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Soul Machines talks how it expanded its operations internationally

When the subject of Soul Machines comes up, most of us think immediately of the company’s startlingly realistic AI-powered digital humans. But you could argue that the company’s rapid international expansion is almost as striking. The numbers certainly ready well: To date, the company has raised NZ$25 million from investors such as Horizons Ventures, Iconiq and Mercedes Benz. Created as a result of the spin out from the University of Auckland, the company was co-founded and serial entrepreneur Greg Cross, whose last company, PowerbyProxi, was sold in 2017, and by Dr. Mark Sagar, who had led the scientific research since 2012. With R&D headquartered in Auckland and executives located in LA, San Francisco, and New York City, the company combines neuroscience, cognitive science and developmental psychology to create new ways for humans to interact with AI. Current customers include Autodesk, P&G, Royal Bank of Scotland and ANZ Bank. Not a bad resume for a local company, we reckon, so we asked Greg Cross, Soul Machines co-founder and chief business officer, just what it takes to grow something so big starting somewhere so small.

Idealog: We talk a lot about being overseas expansion here, but what actually does it take for New Zealand companies to grow internationally? What’s the trick to breaking into international markets?

 Cross: Understanding the enormous difference between relatively small and simple markets like New Zealand, where everything is very easy to understand and there aren’t lots of layers, and the large, sophisticated and highly differentiated markets in the US, Europe and Asia. The US is not a market. Northern California and Southern California are completely different, the market ecosystems and distribution channels are highly complex and variable, and it takes time to figure this out. The key is focus, focus and focus.

So where should that focus be?

The more tightly defined you are in terms of target customers and markets, the more successful you will be. Trying to be all things to all people on the international stage leads to failure. The other key message is you actually have to be there, which means moving or spending a lot of your life at 35,000 feet – and I mean a lot.

So, it’s just a case of getting on a plane and being there in person? 

It really comes down to doing the hard yards, being prepared to re-learn everything you know, failing fast, and staying focused, setting your milestones and the assumptions they are based on, and then proving them right or wrong as quickly as possible. Adapting on the fly and in real-time is critical, as time is money and ultimately, it’s the scarcity of both that beats us if we are not smart.It’s pretty simple really: you just need to be there. That’s the price of admission.Then it comes down to your ability to network, learn and adapt.

We always talk about how we, as New Zealanders, do business ‘differently’. Is there really a ‘Kiwi’ way of doing this stuff?

I don’t think New Zealand as a country has a particular approach per se. I don’t buy into the number eight wire mentality. At the end of the day, it comes down to your ability to create a vision, build a team and a strategy and then execute really, really well within a timeframe that is relevant to the market opportunity.

If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?

Learn to get over my mistakes faster. Accept that they are part-and-parcel of the entrepreneur’s journey, and in fact, they are critical to being really good at what you do.

If you had one piece of advice for those looking to emulate your success, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to dream big, but understand it takes a huge amount of hard work and a lot longer than you might expect to turn that into reality. Nothing of any real significance is achieved in less than a decade

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