I had the opportunity to attend The Leap on 11 November with around 500 other entrepreneurs and ‘wantrepreneurs’ (those who are hoping to take the leap to being an entrepreneur). The aim of the event: to ignite and celebrate entrepreneurship in New Zealand. I thought that sounded like a positive objective for the day.
Did I know what to expect? Not really. The cool thing about this event is that sponsorship funds were used to actually make the event happen in an operational sense. In this instance, no slick website, glossy images of speakers, expertly crafted speaker profiles or a beautifully colour-coded programme agenda. Simply a Facebook page with the below information:
THE LEAP - New Zealand’s Entrepreneurs Festival - A day to celebrate entrepreneurship in the heart of Auckland’s CBD
You’ll get the chance to listen to an amazing line up of speakers and meet a huge array of other entrepreneurs going through the same journey as you. There’ll be networking (aka beer) and opportunities to link with other startups, small businesses, founders, investors and more.
I forwarded this to a few people I know. Reactions: “Not enough detail,” “hmm I not sure it’s for me,” they said. Excellent, I thought, that means there will be other people ‘like me’ there - people who are interested in all sorts of sectors, have ideas, take risks, start things, fail at things, have a go and are open-minded about taking a leap. Not to mention taking a whole day out of work for an event with little information to go on which in itself is a bit of a leap into the unknown.
The event is the brainchild of Robett Hollis, an energetic, self-described ‘life-style entrepreneur’. I don't know Robett personally but I figured if he had the time and energy to pull a day like this together while keeping the ticket price at a low $99 then he probably knows some interesting people who are contributing their time to make the day happen. In the interests of full disclosure, my ticket is courtesy of sponsor and my favourite entrepreneurship and innovation in business crew, Idealog.
I arrived a few minutes late (should have got an Uber instead of walking!) but just in time for the warm Māori welcome. It set the tone for the day - one of passion, courage and spirit – something that those who start and run companies know a lot about.
Hemi Rolleston, GM for Māori economy at Callaghan Innovation, kicked off the day. He was engaging, energetic and calls it as he sees it. “Ideas are shit and execution is everything!” The room paused a second, then there was laughter, nodding and applause; people recognised that he had just summed up the barrier for so many. An idea is just an idea no matter how good it is; it is the actual doing, the creating and the execution of the idea that make you an entrepreneur or your entity a business. He shared lots of other insights too but this quote resonated with many in the room.
Next up, organiser Robett Hollis bounced onto the stage, and I do mean that literally. I see now how he managed to organise a great line up of speakers and a room full of people. He was hard not to like and his energy was infectious. He set us up for the day for the day with some upbeat (but grounded in reality) comments - he kept it short and sweet while making a few references to his desire to start sampling the sponsor’s product (Heineken) sooner rather than later.
There were more than 20 speakers, and in between each session there was an opportunity to do a 60-second pitch for your business. This was a great idea as it ensured a captive audience of 500+ in the room.
Throughout the day there were a variety of pitches ranging from people with just an idea, to early stage start ups; to those wanting to source capital or to those wanting sales, marketing or developer / programmer help. What I liked the most about this process apart from the randomness (if you dropped your business card into a jar at the beginning you were in with a chance to be selected) was that Robett and emcee Mike Mullins would at the end of every pitch ask exactly what help was needed. Once identified (e.g. I need a developer or I need help with international business), they would put the house lights up and ask for anyone who had that skill set and who felt they could offer help to stand up. This is the most functional way of networking that I have witnessed. It allowed the pitcher so see all the help in the room and those standing up an opportunity to connect. Simple and effective.
Pitching duo Kristin and Hohepa, founders of Pipi Ma, and creators of the world’s first Te Reo speaking dolls got one of the most rousing cheers and round of applause of the day.
There were too many (in a good way!) speakers for me to mention each one individually so I will just highlight a few.
Chip Dawson, an American, is a Kiwi-based angel tech investor and serial entrepreneur. He has achieved many things - too many for him to cover, so he casually put up a slide noting some of his various companies and projects around the world. A collective “wow” emanated from the room.
He commanded us to be ambitious and confident, too: “Go for it!!! Do what you want to do! Stop doing the stuff you don't want to do! Understand what you can do! Understand what you can't do! Stop wasting time, just doing stuff!”
Throughout his presentation his comments showed an impressive depth of knowledge around tech, capital, investment, globalisation and more. He left us all wanting more. Afterwards I was left thinking how modest he was despite his obvious successes. His desire to grow capability here in NZ means we are very lucky to have him. Perhaps we can claim him as a Kiwi, like we have the beloved pavlova?
I liked Andrew Patterson’s enthusiasm. He is a business correspondent, broadcaster and the host of NBR’s weekend podcast Sunday Business, and brings more of an observational perspective. Andrew has spent his career (among other things) researching and interviewing numerous CEOs and business leaders all over the world so has a unique insight into business and what makes it tick. I am told he has a passion for the tech, innovation and the startup space, recently completing a Master’s in Business Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship. He was fast-paced, articulate and direct in his delivery and acknowledged that being an entrepreneur is really challenging. He highlighted key entrepreneurial qualities; risks – don’t be afraid to take them; resilience - you need it to be able to fail fast and move on, and reset - be able to change course or pivot if something isn't working. He also noted his three ‘Traits of Triumph’:
1) Have a sense of urgency (I think what he really wants to say but is far too professional is ‘don’t f*ck around, get on with it!’)
2) Build networks of influence. He said: “Never underestimate the power of your network to deliver what you need,” and with the 1000+ leaders he has interviewed over the years I would say this is sound advice.
3) Stand out from the crowd!
Jennifer Clamp from ATEED, instigator of TechWeek and entrepreneur in her own right took us though a great resource list for startups as well as those who are investment-ready.
She made what I believe is one of the most crucial points of all – make sure you are designing / creating a product that actually meets a need. I felt like rushing onto the stage and high-fiving her.
Over the years as marketers and experience designers, we have had various people approach us to help sell, market or design an experience for their product or service. They are very passionate and have usually sweated blood, tears and most of their cash. The ‘thing’ they bring to us is like their baby. Sometimes we recommend they don't engage our services because they haven’t done their research or are not solving a problem so it would be a wasted spend. It is usually an idea they love, that they then tried to make fit. Quite often they have relied on friends and family for validation, which is great while you are socialising the idea, but not great if that is your main source of research data. If you can’t answer “what problem does your product / service solve and, is there a gap in the market for it?” go back to the drawing board. Rudi Bublitz, angel investor and business coach extraordinaire emphasised the same point in his presentation.
Jennifer also highlighted that the path is never straightforward so you need to be really committed. She recommended designing a sustainable business model from the beginning, as that is much easier than trying to retrofit your model.
Yosef Ayele – entrepreneur, global citizen (grew up in Ethiopia, studied at Harvard and Cambridge, worked in Silicon Valley, currently living in New Zealand), co-founder of Kiwi Connect and all round inspirational guy. He noted the amazing innovation and startup culture that we have here in New Zealand but pointed out that without global connectivity it can be hard to thrive. He and his New Zealand-based co-founders (ex-Silicon Valley) are heavily focused on helping companies with that connectivity. I should mention they do lots of other cool stuff too, e.g. partnering with the Hillary Institute for International Leadership to develop the Edmund Hillary Fellowship (“an immersive three-year programme for visionary entrepreneurs, investors and startup teams to build and incubate solutions in New Zealand to the world’s most pressing problems.”). He summed up his presentation with a call to action, “Take the Leap…stand up, be bold and create solutions for the world!”
Finally, Rachel Ji, who at 16 years old is running is a business to empower youth and help others who want to access this market. She is highly motivated and hard-working; at 16 she is already a seasoned entrepreneur with a massive social media following.
The business landscape has changed a lot since I started out. I can tell you, as a young woman starting a business in the 90’s, much of my experience was people saying things like: “That’s nice, but once you finish your degrees, will you get a real job?” There was not a culture of “good on you, how can we help you grow your business?” It was mostly “aren’t you a bit young?” and as I got a little bit older and it was clear I was not just dabbling in business, the assumption that my parents had provided funding (they hadn’t) or that I had a partner supporting me to do it (also not the case).
I love that now it is completely normal that young women (and men) can and do start and grow businesses, that we believe in them, cherish them and find ways to support them. That we have more systems in place to nurture this talent and that we provide them a voice by being invited to speak at an event such as The Leap. They are a key part of the startup ecosystem.
Tawera Nikau was another inspirational speaker. I genuinely don’t think I can do him justice here; he deserves a write up all of his own. He is a study in achieving despite the odds and pushing through when facing real, heart-breaking adversity.
I should also mention Baxter (Rethink Robotics), Callaghan’s tweeting robot (he does indeed reply to my tweet when I tweet him). Baxter is a humanoid robot designed specifically to work collaboratively alongside humans in industrial, research and other settings. Apparently, he can also flip burgers and serve wine. Pass me the Sauvignon Blanc…
Robett wrapped up the day still exuding an amazing amount of energy, although slightly more relaxed with a chilled Heineken in hand. He reminded everyone that being an entrepreneur is challenging, that success doesn’t typically happen overnight.
There was so much great advice given by the speakers, I wish The Leap existed when I was starting out the first time, but I am certainly taking it on board for other ventures that I have on the go.