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What would it take for New Zealand to create the next Facebook or Google?

The Wellington perspective

Joshua Vial is a founder of Enspiral, and co-creator of Dev Academy, an 18-week coding bootcamp that trains new web developers, programmers, and engineers in Wellington and Auckland. He’s an entrepreneur, programmer, and thinker.

“Technically, yes, New Zealand could birth the next Facebook or Google. This country’s launched large successful companies like Xero, Orion Health and Datacom. So we can launch big companies; we could’ve launched Uber, though that would’ve been harder for us than it was for people in San Francisco. They’re in an environment with a lot more capital, a lot more talent, and in general, a lot more innovation. We’re a bit backwards on those criteria here, and we’d need to change that so we were a lot more vibrant.”

“It would be possible, but difficult, for New Zealand to replicate that kind of environment. Looking at the economics of it, New Zealand exported about $60 billion last year across our whole export sector – that includes everything. At the same time, Facebook made $18 billion; Google made $75 billion; Apple made $233 billion – all in US dollars. That means one single company of Google’s scale could export more than all of New Zealand’s companies combined right now. We’ve got to realise that even though the chances are small, the stakes and the potential size of the outcome is massive. Even if you don’t hit the big Google; if you get lots of Xeros – build ten Xeros in New Zealand, say – you’ll have transformed the livelihoods of thousands of people and made a dent on the economy. Build 100 Xeros, and you’ve transformed the economy.”

“In order to make that happen we’d need a broad base; to create 100 companies like Xero, we need 10,000 startups operating in New Zealand. But that’s possible. We’d need a lot more tech talent than we do; right now, if you’re around the startup community, you’ll find loads of people with great ideas, but ideas aren’t enough; they all need to find engineers. Even if you’ve got lots of money and you’ve got a really solid company and good growth prospects, it’s really hard to find engineers. If you have a dream and no money and you’re looking for someone to take a really big gamble on you, it’s practically impossible to find engineers. We need to dramatically increase the number of programmers in the country so that it’s easy to find tech talent if you’ve got money, and it’s still possible to find tech talent if you don’t.”

The Silicon Valley perspective

Robbie Allan is a New Zealander with extensive experience in Silicon Valley; he’s currently a Product Manager at SurveyMonkey Intelligence, a mobile app insights business. He completed his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley, on a Prime Minister’s Business Scholarship, and previously worked for Carnival and Zynga.

“Silicon Valley’s success comes down to a series of interconnected institutions. It’s a magnet for talent; it has some of the world’s best universities that churn out world-class people. It has deep stock of experienced, risk-taking venture capitalists – and it has a culture that thrives on trying something crazy and brushing off failure. Its citizens believe it’s their right and duty to change the world. Plus, it has easy access to the world’s largest economy.”

“Wellington will never have the scale or access that the Bay Area does. But it has incredible raw talent and a growing cluster of expertise, a handy time zone for North America, and a very attractive lifestyle. Large companies will necessarily be export-focused, so tech companies in New Zealand need to be integrated into their primary market right away – whether it’s Asia, North America, or Europe. Bridging the gap isn’t easy. But with a steady supply of raw talent, industry expertise built off large anchor companies, and close relationships with important export markets, it can be done.”

What and who can make this a reality in New Zealand?

Joshua Vial says:

“Other than a greater proliferation of startups and talent, we need to get a lot smarter and better about how we fund companies and start them. There are people doing good work on the early-stage ecosystems of tech companies, but we need to do more of that work and it needs to be better. We need to look at the whole of early-stage systems and see where they’re falling over, and make tweaks. It’s similar to the problem we currently have with a lack of women in technology, and a lack of diversity in the sector in general; you need an unwavering commitment to a big, vibrant tech industry. You need the humility to listen to what’s going on, and to make consistent, small changes to every aspect of the system. There’s no one big strategy that’ll do it; there’s just consistent commitment to innovation.”

“I believe most of the funding that startups in the sector need could come from within New Zealand; we don’t need to wait for it to roll in from overseas. We could take it from the property market; take it from the farming sector. There’s enough money in New Zealand to fund the tech sector; I just don’t know if there’s enough willingness with the people who have that money to fund it.”

“The Government, I’d say, is somewhat on board with making New Zealand a tech capital, but frankly, it’s not up  to them. People have such an obsession with knowing if the Government’s leading on this, but I don’t buy into the idea that the Government is our leadership team of the country; I think they’re our followership team. Government will follow along once everyone else has decided what they’re going to do. We don’t need Government to lead out and make the tech industry big; we need people in the tech industry and around it to collaborate on a shared vision of making tech the biggest export of New Zealand. Whatever we can do to help Team New Zealand export more tech; that’s what we should do.”

“There are lots of people, including investors, doing great work in early-stage tech startups; it’s not like there’s not stuff happening. It’s just that we need to see more, smarter, and deeper commitments to collaboration in that space.”

Robbie Allan says:

“I’d love to see Wellington’s universities graduate fewer lawyers and make computer science a top priority. I’d love to see the Governments and Councils work together to attract product and engineering offices from pioneering international companies. Given Wellington’s size, it’d be sensible to focus on a specific technology niche and build up a true hub of specialised talent. It’d be smart to make more of the New Zealand Government’s international leadership in regulation and build a cluster around niches like self-driving cars and aerial drones. And I think more Wellington tech companies should take the leap and put an office in their target export market as soon as possible.”

As told to Charlotte Graham, a Wellington-based journalist and writer.

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