“As a kid, all I remember was being in a boat. It was raining, it was dark, it was turbulent. All I wanted to do was throw up,” says Danny Ing.
“Now I know the history of what happened. A lot of [Vietnamese boat people] died from capsizing and drowning. There were pirates and there was just the biggest chance after all of that to being sent back from the place we escaped.
“If you get hit by a war that causes two million deaths then the only course of action was for myself and my family to flee.”
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Now a successful entrepreneur in Auckland, where he employs 150 staff in his software company, Ing recently returned to Vietnam for the first time since he and his family fled in the 1970s.
He visited the basic hut where his family lived, retraced the 50-minute route his mother walked each day to find firewood, and looked at the bridge his father helped build in a chisels, stone and hard-labour exercise.
His family were among the lucky ones: Their rickety boat made it to Hong Kong, where they lived for two years in a barbed wire-surrounded centre until Ing was 6.
The Ings were then accepted into New Zealand as refugees and resettled in Rotorua, where his father took a job as a carpenter for Lockwood Homes. Danny’s mother and father went on to open Hong Kong Takeaways in Te Puke, which they have run for the past 30 years and still run to this day.
“They say it’s their final year, but they always say that,” Ing says.
Working part-time at the takeaway counter was Ing’s first experience of commerce. It also allowed him to save for his first computer, a Commodore 64.
In the mid-1990s, he went to Waikato University, where he majored in marketing and accounting, but maintained his passion for computers. He bought a book on creating your own website, but ended up having to figure most of it out for himself.
At age 22, he was shoulder-tapped for a role at ASB, where he soon proved his worth, turning a regular two-hour online publishing job into a 10-minute task.
Automating stuff proved to be the defining element of Ing’s career. He created his first company in 2002, at age 27 – Datum Connect, which created basic online sites.
When this reporter last caught up with him it was late 2017, just as Amazon was opening its first warehouse in Australia and gearing up for its first direct-presence Christmas across the Tasman.
Ing said his company CIN7 (the “CIN” stands for “Connected Inventory”) was helping small-to-medium retailers who wanted to wholesale to Amazon, or set up their own online store on the United States giant’s platform – or one operated by one of its rivals.
At the time, CIN7 (founded by Ing in 2011) had around 90 staff, all at its central Auckland office.
That’s still CIN7’s core business today: Helping a small-to-medium retailer manage one set of inventory that they sell across multiple channels.
CIN7 offers to wrangle everything from warehousing to dispatch to point-of-sale and loyalty programmes.
The POS element is in competition with another high-flying local tech, the Peter Thiel and Sam Morgan-backed Vend (which began in point-of-sale but has made forays into inventory management). But Ing plays down the rivalry. He says CIN7 is heavy on inventory, and that there’s only about 10 per cent customer crossover.
A typical CIN7 customer will have between seven and 100 staff, Ing says. Around 20 per cent have bricks and mortar stores. Most are looking to sell globally across multiple platforms.
The company generated most of its business from Australia during its early years, but Ing says today more than half of its new customers are from North America.
He says a typical customer might have a warehouse on the east coast and another on the west coast, and sell through Walmart, Amazon and its own website.
Customers include the California-based outdoor clothing chain Patagonia, hideous San Diego Christmas sweater pusher Tipsy Elves, Aussie casual fashion brand Sidelife and NZ streetwear label I Love Ugly.
Ing credits a long-time partnership with Xero, which sees a lot of clients use Xero for accounting, integrating it with CIN7 for inventory, one of the key factors behind his company’s success.
Chief commercial officer David Leach won’t disclose any financials, but says CIN7 is in the black. “It’s been a very healthy business for some time.” But it still needed capital to accelerate growth and “unleash the potential of the business, including in the US.”
That’s why CIN7 went looking for a major investor, with an eye on an American backer who could also bring some smarts to the table. Boston-based Cosine was hired as a broker; it hooked up the Kiwi company with Rubicon Technology Partners (no relation to the NZX-listed Rubicon), a Colorado-based specialist investor in mid-size, mid-stage software companies.
Rubicon did not immediately return a request for comment, but its website states it “focuses on control investments in platform enterprise software companies with revenues between US$20m and US$100m … We target equity investments of US$25m to US$150m.”
Leach won’t talk of the stake taken by Rubicon, but confirms it was a majority stake and at a value beyond the $100m threshold that triggers the need for Overseas Investment Office approval.
Talks between CIN7 and Rubicon began in February, with the deal closed on Tuesday. OIO approval was requested along the way, and granted in October, Leach says (the agency has yet to make any official announcement but OIO group manager Vanessa Horne confirms the investment has the green light).
Ahead of the deal, Ing was the largest shareholder with a 40 per cent direct stake, plus a further 20 per cent as part of a trust. (Numerous smaller holders included Jon Kalaugher, recently seen in these pages lining up two major funding rounds for his latest startup, Flowingly).
Boots on the ground in the US
Ing stresses that although the company he founded is now majority-owned by Americans, its 150 staff will remain in Auckland, with the team likely to be expanded dramatically again in the year to come.
But he’s also keen to put boots on the ground in the US.
“We’ve been successful in the US while run out of New Zealand, which is cool but it’s time now for us to be big boys and create a US office,” he says.
The new digs will likely be in Denver, chosen because Xero also has its US base in the city, and Rubicon is in neighbouring Boulder.
Funds from Rubicon’s capital injection will go toward the US expansion, more sales staff and product development.
Like the founders of other startups, including PushPay and Vend, Ing has stepped back from the chief executive role to focus more on big-picture software development.
A new CEO will be appointed by Rubicon.
Ing says Rubicon has a reputation as an active investor, and that’s partly why he chose to sell a majority stake to them. He expects the new US owner will provide hands-on advice to CIN7 as it seeks to be number one in the key North American market.
There is no clear leader in the cloud inventory management market where CIN7 competes, in Ing’s view. He sees a brief window where it has the chance to grab the number one spot in the US.
“Either we nail it now take the leadership position or someone else will; we’ve got two or three years to establish ourselves.”
In his new position as a minority investor, Ing won’t have any say on whether CIN7 ultimately lists. But he does share that an IPO is not on the immediate radar. He says the ultimate exit strategy would more likely be a trade sale, given a number of big tech players including Larry Ellison’s Oracle (with Netsuite) and Microsoft (with Dynamics) play in the same market.
Ing is part of a long line of children from refugee and immigrant families who have made it big in tech, which includes the likes of Apple’s Steve Jobs (whose father escaped Syria), Intel’s Andy Grove (whose family feed Communist-controlled Hungary), Space X and Tesla’s Elon Musk (South Africa), Google’s Sergey Brin (Russia), Yahoo’s Jerry Yang (Taiwan) and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (raised by a Cuban immigrant).
And a couple of years ago, Ing travelled to Vietnam with a professional film crew in tow (see video above).
But he only brings up the sojourn after prompting. And he adds, “It was the first time I had gone back. I’m not a sentimental person. I like to look forward.”
The OIO’s big tech deals
The Overseas Investment Office has to approve any deal that involves business assets worth more than $100m. Some of its recent tech sector approvals:
• PowerbyProxi (2017) Apple didn’t put a price tag on its purchase of Auckland wireless charging startup PowerByProxi at the time, but it recently valued it at $270m as it asset-shuffled it to a related entity. Apple kept a $25m Callaghan R&D grant, which required it to keep jobs in Auckland, but the success of the acquisition still hangs in the balance. Apple unexpectedly cancelled its AirPower wireless charging mat this year.
• Grinding Gear Games (2018) Chinese conglomerate Tencent paid $100m+ for a majority stake in West Auckland-based Grinding Gear Games – maker of the hit online multiplayer fantasy game Path of Exile. Co-founder Chris Wilson wouldn’t put a figure on the deal, but did say one condition was that his company’s 130 staff would stay in NZ.
• Orion Health (2019) Cash-strapped Orion Health sold its core asset – it’s Rhapsody software – to British-based HG Capital in a $205m deal (part of which involved Orion immediately using $28m of the proceeds to buy a 24.9 per cent stake in its sold-off unit). The rump of Orion delisted from the NZX in March, shortly after shareholder and OIO approval came through.
• Trade Me (2019)Founder Sam Morgan sold Trade Me to Fairfax in 2006 for $700m, but the auction site came back into local orbit after the Australian publisher offloaded it in 2012 and it was listed on the NZX. Earlier this year, the OIO approved a $2.56 billion buyout by British-based Apax Partners, which saw Trade Me delist and return to offshore ownership.
• Rocket Lab (2018)Rocket Lab was under the $100m threshold when it transferred its company registration to the US in 2010. The privately held company has never disclosed its share register, but a June 2018 OIO decision in favour of Rocket Lab’s application to buy 25ha of land around its Mahia launch complex did reveal that the company was owned 75.38 per cent by US shareholders (including Lockheed Martin) and 24.62 per cent by New Zealand shareholders (including Sir Stephen Tindall and founder Peter Beck. ACC did not buy in until November that year – by which time Rocket Lab had a private equity valuation of more than US$1 billion).
• 2degrees (2016) It was a somewhat abstract decision, given the telco was already majority-owned by a mix of European and North American interests (with just 15 per cent local ownership). But in 2016, the OIO gave Seattle-based Trilogy International Partners permission to lift its stake in 2degrees from 40 per cent to 100 per cent. Trilogy went on to take a 75 per cent stake.