High flyer

CAITLIN SYKES
Last updated 05:00 24/01/2013
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Morgo Conferences
Expat digital entrepreneur Claudia Batten says she's passionate about giving back to New Zealand.

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Claudia Batten hasn’t confirmed her genealogical link to Kiwi aviation heroine Jean Batten, but she’s sure there is one. “There’s flying in my family and Jean Batten’s such a brave and fearless female,” says the US-based entrepreneur. “I’ve got this phenomenal heritage of very strong women on both sides of the family ... I just presume the connection.”

It’s not a stretch to see why the latter-day Batten identifies in more than just name with the “fearless and glamorous” aviatrix — who captured world attention for her record breaking solo flights in the 1930s. 

At 38, Batten has co-founded two major business ventures that pushed the boundaries of digital entrepreneurship. The first, Massive Inc, figured out how to dynamically deliver advertising into video games and sold to Microsoft for a reported US$400 million. The second, Victors & Spoils, introduced the concept of crowdsourcing to the advertising world and has since been majority acquired by French firm Havas. “Claudia’s ability to spot emerging trends and position herself there — and build a business and customer relationships around that — is something that’s particularly impressive,” says Greg Cross, a serial technology entrepreneur and friend and mentor to Batten.

Batten’s got the X-factor — an indomitable combination of smarts, instincts, creativity and drive. 

She calls herself “a big pond girl” — the kind that thrives on striving for success on the world stage. Despite leaving New Zealand for the US a decade ago, she refutes the idea that you have to live in New Zealand to contribute to NZ Inc. 

“I love New Zealand. I think it’s very clear that I do and I’m passionate about helping New Zealand. I also think I’m in the best place for supporting New Zealand business — I think I’m more helpful offshore than I am in New Zealand right now.” 

Cross, for one, is tapping into Batten’s enviable US digital experience and networks. In June he appointed her the member of the Icehouse business development centre’s board, which he chairs.

Cross has known Batten for about seven years, initially meeting when Batten joined the US advisory board of NZTE’s Beachheads programme,  which Cross chaired. He recalls first meeting Batten at a Beachheads team building event, where the UK and US Beachheads boards raced against each other on America’s Cup yachts.

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“My initial impression of her is she’s one of the most competitive people you’ll meet,” he laughs, and recalls cementing their friendship by presenting her with a yellow rubber duck for being on the losing team that day.

Cross says she remains very passionate about New Zealand and helping out. “Her knowledge from the work she’s done in gaming, digital media and the online advertising space — all these insights can be key for New Zealand companies that are trying to be successful in these spaces.

“But the thing I like about her is she’s not here to sugar coat something either. Being direct and providing some of the hard feedback to me is really important and she’s really good at that.”

Batten has been outspoken about the need for New Zealand businesses to harness the power of digital connectivity; if we don’t, she has warned, we face becoming “digitally irrelevant”.

Despite being resident in the US, Batten feels like she hasn’t actually left New Zealand. It’s a paradox, but it illustrates her point about the power of technology to disrupt old ways of doing business. 

Take her work with Big Little Bang— the Auckland startup behind the 3D, virtual world for kids of the same name, which has a strong US focus.

Batten has been on the company’s board since July; the connection came via Cross and the Icehouse (Andy Hamilton, the Icehouse’s CEO, also sits on Big Little Bang’s board). Company founder Chris White says Batten made a strong impression from their first meeting, via Skype.

“I very quickly realised that Claudia not only had valuable experience in our sector and in our target market, but also had an inquisitive and rational way of working through what our company does, what our value proposition is and what are our challenges,” says White.

“I’ve found that’s proven to be the right first impression. Her participation on the board has followed suit and she’s very proactive; she’s always looking at what’s best for the company. It’s really helped lift our game.”

Despite her positive influence, White admits the pair has never met face to face. 

“I hadn’t actually thought about it,” White laughs, “but I haven’t actually shaken her hand.”

Batten and New York-based Derek Handley, also a board member, join meetings via a combination of Skype and conference calling, with email catchups in between.

Batten actively mentors a few senior women in New Zealand corporates “helping them bring a bit more entrepreneurial thinking into their roles”. She also mentors 27-year-old Tee Twyford, social media manager for Tommy Hilfiger in Amsterdam.

Twyford, a former Aucklander, met Batten through another Kiwi high flyer, now Facebook director of global creative solutions Mark D’Arcy, who she knew through a family connection. 

After forging a successful career in New Zealand digital media as the ‘gadget girl’ on TVNZ’s Breakfast show and as editor and general manager of NZGirl, Twyford turned to Batten for advice when looking to move offshore. The pair met over Skype and email, then in person when Twyford spent a week at Batten’s home in Boulder en route to London for her OE last year. “That was the first time I’d ever met her, but she brought me into her home,” says Twyford.

“Claudia is really fantastic in that she sets the bar high for you but she’s also very down to earth and makes it seem achievable. She makes you feel like you could do what you needed to do.”

Batten’s a go-to girl for Kiwi entrepreneurs seeking advice, especially on the US market, and says she does her best to talk to as many as she can. She says there’s value in simply sharing entrepreneurial war stories, to make people feel less alone — and that breaking her message down through simple pieces of advice is a strength.  

“I try not to have too much pretence about being anything extraordinary. I’m certainly not the smartest person in the room, but I am one of the hardest working,” she says. “I’d like to think that I make people think that what they want to do is possible. That’s the highest compliment that anyone could pay me — that I make them feel like they can achieve their dreams.”  

Claudia Batten's advice for entrepreneurs

 

  • Think big, start small
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
  • Be the best, boldest and brightest you that you can be
  • If you want to do something, just go and do it. Don’t limit yourself

 

Claudia Batten's wiggly line

With a father in management and a mother in real estate, Batten grew up with business discussed around the dinner table.

“I was fascinated by business,” Batten recalls. “My father used to get Fortune magazine and the Economist and I remember reading them from when I was 15 years old.”

Schooled at Wellington’s Samuel Marsden Collegiate, she completed a BCA in marketing and management alongside an honours law degree at Victoria. Then she was snapped up by the Wellington office of law firm Russell McVeagh. It was just as the millenium bug was reaching fever pitch and her interest in IP and commercial law saw her working on projects with a technology bent. The digital bug had bitten.

“I’ve always said that technology has found me, no matter where I am. It’s fated that this is the area I was supposed to be in.”

In presentations, Batten’s fond of pulling out a picture of a wiggly line to illustrate her career path. In 2002, after four years at the firm, she stepped off the linear path and on to a plane bound for New York with no clear plan in mind. When she couldn’t find a job she joined a couple of new friends to form Massive Inc, which dynamically served advertising into video games. It was breakthrough technology that helped advertisers reach ‘the lost boys’ — the demographic of 18- to 35-year-old males who weren’t being reached through traditional advertising channels. In 2006 Microsoft bought the company for a reported US$400 million.

Batten’s heart led her Boulder, Colorado, where she now lives. She went there for a weekend trip and while listening to a band at a bar, her now husband — sculptor Mark Castator — asked her to dance. “That’s been our fairytale ever since,” she says.

In Boulder she went on to meet her future business partners in Victors & Spoils. Well before the likes of Kickstarter popularised crowdsourcing, their idea was to use the concept to found an ad agency, which would garner the best creative talent from a vast pool to deliver on their clients’ briefs. It was a world first and although Batten admits the groundbreaking approach didn’t always win them friends in the ad world, it did win blue chip clients including Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson and Unilever. In April, French firm Havas took a majority stake and Batten has moved on.

“I literally woke up one morning and my heart wasn’t in it anymore ... So I made a decision that I had to be true to myself and that was really all it was about. I always felt that there was something out there for me beyond Victors & Spoils and I really don’t know what that is right now. I’m actively working on a number of things,” she says. “What I want is to have a hell of a lot of fun with some really smart people.”

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