#StartupSpotlight is a series on Information Age shining a light on Australian start-ups disrupting the status quo.

Rupert Deans can trace his successful start-up back to a zombie video game played on a pizza box.

It was late 2013 and Deans was working at a digital agency in New Zealand. He had earlier been shown an example of augmented reality, with a house virtually popping up above his hand.

“It was really cool, it was like something from a movie,” Deans says. “At the time it was super primitive and no-one really used it. It didn’t have much value but it was just a cool technology.”

When his company began working with Hell, a New Zealand pizza chain, Deans decided to apply that augmented reality technology, and his team eventually created Zombies from Hell, an augmented reality game ‘played’ on a pizza box.

The game proved to be hugely popular, receiving more than 30,000 downloads and a social reach of nearly half a million people.

The success of the app showed Deans the opportunities on offer with augmented reality -- not in terms of gaming, but for businesses.

“We had all these big brands coming to us wanting augmented reality,” he says. “But at the time it cost heaps of money, was time-consuming and they couldn’t manage it.”

But Deans saw the potential of this emerging new technology, and began working on his own start-up focusing on augmented reality: Plattar.

Based in Melbourne, Plattar is a cloud-based platform that allows businesses, including brands, publishers and agencies, to create, manage and distribute their own augmented reality content.

For example, a furniture company could use the Plattar platform to create an app allowing its customers to augment the new furniture into their homes before actually purchasing it.

It is split into a template-driven app builder and a content management system for managing the AR apps. The company claims to be able to build one of these augmented reality apps for a company in minutes.

Deans explains that Plattar is aiming to be for augmented reality what WordPress is for web development.

“We’re setting that benchmark as world-leaders in product visualisation with the platform,” Deans says. “Our core focus is making people’s lives and jobs easier.”

The start-up closed an oversubscribed $1.1 million seed funding round in April last year, led by major investor News Corp. The company’s platform has now been used by the likes of News Corp, PwC, Fox Sports, Red Bull and Unilever, with Plattar now focusing on retailers, manufacturers and products.

Show me the true value

When the company first started, the augmented reality space was nascent, and its value beyond being a fun technology for gaming had not yet been proven, Deans says.

“We were definitely way too early -- we were leading the pack and then all the big guys came in. We started off years in the future and now finally everyone is on board, and that’s only going to increase,” he says.

“There hadn’t been any really well-defined use cases for AR until recently. Nobody knew what the best product fit would be, so part of what we did was to explore different ways it could be applied. We’ve had a whole diverse range of projects exploring what the capabilities are and how it could be applied to add value and real utility.

“It isn’t about the gimmick factor, it’s about the use cases where it can solve a real problem.”

The team initially turned its attention to using AR for educational purposes in schools and unis, before zeroing in on product visualisation.

Deans’ company now has a team of nine, and is currently in the process of raising a $US2 million pre-Series A round.
“The next round of funding will enable us to grow globally, and we’re really focused on the product roadmap,” Deans says. “We know where it’s going, with wearable technology, AI and machine learning.”

Changing roles

It’s been a remarkable year of growth for the Melbourne start-up, and this has meant that Deans’ role in the company has changed rapidly.

“It’s been crazy,” he says. “I was just an individual with contractors for a number of years. Personally that’s changed a lot, and I’ve had to mature in my management and leadership style. I’ve had to take on quite a diverse range of roles across the companies, and I’ve done a little bit of everything.”

Deans has also seen his co-founder and a few key staff leave the company, but says this is all part of the start-up journey.

“That’s what happens in life – you’ve just got to persist and keep on moving forward,” he says.

In terms of advice, Deans says it’s important for founders to be solving an existing problem, and to zero in on their most promising ideas.

“Get the insights to understand as a human what we’re trying to do then work backwards,” Deans says. “At the start I did it the other way – I had the ideas then it was all luck. A better approach I could’ve taken at the start was to hone in to what the problem was I was solving from day one. We’ve got to where we are for a reason but you can always be learning and improving.

“I’m always excited about the next idea but we need to nail something first, then work on the others.”