Startmate Demo Day: How Venu is helping hospitality make their marketing smarter

- May 1, 2024 4 MIN READ
Kieran Gardiner and James McArthur 
Venu cofounders Kieran Gardiner and James McArthur 

Ahead of Startmate Demo Day on May 2 in Sydney at Blackbird’s Sunrise, Startup Daily is profiling the 10 startups involved.

Today it’s Venu, a marketing startup for the hospitality sector.

Venu founders Kieran Gardiner and James McArthur are on a mission to level the playing field for independent hospitality businesses.

Venu empowers SMEs with the kind of sophisticated rewards program usually reserved for the Maccas and Starbucks of the world. With complementary skill sets and impressive resumes, they’re undoubtedly the right founders for the job.

And, while you may not see many startups hailing from Queenstown, they believe they’re in exactly the right place.

In a nutshell, Venu offers a rewards club that spans any restaurant, bar, or cafe, allowing members to earn and redeem points across venues that are completely unaffiliated with each other. Venu seamlessly links with member payment cards directly on the payment terminal, which also serves as a powerful channel to sign members up.

Over time, Venu learns each member’s personal tastes and behaviours; where they like to go and what they order when they get there. It uses that to offer personalised experiences, promotions or recommendations in the app.

For business owners, Venu is a powerful marketing engine. The platform targets both new and returning customers with the perfect promotion, at just the right time to fill their empty seats.

As for members, Venu offers the best spend: reward value in New Zealand, while directing them to places they’re going to love.

Hospitality tech dream-team

Incorporated in December 2023 and launched in February 2024, Venu has come together fast – largely because of each founder’s deep domain expertise. They built their MVP within 5 weeks and already have 18 businesses signed up.

Kieran comes from a career in hospitality sales and marketing, as well as advertising in the tourism and hospitality space.

He’s worked with independent business owners, and he knows how much time and energy – how much of themselves – they put into their work. Yet, he saw a gap in the kind of targeted marketing and personalisation they can offer, compared to bigger brands.

“It felt like a huge secret that only the larger brands were clued in on,” Kieran said.

“Reward programs have surprisingly little impact on loyalty behaviour. Instead, large companies offer rewards to collect first-party customer data and establish a personalised, direct-to-customer marketing channel. We’re making it easy for independent businesses to benefit”.

James brings the tech expertise. He’s been tinkering with software since he was in his teens and now boasts the likes of Atlassian, Ambit AI and Lightspeed on his CV.

‍At Lightspeed, working on market-leading point-of-sale tech, James also spied a gap in the market for tech tools suited to the needs of SMEs.

“Startups usually shy away from smaller businesses, due to the cost of selling to and servicing them. We’re doubling down and have so far reduced our sales cycle to 2 meetings and our product onboarding to 30 minutes. Venu will be completely self-serve before we scale”  James said.‍

‘This could really work’

At the time of this interview, it’s been just weeks since Venu’s official launch, and the response has been beyond anything Kieran and James expected. They’re seeing an 86% conversion rate in the first meeting with business owners and closed their most recent 4 locations in under 30 minutes.

“We’ve even had restaurant managers asking about investing, and bartenders putting Venu brand stickers on their snowboards and cars, which feels pretty wild this early on” Kieran said.

The launch follows months of market research, with Kieran working closely with the industry to identify the most pressing pain points. The launch – and the overwhelmingly positive feedback – has marked something of a turning point.

“I hadn’t anticipated such a positive response this early on, especially to our stripped-back MVP. Seeing genuine excitement from venues, staff, and members was the moment I thought: ‘Oh, this could really work’.”‍

It’s been pivotal for James, too. Throughout his career thus far, he has felt like a small cog in a huge machine.

“I wanted to have more influence on what I was building, so it was a natural move into the world of Startups” James recalled.

“It’s been really cool to build the whole product and see it in the hands of everyone at the training. And it worked,” he added

“It was pretty special to see all of that come together.”

The proof is in the productivity

Queenstown Lakes is known for its adventure sports, scenery and (if my backpacking days are anything to go by), its world-class bars and eateries. It is not, yet, famed for its tech scene.‍

But there’s nowhere else these founders would rather be.

“The lifestyle here is one of the healthiest and happiest you could have,” Kieran said, unwavering.

“The access you have to the mountains and skiing; the lakes; hiking; biking; world-class restaurants and bars; this is an incredible place to live.”

“That energy and those foundational pieces of your life feed into creating meaningful, impactful change in the world. The downsides of a smaller ecosystem are offset by the lifestyle.”

“We’ve prioritised living down here,” James explained.

“That feeds into how the company will evolve and grow, as we do our life’s work and find others who want to do the same.”

And that lifestyle is already proving productive. Within just ten weeks, they completed customer discovery; built both their member and merchant products; signed up 18 businesses; and celebrated a successful launch.

“If we lived in a city, we wouldn’t have achieved any more,” Kieran mused.

At the same time, in a post-COVID world, more and more businesses operate remotely. Inspired by world-class examples of asynchronous companies such as Levels in the US, they have found the perfect balance between deep work and collaboration.

As the Venu team grows, there’s no reason the founders couldn’t hire top talent based in Auckland, Sydney, or anywhere else around the world.

“We’re able to offer a remote position that will be attractive to some really good talent,” James said.

Hospitality makes the world go round

Of course, what Queenstown is known for is its hospitality. So for Venu, there was no more natural place to start.

Kieran and James have plans to launch throughout New Zealand and Australia, and then to expand globally, starting with the UK – where Kieran is originally from.

They’re ambitious; they would like to see Venu take its place among the globally-recognised Kiwi success stories. But when asked about their end-game, that’s not what they talk about first.

The motivation here is to support independent businesses, a market too often left behind in terms of tech.

“Imagine any city without independent bars, restaurants or cafes,” James said.

“It would be pretty sad.”

‍“These venues are the lifeblood of the economy in Queenstown and all over the world”, Kieran added.

“When we start to see the impact on those businesses – and the people running those businesses – that will be the moment to me that we’ll have made it.”

To learn more about Venu’s upcoming Seed round email [email protected]


Apply for Startmate’s next Accelerator cohort here.

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