New Zealand No Disadvantage for SLI Systems

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CHICAGO -- There is little doubt that New Zealand charms Americans. Both share a rugged, pioneering approach to life and work, and both speak the same language, though sometimes with different interpretations.


"Two people divided by a common language -- it's not an original quote," Ed Hoffman, vice president of sales at San Francisco-based SLI Systems, said at the Search Engine Strategies show.


Movie lovers will know that "The Last Samurai," "Lord of the Rings," "Narnia" and the upcoming remake of "King Kong" were filmed in New Zealand. But few interactive marketers know that SLI Systems CEO Shaun Ryan is based in New Zealand.


Ryan's city, Christchurch, is well over 6,000 miles from Los Angeles. It is 21 hours ahead of the West Coast, but that hasn't stopped the company from providing internal site search technology to U.S. firms like Tupperware.com, Harry & David, etronics, Smith & Hawken, Hollywood.com and NBC. SLI's technology also supports Australia's Qantas Airways.


The company's 12-strong engineering and marketing staff sit in Christchurch, and four sales and business development executives work in San Francisco. Two sales staff and one engineering employee work out of a London office, too.


Just to be clear, SLI is as American as they come. It is a Delaware corporation. Still, what's the reaction of marketers when they are told SLI is run mainly out of New Zealand?


"We normally don't tell them," Ryan said. "Normally, U.S. customers don't notice that our technical stuff is done in New Zealand."


And perhaps they don't need to, for the work SLI does is distance-agnostic.


SLI offers four products. The oldest is Related Search, going back to its founding year of 1998. It's a content service for search engines offering related searches to let people refine their search with a single click. Mamma.com is a user.


Another product is Learning Search, launched in 2001 as a hosted site search solution for e-commerce sites. Then there's Site Champion, introduced last year to use site search activity to automatically help generate more natural search traffic.


Ad Champion is the latest product. In beta test with online retailer etronics, a costume site and a computer supplier, Ad Champion automatically creates paid Google campaigns.


SLI lacks the employee count of its rivals, but it offers a unique proposition for prospects.


"The thing we do is what direct marketers do: to have a compelling offer, a free trial before they can make a financial commitment," Hoffman said. "So our competitors regularly ask for six-figure financial commitment before anything works. We believe in our solution enough that we're willing to take on the risk of creating a fully customized search solution, even for very large retailers."


That approach has won SLI clients not just in the United States, but also in New Zealand and Britain. New Zealand electronics retailer Noel Leeming is a client, as is its counterpart in Australia, Dick Smith. In Britain, SLI's technology supports the Food Standards Authority and HM Treasury.


A year after its founding, the firm that later became SLI struck a licensing deal with Snap.com. A year later, in 2000, broadcaster NBC's online arm NBCi bought SLI. Another year later, SLI's technology was bought back from NBCi.


The atmosphere at SLI is relaxed, at least in New Zealand. Ryan's office looks out onto a park and the Southern Alps featured in "Lord of the Rings." The San Francisco office has a view of the city's bustling financial district.


As part of its induction process, SLI requires all new recruits to visit its Christchurch office.


"We don't get too many customers coming in," Ryan said, "so it's relaxed."


It's summer in New Zealand right now. Ryan expected fall weather in Chicago, but he got worse: 5 degrees in the morning, warming up as the day progressed. The wind chill is below zero.


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