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.

March For Science Matters

Last weekend’s March For Science may have been largely symbolic, but it was important. When a government appoints a rabid climate change denier to perform a hatchet job on its own environmental agency, you know that somebody has seriously lost the plot and voices need to be heard.

Interestingly even China is now becoming increasingly concerned around problems created by climate change and has committed to refactoring the economy towards green energy. It’s a bit like trying to turn around a super-tanker, but I suppose you have to start somewhere. But it is very difficult to reconcile that technologically adept nations such as the United States are going in the opposite direction to almost everyone else on the globe.

The role of science in economic growth and development has long been established. Science driven technological innovation has been a key contributor to our advancement as a species over the last few hundred years. From health to computing to space exploration, science has been at the base of almost every step forward. We live longer and more fulfilling lives, largely due to scientific discoveries.

Conversely, science has arguably also been responsible for some of our backward steps. Industrialisation, internal combustion engines and nuclear weapons are also products of the science lab. Science therefore is no panacea. The philosophical and morale context around science is ever-changing and what seemed like a good idea 50 years ago might be framed very differently by future generations. Scientific theories also evolve over time as new ideas emerge and get tested and old ideas are discarded.

What we do know is that the scientific method provides a solid basis for exploring and understanding our world. Discarding rational thought in favour of rumour and outright lies may be a successful political strategy, but it will certainly not help us to address the pressing social, health and environmental issues in the world.

Paul Spence originally completed a B.Sc. degree in Applied Geophysics and was previously employed as a support meteorologist in the aviation industry. He 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. GeniusNet is working to support global environmental projects through its portfolio companies.

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.

Ashes To Ashes 2016. Now Welcome To 2017

Let’s face it, last year was a pretty shit year for fans of popular music and culture. I don’t care what the statisticians say, the catalogue of highly talented stars that made premature exits in 2016 was exceptional and shocking. However the media were (mostly) too polite to mention that the collective drug consumption of the dearly departed probably supported a number of small South American nations’ economies throughout the 1970’s and 80s. All tragic losses, but perhaps not entirely unexpected.

Less predictable was the outcome of the U.S. election, a result so unpalatable that we can only hope that the American political establishment will find a way to put matters right, before there is a very nasty accident involving long range armaments or fiscal collapse. One way or another, I very much doubt Trump will see out his four year term. The Brexit debacle was equally disturbing and was also another example of a poorly informed, inward looking minority being allowed far too much influence. But of course it would not be democracy if we excluded people with double-digit IQ and questionable heredity from voting.

At a time when irrational fear, regional isolationism and misguided notions of nationalism seem to be taking root globally once again – it is important that thinkers give voice to their concerns loudly and often. Important because intellectualism usually becomes an early victim of the mob, when rational thought gives way to populism and slogans. History repeatedly shows us that this never ends well.

So I was at first encouraged when I read this opinion piece on how we all need to work together to create a sustainable economic future for New Zealand. Whilst I certainly agree with the sentiments, I disagree that this approach is predicated on Auckland as the “centre of innovation” for New Zealand. In fact the problems of Auckland are analogous to arterial thrombosis. If the heart fails, the entire body will die – and that’s a big issue for all of us in New Zealand. Regional relationships and complex networks are the better approach, as I have discussed previously, with regional linkages and multiple innovation hubs.

For my part this year, I intend to continue to connect entrepreneurs and innovators from across New Zealand and abroad and to contribute economically by working on growing the businesses we have under the GeniusNet portfolio and (hopefully) add one or two more during the year. I will also continue to speak out on issues, especially those that relate to economic development. It is about time the citizenry had greater influence over decisions than those self-serving politicians whose main aim is building grandiose edifices to themselves. Here’s something good from 2016 that gives the world hope in this regard. Thanks Audrey.

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.

Mrs Clinton Misses

clownObserving the U.S. election result unfold was very much like watching a slow motion train wreck – ugly but also fascinating. That an arrogant, racist, misogynist with no experience of political office could even make a party nomination (let alone win the presidency) speaks volumes about a badly broken America and a failed political system.

No doubt there will be endless soul-searching and detailed media analysis of the result. But the media are themselves thoroughly complicit in this disaster. Ironically the Washington Post best summed up the situation with an introspective opinion piece on how the liberal media’s self-satisfying world view completely ignored the real story of growing pain and dissatisfaction in heartland America. The Republican president-elect appears to have successfully tapped the disenfranchised, angry (and largely uneducated) under-belly of American society in the same way that Brexiteers and Far Right have damaged Europe.

The presidential candidates collectively spent an estimated $3 billion on their campaigns. Imagine how many small businesses could have been created, roads repaired or schools upgraded with that money. The new president may have a majority Republican senate to lean upon, but he will not be able to deliver on the economic pump priming and rejuvenation of the sunset economy that he implied during his campaign. Grassroots supporters and swing voters will have four years to contemplate their error of judgement.

The political elite woke up this morning smelling the rotten corpse of the “American Dream”. It remains to be seen whether or not the nation can be reunified with a changing of the guard. The traditional approach to doing so is to find a diversion in a common enemy. That is also a disturbingly real possibility with the next administration and a chilling prospect for all of us.

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

Is Lean Thinking Killing Creative Thinking?

As a frequent Startup Weekend mentor (and co-founder of a successful boot-strapped tech company), I have had plenty of real life exposure to the doctrines of lean startup. But a recent experience has started me questioning whether we are doing ourselves a disservice through slavish adherence to lean methodology and an overly prescriptive approach to starting up.

Let me be clear. The Lean Startup framework provides a solid foundation for anyone who has not previously been in business and for whom resources are scarce. Starting a business is hard and developing a new business model is especially difficult. Coming from a science background, I’m very interested in how Lean Startup takes an experimental approach to testing hypotheses. This makes a lot of good sense. What makes less sense is when being Lean constrains our imaginations.

But I think there’s a way to resolve these tensions. There are two fundamental issues faced by a new startup and (to put it bluntly) not much else really matters outside of these two.

  1. Are you addressing a real problem that people will pay you money to solve?
  2. Can you position your solution in front of those people?

If you can answer these two essential questions, you have a shot at building a business. If not, fail fast and start over. At the forefront of your mind should be that customers are your chief source of capital, not investors. Engaging with customers early and identifying their problems is essential. Gaining venture funding is not a business model. Most businesses in the real world are NOT funded by venture capitalists.

By all means deploy Lean Thinking in your startup to discover customers, create value and extend your runway without becoming reliant on external funding. Indeed, a successful first product iteration that earns an income stream can provide a pathway to explore bigger ideas in the future. But please don’t let Lean Thinking kill your dreams. Many of the greatest tech companies started small and created their own markets. Be an entrepreneur scientist. Keep experimenting. Entrepreneurship is a creative endeavour, which is why many of us are drawn to it.

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

Has Britain Gone Mad?

cowThe United Kingdom seems to have become infected with another case of “mad cow” disease, if the events of the past few weeks are any indication. Prime Minister-elect Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson to the post of Foreign Secretary seems designed to maximise offense to Britain’s neighbours, already reeling from the extraordinary Brexit campaign, of which Johnson was himself a prominent supporter.

May’s appointment of Johnson should be no surprise however. Three days into the job, she has already been accused of pandering and being inconsistent in her position on foreign investment, amongst other issues. The Boris appointment is either an awkward misjudgement or a clever ploy to undermine the entire Brexit process – which she quietly opposed during her time as a senior cabinet minister.

The new Prime Minister also seems in no hurry to start the exit negotiations and who can blame her. The Brexit debacle has plunged the UK into it’s biggest political and economic crisis since World War Two, say some commentators. Furthermore the exit vote was not exactly a landslide. There might yet be more water to flow under the Euro bridge as Britain stares down the barrel of an estimated 5-10 year recession as the full implications of Brexit take hold.

In a world of uncertainty, now is not the time for isolationism and petty parochialism. Britain has benefited enormously from its previously close relationship with the Continent, but the stayer camp failed to make this case sufficiently strongly. May was complicit in this, in her efforts to appease all sides and pave the way for her own career development. That in itself is a clear illustration of why the British government is failing its people at present. The vested self-interest of a minority of over-puffed political personalities has overcome common sense.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow 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.

Twitter Tweaks

twit2There’s no doubting that, in terms of social impact, Twitter has been a shining beacon of light in a world of largely vacuous and self-absorbed social media content. Therein lies its strength. But considering that the company has received over $1 billion in venture funding since 2007, you would think they might have settled upon a viable business model by now.

Legions of internet commentators have already weighed in on whether or not Twitter can ever salvage a real business from its existing offering. I hope they can. Twitter is my preferred outlet for social media content, for a number of good reasons. It allows me to receive, share and comment on high value content whilst retaining a degree of privacy that is not offered by other services.

But a recent article in Inc illustrates that Twitter has a problem of perception. At present it is not clear to potential new users whether or not Twitter will evolve into anything other than a “stream of consciousness”. So there might be a finite limit to how far Twitter can grow. That’s not a problem for me in the least, but it will be a problem for Twitter’s investors. There is a certain irony however in suggesting that in order to innovate, grow and survive, Twitter must become like the other big platforms. Arguably Twitter already has many platform features. It connects content creators with consumers and allows a certain amount of freedom in terms of user curation. So the next step might involve further reducing the friction for users to find the best content.

Twitter may be smaller than other social media services, but it packs a lot more more punch. Twitter users tend to be better educated, more affluent and (importantly for advertisers) three times more likely to follow their favourite brands online. Pundits complain that the current round of Twitter tweaks will not be enough. But I tend to disagree. You don’t turn around over 300 million users in a single day. Transformative change for the Twitter’s business model is necessary, but will take time. Experimentation and testing are part of that process.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow 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.

No Public Funding For Runway White Elephant Please

777lotrThe debate over whether or not public money should be invested in the extension of Wellington International Airport’s (WIAL) runway is starting to heat up. Despite project studies only being released to the public this week, city councils across the region have already indicated they will provide financial support towards the $330 million cost. At present central government has said it will not support and some local body councillors are already starting to feel uneasy about the overall proposal.

The Wellington City Council (minority shareholder in the airport), Wellington Chamber of Commerce and WIAL have been enthusiastically promoting the supposed “economic benefits” of the project. But the real reason the extension is needed is because the current length is sub-standard even for short-haul jet operations. WIAL is essentially asking taxpayers and ratepayers to co-fund capital works. Given that WIAL parent company Infratil earned a staggering $453 million last year and reportedly has a $1 billion war chest, why are public funds needed at all? Surely WIAL can make it’s own business case and access funding itself?

Adding 300 metres to the runway will not make it safe for wide-body aircraft.  “Long haul” flights are not coming to Wellington any time soon and here’s why. Firstly, medium haul, mid sized airliners are actually being phased out across the Asia-Pacific region as we speak. My understanding is that the last Qantas 767 has already gone and Air NZ has a small number remaining with limited lifespans. Asian airlines no longer operate these types. Air Asia and Jetstar withdrew A330s from Christchurch and Auckland, because they could not make a profit. In any event, an A330 would not be able to operate fully laden, even from an extended runway. Truly “long haul” aircraft such as A380, A340 and B777 are unlikely to be operated because of weight and size limitations.

The 787 Dreamliner is often touted as the saviour of long thin air routes. Again, it will not be possible to economically operate this aircraft out of WLG, even with a longer runway. Extending the runway will not remove the nearby hills. Aircraft take-off restrictions are governed by the climb performance under instrument flight conditions with a failed engine at the takeoff point. Long haul operations (10-16 hours) require huge fuel loads and substantial take-off weights. Take-off performance is a function of aircraft weight, engine power and ambient conditions, NOT runway length. Aircraft will be payload limited even with the runway extension in place. This is a really important point that most commentators and the media have missed.

There are many other reasons why investing in a runway extension is a bad idea. Not the least of these is that the airlines refuse to commit. You can be sure that Air New Zealand is not going to undermine it’s cosy hub and spoke operation that is based in Auckland and it’s not clear that any Asia or U.S. based airlines are at all interested. Some passengers complain that travel via Auckland or Sydney is onerous. But can you name any city under 500,000 population in North America that has direct air links with London or Hong Kong? Hub and spoke operations are the norm elsewhere in the world. There are many other investments that Wellington can make as a city and a region in order to promote economic development.

Unsurprisingly, there is zero information on the WCC or WIAL websites about the public consultation process. But the media are reporting the following information. There will be three public open days where people can meet one-on-one with the experts who prepared the reports. The open days will be held at Chaffers Dock Function Centre on December 2 from 12pm to 3pm, at SPCA Fever Hospital in Mt Victoria on December 3 from 5pm to 8pm, and at the Brentwood Hotel Conference Centre in Kilbirnie on December 5 from 12pm to 3pm.

Postscript: There is now a dedicated website providing links to information from the consultants who were paid by the project supporters to provide reports. The site also contains information about public presentations and how to make a submission.

Paul Spence is an ardent supporter of regional economic development, a commercial pilot licence holder and a technology sector company director based in Wellington.