Big Ideas Poor Execution

In early 2014 the Wellington City Council announced a series of “big ideas” to boost economic growth in the city. Predictably, in the two years since, there has been little progress.

For starters, it was always clear that the airport runway extension was not a good idea because of technical reasons that I have outlined on numerous occasions. What was less clear, was the business case to justify a ratepayer funding subsidy based on these illusory benefits. It subsequently emerged that the real reason for the extension was to make it safe for existing aircraft. Something that the airport should have taken care of years ago.

The Miramar film precinct and creative enterprise zone idea sounded promising at first, but once again there seems to have been little progress. Additionally, Shelly Bay (see photo above) on the Miramar Peninsular is ripe for development but has been an embarrassing eyesore for many years because the ownership can’t seem to work collaboratively and constructively. A number of attempts have been made to move forward on developing the area but once again nothing has happened yet. The film museum now looks set to rise on a site opposite Te Papa, co-funded by the city. At least we have that to look forward to.

Finally, and most disappointingly, there was the concept of a tech district based around the Cuba Street precinct, where many of our most exciting startups and technology sector companies reside. Our office is located in this area and I’m not aware of any initiatives yet. In fact council staff have been putting up more yellow stickers and telling building owners to get concrete masonry sorted or suffer the consequences. So the future of the area is sketchy, especially in light of recent seismic activity.

What did happen in the previous two years was that the council invested a huge sum of ratepayer funds into a vanity project aimed at helping a private company set up a large co-working space on the edge of the CBD. It’s a good venue, but initially bold community-building objectives seem to have fallen a little by the wayside this year. I’ve also heard one or two newly elected councillors privately express their reservations over this and the lack of innovation support generally. Now that the Grow Wellington model has been homogenised and had the life crushed out of it, the incoming council are trying to figure out how to fill the vacuum.

Overall I’m worried about Wellington’s crumbling economic competitiveness, a scenario which is likely to be compounded by the hidden effects of a slow-moving earthquake impact, including incapacitation of the container shipping terminal. There are many old and damaged buildings in the city now and (unlike Christchurch) there does not seem to be a unified vision about renewal of the inner city. The old town is looking dated and shabby, whilst our neighbours in Australia and Asia surge ahead. This situation has crept up on us, but it’s time to cut through the political window dressing and admit we have a problem.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Polanyio and a mentor with Startup Weekends and Lightning Lab. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Parochialism Will Ultimately Fail So Think Globally

Australian Prime Minister Turnbull’s recent flying visit to New Zealand, to meet our new PM Bill English, was a considerably more civil affair than Turnbull’s reportedly heated conversation with the “so called” U.S. President the previous week. Perhaps that is why the visit went under-reported in the media. Neither Prime Minister could be regarded as a stellar charismatic, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. In these unenlightened times, a safe pair of hands with good diplomatic skills and a head for business is a far greater asset. Strengthening regional economic linkages will be key to survival in an uncertain world.

During that top level meeting in Queenstown a cooperation agreement on science and research was signed that paves the way for more trans-Tasman collaboration. To the popular media, topics such as this are about as dull as a damp dish cloth and the agreement went largely unnoticed. That’s a shame because everyone needs to understand how important regional cooperation is becoming to the economy. How we play within Asia-Pacific will have implications for our future opportunities and prosperity. The disturbing shift (in some quarters) towards isolationism and protectionism demands that we build stronger regional relationships.

There needs to be a local mindshift as well. I’m tired of well-meaning local government agencies constantly banging on about how they are making over their cities into the next big centre for technology innovation. It’s a ridiculous notion. The entire population of New Zealand could fit into most major cities on the Asia-Pacific rim, with whom we are in a battle for capital and talent. We contribute 0.1% of the global economy and we are under-cooked by most measures in terms of science and technology research and innovation commercialisation. Short-sighted parochialism makes no sense and must end now. Our businesses and civic leadership need to get with the programme and start connecting regionally.

I had a conversation along these lines recently with Shawn O’Keefe, formerly a co-founder of South by Southwest (SXSW), a huge global film, music and interactive media event. Shawn is currently based in New Zealand and is now an advisor to the Myriad event launching in Brisbane this year. Myriad is supported by the Queensland government, which is pouring a huge investment into promoting innovation in the Sunshine State. Myriad is a three day festival of art, technology, innovation and investment match-making. A key theme of the event is that we need to collaborate regionally to compete globally.

It would be great to see a strong contingent of New Zealand tech founder entrepreneurs at this event.

Image credit: Paul Spence

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Polanyio and a mentor with Startup Weekends and Lightning Lab. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Ashes To Ashes 2016. Now Welcome To 2017

Let’s face it, last year was a pretty shit year for fans of popular music and culture. I don’t care what the statisticians say, the catalogue of highly talented stars that made premature exits in 2016 was exceptional and shocking. However the media were (mostly) too polite to mention that the collective drug consumption of the dearly departed probably supported a number of small South American nations’ economies throughout the 1970’s and 80s. All tragic losses, but perhaps not entirely unexpected.

Less predictable was the outcome of the U.S. election, a result so unpalatable that we can only hope that the American political establishment will find a way to put matters right, before there is a very nasty accident involving long range armaments or fiscal collapse. One way or another, I very much doubt Trump will see out his four year term. The Brexit debacle was equally disturbing and was also another example of a poorly informed, inward looking minority being allowed far too much influence. But of course it would not be democracy if we excluded people with double-digit IQ and questionable heredity from voting.

At a time when irrational fear, regional isolationism and misguided notions of nationalism seem to be taking root globally once again – it is important that thinkers give voice to their concerns loudly and often. Important because intellectualism usually becomes an early victim of the mob, when rational thought gives way to populism and slogans. History repeatedly shows us that this never ends well.

So I was at first encouraged when I read this opinion piece on how we all need to work together to create a sustainable economic future for New Zealand. Whilst I certainly agree with the sentiments, I disagree that this approach is predicated on Auckland as the “centre of innovation” for New Zealand. In fact the problems of Auckland are analogous to arterial thrombosis. If the heart fails, the entire body will die – and that’s a big issue for all of us in New Zealand. Regional relationships and complex networks are the better approach, as I have discussed previously, with regional linkages and multiple innovation hubs.

For my part this year, I intend to continue to connect entrepreneurs and innovators from across New Zealand and abroad and to contribute economically by working on growing the businesses we have under the GeniusNet portfolio and (hopefully) add one or two more during the year. I will also continue to speak out on issues, especially those that relate to economic development. It is about time the citizenry had greater influence over decisions than those self-serving politicians whose main aim is building grandiose edifices to themselves. Here’s something good from 2016 that gives the world hope in this regard. Thanks Audrey.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Polanyio and a mentor with Startup Weekends and Lightning Lab. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Mrs Clinton Misses

clownObserving the U.S. election result unfold was very much like watching a slow motion train wreck – ugly but also fascinating. That an arrogant, racist, misogynist with no experience of political office could even make a party nomination (let alone win the presidency) speaks volumes about a badly broken America and a failed political system.

No doubt there will be endless soul-searching and detailed media analysis of the result. But the media are themselves thoroughly complicit in this disaster. Ironically the Washington Post best summed up the situation with an introspective opinion piece on how the liberal media’s self-satisfying world view completely ignored the real story of growing pain and dissatisfaction in heartland America. The Republican president-elect appears to have successfully tapped the disenfranchised, angry (and largely uneducated) under-belly of American society in the same way that Brexiteers and Far Right have damaged Europe.

The presidential candidates collectively spent an estimated $3 billion on their campaigns. Imagine how many small businesses could have been created, roads repaired or schools upgraded with that money. The new president may have a majority Republican senate to lean upon, but he will not be able to deliver on the economic pump priming and rejuvenation of the sunset economy that he implied during his campaign. Grassroots supporters and swing voters will have four years to contemplate their error of judgement.

The political elite woke up this morning smelling the rotten corpse of the “American Dream”. It remains to be seen whether or not the nation can be reunified with a changing of the guard. The traditional approach to doing so is to find a diversion in a common enemy. That is also a disturbingly real possibility with the next administration and a chilling prospect for all of us.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Is Lean Thinking Killing Creative Thinking?

As a frequent Startup Weekend mentor (and co-founder of a successful boot-strapped tech company), I have had plenty of real life exposure to the doctrines of lean startup. But a recent experience has started me questioning whether we are doing ourselves a disservice through slavish adherence to lean methodology and an overly prescriptive approach to starting up.

Let me be clear. The Lean Startup framework provides a solid foundation for anyone who has not previously been in business and for whom resources are scarce. Starting a business is hard and developing a new business model is especially difficult. Coming from a science background, I’m very interested in how Lean Startup takes an experimental approach to testing hypotheses. This makes a lot of good sense. What makes less sense is when being Lean constrains our imaginations.

But I think there’s a way to resolve these tensions. There are two fundamental issues faced by a new startup and (to put it bluntly) not much else really matters outside of these two.

  1. Are you addressing a real problem that people will pay you money to solve?
  2. Can you position your solution in front of those people?

If you can answer these two essential questions, you have a shot at building a business. If not, fail fast and start over. At the forefront of your mind should be that customers are your chief source of capital, not investors. Engaging with customers early and identifying their problems is essential. Gaining venture funding is not a business model. Most businesses in the real world are NOT funded by venture capitalists.

By all means deploy Lean Thinking in your startup to discover customers, create value and extend your runway without becoming reliant on external funding. Indeed, a successful first product iteration that earns an income stream can provide a pathway to explore bigger ideas in the future. But please don’t let Lean Thinking kill your dreams. Many of the greatest tech companies started small and created their own markets. Be an entrepreneur scientist. Keep experimenting. Entrepreneurship is a creative endeavour, which is why many of us are drawn to it.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Network Effects Strengthen Our Economic Game

networkI really enjoyed attending Project16 this week. Offering a nice blend of business, philosophy and creativity, the event attracts an esoteric mix of thought leaders from the United States and bakes them with a sprinkling of local influencers, thinkers and doers. What I like about the event is that it challenges our thinking and helps build connectivity by creating a diverse set of connections. That’s important for an island nation that lies a long way from global markets.

It was also a relief that most speakers generally avoided trotting out the usual slogans such as “number eight wire” and “punch above our weight”. Self-congratulatory (but outdated) language such as this should be forever confined to the 20th Century. We also need to move away from parochial attitudes to economic development. It’s no longer acceptable to be championing specific regions or cities as the centre of gravity. Wellington is no more the “centre” for film production than Auckland is the king of software. Yes, we do have regional strengths, but we can leverage these better by working together.

Economic development is not a zero sum game. But everyone can win through collaboration. Rather than trying to compete individually for capital and talent with mega-cities of Asia-Pacific such as Hong Kong, Sydney and Los Angeles, we need to be building relationships and making deals regionally that are more competitive. For example New Zealand tech startups are now accessing capital in Asia. The Sydney “fintech” scene is doing the same. We could set up more “sister city” relationships that have a meaningful economic basis, rather than a political or ceremonial objective. Deal-making should be driven by identified opportunity, rather than through meddling by governmental agencies.

For this reason, pundits who predict that extending Wellington airport will thrust the region onto the global stage are mistaken. Apart from the technical and economic reasons I already outlined that militate against this silly idea, we actually need to switch the thinking towards complex networks, where much greater value is created through diversity. That means it’s also totally fine (and indeed desirable) for air transport links to hub through Auckland, Sydney, Adelaide or Melbourne.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Has Britain Gone Mad?

cowThe United Kingdom seems to have become infected with another case of “mad cow” disease, if the events of the past few weeks are any indication. Prime Minister-elect Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson to the post of Foreign Secretary seems designed to maximise offense to Britain’s neighbours, already reeling from the extraordinary Brexit campaign, of which Johnson was himself a prominent supporter.

May’s appointment of Johnson should be no surprise however. Three days into the job, she has already been accused of pandering and being inconsistent in her position on foreign investment, amongst other issues. The Boris appointment is either an awkward misjudgement or a clever ploy to undermine the entire Brexit process – which she quietly opposed during her time as a senior cabinet minister.

The new Prime Minister also seems in no hurry to start the exit negotiations and who can blame her. The Brexit debacle has plunged the UK into it’s biggest political and economic crisis since World War Two, say some commentators. Furthermore the exit vote was not exactly a landslide. There might yet be more water to flow under the Euro bridge as Britain stares down the barrel of an estimated 5-10 year recession as the full implications of Brexit take hold.

In a world of uncertainty, now is not the time for isolationism and petty parochialism. Britain has benefited enormously from its previously close relationship with the Continent, but the stayer camp failed to make this case sufficiently strongly. May was complicit in this, in her efforts to appease all sides and pave the way for her own career development. That in itself is a clear illustration of why the British government is failing its people at present. The vested self-interest of a minority of over-puffed political personalities has overcome common sense.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Twitter Tweaks

twit2There’s no doubting that, in terms of social impact, Twitter has been a shining beacon of light in a world of largely vacuous and self-absorbed social media content. Therein lies its strength. But considering that the company has received over $1 billion in venture funding since 2007, you would think they might have settled upon a viable business model by now.

Legions of internet commentators have already weighed in on whether or not Twitter can ever salvage a real business from its existing offering. I hope they can. Twitter is my preferred outlet for social media content, for a number of good reasons. It allows me to receive, share and comment on high value content whilst retaining a degree of privacy that is not offered by other services.

But a recent article in Inc illustrates that Twitter has a problem of perception. At present it is not clear to potential new users whether or not Twitter will evolve into anything other than a “stream of consciousness”. So there might be a finite limit to how far Twitter can grow. That’s not a problem for me in the least, but it will be a problem for Twitter’s investors. There is a certain irony however in suggesting that in order to innovate, grow and survive, Twitter must become like the other big platforms. Arguably Twitter already has many platform features. It connects content creators with consumers and allows a certain amount of freedom in terms of user curation. So the next step might involve further reducing the friction for users to find the best content.

Twitter may be smaller than other social media services, but it packs a lot more more punch. Twitter users tend to be better educated, more affluent and (importantly for advertisers) three times more likely to follow their favourite brands online. Pundits complain that the current round of Twitter tweaks will not be enough. But I tend to disagree. You don’t turn around over 300 million users in a single day. Transformative change for the Twitter’s business model is necessary, but will take time. Experimentation and testing are part of that process.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Finding The Happiness Particle

happyRecently I had the great pleasure of being guest of honour at Startup Grind in Auckland. We had a very frank Q&A session about the many challenges facing startup entrepreneurs. Some of the discussion revolved around bootstrapping and growing globally. But we also devoted a lot of time to the emotional challenges faced by business founders, because I think this is a topic that we don’t hear enough about.

Entrepreneurship is a hugely demanding calling and few of us get through it entirely unscathed. Along with the daily dramas of driving sales, paying the bills and keeping your team on track, there is the pressing need to balance work and home life. This balance becomes especially difficult if you have young children at home. With the need to put in long hours when starting a business, having the support of your family is critical to entrepreneurial success. So you must engage loved ones in the process early and set some clear expectations.

Funding rounds, media recognition and rolling out the next big software release are exciting and wonderful things, but all of that is fleeting. Family and friends are ultimately what sustain us in the long term – not money, public accolades or brilliant software code. Participating and contributing positively in the community and building authentic familial, personal and professional relationships is infinitely more rewarding.

Creating a palatable work environment is also important. Holacratic workplaces is one controversial approach to addressing this. However, there remains ongoing (and valid) criticisms from within traditional schools of management about whether holacracy can ever succeed. But perhaps the real issue is how you actually define “success” in this context. Tech companies such as Twitter, Medium and Zappos are the most well known proponents of holacracy, within which customer and employee happiness also figures large in company reporting.

At iwantmyname we built a virtually enabled company around a flat structure and uniform remuneration across the company. We engrained an ethos of self-management across the organisation, bringing with it both freedoms and responsibilities. Weaving elements of holacracy into our work setting has been extremely challenging at times and there have certainly been missteps. Whilst very rewarding, it is still a work in progress.

The face of management has evolved very little in the last century within the corporate world, despite the fact that there has been a huge migration away from assembly lines to desk-bound work. But companies that are disrupting traditional business models and leading change have a special responsibility to illuminate the way forward. Finding a suitable balance between home life, personal freedom and the demands of your business is essential to finding the elusive happiness particle.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

When Good Ideas Have Sex: The Case For Innovation Networking

w2wLast year I attended the final pitching session at Get Funded 36, a compressed accelerator course for budding entrepreneurs from within the academic community. Callaghan have produced a blog article explaining how it all worked, nicely showcasing PhD student Brendan Darby and his spectroscopy solution for testing turbid fluids. During the one and a half day event, the participants were walked through the fundamentals of lean startup methodology and coached on how to develop a short pitch to promote their proposal with investors and funding agencies.

I have been involved in promoting this kind of innovation networking through startup community events for some years now, including developing Unlimited Potential Wellington to the World (see photo above) a tech and research innovation showcase and helping to run a special Startup Weekend for researchers last year. The results were mixed, but Get Funded 36 went on to tailor the model a little more and I hope there will be other similar events in future. There’s certainly a strong case for developing more short course formats for giving researchers and academics a taste for entrepreneurship and for exposing the business community to new ideas.

Technology research forms the basis of most high value ventures, but New Zealand has traditionally been a poor performer in commercialising academic research. Part of the problem has been an obsession with “publishing” research, instead of turning it into a business. Our university commercialisation offices have had some successes at licensing intellectual property, but less success at seeding high growth ventures in which most of the economic value has been retained locally. Those mindsets need to change if we are to earn our keep as a nation in future.

There are other initiatives in the New Zealand research and academic community such as Velocity (formerly Spark) and KiwiNet that have gained some traction over recent years and which welcome engagement with the broader innovation and business community. We need more of this! I firmly believe researchers need to get downtown and mingle with entrepreneurs and investors more often. As a friend of mine is often fond of saying, “when good ideas have sex, great things can be achieved”.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and an organiser and mentor with Startup Weekends in New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by Paul through New Zealand Startup Digest.