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When winter turns to spring

When winter turns to spring

A nuclear winter. That’s how a US venture capitalist described the current business environment for IT in the US.

A nuclear winter. That’s how a US venture capitalist described the current business environment for IT in the US. Things are not much better here at present but I believe that we have yet to see summer in New Zealand when we compare our situation to the development of the IT sectors in other countries.

Yet there are signs of spring; most apparently in the volume of people stepping up to help others develop their innovative and entrepreneurial talents. I know of a number of instances where requests for advisory boards and mentors have been oversubscribed. With a shortage of skills and experience to expand global business being identified as the major impediment to the country’s economic development, this manifestation of philanthropic knowledge-sharing bodes well for the future of our home-grown high-tech sector. However, we need to improve our infrastructure for applying this talent and to ensure the quality of such support is of the highest standard. Here we have some work to do, I believe, judging by feedback from a few participants.

I recently had a thought-provoking meeting with a software engineering student. He is fired with a passion for IT and with the desire to become an entrepreneur. It’s a desire he formed while at Rangitoto College (arguably one of our most entrepreneurial secondary schools), where one of his heroes was a senior student who started his own business while at school — an activity from which he was asked to desist. Now in his first year at Auckland University, my student friend is disappointed with the absence of anything entrepreneurial in the syllabus until his final year.

He sees the university having a great proliferation of services aimed at easing students into employment while offering a profound lack of support for those who are perhaps more entrepreneurial and wish to pursue their own initiatives in business.

He and a growing group of students would like to start their college education on the basis that they will leave to start their own business rather than be forced into the service of others in order to repay their student debt. They would like to gain hands-on entrepreneurial experience while under the university’s guidance. This is not mentioned as an option, let alone promoted. For him the two courses offered at final year level — “Creating wealth from technology” and “Innovation and new product development” — are too little too late. For me they appear to miss the mark.

Unfortunately in New Zealand we tend to reinforce the “blokes in sheds” attitude, in which the innovator is en-couraged to become an entrepreneur, when in reality they are two different animals. Innovators are inward-looking idea creators who will work on an idea and develop it to market readiness. The entrepreneur, on the other hand, builds the business processes to take the idea to market and make it a success. The two go hand-in-hand. While innovative ideas in this country are currently a dime a dozen, we don’t have the entrepreneurs to market them.

The problem partly stems from universities being manned by those who are big on corporate strategy, but lack the experience of having to take a business idea from nothing and turn it into a success. It is not something you learn in an ivory tower. Part of the process can be taught, while the remainder comes from the hands-on experience my student friend and his classmates are clamouring for.

Let us hope that significant progress has been made in this area by the time the $25 million government grant for Auckland University’s new business school is banked.

How to partner our young entrepreneurs with high-quality mentoring experience poses another challenge.

I recently went to a seminar run by Kel Marsh, of Corporate River, advising small businesses on how to be successful. I had a rather jaded view of what possibly remained to be said on the subject but left impressed with the information Marsh dished out. It was revealed that he, too, had gained from failures and successes in his business life and one of the biggest warnings he gave was to be wary of who you got advice from.

Business coaching is a hot subject and Kel advised attendees to beware of those who know what to say but have little by way of business success to back it up. Beware, also, of someone who produces a 10cm-thick business plan and thinks the job is done. This last item struck a chord with me, having only days earlier encountered the sad story of an IT business that had just about gone under as a result of following “expert” guidance. The guide in question had a track record similar to Typhoid Mary but none of the victims had checked the quality of what they were being offered. It was not the first time I had heard of this problem.

My young student friend also complained of a lack of follow-through. He entered a business plan competition where the winners were announced and that was it — no follow-through, no opportunity to develop the idea, no support to take the plan any further. His philosophy was that what we should be offering our students is more resources, not courses; that what they need from university is mentors, access to information — hard-core, hands-on experiences, not just theory. How can we as an industry make this happen, instead of adding to the current talkfest as to what our education sector should be offering?

We need to seek out our top mentors. Create the Mentors’ Oscars and let the students do the legwork, weeding out who has the entrepreneurial credentials to win a statuette. It would not be confined to IT but could cover other business sectors. It would provide a highly relevant research project for budding entrepreneurs and an up-to-the-minute annual market study of our business mentors, highlighting those who have what it takes to groom others for success. It would be the exact opposite of “those-who-can’t-teach” — you would have to prove you can teach to earn the right to pass your knowledge on to others.

The preconceptions associated with the word “mentor” are really too limiting for what we need to achieve. We need people who have a very strong commitment to the team they are coaching. The Maori word “Tuakana”, with its familial big brother connotation much better captures the spirit of what is to be done and would be a fitting name for an award.

Who, as an entrepreneur mentor, would not wish to be honoured for their capability to help create successful ventures? It would certainly do no harm to their commercial charge-out rate. It would also create a business base for an entrepreneur’s syllabus and the evolution of best-practice guidelines for mentors.

Another area we must address is our propensity for hiding, or at the least sitting on, our ideas. We are preoccupied with idea ownership when we have very little track record of growing them into businesses. We should be sowing ideas like wildflowers so that at least some of them may take root. That way New Zealand might gain global recognition for its innovation, rather than merely being world famous in our own minds. After all, what’s an idea worth if it never comes to anything? It could make a great TV programme, with innovators presenting their ideas on each show to a panel of judges who vote their ideas a hit or a miss. The concept is similar to a very popular UK TV programme from the distant past, Juke Box Jury. Exposing ideas to public scrutiny could be just what it takes to get an entrepreneur involved to turn one into a success.

It all comes back to making this activity sexy. If we can start at secondary school level, why can’t we follow through? My young friend likens the situation to rugby in the US. Entrepreneurs there are regarded as major league players and rugby as an elitist club with a social emphasis that is not taken seriously. In New Zealand the reverse is true.

Internationally the role of entrepreneurs is gaining recognition. UNITEC recently represented our country in the finals of the SIFE World Cup competition, an international entrepreneurial challenge held last year in Amsterdam. We lost out to Ghana, runners up to the winners, the US. SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) is active on more than 1000 college and university campuses in more than 25 countries. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see the finalist’s presentations online at www.sife.org.

We should make this type of competition our national challenge — not the America’s Cup. Winning SIFE could get New Zealand into business magazines around the world, but until we start taking creating entrepreneurs seriously, it is like trying to win the America’s Cup challenge in a dinghy.

John Blackham can be reached at ajb@xsol.com

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