INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Riding the COVID-19 Demand Roller Coaster for Interactive 3D Virtual Tours
How Sam Kynman-Cole is using topVIEW to offer ‘virtual reality tours’ that many businesses and real estate agents are looking for during the pandemic.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sam Kynman-Cole: Living in New Zealand, we’ve certainly been very lucky this last year.
Sure, we went through one restrictive ‘stay at home’ lockdown for four weeks at the highest level (Level 4 Covid Alert), which was really interesting in many ways. After that, we’ve had a couple of brief ‘lockdowns’, but for the most part, many people’s lives have continued as normal, with the exception of overseas travel and overseas tourism. In New Zealand, we’ve been mostly successful at keeping COVID-19 out of the community, so we’ve been able to continue to socialize, dine out at cafes and restaurants without fear and go to gatherings and events. But it has brought about changes. My office/computer work has always been mostly done from home, but my partner now also works four out of five days from home, so we’ve got an extensive ‘home office’ setup in our lounge. Plus, COVID-19 has been a daily part of the news, face coverings are required on public transport, and QR code scanning has become commonplace when visiting businesses.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded topVIEW
Sam Kynman-Cole: I have a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce (finance major) and Property. But after a short contract role as an accountant, I went travelling overseas in 2010. During these travels, I got into blogging, SEO, eCommerce, social media but also fell in love with photography. Returning to New Zealand in early 2013, I started work for an advertising agency working with Google AdWords – pay per click (PPC) advertising. During that time, I brainstormed various professional photography business ideas looking for an area I could transform my passion into a business. In early 2015 I started topVIEW, specializing at the time in Google Business Photography (Google Street View 360° virtual tours inside businesses). It was a good fit, merging my passion for photography with my interest and experience in digital marketing and my understanding of Google products. It’s been a bootstrapping process. topVIEW started out as a side hustle, then went to part-time which continued for a couple of years, then finally all-in to full time in the business for the last 2+ years.
How does topVIEW innovate?
Sam Kynman-Cole: We’re in a fast-changing environment operating in the virtual reality and digital marketing space. We needed to be flexible to adapt to changes in technology and had to embrace changes and be constantly learning to stay ahead of the curve. Over the years, we’ve switched our focus from Google 360° tours to custom virtual tours and now 3D interactive virtual tours. Looking forward to improved 3D scanning technology, we will see better 3D replicas of physical space, which allow for six degrees of movement freedom in virtual reality (VR) headsets. We also expect to see our work have more application in augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) projects.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Sam Kynman-Cole: It’s been a bit of a roller coaster because we’ve been in the fortunate position offering ‘virtual reality tours’ that many businesses and real estate agents turned to us as a potential solution for keeping their businesses visible and operating digitally during COVID-19 lockdown – leading to a spike in demand. But when New Zealand returned very much to normal operation, much of that increase in demand disappeared as people went back to doing things their normal way. At the same time in the longer trend, we’ve also seen the reduced business from businesses significantly impacted by the pandemic; for instance, travel, tourism, accommodation and event spaces.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Sam Kynman-Cole: Fortunately no. Because of the market we operate in, New Zealand’s response to COVID and the support which has been available.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Sam Kynman-Cole: This is both a current focus for us and an ongoing area we’re looking to improve. Over the years have tried a few different CRM systems as well as external ways to connect with customers like telemarketing services and different email newsletter solutions. Currently we’re mostly happy with our CRM system, but are undergoing necessary customer data cleanup in order to use it better.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Sam Kynman-Cole: Yes, the New Zealand government offered a number of financial grants to businesses impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns, and as we saw significant revenue drop during the level four lockdown (we were not allowed to go out and create virtual tours), we did get financial support from the government during that time. It gave financial peace of mind and meant we didn’t need to suddenly try and cut costs (which would have had a trickle-down effect on other businesses) and/or sell assets.
Your final thoughts?
Sam Kynman-Cole: This last year has been a roller coaster ride. COVID-19 led to a dramatic (but mostly temporary) spike in demand for interactive virtual tours in my market (New Zealand). I firmly believe in the product (interactive 3D virtual tours) offering buyers/customers/users a superior tool for viewing space remotely, but it’s still very early in terms of mass adoption in New Zealand. There will be a time when this is the standard for viewing real estate, accommodation, event centers, wedding venues and many more businesses where the physical space is the major selling point. But for now, it’s still niche. But no less an open opportunity for businesses to use it as a sales & marketing tool and early adopters to distinguish themselves.
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