It’s sheep we’re up against: getting beyond the export mentality

The great Kiwi business dream seems to be to build something good enough for someone overseas to buy. Is it time for that to change?

I seem to have become part of a peculiar group. It has a name, but I’m not sure that it’s public just yet. If its exact purpose has yet to be precisely defined, an abundance of goodwill more than compensates. There’s a lot of intellect in the room, along with the beer and sushi, but I expected that. Less predictably, there’s a heap of patriotism. That’s not something you see a lot of.

Tonight saw an interesting bunch of roosters turn up, along with a speckle of hens. A linguist, a lawyer, a currently successful entrepreneur and a recently unsuccessful one, a man from the government, a cat-friendly economist and a couple more unforgettable characters I can’t quite recall.

And me, of course. My first thought was that I’d been mistakenly invited instead of a similarly-named entrepreneur, but he was there too, so who knows?

Tonight’s discussion was around New Zealand culture, specifically whether aspects of it were a barrier to business success.

I’ll leave the laundry list of national shortcomings to the economist and the G-man. What interested me more than tackling them one by one, was looking for a common theme, and toward the end of the evening I think I found it in the shape of Export Quality Lamb.

(Before I’m overwhelmed by requests to join our group, let me point out that the only lamb in the room was metaphorical.)

For the last 100 years, Export Quality was, and remains, the highest accolade that a slab of dead sheep could hope to attain. Export Quality didn’t just mean good; it meant good enough for Foreigners.

It’s this need for approval – at first by the Old Country and lately by anyone on the West Coast of the US with a chequebook – that seems to drive a lot of the business behaviours that are holding us back.

It’s a colonial thing, I guess, and might be one of the reasons that the great Kiwi business dream isn’t to build something of lasting value, but to build something good enough for someone overseas to buy. It might also be why we don’t trust authority or qualifications much, unless, of course, they’re from another country. And it might be something we need to overcome if we’re to raise our sights above that bach, boat and Beemer and build businesses that do great stuff, without worrying about whether or not someone else thinks they’re Export Quality.

Vaughn Davis is owner and creative director at The Goat Farm (this post originally appeared on his blog) and occasional Idealog contributor.