Kiwis need to get over their cultural bashfulness and start faking it until they make it, businesses were told at Australasia’s first ‘Startup Grind’.
Guy Kawasaki looks at me as if I’m a bit simple.
I have just asked the corporate ‘evangelist’, speaker, author of 13 books and former Apple Mackintosh marketer whether New Zealand companies need to talk themselves up more.
I’ve asked because we are in Melbourne, where moments earlier he has told an audience of startup founders that Australians “don’t know how to declare victory. You’ve got to fake it till you make it. We’re good at that,” he says, referring to his fellow Americans.
Australians aren’t good at promoting themselves?? What hope do us unassuming Kiwis have, then?
I explain our cultural fondness for the understatement. “So the people who are too modest to go to Australia live in New Zealand?” He slaps his thigh and laughs heartily. “Get over it.”
Kawasaki is the headline act at Startup Grind Asia Pacific 2018, the first gathering of the global community of 1.5 million entrepreneurs in these parts. At an event sponsored by the Australian tech startup darling MYOB, Kawasaki is surprised to learn its main Australasian competitor hails from across the Tasman.
“Until about an hour ago I thought that Xero was an Australian company. So if I were New Zealand I would be screaming from the mountaintops, ‘we’ve got Xero!’.”
The uber marketer and venture capitalist is these days the chief evangelist (yes, it’s a thing) of another Australian mega-success story, the graphic design tool Canva. But way before he started evangelising for others, he marketed Mackintosh computers for Steve Jobs in the early 1980s.
Questions about his former boss are inevitable. Was the Apple founder really an arsehole?
“Yes,” he says simply. “He was a very difficult person to work for, very demanding, a perfectionist, often irrational. He would say things like ‘that black panel there, that’s not the right shade of black’.”
Jobs was a ‘genius arsehole’, Kawasaki says. “Most people have the arsehole part, not the genius part, that’s the key.
“It was an honour to work for him, I would not trade that for anything, but it was not easy.”
Visionaries such as Jobs are extremely rare, he tells entrepreneurs sheltering from the 37 degree Melbourne heat in the city’s Convention Centre. “In the history of US business I would say there’s been Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk.
“I think fundamentally entrepreneurs are misfits and they see the world differently. That’s why it’s very hard to judge them at the seed stage. You have no idea what you’re investing in.
“We can sit here now and say Steve Jobs was the world’s greatest entrepreneur. Who knew that in 1976 when he’s in a garage and he hasn’t finished college?”
And Silicon Valley is not all magic and pixie dust, either.
“What we do in Silicon Valley is throw a lot of stuff against the wall, some of it sticks, we go up to the wall and paint a bullseye around it and declare victory,” he says.
“You can always hit the target when you paint the target on after.”
While we may have much to learn from American entrepreneurism, the US is currently going through extraordinary times, Kawasaki says. Entrepreneurs are generally apolitical with more important things to worry about than who’s in the White House. “But we’re in an extreme (time). If ever there was a time the President could affect your company, it’s now.”
He cites Donald Trump’s immigration policies in particular.
“If you’re a really smart person and you used to see America as streets lined with gold… now you turn on CNN and you see tear gassing at the wall. How can that be spun positively for fostering entrepreneurship in America?
“If you look at Silicon Valley, it’s the first and second generation Americans that create these great companies, not the people who came over on the Mayflower. They’re still at Yale, drunk.”
Steve Jobs’ biological father was Syrian, he points out. Google co-founder Sergey Brin is Russian.
Kawasaki’s co-presenter is the serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jessica Alter, a fellow American. She echoes his sentiments. “Places that welcome immigration have an advantage,” she says.
A crucible moment for her was Trump’s first ban on Muslim travellers in 2017. “I honestly couldn’t believe how bad things had gotten.” With zero experience she waded into politics, albeit on the digital side.
Alter founded Tech for Campaigns, a not-for-profit providing political campaigns with access to talent and technology to help them implement digital strategies. Now with 10,000 volunteers, the organisation assisted 115 Democratic campaigns with 200 projects in this year’s American midterm elections.
In the 2016 Presidential election the Republicans outspent the Democrats on digital campaigning by four to one, Alter says. And it wasn’t just a money issue – of their total campaign spend, the Democrats invested 10 percent in digital compared with the Republicans’ 40 percent.
Digital just wasn’t in their DNA, she says. While President Obama was good at it, it didn’t mean the whole party was.
“A lot of Silicon Valley are pretty much Democrats and they are funding these campaigns, and yet the campaigns are not at the cutting edge on the tech side,” she says.
The chance to hear from people with the chops of Kawasaki and Alter is one of the reasons Kiwi entrepreneur Craig Boxall joined the Startup Grind community.
The founder of digital product studio Pixel Fusion and technical founder of online retail store OnceIt is involved with the Auckland chapter, and went to the global conference in Silicon Valley in February. Mingling with everyone from wide-eyed first-time founders through to the old hands helps him refresh his passion, he says. “I love the scene. For me it’s a concentrated dose of the whole ecosystem.”
But Kawasaki is right: They do things differently in America. “When I went to the global event I was blown away – the sheer size, maturity and openness of the entrepreneurial landscape is phenomenal.
“You definitely need to be able to sing your own praises and put yourself out there.”
At networking events people would walk into the middle of conversations and say ‘let me tell you about my startup’. “That was quite confronting.”
Boxall ran into one venture capitalist who asked to hear his pitch. It turned into a scene from The Devil Wears Prada, he says. “She’s like ‘walk with me’, then she started power-striding.”
But some of the advice is not suited to Kiwi startups, which is the beauty of having an Australasian event, he says.
In Silicon Valley you hear a lot of conversation about picking the right venture capitalist (VC) for your startup, and are advised to find a specialist in your area. “But in New Zealand we haven’t got a mature enough landscape where we have that kind of specialty. You can’t just rock up to 20 VCs in two days and get a 20-minute time slot with them.”
The Kiwi startup community is beginning to talk about developing its own flavour of investment ecosystem, rather than following overseas models, he says.
Adrian Willis, founder of the local beer monitoring device company Trickle, is also a Startup Grind member and has travelled to Melbourne in search of inspiration. “You just have to take it and figure out how it applies to you.”
The Australian event is more relevant to New Zealand, and it also gives him a view of the Australian market where he plans to expand his business in due course.
Trickle is about to do its first capital raise, but like all Kiwi startups it knows when it reaches the stage of needing anything over $1 million to $2 million it will have to go offshore. When US investors are looking for increases of 50 times growth, raising money in Australia seems like a much less daunting prospect, Willis says. “You hear too much about hockey sticks.”
The father of Startup Grind Derek Anderson tells the Melbourne crowd he founded the community in Silicon Valley eight years ago for the purely selfish reason that he wanted to educate himself about building a business. He’d had his own failures, such as the Steve Young American football iPad game that flopped the moment it hit the market, losing $250,000. The product was terrible, he says. “We didn’t iterate, we had a vision, and then didn’t listen to customer feedback.”
Startup Grind was not an overnight success either, and it would be two years before a second chapter started in Los Angeles. Today the organisation has 500 chapters in 125 cities. He isn’t in a Mainland cheese ad but Anderson tells the gathering that “good ideas take time”.
The ‘grind’ in the name is not about slogging it out, but becoming better than you were yesterday, he says. “If you can just hold on and you can learn along the way, you’re going to be in the game. Success is like a merry-go-round and I believe everyone gets a chance.”
MYOB chief executive Tim Reed tells his own story of the great business idea he and a friend never made happen while they were studying for their MBAs – podcasts. But they were before their time and couldn’t see a path forward, so they stopped. Netflix on the other hand broke the problem of streaming on demand down into bits and solved one part at a time, Reed says. “Solve a big problem but don’t get fixated on a big solution,” he advises.
Despite the mantras, the tone of the event is more practical advice than missionary zeal. Ruud Hendriks, founder of the international accelerator network Startupbootcamp, tells how he began his career as one of the pirate DJs now immortalised in the film The Boat That Rocked. He was desperate to be a music radio host so he did what it took, but there wasn’t a lot of romance in floating about in the North Sea on a pirate radio ship for three months, he says. The experience served him well for starting businesses. “Building a startup is really hard. You just have to push on through and never give up.”
Startup Grind Asia Pacific has its inspirational moments, however. No doubt she’s told the story hundreds of times before, but World Champion surfer Layne Beachley’s account of conquering her first 50-foot wave is gripping. “I like feeling fear because it brings my sense of awareness to the moment,” she says.
As she is towed out to meet her fate she breaks the immense challenge down to three things – hold on to the tow rope, keep her weight even, and keep the nose of her board up. Ripping down the monster wave at 70kms an hour she doesn’t even get her hair wet.
“Why didn’t I fall? Because it’s what I chose to focus my attention on.
“It’s choice, not chance that determines your destiny.”
Maria Slade traveled to Startup Grind courtesy of MYOB.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.