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The distance runner: Rebekah Campbell loves pushing limits; she has driven herself to the very edge and back to build her innovative social search engine business. Glenn Baker caught up with a young woman on a mission to succeed.

Driven is a good word to describe Posse founder and CEO Rebekah Campbell. Based in Sydney since 2000, but back in the country recently to drum up her site's profile, the ex-Wellingtonian is hell-bent on growing her social media platform into a worldwide phenomenon, every bit as big as Yelp, the US-based online review site. But first she has set her sights on conquering Australia and New Zealand.

So how does Posse work? In a nutshell, users (primarily females aged 18 to 45) construct virtual hand drawn streets of their favourite merchants. Simply tell Posse what you want, and you'll get recommendations from your own Posse (friends, their friends and 'local experts'--not 'randoms'). Business owners get to know exactly what their customers are thinking about them. Posse alerts merchants when a user adds them to their virtual street, enabling them to then interact with and send gifts to their fans. Membership is free, but if you want all the bells and whistles in terms of access to customers and analysis, there is a monthly fee.

Posse is backed by investors of the calibre of Lars Rasmussen (Google Maps founder), Bill Tai (Twitter via Tweekdeck), Simon Rothman (eBay), Tim Wood (the founder of ihug) as well as superannuation fund MLC. That sounds impressive, and it is, but read on and you'll learn that it took a lot of hard work to secure that support.

The idea for Posse stems from Rebekah's previous business Scorpio Music, which she founded in 2002 -a management company behind several major artists including New Zealand's Evermore, Alex Lloyd, Lisa Mitchell and Matt Corby. "We had all these fan bases that we'd see at live shows, but we didn't really know who they were and had very little interaction with them. We couldn't have conversations.

"So we originally built Posse as a music platform. I put my own money in initially for my artists to see if it worked, and when it did I had to raise money to launch it properly, which took about a year and a half. That process taught me a lot, including how to build a two-sided [online] community.

"Then I thought about what other industries this technology could apply to--and retail shops was top of the list."

Rebekah sold the music platform and began her second round of capital raising to develop her retail version.

The Posse platform launched in March 2013 and already more than 35,000 merchants around the world have signed up, including 7,000 stores in New Zealand.

Such a remarkable achievement, so early on, is testimony to Rebekah's ambitious personality; her persistence and stamina in selling the idea--to investors, to businesses and potential users. But perhaps that's not so remarkable when you consider her background and how she's 'wired' on risk aversion.

"I was a total tomboy when growing up in Whangarei. Dad had always wanted a boy, so I was encouraged to climb rocks and take risks," she remembers. This perhaps helps explain why she has succeeded so well in the tech-entrepreneur arena, which is 97 percent male dominated. Building IT firms might be a guy thing, but it would be fair to say that many men don't have Rebekah's 'never say die' attitude to risk--even though she confesses that it can get her into trouble.

"I used to be a champion long distance runner and still run every day," she says. "I know what it's like to run until there's nothing left in the tank--but then find that something extra to get over the last kilometre. There has to be that will to reach the end in business too."

Rebekah's performance on raising capital to get Posse up and growing can easily be likened to running a solo endurance race. In three years of building the business she has completed more than one thousand pitches to potential investors--averaging around two or three a day, but peaking at eight. "Many go nowhere, but then you strike one that opens up the world," she says. "Often I raise money from people whom I originally approached just for advice."

To raise money for Posse, Rebekah went to Silicon Valley in California, where investors had a better understanding of what her business was all about.

Much of her success with pitches can be put down to her extensive public speaking experience. "I hadn't done any since high school. I knew I'd need to do some public speaking when I pitched to investors so I enrolled in three courses at the same time. When I started I could barely string a sentence together in front of a room of people but I just practised and practised."

Last year she spoke at TED in Sydney, describing it as "possibly the scariest experience of my life".

"Nerdy guys might have great ideas but they often can't convey them. They mumble and rely heavily on Powerpoint graphs. I've done a lot of public speaking, a Toastmasters course, and practised and practised--so in my presentations I'm animated, excited, passionate and focused on content."

Rebekah does admit to having some struggles in running the business. "Getting the right people on board, keeping them motivated and focused in the right direction doesn't come naturally to me; I have to work at it." In Sydney she has a staff of 11.

Posse is essentially a brand new business model, she adds, so in effect she is forging a whole new path. "We've got to get it absolutely right, and we're not there yet; it's still a work in progress." They're up against stiff competition in some markets she admits, but there's nothing like Posse in Asia and Australasia, and she says they already have more reviews posted on their database in New Zealand than Yelp.

You get the feeling this is a serious race--and Rebekah is well and truly focused on reaching that finishing tape first.

RELATED ARTICLE: Rebekah's best tips on fundraising...

* Work on your pitch skills.

They must be coherent, professional, exciting and cover everything.

* Learn how to speak in public.

It gives you confidence and your investors confidence in you.

* Take up every meeting opportunity.

It's a numbers game, and always ask for more capital than you need.

* Focus on business traction, not just fund raising.

Investors want to know your latest weekly growth figures.

* Never give up!

Investors may pull out at the last stage of negotiation. Get back up and carry on.

RELATED ARTICLE: ... and launching tech start-ups.

* Just start.

You can read a million books and attend hundreds of conferences, but real entrepreneurs 'just do it'. Fear missing out on the opportunity more than you fear failure!

* Learn how to sell.

If you can't sell, no-one will invest in you and you'll struggle to recruit people and attract customers.

* Always look for opportunities to learn.

And meet your mistakes head on.

* Never tell a lie.

"Living in the moment is key. As soon as you start stretching the truth it takes you out of the present, and you won't face up to things as they really are."

Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness.
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Title Annotation:BIZ ACHIEVERS
Author:Baker, Glenn
Publication:NZ Business
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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