The Bridge to Nowhere 2.0

Last weekend some mates and I went up to the Bridge to Nowhere.

Located 120 kilometres inland, deep in the heart of Wanganui National Park, there are only two ways to the bridge. The first is to tramp the 38-kilometre Mangapurua Track from Raetahi; the second is to navigate the serpentine Wanganui River.  We took the second option, dropping our gently ageing Hamilton Jet into the water at Pipiriki early on Saturday morning.

The journey upstream is mind-numbingly beautiful, with every bend of the river delivering another Lord of the Rings-style backdrop.  And when you get sick of the virgin rainforest and sheer waterfalls, there are glimpses of wild goats and horses.

The bridge itself is a sombre reminder of the failed attempt at back country settlement by a community of World War One returned soldiers and their families. In 1917 the Government offered land in the remote Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka valleys to returned servicemen as part of a soldier settlement scheme.

To support this settlement, the Government built a magnificent steel and concrete bridge literally in the middle of nowhere to connect the settlers with Wanganui riverboats delivering supplies. Ironically, by the time it was finished in 1936 almost all of the settlers had abandoned their farmlets, defeated by the vertical landscape, torrential rains and diabolical access. Soon the last would flee, virtually penniless according to the DOC website.

The splendidly abandoned bridge - now known as the Bridge to Nowhere - is pretty much all that now remains in the remote "valley of abandoned dreams".   The journey to the bridge made me think of a session I attended a couple of weeks prior where web folk and a handful of well-intentioned public servants spoke about what the Government can do to support innovative internet businesses.  It zeroed in on the fact that poorly thought out State investment could also deliver an unfeasible edifice.

Back in August last year, the Ministry of Science and Innovation (MSI) announced a new development initiative called the Innovation Entrepreneurs Programme, aimed at supporting up and coming entrepreneurs in digital technologies. A total of $2.8 million is available over four years to support up to 20 entrepreneurs, or teams of entrepreneurs, each year.

Separate from this, the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund is running two funds which aim to kickstart the early stage capital market. These include a $160 million private sector venture capital fund and a $40 million seed co-investment fund, both of which can extend to internet business.

Much of the discussion at the session revolved around getting easier access to seed capital to sustain a healthy internet start-up scene in New Zealand.  Such discussion is timely given Crown Fibre's rollout of ultrafast broadband, and ensuring Kiwi startups make the most of it.

Suggestions ranged from salary subsidies through to cornerstone shareholding agreements and sweat equity arrangements with Government.  All of which theoretically work in the interests of entrepreneurial web folk, with economic support freeing them up to focus on building great web businesses.  However I'm not so sure.

Aspiring web entrepreneurs who spend their time going after Government money are likely to focus more on meeting centrally set criteria than on delighting users or delivering irresistible functionality.  If Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn had spent his time filling out forms and pleasing officials rather than stunning customer service and customer referrals, it's unlikely it would have ended up selling for US$1.2 billion to Amazon.

Separate to this is that requiring applicants to chin the Government bar, means that Government-appointed people will determine the nature of the bar. When MSI announced the Innovation Entrepreneurs Programme last year, it spoke of a Dragon's Den style process, with applicants pitching to an elite group who would judge the value of the proposals and whether the applicants had the right skills.

My experience is that this is the exact opposite of what delivers innovative and successful ideas. The dangerous guys and girls with the brilliant ideas are the ones in garages, who would rather eat a box of Persil, than try to pitch to a bunch of has-beens in suits or have their skills judged.  True online innovation happens without government intervention, and sometimes despite it.

However there is something that the Government could do, and that is provide online start-ups with bare basics.  A roof, heating in winter and broadband - not much, but for those folks with a burning idea it is enough to let them sit down and create something magical.  Wrap a couple of simple "don't be a dick" rules around it and you could have a cluster of warehouse spaces around the country where real growth could be born.

Anything beyond the simple basics of simple dry shelter and broadband is likely to cost taxpayers more, and deliver less in terms of real innovation.

When we got back to Pipiriki last Saturday, I got talking to Ken Haworth who operates Whanganui River Adventures.  He noted the irony that a bridge built in the 1930s to stimulate economic growth in the region, should only start delivering on its promise 80 years later, as an unlikely tourism attraction.

I reckon a poorly conceived and overly prescriptive web start-up programme stands a pretty good chance of never delivering on its promise.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an eCommerce manager, author and professional director.  His Twitter tag is @modsta and he's quite good at holing jetboats.

BusinessDay.co.nz