Dysfunctional Regional Council Must Go

In case you hadn’t noticed, the public consultation around the proposal to amalgamate local bodies in the Greater Wellington region closes on March 2nd. You could be excused for not knowing, because (much to their shame) the parties concerned have done little to encourage public debate on the topic. The proposal is highly contentious, has huge implications and yet has been so poorly publicised. But the one thing everyone seems to agree upon however is that the highly dysfunctional Wellington Regional Council must be dissolved, whatever happens.

An information guide dated December 2014 finally turned up in my letterbox in mid-February. The pamphlet explains the “draft” proposal put forward by the Local Government Commission for local government amalgamation in the Wellington region and invites public submissions. Drilling down into the commission website, it became apparent that there was not an online form for submission anywhere, but simply an email or postal address. I guess they weren’t expecting many responses. There was no obvious mention of the proposal or submission process on the Wellington City Council website at all. The Wellington Regional Council website does have one page devoted to the topic, including some useful background material, but zero information on how to actually make a submission. In an age of nearly universal access to internet, this is unacceptable and makes me suspicious about transparency around the entire process.

Notwithstanding the obfuscation, there has been a flurry of media activity in recent weeks as it emerged that almost half the Wellington Regional Council elected councillors are having second thoughts as public disquiet has been growing. Even the pro-amalgamation “Chamber of Horrors” have toned down their rhetoric lately, as it became clear that the real bill for amalgamation could be well north of $200 million, if harmonisation of I.T. services were included. In a recent joint statement the business Chambers agree there is a “need for change”, but do not go as far as endorsing the current proposal.

The original suggestion for amalgamation came from Wellington Regional Council itself and is being driven largely by an individual with one eye firmly fixed on the future super-mayor job. This person has a sterling previous track record of successfully promoting unpalatable political agendas and knows the right levers to push to get the job done. But releasing the amalgamation proposal at Christmas, then fronting up to a couple of small debates a week before the doors close simply doesn’t cut the mustard in terms of public engagement.

Ironically, it is the lack of goodwill between the existing regional council and the other councils in the region that has led to this problem in the first place. There are important regional projects such as economic development, roading and water that must be addressed in a co-ordinated way, but the regional council has failed to galvanise and unify the other players in the region. Making a clumsy grab for power must have seemed like the only option. What is really needed is a functional regional council that has the confidence of all the city and district councils and that can play nicely and work collegially on the really important issues that face our region. What we do not need is another Auckland-style unitary authoritary. Why reinvent the wheel at a huge cost to ratepayers?

So it is very clear that the existing Wellington Regional Council members must now step down and that the Local Government Commission must go back to the drawing board and respond with a structure that empowers the regional council, whilst retaining local legitimacy and addressing community needs. With luck, we should see a public referendum on the issue in the future. A prominent WRC councillor once expressed her disdain for democratic processes in the past, when she said “let us hold our noses and vote”. Perhaps ratepayers (and voters) of the Wellington region should follow suit.

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.

Stay in touch with start-up, tech and innovation related events with the weekly edition of New Zealand Startup Digest. Registration is free.

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

 

Making Your Startup Weekend Project Shine

sw65Wet weather and some rumbles from the earth were not enough to put a damper on Wellington Startup Weekend special social enterprise edition in 2013. Teams rapidly coalesced around various ideas for social ventures and the hard work of crafting a business proposition in the short space of 54 hours got underway.

As entrepreneurs, what is our most pressing task? The most important role of an entrepreneur is TO LEARN. Starting up a new business is a crazy experiment. You have a hypothesis, you test it out and then you adjust according to what has been learned (or you stop altogether). That is the essence of a scientific approach to customer development and customers/revenue are ultimately the life blood of any enterprise. There is no magic formula apart from hard work.

Startup Weekend offers a microcosm of the venture development process. It’s primarily an opportunity to learn from and network with a wide range of people who you can potentially work with in the future. Most participants don’t walk away with a big prize or a viable long term business. If that is your primary goal, you are probably in it for the wrong reasons.
But here’s a few tips for polishing up your fantastic Startup Weekend idea.

Judging revolves around three main themes. Business model, validation and execution. Do not expect to have perfected any of these by Sunday evening.

Model. Sustainability is the key. Demonstrate that you can potentially offer a product or service that is both financially profitable or sustainably delivers on social objectives. Why would you invest many hours of your valuable time into a venture that cannot feed itself?

Validation. Judges love to see that you got out of the building and tested your ideas on others. Your Mum’s opinion doesn’t count. Talk to strangers in the street, competitors, suppliers, potential partners and anyone who can give you a subjective viewpoint. Get some online surveying going. Where is the demand? Does your idea suck or sing?

Execution. You don’t have to close any sales deals or have a fully functioning web app by Sunday evening (although many teams have certainly achieved extra credit for this at previous events). But if you have a cohesive team, a good story and some kind of “minimum viable product” or prototype concept to demonstrate, that will impress the judges a lot.

Social Media. Finally an extra tip. Startup Weekend is all about knowledge sharing, networking and community. Extra brownie points for those teams that have been actively generating buzz through social media throughout the weekend. If you don’t have those skills yourself, get someone on the team who does and learn from them – fast. Building an online profile is essential for scaling any kind of business – social enterprises are no exception.

Best of luck!

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. He’s also a veteran of eight ten Startup Weekends as an organiser, mentor, sponsor or player and was a judge at Wellington Startup Weekend: Social Enterprise in 2013. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Tunnel Collapses. Good Call Minister!

hollyfordAs you may be aware, Minister of Conservation Nick Smith this week delivered his decision on whether or not to grant a concession to Milford Dart Limited for construction of an eleven kilometre, one-way bus tunnel between the Dart Valley and Milford Sound. One has to sympathise with the Minister who frequently has to make such rulings and whose decisions are not always popular.

However, it beggars belief how such a ridiculous proposition even got as far as the Minister’s desk in the first place. Proponents of the tunnel who energetically cite how it will reduce travel times to and from Milford Sound seem to have missed the point. Tourists come to enjoy New Zealand’s scenery, not to sit in a dark tunnel. Others have championed how the plan will bring new economic life to the region – when in fact it is likely to kill small towns like Te Anau that rely on passing traffic. Milford Sound itself is physically constrained and simply cannot grow any more, so that argument also falls flat.

Smith used some sound reasoning as to why he declined the project. Uppermost in his mind seems to have been concerns about exactly where millions of tonnes of earth would be deposited after it was dug from the tunnel and that it was not consistent with the park management plan. Even ignoring the fact that the economics of the venture don’t actually stack up; there are much more important, but less tangible, reasons for filing the plan in the waste paper bin.

Despoiling our greatest national park (and world heritage area) for highly questionable commercial gain, would simply be a crime against all New Zealanders. We should keep our special places intact. Good call Mr Smith and deep shame on Tipene O’Regan and his fellow directors of Milford Dart who, given their connections, you’d think might have had more respect for the intrinsic value of a relatively untouched region.

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

 

 

Will The Real Wellington Please Stand Up

wcc2Our Prime Minister laid bare his regional biases when he implied recently that our Capital city is a hopeless economic case. But Mr Key would do well to remember that the regional economies are subsidising the infrastructure build up elsewhere.

Wellington may have lost a few corporate head offices, but its economy is a lot more diverse and robust than that. Let’s look at what’s really going on in Wellington in the context of high value, export oriented, knowledge based business activity. According to economic think tank Infometrics, in 2011/12 the overall number of businesses in Wellington actually grew slightly, whereas in Auckland the number dropped considerably. More importantly, Wellington has the highest GDP per capita of any New Zealand region. This is hardly surprising when we look at the emerging economic players.

Activity in the screen and digital sector grew twice as fast as the New Zealand economy generally, with film, animation, gaming and software delivering a billion dollars to the region annually. Wellington has the highest intensity of knowledge based businesses per capita, a busy port, two universities bursting with fee-paying foreign students and an enviable and growing tourism profile globally. Wellington also boasted the highest number of New Zealand companies in the Deloitte Asia Fast 500, an international benchmarking initiative that identifies high growth ventures across Asia-Pacific.

The only business types that decreased in Wellington were insurance and financial services. That is hardly surprising when you consider that insurance companies have little interest in the Wellington market post Canterbury earthquake and finance companies have been dropping like flies everywhere anyway. No great loss. It’s also no secret that government services have been operating with sinking lid staffing policies for some time amidst austerity measures. But despite fear mongering by public service unions, the actual number of staff affected has been minimal. Government sector makes up only about 10% of the regional economy (about the same as tourism income).

Many of us have invested a huge amount of effort into building creative communities in our region that have underpinned the growth of high value, knowledge based businesses. In the context of a sluggish global economy, Wellington has held its ground relatively well, so it is certainly unfair to make comparisons with the other main centres, which have entirely different contexts at present. The government should also be reminded that the growing tax take in the regions is supporting spend-ups in other parts of the country.

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

 

Tech Scene Blossoms In Sunshine State

2013-04-16 16.09.21The annual pilgrimage to the West Island came around a little earlier than usual this year with the opportunity to attend TechConnect, a public conference for tech startups, investors and advisors held in the three main Australian city centres. I attended the Brisbane event and was pleasantly surprised to find a quietly confident and emerging local tech scene with a supportive community backed by real political commitment and publicly funded resourcing. Notably, some of the initiatives also address the opportunity of the national broadband roll-out.

Keynote speaker at TechConnect was Tyler Crowley, co-founder of This Week In Startups, professional pitch coach and advisor to governments looking to develop innovation ecosystems around technology. Crowley’s advice to start-up clusters was simple. Build a tech hub and identify a “documentarian” to champion the cause. He also recommended promoting more tech meetups and nailing down some sponsors to shout a few beers. Seems like we’ve been doing these things already in New Zealand, so it was encouraging to hear this and underlined our commitment at iwantmyname to support our community.

Brisbane’s start-up scene was abuzz during conference week because of recent news that Twitter had bought local company We Are Hunted. The acquisition was essentially a talent grab as Twitter works towards integrating music services into its platform. But such stories will certainly embolden the Aussie start-up scene which has produced a number of shining stars in recent years. Freelancer is a site that leverages the shift towards web-based out-sourcing and which has grown in leaps and bounds. Everyone agreed Freelancer CEO Matt Barrie gave the best talk at the conference and it wasn’t hard to see why the company was forging ahead so well. Barrie is no slouch in the academic area, with several Masters degrees and university lectureships in both network security and new venture development. He was named Australian entrepreneur of the year in 2011.

From taxi drivers to company CEOs, throughout my visit to the Sunshine State I constantly ran into ex-pat Kiwis who’d made the leap across and done well for themselves. A few years back we shared some office space with young upstart Chris Loh who had been working on developing a collective of iOS developer talent. Now he’s based at QUT’s Creative Precinct on the Kelvin Grove campus and just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a cool tablet based gaming system. Tyler Crowley alluded to crowd funding as the next important source of capital for start-up tech firms, mentioning that AngelList recently received SEC approval in the U.S. to offer opportunities to members through a crowd-funding app.

The paucity of start-up capital is a universal conversation topic and Australia is no exception. Venture capital intensity sits at about one eighth of that found in the United States. Odd considering Australia’s $1.5 trillion economy has one of the highest per capita GDPs globally. But why invest in tech, when you can dig wealth straight out of the ground in the Outback? One of the TechConnect speakers had the answer however – “good start-ups always raise capital”, said Jeremy Colless from Artesian Venture Capital, which works with university incubators and tech accelerators. “Generate real value and don’t come looking for investors until you have some customers on board”. That’s good advice.

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

Talent Attraction Narrative Needed

Creating an innovation economy has many challenges, not the least of which involves locating and securing skilled workers to help build and grow high technology ventures. There is little point in cultivating a tech start-up culture without the fundamental building blocks in place to fuel growth. Tech founders need to be proactive about building a team, as well as extolling the virtues of New Zealand as place to re-locate to.

Recently I received several requests for assistance from aspiring tech entrepreneurs eager to find a technical co-founder for their start-up project. Of course I was happy to help, but I needed to prompt for some basic web based information, so that I could share the opportunity. If you are a tech founder and you value an open approach to enrolling people into your project – please do yourself a favour and start telling your story online!

I probably reach around 4000+ individuals in the New Zealand tech scene directly through my social media channels, community groups and various blogs. My advice to start-up founders is to take a similar approach. Turn up to events, write blogs, tweet, organise and support stuff in your community, if you want to reach the kind of people who can help get your start-up going. I don’t just mean making a Facebook page or sending a Word document around to a few likely suspects. Get creative, if you want to surround yourself with creative people.

You might also need to look offshore. I’ve recently been involved in recruiting a new employee for iwantmyname and we ended up engaging a guy from San Francisco. When you look around at the most interesting emerging tech companies in New Zealand, at least half were established by skilled migrants. So there’s certainly no harm in attracting more people from abroad to deepen our talent pool; but remember we are competing with every other economy around Asia-Pacific. That’s why we need to get our brand values aligned in a regional sense, so we can be clear about what we have to offer.

We began some important work on this last year through the Inspire event with KEA and Grow Wellington. I’m looking forward to continuing that conversation in 2013.

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

Startup Weekend Gives You Wings!

I’ve always enjoyed those Red Bull ads showing how that fizzy mineral drink gives you a lift. It’s also interesting how Red Bull have successfully leveraged the aeronautical theme in their sponsorships of various high energy sports around the globe such as air racing and Formula One.

Red Bull started from very humble beginnings, but is now a globally recognised brand. It helps a lot that Red Bull tastes good; but building clear brand values is a really important task in any business, including start-ups. You don’t need to own a Formula One team to build a great brand, but you do need a consistent message and a fantastic team that believes in the product and provides superior customer support. I hope that’s what we are achieving with iwantmyname.

This weekend entrepreneurial developers and designers from all over New Zealand will converge on the sunny Bay of Plenty for Tauranga Startup Weekend. I’ve been an organiser, a mentor and a sponsor at these events at various times, but I’ve never actually played on a team. This weekend will be my first Startup Weekend where I will actually be pitching an idea.

We’d love to see a huge turn-out of developers and designers at this event from all over New Zealand. ideegeo Research Limited is the new venture development entity associated with the founders of iwantmyname. We work with young entrepreneurs and help them bootstrap interesting web-based projects that have the potential for global scalability. So here’s the deal…

If you are a developer or designer from outside of the Bay and you sign up for Tauranga Startup Weekend this week – you will go in the draw to have your travel costs to the event co-funded by us. The draw is open to any developer or designer who signs up this week for Tauranga Startup Weekend. Offer closes 5pm, Wednesday 12th September.

All you need to do is contact us after you’ve signed up for Tauranga Startup Weekend, tell us a little bit about your skill set and we’ll talk about how we can help in a practical way. Let us add wings to your Startup Weekend experience!

Attacks On Economic Agency Unfair

Grow Wellington may have failed to trumpet its successes loudly enough, but it doesn’t deserve the criticism that is currently being heaped upon it as the seriously flawed Wellington regional economic strategy (WRS) has undergone review. The economic development agency has done a relatively good job of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear within a recessionary environment in which the central government focus has been on other parts of the country.

It beggars belief that plans are afoot to abscond with $600K of the agency’s annual budget to fund the WRS office to “administer” the strategy. It’s not clear how creating another layer of bureaucracy will enhance the region’s economic performance however. Past complaints by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce demonstrate a deep ignorance of the outstanding network building and facilitation work that Grow Wellington has undertaken and the cheap attacks look like nothing more than a desperate attempt by the Chamber to remain relevant.

Last year’s Rugby World Cup was a pleasant distraction for some, but an economic fizzer for the region overall, as predicted by every study looking at the long term value of such large scale events. But sound academic research and global best practice has never been the basis for the regional economic strategy, a document that was prepared by local management consultants. At no time did the strategy charge Grow Wellington with researching and advocating on regional infrastructure and accordingly the organisation does not employ researchers or economists. One would have thought this was in fact the Chamber’s role, hence their criticism should be directed inwards.

Wellington needs better public transport, an infusion of entrepreneurial culture plus more and ongoing investment into productive and high value parts of the economy, including facilitating foreign capital. On the other side of the ledger, we also need to preserve the quality of life that we currently enjoy because this is the basis for skilled migrant attraction. Look around – at least half of the technology start-ups in the region have been created by recent arrivals. That is an economic success story that should be told far more often.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet