Recipe For Disaster

bresolinsThe declining quality of our home grown television content was never so prominently on display as during the finale of The Great Food Race last night. Everything that is wrong about “reality TV” combined into a tragi-comedy of epic proportions that unfolded like a slow motion train wreck. The worst part was that the outcome was entirely predictable.

The Great Food Race got off to an entertaining enough start with oddball competitions played out in various exotic locations as bemused locals looked on. The format even looked workable with our national airline nicely leveraging the interest generated with each episode. The pre-recorded sessions were well edited and interesting enough to extinguish my initial scepticism. So what went horribly wrong?

Clearly the producers had exhausted their budget and their wit, judging by the minimalist venue and the lack of direction. Perhaps the writing was already on the wall regarding the future of the show, leading to a lax approach in delivering the end product. It may also explain why the presenters failed to mention the sponsors or prizes once during the final episode.

Where to begin? Clutching her cue cards and clearly still in shell shock from her husband’s (deserved) media drubbing earlier in the week, presenter Zoe seemed hell bent on interfering with the contestants as they improvised their dishes under intense pressure. Perhaps that was part of the challenge? The Bresolins are great entrepreneurs and a credit to their industry, but last night looked awkward and embarrassed. In their defence, they did their best under difficult circumstances, to nibble and slurp their way through the unscripted mess that was before them.

What lessons can be learned from this disaster? Firstly, cooking shows do not make good live television. I’ve seen telethons with better continuity than was on display last night. But at least telethon has audience participation and supports a good cause. Why was it even necessary to go live for this finale? Secondly, spontaneity is great but a little planning goes a long way towards successful execution. Thirdly, beware the disengaged and cynical audience, their social media hate stream can wreck your brand.

The saddest aspect of the entire debacle was that it was clear that the young, blond, more photogenic couple were shoe-ins to win, no matter what they concocted and despite their nastiness towards the opposition. Sara and Danny were the more entertaining of the finalists and genuinely enjoyed themselves throughout however. They even pulled off recovering their disastrous “pasta covered meatballs” with aplomb, which is more than can be said of the production values of the show itself.

It would be a shame if last night’s cook-off spelled the end of the series however. The overall format was worthwhile and could be improved upon in future, with a little more forethought. In the absence of any quality local content on the box these days, The Great Food Race could have been a winner.

PM’s Pill Pull Problematic, P Plague Prevails

First it was the cycle-way, then it was the Letterman show, now he’s banning cold remedies from pharmacy shelves. Is there no end to the goofiness of our Prime Minister?

There’s no denying that New Zealand has a problem with methamphetamine drug use and the mindless sub-culture that goes with it. And it’s clear that access to precursor drugs plays an important part in the manufacture of pure crystal meth or “P”. What is less clear is exactly where the criminal element are sourcing these materials from.

Pulling pseudoephidrine based cold remedies out of chemist shops is not going to solve our drug problem. It will however deprive thousands of honest citizens temporary relief from cough and cold symptoms. In fact such a response may lead to even more serious crime because criminals will have to resort to more overt methods to secure the materials they need. In any event there remain substantial amounts of these drugs making it across our borders from offshore in a variety of different disguises.

What is even more crazy is that there is a technological solution available for this problem. The Australian Pharmacy Guild already offered free monitoring software to their Kiwi counterparts. The software correlates multiple purchases of drugs across pharmacies and reports suspicious activity directly to Police. For some unknown reason the offer was refused.

The fact that a technological answer to this issue has not been implemented is all the more bizarre given that the Prime Minister’s science advisor Professor Peter Gluckman has been all over the case. Perhaps Dr Gluckman’s time would be better spent reminding the government why this is an excellent example of  how New Zealand is failing miserably to use digital innovation to improve economic productivity.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

Born to Go Global

“Born global” SMEs are defined as small businesses that internationalise very early in their development without first building a domestic client base. The term was coined at McKinsey way back when the primary means of international business communication was the fax machine. Since then, the “born global ” concept has become a particularly hot topic in small industrialised countries, such as New Zealand, where small, innovative niche companies are seen as real drivers of economic diversification and export-led GDP growth.

Now the democratisation and virtualisation of knowledge delivers direct access to overseas clients, and the Internet enables firms to  realise global aspirations across a wide range of industries. One area of study around “born globals” that remains somewhat sparse in the literature however is the phenomenon of cooperative partnerships and alliances between SMEs and much larger multinational companies. By nature of their imbalance in terms of resources and power, these assymetric alliances would seem to pose particular challenges and risks for the managers of SMEs.

For the SME, large multinationals offer rapid access to technology platforms, overseas market knowledge, distribution networks and brand recognition. Conversely, multinationals increasingly view SMEs as important sources of innovation and new product development, and may see cooperation with the SME as preferable to full buyout and absorption.

In one suggested model, “born global” SMEs use partnerships with much larger companies to accelerate their internationalisation. This helps to address their lack of financial resources, limited market knowledge, an aversion to risk-taking and a lack of economies of scale. However alliance/cooperative behaviour is only one of the strategies to overcome the constraints of small size. Partnerships sit alongside technical innovation, client-centred product development, leverage of personal networks and multiple entry modes.

A friend of mine, Richard Cotman, is pursuing an MBA research project exploring the role that alliances and partnerships play in SME internationalisation strategies and how the partnerships are formed and managed. If you are managing a New Zealand technology company that has forged international alliances and is doing a substantial amount of business globally, please consider letting Richard interview you.

You can reach Richard on Twitter, at his blog or by leaving a reply below.

Stepping Up to Bat in the Big League

I spent a day last week at the Focus on Health – New Zealand Innovation Challenge Wellington launch event. The programme aims to cultivate some innovative healthcare solutions that have commercialisation potential in the vast U.S. marketplace. But after the event I was left wondering how many of the participants actually had sound, commercial propositions that would scale successfully into such a competitive environment.

Remarkably the Innovation Challenge was one of the few economic development initiatives from the previous government to emerge unscathed from the post election cost cutting review. Six months later it has ministerial approval and everyone is working hard to position the project to take full advantage of U.S. economic stimulus spend, of which a large amount is directed at making health delivery more efficient. Better late than never. Perhaps most significant is advice that this programme could be a template for other sectors – if it can be shown to deliver some real wins.

So it is important that we get some companies with high value offerings to step up to the batters plate. It will be up to the Challenge judges to decide who goes forward, but I would imagine there will be a strong focus on health information technology, bioactive foods and medical equipment. So I was a little concerned that when I looked around the room, the majority of participants were not in these fields at all. Maybe that does not matter, part of the deal is to foster collaboration, educate business and open pathways by exposing New Zealand companies to offshore markets and investors. That in itself is a laudable goal.

In fact John Eyles gave an excellent talk on why collaboration is essential in order to take advantage of global opportunties. It was worth attending just to hear this message and I hope those listening took the message on board. We tend to be a nation of small businesses working in silos; which is one reason why our businesses remain small. You certainly don’t enter the American market unless you have robust partnerships and a lot of good advice under your belt.

XMediaLab Sails Into Auckland

Speaking of the need for visionaries, the city of sails plays host to the XMediaLab event this year with a star studded lineup of speakers from the global digital innovation scene. The event comprises a day long conference on Friday focused on commercialising ideas and drawing upon a wealth of experience from entrepreneurs, technology investors and digital media commentators from around the world.

“If you are a digital media professional, media executive, producer, creator, technology wizard, entrepreneur, analyst or strategist of any kind, this is the one day you need to attend,” says event manager Megan Elliot. The conference is followed by a valuable networking event on Friday evening. During the weekend workshop, pre-selected projects will also receive advice and support from international mentors, including a number of the conference speakers. XML now also have a video channel so if you can’t make it to the event, check back later for short talks from previous event speakers.

I’m looking forward to a dose of inspiration – hope to see you there.

Innovation, Property Rights and the Political Economy

In recent months I have noticed an elevated volume of commentary relating to the overlap between economic development and the political expression of property ownership rights. Part of this debate has been driven by sea changes on the political landscape and new analysis of the role previous governments have played through intervening in markets. Last week’s OECD report card on New Zealand fanned the flames of this debate to a new level.

The report suggests that previous governments have consistently failed to address historically poor levels of productivity and innovation. In the face of a global economic emergency there is a strong call for urgent action to reconfigure policy on this front.

“New Zealand’s living standards remain well below the OECD average. This is entirely attributable to persistently low labour productivity, which in turn is related to economic geography as well as structural policy factors. The small size and remoteness of the economy diminish its access to world markets, the scale and efficiency of domestic businesses, the level of competition and proximity to the world’s technology frontier. This points to the need for a “New Zealand policy advantage”, that is, a set of structural policies attractive and welcoming enough to overcome the geographic handicap and attract the drivers of prosperity – investment, skills and ideas – to New Zealand.”

Innovation, property rights and the political economy are intertwined. For example without a robust framework for the protection of intellectual property there is little incentive to innovate and generate economic returns from new ideas. But implicit in the OECD calls for macroeconomic restructuring is the suggestion that Crown assets be sold to address fiscal debt. This remarkably unoriginal idea seems to mysteriously surface every time a National government is elected.

Some have argued that New Zealand’s historically interventionist approach has discouraged investment in innovation and critical infrastructure. However, hurried or ill considered sales of State assets (originally funded by taxpayers) in some respects seems contradictory to ongoing academic arguments that favour less intervention, more consistency and the protection of unalienable rights to property. How do we reconcile these positions? Should we be doing so? As was once proposed, would it not be better to leverage the capital invested in State owned enterprises to create new, high value spin-off ventures?

Of course the situation is complicated in New Zealand by the fact that Maori have strong views in terms of property rights, securing favourable State regulation and the connection this makes with their own economic development aspirations. But can we promote a free and unfettered market with strongly protected property rights on the one hand whilst at the same time contemplating separate justice and electoral systems and the wholesale transfers of property assets based on race? External investors no doubt also weigh these risks when considering New Zealand as a destination.

Driven to Digital Distraction

There was an interesting book published recently about the relationship between modern lifestyles and shortening attention span. I’ve been saying (and observing) for some time that over-exposure to online games and other digital technology reduces attention span and the ability to engage in reflective thought. I’ve noticed it in myself and more worryingly observed it in my kids. But can we do anything about it?

In an interview with author and researcher Maggie Jackson, Wired magazine explores the possibility that our multi-tasking lifestyles have led to an institutionalised culture of distraction that damages the ability to concentrate and think creatively. Jackson reveals that there is sound research into how brain physiology behaves in response to multiple stimuli and activity overload. Humans are evolving to the new environment, but perhaps not in a good way, she suggests.

So what happens when today’s kids, who are growing up immersed in technology from a very early age, are called upon in the future to demonstrate complex deductive thought over extended periods at exam time or in a stressful work environment? Writing, planning, conversing and being artistically creative do not deliver the same instantaneous level of gratification that scoring points in an online battle quest does, for example. Will the next generation be damaged by early over-exposure to digital technology?

In many respects, digital technology has made the world smaller and more navigable. On the other hand, rewiring our behaviour can have an isolating effect. We are constantly looking for the next hit of endorphin that comes from a new email, a fresh Tweet or another enemy to slay in our favourite virtual world. But sometimes that buzz comes at a price to our real world relationships and creative power.

Should You Start a Web Business in 2009?

With financial markets crashing and consumers keeping their wallets firmly shut, this year seems like the worst time ever to be starting a new venture. But whilst traditional businesses are grappling with the shortage of capital and a dearth of customers, online businesses with low establishment costs are successfully aggregating huge global audiences.

But even web based businesses need some fundamental attributes in place. A good supply chain, stable technology, a clever marketing plan and a sound business strategy. Most of all, you need to be solving a problem that really exists. All of these fundamentals can be achieved with very little capital investment, especially if you have a capable team who are prepared to contribute some time to the project in return for a stake. The days of inflated company valuations and leveraged buy-outs are over, replaced by a flight to quality. Door knocking around VC’s with your powerpoint show and business plan is a poor investment of your valuable time in this market. Look to your customers as the primary source of capital.

By adopting open source technologies and hosted services and by building communities of interest around the business, startups can bootstrap themselves to a point where they can prove that their business model works – and that’s a far more attractive proposition to a future investor. The size of the business is irrelevant to begin with. Small is beautiful in 2009 and the winning measures of success will be net revenue per employee plus the intangible gains from building social capital around your idea. Innovative web businesses will continue to find niches to occupy even as the masonry is cracking and falling off bigger, incumbent players in their death throes.

If you have a great idea for a web based venture in 2009 and would like some feedback on how to get started, drop me a line or post a reply below. Happy New Year.

In Good Company

Three online ventures launched last week proving once again that Wellyweb is a happening place when it comes to web-based creativity. And since our foreign owned traditional media channels give scant coverage to local start-ups, here’s a quick run down of who’s doing what.

Door knocking and standing on street corners is so last century when it comes to fund raising. Givealittle is a community site that matches donors with worthy causes, not to mention saving you from sore feet and being chased by rabid dogs. If you are a social entrepreneur in particular, this site offers a virtual base of operations for building a loyal band of supporters. And if you have a desire to contribute, Givealittle offers a host of projects to choose from and protects your anonymity. Now with both Christmas and an economic squeeze looming, some companies are even using the site to provide their staff with a unique donor opportunity instead of organising gifts this year. Givealittle has solid backing and the potential to scale up globally, so it will be interesting to see how it develops in the future.

Hirewall is a recruitment management tool that helps employers control the candidate selection process. The beauty of Hirewall is that it delivers value irrespective of whether the employer is working with a recruitment firm or recruiting talent directly. So one of the keys to success for Hirewall will no doubt involve developing strong relationships and building trust within the recruitment industry. Hirewall is the brainchild of Tim de Jardine who is in the vanguard of the next wave of “quiet achievers” who like to think outside the proverbial polygon.

Another member of this new wave is Wellington old boy, technology commentator and cloud watcher Ben Kepes who has pulled together a number of interesting deals this year including securing sponsorship for the new Bizchat site. Ben has a passion for supporting and growing the small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) that are the foundation of our economy. He also has a strong understanding of where business fits in a social context. That makes him a great champion for Bizchat which is a peer-to-peer forum for SME operators. Bizchat has some strong Wellington ties in terms of sponsorship and subject matter expertise too.

Last but not least, ideegeo launched iWantMyName a domain registrar site with New Zealand’s largest selection of domain extensions by far and some interesting value added services to be announced in 2009. I’m proud to say we began earning export dollars from day one. Our iPhone application has also proven to be a hit with several hundred downloads in the first few days. So iPhone users can now search and register domains on the go. The road ahead may be challenging one for us all beset with competitor goblins and recessionary cave trolls, but at least we are setting off amidst good company.

Will Nats Biff Telco Plan?

The incoming National led government has (predictably) put the Broadband Investment Fund (BIF) on hold pending a review.  Parties who invested time and resources into making applications to the fund have consequently been left hanging because National wants to put its own stamp on the project.

One assumes that BIF applicants knew there was considerable political risk attached to participating in a funding round which came at the end of a government term. But the incoming Cabinet has an obligation to protect the interests of parties who applied in good faith. Developing business cases and filling out a myriad of forms is standard when it comes to securing any kind of public funding these days and this carries with it a hefty cost. Perhaps we should get the new Minister of Red Tape, Rodney Hide, on the case? Cutting back on petty bureacracy would be a great way of improving productivity in New Zealand.

More importantly, where will the new government go with broadband rollout as an infrastructural project? With National’s stated preference being fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), it is difficult to conclude that they have received a range of advice from independent telecommunications industry specialists. There are so many vested interests involved that one wonders where the Nats dredged up their policy advice from. Was it the foreign owned network infrastructure providers who stand to benefit from FTTH investment, or was it the telcos who want to extend their reach?

Indeed National’s apparently Telecom-centric broadband “vision” came under fire from Telstra boss Alan Freeth when it was announced originally. He argued that whilst subsidising FTTH may be a vote winner, that it will do little for the nation’s long term economic development. I’ve drawn this analogy before, if you build a new road you don’t need a bus stop outside every home do you? A lot of people never use buses. In other words, fibre-to-node makes much more sense.

Whatever the case, it appears more likely that decisions will be made on the basis of clever lobbying, rather than sound, independent research. Telecommunications technology is changing rapidly, but broadband infrastructure, once built, will be in place for years. Hence I’m troubled by Ernie Newman’s somewhat rosy assessment of the “rich tapestry” of network ownership that makes up the industry. It sounds more like a recipe for chaos to me, so I agree with his idea to develop a national broadband architectural blueprint. The more important issue of international connectivity has not yet been solved. So there is still a risk that, in the name of political expediency, we will end up with another half-arsed solution that does little to address our aspirations of climbing the OECD ladder.