On Tuesday last week I was lucky enough to listen to an interesting range of cool people give 5 minute talks on the topics of their choice. (ok – only one person hit the 5 minute market exactly, and he had a giant clock on his chest) It was Webstock‘s 3rd birthday and exit from rehab.
There is a great summary of everyone over on Shadowfoot’s blog.
Unfortunately (for me and for the audience) I was also asked to give a 5 minute talk, and as I was placed last I had to follow in some big footprints. I was filled with confidence after there was a cheer as I was introduced, before I realised that it was because I was introduced as “the last speaker before the drinks”.
I’m re-writing what I spoke about at Webstock from an early version of my notes. Sadly I don’t have the annotated notes from the event, so I am missing some of the extra pieces that I had gleaned from previous speakers.
Choosing your own topic is a peculiar type of torture – so I asked organiser all round good person Natasha for advice, and she informed me, and I quote verbatim, that she was expecting:
“a ballet recital followed by your rendition of Broadway show tunes followed by your 5 min talk on why Tash is awesome”
I’d left my tutu behind, so instead I chose instead to to add a bit of context to the last time I was up in front of a similar audience – when I affirmed with two sturdy comrades in arms at Foo Camp that “The Future of New Zealand is Fucked”. It was a convincing display by our team, but sadly the audience voted with their hearts – indicating that they preferred to believe the opposition.
So I decided to join the crowd, and spoke this time about “Why are we here?”.
Not “why are we here?” in the Dalai Lama, Catholic Church or Douglas Adams sense, but “Why are we here in New Zealand, in Wellington and at the Webstock event (or even reading this blog)”
I believe that we have a choice in all of these matters (except you Mum – you have to read my blog, even if you don’t actually do so)
By definition, anyone that has the get up and go to attend Westock, to read blogs and twitter about what is going on, also has the get up and go to do so – to leave New Zealand and head for the gold paved roads of the UK, USA, Europe and Kathmandu.
Indeed many of us do, including myself. I’ve been offshore several times now, the first time lasting about 10 years, and the last few times a year or two each.
So why do we come back, why do we stay?
After all in New Zealand, and in Wellington in particular there are three compelling reasons not to be here:
The weather sucks. It really does. As I draft this on Saturday morning the rain is lashing against the house, Cook Strait is closed to the Ferrys and the latest flight from Sydney was diverted to Auckland. Meanwhile in Perth it’s sunny and warm, in Europe summer is nigh and we are consigned to short days, rain and cold.
We are miles away from anywhere – we were the last decent place to be permanently colonized by humans (discarding Pitcairn Island and Antarctica), 4 hours away from Australia and 10 hours way from anywhere interesting (11 from Wellington).
And we have a crappy Internet connection to the rest of the world, a connection seemingly controlled by rent maximising companies (shame on you Telecom) rather than stakeholders determined to open up access to the rest of the world.
It means I’m cold, days and too many dollars away from the great friends I have around the world and my broadband sucks.
And yet, and yet – I am still here – we all are. Why is that?
Again, I believe there are three answers: The weather really sucks, we are miles away from anywhere and we are connected to the rest of the world through a crappy internet line.
In New Zealand, and in Wellington more than anywhere, we expect the unexpected. This Saturday morning the weather forecast was all doom and gales, but some friends and I grabbed and hour of relative stillness to go for a quick bike ride. Meanwhile the day before the Webstock bash, the weather was shake your house from the foundations wash the green off the leaves horrible, and yet canny Wellingtonians knew to put suntan lotion on, for lo and behold it was crisply perfect that afternoon.
It means that when Vaughan Rowsell decided to go for a bike ride back in January, he didn’t wait until next summer, but took off for an April to June journey- knowing it was going to be cold, wet and miserable at times. He’s (almost there) succeeded. It’s the same urge that will guide hundreds of motorcyclists (myself included) to ride to the Brass Monkey this weekend, which is in freezing central Otago and deliberately held at around about the time of the year when the first big dumps of snow come through.
All this adds up to a people that are ready for anything, that accept no excuses and just get stuff done, regardless of what else is going on.
You can see it when we Kiwis land work in London, study in the USA, crew boats in the Med and work in charitable organisations in Africa. Kiwis arrive and depart with a deserved reputation for being able to handle anything and everything with no fuss.
Our society helps create these people with an excellent education system, a great social welfare system that means we are kept healthy, off the streets and trained, and political parties and a system that generally allows logic and fairness to guide decisions rather than a hackneyed partisanship system. Generally.
A word on education. Not only do we have places like Wellington’s Massey Design School, which is a truly great place, but more importantly we have a very high average level of education, and a very high 10th percentile level of education. That is – the least educated amongst us are far better off than their equivalents in other countries.
I’m not trusting comparative statistics for this – I’m trusting the excellent service levels across all sorts of organisations, from airlines to banks, rental car companies to restaurants and lunch bars that we receive relative to other countries. While the systems may sometimes (often) be less than stellar, invariably the people are polite, smart and able to deal with a variety of situations.
And finally that lousy wet weather means that we live in a beautiful place, one that encourages us to get out and enjoy it, and that attracts others from around the world to do the same.
So we are resourceful and smart, a fair people, have a decent corruption free society and we can do anything.
And yet we live miles away from anywhere
Not for us the intense deal making and energy of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, where anything is possible and nothing is too expensive.
However that vast distance also means that we avoid the Wall Street of today, the excesses that crushed an economy and the deal making and loans to business and individuals that abruptly halted.
And while we do leave New Zealand by the thousands to take advantage of London and New York, we gain valuable experience overseas and then we bring it back – either on loan when kiwi stars appear at conferences and on boards, or more permanently when we return home.
We come back because it is home, but also because it is easy to live and do business here. It’s trivially easy to start a business, to open bank accounts and to pay tax here.
We have thriving local competition, even amongst start-ups. We have DonateNZ and Givealittle, Thinksmall, MadefromNZ and Bizchat, Fishpond and Mightyape, Phil & Teds and Mountain Design Buggies, and the Jobs Summit, Foo Camp and Entrepreneurs Summit.
We all want to give it a go, and that competition means that the winners (be they a single winner or, often, a merged entity) combine to be a great, and hopefully, export led company.
To be sure we also have our problems, stuck here at the end of the world, but we are pretty good at identifying them, and we are pretty good at marshaling attention and energy on them until they are fixed. The number of pre-emptive summits for the economic crisis, the reports and government moves on the lousy broadband, the likes of Cactus Kate railing against the NZX governance and the rise of the NZ Institute all give hope.
But it is that crappy internet that is the final advantage we have. Not the lousiness of it, but the fact that it is there. (And yes – please please improve it with urgency)
Decent internet reduces costs, reduces pain and reduces cycle time. It means that we can build businesses in the cloud (basing them offshore to avoid the thin pipe) and address the world.
It lowers the trade barriers between us and our customers and suppliers, and it makes the world our market.
Our Government is helping as well.
We have signed Free Trade Agreements with China, Australia, Brunei, Singapore, Chile, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines and Vietnam. That’s an astonishing 1.9 billion people – or 25% of the world’s population.
We are also in negotiations with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and South Korea. That moves it to a free trade addressable market of 2 billion people – a market of about 480 people per New Zealander, or 4 million people per reader of this blog today. Who cares about the anti-free trade USA subsidies when we have this market?
That’s plenty enough to share.
Finally, why were people at the Webstock event, and why are you (still) reading this?
When I returned to New Zealand in 2003, I’d realised that my ideal job was to
help find and found start-ups, to help growing businesses grow faster and to help their owners and employees perform better. It’s fun.
I met the then existing VC and private equity firms, but they seemed to be on the slow train, and many were mired in government hand-out bureaucracy. The tiny average investment size, the small size of the funds and the slow velocity of transactions all counted against the industry and their funded companies. I wanted better.
I was lucky enough to land at Trade Me, just before they hit the mainstream, and the energy was there. Now, six years later, and after stints overseas and here in New Zealand, I realise that times have changed across the board.
Trade Me, Xero, Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor, amongst many others, have all demonstrated that you can be good guys and start, run and make money from (the jury is waiting a verdict on Xero) excellent and cool companies.
Meanwhile the internet generation is hitting their stride. The 22 year olds of today have always been online, and they intrinsically get the space.
There are older returnees that are bringing energy, experience and cash back to our shores, and, most of all, there is a sense of opportunity.
The opportunities and energy is real. After landing back here in March, after selling up in Fremantle, it took only two weeks before I had over 20 opportunities of one description or another, and I am now part of two new companies.
Almost at the same time I received a call from Equip Design – who consult as part of the Better By Design program. I’m now on the team, and have visited the first of a series of clients that will build off a rich NZ history of successful transformation into design-led export-driven companies. I’ve toured Formway Design (unbelievable) and looked at from afar at the success of Obo, Phil and Teds and other successful graduates of the program.
We are good at this stuff – product design, anything internet based, branding, lean and flexible manufacturing – indeed the entire product development process.
Our local economy is strong, our addressable economies of the world are in varying degrees of trouble, but our export volumes are trivial to them, and our products are often clever and cheaper solutions to problems that they are just starting to look at.
So we have the people, the experience, economy and education. People are giving start-ups a go, and we have a huge market to address.
There are plenty of roadblocks on the way, but we Kiwis can do anything, regardless of the weather outside.
Let’s make it happen.