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.

Your Startup Weekend Toolbox

toolboxNovember 2015 was a bumper month for Startup Weekends here in New Zealand. With more events in the pipeline, it’s time to begin thinking about your game plan. Here’s a short primer on the fundamentals.

Team – At Startup Weekend we take you from an unformed idea, through to a working business model with a team that can capably execute on the project. Teams of one simply don’t fly and you cannot scale a business without a good team around you. But Startup Weekend helps you connect with people who bring a diverse range of skills. Be ready to share and engage. Choose your team mates wisely – you may be together a long time.

The Problem – Have you thought hard about the problem you are solving? It’s too easy for entrepreneurs to become infatuated with their own idea and overlook whether or not they are fundamentally solving a point of pain for customers. Get out of the building. You might be surprised what you can learn from potential customers and how this can be applied. Testing your hypothesis is the scientific part of being an entrepreneur.

The Solution – Are you creating a product or service that offers a compelling advantage over other similar offerings in the marketplace? Is the related intellectual property defensible or secure? Research the competition and don’t forget to check for trademark and domain name availability. If you can’t find any competing businesses, then ask yourself why.

Customer Acquisition – Forget about all the startup investment mythology. Your best source of funding is real, live customers, not investors. Ultimately someone has to be willing to pay, otherwise you will sink. Here’s a great article that explains customer acquisition versus lifetime value. Building a long term relationship with your hard won customers is key. Venture funding is not a business model.

Business Model – How does the business deliver customer value on the one hand, whilst generating growth revenues with an engaged audience? Look at where your venture sits in the global context and how it could scale up to something really big. Are you a pipe or a platform? Become familiar with using the business model canvas as a framework for your thinking.

Startup Weekend bundles these questions around a lean methodology and provides experienced entrepreneurs to mentor and challenge you along the entrepreneurial journey. Find a New Zealand Startup Weekend near you and sign up yourself (and a friend).

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

Image credit: Jason Rhode

Tunnel Collapses. Good Call Minister!

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

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

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

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

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

 

 

Will The Real Wellington Please Stand Up

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

 

Shifting The Economic Goalposts

Economist Brian Gaynor’s recent article on why we will never “catch up” to Australia was another sobering reminder of the hard road that New Zealand has ahead. Invoking a sporting analogy by beating Australia may be a popular rally to arms, but it focuses public attention on completely the wrong set of goalposts.

Another sobering occasion was when we sadly learned of the passing of Sir Paul Callaghan, one of New Zealand’s most passionate science communicators and technology entrepreneurs. Sir Paul lived every moment and notably even turned his cancer treatment regime into an experiment. More importantly he was one of the most ardent promoters of science and technology commercialisation as a means of growing New Zealand’s economy.

“Sir Paul was a true public intellectual who earned the respect of everyone, including those who disagreed with him”, stated the government’s sternly worded Ministerial press release reporting news of Sir Paul’s death. Curiously, outside of Cabinet, I can’t name a single (intelligent) person who actually disagreed with his thesis that New Zealand urgently needs to ramp up economic growth through more investment in research, science and technology commercialisation, rather than continuing with an over-reliance on flogging unprocessed, environmentally unsustainable dairy commodities to the world.

To its credit, the government has finally moved to increase research funding and there are more frequent mutterings along the lines of “doing something” about uncovering intellectual property locked up within our many publicly funded institutions. But those of us who looked on frustrated over the last decade as the “Knowledge Wave” withered on the vine, are becoming more and more concerned that the opportunity to fully promote science and technology as an economic driver is disappearing.

Beyond pumping more cash into research, we need a huge cultural shift involving both governmental agencies and the public mindset. As clean-tech entrepreneur Nick Gerritsen stated at a recent seminar, “we need more millionaire scientists and fewer millionaire sportsmen”. With the loss of Professor Callaghan, I’m left wondering who will be brave enough to pick up the mantle.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet

Building Our Innovation Ecosystem

Innovation, incubation and competitiveness are firmly back on the political agenda. 2011 has been a busy year, with the government setting about reforming publicly funded scientific research and reconfiguring IRL in an effort to drive more commercialisation activity in the technology sector. The government funded trade agency has also been talking up successes from its incubator programme. In the meantime, the recently formed Productivity Commission has quietly begun developing an academic framework to address infrastructural inefficiencies in the New Zealand economy.

In this context, it was unsurprising to see some recent commentary that was highly critical of the manner in which government gets involved in innovation and business. More specifically, Rowan’s comments alluded to some deficiencies in the methodologies being employed by business incubators when advising software start-ups. Notwithstanding the fact that incubators are generalists and lack the huge depth of experience and background of success that Rowan brings to his own web and software ventures, there were some fair criticisms which pleasingly generated a lot of intelligent follow-up discussion.

Where I parted company with this debate however was when the tone shifted towards questioning the necessity for providing events to engage the start-up community. Most readers will be aware that I’m deeply involved in organising such activities in addition to my role as a co-founder of a couple of tech companies. One of these companies is pre-revenue start-up, the other is growth phase and profitable. Being involved in the community is a deliberate strategy which is partly altruistic (because it’s fun), but also good for business. We are only as strong as the people around us.

The government’s moves to redefine how we approach identifying and commercialising high value science and technology based ventures are oxygen for our economic flame; so too are the various contributions made by formal incubators, informal “innovation hubs”, university commercialisation offices and the various business related events and competitions. The Ministry of Science & Innovation’s report on Powering Innovation even talks about “…the creative connection of talented minds across discipline boundaries“. We do not need to emulate Silicon Valley, but we should learn from that ecosystem model.

Around the world, entrepreneurship is increasingly seen as both a legitimate career option for young people and a growth spark in an otherwise dull economy. At a time when youth unemployment stands at around 30% in New Zealand, we cannot afford to ignore the opportunity of infusing young people with an entrepreneurial spirit. I recently attended the 30th anniversary celebration of the Young Enterprise Trust. This organisation provides entrepreneurship programmes for high schools and counts such luminaries as Rod Drury and Seeby Woodhouse amongst its alumni, demonstrating the importance of a community approach to entrepreneurship education.

Building an entrepreneurial and export focused culture has never been so important as now, with traditional models breaking down faster than ever. Knowledge sharing and relationship building within and amongst our specialist communities is foundational to strengthening our innovation ecosystem. We can no longer afford to operate in silos or to make the assumption that there is only a single approach to building cool businesses that solve real problems and generate economic returns.

AMD Opens Doors For Fingertapps

Unlimited Realities is living up to its name. Last year the company inked a deal to provide its gestural interface software for integration into Dell manufactured computers. Now the door has been opened by computer chip maker AMD. Fingertapps was showcased this week at the AMD Fusion Developer Summit in Seattle ahead of its rollout with AMD’s next generation of chips for Windows based PC and tablet devices.

The company, which has development offices in Wellington and Palmerston North recently appointed former Kiwibank CEO Sam Knowles as chairperson. It now seems to be on a rapid growth trajectory, having been one of the earliest providers of computer touch screen technology. We saw the “unlimited potential” of the product back in 2008 when we invited Unlimited Realities business development manager Ben Wilde to show off Fingertapps at Wellington to the World.

New Zealand companies are becoming increasingly adept at forging relationships offshore and the U.S. computing market is generally the most obvious first port of call. Fingertapps is yet another great example of high flying Kiwi technology going global from New Zealand.

Startup Weekend Comes to New Zealand

Startup Weekend is a life-changing creative workshop for web entrepreneurs that has been held all over the world from Boston to Bangalore. Participants have 54 hours from 6pm on the Friday evening to strategise, build and launch a brand new web business. It’s a pressure cooker event that ensures everyone leaves with new ideas, brilliant personal networks and maybe even a new business. The great news is that the very first New Zealand Startup Weekend will be held in Auckland on 1st-3rd of April.

About a year ago, Startup Weekend global director Marc Nager approached me about bringing the event to New Zealand. But anticipating a very full year at Unlimited Potential plus lots of hard work growing iWantMyName, regrettably I had to decline. So I’m really pleased that Jason Armishaw and his team have stepped forward and I’m chuffed to be invited along as an advisor to the initiative. I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck in with some brain-storming on the day. It’s an opportunity for me to share some of the lessons learned within a high growth web start-up business and no doubt to learn heaps myself from a bunch of much smarter people.

With the event only a few weeks away, we need to muster resources and get folks signed up pronto! Developers, designers, business strategists, marketers, investors. Get your dream team together or just rock up by yourself and be ready to contribute your particular skills. If you know of any companies that can help out with some resources please contact Jason as soon as possible. There will be media involvement, so it’s a great opportunity to share what you do. See you there.

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.