He aha te mea nui o te ao?

March 27, 2012

This is the transcript of a short speech I gave last night at the Think Forward event in Auckland. Thanks to Sacha Judd from Buddle Findlay for inviting me along and allowing me to say a few words to kick things off. The other speakers were: Aloyna from Pingar, Mitch from Small Worlds, Rob from Koordinates, Vaughan from Vend, Matt from Letterboxd, Simon from SentiRate, and Ian from Williams Warn.

What is the most important thing in the world?

According to the Maori proverb the answer is: He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata. It is the people, the people, the people.

That’s certainly true for startup companies. As Paul Graham, one of the co-founders of Y Combinator says: “People are to startups what location is to real estate”.

And yet, when we all think about what we can do to support startups, we seldom start with people.

We focus on buildings – ideally well located funky shared working space in architected buildings or “innovation hubs”. But, when you look at those startups that went on to become successful companies they nearly always did their hard yards in a skanky flat or dingy office, rather than emerging from the safety and comfort of a business park. If you think that finding a nice desk is the hardest part about starting a company, just wait until you try and find your first customer!

Or, we focus on funding – mostly in New Zealand we complain about the lack of it. But, every serious investor I know would like more introductions to investible companies. There are two reasons why you can’t raise investment: 1) people don’t know what you’re worth; or 2) you’re not worth as much as you think you are. In my experience, most commonly the later. But, both problems are solvable. And, in either case, having too much money too soon makes you lazy because you’re not forced to learn how to spend it efficiently.

Or, we focus on speed – what we can do to accelerate ventures towards success even faster, because we’re all very impatient and anxious to find the next big thing. Do you remember the Mainland ads, with the two old guys watching bemused as younger cheese-makers try to rush? Good companies take a long time to build. That’s actually a good thing, because you learn as you go. Too much attention too soon can ruin a new venture just as badly as no attention at all.

Maybe buildings and funding and speed are not actually the constraints that people working on new ventures have?

At the moment there are a lot of us thinking about what we can do to develop an innovative eco-system in New Zealand. For me the answer is simple. We need more people. People who choose to roll up their sleeves and actually work on ventures.

So, if you want to know what you can to do help the startup eco-system in this city, and in this country, this is my advice: remember the most important thing in the world.

Don’t feel like you need to spread your own limited resources across ten ventures, or a hundred ventures – these are startups we’re talking about, the odds of success are massively stacked against you either way.

Choose one person to work with. Maybe you can be a co-founder or an early employee. Maybe you can be an advisor or a director. Maybe you can be a seed investor. Those are all vital contributions to early-stage companies.

So, listen to these people that will present tonight. They are all individuals working on a venture. Think about how you can help them, or others like them. Ironically, if more of us did this, then the eco-system problem that get so much of our attention might just solve itself.