When American serial entrepreneur Soraya Darabi was asked during a recent visit whether New Zealand SMEs could ever be successful without the manic work ethic of their US counterparts, her answer was an emphatic “No”.
The clear message from the woman who has co-founded two start-ups, the first of which was sold for $US10 million was that the midnight working sessions and crazy travel schedules of an American start-up are essential if a company is going to be successful. The work-life balance/BMW-bach-boat approach was fine for wannabes – but wasn’t going to fast-track a global business, she said.
So are Kiwis doomed to backwater-ness?
Kiwi nanoscientist Michelle Dickinson, who has experienced mad American life, says not. New Zealand’s more laid-back approach to business could actually be a drawcard for entrepreneurs sick of the pressures elsewhere, says Dickinson, who is a big fan of the proposed global impact visa, aimed to attract clever people to a New Zealand way of life.
Chris Brown, founder of PR agency Sputnik and co-author of 8 Tribes: The hidden classes of New Zealand, has coined the term “Glides” – Global Lifestyle-Driven Exporters (or possibly Global Lifestyle, Design-Driven Exporters).
Glides are small-ish, design-led Kiwi companies, which are often family-owned, and sell small volumes of high-value goods to the world. Importantly, Brown says, Glides measure their success “in ways that go well beyond profit”.
“It’s not bach, boat, BMW, but it might be the 21st century equivalent. They have a desire to innovate, to do their bit for New Zealand and its economy, and make a positive difference to the lives of people.
They want to bring up their family in New Zealand but give their kids the opportunity to be part of the wide, wide world at the same time.
“They want to make money, but only so they can facilitate all those other things.”
And if they remain relatively small (in Silicon Valley terms), so be it.
I wanted time with my family. I wanted a challenging, stimulating opportunity, and the chance to travel and work with people all over the world.
Jenny McIvor is a self-confessed Glide. She and her husband Richard started preschooler bike company Wishbone Design in 2007 after Jenny, a career diplomat recently back from “an incredibly intense” posting to the UN in New York, decided she wanted to spend more time with her growing family.
Richard, a designer, had made a trike for then 18-month-old Noah to ride in Central Park, and when friends asked if they could have one too, the couple decided to go into business.
The Wishbone system, which won a gold medal for sustainable product design in last year’s Best Design Awards, is based on three products in one.
The bike converts from a trike for a one-year-old, to a small pedal-less bike, to a big balance bike as a child grows. There’s also the Flip toy, which goes from being a rocker, to a push-along, to a ride on, as a kid gets more skills.
The theory behind the product is that “maybe – just maybe – you’ll resist the temptation to ‘buy more stuff’ because what you’ve already got is great”.
Just as importantly, McIvor gets to tick many of the boxes of what she wanted in life.
“I wanted time with my family. I wanted a challenging, stimulating opportunity, and the chance to travel and work with people all over the world. I wanted to learn something new, and I wanted the opportunity to follow my values and my belief systems and make a difference. Shouldn’t we all ask ‘What do I want, and how can I have it all?’”
Having their own business helps with “having it all”, she says. For example, they chose a scattergun approach to global marketing (against the advice of a mentor, who told them they should focus on one key market) because they wanted to travel.
One market meant only one travel destination. Wishbone now has distribution hubs in six countries and will ship anywhere in the world.
Similarly, the approach led the McIvors to take their three children to Germany for six months over the 2014 northern hemisphere summer.
European sales were taking off, but rather than the adults taking high-pressure business trips, they decided to give the family an adventure.
“The kids could learn the language and experience a totally new culture, and we could build relationships with our European partners. We could continue our jobs from there, with the office staff carrying on working in Wellington.”
The next project, she says, is a stint in a developing country.
“We think our bike would work really well in the third world, so we are cooking up a plan to take the kids on a trip to Africa, maybe. “We would like to find an outlet where we could do some good with the bike. Fundamentally, life is about contributing, and how better to teach the kids how to contribute?”
Being a Glide allows McIvor to fulfill her public service goals, but with more independence.
“But I love it because I have tools with which to carry out policies I might have thought about in the public sector, but now I have more power to make a difference. The business world is changing how things happen – we can have a global footprint in terms of our value set – we are touching people all over the world.”
Meanwhile, the business is growing, and profitable, McIvor says. Wishbone has just signed its biggest contract ever, in Korea. This year it will sell more than 30,000 units, up from fewer than 10,000, five years ago.
McIvor isn’t talking dollars, but if the average sale price is around $200, that makes annual turnover somewhere in the $6 million ballpark.
Is that success?
“The media are down on NZ business owners who don’t shoot high enough to become large enough to make a difference to the NZ economy,” McIvor says. “I didn’t want to be the poster child for the beemer, bach, boat crowd, but the luxury I have is that my business buys me the opportunity to follow my values and my belief systems and make a difference.
So you want to be Glide? Four tips for Glidehood
1) Do it because you like it
McIvor doesn’t do business with anyone she wouldn’t count as a friend, and has jettisoned profitable business relationships because a supplier or distributor didn’t fit in the Wishbone “family” or have the same values. “I make the same choices with my business life as I do with my personal life; I apply the same filter.”
2) Be design-led
“Our idea is to design stuff that is so good it changes you, just a tiny bit,” says the Wishbone website. “Maybe you get outdoors more, or choose to walk instead of drive. Maybe you’ll take the time to replace a part, and love the look on your little one’s face when you do the repairs together.” Part of being design-led is competing on quality, not price. Rival products cost half as much as Wishbone bikes on Amazon.
3) Sustainabilise everything
A company’s ambition to grow and be successful shouldn’t involve jeopardizing social, ethical and environmental beliefs, says another Glide, All Good Organics CEO Simon Coley. The company imports fair trade bananas from Ecuador and exports fair trade fizzy drinks – including Karma Kola, using cola nuts from Sierra Leone – into Europe.
4) Technology is your friend – honest!
Wishbone is at the tail end of a tortuous three-year project to align a myriad of computer programmes into one fully-integrated, easy-to-use, cloud-based operating system. It’s been hideous, McIvor says, but now it is finished, it has revolutionised the business – and will make future growth significantly easier.