Silicon success stories

JAMES ROBINSON
Last updated 14:59 18/02/2013
Linda Jenkinson`
DAVID UNWIN/Fairfax NZ

SUCCESS: Linda Jenkinson is the first Kiwi woman to take a company public in the United States - and only the second New Zealander to do so.

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None of their stories are exactly alike.

Anthony Mosse turned Olympic swimming success into a storied career in business. Victoria Ransom and Rich Chetwynd saw small staeaklandertups bear large fruit. Linda Jenkinson caught the eye of Bill Clinton. Privahini Bradoo turned her back on a promising career in neuroscience to focus on life as an entrepreneur. Vaughan Smith meets weekly with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But here's what they have in common: they are Kiwis making it big in Silicon Valley.

In its most specific translation, Silicon Valley spreads through the Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco, as far south as San Jose. But in 2013, the distinction between Silicon Valley and the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area is redundant. Twitter, Instagram and Yelp are headquartered in the city now, and when the two areas are combined it represents by some distance the largest hub of technology jobs in America.

Dotted throughout the 7.1 million residents that compose the San Francisco area are a multitude of New Zealand success stories. While all unique, each pays testament to the power of big dreams and hard work, as well as the increasingly mobile and global nature of today's workforce.

James Reid, chairman of Kea New Zealand's San Francisco chapter and an analyst at the Berkeley Research Group, sees a confluence of factors giving the area a powerful pull for technologically- minded Kiwis.

He says there are educated people here with money to spend who are willing to invest in high-risk ventures and provide advice and connections. This mixes into a steady supply of educated talent, with Stanford University and the University of California in Berkeley close by. It has created a self-sustaining entrepreneurial culture that even more people from further field are attracted to.

There has been no formal survey of Kiwis in the area, but educated guesses put the number in the hundreds.

Mosse does double duty as the honorary New Zealand consul in San Francisco. He's always astonished at how many New Zealanders you can inadvertently run into, succeeding in high-profile roles, well off any media radar: "It is wonderfully surprising."

We're not like our trans-Tasman neighbours, he adds. "You know an Australian. You don't have to find them. You can see them. New Zealanders are very good at going to ground in an international jurisdiction. We become one with the community."

New Zealanders are often attracted to San Francisco by the depth of specialist skills on offer, where back home they might be expected to fulfil a broader role, says Catherine Robinson, director of Kiwi Landing Pad, a startup incubator for New Zealand businesses in the San Francisco area.

These successful expats, a Ransom, Smith or a Mosse - both in their lasting engagement with New Zealand and the national reputation they help forge - pave the way for other New Zealanders to make the jump.

"They serve as great role models for others with aspirational ideas, and all give their time willingly to mentor and provide support to companies and entrepreneurs wanting to break into the US market," says Robinson.

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LINDA JENKINSON

Chairman and co-founder, LesConcierges

When Linda Jenkinson's father got married, he had [PndStlg]5 and a car to his name. By the time he was 30 he was a millionaire. "And he had to do that in Palmerston North," she says.

It's a tale that had huge impact on Jenkinson and she has never settled for anything less than big ideas. Beginning her education in a school of 20 kids wedged between Bunnythorpe and Ashhurst, she was the first person in her family to get an undergraduate degree.

While working for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Wellington in the 1980s, she was persuaded by four US businessmen to do a master's abroad. She had little idea what she was getting herself into, but ended up at the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and while there helped set up the Leningrad Stock Exchange as the Berlin Wall was coming down.

She had long set herself a goal of starting a $1 billion company, and co-founded DMS Systems in the mid-90s. She didn't quite make her target (DMS peaked at $380 million), but had the honour of being the first New Zealand woman to take a company public in the US and just the second Kiwi to do so.

Jenkinson bought LesConcierges in 2000 and moved to San Francisco, figuring it was the best place in the world to do business. The company now has a presence in 70 countries. It offers planning services to its clients to help them take care of employees and valued customers. Jenkinson says LesConcierges is motivated by two factors: companies with happy employees are the most successful, and as businesses grow they tend to become less personal with customers.

Not that LesConcierges is the entirety of Jenkinson's output in the past decade. She mentors female entrepreneurs at business schools across America, formed an organisation to promote female entrepreneurship in Africa, through which she was invited to address the Clinton Global Initiative, and is the director of Massey University's US Foundation - among other things. It makes for a pretty busy week. "It doesn't bother me. I love to create things."

PRIVAHINI BRADOO

CEO and co-founder of BioMine

Few people can appreciate the reality of global citizenship more than Privahini Bradoo. The 31-year-old was born in Oman, grew up in India, and spent eight years at the University of Auckland doing a bachelor's degree in biomedical science and a doctorate in neuroscience, before moving on to an MBA at Harvard Business School and then San Francisco in 2008.

Despite this rapid rate of change, Bradoo identifies as a New Zealander. "I loved how tolerant it was of people from different backgrounds."

This growing attachment became clear to Bradoo during the second year of her doctorate, when she was instrumental in setting up the Spark entrepreneurial challenge at the University of Auckland to help bridge the gap in culture between science and business. "I found myself wanting to help preserve the quality of life in the country by driving a transformation in the business culture."

Bradoo assisted with the discovery of a gene for brain repair during her doctorate, but tacked away from neuroscience.

She saw there was no shortage of good science in the world and that she could have the greatest social impact transforming this into something meaningful to benefit society.

A job offer at Kiwi Sean Simpson's alternative energy startup Lanzatech was the initial pull to San Francisco. Bradoo saw quickly that there were few places in the world that could match the Bay area as a centre of business. "There's a youthfulness here. Not in age, but in mindset."

Silicon Valley can be tied closely to the search for the next big trend. But in her 4 ½ years in town, Bradoo has been involved mostly with matters of social good.

She moved from Lanzatech to a VP role at Microvi, working with water treatment, and then set up BioMine, a sustainable mining company, two years ago. "Social good doesn't have to come at the expense of profit," Bradoo says.

"You have to step back and look at the problems in the world. If the problem is large enough you can monetise it. People will be willing to pay."

VICTORIA RANSOMVictoria Ransom

CEO, Wildfire Interactive

"There were a few moments when I wondered, 'How did I get here?' " Victoria Ransom says. It's an understatement, given that she's reflecting on the sale of her social-marketing company Wildfire to Google for $350 million last July.

The 36-year-old's life has been stocked with curious turns. She grew up in Scotts Ferry outside of Bulls, "in a place so small it'd be generous to call it a village". She completed her undergraduate education at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota and had an unsatisfying stint as an analyst at Morgan Stanley, which taught her the importance of passion over pay.

Wildfire Interactive grew out of Ransom's previous company Access Trips. Ransom started each alongside her partner, and now fiance, Alain Chuard. Access was a travel company, focusing on the couple's love of the outdoors. It saw them relocate from New York City to Wanaka and swapping Wall Street offices for internet cafes. "It was a real change of pace."

Years later, while Ransom and Chuard were completing MBAs in the US, they were scouting for software to give away a free trip on Facebook. They couldn't find any, so with help made their own application to create a sweepstake. They saw that the idea had legs. After graduation in 2008, they drove cross-country from the East Coast to the Bay Area, working on the incorporation papers for Wildfire en route.

Starting a company in Silicon Valley was a much different experience. Wildfire survived on a shoestring budget at first and was profitable before it had taken on a dollar in outside help. But the access to advice and talent around San Francisco, and eventually venture capital, was invaluable.

Selling a company or going public is part of the life cycle of any Silicon Valley company, because investors look for a return. Ransom has landed on her feet with Google. It was a big transition to be part of a larger entity again, but she says the transition has gone "very, very well".

"It has been incredibly fascinating to see the scale versus the focus on innovation."

RICH CHETWYND

Vice-president and general manager of Litmos

When cloud computing giant Callidus Software snapped up Rich Chetwynd's Auckland-based Litmos software in the middle of 2011, the company's three core staff were an integral part of the sale.

Not that there was any resistance to relocating. "It is the Hollywood of technology here," the 35-year-old says. "All of us had lived abroad before. We weren't intimidated, we were completely stoked."

Pairing Litmos' online training software with Callidus' scope has fuelled aggressive growth. It now has more than 700 customers and in the past year, Chetwynd says, growth has nudged up to 500 per cent. This expansion was simply inaccessible in New Zealand. It's all about being here, he sees now. In the past they'd come to San Francisco and pick up a new client, before returning. Having a presence creates momentum. You do business where you're located.

Chetwynd sees that a lot of his experiences coming up in New Zealand were of significant help in preparing him for San Francisco. Back home, there is a smaller pool of people and therefore it was easier to get access to the people he needed advice from.

Kiwis are persistent, innovative and used to trying to push the limits of a dollar and get more from less, he says. If he sees one key difference in the two scenes, asides from scale, it's that people in the San Francisco area generally aren't afraid to start their own thing at a very early point in their careers.

Working as part of Callidus has been a great challenge, Chetwynd says. It has taught him about corporate management and spotting larger inefficiencies.

He sees networking and hearing people's stories in business to be a must in San Francisco and it has got him excited about his eventual next business move, which he hypothetically plans to start in San Francisco, potentially splitting development and sales between New Zealand and Silicon Valley.

Although the thought of starting a new company now, with a 2-year-old and a 6-month child in the mix at home, gives him some pause. "I can see how someone could be hesitant in that situation," he says, wryly.

ANTHONY MOSSE

Vice-president of corporate finance, Virgin America

Anthony Mosse's introduction to San Francisco came in the 1980s when he moved over to attend Stanford University.

The 48-year-old remembers driving down the Interstate 280 freeway, still a teenager, thinking about how the green hills reminded him of New Zealand.

Across three decades in and out of San Francisco, Mosse has seen bubbles rise and burst and rise again. For him, the global financial crisis hit hardest. He was working in structured finance but the crisis helped put his company under.

Virgin America represented a huge culture change.

Virgin may be an airline and a long-established operating company, but it closely matches the startup spirit of the city where it is headquartered. Employees are team-mates and passengers are guests. Its planes have adopted state-of-the-art inflight entertainment and wireless internet technology. There is even a plane named the "Nerd Bird".

Creating a relaxed and fun customer experience is hard work though. "As I tell people, at Disneyland that guy inside the character suit is still working pretty hard."

In New Zealanders over a certain age, Mosse is etched in the collective memory as a heavily medalled Commonwealth and Olympic Games swimmer. His swimming career was formative to his later life, he says. It taught him how to work as hard as anyone to get something done right.

The attributes that take you to the top of the world in anything speak for themselves in the eyes of others.

Swimming took Mosse out of New Zealand even as it imparted in him a lasting sense of pride in his country. He got a scholarship to Stanford, where he could better balance both swimming and university studies than back home. But competing for his country at international events, receiving bags of telegrams, standing on podiums with the national anthem blaring and carrying the flag at the Auckland Commonwealth Games had a powerful impact.

Mosse serves as the honorary New Zealand consul in San Francisco, which can occasionally accentuate homesickness. "People talk about New Zealanders in such glowing terms here. It makes me long for home."

VAUGHAN SMITH

Vice-president of Mobile, Facebook

Soon after his arrival in Silicon Valley, Vaughan Smith's startup, LiquidWit, closed its doors after eight months. It was a tough moment; after years of anticipating his move to San Francisco he wasn't sure if his next step would be a plane home.

At a final meeting a board member passed on some sage words. "He said to me that you never know if something is a success or a failure until seven years down the road."

And, sure enough, seven years after this initial wobble, time spent mostly as a rapidly-rising star at eBay, he walked into a top job at Facebook.

"Sometimes it is good for it not to go smoothly," the 46-year-old laughs.

In four years at Facebook, Smith has seen the company grow to surpass a billion users. The possibility for future change is exponential.

"Facebook has laid the foundation to change the world within the next four years," he says.

The mobile dominion within Facebook puts Smith in charge of an application with almost 500-million users. "It's just the most exciting thing."

Smith is in weekly contact with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and not-yet-30 billionaire-wunderkind. People misread Zuckerberg, he thinks, underestimating his warmth and the spirit of innovation he has fostered in his company. "He's not afraid to throw away what we have in search of something better."

Facebook is staffed by more than 4000 employees globally, but Smith says it has successfully maintained the startup spirit that Silicon Valley embodies.

It has a motto it asks its employees to follow: "Move fast. Break things."

San Francisco had always been the target for the technology-focused Smith. He had considered attending Stanford in the 1980s, but was setting a scholarship record during his doctorate at the University of Canterbury and there was little point in leaving.

After leading the setup of Telecom's e-Commerce arm in the late 1990s, the time was finally right to make his move.

"This place is amazing. If you are tech-minded, coming here, it's the right thing to do."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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