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.

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.

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.

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

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

A Year Of Global Entrepreneurship?

It’s Global Entrepreneurship Week this week, with a focus on encouraging young entrepreneurs to step up all around the world. Unfortunately GEW seems to have bypassed New Zealand this year – but not to worry – there’s still a great deal happening in the start-up, tech and innovation space.

But lately I’ve become a little less optimistic that we are heading in the right direction in terms of supporting a high tech business start-up culture. Can start-ups really be artificially manufactured and then massaged into life, like characters on a reality TV show? Why are our academic institutions still failing to commercialise publicly funded intellectual property?

Admittedly incubation has had a somewhat chequered history in New Zealand to say the least and the jury is still out on whether intense “accelerator” programmes can work well in a small, distant and (relatively) capital poor market like ours. But who’s calling the shots on public investments in technology these days? Disturbingly, the New Zealand government’s 2015 science investment round still does not even mention a specific category for ICT. This raises questions about priorities, especially given that ICT companies have a demonstrably shorter development cycle than biotech and manufacturing.

The current crop of start-up programmes seem overly focused on creating opportunities for early stage investors, rather than advancing regional economic development. The focus should be in providing local foundations for high value, globally scalable businesses. For example, the most promising of the recent Lightning Lab alumni almost immediately relocated to the United States. But perhaps I’m missing the point? The departure of Lightning Lab itself from Wellington also underlined for me precisely why public servants and executives in suits should never be allowed to meddle with “innovation” initiatives.

Maybe none of that matters, because ultimately it’s the educational and motivational opportunities that are most meaningful. The various initiatives on offer also raise the profile of entrepreneurship as a career option. That’s important because it’s clear that the continuing lazy media obsession with sporting and entertainment “heroes” does little to encourage our young people into business at present.

What is encouraging however, is the fact that techies and start-up fanatics have become a lot more self-organising lately and are just getting on with it. I daresay the majority of interesting tech start-up companies of the future will probably get going in the same old way they have done historically – with a couple of mates bouncing an idea around over a beer and then raising some cash AFTER they get customers on board. Those companies will be thinking global from day one if they are smart. Global entrepreneurship should be the focus all year round.

Want to keep in touch with the best tech and start-up events? Make sure you sign up for the New Zealand edition of the free weekly Startup Digest.

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

Capital Tech Beat Picks Up

r9sw1The logo parade on High Tech Capital’s website aptly illustrates how Wellington’s tech start-up scene just keeps getting better and better. In the depths of the global recession back in 2008, when we bravely launched iwantmyname onto the world stage, you could count the number of innovative, global-facing web start-ups on one hand. The mood was downbeat at that time, but the stage was set for what local angel investor Dave Moskovitz has labelled as a “Cambrian explosion” of innovation.

Way back about the same time the dot-coms were busting in the U.S., some of us saw that the tech and start-up ecosystem in New Zealand needed fixing. Through early initiatives such as Capital ICT cluster, Unlimited Potential Wellington to the World and Startup Weekend we set to work joining the dots. Building an ecosystem takes a long time because it requires some political risk taking and a cultural shift. With a long overdue re-draft of the regional economic strategy and the blossoming of other initiatives such as Macdiarmid, CreativeHQ, AngelHQ and  tech accelerator Lightning Lab, we finally have all the ingredients in place.

It also helped a lot that we have high tech movie and games industries and a couple of hefty counterweights in the form of Xero and TradeMe. There’s a free flow of talent across the semi-permeable boundaries between games, movie and software industries and the big boys keep Wellington in the global spotlight. The recent Green Button acquisition by Microsoft was a coup for local angels who invested and demonstrates how success springs from the tech talent pool, many of whom are skilled migrants.

Keeping talent engaged in our region involves creating an attractive cityscape and ensuring infrastructure such as broadband and transport links are world class. We also need to constantly invigorate the flow of capital and ideas through events, initiatives and global outreach to other start-up magnets around the Asia-Pacific rim.

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Pictured: Josh Forde, Paul Spence & Dave Moskovitz at R9SW. Photo credit: ParleyMedia