Kiwi ingenuity hits large in San Francisco

22:13, Jul 18 2013

To any one of you who've tried to write off New Zealand as some backward rural outpost, about six decades in progress behind the rest of the world, I'd suggest some time in at the Kiwi Landing Pad (KLP) in San Francisco.

I spent the morning there yesterday, a guest at their tech entrepreneur day, an open day held to show off New Zealand entrepreneurs, homegrown technology and its relationship with San Francisco.   

The KLP is a workspace in downtown San Francisco for New Zealand startups looking to enter the Bay Area market, begun with both private and government investment. Catherine Robinson, as director, oversees the space and provides guidance, mentorship and introductions on the ground for new businesses coming over, helping companies with everything from business and marketing plans to more menial, bureaucratic issues. It's as much for practical benefit as it is for personal gain, allowing new businesses to enter into a community of New Zealanders with its own network of advice and support.

Catherine, a Kiwi entrepreneur herself, is about the most well connected New Zealand I know. She's fun to shoot the breeze with, has been a good story source for me and knows how to get in touch with anyone in the extended New Zealand business community in San Francisco. I also sat behind her on a flight from San Francisco to Auckland once.

Leon Grice, the New Zealand Consul-General in Los Angeles, opened the morning.

It is easier now than ever before for New Zealand tech companies to spread out overseas, keeping product development onshore and establishing sales and marketing presences in America. It is also probably easier now than ever to just move overseas too. There're a lot of great New Zealand tech success stories in San Francisco, which don't even get referenced in local media.


In light of this, Grice's thoughts resonated with me. He stressed the pioneer spirit that New Zealand and the West Coast of the USA share and how our country is at the start of a new era of pioneering.

As he mentioned, it's a testament to the investment in education made in New Zealand that entrepreneurs from our small country can hold their own internationally so successfully, especially in one of the most cutting-edge and competitive tech markets in the world, like the Bay Area.

A couple of success stories were soon wheeled out on stage to quickly prove Grice's point. Jamie Sutherland, the American President of Xero, spoke for a few minutes. Xero, which makes accounting software, was the KLP's first resident in 2011. Xero's last venture capital funding round brought $120 million into the company, with investment from Peter Thiel, who invested in Facebook. I've known about Xero since before I came to the USA in 2010, but it is becoming ubiquitous here. As a small business owner (I half-kid) I almost signed up for it and LP uses it at her work. Sutherland talked a bit about the problem of brand recognition, but when the company has 400 staff worldwide and $100 million-plus in revenue and has moved into offices in the Financial District, which it has now outgrown, I think things are pointed in the right direction.

Chris Smith of STQRY (pronounced as story) took the stage next. STQRY's story (get it?) is fantastic. Smith was at the zoo in Wellington in early 2011 with his co-founder and they became fascinated with the pelicans, but there was scant information available to satisfy them, either on the display placard or on Google. They felt there had to be a better way for people to engage and learn from their surroundings. So they designed the outline of an app, which would use QR codes and location mapping, and took a brief sketch in to meet with Wellington Zoo officials. They walked out with a four-year contract. Six weeks later they had $400,000 in investment and today they count Walt Disney and the Getty Centre in Los Angeles among their 100-plus clients.

Dunedin's Animation Research Ltd - who unbeknownst to me designed the Hawkeye program that changed the face of LBW law in cricket forever - were in the lobby showing off their new America's Cup race simulator, which they've designed for Emirates Airlines, Team New Zealand's sponsor. They also had a new augmented reality thing up and going for people to play with. Augmented reality... it felt like I was in the future. I can't even really explain it in a blog. I'm just that level of simpleton.

Across different panel discussions, covering how to arrive, establish a presence and pitch to venture capitalists, we heard from New Zealand companies like Booktrack, who are pioneering a new technology that provides soundtracks for eBooks. Booktrack sounds like an insane idea when you first hear about it, but it makes sense and studies have shown that people remember what they read more vividly with a soundtrack. Mako Networks, a network management company begun in founder Simon Gamble's Auckland flat 13 years ago that now employs 80 people with customers in 18 countries, was there too. There were more cool New Zealand tech stories in one place than I could fit in five blogs. It was inspiring.

There was the New Zealand sensibility too, self-deprecating networking done by successful people, and some good lines about things like having to spend New Zealand pesos in America. A lot of business advice was shared and only some of it went over my head.

I walked out of it feeling like we're a country of talented people who can hold our own anywhere in the world.

Don't let anyone tell you we're not smart. Deal?

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