International Startup Community Values

When you work in a startup, the wider community of other people who are also working in startups is incredibly important because you need a peer group to hang out with. Lawyers like to hang out with lawyers, doctors like to hang out with other doctors and people who work in tech startups like to hang out and swap war stories.

“Are you a Java developer?” The man in a suit at my first startup event in London asked me briskly. “Because I’m looking for a Java developer.” I stumbled and stuttered a little because we hadn’t even finished exchanging pleasantries. He sensed that I wasn’t what he was looking for and turned his back on me sharply to disappear into the throng. I had only just arrived in London and I was used to the casual, and friendly way that people networked after-hours over a beer in New Zealand.

The London tech scene was a shock to the system for me because the city is much larger and people are much more focused on their own personal business objectives. But after a while, I began to find my tribe. It took several months of coffees, meetups and missed connections, but eventually the fabric of the London startup ecosystem started to make sense for me. By the time I left London in 2014 I was sad to leave behind so many good friends and a wide network of people that I knew and admired.

The turning point in London for me came when I attended my first Silicon Drinkabout. Silicon Drinkabout was a casual Friday night event that was born of a simple idea; “Friday night drinks for startups”. The reason it was so powerful is that it acted as a fulcrum for the entire rest of the tech ecosystem.

Events glue the ecosystem together

The London tech scene taught me a few things about the importance of meetups and events in gluing together a tech ecosystem. The core of an event that creates a long-term culture seems to be:

  1. Regular rhythm of schedule: So that if you miss one event, you know that the next one is coming around soon. This also creates a sense of permanence so that the event becomes something that you can tell other people about and encourage them to attend in the future.
  2. Regular location: Silicon Drinkabout moved around sometimes, but it was always at a casual bar within walking distance of Shoreditch’s Old Street Roundabout. The name Silicon Drinkabout was a play on the nickname for the tech region in East London, “Silicon Roundabout.”
  3. Regular crew: The “Three Beards” group acted as the organisers, conveners, and connectors. The three of them always made sure that there was someone to introduce people to each other and make sure the whole thing came together.

London Startup Community Values

What was really interesting, was the way that the tech events in London cemented an unspoken set of shared startup community values. In London these shared values included:

  1. Design matters: The logos for the events were cool. The startups that got admiration all had well designed sites and the creative designers and UX/UI designers that floated into the community were welcomed. Good typography, good responsive web design and nice layout mattered.
  2. Incubators matter: Seedcamp, Innovation Warehouse, TechHub, Techstars and the other flagship co-working spaces all hosted events on a rotating basis. Being in an incubator was seen as a badge of participation in the community. Everyone was either in a startup in one of these spaces or was mentoring a startup that was.
  3. Not just founders: The London ecosystem had good participation from employees working in startups as well as from the founders themselves. The interns, marketers, developers and designers were just as respected as the “founder”.
  4. Revenue matters: In New Zealand, the community used to value profit, in Silicon Valley the community respected user growth, but in London everyone asked each other about revenue and it created a nice disciplined focus on building things that matter for the end-user and that people were willing to pay for.
  5. Don’t pitch me bro: The London tech community was allergic to consultants and recruiters trying to push their services. The service providers regularly sponsored events and contributed services, but they we’re pushy. “Don’t pitch me bro” was literally the name of one of the regular evening events.
  6. What goes around comes around: The grapevine would quickly root out anyone that violated the community norms. For example, when an investor started to get far too aggressive about negotiating the terms of an investment (look up reverse vesting), everyone found out about it.
  7. Welcoming: Londoners are always willing to try out a new cafe, restaurant or bar. So new events, new groups and new people were embraced with enthusiasm. The scene was still small enough that there was plenty of room for everyone.

These values aren’t necessarily perfect, but they made for a tight knit and cohesive startup community that was welcoming of newcomers and supported the creation of new events, groups and businesses.

New York Startup Community Values

By contrast, I found that New York’s tech scene had a much looser startup community. The community centers more around individual relationships and a few flagship tech events. The main focal point for the New York tech community is the NY Tech Meetup which is a monthly pitching event and attracts hundreds of people. It’s more like a main-hall conference session, but the after-event networking is high quality and worth checking out.

Personally, the community in New York only clicked for me when I started going to more niche events such as the Big Data Meetup and a series of “invite only” events for young staff working in VC firms. New York is all about finding your niche. I also noticed over time that the New York startup community values were a little different to the London values:

  1. Hustle comes first: In New York everyone tries to sell their services to everyone else. And if you can’t articulate your personal and professional value in a short sound-bite, you are quickly ignored. This also makes the scene very open and inclusive, because as long as you can prove you could hustle, you’re in.
  2. Cash matters: Wall Street has a very real influence on the tech scene in New York and everyone talks about who is earning what, and the size of the latest funding round.
  3. Prestige matters: Which university you went to, which bank you used to work at, which Silicon Valley tech companies your developers are from. The brands, recognition and reputation of who you are surrounded by matters in New York.
  4. Only the hungry: The big no-no in the New York tech scene was being lazy, inefficient or slow. If you say “I don’t really care about my job, I’m more into my family and my hobbies” in a conversation in the New York tech scene, the conversation will be over pretty soon.
  5. Fitness matters: Pretty much everyone in the tech scene in New York works out. From Soul Cycle to cross-fit and the paeleo diet. People are very health concious.

Overall, I found that the New York tech scene was much less tightly knit than London. I think the physical spread of the co-working spaces scattered in distant parts of the city means that there isn’t an easy central geographical focal point. The Silicon Alley neighbourhood doesn’t have a uniquely tech or creative vibe. Also, people that weren’t in the tech scene such as big firm designers and ad agency creatives weren’t really welcomed into the tech scene in the same way as London. The Brooklyn scene in DUMBO is a bit of an exception, with a good overlap of tech and design. But overall the scene in New York was pretty scattered.

New Zealand Startup Community Values

After four years in London and two years in New York, I recently moved back to New Zealand. So, after only a few months back in the country, what have I discovered about the New Zealand tech community?

When I left New Zealand, I was a regular participant in “tweetups” which were meetups before existed. Back when just being on Twitter was enough for you to have something in common. The Icehouse was pretty much the only startup incubator and the tech scene didn’t really exist in a big way.

Now there is a thriving ecosystem in Auckland with GridAKL at the center, lots of co-working spaces, Startup Weekend provides the focal point event, and there are a wide variety of industry meetups like the Hardware Meetup and UX designers meetup. There is also a rapidly growing ecosystem in the regions as well. All this is good, but I’m not quite sure exactly what the community values that we are embedding into the system:

  1. I worry about the focus on “founders”: It’s such an American idea to idolise the founder of a startup as the sole driver. I’m a big believer that everyone in the team contributes.
  2. I worry about the power that investors yield: With so few VCs and angels, anyone with some money to invest can call themselves an angel and start doing damage to the ecosystem with wildly inaccurate valuations and advice.
  3. I worry about the role of marketing and design: Most Kiwis are naturally cynical about soft skills like marketing and design. But getting the word out there and creating a product that works for end-users is mission critical in a startup.
  4. I worry about people who are too-cool-for-school: Once you achieve some success and profile in NZ then two things happen, on the one hand because of the tall-poppy effect you receive a lot of criticism, and that makes you hard. On the other hand, there aren’t that many role models, so suddenly you receive a lot of requests for advice, input and favours all of which drain your time. That also makes you hard as well. All in all, the rockstars who should be the most important fulcrum connectors in the New Zealand tech scene are notoriously ungenerous with their time and unwilling to help people who are just starting out.
  5. I worry about a closed shop: When there are only a small number of events and influential people, then things can get emotional because everyone feels like they are competing for scarce resources such as sponsorship and attendees.
  6. I worry about who we will become: Entrepreneurship is the lifeblood of a growing economy and as our large societal institutions and structures increasingly fail us, we will need a thriving startup ecosystem to solve the next big problems in the economy and society. Currently, the lack of role models mean that new startups have to make a lot of the same mistakes over and over again.

The startups that we create in New Zealand will be a function of the values that are latent in the startup community ecosystem. Context can be decisive in setting the conditions for ideas, people and businesses to thrive. Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic and excited about the next few years as the NZ ecosystem matures and gels into a connected ecosystem. I have a feeling that I’m not alone in wanting to be part of a wider community that is building something open, transparent, connected, and welcoming.

There is a growing conversation in New Zealand about startup community values with people like  Dan Khan of Zero Point Ventures, Pascale Hyboud-Peron of Venture Center, Lenz Gschwendtner of Iwantmyname, Colart Miles of Velox Innovation, and Dave Moskovitz of Angel HQ all starting to question what type of communities we want to create. The conversation is building on Twitter with people suggesting things that they want to see in the tech community on #StartupCommunityValues.

Ps. I also found that having an online forum was an important part of how startup communities find each other and stay connected. Check out:

Why is building a website so hard?

I’ve been working in tech startups for the last couple of years and have been up close and personal with what it takes to get something designed, built and onto the internet.

During the consulting parts of my career I’ve helped build plenty websites for clients. But it’s a whole different thing when you are in-house and personally responsible for whether the site is delivering results. I’ve found that as soon as you’re responsible for the actual business results, your whole mindset changes. Personally, I’ve found that all of a sudden usability and simplicity become more important than aesthetics.

I’ve always been fascinated by how things that seem like a nice easy website project can become complex, stressful and expensive. It’s not just the normal “things take longer than you expect” effect from project management. Something more profound is going on when building digital products. There are several interesting issues that cause website projects to be harder than you’d expect:

1. Unknowable scope

You never really know in advance what you actually need a website to do. Even the best planning, user experience mapping and project scoping won’t capture all the possible things that users may want to do on your site or all the features that you may want to put in front of your users. In the world of construction and engineering they have a concept called a “change order” these are supposed to track changes to the scope, but in software development, it’s possible that the scope isn’t even known in the first place.

Mitigation: Taking an iterative approach based on lean startup, agile development and design thinking can help bite off small chucks to work on.


2. Hidden dead-ends

A dead-end gremlin is when you get 90% of the way down the path with implementing a part of a system, only to find that there is an absolute block based on a requirement that the tool or module you’ve chosen can’t deliver. Often these gremlins show up as hidden systems that depend on each other to do something seemingly simple like send an automated email.

Email marketing and payment processing are the worst areas for dead-ends because everything sounds simple from the outside, but the reality of actually making it work can be very hard with multiple systems depending on each other.

Mitigation: Being as clear as possible about the mandatory requirements in advance can help, but the best solution is to find ways to prototype the idea so that you can test whether everything hangs together properly.

3. A beautiful unique snowflake

In the world of marketing and branding, it’s tempting to want to make everything unique, different and beautiful. This is a great way to create a unique brand, but it can be a terrible way to create a website. Good web design prioritises functionality and effectiveness over looks.

Ford Model T Dash

Before the 1940s, every car dashboard looked different and had different levers, dials and displays. After the 1940s, almost every dashboard from every manufacturer conformed to the same basic layout with a speedometer, rev counter and fuel gauge, which meant that any driver could drive any car without having to relearn everything from scratch. The basic design interface has stayed the same ever since because usability is more important than uniqueness.

Ford Deluxe DashStandardisation makes everything simpler for the end-user. The same is true in web design. We expect links to be blue and underlined, the scroll bar to be on the right, and the menu to be on the top (or maybe the left). Websites that break basic navigation conventions just to be different are making the medium more important than the message. It’s nice to be unique, but it’s better to be effective.

Mitigation: Using standard web development frameworks and content platforms can help make sure that a website is consistent and easy to use.

4. Testing and compatibility

Every website project that I’ve worked on started with great promises about compatibility and great intentions to test everything. In practise, too many websites don’t work on mobile phones or the wide range of browsers that are out there in the real world. Personally, I’m a fan of minimalism in web design. The less distracting fonts, animation and noise there is, then the more that the content can shine. Ironically enough, simple and minimal design is also more likely to work on a wide range of devices and browsers.

Mitigation: Make designs and code as simple as possible and don’t assume that every single person in the world uses Chrome.

How to get the most out of Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend Auckland is a full weekend event in which small teams come together and build an entire startup before pitching to a panel of investors and judges on Sunday evening. The teams don’t necessarily stay together after the weekend and usually the main benefit is the learning and the experience gained rather than any particular startup that gets built. The exercise of identifying a market problem, creating a solution and then packaging it all up into a website, mobile app and investment pitch is an adrenaline fuelled roller coaster.

Startup Weekend Logo
It’s amazing what you can get done with a highly motivated team in a short period of time and many successful companies have come out of startup weeekends around the world. But more important is that lessons that individual participants have taken back to their own startups or corporate jobs to make these organisations more flexible, agile and customer centred.

I was a mentor on the last Startup Weekend Auckland of 2016 and there are a few lessons that I picked up which could help you get the most out of participating in a future startup weekend. Some of these lessons are also equally applicable to your day job.

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Leaders Eat Last

Simon Sinek is a powerful author, marketer and public speaker. He now has one of the most watched TED talks in the world and his recent books are best sellers. But he wasn’t always this famous, I first came across Simon in a speech that he gave back in 2013 at the 99U Conference. At the time, he wasn’t that widely known, but I knew instantly that I’d found a kindred spirit and that he was going to be wildly successful. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.

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Growth Hacking in New Zealand

Growth hacking is the application of the mindsets and tools of a computer hacker to the challenge of growing a company. Basically, growth hacking is what happens when software developers try to do marketing. The essence of the growth hacking mindset is the scientific method and an iterative rapid prototyping approach to marketing. This type of marketing can be faster, cheaper and more effective than traditional marketing so growth hacking is becoming popular in many industries.

New Zealand has normally been pretty slow to adopt global trends in sales, marketing and design. As far as I can tell, there are still only a small number of New Zealand companies such as Vend, TradeMe and 90 Seconds TV that are applying growth hacking techniques to rapidly expand their businesses. I’m hoping to find more people doing growth hacking in Auckland and the rest of New Zealand to swap stories and share lessons learned.
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The evolution of digital marketing in New Zealand

I have been away from New Zealand for over five years. Life in New York and London moves pretty fast, so coming home to little old New Zealand has been quite a shock to the system. But the country is waking up to a more global worldview and embracing design and creativity. It turns out that things in paradise have changed a lot recently. I thought I’d take a moment to share some of the biggest changes that have occurred in my absence.

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Why You Should Become a Mentor

The best thing I did for my career last year was becoming a mentor for 500 Startups. Mentoring is a great chance to give back and to contribute to your local community. I found that being a mentor also had some great side-effects such as exposing me to fresh perspectives, clarifying my thinking on industry issues, and building my professional network.

When I moved to New York, I decided that it was time to start giving more back to the startup community, so I contacted the 500 Startups team about becoming a mentor. 500 Startups is one of the leading accelerators and seed stage investors in the world. Their new marketing-focused investment fund is called 500 Distro (short for distribution) and they had a couple of new portfolio companies in New York that seemed like a potential fit, so I started mentoring one of them in February.

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Why in-house marketers are so different from external consultants

For the first half of my career I worked in professional services, first as a lawyer, then in management consulting, design, and most recently digital marketing. To be honest, all of these consulting disciplines blurred into one because the fundamental mechanics were so similar. The day-to-day issues like client management, project management and billing are the same in pretty much every external consulting firm. Even the larger issues are also pretty much the same, how to help the client sell more, connect with their audience, and build their reputation. But moving in-house to work in marketing was a rude awakening. In-house marketing as part of an internal growth team is very different from external consulting.

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What I learned about marketing from my first year in New York

I joined the SeedInvest team in New York just over a year ago. SeedInvest is an equity crowdfunding platform focused on angel investing and venture capital for technology companies.

When I first moved to the USA I looked at the West Coast online investing platforms like Fundersclub, Wefunder and AngelList. In the end, I chose to join SeedInvest because (like Seedrs whet I worked in the UK) they had focused on building a business that takes early-stage investing seriously and treats equity crowdfunding like a smaller version of high-end investment banking rather than a form of charity or gambling.

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Equity Crowdfunding is the Ultimate Customer Loyalty Program

Alex Tynion from SeedInvest and I sat down recently to talk through some of the things that we’ve learned from helping the first few companies who have “tested the waters” under the new Reg A equity crowdfunding rules. Regulation A is an equity crowdfunding rule that allows private companies to raise money from the general public. So far, we have helped three companies on SeedInvest to reach over $10M in indicated interest from over 2,000 people each.

There are some common mindsets and practices that we’ve seen across the companies that have been most successful with equity crowdfunding.

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