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Why the kumara needs to speak of its own sweetness: David Downs on how to take your idea to the world

From raising capital from international investors, to expanding into new markets, to selling to an overseas buyer – the challenges of taking a New Zealand company to international prominence are many, and to surmount them, we’ll likely need more than just number eight wire. So how do New Zealand businesses become more internationally minded? Jonathan Cotton talks with NZTE general manager David Downs about how to navigate the tricky waters beyond New Zealand’s shores.

For Kiwi companies looking to grow, our home soil has its own peculiar set of considerations. The most notable? Our pocket-sized domestic market, which means New Zealand companies on an upward trajectory can find themselves having to expand operations internationally well before their international competition.

NZTE general manager David Downs says the fact that big growth for New Zealand businesses is usually linked to international growth is unavoidable for most.

“Companies from other countries can quite happily exist on their much larger domestic economies,” explains Downs. “They get to grow a marketing team, they get to work out how to do business strategy, and they can get to the point where they’re dealing with good intense competition, but they get to learn to do all that ‘domestically’.

“When you come from a tiny country like New Zealand, you’re learning those skills, but you’re having to do that in an international market.”

That’s a challenge not to be underestimated. Different time zones, communication issues and not to mention all that travelling means doing business from New Zealand is not for the faint of heart. But while historically, physical remoteness has been one of our greatest growth inhibitors (and sometimes still is) technology goes a long way to bridging the gap.

“When you look at the New Zealand tech economy, that distance can actually be a positive,” says Downs. “Look at the time zone arbitrage between New Zealand and other parts of the world and at the companies here in the tech sector that use that productively.”

As well as this, thanks to that tech, building a company that can grow quickly, garner investment and pique the interest of a buyer all from New Zealand is a more realistic proposition than it’s ever been.

“I love that fact,” says Downs. “In the last ten years, we’ve seen many, many more multinational companies based in New Zealand. Xero is the classic example, but there are hundreds of other companies who are serving the global market and they’re doing it out of Raglan or Dunedin or Palmerston North. That was unheard of a few years ago.”

But just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“The biggest single mistake we see with companies going international is treating other markets as if they're just a different version of New Zealand,” says Downs.

“Whether it’s thinking that because the product works here, it’s going to work in another country ,or thinking you can get your product to market in the same way you would here, even though other countries often have much bigger distribution models, or agents, or resellers.”

There’s a great saying that goes ‘the kumara does not speak of its own sweetness’. New Zealanders are typically understated – we don't generally go out there and yell from the rooftops about how great we are – and that's a lovely thing. However, that doesn’t translate into other markets particularly well, especially the US market.

That parochial outlook can cost us, especially when it comes to convincing more worldly international minds that we’ve got something valuable to offer.

“There’s a great saying that goes ‘the kumara does not speak of its own sweetness’,” says Downs. “New Zealanders are typically understated – we don't generally go out there and yell from the rooftops about how great we are – and that's a lovely thing. However, that doesn’t translate into other markets particularly well, especially the US market.”

Nevertheless, New Zealand needs companies with global aspirations who are willing to conquer those challenges.

“We can't just sell into our domestic market,” says Downs, “We've got to have a global focus. And despite the fact that it’s difficult and challenging and hard, New Zealand is actually doing pretty well on this sort of stuff. There's always things you can improve, but anyone who's doing business in an international market in my mind is a hero.”

Look out for the next part in this series, where we talk to three New Zealanders who secured international expansion, investment and exits. 

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).