Gatekeepers of Silicon Valley Come to Auckland

Greg Hall

A visit from Silicon Valley investors Sam Altman and Scott Nolan had Auckland’s startup community buzzing, with the pair coming to town as a part of a half-work/half-holiday tour of New Zealand. They’ve already seen some of what New Zealand has to offer, and on Friday joined a selection of NZ  innovators at Spark City to talk about innovation and its importance to the global economy.

The buzz is justified. Silicon Valley has long been the world’s number one hub of high-tech innovation and accounts for over one-third of all venture capital investments in the United States. This is because the valley is littered with venture capital firms and business accelerators, whose mandate it is to seek out promising young tech start-ups, seed them money and help them grow.

Altman is the President of one of the most prolific of these firms, Y Combinator, while Nolan is a partner at another: Founders Fund. For many, businessmen like Altman and Nolan hold the keys. A quick show of hands at the start of the evening indicated that those in attendance were there because they had businesses- or business ideas – of their own. The chance to hear the representatives from the Mecca of tech startups is invaluable for these people. For them, it is the opportunity to take a rare glimpse at the ‘secret sauce’- the exclusive insights that- they hope will capture the attention of the wealthiest of investors and catapult their business into the stratosphere of success. And so, as the speakers took the stage, the captivated crowd listened intently.

Sam Altman was the first to step up to the mic, and his message was clear: Execute early. “Winning teams keep winning, and losing teams keep losing. Execute early.”

He was also quick to speak highly of Auckland’s developing reputation for innovation: “It is a foregone conclusion that there is going to be a startup ecosystem here.” Indeed, the state of Auckland’s innovation space was emphasised by all five speakers, though some were more frank than others about the differences between our ecosystem and its ‘big brother’ in America.

“Kiwis have billion dollar ideas,” assured Peter Beck, chief executive and technical director of Rocket Lab, a Kiwi high-tech firm that was itself recently ‘handed the keys’ by Silicone Valley investors. “But we rarely aspire to billion dollar companies.”

The sentiment was echoed by a later speaker, Vaughan Roswell. “People in New Zealand have aspirations; they just don’t talk about them.”

But when Nolan took the stage, it became apparent that the time he had already spent in New Zealand meeting with promising start-ups had left an impression. After praising the lucky few firms that he had scoped out, he continued in a measured tone: “California and New Zealand- they’re not so different. Don’t look up to California: think of them as your peer.”

He emphasised New Zealand’s unique value to innovators across the globe as well, and as an example, he talked of commercial drones and the many potential innovations they invite left waiting in the wings whilst their legal status in the United States is untangled. “We’re waiting too long for the FAA to adjust their laws and make their legal status certain- where do these firms go? These firms go to smaller countries, like New Zealand, with less regulatory overhead.”

No doubt the big visit has been fruitful so far: GlassJar, Canterbury’s solution to the trials of flat financing, have the honour of being among the first to reap the benefits of the visiting venture capitalists, securing Y Combinator’s standard investment of $US120,000 along with constant feedback and mentoring as their product and company progresses. If Altman and Nolan’s enthusiasm for New Zealand’s growing innovation sector are to be believed, GlassJar won’t be the only NZ company to get the golden ticket in the coming year.

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