Recap: Lightning Lab XX Demo Day

Katie Byrne reports from Lightning Lab XX Demo Day, New Zealand's the first female-founder focused accelerator programme.

You can’t say to someone, 'believe', and just expect them to get it. It is a journey and exposure to people, who have been there, done that, will enable you to see that we’ve all been in the same place. We’ve all had fears, but the desire to build your baby, to live it and breathe it, is what drives you.When Annette Presley glided onto the stage, metallic wedges glimmering and clicking on the historic floorboards of the Embassy Theatre; the brimming room already fizzing with excitement from the previous five pitches, quickly descended into a rapturous silence. The audience leaned into her presence; the woman whom, aged 24, owned her own company and fast became one of the most famous tech entrepreneurs in the world. It is only fitting then that the founder of Slingshot and CallPlus, who is as dazzling as the many, many articles written about her, is the keynote speaker at the debut of Lightning Lab XX Demo Day; the first female-founder focused accelerator programme.   

With a timely launch on International Women’s Day, March 8th, the programme was designed with the aim of supporting nine start-up ventures via guidance from mentors and a dedicated team to incubate and accelerate their thinking.

Samantha Jones and Hannah Duder, Little Yellow Bird

Thinking, from the likes of Samantha Jones and Hannah Duder, who in the past year have exploded into the ethically-made arena with their start-up, Little Yellow Bird.  For these two women, this isn’t simply about sourcing product to distribute to the masses; their vision stems from the root to the feathery tree tops, with a framework to ensure every person who touches, contributes or deals with their product is fairly paid. They’ve disrupted the traditional model by creating their own rules; doing away with third parties and the baggage of complex systems by travelling to the communities they want to support and creating sustainable, ethical employment opportunities. Oh and it doesn’t stop there: they re-invest profits back into community development projects.

So what does this fledging social enterprise make? Little Yellow Bird designs and manufactures high quality workwear and uniforms for corporates, harnessing the desire for larger organisations to weave their corporate social responsibility goals into every fibre of their strategy. A move that is proving lucrative for a start-up that is little over 7 months old.

“To date we’ve made $130, 000 in sales, with the majority being closed during the (LLXX) programme,” said Jones, Little Yellow Bird's CEO. “The programme was a really great opportunity for us to validate our business and learn about the steps we need to take to scale.”  

Cloud-based thinking and the appetite to harness technology was certainly a standout theme at the Demo Day, with 6 of the 9 ventures taking the form of apps or software tools; alongside many discussions about confidence. In particular, the confidence it took to take to the stage and the belief that you’re doing the right thing.

Keynote speaker Annette Presley noted that with every pitch, event, seminar or mentoring programme she attends, the same challenges arise and although conversations are changing, the dial is not moving quickly enough.

“I have spoken to so many women who lack the confidence to go forward and succeed; they might present reasons or excuses for this: ‘the timing isn’t right,’ for example and when you dig a little deeper, it's the fear of failure and or the belief that they don’t have the right skillset to achieve what they want.”

“For these women to have not only developed their business ideas, but to have acknowledged that it is ok to fail and in fact it's good to fail and learn; and take to the stage to wow us, is fantastic and its breaking down those obstacles”

You can’t say to someone, 'believe', and just expect them to get it. It is a journey and exposure to people, who have been there, done that, will enable you to see that we’ve all been in the same place. We’ve all had fears, but the desire to build your baby, to live it and breathe it, is what drives you. – Annette Presley

However, Presley states that although confidence is the first hurdle, there are many to follow and self-belief will guide you through: “You can’t say to someone, 'believe', and just expect them to get it. It is a journey and exposure to people, who have been there, done that, will enable you to see that we’ve all been in the same place. We’ve all had fears, but the desire to build your baby, to live it and breathe it, is what drives you.

“Being prepared to listen and change when you get feedback and appreciating that you don’t have to have all the skills to drive your idea, but that at some point, recognising what you need to succeed it a crucial part of the process," she said. “I sometimes think, ‘fake it, til you make it’ applies when injecting the confidence and belief. Eventually, it will become you.”

Vanessa Wilson, Hive 

That mindset and focus is what helped Vanessa Wilson, founder of Hive, take the next steps to breaking down the walls and building something new.

She said, “We have done well because we don't see barriers we see opportunities. We try to help people but they do want to do it on their own. Paul and I thought if we ever found ourselves in a position of financial independence we have an opportunity to serve others rather than have others serve us.”

It is with this positive mantra that Vanessa founded the mobile app that aims to bring communities together by connecting people who need a hand, with those who have the time and skills to help.  Hive facilitates finding and matching jobs and handles the payments – connecting the community in the process.

“Self-awareness is where we can grow from. To take responsibility for our own happiness and Hive is the tool to empower people to help themselves. We build trust by showing transparency. You can opt-in to become background checked, address and skill verified. But it's not about exclusion. It's about been given a chance to prove yourself, been held accountable to that through your feedback and community shout outs. For me, all I want is a more connected community, to share in more than just economic benefits.”

For Vanessa, the feeling of empowerment came from the motivation to make change in her community and showcase that although she may not have been feeling like she could nail it all, she could be a role model to illuminate that anyone, with the right intentions, can make a difference.

“We (Hive) aren't technical, but we felt all we need is one person to make a stand. For me my motivations are to be someone, people can look to and say if she can do it so can I.

“She's a stay at home mum, she's from Whangarei, she's a woman; she's Maori, She's got no tech background and look what she's doing. I can do it too. For me the biggest motivation is as a role model for my two little girls (4 and 5 years). That the world is full of opportunities, to look for the good and that one person can stand for the change they want to see in the world. My 5 year old has absorbed this through osmosis. The change I want to see is people helping each other and we see people as people - past financial status, ethnic background, colour of our skin, where we come from, religion, etc.”

Vanessa, like the other participants stated that the LLXX programme helped by giving credibility and access to business mentors, alongside women in the similar positions.  “As nine women led teams, we are all very supportive of each other and having that support network that you're not going through this alone has been invaluable - for moral support, for emotional support, for experience. I couldn't have been away from home for 4 months without the loving support of my husband and co-founder Paul.”

The collective strength and energy across the theatre was present from start to finish, like a long-overdue family gathering, with hugs, high fives permeating corner to corner; the programmes’ intent of bringing everyone together supremely evident.

Even US Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa was merrily getting amongst the festivities, he said:  “New Zealand’s innovation and technology sector is recognized globally as a wellspring of new ideas that often change the world. Not many people know that the discovery of DNA, instant coffee, the electronic petrol pump, daylight savings, the referee’s whistle, the disposable syringe, the atomic model and even inflation targeting as monetary policy: these all originated in New Zealand.  Not to mention nearly every extreme sport! Today we have Kiwi jet packs, world-class agricultural methods, wireless charging, robotic exo-skeletons and innovative IT products reshaping business models globally.

“Lightning Lab XX is the first entrepreneurship accelerator program designed specifically for women and I was so delighted to be at the graduation. These women are so passionate about their ideas and their products. They are focused, dynamic, forward-thinking and incredibly impressive. You could feel the energy in the room.”

The energy in the room certainly supported the feeling that everyone at the event was invested – not simply those looking to invest. Emotions escalated as the afternoon came to a close and months of toil, sweat, friendship and a shared vision had come to fruition. Each of the ventures has a different path to take and each of them will change their future, alongside someone they impact.

If you want to find out more about the programme, the ventures and the mentors and keep an eye on their progress, visit http://www.lightninglab.co.nz/xx/

Main image: Annette Presley