Whatever Happened To Competitiveness?

Having spent a decade helping to build a technology business as well as giving back to the community along the way, I thought that I was making a valuable contribution to growing a more knowledge intensive economy here in New Zealand. I was able to measurably improve my own lifestyle and assumed that we were all heading in the right direction together. But with regional economic development becoming more politicised than ever and national indicators of labour productivity and GDP actually decreasing over the last two years – I now realise that we have a lot more hard thinking ahead of us as a nation if we are to deliver on the clean and competitive, high value economy that we all hoped for.

Lately, in an effort to determine how I can best contribute intellectually to this creative endeavour, I’ve been revisiting some of the traditional macro-economic theory around “competitiveness”. As well, I’ve been exploring some new approaches that are emerging in the development arena, with the goal of bringing together my business experience and the latest in economic development thought leadership. I’m a firm believer that policy and actions should be driven by a combination of practical skills and academic theory.

The World Economic Forum defines competitiveness as “the set of institutions, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country”. Productivity is simply the ratio of outputs versus inputs in an economy. Traditionally a more productive economy generates more wealth and (theoretically) more income per capita and better standards of living for its citizens. In practice, it is more problematic and here’s why.

Firstly because this formula assumes wealth is the only measure of good. Happily, some governments and corporations are now beginning to think about less tangible measures of progress such as well-being for example. Secondly, social factors can skew apparent productivity. For example wealthy nations with large populations of guest workers who have a much lower standard of living compared to local residents. Also the rise of pan-national states (such as EU) and the drift away from globalism towards regional trade agreements, force us to revisit how we look at competitiveness from a global perspective.

Competitiveness is as relevant as ever, but it is being framed within a somewhat different context these days. Even Prof. Michael Porter, who famously drove much of the original thinking around competitiveness, agrees that the landscape has shifted. Today businesses (and national economies) are highly networked, social and collaborative – meaning that the forces of competition have changed. Furthermore Porter has evolved his own thinking and now dedicates much of his time to promoting social progress as a measuring stick independent of GDP.

The challenge for New Zealand remains the same. How do we drive our economy up the value chain and away from extractive and polluting commodity based export industries? After ten years on the job, I learned that building and scaling a knowledge based business is very hard work. Even for those who do succeed, the returns may not outweigh spending the same time and capital investing in property, dairy farming or planting pine trees. That’s a huge competitiveness problem that we need to solve if we are to maintain our enviable lifestyle into the future.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest 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.

Photo credit: Renea Mackie – Creative Forest

Eighteen

Twenty Eighteen could have been a disaster for me. Instead I’ve used this year to reflect deeply on my own personal motivations and devise a plan for where I’d like to head next.

I dearly wish that a year ago I had read Steve Blank’s explanation of why startup companies outgrow their founders, because I would have then been better equipped to deal with the precipitous decision of our Board, at the start of the year, that it was time for the founders of iwantmyname to step away from operational roles in the company. But what at first seemed like a personal attack steadily evolved during the year into a coherent transition strategy that will both put the company into a stronger position for growth and allow me some runway to work on new projects in the future such as Creative Forest. The major mistake we made as a company however, was in failing to have that conversation well ahead of time.

Notwithstanding all of that, this year we also celebrated surviving ten years together at iwantmyname and in particular we looked back at how we made a big difference in the lives of many others with our charitable donations and volunteer work in the community. Bootstrapping a company from a spare bedroom, with zero capital and turning it into a respected global brand is no small achievement in the highly competitive world of e-commerce. But the biggest thrills undoubtedly came from helping others along the way.

This was also the year my eighteen year old son finished high school and that week bought himself a plane ticket to Europe, as he set off in search of adventure. It gave me an opportunity to consider whether I had done enough to prepare him for the challenges ahead. When I was eighteen, I had my sights set on university. But university education is becoming a commodity and we need a greater diversity of skills in our economy right now. This made me think about how our current education system is failing many of our kids. Which is why it’s so important that we extend our successful Creative Forest trial out to as many schools as possible in 2019.

Renea and I spent some time in Europe ourselves this year, which we enjoyed very much. But it was a further reminder of how isolated our little islands are from the real world and how we need to look outwards for opportunities and knowledge. But in an ironic twist, the streets of Paris we had trod only a few months earlier, suddenly became a battleground as popular frustration boiled over. Meanwhile the Brexit mess continues to unfold and the astounding and sordid political situation in America turned even more septic, with my hopeful predictions of the disrobing of the leadership doggedly refusing to come true. Despite the unwelcome arrival of e-scooters, perhaps New Zealand is not such a bad place to reside after all.

Safe & Happy Christmas Everyone!

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest 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.

Against The Space Invasion

When “horseless carriages” were first introduced onto public roadways in the late nineteenth century, horse riders and pedestrians thought the end of the world had come. They were partially correct. The horse drawn transport industry had begun to be completely disrupted as this major paradigm shift took hold. No doubt the purveyors of Lime Scooters and other such contraptions are convinced they too are disrupting the transport industry and making the world a better place. But they are wrong.

Notwithstanding that history has shown that the proliferation of automobiles arguably did NOT make the world a better place; governments of the day quickly saw fit to separate vehicular traffic from pedestrians, which at least limited the amount of mayhem. But with injuries and fatalities from scooter accidents mounting up rapidly today, are we being a little too quick to embrace this latest fad? And it is indeed simply a fad. The notion that e-scooters are somehow good for the environment must be one of the more laughable marketing cons inflicted on gullible social media audiences in recent years.

Let’s be clear. Scooters do nothing to remove cars from the road or reduce carbon emissions. Riders are predominantly lazy hipsters who would otherwise be getting some much needed exercise walking around town or perhaps using local bus services. So public transport is therefore being denied revenue. Scooter power is being subtly woven into the fabric of our ever-growing culture of self-entitlement, by giving the finger to more leisurely and considerate users of public spaces. The message to those of us who previously enjoyed contemplative walks in peaceful settings is – get out of my way – I’m coming through!

This issue is actually a big setback for public health, not a step forward. Couple this with the skyrocketing cost of hospital admissions and ACC claims and we suddenly have a rising civic cost for this stupidity. Limb and hip fractures for an elderly person can be life changing, yet we are quite happy to insert these lethal two-wheeled missiles into our public spaces with little or no protection for walkers. Don’t even get me started on the implications of mixing our rampant booze culture with scooters.

It may already be too late for Auckland, but in Wellington we have fought hard for many years to build and preserve the freedom of public walking spaces, especially on the waterfront. The thought of these areas being invaded by high speed scooters is almost unbearable. The roll-out of e-scooters overseas clearly demonstrates that there will be accidents and that innocent pedestrians will sometimes be involved. Yet our legislators seem disinterested in putting any controls in place. Here’s why.

Ironically, the people who rave about e-scooters are the same people who failed to support locally owned bicycle sharing initiatives. Most politicians are in no hurry to address the invasive scourge of e-scooters for the same reason most of us who foresee the problem are reluctant to speak up. Contrary points of view are no longer tolerated in our politically correct world. Nobody wants to stand against something that is cleverly marketed by its American corporate owners as fun and cool. Perhaps there is a place for e-scooters somewhere in our world, but please not in the places occupied by young children and elderly folk and dogs and skateboarders and cyclists and parents with babies in prams. Those places are full already!

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest 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.

Creating An Education Nation

This week I gave my young son a tearful hug and watched him cross through airport security to join the first leg of a long journey to Europe. I found myself, reviewing the previous eighteen years and wondering whether or not I had done enough for him. His mother and I have a solid friendship now, but we separated when he was just two. So co-parenting presented numerous challenges for us for many years. Not the least of those was that (despite his intelligence) my son sometimes struggled within the school system. At times it broke my heart and I often felt like I badly let him down. But what I have found out since we began researching our new project Creative Forest is that the education system is simply not serving our kids well enough in the 21st Century.

Let me state that this article is not about shifting blame or spotlighting shortcomings in  education, it’s about acknowledging that kids have different learning styles, society is changing rapidly and that we are not addressing this fast enough. Our current “modern” form of Western education has origins that date back two centuries. That system arose in the wake of the Industrial Revolution as economies transitioned away from being agrarian and when there was a need for a more literate workforce. Teachers stood at the front of the class imparting knowledge to students lined up in rows. Little has changed.

I don’t mind admitting that this old system served me well personally, because I actually enjoy absorbing facts and was good at sitting exams (one of my few talents). I ended up with three degrees including a post-graduate qualification and was the first person on my father’s side of the family to complete a university education. But now it’s becoming clear that many bright children are not suited to this model, yet there are so few alternatives. It’s time we became an education nation where teaching is properly resourced and we provide alternate pathways that motivate learners. Our future viability in the world depends on it!

Today we are faced with vastly different economic structures, increasing disparities in wealth and exponentially accelerating technological change. How do we equip our children with the skills to navigate these enormous problems? With Creative Forest we take some of the emergent thinking on project based learning and personalised learning and bring them together with a design based ecosystem approach that supports both students and teachers. The open source Creative Forest system delivers success in STEAM subjects, on the basis of personal inquiry, guided by teachers and external mentors. So we use a hybrid setup with the online platform supporting the classroom environment.

Critics of these new methodologies worriedly cite the dangers of eliminating knowledge from the curriculum, but this is a red herring. Learning is not a zero sum game and introducing new approaches does not need to be at the expense of curricula. Indeed bringing forward some new thinking has the potential to enhance how knowledge is passed on. It also opens doorways for kids that were previously excluded and conveys soft skills such as collaboration that they will need in the real world. Thankfully some teachers are already beginning to embrace these ideas and Creative Forest is making progress working with these early adopters.

Meanwhile, thirty hours later we receive a cheerful FaceTime call from my son. He has negotiated several major international airports, landed in Tokyo, Japan, found his hotel then flown on to Osaka the next day, where he interprets online maps to find his way safely across a huge, unfamiliar non-English speaking city, via trains and buses, to a tiny apartment where his buddy is staying. We also hear that he has a job offer awaiting his return to New Zealand. I guess I didn’t fail him entirely in his education.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest 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.

Once In A Lifetime

A series of events unfolded last week that caused me to take a step back and have a rethink about my world view and exactly what drives me to succeed in life. But to preface this story, let me explain that, for a number of reasons, this year has been one of the most challenging in my business career. It has been a year of unnecessary conflict as well as necessary but jarring changes. There have been times when (rightly or wrongly) my capability and core sense of self-worth has been questioned by others and indeed by me as well.

So it was within this tumultuous context that I found myself waiting politely with my partner in a supermarket checkout queue recently. A passing shop employee happened to notice a bank ATM card lying on the floor near to where I was standing and enquired if it was ours. It was not, so she hurried off to deposit the card safely at the supervisor’s station. Now my attention was drawn to an elderly lady ahead of me who was struggling to complete her transaction. Doubled over with an awkwardly curved spine, her skin had the awful gray pallor of someone gravely ill and possibly with limited time left.

Her adult son was trapped in the adjacent queue so, appraising the situation, I waved him across ahead of us. We had just enjoyed a pleasant walk outdoors and were in no particular hurry ourselves. It soon became evident that the poor lady had lost her credit card, so we quickly pointed the man in the direction of where it was being held. The woman was greatly relieved and completed her payment. It was a simple act of assistance towards a stranger in need that any decent person would have provided of course. But what happened next was entirely unexpected and affected me deeply.

The gentleman turned to me and grasped my hand. “Bless you sir, you are a good and kind man”, he said. At that moment I began to realise how easily we lose track of what is really important in life. As humans we strive so hard for material things. We crave money, power, sex and social recognition and yet it all means nothing in the end. The only meaningful aspect of our short lives, is how we contribute to others. As entrepreneurs we are naturally ego-driven and results oriented of course. But this is a feature, not a bug, provided we balance that energy with a healthy sense of humanity and a sense of self-worth.

This week I have also been reading a number of stories about entrepreneurs struggling with their mental health. It reminded me once again that we all must be vigilant in how we balance work and leisure and relationships. I also enjoyed Jenene Crossan’s outpouring about how entrepreneurs simply need to give the best 1% of themselves to their businesses and be surrounded by good people – rather than deplete themselves by giving 100%.

Wherever the road takes me in the future. I hope it will be a place where I can live by that credo and that it will be within an enterprise that demonstrably helps people in some way and genuinely values the contribution of every team member. We only get a limited number of iterations in life – we should make them count.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest 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.

Growing Outwards: Why NZ Needs A More Mature Global Outlook

After three weeks holiday travel, incorporating some of the leading historical and business centres of Europe, it has been quite an adjustment settling back into daily life in the sleepy province of Wairarapa where gumboots and track pants are regarded as the height of fashion in some circles and the main export is unprocessed timber. New Zealand offers many lifestyle benefits, but it is very evident that our cultural isolation threatens to obscure opportunities, unless we learn to take a wider view.

Whilst I will not miss the ever present throngs of humanity and the choking European smog, it was a blessed relief to have a short break from the incessant background noise of sports “news” and the tedious drone of the increasingly dull and introspective media at home in New Zealand. Regularly escaping our little islands and receiving a taste of the real world should be mandatory for anyone in business, education or media or those holding political office. Only by gaining a proper perspective do we truly get a sense of our own irrelevance. Then we can be more effective and realistic in how we engage with the world and with each other.

So much of our cultural focus in New Zealand continues to be fixated on the lower end of the value chain. This is the greatest constraint on raising our aspirations as a nation. By way of example I include, the mind numbing obsession with contact sports, our continuing over-dependence on filthy primary industries as a source of income and a growing preoccupation with political correctness driven by a vocal minority and fueled by a misplaced sense of post-colonial guilt. We must all look outwards together once again and take a bigger picture view.

Only by creating a higher value economy (through trade) and a more informed view of the world can we deliver social equity in the form of better employment and educational opportunities for young people and a welfare safety net for an ageing population. Recent research by the Productivity Commission points to better international connectivity as part of the solution for improving productivity because globally connected firms tend to adopt new technologies earlier and generate better returns. So where do we look for future growth markets?

There’s a free trade agreement on offer with the EU soon, that could be a ray of sunshine. But with the “European project” potentially faltering under the weight of unmanageable levels of migration, ballooning debt and resurgent nationalism, we would be wise to cultivate multiple options. One area of interest is South Asia and in particular India. The sub-continent is currently enjoying the highest economic growth of any region and boasts an emergent and large middle class. We may need to reassess how best to approach this market however. Data shows that NZ exports to India declined in the period 2011-17 and consisted primarily of unprocessed wood products.

The UAE also looks promising as oil prices rebound and their government pump primes with increased infrastructure spending. The Emirates are served by outstanding air links to and from New Zealand and its government has always understood that they must leverage technology to diversify away from reliance on neighbouring oil revenue economies. That’s an opportunity. Perhaps the most interesting challenge then for our technology entrepreneurs is how to create high value, weightless (digital) exports that appeal to customers in regions that are less familiar to us. It takes 25 years for a single pine tree to mature and provide income. With a more global view we can do better than that.

Photo credit: Renea Mackie – Creative Forest

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest 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.

Not A Drop To Drink

The environment and human development seem to be increasingly at odds. Having recently moved to a drought prone province, the state of the local rivers and reservoirs is never far from our minds. On the other hand we’ve also had a spate of storm damage around the country during the last few months, thanks to a heavy rain and sea swells. So whilst we have a vast surplus of water in some places, others are running dry.

Of particular concern in our own province is that plans to future proof the area against looming fluctuations in water supply have been knee-capped by the government for the sake of political expediency. Given that the region has a growing population, a water dependent agricultural base and an expanding viticulture industry, that’s a big concern. It’s a concern that could be addressed by levying the biggest users, rather than turning off the tap to residential consumers (as currently occurs). But worries over water sustainability are not limited solely to Wairarapa.

The counter argument to investing in water reservoirs is that irrigation fueled intensification of agriculture has demonstrably led to the degradation of waterways and lakes in New Zealand. Even Fonterra’s current charm campaign cannot detract from the facts. Having a prominent sportsperson deliver milk to schools by helicopter is fun, but it won’t enable the kids to swim in the rivers that have been despoiled by Fonterra’s suppliers. By the way, the damage caused by Fonterra’s corporate greed extends beyond New Zealand shores. Expect to hear more about their slow moving China train wreck this year. But I digress.

How we manage our most valuable, life-giving resource may well turn out to be the most important issue of our time. But at a time when central government claims to be interested in supporting economic growth in the regions it is difficult to understand why they are failing to address water security.

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.

Farvel 2017!

I was at a community event recently chatting to a friend and he commented, “you’ve had quite a busy year”. He was not wrong. But it was the first time it really struck me. Here’s a short recap.

We had a solid year at iwantmyname and have grown the iwantmyname team to fourteen, about half of whom are based outside of New Zealand, supporting the 93% of our customers that come to us from offshore. Mid year we convened everyone for a week in Vancouver to co-design a “social contract” for the company, plan some projects and eat all the salmon burgers and maple syrup pancakes we could lay our hands on. Hard to believe that next year iwantmyname will be ten years young. I’m sure we will be planning something special for the community that has supported us. Watch this space! In the meantime we’ve continued backing tech meetups and Startup Weekends around New Zealand (and abroad).

In 2017 I was part of the team that took Polanyio through the Lightning Lab Electric accelerator. There were tears, there was laughter plus loads of hard work forging a position in a very tough and intransigent sector.  We are currently working with an industry partner to continue development of a unified procurement platform that engages energy brokers, their customers and energy retailers. Amidst all the startup hype around consumer apps, we elected to focus on a non-sexy B2B project that will actually drive some long term efficiencies in the evolving energy market landscape. As a result of this experience, I remain open minded about what incubators and accelerators bring to the economy, but I continue to maintain that the government does have a role in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

There was also some big changes in my domestic life this year. The lovely Renea Mackie graciously accepted my marriage proposal and we decided to make the move to set up a semi-rural family home in delightful Wairarapa. After more than three decades stoically enduring Wellington weather, I’m certainly loving the Mediterranean climate as well as reveling in the joy of having world class vineyards only a few minutes down the road. We’ve been fortunate to be able to work from home mostly, but we venture across the Rimutakas once or twice a week for meetings and to keep in touch with family. Best of both worlds.

Renea and I have also been busy establishing Creative Forest together with the aim of continuing and extending the wonderful work that Renea became so well known for in Canterbury. Creative Forest offers an innovation framework for young people to explore entrepreneurship with the support of mentors and technical advisors from the community. The company is part of a growing portfolio of interests for GeniusNet and has begun to attract attention from educators, government and iwi representatives.

There were some disappointments in 2017 as well and it also felt like we reached peak political correctness in terms of the vocal minority who find it increasingly necessary to impugn others who hold different views than themselves. In my opinion this is largely in response to the ugliness and idiocy of the current American administration which has unfortunately permeated our collective consciousness during the last twelve months. The consequent steady erosion of the legitimacy of Western democratic social values is very concerning. Notwithstanding this, I’m choosing to focus on the positive aspects of 2017. As my Norwegian ancestors would say – Farvel 2017! Happy 2018 everyone.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Polanyio and a founding 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.

Innovation Ecosystem Worries Unfounded

It was very disappointing to read Mike O’Donnell’s recent comments about the supposedly tragic state of New Zealand’s innovation ecosystem. Now whilst I respect what those guys have built, it seems like not a year goes by without a member of the TradeMe cabal bagging our community and what we have achieved. It’s starting to get a bit old.

Let’s deal with the obvious hypocrisy first. O’Donnell draws on a marine ecosystem analogy that he picked up at a recent conference. He describes startup companies as bottom feeding low life species, feeding off the stronger, larger fish in the ocean (read – TradeMe, Xero). Like his mates previously, O’Donnell goes on to lament the confusing proliferation of incubators and accelerator opportunities available to aspiring startup companies. However there’s conveniently no mention of the actual economic value created or new jobs that have been delivered by such institutions.

On the other hand, he loudly sings the praises of two companies led by extraordinary women and illuminates them as exemplars of real startups that deserve success. He’s right about both of them of course, but he conveniently neglects to mention that both companies received a leg-up from the very ecosystem that he dislikes so much. Furthermore, some of the the commentators backing his position are folks who also benefited from being part of the startup community. That’s hard to reconcile.

Opposition to state funding of startup programmes springs from a deeply held philosophical belief in some quarters that only well funded companies with friends in the right places should be allowed to succeed. Now it’s very unlikely that the incoming Labour government will roll back recently announced funding for accelerator programmes, but they will no doubt be reviewing how to deal with promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in New Zealand in the future. That’s an opportunity, so understandably Mike wants to influence that debate. But I disagree with his position and here’s why.

Whilst many of us agree that the startup venture model is less than perfect, that’s not a good reason to pull public funding from the sector. As a nation we must diversify way from commodities and move up the value chain. Let’s take the wins when they come and accept there will also be some failures along the way. Government support comes in many forms across the spectrum from enabling academic research commercialisation through to co-funding accelerators. Arguably we are not doing enough compared to others globally. I don’t see any criticism of Israel or Australia, nations that actively and successfully apply substantial government support to their innovation ecosystems.

Having taken a company through the Lightning Lab accelerator this year (and bootstrapped a previous tech company from nothing), I guess that makes me one of the “bottom feeding” losers mentioned in the article. I find that analogy quite offensive, especially since (for the record) we received no funding handouts whatsoever within this year’s Lab. Let’s work together to achieve good outcomes for New Zealand and ensure there are a mix of great programmes with excellent community partnerships in place and that solid companies with real customers get oxygen to move forward.

Postscript:

Mike O’Donnell reached out to me recently and we had a chat about the context of the term “bottom feeder” that he used in his article. Mike sees bottom feeding species (such as Snapper) as the healthy foundation of the ocean ecology and I accept that his analogy was not intended to be derogatory. As I originally mentioned, we all have huge respect for what has been achieved by companies that have a connection to the TradeMe story. There’s a role for all kinds of fishes in the ocean. We should try to work together to ensure sustainability and longevity of the fishery.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Polanyio and a founding 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.

Innovators Online Again

It seems like half a lifetime ago that myself and Annick Janson established New Zealand’s first online community for innovators and entrepreneurs (ION). It was a clunky PHP forum site that we managed for hundreds of users thanks to the support of University of Auckland School of Business and Revera. After ten years and a couple of post-graduate research projects between us, we reluctantly moved on to other endeavours. But the need for a community platform did not go away.

So I was thrilled to discover recently that the NZ Innovation Council now has a community site on offer. The new site provides lots of fresh content about New Zealand innovators plus a discussion forum and event listings. In the tech world timing is everything and I guess ION was a little bit ahead of its time. I remember sitting through numerous dull meetings with risk averse public servants who just couldn’t see the opportunity and chose not to support us (including one in particular who subsequently thought spending half a million on a boxing match was a great use of public funds – go figure). Judging by the list of sponsors now backing this new initiative, the change of guard at both NZTE and Callaghan has been a positive thing. </rant>

One of our first sign-ups on ION was a bloke working hard on building a little accounting software startup that you might have heard of. There was lots of great conversations on the forum and we helped a bunch of people. What we learned from our initial efforts in this arena was that valuable knowledge truly arises when you facilitate social engagement. In New Zealand we tend to work in silos, but only through collaboration can we create meaningful impact in the world. Online communities are part of the mix, because we need to push beyond the mindless dross of the big social platforms that do not have our interests at heart.

I commend the NZ Innovation Council for this initiative and encourage everyone to sign up and get involved by sharing ideas and content.

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.