International recognition for Law graduate

A Victoria University of Wellington Law graduate who is making a name for himself in Silicon Valley has recently been named as one to watch on an influential list of young movers and shakers.

A profile image of Lewis Gyson.

Lewis Gyson, who graduated with his Law degree in 2011, was named on Forbes magazine’s 2019 30 Under 30 - Asia list of innovators and entrepreneurs working in the retail and e-commerce sector. Lewis was recognised for his work developing Ant, a software that streamlines the retail operation—and helps increase profit margins—for independent businesses.

Lewis, who’s currently based in San Francisco, says he’s thrilled to receive the accolade from Forbes magazine. “It’s good for exposure and networking, and an honour to be recognised alongside the talented pool of recipients,” he says. “Plus, my family was pretty happy about it too!”

Lewis says he arrived at the decision to study law by matching his strengths with a degree where these were seen as critical elements. He says it has proved to be a great—albeit non-traditional—choice for his current line of work. “Law taught me to think deeply on an issue that initially appeared to have a singular cause, but ultimately ended up being a multivariate problem. This is important in running a business because there are many knowns and unknowns in making a decision.”

As a student, Lewis had a very clear vision of his future in the tech industry, so involved himself heavily in different extra-curricular groups and activities that would help him get there. “In my final year I founded the Victoria Entrepreneurship Club (VEC), which is still going strong today, has an active membership, and is sponsored and subsidised to encourage students to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions,” he says. “I believe this has fundamentally enhanced Victoria University’s entrepreneurial culture, and I’m proud to have helped make that happen.”

Lewis says there’s a wealth of entrepreneurial talent among the student body, so it makes sense to tap into that as early as possible. “A lot of students don’t realise they have this potential—they’d just do their academic work and not a lot extra. Whereas I’ve always believed that smart and capable people should be pushed so that these skills are realised and they go on to start a business or do something creative.”

One of the events Lewis organised while at university was a session for students with Trade Me’s then-Chief Strategy Officer, who spotted Lewis’s potential. “After presenting some ideas for Trade Me that demonstrated my strategic thinking, he decided to give me a chance to prove myself by offering me a role within the company,” he says. “Trade Me had exceptional leadership, and a deep talent pool of collaborative and intelligent people. I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to learn how to analyse and research new business ventures and investment ideas. I learned a lot, quickly.”

He was then shoulder-tapped to help run a company based in Asia by a successful tech investor who had previously helped get retail giant Groupon into China. “I was really keen to learn from impressive people like this, so we worked together developing CompareAsia, a financial comparison platform. It ended up growing exponentially, raising $100m from investors and is now in over 10 countries across Asia with over 30 million users. It was really enlightening being a part of that journey from the outset.”

But Lewis still had a niggling desire to build his own business, so went to Melbourne where he began work on a venture called Shopafar, which was Australia’s first luxury fashion marketplace. It was tough going though, as the relatively small enterprise was competing with some huge international retailers for the consumer dollar.

“I was upfront with my investors, saying I didn’t want to take their money for a race to the bottom,” Lewis says. “But while this was happening I was also developing this backend software for retailers that had a lot of potential.”

That software was Ant. “It was a streamlining tool—when an online purchase was made it would automatically tell a retail store via their point of sale to take the item off the shelf, and it’d generate a shipping label. All they had to do was pop it in the bag and into the post,” he says. “I could see this software had legs, so I asked my investors if they were interested in putting their money into this instead of the luxury fashion. One investor said yes, and here we are today.”

Lewis says collecting and processing data usually takes up a lot of retailers’ time. “It makes up 33 per cent of what they do, so it was the elephant in the room. I could see it was a huge opportunity, so I’ve tried to solve that by building a tool like Ant that can hopefully make a big difference and drive up profit margins for businesses,” he says. “It also helps to streamline the whole process by having one piece of software that automates every aspect, where previously it’d been very modular with multiple systems doing the same thing.”

Ant is now used in 10 countries, and in 2018 it processed over USD250 million in orders.

Lewis says he’d love to come back to New Zealand one day. “The opportunities over here in the States, and access to capital in Silicon Valley for example, are an order of magnitude larger than what’s currently possible in New Zealand,” he says. “But there’s no shortage of talent available in New Zealand—and in Wellington in particular—so longer term a move back could be on the cards.”

Lewis says while he’s not using his LLB to practise law, his degree has helped him immeasurably. “Whilst it is not all that common for lawyers to transition to tech, some of my Victoria University alumni have also done so. It is encouraging to see that the rigorous learning and frameworks that we gained at Law School are in fact applicable outside the legal space,” he says. “I have certainly found this useful in structuring my thoughts and approach to solving business problems.”