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.

No Public Funding For Runway White Elephant Please

777lotrThe debate over whether or not public money should be invested in the extension of Wellington International Airport’s (WIAL) runway is starting to heat up. Despite project studies only being released to the public this week, city councils across the region have already indicated they will provide financial support towards the $330 million cost. At present central government has said it will not support and some local body councillors are already starting to feel uneasy about the overall proposal.

The Wellington City Council (minority shareholder in the airport), Wellington Chamber of Commerce and WIAL have been enthusiastically promoting the supposed “economic benefits” of the project. But the real reason the extension is needed is because the current length is sub-standard even for short-haul jet operations. WIAL is essentially asking taxpayers and ratepayers to co-fund capital works. Given that WIAL parent company Infratil earned a staggering $453 million last year and reportedly has a $1 billion war chest, why are public funds needed at all? Surely WIAL can make it’s own business case and access funding itself?

Adding 300 metres to the runway will not make it safe for wide-body aircraft.  “Long haul” flights are not coming to Wellington any time soon and here’s why. Firstly, medium haul, mid sized airliners are actually being phased out across the Asia-Pacific region as we speak. My understanding is that the last Qantas 767 has already gone and Air NZ has a small number remaining with limited lifespans. Asian airlines no longer operate these types. Air Asia and Jetstar withdrew A330s from Christchurch and Auckland, because they could not make a profit. In any event, an A330 would not be able to operate fully laden, even from an extended runway. Truly “long haul” aircraft such as A380, A340 and B777 are unlikely to be operated because of weight and size limitations.

The 787 Dreamliner is often touted as the saviour of long thin air routes. Again, it will not be possible to economically operate this aircraft out of WLG, even with a longer runway. Extending the runway will not remove the nearby hills. Aircraft take-off restrictions are governed by the climb performance under instrument flight conditions with a failed engine at the takeoff point. Long haul operations (10-16 hours) require huge fuel loads and substantial take-off weights. Take-off performance is a function of aircraft weight, engine power and ambient conditions, NOT runway length. Aircraft will be payload limited even with the runway extension in place. This is a really important point that most commentators and the media have missed.

There are many other reasons why investing in a runway extension is a bad idea. Not the least of these is that the airlines refuse to commit. You can be sure that Air New Zealand is not going to undermine it’s cosy hub and spoke operation that is based in Auckland and it’s not clear that any Asia or U.S. based airlines are at all interested. Some passengers complain that travel via Auckland or Sydney is onerous. But can you name any city under 500,000 population in North America that has direct air links with London or Hong Kong? Hub and spoke operations are the norm elsewhere in the world. There are many other investments that Wellington can make as a city and a region in order to promote economic development.

Unsurprisingly, there is zero information on the WCC or WIAL websites about the public consultation process. But the media are reporting the following information. There will be three public open days where people can meet one-on-one with the experts who prepared the reports. The open days will be held at Chaffers Dock Function Centre on December 2 from 12pm to 3pm, at SPCA Fever Hospital in Mt Victoria on December 3 from 5pm to 8pm, and at the Brentwood Hotel Conference Centre in Kilbirnie on December 5 from 12pm to 3pm.

Postscript: There is now a dedicated website providing links to information from the consultants who were paid by the project supporters to provide reports. The site also contains information about public presentations and how to make a submission.

Paul Spence is an ardent supporter of regional economic development, a commercial pilot licence holder and a technology sector company director based in Wellington.

Your Startup Weekend Toolbox

toolboxNovember 2015 was a bumper month for Startup Weekends here in New Zealand. With more events in the pipeline, it’s time to begin thinking about your game plan. Here’s a short primer on the fundamentals.

Team – At Startup Weekend we take you from an unformed idea, through to a working business model with a team that can capably execute on the project. Teams of one simply don’t fly and you cannot scale a business without a good team around you. But Startup Weekend helps you connect with people who bring a diverse range of skills. Be ready to share and engage. Choose your team mates wisely – you may be together a long time.

The Problem – Have you thought hard about the problem you are solving? It’s too easy for entrepreneurs to become infatuated with their own idea and overlook whether or not they are fundamentally solving a point of pain for customers. Get out of the building. You might be surprised what you can learn from potential customers and how this can be applied. Testing your hypothesis is the scientific part of being an entrepreneur.

The Solution – Are you creating a product or service that offers a compelling advantage over other similar offerings in the marketplace? Is the related intellectual property defensible or secure? Research the competition and don’t forget to check for trademark and domain name availability. If you can’t find any competing businesses, then ask yourself why.

Customer Acquisition – Forget about all the startup investment mythology. Your best source of funding is real, live customers, not investors. Ultimately someone has to be willing to pay, otherwise you will sink. Here’s a great article that explains customer acquisition versus lifetime value. Building a long term relationship with your hard won customers is key. Venture funding is not a business model.

Business Model – How does the business deliver customer value on the one hand, whilst generating growth revenues with an engaged audience? Look at where your venture sits in the global context and how it could scale up to something really big. Are you a pipe or a platform? Become familiar with using the business model canvas as a framework for your thinking.

Startup Weekend bundles these questions around a lean methodology and provides experienced entrepreneurs to mentor and challenge you along the entrepreneurial journey. Find a New Zealand Startup Weekend near you and sign up yourself (and a friend).

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 related events curated by him with New Zealand Startup Digest.

Image credit: Jason Rhode

Sowing The Seeds For Investment

alanAlan Jones is a well known Australian angel investor who was one of the early hires when Yahoo was just kicking off. So he’s been at the forefront of the tech industry since the early days. As a marketing and tech guy he now works with Aussie startups at BlueChilli incubator in Sydney. BlueChilli provides an integrated suite of services to early stage ventures and is part of an explosion of interest currently happening in tech incubation across the ditch.

Alan joined us at Startup Garage recently and provided a very thorough exposition of how early stage companies should be preparing for presenting to potential seed round investors. Key to building a good relationship from the outset is doing your homework and identifying angels that have an interest in your type of business, he said. If you want some more tips on how to reach out to investors, check out Alan’s slide deck.

On the other hand, if you are lean boot-strapping your start-up, you might be able to delay (or avoid) raising funding and consequently drive a better valuation and hold on to more equity. Recently I’ve been tracking some interesting case studies detailing how a variety of different entrepreneurs essentially self-funded. Remember, getting investment is not validation for your product. The best form of validation is actually selling to customers.

Startup Garage provides a series of sessions with visiting guest speakers aimed at informing the startup community in the Capital. The events are hosted by Creative HQ and sponsored by Grow Wellington and iwantmyname.

A Special Event For Entrepreneur Researchers

swrschCompared to many OECD nations, New Zealand underperforms at building great global companies based on smart commercialisation of knowledge. That’s a shame, because we have no shortage of intellectual talent and we also enjoy a fantastic natural resource base.
So we are putting on a very special Startup Weekend event here in Wellington focusing on science and research. It’s all part of our efforts to strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Zealand and get more people in science and technology thinking about entrepreneurship as a career. Encouraging a culture of entrepreneurialism and building bridges between the research and business communities are important themes in driving value-added economic growth that we need to underpin our future.
It is a fantastic opportunity for young researchers who are interested in research commercialisation to spend a weekend with some very cool mentors as well as investors and people from across the business community. The McDiarmid Institute and Kiwinet are actively supporting this event. It’s mostly about teaching a lean methodology for developing and testing business ideas, as well as networking with potential future collaborators.

Participants can bring a project of their own that they wish to explore or join another team simply for the learning opportunity. We are looking for researchers from any field plus engineers/developers, designers and business gurus to get involved as well. Who knows where it might lead?

This will be a smaller event than usual and spaces are limited. Sign up for Startup Weekend Science & Research today!

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

Imagination Key To Winning Online Retail Race

shirtsLast week three iconic local retail brands shut their doors in my city. Whilst traditional “bricks and mortar” retailers continue to blame their demise on the growing threat from online, the real threat is complacency in the face of a changing market. But it’s an issue that e-commerce businesses need to be mindful of also.

Listed on the New Zealand stock exchange, Kirkaldie and Stains had an amazing history catering for high-end retail in the capital city. The firm was started in 1863 by a pair of immigrant entrepreneurs and is one of the oldest surviving retailers in the country. But the writing has been on the wall for some time, with ongoing financial losses and flagging share price. Subject to shareholder approval, the company will be acquired and re-branded by Australian retail giant David Jones.

The historic Bank Arcade is one of the few tasteful retail venues in the region. Longtime tenant Rixon Groove was an upmarket shirt and tie retailer and manufacturer that opened to much fanfare in 1991, catering for inner city businessmen and office workers. I often walked past that tiny shop and noticed, unlike its busy neighbours, there was sadly almost never a customer in sight. With the price of a shirt hovering around $200 and fashion trending away from formal attire in the workplace, it’s not hard to see what went wrong.

Shoe retail is sometimes regarded as the most competitive category, but boutique shoe store Minnie Cooper was always a hit with the ladies. Rather than go the way of the other dinosaurs, the business has elected to close its stores and go 100% online. They will continue to face huge competition, but without the substantial overheads of a high street presence. It will be tough, but least Minnie Cooper is attempting to adapt to the changing market.

Online businesses also face challenges and must be prepared to adapt and innovate. Customers online are fickle and have the attention span of a small fruit fly. Barriers to entry are relatively low and very few online retailers have a natural monopoly in their market. So e-commerce properties that fail to remain fresh and relevant have a limited lifespan in cyberspace. Addressing a huge global market is a far more interesting proposition, but shirts and ties all look much the same. Clearly differentiating your product offering against dozens of competitors requires a lot of imagination.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Stop Making Sense

headsA recent article in the Washington Post implored society to stop focusing on tech start-ups and begin encouraging more entrepreneurs to start mainstream businesses, because these have a greater chance of both generating new employment and staying the course.

The logic behind this proposition is based on demographics. As “millenial” entrepreneurs come of age, there’s an opportunity to further empower the founder pipeline with better business education and a stronger emphasis on mentorship. Idealistic young people from this generation have a more diverse view on what kinds of businesses interest them and a more holistic understanding of what the art of entrepreneurship looks like in the context of social and environmental responsibility. An overemphasis on tech sector could therefore be limiting because of its somewhat linear narrative.

Much of the mythology around tech start-ups is media driven and does not necessarily reflect the wider tech industry of course. We generally only hear about the success stories of companies that raised millions in funding or had huge exits. We are rarely informed about the 98% of tech start-ups that never get funded or those that crash and burn within a few months due to lack of product-market fit. Moreover, we do not hear often enough about value creation and social equity as measures of performance.

This is partly why I cringe whenever someone suggests we need to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem just like Silicon Valley. There’s more than one way to grow a company. But much of the prevailing wisdom involves companies “getting offshore”, setting up shop in the Valley and networking madly until they score a round of funding. This is not the only pathway. With iwantmyname we proved that it is entirely possible to bootstrap without capital and grow organically, simply by consistently delighting customers.

Furthermore, the Valley is no longer the centre of gravity it once was. The focus is shifting as increasingly affluent Asia-Pacific economies look outwards for investible opportunities across a wide variety of sectors. Our friends across the Tasman already know this and have become very successful at building bridges and welcoming more productive inflows of capital. The face of business investment is changing and it’s no longer defined by slick, white guys in big suits. Making sense of this involves us being able to adapt to the new environment through clearly articulating our personal values as entrepreneurs and as an entrepreneurial nation.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet