How do all of the programs designed to support startups actually help?

When we try to measure our startup ecosystem we love to count the number of new companies that are started. Or, as they progress, to count how many dollars of capital these startups raise.1

But, we are quite poor at reporting on how many of these young companies survive beyond the early-stage and go on to actually contribute anything back, either to their individual investors or to the economy as a whole.

We forget that a startup is a phase, not a destination.

Because the failure rate of early-stage startups is so high, it’s tempting to treat them, in aggregate, as a lottery, and believe that to increase the chances of a win we just need to buy as many tickets as we can afford.

But that’s not how it works. It’s not a game of pure chance. There is a pattern. Increasing the number of random bets we make doesn’t increase our likelihood of success. It just increases the amount we’ve spent.

It’s true, we need more startups. But support for startups in New Zealand is seldom centred on individual founders and their teams.

It’s much more likely to be what we might call derivatives:

Innovation hubs and clusters; shared working spaces all around the country; accelerator programs of different flavours; networks of angel investors pooling their resources and investing in a portfolio of ventures; public and private organisations that provide advisory services to startups and mentor founders; countless competitions or networking events designed to flush out promising new business ideas; numerous business awards celebrating entrepreneurship, growth or innovation; various initiatives to commercialise research done at universities; and, last but not least, millions of dollars of local and central government funding including direct grants to companies, subsidised professional services and advice, tax credits and co-investment.

Many people have put significant time, effort and money into creating all of these things. A large and growing industry has sprouted, all ultimately trying to increase the number of startups. Startups, and especially early-stage startups, are suffocated with support. And still we continue to invest in more.

Is it working?

📐 Abstract

What is a “derivative”?

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).

We also use these kinds of derivatives when measuring the performance of a business.

For example, when reporting revenue we can consider the amount in dollars, the percentage revenue growth (the first derivative of revenue) or compare revenue growth rates now to earlier results (the second derivative of revenue). The higher the derivative the more abstracted we are from the underlying result.

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

For example, a stock option is an agreement that gives you the option to purchase a share in a company at some date in the future for a pre-agreed price. The profit or loss on the option depends on whether the actual price of the stock on that future date is above or below the pre-agreed price.2 Once in place, that option itself becomes something which can be valued and in some cases even traded independently of the shares in the underlying company – although their prospects are inextricably linked, at least in one direction, because without the underlying company, the option is worthless.

Financial derivatives have been around a long time, but really captured headlines around 2008 when a form of derivative called Collateralised Debt Obligations were blamed for the Global Financial Crisis. Warren Buffett famously called them “financial weapons of mass destruction”.

When risky assets get packaged up like this, given interesting names and then abstracted enough, it’s easy to completely lose sight of what actually makes them up, and indeed if there is any value in them at all.3

Abiotic eh?

So what are “startup derivatives”?

I’m talking about all of the people and organisations that are part of the startup ecosystem, but which are not themselves startups. This concept of derivatives gives us a useful way to categorise all of these things. We can simply consider: How close are they to the underlying ventures they depend on?

Some examples…

Founders and their teams are the underlying ventures. They are, as they say, the people in the arena, dust and sweat and blood on their faces etc.

Incubators, shared working spaces, innovation hubs and accelerator programs are first derivative. Their success is a simple function of the subset of ventures they work with.

Active investors are first derivative. They are like a tender to a steam train — providing the fuel and getting pulled along at the same time. Passive investors, or anybody investing indirectly via a venture fund, syndicate or angel group, are second derivative, since they are an additional step removed from the underlying ventures.

Advisers working directly with founders are first derivative. Agencies that connect founders with advisers are second derivative.

Business awards are first derivative. Sponsors of awards, or those who judge them, are second derivative.

Networking events are second derivative (the purpose of these is not to create ventures directly, but to help connect people who might with each other and provide some experience in a controlled setting).

Dragons Den (just humour me here!) is second derivative, but only if we very generously assume that some people watching might be inspired and encouraged to become a founder or investor.

Government funding adds an extra layer of abstraction.

Funding NZTE to provide in-market support for startups is second derivative.

Funding a fund-of-funds, like NZ Growth Capital Partners (previously NZ Venture Investment Fund), is third derivative.

Funding Callaghan Innovation to run a program to develop accelerators … we are up to four derivatives at that point!

And, in case you think I’m just throwing shade at others here, publishing essays about the startup ecosystem: third derivative at least.

(By the way, the name given to a third derivative in physics is Jerk)4

🩺 Signs of life

Categorising the different things we do to support startups like this can help us to separate the signal from the noise.

There are four simple questions that anybody promoting a startup derivative should be able to answer in advance, so we can understand the impact it might have:

  1. Who does this help?
  2. What constraint do they have?
  3. How do we hope to reduce or remove that constraint for them?
  4. How will we show that it’s working?

These questions insist that we’re much more specific about the who, what and how. They force us to think about early indicators and milestones that will demonstrate momentum.

A startup, thinking about their product or go-to-market strategy, is usually encouraged to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.

In other words: It’s not what the software does, it’s what the user does.

Those who aspire to help startups via derivatives need to do the same. That is, begin with the founders and teams who are working on these ventures and work backwards from there to the constraints that these early-stage startups actually have.

It’s important to do this work up-front. If we can’t say in advance how we’re going to prove that we’ve helped them, we’re very unlikely to be able to later.

By doing this we can eliminate a huge amount of the distraction that contributes very little to the ecosystem, and focus our limited time and money and energy where it makes the biggest difference.

Let’s consider two common startup ecosystem derivatives, and apply these criteria to each of them…

🍼 Incubate

In a hospital, an incubator is a safe place to put a sick baby – somewhere they can recover without worrying about the stresses of the outside world. Our son spent the first week of his life in an incubator and it was not a time we look back on fondly!

For a brief moment in time, business incubators were the hot new thing. The idea was familiar to anybody who has spent time in a hospital neo-natal unit: to create a protected and supportive environment for fragile young companies.

Typically they offered:

  1. A funky office space (often designed to within an inch of its life with bean bags, pool tables, tables of Lego etc);
  2. Other early-stage companies to share it with; plus
  3. Access to advisors and mentors etc.

These days, perhaps because of the negative connotations I described, very few business incubators are brave enough to still use that label. They prefer to be called innovation hubs or technology clusters. More accurately they would be described as co-working spaces or serviced offices. However, the services they provide to startups haven’t really changed at all. So for our purposes, let’s treat all of these as the same thing and just call them incubators.

How do they stack up against our impact assessment questions?

Who are these spaces set up to help and how?

There are quickly and obviously three challenges when we look at this from a founder’s perspective…

The value of the solution is limited by the size of the problem

Firstly, and most importantly, those three things incubators offer founders are not usually big constraints for startup teams, so immediately the benefits are limited.

It is good to have a comfortable desk to sit at and to be surrounded by supportive and like-minded people who you can give you advice and support. But this is very easy to arrange when you need it, especially in a place like New Zealand where the business community is small and well connected and people are generally very happy to help if asked.

Plus, the optimal amount of time spent networking with other founders is “occasionally and intentionally” not “all day, everyday”. My long-standing advice for those who like the idea of incubators because they prefer the company of like minded people is: seek out non-like minded people. You’ll learn more, and faster.

If you think finding a desk and some sympathetic friends is the hard part of starting a company, wait until you try to find your first customer!

Who incubates the incubators?

Secondly, incubators are expensive to create and run. This means the help they offer comes at a price. There are four possible business models incubators use to cover these costs, none of which are founder-centric:

User pays. This effectively makes the incubator a real-estate venture, renting office space one desk at a time, meaning startups pay more than they should. Paying market rates for a desk and access to a fancy coffee machine isn’t a good deal for cash-constrained founders.

Investment. This doesn’t work for either side: founders need to give up a percentage of their company in return for the limited benefits of the shared working space – in the short term equity costs nothing to give away, but in the long run a “free” place in an incubator can end up being hugely expensive if things go well; on the other side of the equation, any incubator taking an equity position in the companies they host quickly ends up with a large portfolio of small stakes in ventures into which they are reluctant to continue investing time and money. As a result, very few incubators contribute more value as shareholders than they extract.

Corporate sponsorship. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Large companies are always keen to be associated with helping startups, especially when they can also supply products or services to the companies they host or when it gives their own staff something interesting to work on occasionally as mentors. So founders need to be aware of the strings that come attached to this sort of “free” support.

Government subsidies. Who incubates the incubators? We all do! Given that many incubators already use all three of the methods described above, it’s slightly depressing that local or central government funding is required at all. On the other hand, if the incubators had to fund themselves as purely commercial businesses very few would survive.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Finally, from observation over the years, the advice that startups get while in an incubators is often terrible.

This is a pattern I’ve sadly seen repeated too many times: a promising startup has built a good enough product, and needs to get out of their own heads and start talking to potential customers, but instead wastes its time working on crafting an investment pitch deck or market positioning document or equivalent nonsense, all because the incubator has a methodology and their mentors need them to progress through each of the steps in the prescribed order.

When you’re at the very beginning it’s not always obvious if the advice you’re getting is smart, or something that might make sense for a larger company but misguided for a startup. It’s hard to tell whose advice to take, but when your incubator comes with advisors on tap, it’s easy to assume, incorrectly, they are the people who are best qualified to guide you.

The problem is so much of the startup thinking fed to naive founders in incubators is the equivalent of a back country survival guide written by somebody who has never spent time in the bush.

Who are incubators really for?

It’s easy to understand the allure of incubators. From the top-down, a building feels like a very tangible thing we can invest in to try and help startups. Big companies have their own offices, but startups can’t afford that, so perhaps if we make it cheaper it will help startups become big companies.

If we’re honest, that is the real value of these spaces - they allow people who want to encourage startups to feel like they are contributing to the ecosystem. It seems that every town around the country has decided it’s important for them to be able to point to the space they have created to host startups. However, if they took the amount they have “invested” so far in incubators and applied it directly as seed capital it could have completely funded a large number of startups.

Also, if we look at the startups that have gone on to become successful high-growth companies, almost all did their hard yards, in the beginning, in a dingy flat or borrowed corner of an office, rather than emerging from the safety and comfort of a business park.

Most founders don’t really need a special desk in a special room and a poorly qualified grown-up in a nice suit or branded hoodie to hold their hand or to be constantly surrounded by other founders.

There are babies that really need the protection of an incubator and qualified specialists when they are fragile. And there are startups that benefit from having a safe space in the very early stages too.

But we need to be much more particular about who and really understand how to help them while they are in that mode, and always with a view to graduating them out.

There is an easy way to measure the effectiveness of an incubator: how many babies make it out alive and go on to thrive?

As an aside, while we’re talking about real estate interventions, here are two random suggestions that actually could make a difference for high-growth companies (as opposed to the early-stage ventures we currently target):

As teams grow they quickly get too big for the dingy flat or borrowed office I mentioned above. There is a valley-of-death moment I’ve seen repeated a few times, where they get to a size where they really need their own office space, but they are not yet steady-state enough to take on a long-term lease. A solution that gave these growing companies dedicated space (big enough to host the whole team away from distractions) but doesn’t require directors to provide personal guarantees or commit for multiple years would be a much better use of the office spaces we’ve created and funded.

There is also a gap for distributed teams who mostly work remotely (which, over time, will become most teams). For them, there is a lot of value in getting the team together from time to time. Much larger fully-remote companies often have their own drop-in spaces for this purpose. The gap is a Koru Lounge-like space where smaller high-growth teams can book meeting rooms, get good coffee and overlap with each other (not necessarily all day) on an ad-hoc basis.

When you say you are an “Incubator/Accelerator” you should make it clear if you speed up sick babies or protect fast babies.

💨 Accelerate

Accelerators are the opposite of incubators. They are all about speed!

The intention is to take a promising idea and brand new team and attempt to fast-track the venture to a funding event – ideally in just a few weeks or months.

Over recent years accelerator programs have proliferated all around the world, mostly copying the model pioneered by Y Combinator in Silicon Valley.5

Accelerators try to select the best founders from a big group of applicants, surround them with the best available mentors and advisors, invest a modest amount (enough for “founders to be able to run their company and pay expenses for around 5-6 months”6) and take a small shareholding in the new venture (typically somewhere around 6% or 7%, although some programs take more and others have some flexibility for ventures that might be slightly further along and so justify a higher valuation). The goal is “demo day”, which comes at the end of the program and is a chance for the startups to pitch themselves to investors.7

So, again, let’s think about this in terms of our impact assessment questions:

Who are accelerators trying to help and how? And, does it work?

Mass assembly

To start with, we can consider this at a program level, and ask what it takes for an individual accelerator to be successful…

The goal of an accelerator is to mass assemble startups the same way as high-tech manufacturing companies mass assemble electronics. You’re not just trying to build a startup, you’re trying to build a machine that builds startups.

To make this model work efficiently and cost effectively you need a lot of volume.

At the top of the funnel you need a large pool of capable founders applying to be part of the program.

Y Combinator now has tens of thousands of companies from all over the world applying to be part of each intake, making it extremely competitive. They can accept the very best founders into their program.

By comparison it’s common to see local accelerator programs pleading for applications and taking more-or-less everybody they can get.

You also need a big group of mentors and investors who can add value to the ventures during the program and fund them once they graduate.

The mentors at the established programs overseas are predominantly alumni, who have deep relevant and recent experience, paying it forward. And investors are normally queuing up to attend demo day.

In New Zealand the people involved tend to be corporates, angel groups or people whose main experience is running accelerator programs. These programs promise founders “unparalleled access” to the “best technical and business talent in New Zealand”.

Is it, though? 8

My worry is there is actually minimal value-add for founders in these programs. My advice to founders considering an application is: look closely at the people involved and think carefully about who can help you most with your venture at the stage you’re at. Make sure there is an overlap.

To make it even harder for the local programs, they are competing in a global market. The best accelerator programs overseas are happy to take founders from all over the world. The best founders are naturally going to be drawn to the best programs - and there are lots of examples of Kiwi founders who have taken advantage of that opportunity.9 We’ve also recently seen Australian programs such as Startmate run dedicated intakes for New Zealand founders. This further reduces the size and quality of the pool of founders available to local accelerators.

Unfortunately, we can’t just replicate models that are successful overseas and expect them to produce the same results, unless we can identify our own competitive advantage.10 Comparing our local accelerator programs to the international equivalents is a bit like comparing Rainbows End with Disneyland.

Our strength is not mass assembly!

Rush to pitch

Or, we can think about it at an individual company level.

Great 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.

Watching accelerator programs rush to make early-stage companies investment-ready often makes me feel like one of the old guys in the vintage Mainland cheese ads, sitting patiently and bemused as younger cheese-makers lose their patience.11

I’m not at all convinced it helps founders as much as we think to try and compress the development of a startup into an arbitrary period for the benefit of advisors and investors.

Many of the startups I’ve seen coming out of local programs chasing investment way too soon remind me of young kids whose parents push them into competing in pre-pubescent beauty pageants.

When you observe how companies in accelerator programs actually spend their time it seems the focus is much more on polishing the pitch to investors than on actually building a great company worthy of investment. It’s like the difference between cramming for exams and actually learning. Really great pitches start with the words “we realised”, and that always takes time.

There also always seems to be a strong ethos of “fake it ‘till you make it” baked into these programs. In my view this is dangerous advice to give founders. Try the opposite: don’t let a big gap grow between others’ perceptions and your reality. It’s a healthier path, albeit likely without so much attention or recognition until you’ve earned it.

We also need to stop mythologising being “global from day one”. I’ve found that most early-stage companies who boast about this are often dead on day two. By comparison, our most successful companies have often expanded from market-to-market rather than trying to boil the ocean all at once. There is a big difference between having a smattering of customers in many countries (as is common for early-stage SaaS companies, for example) and having solid sales and distribution teams in multiple markets around the world. Those teams need to be built carefully and methodically. Again, that takes time.

There is a famous rule of thumb in project management:

Good, Fast, Cheap – Choose Two

If you must pick an accelerator program for your startup I recommend choosing one that has optimised for fast + good rather than fast + cheap. But you should also question if there is an alternative that doesn’t depend on fast at all.

One shot for glory

Many years ago, before drones were as reliable as they are today, I was taught a great mindset by a remote controlled plane enthusiast. He explained to me,

We try and fly three or four mistakes high …

In other words, when (not if) something unexpected happens and the plane suddenly drops, the plan is to be flying high enough that this doesn’t immediately cause it to crash. There is tolerance for mistakes.

This is not how accelerators are set up. For founders the “demo day” is often a do-or-die moment. This begs the question: who are these programs really benefiting?

Those who promote accelerator programs will generally explain this away by referencing the benefits of failing fast.

I’m sad to see “failure” become a buzzword in this context. I’ve even seen some advisors advocate failure as a good and useful way to cut your teeth in startups. Too often those acting on this advice say “I failed fast” when what they actually mean is “I always knew my idea was never very good to start with”. Which begs the question: what did they actually learn from their failure? There is no feedback loop in that case.

The whole idea behind “validated learning” (first popularised in the Lean Startup by Eric Ries and now a bible of accelerator programs) was to encourage founders to create feedback loops in order to avoid failure. It’s depressing to see the most vocal adherents of this philosophy get it completely backwards.

If we bring this back to our impact assessment questions…

I find it frustrating that the same people who promote these programs to founders by saying “in just 12 weeks you will prove if your venture works or not - fail fast!!” will typically squirm when I ask them how quickly they can show if the idea of their accelerator program itself is working and will make the excuse “it takes 10+ years to build an ecosystem” 🤨

For me, it’s not enough to justify these programs on the basis they train a small group of inexperienced founders in a customer discovery process. The cost per person is too high and the collateral damage is too great.

At some point every founder needs to meet the dangers of the real world. Eventually plans need to get punched in the face. It’s nearly always better to do this sooner rather than later.

But, any accelerator program encouraging founders to be cannon fodder and fly one mistake high just because investors are waiting to pass judgement in a few weeks’ time is a bad deal.

Just as with incubators, the measure of an accelerator program is also easy: how many startups make it out with escape velocity and go on to thrive?

🧭 Velocity Made Good

By funding incubators and accelerator programs for many years we have thrown a lot of spaghetti at the wall. But how much has stuck?

We don’t really know, and we need to do much better than this.

Perhaps we can take inspiration from the sport of sailing? One of the measures they use when comparing performance of different boats is Velocity Made Good (VMG). This reports the speed of the boat, but only counts the progress towards the actual destination. In other words: how much of the effort we’ve put in has actually moved us closer to the desired outcome?

We need to be honest about where our best startups originated. When we consider all of the companies that have actually achieved the scale of success we’re hoping for, none of them started in an incubator or accelerator. It’s disingenuous for those promoting derivatives to shine the spotlight on these successes without acknowledging their own results.

We need to understand the reasons why some startups are successful and others are not. We should be able to prove that the specific things we’ve done have made the difference. We should be able to link the inputs with the outputs, and attribute success.12 This will require better feedback loops — in some cases this will be the first time these have existed, and that will be a shock.

When we design derivatives we need to focus on the constraints and problems that people working on startups actually have, and work backwards to the interventions that might help them. Too many derivatives have been designed from the top-down. Far too often, the primary benefactors of these derivatives are those running them or funding them, rather than the founders and teams they are intended to support.

When we think about how the government can help, we need to prioritise companies at the high-growth stage rather than at the early-stage. This is when startups stop having an innovation challenge (needing to get one new thing right) and worrying about their survival, and start having an execution challenge (needing to get thousands of details right at the same time) and worrying about how to scale. This is when system-level support can actually help. There are repeated patterns and it’s crazy to let founders each make the same mistakes as they go through this phase.

When we do create these public incentives for fast growing companies they need to be as transparent and as low friction as possible. They should reward the things we want directly (e.g. export revenue and productivity, measured by high revenue per employee) rather than factors we hope will contribute to these outcomes in the future (e.g. R&D spending). Life is hard enough as a founder without having to deal with cumbersome grant applications and slow processes overseen by people who have no direct experience themselves.

(A side-benefit of a much simplified system of startup welfare: it would free up many hundreds of people who currently work in the administration of that system to move into roles working directly on startups - I wonder how many of them would?!)

We have to be honest about how our activity translates into progress and stop funding programs that generate lots of new early-stage companies without ever converting them into high-growth companies. More and more derivatives pumping out low quality startups don’t get us any closer to the goal, and burn through a lot of people in the meantime. We need to remember that the ecosystem grows one company at a time, when individuals working together come up with a new idea and grow that into a great business.

The constraint is fundamental, not abstract.

We now have too many preachers and not enough prophets. Too many people raising awareness, too few working miracles.

There is a method to scale, from first experiments to genuine system level growth. First we crawl. Then we walk. Then we run.

When we try to create an ecosystem by investing in derivatives it’s even more important to understand this progression. First we create one great company. Then we do it again. Then we do it multiple times at once. The sequence is important, because the lessons from each stage provide the foundation for success in the subsequent stages.

Nearly everybody who talks about wanting a larger, more vibrant and more successful ecosystem misses this. They jump straight to trying to solve the problems of scale and repeatability, without first proving they really understand what it takes to do it once, then twice. So it should be no surprise that the things they create tend to be brittle, prone to failure and seldom achieve their potential.

We need to get more comfortable with the idea of letting the ecosystem, and the individual companies that make it up, grow at the pace that is best for each of them.

We need to stop pretending that we can accelerate the growth of the ecosystem, just by being impatient. Growing a large, successful company takes a long time, and nearly always longer than founders and investors optimistically predict. We should be suspicious of anybody who has a fast-track or short-cut to sell.

But, we also can’t keep using patience as a convenient excuse to just continue with current initiatives, hoping that it’s only a matter of time before they start to work.

There is a dangerous idea that has taken root recently that goes like this: because it will take a long time for the startup ecosystem to grow there is no easy way to measure in the interim how we are tracking, even though in some cases we’ve been doing these things for many years now.

I reject that. Sooner is over. It’s later already!

Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It’s lazy to assume that because measurement is hard and attribution is even harder that the question is impossible. The four questions I posed above are the exact same questions we expect startup founders to answer: Who is the target market for this product? What problem do those potential customers have? How does this product address that problem? How will you know?

If there is no way to show it’s working then it’s not an experiment. It’s just wishful thinking.

Cynically I sometimes wonder if we are actually just too scared to look too closely at results in case it forces us to admit that we’re not really making as much difference as we hope. The reality is many of the initiatives we’ve tried have not worked. That by itself shouldn’t surprise us. We’re dealing in uncertainty, and that requires experimentation. The only way to know if something might work is to try it. But that approach only works if we are clear in advance about our thesis and have identifed the measures we will use to demonstrate that it’s working (or not).

This is really not that hard:

  1. Have a hypothesis,
  2. Test that hypothesis,
  3. Update the hypothesis based on the results.
  4. Repeat, until we get the outcome we want.

There are only three ways to be wrong. The problem is we often seem to be reluctant to admit when things have not worked, and to stop and try something different.

Real failure is not learning and improving on the next iteration. So at the moment, we’re mostly failing.

We don’t only need more startups. We need a higher conversion from early-stage to high-growth. Of course we need to be patient. But we also need to create much shorter feedback loops, honestly measure our progress against regular milestones, and stop repeating things which haven’t worked, hoping that next time will be different.

∫ Integrate

You might read this and conclude I’m exceptionally negative about the startup ecosystem. Actually the opposite is true: I couldn’t be more optimistic about the progress I’ve seen first-hand, especially in recent years. I’ve had the opportunity to work with exceptional founders and invest in some amazing companies through their early stages. Some have thrived and gone on to become successful high-growth ventures. It has been massively rewarding, both personally and for many other people who worked on and invested in these ventures. It’s how I’ve filled my days for many years.

I’m also very excited about what comes next. I think that the multiplier effect from successes like Trade Me, Xero, Vend and Timely is still massively underestimated. Unprecedented amounts of capital and expertise are recycling directly into the next wave of ventures. From my perspective, the future is bright.

Which just makes me doubly sad so many people continue to put so much effort into these various derivative programs, and then wonder why their results don’t quite match.

In our desire to create a vibrant ecosystem of startups in New Zealand we forgot that what this really means is creating more successful startups. We can layer on as many derivatives as we like, but it will make little difference otherwise. The underlying ventures and specifically the people working on them are the limiting factor.

So, here is my advice:

Pay attention to those who talk about a startup they are working on. Think about what you can do to help them with that specific venture - this could span from very high-fidelity things such as working with them directly as an employee or adviser or investing cash right through to lower-touch but sometimes still impactful things like giving them your perspective on a problem they currently have, based on your experience.

But, if somebody wants to talk to you about the ecosystem as a whole … run!

If you really want to contribute to building an ecosystem of great startup companies in New Zealand then all you need to do is focus on creating one great company. That’s hard enough and will probably require your full attention!

If you’re a founder, try not to be distracted by the ecosystem too much. Apply your own mask first, and then you’ll be in a much better position to help others. Don’t worry that there are not yet enough startups in your city or in your country. The best way to solve that problem is to try to make your own startup one that counts.

Be aware that everybody who participates in the startup ecosystem has a business model. Just as your own venture has a business model. It’s okay to stop and ask if others’ business models make sense for you and your venture. Often they won’t. You should not feel obliged to spend your precious time or money on anybody else’s venture, just because you are both part of the same ecosystem.

If you are taking investment from a venture fund, think about their business model. If you are applying to an accelerator program, think about their business model. If you have a “cheap” desk in a shared working space, think about their business model. If you are working with advisers or consultants (especially those who are inclined to peddle the idea that failure is a glorious and exciting step on the path to inevitable success), think about their business model. If you’re pitching to a room full of investors, think about who is getting paid in that moment (i.e. who sold the tickets, or who is clipping the ticket on any investment offered as a result), what they promised you and what their business model is.

There are two famous rules of thumb which most likely apply:

  1. If you are not paying for the product, you probably are the product; and
  2. If you look around the table and you don’t know who the sucker is, then it’s probably you!

If you’re an investor, try to contribute more value than you capture. Stay humble about how much difference you can make. Show you can do it once. Then do it again.

If you are currently involved in a first, second or even third or fourth derivative capacity, think about how you reduce the abstraction. Consider instead working directly for one of the companies you’re supporting. It always makes me sad to see smart people trying to “build a startup ecosystem” when existing successful startups within that ecosystem can’t hire people they need. Failing that, be more willing to investigate if your derivative actually assists.

Don’t kid yourself into thinking you can accelerate multiple new startups every few months. Don’t pretend creating safe spaces for startups to start themselves is sufficient. Don’t just raise awareness and hope that inspires somebody else to do great things. Get as close to the source as you can.

If enough of us work directly on one company that achieves it’s potential then the meta problem will solve itself and we’ll all be much better off.

  1. A better measure of the health and contribution of the ecosystem back to New Zealand would be the number of new jobs created. An even better measure would be something like total export revenue earned or total tax paid. ↩︎

  2. It’s common to hear people working on startups refer to “stock options”. But there is a lot of confusion about what these actually are. And, in New Zealand at least, common misunderstanding about their tax treatment.

    If you’re granted stock options as part of your employment, they will typically come with a vesting date (the first date when you can “exercise” the option - a.k.a. convert the option into a share of the underlying company) and a strike price (the amount you will pay if/when you choose to exercise the option). It may also come with an expiry date (the last date when you can exercise the option).

    In New Zealand an option is normally treated as taxable income when exercised.

    See: Compensate

    Note: I’m not an accountant and definitely not your accountant, so if you’re offered options then you should make sure you take good advice from somebody who is, and understand how much tax you will pay and when. ↩︎

  3. The underlying nonsense of the GFC was captured in this memorable John Bird and John Fortune sketch from 2008:


  4. For completeness the fourth derivative is called ‘snap’ (or ‘jounce’), the fifth is called ‘crackle’ and the sixth is … of course … ‘pop’. ↩︎

  5. It’s worth noting that Y Combinator was set up in 2005. Ongoing efforts to bootstrap accelerator programs in New Zealand sometimes feel to me like we’re trying to skate to where the puck was 10 or even 20 years ago.

    A more interesting question would be: where is the puck going to next↩︎

  6. Companies accepted into Y Combinator are currently offered US$125k.

    In New Zealand this seems to range from $0 up to ~$100k.

    Curiously, the Lightning Lab accelerator program run by Creative HQ in Wellington now offers $20k “equity-free funding”. Another Callaghan-supported accelerator, Kōkiri, focused on Māori-led startups, provides a $10k grant. That’s not equity investment in either case, but it would be interesting to know what other strings (if any) are attached.

    Presumably that money is sourced from local or central government, or from corporate sponsors, who see benefits aside from the potential of owning a share in the businesses created by the accelerator?

    This is where we start to get into the higher derivatives - e.g. an agency funding an accelerator to fund a startup - and need to think harder about the value created in each step. ↩︎

  7. If you would like to understand more about the approach and philosophy behind accelerators like Y Combinator, I recommend this quirky old interview with founder Paul Graham from 2009.

    Note: Of the startups that have come out of Y Combinator so far, one of the most successful to date is Y Combinator itself. ↩︎

  8. Apparently asking ‘Is It?’: “is brutally rude by New Zealand standards”.

    Is it? 😳 ↩︎

  9. To pick just a few examples: Science Exchange, founded by two Kiwis, is a notable alumnus from Y Combinator; Melodics and Thematic are two companies I have invested in, who went through 500 Startups and Y Combinator respectively; Trade Gecko was the star company in the JFDI TechStars accelerator program in Singapore, where I was a mentor at in Singapore in 2012, and in 2020 was acquired by Intuit etc. ↩︎

  10. Perhaps a better model for us would be one inspired by the philosophy printed on the back of all of the early-model iPhones:

    Designed in California. Assembled in China.

  11. One of the classics:


  12. For example, in a 2011 NZTE put out a press release “celebrating” that over the previous 10 years they had funded 250 companies via incubators, of which 177 were still operating, and who had collectively paid $45m in PAYE and GST over that time. They didn’t say how much funding has been provided to achieve that result.

    Sadly this bit didn’t age so well:

    In 2001 we started with four incubators … All have been incredibly successful, with PowerHouse Ventures named the 2011 NBIA Incubation Innovation of the Year and the Asian Incubator of the Year in 2009.

    It would be fascinating to see an update to these numbers with the benefit of another decade or more. How many of those 250 seeded companies have achieved escape velocity? ↩︎

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