Dear David: How to be smart about cashing in on technology

Idealog's agony aunt, David Downs, answers your burning questions about getting into the tech sector.

Dear David

Looking at the dairy prices over the past year, and the impact of farming on the land, it’s pretty obvious New Zealand can’t rely on the primary sector. Surely, as a nation, we need to concentrate on the internet and IT for our future growth? 

– Yours, Digital Future NZ

Dear DFNZ

Ah, the tyranny of the ‘OR’. The idea that one can have one thing OR another is so restrictive. It’s not a zero-sum game, where one sector has to shrink in order for the other to grow. Yes, the tech sector promises to be a big future contributor to New Zealand’s economy – in fact we are already seeing that – but this doesn’t come at the expense of the more traditional farming sector. The beauty of a diversified economy is that both can grow simultaneously.  After a visit to the recent Fieldays, I wouldn’t agree at all that the primary sector is in long term decline, nor that it’s neglecting the impact of farming on the land. The primary sector industries are a source of great innovation and ripe with further opportunity. At Fieldays, I learned that one of the largest problems facing dairy farmers is greenhouse gas emissions from the front and back of the cows, although this is also being worked on with some success.

Indeed, taking the answer to your question further, I suggest we can move away from the OR to the AND of both industries. To me, marrying together the traditional strengths of our strong farming base with the new opportunities provided by IT, digital, cloud (pick your buzzword) technology, would be a natural and compelling problem-space for New Zealand. Technology is already well-leveraged into the primary sector and one of the reasons New Zealand’s productivity on the farm is world-leading is due to innovations such as the electric fence, or the Tru-Test milk meter.

At Fieldays, there were demonstrations of robots for treating cows’ udders during milking, exo-skeletons for farmers who are bending over constantly, and many other modern applications of technology into the sector. Even more ‘IT’ – there was a plugin/ecosystem product for Xero targeted towards farmers; there were apps for scheduling cropping and for controlling the workflows around the farm. With our knowledge of farming best practice AND technology, this is a rich area for focus, innovation AND success.

***

Dear David

I’m planning to make millions from sales of my new app … the only problem is, I don’t have one yet. Got any suggestions? 

–Yours, Billionaire in Waiting

Dear Bill

You think if I was sitting on a billionaire-creating idea I’d be telling you about it? Anyway, I just gave you some great thought starters in the previous question. But, to help you out, I’ve become a great fan of the game I made up called ‘Uberainstorming’. It’s a way to think up world-beating ideas. Basically, you take any idea or industry, and add the phrase ‘The Uber Of’ to the front of it and, bingo, your ticket to instant internet success. For example, ‘The Uber of Journalism’ would be an app where lots of newspapers bid out jobs to under-employed journalists, who bid for the work in real-time. ‘The Uber of Optometry’ would be where people send scans of their eyeballs in via an app and optometrists bid for the work to diagnose issues, while simultaneously rating the quality and colour of the eye and giving in-game tokens that can be traded for eye drops. Okay, so not all the ideas are world-beating, but you get the idea. Uber (and similar companies) have opened up a great new business model to emulate.  

Uber (and Airbnb, Task Rabbit, etc., etc.) is basically a model where large (ideally global) demand can meet some sort of structural capacity constraint or excess supply and, using the power of technology (and in-game tokens for eye drops, ideally), they can match them together with low overheads or transaction costs. Not really a new idea, but with high-powered phones and unlimited access to a market via the internet, applications can really open up these opportunities to a mass audience. A liberal approach to traditional laws and a willingness to somewhat compromise privacy and/or safety may also be required.

On that last point, my personal millions-making scheme ‘Inter-sitter – the Uber of Childcare’ was pooh-poohed by my wife (and to be fair, about ten other mothers) who thought my suggestion of an app you could dial up and find someone from nearby to pop over and look after the kids while you shot down the road for a latte or Pilates, was a no-goer. They felt that the idea of having a virtual stranger come into the house and mind the kids would perhaps be taking ‘The Uber Of’ idea a little far. And this was even after I pointed out the in-game token rating system idea (three bad ratings and they get an unhappy face). I was disappointed by their lack of adventurousness but, remembering what happened when Airbnb got some really bad press in 2011 after one of their host houses was trashed by some guests, I reconsidered.

And to further answer your question – and perhaps explain why I so easily gave you my Uberainstorming game idea – ideas are the easy bit. The real work is in execution. For every great idea that was successful there are dozens of better ideas that weren’t, and the difference was execution. Probably thousands of people thought about the idea of competing with taxis during their spare time but it took Uber to do it on a truly global scale. Thinking it up is easy, doing it is a whole lot harder (actually, how about ‘Uber Uber – the Uber of coming up with ideas’ … ?).

And so with that, comforted in the knowledge that you probably won’t be able to execute it anyway, I gift to you a genuine, rock solid, 100 percent guaranteed money maker, bringing together both answers in this month’s article: ‘Hearted Hoof – the Uber of Cow Methane Collection’. Fill your boots.

By day (and the occasional night) David Downs is general manager, services, at NZTE. He also authors books (No.8 Re-Wired is the latest), presents on radio and TV, and plays the ukulele (we can’t all be perfect).