The rise of Central Otago’s startup scene

Queenstown and Central Otago are not quite on par with overseas adventure capitals like Boulder, Colorado – a honeypot for start-ups, freelancers and creative types. But a small group of entrepreneurs are working hard to make sure Queenstown reaches its potential.

For decades Queenstown has been a hub for the tourism and hospitality industries, with more than 2.9 million tourists visiting the town each year.

But a growing industry is starting to rise up, with the number of tech innovation and startup companies growing.

The biggest problem in the alpine town is not having no business talent, it’s amalgamating the talent already there into a community innovation hub.

Fully Charged Media founder Darren Craig is part of a small group of entrepreneurs in Queenstown working hard to create a cohesive innovation hub to rival Queenstown’s tourism counterpart of Boulder, Colorado.

In 2014, Craig, along with fellow Queenstown entrepreneurs Jose Ganga and Nathan Donaldson, hosted the first Queenstown Startup Weekend. The weekend was part of the worldwide movement to teach potential entrepreneurs how to validate their business ideas, gain an audience and develop a product to launch.

At the time the term ‘startup’ was relatively new to Queenstown and the Lakes District Council but two years on, entrepreneurs are making progress.

The weekend was hugely successful and people from all walks of life got involved. There are now a number of different groups in Queenstown organising events like TEDx.

“There is massive growth in Queenstown and we saw an opportunity to get involved in a space that wasn’t just tourism,” Craig says.

Aside from the obvious tourism potential, a big draw-card for doing business in Queenstown is the lifestyle. Craig says the newly introduced night flights from Queenstown Airport should make a lot of difference for the town’s business potential. It is now feasible to get to Auckland and back within day.

Entrepreneur and chief executive of Workflow Solutions Jose Ganga says Queenstown is similar to Boulder and people often start a business in the town out of frustration with their city lives.

“We can’t offer people better money down here, but we can offer the biggest playground in New Zealand. Many people in New Zealand don’t realise Queenstown is more connected to the world than other places, we have as many international flights as some cities.”

The Queenstown startup scene has been largely underground in previous years and building the culture of business innovation has been hard work, but Ganga says they are starting to make some breakthrough.

“Now we are finally moving forward and getting serious about creating a hub.”

Ganga’s own startup, Workflow Solutions, does management systems for ski resorts and the ski industry, making Queenstown the perfect home base.

While the New Zealand market is not large enough to sustain the business long-term, Queenstown’s global connectivity lends itself nicely to keeping the business based in New Zealand. Ganga is looking towards the Japan and Canada markets for expansion.

At last count, Ganga says there are more than 30 active startups in the region and the industry is way broader than tourism. The next step is developing the shared working space of The Hanger into a central point where entrepreneurs can work collaboratively like Creative HQ in Wellington.

Wherewolf founders Wulf Sölter and Ben Calder

Wherewolf chief executive Ben Calder knows just how well startups in Queenstown can go.

Launched in 2013, the Queenstown-developed software replaces paper check-ins and clipboard waiver forms with touchscreen technology, getting customers checked in fast - in 15 to 45 seconds - and tying off the process with a digital signature.

The software is now used in 16 different countries and is run entirely out of the based in Queenstown.

“Queenstown is an awesome little place for startups because it’s got the excitement and the lifestyle,” Calder says.

“The small resident population has given us a leg-up because we’re adventure tourism software.”

The software was launched in Queenstown and local operators gave feedback on what worked and what needed to be changed.  The small market meant any negative affects from the first run wouldn’t harm the company’s reputation overseas.

When Wherewolf was launched the startup scene was very quiet in Queenstown, but Calder has been working hard to build it ever since. He is part of the team of entrepreneur’s dedicated to creating an innovative community.

“People tend to move here after they’ve made their money, so we’ve got investors here but we don’t have as many entrepreneurs.”

It’s not just tourism tech companies that are flourishing out of Central. On the other side of the Crown Range in Wanaka, the startup scene is also heating up.

Revology is a design-tech startup created in 2014 with the aim of exploring the possibilities of natural composite material. Its first challenge was relooking the 19th century bentwood chair.

Monique Kelly of Revology gives back to the startup community as a facilitator of Co.Starters, a business development programme. The nine-week course is designed to help participants work through their idea, define it and decide whether it is viable.

There are now 21 graduates of the course, and another 6 people are currently enrolled.

Co.Starters at The Cell

While San Francisco has Alcatraz, Wanaka has The Cell, a shared working space in an old police station that runs Co.Starters.

The business innovation hub was opened in March last year and is now at capacity with 20 tenants. Communications manager Elizabeth Hill is converting old cells to expand it and meet the demand.  

“Startups are starting to gain heaps more traction here. You have to think outside the square when living in Wanaka to make it feasible,” she says.

High-speed broadband has connected Wanaka to the rest of the world, and with so many business people moving down or holidaying in Central, there is scope for a lot of mentoring, she says.

 “People come down here because of the lifestyle and they’re often athletes or innovators because Wanaka attracts that type of people.

“We’ve got a lot of amazing mentors and forward-thinking people here so it’s now a place where you can do world-class business.”

The Cell’s tenants include Revology and film production company Flashworks Media.

Wanaka has already proven itself to be the perfect test-bed for startups. Merino clothing company Mons Royale was set up in Wanaka in 2009. Within a year the first international order was shipped to Switzerland and the brand is now available right across the world.

Kin2Kin founder Hamish McGregor

Wanaka-based tech company Kin2Kin has also found success with their own test-bed. Kin2Kin is an app for families that allows grandparents to connect with grandchildren and busy parents to connect with younger children.

Founder Hamish McGregor returned to southern New Zealand in 2009 after 12 years overseas. He saw there was a gap in the market for a safe place to connect all generations in family.

Developing the app in Wanaka meant being able to test it on the large expat population, as well school children who often don’t live in the same town as their grandparents and even parents.

“We looked at that generational challenge but also complex families with divorced grandparents or parents. In a very small town we get a very diverse background of people who support us”

A third of the app’s initial investment came from Wanaka-based investors and it now has users in 51 countries and is growing user numbers by 30 percent a month.