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NZ vs Silicon Valley – how we measure up

Our houses are cheaper and our Thai food is better, but New Zealand can learn a lot from Silicon Valley in terms of fostering innovation, says a Kiwi entrepreneur who recently returned home to Christchurch.

Max Ferguson, a Fulbright scholar who founded PDF editing software Lumin in 2014, spent several years living in Silicon Valley while attaining PhD in Civil Engineering and Computer Science from Stanford University.

After completing his studies, he moved back to Christchurch, which has a growing tech hub of its own. We asked Max about what he liked and disliked about Silicon Valley, and what New Zealand can learn from it.

Looking back at your time in Silicon Valley, what are some aspects you enjoyed about it and why?

The culture of innovation there is really inspiring. I think there are four things that contribute to this culture:

  1. There are a lot of great people moving around a lot of different companies, and everyone is really excited about the work they are doing. As a result, the speed of innovation is amazing.
  2. Everyone – from students to hospitality workers to young professionals – is immersed in tech, just by merit of being so close to it, so there is a huge passion for tech and discussion around it, which adds to that culture of innovation.
  3. There are always discussions about new technology along the lines of “is it helpful, is it not?”. These are important discussions to have, and the good thing about Silicon Valley is that people have those discussions without attacking each other personally.
  4. Because of all the above, market validation and feedback are really easy for aspiring founders. You can talk to customers, do market research, even put a sales page up and see what people think of the offering.

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What are some aspects you disliked about Silicon Valley and why?

The first thing that comes to mind is housing. I was living with three other guys in a tiny apartment, and we were paying thousands of dollars each in rent. It is worse than New Zealand’s housing market.

Max Ferguson.

Coming back to New Zealand, what are some things you think New Zealand can learn from Silicon Valley?

Number 8 wire mentality has done New Zealand well, but it is at risk of being broken by tall poppy syndrome. How do we get that experimental mentality back? I think one thing we can do is better connect our universities to outside opportunities.

One place that comes to mind is Sand Hill Road. This is a road outside Stanford University in

Silicon Valley, and it is lined with VC firms. The physical proximity to Stanford and University of California Berkeley means there are always investors nearby, and Sand Hill Road is well known for taking great ideas – and wacky ones, too – and getting them funded. New Zealand needs people to take a chance and risk failure if it wants to build that Silicon Valley culture of innovation.

Dunedin is probably the closest in New Zealand to getting this right. There are lots of co-working spaces near the university, so people can take their ideas and build a fledgling startup alongside others before taking flight on their own.

Callaghan Innovation is starting to adopt this approach, and the Icehouse in Auckland does a similar thing, but I would like to see a more direct connection between businesses and universities here.

When you were living in Silicon Valley, what are some things you wish they had that New Zealand had?

Weather. You never see weather over there. It is just blue sky all day. It made me feel like I was in The Truman Show (note: I am originally from the West Coast of New Zealand).

I also missed good Thai food. They have really expensive Thai food in the US, but nothing great and well-priced.

Niko is a content writer across SCG's business titles. To get in touch with him, email [email protected].

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