Optimising Our Knowledge Networks

Instructing the Super Fund to channel $300 million of investment into emerging tech firms, as well as a recent call for delivery of a “deep tech” incubator to assist commercialisation of public funded research in New Zealand, illustrates that the government has been listening to the concerns of the high tech business community around the need for greater support in the commercialisation of knowledge. Health, environment, food production, robotics and AI – there are many problem areas in which we can excel.  But whilst a broadening of activity in the innovation ecosystem must be seen in a positive light, new entrants may face an uphill battle.

Some say that government involvement in the sector is long overdue. Not a month goes by without the media reporting the departure of a promising high growth, high tech firm such as Rocket Lab, for example. The paucity of follow on capital and expertise available locally is often quoted as the culprit. Successive previous governments failed to address the problem due to being ideologically opposed to what has sometimes been unfairly branded as corporate welfare. But interestingly the most vocal critics of incubation and government directed investment funding tend to be wealthy and well-connected individuals who have no problem sourcing capital for their own ventures.

Since the public purse is already funding universities and research organisations in one form or another anyway, is it really such a stretch for government to facilitate obtaining an economic return on those investments? Those who mutter in their beards about “level playing fields” should take a look around. We are losing the battle with our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region with whom we compete for capital and talent. Australia, Singapore and Korea all provide substantial support for startups and the commercialisation of publicly funded research.

So where does that leave New Zealand with its newly rediscovered enthusiasm for investing in science and technology commercialisation? Well there was an additional most welcome announcement this week of new funding for an existing body that has already made considerable inroads into surfacing promising research and turning it into businesses. That seems to foreshadow where government thinking might be heading in terms of who is now best equipped to develop a formal incubation programme.

But research commercialisation is actually a network optimisation problem involving many and diverse stakeholders. A post graduate study that I conducted on this topic a few years ago is still relevant. The most creative ideas and opportunities are found at the boundaries where disparate networks overlap. Hence the direction we are heading with, GeniusNet. It is therefore absolutely essential that we have an open innovation based ecosystem and a diversity of players in the incubation and commercialisation marketplace, if we are to lift our economy up the value chain.

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

Will CGT Deliver “Well Being”?

The findings of the Tax Working Group are in and (unsurprisingly) the recommendations lean heavily towards introducing a full blown capital gains tax (CGT) into New Zealand from 2021. About the same time, the Prime Minister fronted with her first economic speech of the year in which she clearly signaled that the next budget will be focused on “well being”. Only a very cold-hearted person could deny this is much needed, but there are huge political risks attached to both these initiatives.

Lifting the economic, social and mental well being of youth seems to be front of mind for our government. Quite rightly so, young people are our future. Growing an increasingly impoverished and disenfranchised group in society is in nobody’s interest at all. But equally, ignoring economic realities and the role of business in society is a dangerous road to tread. Young people need jobs and hope and we cannot deliver this in a shrinking economy. The government must continue working on the infrastructure deficit and especially deliver on intelligently supporting economic growth in the regions, where there are many latent opportunities.

This point is important because youth unemployment and social needs are high in our rural areas, smaller towns and cities. Interestingly, farms, small businesses and family owned property holdings are likely to bear the brunt of a full CGT. Not exactly a recipe for economic growth in the provinces. But I think we all know that a comprehensive CGT is unlikely. The political risk is enormous and even the most optimistic of economists agree that, although beneficial in the long term, CGT will crush economic growth – at least initially. So the government needs to be ready to take that one on the chin.

A small blip in the economy could be weathered perhaps, but keep in mind that we are not a high growth economy in the first place. Forecasts (without considering CGT effects) place New Zealand at about 2% growth, compared to 3% average globally forecast for next few years. During my recent visit to Singapore, I noticed there was much hand-wringing in the media that their GDP growth had dropped to 7%! We are not in such an envious position and even a small drop has huge implications on tax revenues, thus cancelling out the resources for “well being” projects.

Another worry is the looming threat to businesses owners. Those who invest time and capital into growing their businesses may now be penalised when they come to realise gains from their efforts. Taxing habitual property traders and business that impact the environment is certainly something we should do, but taxing entrepreneurs for employing people, paying GST and income tax while strengthening the productive part of the economy, is a very bad idea.

Companies that produce high value “weightless exports” such as software are likely to be disproportionately penalised because these ventures tend to be started with minimal shareholder capital investment. Therefore almost all of the value at time of disposal will be subject to taxation. No doubt the government has an eye on the tsunami of baby boomer business owners that will be exiting in droves over the coming years. But who will replace them? In a world with an uncertain economic future, the current no-CGT regime on sales of business assets is one of New Zealand’s few competitive advantages.

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.

 

Crazy Rich Asians

SIN City 3If you are a fan of romantic comedies you may recall a scene in last year’s hit movie Crazy Rich Asians in which friends join the happy couple at an outdoor food centre for an evening of laughs, beer and Singaporean food. Amerasian Rachel is trying her best to fit in but is caught off guard by a particularly spicy mouthful of Laksa, much to everyone’s amusement. In some ways this typifies the visitor experience in Singapore. At first it can be hard to find your place in the cultural melange, but there are surprises around every corner and people are friendly once you’ve been properly introduced – so it’s very much worth persisting.

During a recent trip to Singapore I ventured into the Newton food centre where that movie scene was filmed. The venue exemplifies Singaporean society and politics perfectly with a spicy blend of regional cuisine subtly dominated and flavoured by the prevalent culture on the island. But perhaps that is part of Singapore’s magic formula which has been openly founded on the basis of a benevolent autocracy. And I must admit that it was a pleasure to spend a week in a society where trains and planes consistently run on time and there is no trouble from neighbours with barking dogs or idiot boy racers ripping up the tarmac. There are even plans to require registration of e-scooters, because it is simply the sensible thing to do.

The subtle hand of the State is found almost everywhere. Singapore has one of the largest sovereign funds per capita of any nation and many of the most influential corporations are State owned. But that is not to say that private enterprise is discouraged. Quite the opposite in fact. The city state has a very active startup scene and despite some obvious headwinds in the economy and increasingly stiff competition from neighbours such as Hong Kong, India and Dubai – Singapore remains the largest single source of investment in South-East Asia.

Co-working hubs like Found8 can dial you into local networks quickly and The List is a community that keeps founders in touch with all the coolest tech and innovation events around the region. I spoke to Sarah Yen from Simmonds Stewart’s Singapore office during my visit. The Wellington based legal firm assisted South-East Asian business clients to raise $220M in venture funding in 2018, which was double that transacted for their clients in the New Zealand market. Yen explained to me that after a brief lull, global venture funds based in the region are raising capital once again. The legal firm has built good relationships with U.S. based funds like Sequoia which have Asia focused funds for example.

New Zealand startups or growth stage companies seeking capital should not be shy about looking to Singapore, she says. Yen outlined how her firm can easily handle setting up a local presence for clients interested in tapping into the deep pockets of these funds. Taking VC investment is not everyone’s preferred pathway of course, but for those who choose to do so, it can be a hard road in New Zealand. For example the scarcity of follow-on funding has recently led to criticism by Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck in an explanation of why his company had to move to the U.S.

So perhaps we need to be a little more creative in how we engage with offshore funders. Either we need to somehow encourage global funds to engage locally more frequently or we need to develop structures that better facilitate inbound investment, whilst retaining economic value within the New Zealand economy. Otherwise we are doomed to remain largely excluded from the global flow of capital and confined to being an incubation nest for ventures that must eventually fly away and leave us.

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: Paul Spence

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 rethink GDP and put more weight on 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

Big Ideas Poor Execution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parochialism Will Ultimately Fail So Think Globally

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Paul Spence

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

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.

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

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