved brand and gave us all such a platform to succeed. It was really special leading brand, website, creative and comms globally as we scaled from $2m to $20m, and it was such a special company of positive, smart, kind and caring people. It’s been so cool to see the Vend mafia go on to so many successes elsewhere, and it feels like everyone is just getting started.
You have such a cool role, with the privilege of interviewing and working with some great minds in businesses and startups. What are some innovations that you’re seeing through this that get you excited?
SP: The Business is Boring podcast is such a lucky thing to do- it’s such a privilege to talk to an interesting founder every week. From the podcast I’ve loved talking to everyone from Peter Beck and Theresa Gattung to start-ups just getting going - and the generosity and honesty of the people and the excitement of getting to meet and learn from them all is a real treat. I especially love stories like those of Michele Wilson at Awwa period care - who challenge outdated norms and bring more rich cultural, sustainable and thoughtful practices to business.
And at Previously Unavailable where we work as a brand, innovation and venture studio it’s so exciting to get to work with brands making new ideas real in the world. We work with companies like aglow who are making beauty memberships a thing, chnnl making connected wellbeing, Ārepa who are making the first brain drink, and I love what Aera are doing to try make home ownership possible for more Kiwi.
The IV team love working with Previously Unavailable through the Brand Fund, can you tell those reading what it’s all about, how it came to be and why?
SP: We love working with IV and having Barnaby as a key part of the fund! The brand fund is a ~$4-5m fund that places ~$100-200k cheques in companies.
Our role in the ecosystem as brand specialists is to be a signal to other investors that when we invest we think there’s a great brand idea and the team with the skills to execute.
The fund came about after working closely with Icehouse Ventures over the last five years over many brands. Together we identified that there are many people in the local ecosystem who are really knowledgeable about go-to-market, SaaS, hardware, software, finance, scaling overseas…. all kinds of things…. but when there’s a consumer brand or a big new idea or behaviour involved often investors are going to want to hold back and see some traction or wait to see where things are going before getting involved. We only invest when we are super high conviction that a company has a brand idea that can truly change a category or introduce a new behaviour or concept to the world.
It’s going really well so far, we’ve raised over $4 million and are in a position to close the fund soon. So far we’ve announced investments in Tracksuit, AF Drinks and aglow, and are in the process with three other amazing companies that we’re looking forward to sharing soon.
The team at Previously Unavailable
PU is behind some of Aotearoa’s strongest (and aesthetically coolest) brands - can you explain what brand means to you and why you think it is so important?
SP: To us at PU, brand is an idea that people get behind, that works to bring together and connect customers, employees, partners and the market. It’s generally strongest when it’s very true to the product or service, and is a change in the world, or a new behaviour that you need to build understanding, support and a connection with your market around.
For example, AF Drinks are a great brand, as they’re on a mission to make not drinking as cool and aspirational as drinking. They aren’t just a non-alcoholic drink. They are the drink for people choosing not to drink. It’s a really vital difference, and this positioning has helped them lead the category in NZ and they’re making great strides in the US because people who are choosing not to drink get this brand immediately.
Another great brand idea-led company is Tracksuit. They’re an always-on consumer brand tracking tool that allows people to get brand metrics an order of magnitude cheaper and way better than incumbent options. Their brand idea is to become the new common language of brand, allowing brand marketers to make more of a case for the brand work, and driving growth for their companies as a result. Being the champion for brand and brand marketing in a world where most companies only have a common language around Google adwords or Meta ads is a huge change, and is a really exciting idea for people who love brand!
At its best, a brand idea is something that the whole company is built around, not just the colours or logos -although powerful and considered distinctive assets are super important! Our design team are world-leading. Under the leadership of Phoebe Devine, their work on projects like Ārepa, Starshipit, and Supergenerous (shout out to Hannah Small who was instrumental on all three) have been vital for the progress of those companies. We think of brand as the force multiplier for great products and operations, and it needs to be found all through the product and operations.
It’s really exciting how many people in the high-growth ecosystem are understanding and embracing how brand can be something that amplifies everything else they do, and how some of the scepticism around brand is dropping away. Part of this is the work James Hurman, our founder at PU, has done on the data and evidence around the impact and importance of brand (You need to read his book Future Demand if you haven’t!), and part of it is the success of brand-led companies like Vend, Timely, Simplicity, AF Drinks, Tracksuit and others we’ve been lucky enough to work on.
"At its best, a brand idea is something that the whole company is built around, not just the colours or logos -although powerful and considered distinctive assets are super important! ... We think of brand as the force multiplier for great products and operations, and it needs to be found all through the product and operations. "
🔥 Quick-fire questions
Tough Q but if you had to pick one, what’s your favourite brand and why do you think they’re killing it?
SP: Currently one of the brands we’ve recently worked with that I really love is aglow.
They’re a beauty membership platform leading a movement to make beauty memberships the new normal. Today the beauty industry is like the gym industry was 40 years ago. Very few offer memberships, and most are pay-as-you-go. Memberships have the same potential to improve the businesses and lives of clinic owners, and offer a far better experience to their clients. They make it easier for clinic owners to get loans, mortgages and good valuations, and to forecast revenue. They make it easier for clients to break up big ticket treatments into small weekly payments and also get VIP benefits. It’s a total win-win, and aglow are creating a true movement around this. They have raving fans giving unsolicited testimonials, a super active closed Facebook group where clinic owners help each other, and they’re turning up in major media, like A Current Affair, Australia’s biggest news show, as the idea is so powerful.
We worked with them on a distinctive brand just for the industry they’re part of, and from the launch day it’s opened doors for them with industry partners and customers. They’re a dream team, it’s been a lovely project, and it’s so exciting to see them making this idea happen. Keep an eye on them!
What do you do or where do you look when you need inspiration?
SP: I’m always really inspired by the people I get to meet in the ideas we get to work with at Previously. We’re in a really good spot in NZ. A lot of people have had experience in the first couple of waves of great, high-tech and growth companies and are experienced, professional and doing amazing things. It is such an exciting time for what we can make happen on a global scale.
In terms of practical inspiration, working in brand, our competitors aren’t the other companies in our category. Rather, our competitors are all the great things happening today in entertainment and culture. We’re competing for attention and interest and love, and there is so much inspirational stuff happening in all areas of culture. We’ve never been so lucky in terms of the quality of art and science and travel and experience. There’s the TV golden age, spectacle movies, fashion and brand crossovers, places like Korea generating so much culture, the evolution of food… everything is branded and professional and amazing. The lines are more blurred than ever and it’s a great time for inspiration.
The things I’m most excited by are all the new kinds of storytelling emerging. I grew up in an age of mono-cultures. Now there are so many sub-cultures, and so many more people are able to tell stories and create culture. With AI and generative tools this is only going to increase. I can’t wait to see what new stories and ideas we’re going to see once people can make movies and art with just prompts, that would have taken millions of dollars and ages and ages and networks and privilege to produce.
I see what my 15-year-old can do now - he’s taught himself editing and Photoshop and all of these things, just using the Internet and forums. He makes TikToks that get more than a million views. He can make more good stuff in an evening by himself than a team of industry professionals could in a week 15 years ago- and they had expensive and inaccessible equipment and were media gatekeepers. And it’s only speeding up. I think we’re heading into a super exciting time in terms of expression and creative abundance.
A word or phrase that reflects how you’re approaching life at the moment?
SP: Living the dream!
You can find Simon, here.
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