I ❤️ the Silver Fern

Dear John,

It seems my last letter struck a chord with many.

I didn’t set out to advance a movement. I wasn’t even the first to write about the Red Peak flag after the current shortlist was announced. I was simply expressing my disappointment at the options. There seemed to be no choice.

We were promised four choices for the first referendum, but in the end have been presented with a single solution – four variations of a fern.

Here is something that might surprise you … just like you and lots of others, I love the Silver Fern.

It’s an enduring and unique symbol. It’s widely associated with New Zealand and New Zealanders, and is the only symbol most of us would pick if we had to choose a single icon to represent our country. It is something we should all be proud of.

It is most commonly associated with our sports teams and specifically with the All Blacks. But, of course, it goes much wider than that. It’s extensively used, in business and trade, tourism, on our money and our passports, and importantly on the headstones that commemorate our fallen soldiers.

For these reasons I’ve long been an advocate for a Silver Fern flag. I was pleased to see a simple Silver Fern on Black design included in the long list.

But, as we now all know, there are a number of reasons why that sort of simple Silver Fern couldn’t be considered for selection – most importantly that it is almost impossible to design a flag featuring a fern that doesn’t look like one of the many other existing trademarked designs.

Of course, the Silver Fern is not part of our current flag, and whether it’s included in the design of the new flag or not, it will still to be our national symbol. We will continue to use it everywhere we do today, and no doubt find even more uses for it in the future.

That’s not the question. The question is: what is the best design for the flag, given we can’t use the simple Silver Fern?

This is what first attracted me to the Red Peak design. As the designer Aaron Dustin explains on the Red Peak website:

The Red Peak flag was intended to be a ‘new’ symbol that expressed our NZ identity while avoiding the use of Southern Cross, koru, kiwi, and fern motifs.

In just a month, since the long list was announced, and especially in the last week, since the current shortlist was announced, this elegant and considered design has received an overwhelming amount of support, from a wide cross section of New Zealanders. Very few of those people were engaged in this process before, if we’re honest. They are now! This is the first sign that people actually do care about changing the existing flag. Let’s not waste that.

Because it uses an abstract geometric design, its symbolism is less obvious. It isn’t just a rehash of existing symbols to fit on a canvas. You need to take a bit of time to understand the meaning and story behind the shapes and the colours. It allows room for each person to add their own interpretation.

tfss-a2d390ca-8987-4b04-9bc6-374ff29eb489-red-peak-flag

This is why it’s no surprise that when asked, based just on the shapes, it didn’t rank very highly in public polling. It’s like asking people to choose their favourite singer just based on a photo. But, it’s also why, once people were given the opportunity to consider it in context, it has resonated with so many and become their preferred option.

If you reduce many of the great flags to their shapes and colours they are also meaningless. The Japanese flag is just a red circle. The French flag (like a lot of other flags for that matter) is just three rectangles. The Union Jack is just some lines and triangles. The Stars & Stripes is … well stars and stripes. It is the story attached to these shapes and colours which give all of these flags great meaning. And, it’s the same with Red Peak.

The fact that, like them, Red Peak is a simple design, means that it stands strongly alongside all of these examples, and all of the other great flags. The same cannot be said for the other designs in the current shortlist.

Here is another wonderful thing if, like me, you love the Silver Fern on black: the Red Peak design stands strongly alongside the Silver Fern too. It complements. It makes it look better. Again, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other contenders, which compete for attention.

Side-By-Side

So, it’s disappointing that the current short list doesn’t include the Red Peak option. It would be great to have the choice, and to leverage all of the engagement and support for replacing the current flag which has been generated in the last week.

However, it’s not too late. It would be really easy to make this change. Even more so, because the current shortlist includes those two identical designs. All Cabinet needs to do is to pick one of those and replace the other with this Red Peak design by Order in Council on Monday. You can do this. Then we can have a process which includes real choice.

That would be choice, eh!

So, John. I ask again, respectfully: why not give New Zealanders a real choice?

Regards,
Rowan.

Dear John

John,

I’ve watched your video which describes the reasons you believe we should change the flag.

I am one of the many New Zealanders who strongly agree with you.

I know there are some who have dismissed this whole process as a waste of money and a distraction from other more important issues. I don’t agree with that. I believe we are all capable of doing more than one thing at a time and actually I believe the symbols we use to represent ourselves on the international stage are important and worthy of discussion.

It’s well publicised that your preference is for a design featuring the silver fern. The fern is a symbol we should all be proud of, and indeed my own submission to the design process was a simple silver fern design on a black background (what a shame that we let terrorists and pirates steal that option from us).

However, as shown by the English Rose, Scottish Thistle and South African Springbok & Protea (as well as many many others) it is possible to have a strong and widely recognised national symbol without necessarily having it represented on the national flag. Indeed all three of those countries have simple and distinctive flags which are also well loved and recognised. Whether our new flag includes a fern or not will not change at all the fact that we use and will continue to use the silver fern symbol almost ubiquitously, everywhere from rugby teams, to coins, to war graves.

During the process of public consultation I learned a lot about what makes a great flag design. I’ll admit prior to this I wasn’t familiar with the term “vexillology”. Presented with new information, I changed my opinion. There were a lot of very average designs proposed, but there were some great ones too, including this, which I now consider the best of the bunch:

redpeak_in_use

The Red Peak, by Aaron Dustin

http://aotearoaflag.tumblr.com/

This is a considered and elegant design.

It has a story, referencing the Maori myth of Ranginui and Papatuanuku.

It cleverly combines two halves.

On the left a nod to tukutuku panels, with the traditional colours of black, red and white:

redpeak_left

On the right a reference to the stars and Union Jack from the current flag:

redpeak_right

It is designed to be a flag, with a single black panel in the critical top-left corner, which is prominent when the flag is hung.

It does not look out of place when displayed alongside other great flags, as will often be the case

flag-gallery-redpeak

vs

flag-gallery-fern

(yeah, nah!)

It works large and, importantly, small:

flag-small

It is also very simple to draw, even for somebody with no artistic skills:

redpeak-draw

I was pleased to see this included in the long list and was looking forward to making the case for why this should be selected as the new flag design in the referendum process.

So, I was saddened and disappointed to see the four designs which have been selected for the short list.

I know you want this to be a democratic process, but frankly, given those choices it feels like no choice at all, since three of the designs are so similar and two are identical except for substituted colours. At the moment it’s like being asked to choose between a Carl Jr, a Big Mac, a Whopper and … actually I don’t know the burger equivalent of the hypnoflag, so I’ll leave that to your imagination.

To win broad support, a challenger product or service needs to be remarkably better than the status quo (e.g. selling something on Trade Me vs using traditional newspaper classifieds). I worry that none of the options which have been put up will succeed on that basis. Even as a strong supporter for change, I don’t believe any of these four designs are good enough. But, worse, I worry that one of them will be preferred over the current flag anyway.

You have set this process up, and you (and probably you alone at this stage) have the ability to change it.

I ask you to reconsider the short list, to replace one of the two identical silver fern designs with Red Peak, and at least give us the option to choose.

Regards,
Rowan

The Goat

This weekend I raced The Goat, which is a ~20km mountain run from Whakapapa to Turoa, along the western slopes of Mount Ruapehu.

It’s a beautiful but brutal course – a lot more scrambling, scree, and rock climbing and a lot less packed trail than I had mentally prepared for. I managed to get around with only one face plant and tagged knee. The last 5km climbs from 1233m at Mangaturuturu Hut to 1624m at the ski field finish, including the final 2km “mamas mile” up the road, by which point everybody was looking pretty broken.

I was stoked to finish in 3h 11m, in 135th place overall. The data file from my watch recorded 1163m of vertical ascent (and 2402 calories burnt, yo!)

I don’t normally bother with official race photos, but this one taken half way up the famous “Waterfall” was just too good to pass up:

The Goat 2014

If you look closely you can see there is one small spot on my shirt which isn’t soaked in sweat. It took me a while to work out this is just the thick part of my heart rate monitor strap.

More photos:

It’s a great event, and I throughly recommend it to you.

There are only 600 places available each year, so keep an eye out for registration for the 2015 race soon!

 

Reality Distortion Field

I found this fantastic rant by Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, describing his documentary Sound City:

“This movie wasn’t made for cynical middle-aged music critics, it was made for my daughter, or for the teenager down the street who’s trying to figure out how to start a band. When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fucking good enough.’ Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the Internet or The Voice or American Idol.”
Rock n Roll Jedi, Delta Sky Mag

I wonder if people in other vocations feel the same about how reality television distorts their experience?

Do chefs love MasterChef? Do property developers love The Block or Property Ladder? Do people who work with troubled kids love Super Nanny? Do architects love Grand Designs? Does anybody love The Beauty & The Geek?

I doubt it.

Because if you substitute musicians for start-up founders, what Dave Grohl described is exactly how I feel about Dragons Den and the like.

All of these shows are entertainment, which is fine. No harm, no foul. Very little reality, despite the name. Except that it seems that many people often fail to make that distinction.

Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, people do believe that entering a talent show is the path to a career as a singer, and they keep lining up every time there is a call for auditions. These train wreck shows seemingly have no problem finding folks who think that inviting cameras in to film their wedding planning or their house build or their blind date with a stranger is a normal and constructive thing, without appreciating that the only possible winner from that equation is the person selling advertising around the eventual show when it screens. Even the viewer, as entertained as they might be at the time, is a loser by any reasonable measure of opportunity cost.

It is, to use Dave Grohl’s patter, fucking nuts!

And, it makes me sad and angry to see it happening more and more in my industry.

A contrived start-up experience has as much in common with a real start-up as being a contestant in Survivor has with living unassisted in the Amazon for three weeks.

But, there is a large and growing group of people who think that the only way to a successful start-up is via an accelerator program, where they get locked in a room for twelve weeks, inundated by mentors, pressured into customer discovery and product pivots and whatever else is the buzzword de jour, taught to pitch and then pushed on stage to pimp their pre-pubescent start-up to a room full of investors. And then… who knows what?

This is just Startup Theatre: a scripted experience that has very little in common with the things that successful startups in the wild fill their days with, in my experience. The only thing missing is the film crew, although surely that can’t be far away.

The latest “season” of Lightning Lab had their demo day in Wellington last week.

This is how I saw it promoted on Twitter:

UPDATED: removed the link to this tweet, which has now been deleted. :-/

Seriously? Did it rain? Were folk hustled?

The people who are advising founders to approach investors in this way are naive and wrong. Be aware that you’re creating a significant selection bias by doing this, because smart investors do not want to be hustled and won’t be tricked into investing in your dinguses.

Likewise, if you think this is the best way to access people who you would otherwise struggle to connect with, you’re massively underestimating how easy it is to reach smart investors in a small place like New Zealand (or a large place like San Francisco, for that matter) if you have something compelling to pitch them. But you do have to get the train in front of the tender. Otherwise you’re not really a founder.

(I keep talking about smart investors, but I realise I haven’t ever explained what I mean by this. It’s possibly a subject for a future post, but for now I’ll define it simply as those who typically contribute more value than they capture, both in terms of dollars and, more importantly, in terms of advice and support.)

So far the results from these sort of programs locally are pretty skinny. But, we only need to do this a few more times before one of these companies becomes Dropbox or Airbnb. That’s how the maths works, right?

In fact, we believe in accelerators so much that we now have a government grant programme designed to accelerate accelerators. That’s four derivatives, if my calculus is correct!

(The questions I would ask those that approve this sort of funding are: a) how will you measure the impact you have on the companies who benefit from this investment?; and b) what is the control group?)

Please, don’t hold your breath.

You may reasonably ask: if this is so wrong, why is it increasingly common and popular?

I think the explanation is simply that doing a start-up is hard. And more than likely a complete waste of time and effort. So we’re all attracted to this sort of reality television approach because we think it might be an easier route, or increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.

But, I think the short cut we hope to find in this approach is a mirage.

I tried to opt-out of this debate a while back, as I figured there was little chance that I would convince anybody who believed otherwise, and there was no shortage of better things to put my time and energy into. I still believe that. But, I’ve realised I never explained the alternative.

I think Dave Grohl has the answer: You have to enjoy the walk.

If you’re a would-be founder, don’t be impatient. Realise that the person promising you a short cut is probably trying to sell you something. Rather, find some friends to work with, and understand that for quite a while you’re going to suck. But suck in the knowledge that you’ll look back later and realise how much you enjoyed sucking, or more accurately how much you enjoyed sucking slightly less each day. Accept that it’s better to suck in relative obscurity. Don’t be tempted too soon by the glare of the spotlight. Tell your story to everybody who will listen, and if you have something that’s actually compelling word will spread. And know that after taking a few small steps forward each day you’ll look back and be staggered by how far you’ve come.

If you are a would-be investor, don’t be lazy and sit back expecting good ventures to come to you. New early-stage investors often fall into the trap of thinking their job is to pick which companies to invest in, but the smart investors realise that the best companies select their shareholders, rather than taking any money they can get. So, get out there and find the people working on interesting things and roll up your sleeves and help them out in whatever way you can. There is a huge dark net of start-ups, beyond the prominent few that make all the noise. Pick one or two, validate that they are willing to take guidance, and prove that you can contribute more than just cash. And then, when the time comes, there is a better chance they will choose to talk to you.

Of course, doing all of these things still provides no guarantee. Not every group of friends playing grunge in their garage in the 90s became Nirvana. Sorry I don’t have a better bridge to sell you. But, since you’ve read this far, I assume you’ve decided it’s all worth it, despite the odds.

Derivatives

Financial Derivatives

In finance, a derivative is a contract whose value is based on the performance of another underlying asset.

An option, for example, is an agreement to purchase a stock at some date in the future for a pre-agreed price. The option makes a profit or loss depending on whether the actual price on that future date is above or below the pre-agreed price. Once in place that option becomes something which can be valued and in some cases even traded independently of the underlying asset – although their prospects are inextricably linked, at least in one direction, because without the underlying company there is no option.

While some people have become famously rich as a result of derivatives, many are very critical of them – e.g. Warren Buffett called them “financial weapons of mass destruction” in 2002. A few years later a form of derivatives called Collateralised Debt Obligations (or CDOs) were one of the causes of the global financial crisis.

Mathematical Derivatives

In calculus, a derivative measures how much one value changes in response to changes in some other value.

For example, as an object moves we can measure its speed (the first derivative of its movement) and its acceleration (the second derivative of its movement).

Or, when measuring the revenues of a business we can consider the amount in dollars, the percentage revenue growth (the first derivative) or the acceleration in revenue growth (the second derivative). See: Size vs Growth vs Acceleration

Again, without the underlying objects, there are no derivatives.

Startup Derivatives

I’d like to propose some new types of derivatives for start-ups: all of the other people and organisations who depend on the founder/s and their ventures.

Active investors are first derivative founders. They are the tender not the engine, although many acting in this role think of themselves in opposite terms. Passive investors, or anybody investing indirectly via a group or fund, are second derivative founders, since they are two steps removed from the underlying venture.

Incubators and accelerators are first derivative ventures, since ultimately the success of an incubator or accelerator is a function of the ventures they work with.

Government grants are first derivative capital, in the hands of the founder. Allocated funding for government grants is second derivative capital, in the hands of the development agency. When the government funds a development agency to fund an incubator to fund ventures … well, I start to lose count of how derivative that is.

Mentors and consultants and advisors are first derivative team members (ref: this great tweet – most first derivative team members mistakenly believe that others ideas are more worthy than their own).

A shared working space is a first derivative office.

How does this help?

There are a lot of people who would like to see a bigger more vibrant and more successful ecosystem of startup ventures in New Zealand.

In order to achieve this more people need to realise that what we’re missing are more impressive underlying ventures. Until we have that we can layer on as many start-up derivatives as we like and it will make little difference.

Contrary to popular opinion, the derivatives are not pre-requisites, it’s the other way around.

Of course, not everybody can be a founder – indeed that would be an undesirable mess. But, if you are currently involved in a first, second or even third derivative capacity, my advice to you is to think about how you move up the chain, because that is how you will make a bigger impact.

Team Size != Success

DJ: How tremendous is Fatboy Slim?
Brad: The band of the 90’s, if you want to call it a band because it’s a one man name.

It’s easy to get seduced by the idea that in order to be successful you have to be big.

Maybe that was true in the past, but it’s not necessarily true now. And it makes it much harder to tell from the outside who is winning.

One of the exciting ventures I’m involved with at the moment is Vend. The team photos from the last few years shows that the team is growing quickly:

Christmas 2011
Christmas 2011
Christmas 2012
Christmas 2012

When we re-created the photo from 2011 with the much larger team in 2012, in the same location and same t-shirts, the comments on Twitter were interesting. Many of those sending their congratulations seemed to assume that big team = big success. Actually, the formula for companies in this situation in the short-term is more like big team = big payroll. The success comes later. Sometimes.

Luckily at Vend our underlying business has grown at an even faster rate than our headcount. Or, maybe it’s not luck?

It’s great to see that as the group gets bigger so does the potential to do something really impressive. Here is the 2013 team photo, taken last week, complete with colleagues who have joined us from the new offices in Melbourne, Toronto and San Francisco.

Christmas 2013
Christmas 2013

I can’t wait to see the 2014 version!

Another example.

Earlier this year Hawkes Bay based Majic Jungle Software launched an awesome iPhone/iPad game called The Blockheads. We were honoured to be part of the group helping to beta test it prior to launch, and it was great to see it develop over that time into a delightful and engaging game. It was no huge surprise to see it go on to top the iTunes downloads charts and create the third big success from this developer (1).

Again, it was interesting to see some of the reaction on Twitter:

As it turns out the “team” in this case is just Dave Frampton (2).

He’s the band of the 90’s, despite the one man name.

Maybe rather than celebrating raw number of people employed by our companies we should use the revenue per employee measure that Paul Callaghan used to talk about in his “Beyond the Farm and Theme Park” presentation:

I was fortunate to see Paul give that presentation in person a couple of times, and one of the numbers that really sticks with me is that there are only about 1.3m FTE jobs in NZ. The challenge we collectively have is to make as much from each of them as we can. Everybody from big companies through to individuals working by themselves both have a role to play.

It’s easy to complicate business, but actually the rules are very simple: in the long run you win by making stuff which is so great that people will pay you more for it than it costs you.

There are lots of different ways that you can organise yourself to achieve that outcome.


(1) Here in NZ we get very excited when our singers are top of the Billboard charts, or our movie makers are successful at the box office, but often overlook the equivalent regular successes notched up by local mobile application developers
(2) Dave was, of course, assisted by his wife Emma

Rabble Rousing

A couple of months ago we launched Rabble, the directory of kiwi technology companies.

We were blown away by the response. We started with just over 100 companies, from our own networks, and I had a small wager with the team that we would eventually be able to double this number. We ended up doing that within the first few days as many companies that were not listed were quick to get in touch as ask us to add them to the site. We now have just under 300 companies listed.

So, this week, we’re pleased to release the next version of the site. This adds a number of new things, which we think starts to make it really interesting for everybody:

People

First and foremost, we’ve added people, the most important thing in the world.

You can now join, create a profile and link to the company or companies that you are associated with.

For example, this is my profile:

http://www.rabble.co.nz/profiles/2-rowan-simpson

If you are already associated with a company on Rabble you should have received an email from us with instructions for completing your profile. Once you’ve done that you can add others to that company too. We will get in touch with anybody you add who is not already listed to ask them to join and create a profile.

We’d love to see every company on Rabble with a full list of founders, team members, investors, directors, advisors, etc.

One of the big advantages we have in New Zealand is that we’re all no more than one or two degrees of separation removed from anybody else. But, for some reason there is still sometimes a perception that it is difficult to get in touch with those within the industry who might be able to help you with your business. It’s really not, or at least doesn’t have to be. We hope that having this directory of companies and people available and searchable will make it even easier for everybody who is listed on the site to find the right connections when needed.

Unfortunately there are a few companies from the original list which currently don’t have any people associated:

http://www.rabble.co.nz/companies/orphans

If you can recommend the right people for us to add to these orphans to get them started that would be much appreciated – let us know at rabble@southgatelabs.com

New Categories

We originally launched with four categories: Software, SaaS, Marketplace and E-Commerce. We’ve now added three new categories: Mobile App, Hardware and Services.

If you have a company in any of these seven categories then you can now add yourself directly to the directory – look out for the blue “Add Company” button on the top right of the page. And, if you’d like to suggest other categories for us to add then please get in touch.

As well, we also allow each company to nominate the stage they are at: Pre-launch, Start-up, Growth or Established, and people searching on Rabble can filter the list of companies by category, stage and location to quickly find the companies they are interested in.

Jobs

The biggest constraint for just about all of the good startups we know is finding good people to join the team and help them grow the business.

It’s depressing to see many otherwise smart people working in boring jobs with large corporates while there are so many great opportunities open at local technology companies.

So, every company listed on Rabble can now include details of current vacancies on their company profile, and we’ve added a new Jobs section which summarises all of the jobs listed on the site.

To add a free job listing to your company, just use the “Add Jobs” link on the company page.

Investment Opportunities

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, there is still a perception that there is a shortage of capital for growing technology companies in New Zealand.

However, that’s not to say that it is always easy to make the connection between the right company and the right investor.

So, we now allow any company listed on Rabble to indicate if they are currently seeking investment. Those that do will be listed on a new Investments section. Current rules mean we can only display this information to those who have confirmed they are eligible investors – there are instructions on the Investments section page which can help those who are eligible get setup with access.

There are still many investors who wait for opportunities to come to them, often unaware that this means they miss out on all of the best deals. Hopefully Rabble can allow those investors who are willing to cut out the middle man to connect and talk directly with companies who are seeking help.

Featured Companies

Each week we will feature remarkable companies on the Rabble homepage.

We’ve started with six companies with global ambitions, nominated by John Holt from the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco:

  • BIMStop – the building information management marketplace
  • Biomatters – bioinformatics software to speed up and simplify research for molecular biologists and biochemists
  • BookTrack – soundtracks for books
  • IndieReign – the independent film marketplace
  • Vend – retail point-of-sale software and inventory management
  • vWorkApp – dispatch and scheduling software

In the first two months we’ve had thousands of people use the site – so we hope that the exposure to qualified people we can give to companies in this spot will be valuable to them.

If you’re interested in being featured, or in choosing a list of featured companies for us, please get in touch.

There is heaps more we’d like to do with this. We’ve already spoken to a few different people with ideas for how the data that is captured in Rabble can be used to deliver value back to all of the companies listed. So, look out for some further developments over the coming weeks and months. And, if you can see some potential, we’d love to talk to you too.

But, for now, we mostly need your help to spread the word and in add more companies and people to the site.

If you’re not yet listed add yourself today. And, if you know of anybody we’re missing please tell them about us.

Thanks in advance for your help!