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Welcome to 'Silicon Welly': inside the capital's booming tech sector

Award-winning digital agency Resn has created work for some of the world's biggest brands from Wellington (and, as it has expanded, from around the world).

Wellington’s digital heritage and collaborative spirit have combined to make it the perfect spot for tech tinkerers. From game developers to digital agencies, the capital boasts a thriving technology ecosystem. And while Wellingtonians are already more than three times as likely to work in tech than other Kiwis, the demand for skilled workers is growing quickly.

Wellington is a creative Mecca for technology wizards. At least that’s how Resn’s Justus Smith describes it.

“Everyone's heard the term ‘Wellywood’, but ‘Silicon Welly’ is even more apt,” he says. “Whether it's Xero or PikPok or folks such as ourselves, Wellington is a highly creative environment for anyone working in the digital arts. Basically, it means we can steal other people's employees. It's our entire HR strategy.”

The capital’s digital scene has taken off, which has seen its games industry foot it on the world stage. Boasting the highest concentration of web-based and digital technology companies per capita in New Zealand, it’s no surprise Wellingtonians are three times more likely to work in the tech sector than Kiwis from other sectors. The typically high-value, scalable and weightless exports have bolstered the region’s economy. So why has this scene become so fruitful?

One of a kind

Smith thinks it comes down to a fearlessness and willingness to experiment, which causes innovation to thrive.

“Maybe it's the fact that Wellington is this weird little city at the bottom of the world, but we don't see a lot of Wellingtonians following the crowd.”

Resn is one of the city’s leading creative digital agencies. The award-winning company works at the frontier of interactive development and design for some of the world’s best-known brands. Wellington, circa 2004, is where it all began.

“Over the last 13 years we've grown into the hulking colossus of cyberspace that we are today. While we have offices on four continents, our hearts will always remain in Wellington – in jars of formaldehyde.”

Some may see New Zealand’s isolation as a tyranny of distance but Smith says it’s an asset Resn has always used to its advantage.

“A lot of our clients are based in America,” he says. “For them, it's a little like living out the fairy tale of the Elves and the Shoemaker. While they're sleeping the little Resn elves magically turn leather into shoes – or ideas into pixels, or something. Whatever the analogy is, it's magic.”

Wind in the sails

For Bron Thomson, CEO of digital agency Springload, the geography and weather have a lot to do with Wellington’s success.

“Wellington is a highly creative city with an incredible arts scene,” she says. “And the wind. Seriously, it powers us to thrive. The small community helps, and we live in a ferocious environment, it makes us bolder and better in what we do.”

Thomson says the startup culture and entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with close and supportive government agencies, have supported the digital scene.

“From a networking perspective, it's wonderful because there's a real community of likeminded, tech-oriented, creative individuals. We come together quite organically because everyone knows everyone.”

 

The spirit of collaboration over competition is key, says Andrew Hawley, managing director of digital agency Touchcast.

“Wellington is not about control. The proliferation of these businesses and their like-minded people working together in such a concentrated urban campus acts as a super-catalyst for new ideas and businesses. 

“It may sound very ‘un-controlled’ but this hyper-collaborative mode of working is very efficient and arguably sees more ideas come to fruition, at a greater pace.”

Holding the controls

From Swibo’s physiotherapy-aiding interactive game, to Dinosaur Polo Club’s BAFTA nominated metro-route maker, gamers across the region hold the controls of the country’s gaming scene.

PikPok CEO Mario Wynands says Wellingtonians have a “passionate albeit quiet ambition” that gets them to the top. Wellington’s geography concentrates New Zealand’s attitude of self-reliance, culturally diverse influences and ambition, he says.

“It’s the New Zealand ‘attitude’ distilled.”

For PikPok, it was throwing people into the gruesome world of a zombie apocalypse and leaving them to fend for themselves that proved a lucrative venture. PikPok is the largest Kiwi-owned company operating in the New Zealand gaming industry – an industry that grew seven percent in 2016, raking in $424 million in revenue.

PikPok games have been nominated for BAFTA and DICE (Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences) Awards, claimed the top spot on the US iPhone games chart and been downloaded more than 300 million times.

“For our particular industry, and creative technology companies in general, Wellington has a lot to offer given the broad community of TV, film, animation, music, tech, and videogame companies here,” Wynands says.

The talent and experience on offer in the city, along with a willingness to collaborate, builds momentum fast, he says.

Can do, can create 

As the country’s hub of the film and gaming industries, it’s expected new ventures would be born from the local talent pool. Independent video game development studio Aurora 44 is a prime example.

Aurora 44 CEO Derek Bradley and animation director Simon Dasan are industry veterans, having worked on projects such as The Hobbit and Battlefield games.

Bradley, who, like Thomson and Hawley attended Massey University, says the aim is to deliver quality and handcrafted PC and Xbox games for players to explore. The team will soon launch Ashen, a game where the world is engulfed with ash and no source of natural light remains. 

The Wellington landscape of hills and valleys, rugged coastlines and rivers seems to provide some inspiring magic for the primordial worlds they create.

“The talent pool and skill level of creatives and developers in Wellington are unmatched,” Bradley says. “Not to mention that it is a beautiful city.”

There are a number of big Wellington success stories in the digital space, from Weta Digital, to Xero, to TradeMe. But smaller, under the radar software developers like YouDo and Axos Systems also abound. And that talent regularly finds its way into other sectors, with innovative retailers such as Powershop and Flick Electric relying heavily on digital smarts. Bradley says this thriving ecosystem is largely down to the city appreciating innovation and creativity.

“We fit very well in this ecosystem. The local government is supportive of business growth and the local games industry is very supportive.”

Wellingtonians' ‘can-do’ attitude is often funnelled into creative endeavours, which has resulted in a very strong creative digital community, he says.

Aurora 44 has the backing of Microsoft investment in exchange for hosting Ashen exclusively on Xbox, a deal that happened off the back of a single Tweet previewing the game – a testament to the global connectedness of the industry (speaking of which, April 2017 saw the arrival of Play by Play, which was billed as Wellington’s first international games festival). 

Learning to game, gaming to learn

Fantastical worlds aside, there are also a number of games being developed in the city for practical applications. Based in a small office, Benjamin Dunn, a member of the Swibo team, works on Tilt, a lightweight interactive gaming and balance training board that lets users play games by standing on and tilting the board. It is also one of the biggest advancements in physiotherapy treatments in years.

The board allows users to strengthen muscles and improve balance while weaving through another galaxy, fighting bears or solving problems during an island adventure.

Dunn says there is a strong supportive community in Wellington, and Swibo has been well-supported by the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA). 

“We really like Wellington. It’s a fantastic place to build a company.”

​WREDA recently ran an international campaign called LookSee Wellington to fill up to 100 mid to senior tech job vacancies in the fast-growing digital space. The response was huge, with international media all over the story, fueling within a few weeks more than 35,000 registrations from around the world. The 100 successful applicants are being brought to Wellington in May, at no expense to themselves, to take part in pre-arranged job interviews and city exploration.

“There’s a distinctive creative spirit in Wellington that’s fuelling incredible innovation in everything from film technology to software,” says WREDA chief executive Chris Whelan. “But capitalising on the momentum depends on having enough top IT talent to meet demand.” 

And as the word spreads about the riches that await skilled digital staff in Wellington – financially, creatively and culturally – it is expected that more of them will seek out the city in years to come.

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