Photograph by Tony Nyberg
Lance Wiggs is always on a journey. Educated at Massey and Yale, he’s worked for McKinsey & Company in Washington, DC, Trade Me and Fairfax Digital in Wellington and BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, in South Africa and Australia. Between jobs he makes solo motorbike trips around the planet, and when not on his bike you’ll find him online and outspoken. This year he returned to Godzone, but he’s not standing still: he has companies to mentor, connections to make and, on his blog, clueless corporates to skewer. So just what is Wiggs looking for?
You're perhaps the classic brain-drain Kiwi. What brings you back?
Well, I'm a New Zealander, and I’ve always thought we have a few advantages the rest of the world doesn’t have. It’s a great place to be when times are bad, because it’s cheaper to live and it’s a really good place to start a business. It’s easy to meet people to create something.
And there’s the talent pool. The average education standard here is high; in the States the average is appalling, and the lower end of the bell curve is very bad. Here it’s not, so the service industries are very strong. Although I complain about them, companies like Vodafone and Telecom are actually pretty good at customer service. And if you get to talk to a human, they’re invariably excellent—knowledgeable, empowered and well educated. In the US, buying a sandwich was a stressful thing—don't even start me.
Then there are things I’ve seen happening more recently. One is the design and creative industries in New Zealand. Not just designing for themselves, but also applying great principles to other companies. There’s the emergence of the movie industry in New Zealand. There’s the web, which means you can build a business here that addresses the world in a much more simple way.
If you want to develop products here, you've got great designers and a bunch of companies that make things, ranging from Ponoko all the way to proper manufacturing companies.
In ’03, ’04, the venture capital and private equity industry was very sleepy—they didn’t have deal flow at all. But the Trade Me sale was a nice little warning bell; since then we’ve seen the emergence of a whole bunch of new stuff. There’s a big enough ecosystem now in the dot-com space especially where you can get designers, Ruby [on Rails] guys, ideas people, and do it through equity.
So I’ve come back because I think the time is now. We’ve got a recession on, which is a great opportunity! We’ve got the young, or young at heart. People are starting to find their feet. And I don't think a lot of the old industry realise what’s going on—you cover a lot of these new companies, and I'm not sure you're read by a lot of people that need to read you.
A lot of those companies are a couple of years old now. Ponoko should have the world at its feet, but it does not—
I know. Ponoko is three guys in a tiny little room, with one machine that cost five or ten grand, right? Yes, there are a bunch of things missing, which is one of the reasons that I’ve come back, because I feel that people like me can help people get profitable.
Which has always been our failing. Is that a lack of knowledge, or a lack of ambition?
New Zealand has always had a ‘that’s enough’ mentality. It’s nice to have a nice living, and we don't really embrace billionaires as being cool people, which is healthy because we’re in an egalitarian society. We don't like people who put their heads up and say “I'm better than you are”.
The flipside is we don't say how wonderful some successes are.
We clobber people. One of the great things about the Trade Me experience was that after the [$750 million] deal came through, there wasn’t really the Kiwi clobbering machine. And the reason was that they’re all fundamentally good people—and we need more of them!
I guess there are success stories we don't know about. I’ve done work for Star Now. Their profile is actually quite low, and I don't think they want a high profile. Trade Me was never going to be export-oriented, because of the nature of auctions.
What you need is a large enough eco-system of companies—which we have in Wellington and Auckland—that are generating new things, and throwing them out there. It’s a numbers game; sooner or later something sticks, and then you pour resource into it and away it goes. But you need the ecosystem.
And trust that one of them will break through?
It will break through, there’s no question about it. We’re doing some really cool stuff here. The Trade Me usability is spreading to other sites. Webstock is absolutely amazing. The Kiwi Foo Camp experience this year was just outrageous. That sort of energy is why I'm back here, just to see so many smart interested people all believing in New Zealand and wanting to make it better.
And then there’s the bigger play: Xero, where Rod Drury said we’ll need three years and serious start-up money.
I thought the price of the IPO was expensive. The product is absolutely amazing. They've got smart guys in there; Philip [Fierlinger] is a superb designer. They've just got to keep momentum and go past the functionality of the competition, because I don't think they’re there yet.
But there’s a limit to how many Xero-like startups we can produce, because we don't have much of a market in raising capital.
We don't have VCs with bundles of money and imagination and, most of all, speed. But what we do have is a bunch of angel investors who do have speed, and the ability to say here’s $500,000, go! In fact, though, they can pick and choose, and they’re only backing businesses with money.
Again, the price was appalling. I was tough on Xero, but not overly because I believe in the product. Burger Fuel, the product’s just another bloody burger as far as I'm concerned. I’ll eat them now and then. Some people love the product and that’s cool, but it was not fairly priced and the market spoke. So, NZX: plus one for Xero—the industry raised money pretty cheaply—minus one for Burger Fuel.
Xero’s listing was very unusual because it was early-stage equity, which is weird—frothy dot-com stuff. Normally you'd list when you're a real company, maybe in a year’s time.
That’s another indicator of the VC market not working.
Absolutely … but the VCs should have been there saying, “Here’s $2 million to get going, and then we’re gonna walk you to our partners in the USA who have the next $10 million.” That’s how the Australian VC markets work: they'll give you the first $500,000 to $2 million, but the main thing you want from them is the introduction to the guys in the United States. So I'm involved in a couple of companies that are VC-backed in Australia.
What does your blog do for you—is it a cathartic thing, a professional tool?
I want to be part of the conversation and part of the solution, help people think and help companies get better. It turns out I'm quite a critical guy and bad customer experiences always seem to happen to me … so one uses that as an opportunity to help companies get better. I’ve been railing against the telecommunications companies—for one reason or another they’re failing. By holding their feet to the fire, we can help them do better.
It’s not common for Kiwis to say what they really think.
I lived in the States for five years, went to a US university, and the New Zealand approach doesn’t really work there. Things like ‘don't call on your network of friends or your father’s network to help you, because that’s uncool’. Whereas there it’s like you've got to meet these people.
So I come back here and I'm really back—I find it hard to pick up the phone and ask people for coffee. I think we’re all socially awkward people—which is one of our charms. But hey, pick up the phone and call me. I'm happy to talk to anybody.
I’ve always been unafraid of speaking my mind. A few years ago I realised that’s just who I am. So as a consultant, an employee or whatever, I'm going to tell you the unvarnished truth. Some people like that, some don't. I'm sure there are a bunch of bridges that are burned, but that’s just how I'm going to be. When I criticise a company, I'm actually doing it for them. I'm saying look, Telecom: Ferrit is dumb, kill it, and here’s why. And hopefully I say here’s what you could do better … what I want is broadband at home that works.
You've moved around in your career, you travel by yourself—without getting too psychological about it, is it about you making your way through this world?
I get bored easily and I need to be challenged constantly, like any New Zealander. My friends in the US were saying “You travelled around South America? That’s so cool.” But in New Zealand we take it for granted that people have done amazing things. I don't think what I’ve done is special at all. I’ve just backpacked on a motorcycle, and I’ve just followed my nose at work. I’ve used serendipity as a way to get jobs and it’s been remarkably successful. I travel alone because it’s a challenge, and it’s the best way to actually meet people.
But I'm getting a bit done with the motorcycling. It’s getting too popular. When I first did it, in 1996, there were no books, there was nothing on how you do this. Now it’s really boring. You just walk into the dealer, buy the bike and ride. When I did South America, probably ten to 15 riders would go there from North America in a year. Now some guy has set up a hostel and there are 200 or so riders going through. Those moments motorcycling down a road, turning the corner and having people look at you like you're a space alien, I think they've gone, or they’re going. Because there are a lot of space aliens out there now.