Q/A with owner and director Russell Voice.
We sit down with the owner of Canterbury Weather Updates and get an insight into how CWU has taken the weather space here in Canterbury.
A really interesting take, perspective and inside look into Canterbury Weather Updates.
•What started your interest and fascination with the weather?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment, but I can remember being interested and excited about weather from a very early age. From the age of 6-7 I would bike to the top of the Kaikoura Peninsula look out and watch southerly fronts roll up the Kaikoura Coast and report back to my parents! Far from normal behaviour, when I look at it now, I think it was a little odd. I used to love looking at the weather page in The Press every morning and watching the weather evolve and develop in Kaikoura as a kid.
•Did you ever think you would be running a weather business and forecasting?
In short, no. As a kid growing up I loved all sports & fitness and I could see more a career in the field, so much so I pursued a teaching degree and became a physical/outdoor secondary school teacher. My love for weather was kept on the low, I guess it wasn’t the most ‘fashionable’ or coolest thing to do in your teens and early twenties. Despite this, I was always looking at maps, models and generating my own forecasts for years, especially when heading into the mountains.
•When did you think there was something in this whole regional weather forecasting and Canterbury Weather Updates?
It was clear very early we had significant interest and engagement on social media, there was no one else at the time providing quality weather forecasts for the Canterbury region. In the early days Facebook provided a great forum and in many respects it still does. I felt I could offer more detail, more intensity and more confidence to our clients and they really enjoyed and value the service. Early on I was just posting weather information and then we started to get interest from businesses, whether we could provide them personalised forecasts. Some of our clients have now been with us for over 7 years. Facebook provides a great platform to express your passion and skill sets, but the reality is ‘Likes’ and popularity online doesn’t always transfer to a successful business. It has taken years of hard work and sacrifice, but I always felt like I was heading in the right direction, it was slow early on, but things have speed up as you build experiences, skill sets and networks.
•What does a normal day look like for you?
Well, no surprises it starts early. People are already switching on and engaging in our forecasts online at 5am and a number of our clients need their weather forecasts by text or a phone call before 6am. I usually start around 4:30am, but during extreme weather I can start at 3am, occasionally even 2 am. Forecasting takes around 3-4 hours during the morning, then I usually go for a run (usually up Mt Isobel on the doorstep) hit the gym, then come back – check into current forecasts and start looking at the latest data and maps for the following days. I occasionally get stuck into business aspects for an hour before 6am, when I’m fresh and often during the middle stages of the day. I usually finish the bulk of the forecasting around 3pm and add the final touches around 5pm. Occasionally this can blow out and 17 hour days aren’t uncommon, on a good day 9-10 hours work. During the weekends I’m usually busier with member additions, the Round Up email, various radio stations and so often it’s mid-week before I get a little more time off. I guess you’ve just got to make it work for you. It’s getting easier, with a developer, designer and another forecaster now part of the team.
•What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
It’s not really a job, it’s a lifestyle in many respects, which can have it’s challenges, but all aspect really. Weather forecasting is fun, challenging and always different. The business aspects are incredibly rewarding, from innovation, sales, marketing, even social media is a bit of fun. There’s also weekly radio or writing articles for local press. There is a lot of variation in the job and that’s key I think, also the possibility, you never know what’s around the corner, there are no boundaries to what can be achieved in technology and business, especially in the year 2021.
•Why do you think CWU has been popular?
It’s a business, so you’ve got to do something that is unique, solve a problem and do it better than your competition. Your job is to fill the void, solve the issue – the issue in our case, highly detailed regional forecasting for over 25 towns, with no generic content and API. I knew very early on that I could do something equal and in many ways better than what was currently being provided.
Business has changed too, with the advancements in technology. For online businesses, you don’t need to employ a lot of people, you don’t need a physical premise, thus your outgoings and costs are minimal. What you do need is experts on tap, you need the best people when called upon to solve a challenge and move forward with developments. You can streamline your systems/operations and infrastructure online to generate performing revenue streams and do unique and exciting things. Doing this 20 years ago would’ve been another challenge all together.
Our weather is so interesting and varied in Canterbury and the people are so dependent on favourable weather – whether it’s snow during the ski season or sun for cutting hay in summer, so this natural interest has helped. I think it would be slightly trickier and challenging in some other regions around New Zealand. Cantabs love to get out there in the hills and mountains and weather obviously plays a big role.
I think we’ve always kept proactive and not been scared of failing and making changes and tweaks to our various business models. You’ve got to stay proactive and keep attacking and keep striving for excellence every single day.
•How have you managed to run a viable and profitable business in a ‘crowded’ & competitive weather space?
In short, hard work, year after year. I think the first thing is the content must be of value, it must be accurate, it must have a point of difference to your basic weather app and MetService. We do this on many levels, and we also make weather entertaining and exciting for people, this is key, especially in Canterbury. The days of generic forecasts, a high and a low are long gone, people want personal content, they want more and more value. I think also we make it about the people, we’re not hidden behind computers and our keyboards, we’re at events, we’re on the radio and we make weather relate to the average person and to the person that is highly dependent on weather. While our core role is forecasting and being specific – you must cater for everyone, when it comes to business and weather, this can be a challenge.
I think the key is to have multiple revenue streams, just like any business, you can’t operate long term on one business model. We provide personalized forecasting, advertising, sponsorship and our online membership and some API externally, I think this is key. We’ve also had great support from the start, with the likes of Hanmer Springs Thermal Pool and Spa, to local construction companies and now a number of businesses across the region like Generation Homes Christchurch that have been fantastic. The public to have been amazing. Effective collaboration and diversification are the keys.
•How did you decide on an online subscription, given it’s the only service of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
We had success with advertising, but I knew the real value was in the content, the actual product & service. We had hundreds of thousands of people accessing our content weekly (free of charge) that’s fine, but it only brings you advertising revenue, now we have one of the most popular online subscriptions in the country and we’re able to generate the same advertising, so it’s a real safety net and it means we can keep investing in all areas. It’s incredibly complex and the formula for making it work has taken years and many refinements. It’s a fantastic business model and I expect even the likes of Metservice to introduce similar concepts in the years to come.
•What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
I guess there are two challenges. One, the forecasting and two, business aspects. Both have their moments, but both are equally as enjoyable. The nature of weather, it never stops, there is always pressure, there must be content, forecasts must be updated, there is no time for a bad day, or a day off – I think that’s why very few have entered into professional forecasting. If you like cruisy hours and 45 hour weeks, it’s not a game to enter.
•What’s the future of weather forecasting?
Forecasting is changing and it’s becoming more accurate, more intensive, and more competitive than it was even 5-6 years ago. Technology is constantly changing, the maps, the models are getting better and better, so it’s how we can adapt and present information in an informative, entertaining, and accurate manner. I’ve been forecasting professionally for 8 years, and the accuracy and the presentation of information has improved significantly from when I first started. We have models that can pinpoint cloud types 5 days out, but of course weather is always changing, and you’re constantly being humbled. MetService have improved significantly, with their new website, investment in time and money into their various online platforms and with Niwa ‘flexing’ it makes for an exciting industry to be in, at the end of the day, the public will benefit. There are opportunities in business and weather not yet explored, so I’m looking forward to pressing forward in those areas in the years ahead.
•What are your plans for moving forward?
Plans are always in place, but to be honest…the key is just keep getting better, keep collaborating, keep it positive always, this is key I think, and opportunities will surface. We have many exciting things in the pipeline for 2022. I’m lucky in that I enjoy all business aspects, as much as the forecasting.
•Where is home?
We decided a few years ago to make the move from Christchurch to Hanmer Springs. After getting the business established and my partner teaching in the Hurunui, it was the ideal place. The weather is stunning here. Those perfect summer days, no easterlies, and mountains on the doorstep. It’s a great place to work online and close enough to get into Christchurch for business. Leighton is our other forecaster based in Christchurch, keeping us in the loop on what’s happening, and we also have reporters across the region, so now, you can work anywhere!
That’s a tough one. I love Kaikoura, it’s still home for me. The sea and mountains and it’s so rugged. Queenstown is another favourite. I love the MacKenzie Country too, it’s stunning, especially in winter. Also, Mt Lyford Village, just up the road, a mountain village, log homes, snow, fire, good food, possibly my favourite. We’re so lucky we have some of the most stunning places on the planet just a few hours from Christchurch. Did I answer the question?
•Summer plans? We have a small break lined up in early January. Lots of sun, sweat and mountains and minimal time on the computer.
•Lastly, what advice would you give to anyone wanting to turn their passion into a business?
There is a lot. You learn a lot when your run a business. I think you’ve got to have a real passion, perhaps even be slightly obsessed with your service or product, often a natural skill set and personality that is conducive to whatever you’re trying to do, this is key and not widely known. Getting comfortable with failure and the ability to keep going, especially early on. We all need to fail before we get a few winners, and you only need one winner. Also work out what level of sacrifice you’re willing to make to achieve the objective and dream. Keep going, never give up and be prepared to do what 99% won’t to achieve your goal.