Tim Norton talks to Jenny Morel about the 90Seconds journey : the people and the money

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“I’m in a good place right now”

Tim is relaxed as we sit down to chat on a sofa inside the entry to the extremely crowded shophouse that is 90Seconds Singapore HQ.  He’s just finished raising a good Series B round, and a few months ago he appointed a Chief of Staff.  The wonderful combination of money and people!  Tim always has with him a very large plain paper pad (like a draftsman’s) on which he draws out future ideas for the business in flow charts and diagrams, mind mapping. Now, with the money raised and his Chief of Staff in place, it’s time to implement the plans to propel the company on the next stage of its journey to become the biggest video production company in the world.  

That’s why Tim says he is in a good space right now.

The long journey – trying lots of things

At the age of 39 Tim now has a successful company with 140 staff and business all over the world. 

When I first met Tim he had started a platform for running companies online, Evolution 1, and one of the first co-working spaces.  Out of Evolution 1 came PlanHQ – business planning and a web design/development shop to keep some money coming in.  Also a JV with Kiwibank …  a lot going on!

In 2009, Tim started making Made in New Zealand marketing videos for the Department of Conservation.  Tim says this was largely for fun: “I got to travel around the country and do all the great walks of New Zealand.  There were 42 helicopter trips and I walked over 500 kilometres of tracks.  It was absolutely beautiful.”  He spent 9 months travelling around New Zealand doing this and kept travelling for 2 years – living in a campervan he had contra’d for payment in videos.  And all the communications were done on mobile data.  The data rate was good when not too many people using it.  When too many users came on, it was time to go to the beach.

Tim didn’t know that his future would be in video and this would be the big one, but it was the beginning of 90 Seconds.  He was enjoying video, and he really liked the distributed workforce and the complex software to manage it.

90 Seconds takes off – building the team

In 2014, Tim proposed partnering with Morgo. 90 Seconds have been our video partners ever since.  At that time 90 Seconds was small and Tim had to decide: stay as we are and have a lot of fun, or build the company?  Building won and luckily it’s been a lot of fun as well.

The first moves were to set up in Sydney – close, and Singapore – easy to set up in business and to fly anywhere in the world from there.  Tim Williams and Jonny Hendricksen, a couple of kiwis who had built successful software businesses in Japan, came on board as early investors.  Tim became Chairman and helped and helped 90 Seconds set up in Japan.

The next key person on board was Nick Erskine-Shaw who joined to do UK sales and started to bring in big brands as customers.  Nick’s now in the Singapore HQ heading up global growth.

By January 2015, the company had 17 people.  The next key hire was an extremely important one: Rachel Ng as Head of Talent.  She was told to hire 20 people in 20 weeks!  And in May the company was up to 40 people.  

More money to hire more people

Hiring all these people was made possible by winning the New Zealand Entrepreneurs Challenge – the prize was a loan of $250,000.  Then a US$500,000 fundraising in July and some $500,000 invested into the Japanese company, and the company started hiring like mad.  These things go inextricably together: raise the money, hire the people.  It’s interesting that 90 Seconds added a Head of Talent so early on, which has enabled their rapid growth.

At the same time, Tim had started to put in place systems for scaling: dashboard, ramping up as a global business with a matrix reporting structure – regional leaders who could hire their own staff.

In September 2015, the company set out to raise $5 million.  Now connections come into play: Tim had met someone from SkyTV when he was at a KEA event in London and, somewhat to Tim’s surprise, Sky reached out to him about investment.  

Adding to that, Tim had been on CNBC after meeting a CNBC journalist at an NZTE event.  A friend shared the interview on FaceBook, a Sequoia partner saw it there – and reached out to Tim!  The conversation with Sequoia was then a long one: they wanted to know if the company could really scale.  They kept making suggestions, Tim kept implementing them … For about two months.  Then a term sheet from Sky TV crystallised things: Sky provided a convertible note to give time for the final consortium to be formed: Sky, Sequoia, Airtree Ventures and a few smaller investors, totalling US$7.2 million, closed in March 2016.

This allowed the company to expand into the US market, with offices in San Francisco and New York.  

90 Seconds now employs 150 people, speaking 27 languages!

What’s different about 90Seconds?

I asked Tim what’s worked?  He said that in the last 12 months they’ve built the business to draw creative content from 550 cities in 80 countries – the biggest coverage of any video company.  To scale, they remain focused on the market and the workflow.  They have started to have success getting into the big brands starting with their operations in say Singapore, Hong Kong or the UK.  But to get the big brands really on board, he thinks the company has to set up where they are – hence the presence in San Francisco and New York.  

90 Seconds has a platform that connects creatives all around the world with big brands.  AI will now lead the expansion of this platform in the US, the biggest market in the world, as well as expanding in Europe from their UK base and in Asia in Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, and probably Thailand, Indonesia and Korea, while at the same time the average customer spend increases. 

And more money

A few weeks ago, 90 Seconds closed its Series B funding round of US$20 million, and the investors bought out some of the early shareholders.  The company is now poised for further growth!

The new focus in on building the US operations for those larger customers who can accelerate the growth of the company.  And on using AI to help them automate more of their processes.

Tim says he’s feeling good now because the funding round gives them space out in front of them, and they have a strong team in place.  He loved the start-ups but this is a very different kind of momentum.  And he feels really well supported by his investors, especially Sequoia, who support him as the CEO.

Tim says he enjoys raising money – which is probably why he’s good at it.  And he realised the different quality of different investors: as soon as he met Sequoia he was determined to get them on board.  As well as a great Sequoia partner on their board, he said they add a lot more value, especially with contacts in the US, back up on market analysis, financial people support, and support on the further rounds of fundraising.

And more people

To get to 150 people, they probably hired 200.  Now Tim wants to hire another 100 people in the next 12 months – doubling the size of the sales and marketing teams.  He said he wishes he’d known more about hiring before they started: once you hire people you are with them 40 – 60 hours/week.  It is really worth putting in the effort to get it right.  Hiring Rachel Ng early was key to their growth.

And organisational complexity slows you down as you grow – you have to keep re-organising it to keep people energised.

A few months ago, Tim hired Qiuyun Song as Chief of Staff.  She was at Grab before – where she had a key role in raising a $1.6 billion funding round! She has the perspective of being part of a company worth $50 billion and has seen the difference in a company pre and post funding.  Tim sees her role as solving cross-functional issues, especially important when they launch new products when you need to bring together the product people, customer experience, sales and marketing.  And back to that big pad of paper Tim carries around with plans being drawn on it: now he can plan, and Qiuyun can implement.

The key to 90 Seconds growth?

It’s the money.  No, it’s the people.  You need the money to get the people.  You need the people to get the money.

To bring these together, you need a visionary and relentless leader who keeps driving the company forward, attracting great people to join him and funders to back him.  While still having fun!