Just being Kiwis is holding us back

BY EMILY WATT
Last updated 05:00 23/11/2009

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We Kiwis are justifiably proud of our No8 wire mentality, but it's stopping us becoming millionaires, research shows.

Research for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise says our national traits – a frontier self-reliance, egalitarianism and a "she'll be right" attitude – don't work when it comes to taking on the world.

And our "bach, boat and BMW" mentality means we settle for the good life rather than growing our businesses to their full potential.

International research shows we are the second most entrepreneurial country in the world, after Thailand, but are 26th out of 36 for high-growth businesses. In other words, we come up with great ideas, but fail to follow through.

"It's no secret that New Zealand's long-run economic performance is mediocre, and in our businesses we have to work harder and harder just to stand still," researcher Tony Smale said.

"Put bluntly, we have become poor compared to our peers."

Mr Smale said we do not have to compromise our lifestyle to make more money, but we do need to know our strengths and mitigate our weaknesses.

His research suggests Kiwis' do-it-yourself mentality makes us reluctant to rely upon others for success – including experts who could do it better. The infamous tall poppy syndrome also means we tend to underperform or hide our successes, do not like feedback, and hate to fail.

Only one in 10,000 businesses uses venture capital and the rest tend to borrow money from family and friends and take out a mortgage on the family home, making them even more risk-averse. This means we miss out on the powerful lessons of trial and error.

We are more interested in immediate contracts than long-term relationships, and other cultures see us as inflexible and abrupt.

NZTE chief economist Gareth Chaplin said the research rang true to every business person he had discussed it with.

"New Zealand companies are very good at initiating and thinking about innovative things, but the execution is a bit of a letdown."

These characteristics were what made us New Zealanders. Improving was not about making us change everything, but rather a case of "know thyself", he said.

"If you know what's going on you can think, `How can I make the most of this and how can I make it work for me?"'

Kiwis needed to learn to trust the experts. He cited an entrepreneur who invented a new rat trap. He knew he needed to protect his intellectual property but, rather than pay a patent lawyer, he did it himself. It took him three months.

"It may be that we can do it, but it may not be the best use of our time," Mr Chaplin said.

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Steve O'Connor, general manager of Creative HQ, said often the entrepreneur who founded the business was not the right person to manage the company. Some would successfully step aside, remain shareholders and continue to work there, but leave the running of the business to others. Others did not want to relinquish control.

"When they've made their money, the business will reach a glass ceiling and it will falter. They've got their bach, they've got their beemer, and they're personally satisfied with it."

Entrepreneur not the retiring type

Three years ago, Tony Armstrong stepped away from his business.

He'd spent 10 years "head down, arse up", building his company Power Systems Consultants. It had grown from Tawa to a global presence in Australia, Sweden, Singapore and the United States. He had his bach, he had his boat, he had an Audi and he decided to concentrate on enjoying life.

"Everyone thinks you can stop now, you've achieved enough. You even think that yourself."

But the early retirement didn't last long. He couldn't turn off the ideas, and is now back in the business again.

But he said the "bach, boat and BMW" mentality was a barrier to strong businesses, partly to do with the accessibility of the good life in New Zealand. Overseas businesses needed to earn so much more to achieve the same lifestyle.

"If I had the same business success in somewhere like America, the level to achieve the bach, boat and BMW is a lot harder. You can actually make it and you can see the end game here."

He also agreed the Kiwi DIY mentality affected start-up businesses. When he started out, he did everything himself.

"In my case it was do it yourself, give it a crack first. You get a sense of feeling that you're doing it yourself and you're coming up with the solution ..."

But while he learned a lot, he says in hindsight he should have asked for help.

"Afterwards you appreciate some of those professional services that are out there."

He has now started another company and has done things differently. Rather than take it slowly he has done things on a bigger scale and got professional help upfront.

But the biggest hurdle to Kiwi entrepreneurship was the tall poppy syndrome, he said. "People actually don't want you to be successful. There's a lot of jealousy."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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