Difficult road to business success

Firebrand managing director Rebecca Twemlow at the company's premises in Bracken Court, Moray Pl. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Firebrand managing director Rebecca Twemlow at the company's premises in Bracken Court, Moray Pl. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Life has not always been easy for Rebecca Twemlow.

But the vivacious and focused Dunedin woman acknowledged the ''bumpy road'' she encountered in her earlier years had shaped the reason why she did a lot of pro bono and support work in the community.

Both she and her design, web and marketing company Firebrand, of which she is managing director, supported an extensive list of community groups, not-for-profit organisations and other causes.

People often asked why she supported the likes of Base (the South Dunedin Social Sector Trial), Bellyful and Feed the Need.

''I do that because I sympathise and empathise and think we should all give back now if we can. And I enjoy it,'' she said.

Mrs Twemlow (38), who was a finalist in the future business leader category in last year's Westpac Otago Chamber of Commerce business awards, grew up in Dunedin and originally left secondary school at the age of 14.

Candidly admitting she had been ''through the school of hard knocks'', she later returned to school with a much different approach - ''head down, tail up'' - and gained provisional entrance into university.

She spent a year at the University of Otago and ''failed'', studying accounting, economics and statistics, along with women's studies, which she passed.

She was then offered a job teaching wayward youth to use computers, which struck something of a chord with her.

''They were going through the same difficulties ... the road I had pretty much just come out of,'' she said.

She moved into corporate training and then shifted to Christchurch for a while, working for Noel Leeming Computer City.

After returning to Dunedin, where she got a job at Computerland, she also moved into project management.

Motor Trade Finances, which was a client, wanted to become the first online motor vehicle finance provider.

It approached the Computerland team to provide the help desk needed once the software was rolled out.

Mrs Twemlow was responsible for the project management element of that, organising the training roll-out throughout the country in 2000-01, which was a ''huge job''.

The software, at that time, did not work but, given the time she had spent immersing herself in the product the company was building for MTF and having got to know the motor vehicle dealers and what they would need in support, she approached MTF for a job.

She became customer services manager and it was ''exciting times'' as the company focused on becoming ''paperless''.

She was still very heavily involved in migrating to online and that was successfully rolled out across the country.

It was while she was at MTF that she met her husband, Paul Twemlow, with whom she now worked at Firebrand.

Then Mrs Twemlow became disillusioned with corporate life. She was ''completely burnt out'' and needed a break.

So, for the next two years, she did a variety of different things, including working as a private investigator, managing a gas store and playing guitars in bars.

Then came a phone call from a former colleague at MTF who was working for a company in Auckland that wanted a website.

While Mrs Twemlow had never built a website, she could ''project-manage anything'', and the company wanted her to source a provider and get it built.

So she did that and, in the process, realised the customer service, relationships and ''whole all-encompassing good feeling'' she expected, was not there enough locally at that point.

Hence, Firebrand was started in 2009, when Mrs Twemlow was pregnant with her second child and during the Global Financial Crisis.

There was no money and no clients but ''never for a second'' did she ever consider it would fail because she knew what made a successful business - relationships, customer service, trust and honesty.

But that was not to say that it was not hard, she recalled.

Firebrand, which was established by a team of four, began as a Dunedin-servicing web start-up.

Its early success led to be a merger and reimaging the following year as a New Zealand-focused full-service design, web and marketing agency.

The business was now owned outright by Mr and Mrs Twemlow and the Firebrand team totalled 10, with clients throughout New Zealand, as well as the United Kingdom and Australia.

There had been some pivotal moments, including an early and significant partnering with the University of Otago's department of microbiology and immunology.

That ''opened doors'', with the department receiving international accolades for its website, she said.

In 2013, Firebrand was a finalist in the Innovation NZ awards for the Get Home Safe project.

Get Home Safe was launched by Queenstown entrepreneur Boyd Peacock to privately monitor users' locations and raise a preset alarm if they did not reach their intended destination safely.

Firebrand also collaborated with Google last year on Digital Journey, an assessment tool for businesses to measure their use of digital technology.

Mrs Twemlow was also involved with Hail, a software-as-a-service start-up, which allowed groups to create, collaborate, organise and store their content and images centrally. Its vertical market was schools and not-for-profit organisations.

With two young children, Tayla (7) and Mason (5), life was ''just a big juggle'' during which she tried to spend as much time with them as possible.

Describing herself as ''incredibly organised'', although conceding that she had a messy desk, she had ''everything scheduled down to the half hour'', although she tried not to do that with the children.

''I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way. I couldn't imagine not having so many awesome things to be involved in,'' she said.

When it came to Firebrand, she was keen to expand into other areas, with a focus this year to build a marketing and sales arm in Auckland, followed by a Melbourne office next year.

But she still always wanted to bring the work back to Dunedin and she also made a point of supporting other businesses in the city wherever possible.

She was grateful for the support from the Dunedin City Council and economic development unit, and the Chamber of Commerce, with whom she worked closely.

The ICT community was very strong in the city, which had an ''amazing'' university and polytechnic.

All Firebrand's business had been referral-based and the growth experienced in the business, which was ''significant'', had been purely organic.

One thing Mrs Twemlow wanted was a share plan for employees, as she wanted it to ''feel and be theirs as well''.

''This is not just about me. I can't do what we do without really cool people around,'' she said.

Mrs Twemlow was also heavily involved in the start-up scene. She will be a judge of the Audacious business challenge this year and a mentor for Startup Weekend, of which she has also been a judge.

Outside of work, she was a self-confessed ''concert junkie'' and she also enjoyed boxing.

The family had a caravan parked at Otematata, in the Waitaki Valley, and they headed there as much as possible.

''I don't take my straighteners, I don't wear make-up. That's our escape,'' she said.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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