Lessons from Webstock: We’ve come long way, now let’s move on up

Another superb first day yesterday at Webstock, New Zealand’s must-attend conferences for anybody involved in web design or related businesses. Once again the speakers were universally superb, the organisation sublime and the conference is made with love. With many familiar and new faces, it’s a comfortable environment to spark and continue fascinating conversations.

Overall I took three meta-themes from the first day:

The first was that we’ve come a long way.

Webstock has been going for 7 years, and the room just keeps getting fuller, the organisation slicker and the speakers more and more appreciative to be here. The audience increasingly arrives better informed about the topics at hand, making it harder for the organisers to stay ahead, and yet they do. While the converted are here, we also see a steady stream of first timers, often bought along by their colleagues and friends. In short Webstock, along with other efforts, have worked to help transition New Zealand’s usability centred web ecosystem from a few lone voices and Trade Me insiders to a vast crowd of hundreds or even thousands of people. That’s tremendous for New Zealand, and it has contributed to spawning and growing a large number of superb companies, from Xero and Vend to Timely and WIP, the two winners of $10,000 checks from the BNZ Start-up alley competition here this year.

The second theme is that the quality of our web creative, development and business communities are rapidly catching and often surpassing the USA. Many of the challenges that we heard from the stage that speakers are facing and conquering are also being faced and conquered here in new Zealand.

The numbers are often a lot bigger over there, but as Vaughan Rowsell from Vend exemplifies we are already shifting from mainstream news to more wisely choosing our sources, from consulting or client work to producing products, from pondering and outsourcing to doing. We already  live within constraints, which increase our creativity, and we have a strong design thinking movement. Our culture aligns to the idea of designing and making the cheap and cheerful product for the people and we have a strong talented designer community. We also have an array of people and businesses working on sensors, turning that into useful feedback and practical applications rather than useless internet fridges. We are even getting better at presenting our work. Again I’d argue that Webstock itself is responsible for a good chunk some of the shift here in NZ over the last 7 years, and long may it continue.

The third theme for many of us, is that we need to keep stepping up lifting our eyes and taking advantage the advantages that New Zealand has granted us to play with. Done well, we can match, play with and outplay even our counterparts in the USA.

We have a strong base. Our domestic politicians and civil servants are remarkably sound and accessible. It’s trivially easy to start and do business here. We increasingly have critical masses of designers, developers, engineers and business people. We have the world’s biggest population of free trade area, great education and low trade barriers to imports and visits. It’s a lovely place to live.

We perhaps lack enough assertive sales people, and that certain sense of confidence that we often mistake for cockiness. In addition we can always use more smart money that moves quickly to help the best opportunities and keep expanding our community and our economic and societal impact.  All of that is being worked on, by individuals, by businesses, by interest groups, by Webstock and others, collectively expanding and extending our community.

Promotion and advocacy

We come from a past where, aside from dodgy real estate agents and finance company touters, we are lousy at pitching. Selling is seen as un-kiwi, and while it’s getting a lot better, we need to level up again. When Kiwis’ communicate, hard as it is, we do so from a  well respected base of honesty and openness, and are we respected across the globe as trusted advisors.

So why can’t we extend from our base of being trusted, incorruptible and easy to do business with, to being powerful trusted advocates for not just our businesses but also for societal change? Why can’t we not just improve New Zealand, but extend some of our awesomeness to the rest of the world?

As part of that we need to get better at pitching, at presentation, at influencing and at advocacy. These need different styles, and there are different teachers for each. The rest of our society is slowly learning from our community that the nerds know this powerful way of presenting, TED style, if you like. However TED style is not enough. We also need to learn from design thinking and their workshops to create change, from sales professionals and their ‘getting to yes’ processes and from folks like Karen McGrane and Larry Lessig who challenge and advocate when presenting. I’d love to see us shift gradually toward more oratory and advocacy, accentuating the positive challenges we face rather than whinging about exchange rates and political shenanigans. We need a good dose of Obama-like inspiration, that soaring rhetoric, along with some audacious challenges and table thumping from the pulpit.

We don’t need ridiculous insider or self-help language or vast visions of some apocalyptic or utopian future. But we do need to push a lot harder, to move on, when it comes to responding to issues like anthropogenic climate change, the self-selection of ever more self-confirming media, the rise of selfish politics and the decline of health and life expectancy as in the USA.

Let’s Advocate, with a capital A, more strongly for the Open Internet, Open Research and Open Source. Let’s make it clear that we do not accept the Novopays, the emerging IRD system clusterfuck and Auckland City Council data that is hidden behind crippling costs and the pain of supporting an inexcusable government owned monopoly.

Let’s get intolerant about the media coverage of clueless Wheedle dreamers, and help our major media outlets understand that Timely, Vend and WIP are far more important and valuable than the 53rd wretched clone of our best success story. Let’s open the veil on the awesomeness that is emerging from that story, a Trade Me released from the admittedly light hands of Fairfax Media. Let’s at the same time drown out and guide to the light the commenters who cannot understand that Xero is ridiculously awesome for accountants, businesses and investors alike.

Above all let’s keep backing ourselves to win, and let’s extend that vibe from the Webstock inspired community to all of New Zealand, and thence the world.

And make sure you come to Webstock next year.

Published by Lance Wiggs