Originally a programmer, Dan ‘co-founded’ the Startup Weekend movement in New Zealand and has been a major catalyst in the development of the tech start-up community. He designed and led the Lightning Lab accelerator programme in Wellington, which mentored over 60 early-stage companies to help them achieve commercial investment. Today he’s developing his own business, ZeroPoint Ventures, which exists to provide early-stage funding and coaching for software entrepreneurs.
Dan had to create a new community from scratch to achieve his vision for start-ups.
‘The start-up community here fifteen years ago was nowhere near as vibrant as it is today. There were a few big investors, and they cherry-picked a lot of the start-ups to work with, and everything felt a bit elite. It felt like the timing was right to say, “How do we bring a more structural thing into the community?” which was the accelerator, something that pulls together all the mentors who are offering help.’
He’s a big believer in remaining open to learning.
‘My advice is just to remember all of that investment in yourself and having vision, having purpose, being able to reflect and learn and grow. That’s the important stuff which will lead to all your future success. Being intellectually honest is opening up to what you don’t know and then having a bit of a plan to fix it.’
Dan learned early on to be interested in how the work of others contributed to business success.
‘When I was about twenty, my now business partner, but early mentor, said to me, “When you go to work in a company, don’t think about it like you’re going to build a career in programming. Gain your expertise, but then go spend six months working with the sales team, go spend six months working with the marketing team.” Two things that I learnt from that: understanding how all the other job functions run is really important when you’re building your own company, but then also, remembering that all these people doing these jobs are just like you.’
Despite working in the digital space, Dan prefers to reach out to real people for his learning and support.
‘I’m very much a fan of little pieces of advice that work, rather than long things, and the TED format doesn’t work for me: it’s too long. I’m a big fan of using mentors and other people’s advice to keep you on the straight and narrow. I also think another thing is intuition and trying to figure out what the smart way forward is.’
But he doesn’t hesitate to use digital tools to track down the very best people to help him. ‘When I started Lightning Lab, my personal mentors were the people who built the biggest and most successful accelerators in Asia, the US and the UK. You’ve got this weird network now where it’s very easy to get things done, and if you don’t have the right person locally, why can’t you found a company with someone who’s on the other side of the world, who’s still the thought leader in that space?’
He did the same thing to find mentors for the programme.
‘I reached out over social media or email, and just said, “Hey, loved your presentation. We’d like you to come and talk to a couple of entrepreneurs here on the other side of the world. Are you happy to help?” Every one of them came back and said “Yes,” and all of them were flattered because no one really comes to ask for help, especially when you’re people who they think don’t need any help because you’ve already got all this profile.’
Dan’s a great believer in finding help upfront before you head down the wrong track. ‘When you look at people, you only see the surface. You don’t know how they can help, what they’ve done in the past, who they know, all that stuff that can seriously accelerate you and your progress and success. I say to people, “Don’t just do a piece of work and then ask someone to review it. Ask for help before you do the work, while you’re doing the work, at the end of the work, because you never know.” You don’t know what you don’t know.’
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