It is bittersweet that this week we say goodbye to John Mitchell as Arlo’s CEO. But also as a friend, a colleague, a leader, and inspiring founder whose vision is what made Arlo into the company it is today.
John has dedicated the last 16 years of his life to Arlo’s company vision – empowering the delivery of great learning. He reminded us all of this and reinforced it at every opportunity. And the numbers speak for themselves: customers in 70 countries, over 7 million people trained, processing more than half a billion dollars in transactions per year!
Today we celebrate John and share his story – from an entrepreneurial windsurfer to building one of NZ’s most successful tech companies.
Making waves in Raglan
Some people are born entrepreneurs. It’s in their DNA. It’s authentic. John Mitchell is one of those people.
In 1992, at just 17-years-old, John faced a catch 22 – he was both a passionate windsurfer and a penniless university student. To fund his habit, he had short stints cutting PVC pipes and working in retail but the work wasn’t paying enough. And with such a dislike for mundane, repetitive work, he decided that self-employment was the only option.
“My addiction with windsurfing was expensive; the drive to Raglan isn’t cheap and neither is the gear. So this led me to one conclusion; either work for myself and windsurf or alternatively have no life at all!” – John Mitchell.
And it was the expensive windsurfing gear that gave John an idea. There had been advancements in product designs overseas for high-quality windsurfing harnesses, but they weren’t affordable for the average person, let alone a student. There was a gap in the market for a more affordable alternative… if only John could create the product himself!
Armed with a 1940s Singer sewing machine (and zero experience as a seamstress) John set about making his first prototype. With an old newspaper cut out of a friend’s harness pattern, some of his mother’s cotton, rubber from Para Rubber, clips from the local camping shop, and raincoat material from Forlongs… believe it or not… the harness worked.
Fast forward four years, undeterred by several challenges along the way, John had built “Expressions Windsurf, Surf & Ski” – into a profitable retail business, manufacturer and exporter.
Trailblazer of learning tech
In 2003, with his Expressions days behind him, John was recruited by Telecom to develop and launch an ICT service for New Zealand schools. Telecom SchoolZone, as the service was branded, went on to win the TUANZ Broadband Innovation Award 2004, becoming recognized as one of Telecom’s most successful education services of all time. It led the way for Telecom’s application service offering – arguably one of the first true large scale application service solutions in New Zealand.
“The technology meant students from around New Zealand had the rare opportunity to learn about the work of Lord of the Rings’ special effects expert Richard Taylor’s Lord of the Rings’ from the man himself, and more recently a group of students spoke with Phil Goff while he was in Antarctica.” – Teresa Gattung, former Telecom CEO.
But John ran into a problem. Teachers needed sufficient training so they could fully utilize all the functionality of SchoolZone, but managing the course registrations and logistics of more than 5,000 teachers that were geographically dispersed proved challenging. There was no existing solution so, true to character, John set about building a solution himself. The seed for Arlo was planted.
Solve problems. Add value.
On the back of the success of SchoolZone, John began building out the idea of a training management system that would solve all of the common problems for training providers. Remove manual processes and endless spreadsheets, and ultimately help companies scale.
“I thought, why not leverage this same technology to build a training platform for not just teachers, but all training providers. And if there is an opportunity in New Zealand, then surely there is an opportunity abroad.” – John Mitchell.
By 2007 it was time to set the wheels in motion for Arlo (or Learning Source as it was initially called). The original office was in John’s garage in Lower Hutt. He brought in CTO Allister Cournane to take the vision he had and develop it into a usable product.
There wasn’t much money to back the company in the beginning, but there was a tonne of creativity and vision, including an innovative and ambitious approach to digital-first marketing. Google Adwords and Bing were pretty new but John embraced them and soon had Arlo popping up on websites all over the world with a single goal; be found where people go looking.
Soon enough Arlo had its first handful of customers. Arlo was officially a start-up tech business, but the company had its challenges – namely investment. With a bit of persuasion, John and Allister secured external investment to help with the growth of Arlo.
Over the next 5 years Arlo expanded rapidly. A team of engineers was employed to maintain and grow the platform, the UK office was opened, and Arlo was developed into a fully-fledged solution offering everything from a CRM, website, online registrations, integrations and more.
And then COVID happened.
Building the future
In March 2020, COVID suddenly changed the way we interact and the way we learn. From face-to-face, to remote, flexible and online, the global training industry was forced towards more extensive use of technology to enable online learning. The team at Arlo quickly developed a robust, secure, native integration with Zoom to enable training providers to transition existing classroom courses to live online webinars.
And then Arlo went beyond just providing the right technical product, to providing supporting resources such as written guides, webinars, government grant information, and even financial reprieve in the form of credits and discounts.
The demand for the product surged.
One family around the world
It was time for Arlo to expand, again. A third office was opened in Vancouver, Canada, to support the rapid growth of Arlo in North America and establish Arlo’s position as a truly global company. The team took a platform that solved key problems for training providers and then future-proofed it – with strategic partnerships, a tonne of integrations, and more value-based product updates. Arlo customers were now processing more than $1b in transactions through the Arlo platform.
And then, the opening of Arlo’s new global HQ on Petone foreshore.
The HQ was yet another vision of John’s. He spotted a vacant building on the Petone foreshore – coincidentally named John’s Fish Market. He mocked up a floor design and got the building owner’s approval to turn the fire-damaged former restaurant into one of the coolest offices in Wellington.
When it came to designing the new office, the brief for the new HQ was clear; John wanted to represent Arlo’s global scale and create a sense of unity and belonging for all staff. In John’s words: “we are one family around the world”.
One of the real highlights of the office is the world map. Taking up an entire wall on the first floor of Arlo’s HQ, the map was designed to show all of Arlo’s global locations, as well as the birthplace of all staff members.
Thank you, John!
Now, in 2023, with 800+ customers, 24/7 support and offices around the world, Arlo is no longer a start-up, but a successful company in its own right.
But what you don’t often hear about is the grit that goes into a company’s success.
And what you certainly have in John Mitchell is grit. A man with courage, passion and perseverance. A man who has high intelligence, the ability to create a shared vision, and to set goals and deliver on them.
But also a man who can see that there comes a point in time when a company needs a whole different set of skills to take it to the next stage. And then willingly make way for that.
From all of your colleagues at Arlo, the customers whose businesses you’ve changed for the better, and the millions of learners whose lives have been impacted – thank you.
John is departing Arlo to make way for new CEO Tim Bird to take Arlo through the next stage of growth and ensure that the company becomes bigger and better than ever. While John’s short-term plans no doubt involve some windsurfing in Raglan, we can’t wait to see what this avid entrepreneur does next – it’s in his DNA.