Cutbacks Sour Sweet Taste of Success

Almost everyone agrees that New Zealand needs to produce more high value, knowledge based goods and services to pay its way in the world. But the gestation period from good idea to global superstar can be in the order of five to seven years – and that’s just the ones that survive. Changing the policy settings for research, development and business growth to accommodate political cycles creates uncertainty for long play economic development projects.

In 2004 I made some introductions for a little known Wellington company called Open Cloud. They had a Java based middleware product for telcos that had the potential to go ballistic, given the exploding mobile market. Seven years on the company has a UK office, solid investor backing and mobile telecommunications companies beating its door down. Research and development remains based in New Zealand, a commitment the company made very early on in its evolution. Some forward thinking individuals at New Zealand Trade & Enterprise made sure that doors were opened, even though the company had only a handful of staff at the time.

Waikato company BioVittoria developed a plant based food sweetener that has caught the attention of global markets. Again, this company is a prime example of the kind of enterprises we need to be cultivating in New Zealand. But it too started out small with just its founders and a small number of contractors. The company leveraged research done in New Zealand and diligently built up a supply chain and manufacturing plant in China to process locally grown fruit and distribute the product globally. Even though BioVittoria suspended plans for a share float in 2009, the company instead secured an influential equity partner that will help with growth.

In the face of government funding constraints NZTE recently announced yet another senior management reshuffle and cut the number of direct client-facing roles. They also dumped the Escalator programme, which has been educating small business owners for many years in the art of capital raising. So now that New Zealand Trade & Enterprise has eased itself out of minding small businesses, will there be any support for the next generation of technology and science based ventures that are stepping forward? Intermediaries such as government agencies and consultants do have a role to play in building the networks that small ventures need to scale upwards. We should not rely on economic Darwinism alone to identify winners and losers.

Smart Capital

Amidst the hand-wringing over Christchurch’s loss of Rugby World Cup games I was once again left wondering why we struggle as a nation to focus on the really important issues that underly our efforts to rekindle economic growth.

In the global scheme of things the fact that a handful of rugby games won’t be played somewhere is hardly world breaking news, especially in comparison to the extraordinary drama unfolding on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Yet the media spent a good portion of last week hounding politicians on the topic of World Cup venues. It was obvious that McCully and others were stonewalling and already knew the outcome, but there were much meatier issues left untouched. For example, where was the government going to find the $10 billion or more needed for the reconstruction of Christchurch and how will we round up sufficient numbers of skilled trades people to do the work?

Later in the week I attended a closed forum for leaders in the ICT community discussing how we could boost the economic return to the capital city from our industry. It was notable that at least half of the attendees were skilled migrants who, at some time or other, had deliberately chosen Wellington. It really brought home the significance of the contribution made by migrants to our creative industries. Naturally much of the forum conversation was taken up with suggestions around making our city a more engaging place for creative types and telling our story widely and more often.

Disconcertingly however, the topics of identifying external sources of capital and strengthening our entrepreneurial ecosystem were treated superficially. Recently I was reading an article by YCombinator’s Paul Graham talking about what start-ups need to help them stay in a given location. Provide them with financial capital, he says. Accessing creative talent and facilitating cross-pollination of ideas are really important too, but ex-pats don’t have a franchise on these things. Access to smart capital and developing a vibrant entrepreneurial community culture are major growth drivers. These are themes I will continue to be advocating for strongly.

100% Puree

The recent media clamour criticising Tourism New Zealand’s new campaign threw up some intriguing responses from a seemingly random selection of  “marketing experts” who had been canvassed for their views, but who completely missed the real problem with the new approach.

With New Zealand already ranking as third strongest “country brand” for tourism last year, you would think that Tourism New Zealand might think twice about giving up on their successful twelve year old promotional style that focuses on New Zealand’s natural attributes such as landscapes, flora and fauna. 100% Pure New Zealand has evolved into 100% Pure You. I’m not sure if that is a reflection on our increasingly tenuous environmental credentials or the fact that the next generation of global travellers are more self-absorbed. Perhaps both.

The new campaign is obviously a response to the Aussie battle cry “where the bloody hell are you?”. All of the actors in the video clips are youthful, white, middle class, which not only belies the multicultural nature of Australian society to which it is targeted, but also politely ignores the fact that the fastest growing inbound tourist sources are in fact other places like China and India. The new campaign strengthens the message that New Zealand is all about hedonism and short term gratification – a message that resonates with young backpackers.

Unfortunately backpackers have the lowest per diem spend of any segment in the market. Shouldn’t we be focussing on attracting more of the upper end of the market? Don’t get me wrong. I’ve backpacked all over the world myself and it was character building and great fun at the time. I’m not for one minute suggesting we limit access on the basis of disposable income. I’m simply suggesting we revisit where our tax dollars might best be spent for greatest return.

Tourism is a huge part of the New Zealand economy, but it has a considerable environmental footprint and creates little ongoing value. It’s all about extracting short term gains from renting as many seats as possible. Jobs in the tourism service sector are generally amongst the least well paid. Perhaps we need fewer “freedom campers” pooping on our roadsides and more doctors and their families from Bangalore enjoying our sparsely populated geographic beauty. Dare I suggest it, but maybe we could also get them thinking about investing in New Zealand, whilst we have their undivided attention.

W2W Strengthens Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Recently Unlimited Potential ran Wellington to the World (W2W), New Zealand’s leading showcase event for early stage web and software ventures. W2W is about building bridges, so we invite technology innovators, entrepreneurs and tech investors to network over beer and pizza and encourage young companies to share what they are working on through either talks or at the demo zone. This was the third year that we have run the event and  I’m personally very proud of what has been achieved so far.

Much of the progress that is being made in promoting technology entrepreneurship in New Zealand is underpinned by communities of interest that are flourishing right now. I shared some remarks about this at the opening of W2W in my capacity as Chairperson at Unlimited Potential. We think it’s important to support developer communities and start-up groups because they nurture the seeds of future ventures and provide a deep pool of knowledge for new entrepreneurs.

If you didn’t make it to the event this year, check out the W2W entrepreneur videos. There is also some images and an event review available.

Thank-you once again Wellington City Council, Grow Wellington, Viclink and Summer of Tech for helping make this event possible.

Does Shakedown Have Silver Lining?

Christchurch based politician Jim Anderton will no doubt be regretting his comment last week that it would take a “seismic shift” for incumbent Christchurch mayor Bob Parker not to lose the local body election fight that they are both engaged in. At 4.35am last Saturday morning, New Zealand’s second largest city was struck by an earthquake of similar strength to that which destroyed Haiti. In fact Parker, ever the gentleman showman, has risen to the occasion and must be privately elated that he has a new public platform on which to perform. The timing is also perfect for other politicians who are ever mindful of the lessons from 9/11 and New Orleans.

When old Mr Hubbard went to the cupboard and found it bare recently, the subsequent receivership of poorly managed South Canterbury Finance (SCF) and its labyrinthine and multitudinous related entities also hit the Canterbury region like a shock wave. It was a painful reminder of why we cannot continue to prime our economic machine purely on the basis of milk exports and highly leveraged property assets. Investors in the failed firm received an immediate payment under a government guarantee scheme totalling $1.7 billion. Whilst some of this cash will no doubt be recovered, it’s appalling that SCF went unchecked for so long. Ordinary taxpayers and legitimate businesses have had to shoulder this burden.

Most of the SCF payout will likely disappear into holiday trips to Surfer’s Paradise and safe but low interest earning bank accounts of the grey brigade.Very little will actually be reinvested into the productive part of the New Zealand economy. Consequently, the earthquake is a “god-send” for central government too. Apart from the immediate distraction from existing economic problems, it will validate investing hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure repairs. Road builders, plasterers and brick layers from all over the country will be fully engaged for months, possibly years. That may be quite a good thing.

I don’t wish to minimise the effects on Christchurch residents as they were thrown from their beds on Saturday morning. It must have been a terrifying ordeal and the ongoing psychological trauma of aftershocks will continue to play on minds. But I partially agree with some commentators who suggest that New Zealand has a high level of preparedness and that we will come through this. Now that the dust has settled, we might even see some benefits arise from this event. If nothing else, there will be a lot of learnings that can be passed on to those of us that live in other parts of the country with a history of high seismicity.

Mid Winter Mentors Offer X Factor

At this time of year when it’s cold, grey and wet, it becomes all too easy to simply enter hibernation mode. But businesses don’t stop running just because the weather sucks and certainly nobody can afford to stop creating and implementing new ideas. Every so often we need to escape our local environs, go away and stimulate our brain cells by becoming totally absorbed in something completely different. That’s why I’m looking forward to my trip to X|Media|Lab Sydney later this week.

X|Media|Lab is a highly effective and affordable globally focussed event for businesses involved in the digital media innovation space. The event comprises a conference day plus a weekend workshop for selected project teams. There are also social events at which the organisers can facilitate introductions to potential partners, investors and international mentors. X|Media|Lab visited New Zealand in 2008 and 2009 and we’d love to see them back again. The events are organised at venues around the world, several times a year and attract a who’s who of speakers from the worlds of digital media, animation, games and mobile.

With ideegeo being essentially a business software developer, I wasn’t sure we would ever get the chance to attend the international mentoring workshops – but much to my delight, the opportunity has arisen. No, we haven’t started creating digital animated games or building social network sites, but we have begun conceptualising a product that will help such sites to monetise. So it was with much excitement that we found our project had been selected as one of a handful for mentoring from over 80 entries.

We’ve already been talking to some very smart people about the idea but there is more work to be done. Whether or not we can take the next step will largely hinge on securing some high level partnerships at a very early stage. Such relationships are difficult to secure without travelling outside of New Zealand. X|Media|Lab brings a bunch of influential movers and shakers to our front doorstep. It’s an opportunity we are relishing.

Dazzle Shines at Telco Industry Gig

Dazzle Tickets co-founders Christopher Smith and Nicolas Schembri have had a big couple of weeks. Not only did they steal the show at the Creative HQ showcase party recently but they also scooped the launchpad prize at Planet 2010 a telecommunications and technology industry event. I’m predicting big things from Dazzle in the future.

Dazzle provide online ticketing services to the entertainment industry. The company are part of a new wave of companies emerging from Wellington’s Creative HQ incubator and which mark a new found appetite for technology plays as the business incubator carves out a different strategic direction. The incubator assists a wide range of business types, but there has been a few lean years without much focus on high tech. This was in part due to the fact that the regional economic development plan largely ignores the contribution of ICT as an enabler. But with Wellington being the home of well known companies such as TradeMe and Xero, it was becoming embarrassing that technology was not a major focus.

Unlimited Potential has been working hard to rectify that situation. Through promoting technology entrepreneurship as a winner and by working closely with other stakeholders such as Victoria University, we have been able to focus attention on ICT as a key aspect in regional economic development. So it is tremendously gratifying to see some smart companies emerging from what is now a rapidly strengthening ecosystem. To their credit, economic development agency Grow Wellington have seized the moment and have big plans for cultivating even more Bright Ideas.

Ideas alone are not enough however. In fact what I like most of all about Dazzle Tickets is that they present well and look like a great team. The fact that they already executed on their idea and went out and made some sales of their service says a lot about the potential as well. The real key to success will be identifying a model that can allow them to scale up globally. That next step will be an exciting one, but will require fresh capital and some well connected advice. That’s where an entrepreneurial ecosystem for bright technology kicks in.

Is “Productivity” the Wrong Goalpost?

A recent research report1, looking at the reasons for New Zealand’s relatively poor economic performance, has some fascinating theories as to why we have paradoxically lagged behind other developed nations despite many structural advantages. It also raise questions about whether aiming for “productivity” parity with Australia is the right goal for New Zealand.

The report, authored by Professor Philip McCann, observes that New Zealand has struggled to compete on the OECD ladder since the economic reforms of the mid-1980s, despite its notable status as a free economy. In fact GDP per capita has been eroding steadily for over 40 years, a trend that shows little sign of abating. Few now doubt that this reduction in income has increasingly serious implications in regards to the affordabiity of the lifestyle currently enjoyed by New Zealanders.

In a world where human and financial capital are highly mobile, McCann theorises that economic geography, rather than macro-economic settings, constrains New Zealand from achieving its full economic potential. McCann says that focusing on a “productivity” gap with Australia is entirely the wrong approach, when in fact we should be looking at how we can leverage regional advantages. Only through regional cooperation can we hope to position for better growth.

He says that New Zealand has been constrained in adapting fully to the era of globalisation because of its small scale and distance to global markets. He also observes that worldwide economic growth is now being concentrated within larger cities and hyper connected regions. Such regions attract creative people and are increasingly associated with knowledge-based, high value economic activities, according to work by other researchers.

Because of the intense competition for talent and capital from power-house “global cities” on the Pacific Rim such as Shanghai, Singapore and Sydney, second tier cities (like Auckland or Adelaide for example) have no choice but to actively strengthen the existing web of interrelationships that bind them together on a sub-regional basis, suggests Professor McCann. Unfortunately, enormous reductions in capital flows during the recession have only added urgency to addressing the challenge of regionalisation.

The World Bank reported2 that from a peak of $296 billion (U.S. dollars) in foreign direct investment (FDI) into Asia during 2007, the figure had dropped to around $88 billion in 2009 as European and American institutions reviewed their investment strategies. Despite a forecast investment rebound to about $120 billion in 2010, the refinancing needs of the region have been estimated in the order of $200 billion per annum, leaving a substantial deficit to be covered by borrowing. This situation is likely to have considerable flow-on effects to neighbouring countries and trading partner nations across the Asia-Pacific rim.

So where does this leave New Zealand? A 2009 survey by Financial Times subsidiary publication FDI Magazine placed both Auckland and Wellington in the top ten of 133 Asia-Pacific cities in terms of quality of lifestyle. Auckland also surpassed many others by ranking an impressive number 10 with its FDI attraction strategy. But New Zealand cities ranked poorly in terms of infrastructure, education and the ability to create jobs through foreign investment or by leveraging technology and intellectual property. So whilst we can attract people for lifestyle reasons, our conversion rate is somewhat less impressive in respect of wealth creation.

MacDiarmid Institute physicist Shaun Hendy has been looking at patent data from the OECD. His study3 showed that Australia was well ahead of New Zealand on numbers of patents filed per capita, but that this was to be expected because data also suggested that larger cities produced more patents anyway. However he found that individual inventor productivity did not increase markedly with city size. This suggests that there are quite likely other influences such as quality of educational institutions, existence of research networks and availability of funding. Interestingly, the role of social effects and “knowledge spillover” on science researcher productivity has yet to be fully explored in this context.

Might the government’s well intentioned but controversial efforts to bridge the perceived “productivity gap” with Australia possibly be aiming at the wrong set of goal posts? Unless we fully acknowledge the importance of attracting and connecting people and capital on a regional basis we risk having to compete in isolation with much more powerful players throughout Asia-Pacific. A joint Australia-New Zealand investment showcase planned for March seems like the perfect opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to regional cooperation. But the government will have to ensure that the talk is followed up with decisive and timely actions as well as a leadership vision.


  1. McCann, Philip. (2009). Economic geography, globalisation and New Zealand’s productivity paradox. Motu Research Group Public PolicyPaper
  2. Seward, J. (2009). Would a regional fund help get Asia through the financial crisis? World Bank weblog – East Asia and Pacific on the Rise.

A bullet point summary of the McCann report can be found here:

Photo Credit: Luke Appleby

Plug ‘n Play in the USA

The state government of Victoria in Australia has recently taken up space at Californian tech incubator the Plug and Play Tech Center. The Australian contingent brings the number of nations represented to a dozen or so. New Zealand is not amongst them.

Plug and Play operate a private full service technology incubator at a handful of physical locations on the West Coast. The incubator is deeply embedded in the Silicon Valley entrepreneur ecosystem with linkages to local universities, major corporations, angel investor groups and leading venture capital firms. In less than four years, companies involved with Plug and Play have raised an astounding total of $450 million in capital.

For technology firms that are serious about scaling up, engaging meaningfully in the North American market is a necessity and there is simply no better way to do this than being in the company of peers and mentors. To help firms connect offshore, New Zealand Trade & Enterprise runs an excellent global programme called Beachheads. The North American advisory board is headed by the very able and well connected Bridget Liddell and is a virtual offering rather than a physical incubator. But selection criteria are tight and they won’t look at any company doing less than $5 million revenue per annum.

So where does this leave early stage firms? Going it alone is simply not an option. The U.S. is a huge and complex market with many distinct sub-regions. Without proper advice, attacking the West Coast alone could burn up many years and a wad of capital. But testing the water with the assistance of a locally networked incubator is an affordable commonsense approach for smaller firms. Unfortunately, unlike our friends in Victoria, I don’t expect to see our government making this option available anytime soon. So it will be up to individuals to take the initiative.

Technology firms with global growth ambitions must be looking to engage within Asia-Pacific over the next few years.  Apart from the sheer size of this consumer audience, at least half of global capital market activity springs from the region. New Zealand also occupies a privileged position with its free trade status with China and likely eventual agreement with the U.S. We must find effective ways to plug New Zealand technology firms (of all sizes) into this space now.

W2W Tech Showcase Gains Traction

Unlimited PotentialUnlimited Potential’s W2W is the only event that brings together New Zealand’s technology innovators, entrepreneurs and investors under one roof for a half day of demos, presentations and networking. W2W attracted a stellar speaker line-up this year as well as increased interest from the investor community.

W2W is all about strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem for emerging tech firms by facilitating conversations between ICT researchers, business entrepreneurs and technology investors. The event focuses on specially chosen emerging ventures that have the potential to scale globally.

Entrepreneur presenters included Dan Lee, who discussed Beetil an I.T. management and compliance SaaS product and Jody Bullen from Yonix who provide software for business analysts. Both Lee and Bullen are recently arrived skilled migrants, underlining the importance of migrants to the regional economy. John Mitchell showed off Learning Source, a great tool that helps manage and administer training programmes, and Ben Nolan demonstrated the impressive capabilities of digital rendering software Indigorenderer.

Keynote speaker for the event was local hero Richard MacManus, founder of ReadWriteWeb, and one of the world’s most influential tech bloggers. Richard spoke about how he operates a virtual business. Other speakers included entrepreneur and author Ben Young and John Watt nanotechnology researcher and New Zealand Young Scientist of the Year.

Support for W2W’09 by Wellington City Council, Grow Wellington, UK Trade & Investment, Summer of Code, CafeNet, VicLink and iWantMyName was greatly appreciated. If you would like to support W2W 2010, please contact Unlimited Potential co-chair and W2W event project manager Paul Spence:  paul [at} up [dot) org (dot} nz