Wellington IT scene: SilverStripe on why the capital nurtures talent

TradeMe and Xero big influences on local scene, says SilverStripe CEO Sam Minnee

Web company SilverStripe may have opened a branch in Auckland, but most of its work still comes out of Wellington.

The capital certainly has features that make it a good place to do business, says SilverStripe CEO Sam Minnee. “It’s a city that attracts good people; a lot of our staff aren’t originally from Wellington or even New Zealand. We have a lot of people who have come from overseas because they like the sound of New Zealand and they like working in Wellington.

“Cities that attract talented people wind up being great places to set up shop,” he says.

So why does Wellington attract ICT developer talent?

“The lifestyle here is generally good - in New Zealand generally, but particularly in Wellington; it’s got a good dense urban centre compared to larger places like Auckland, which are more spread out.

“There are a lot of highly educated people here; a higher percentage of people that are university graduates. And frankly, I think the weather encourages people to knuckle down and get working; it’s not the kind of city where you want to be on the beach all day.”

Wellington’s suitability is partly a “chicken-and-egg” phenomenon, he says. People come here to work because there are already talented developers working and living locally “There is a good cluster of people and technology here; there are a lot of bars and cafes in the city centre; people get out and exchange ideas in informal ways; and it’s the kind of place where you can get out socially and find other people that are also passionate about the things that you’re passionate about.

“TradeMe and Xero are also two big influences on the local market; a lot of people either work for one of those companies or know people who do. To see people succeeding in technology on a global scale I think really makes a difference.”

SilverStripe, whose flagship is the open-source content management system of the same name, is a recognised success. But starting in February 2000, the newborn company ran straight into the bursting of the dot.com bubble and business was tough for a while.

“We had inconsistent revenue; fortunately we had a flexible cost base because we were all young, so we could work through those times; but it did force us to focus on delivering something of value,” he says, as opposed to something “fluffy” based on an vague and unsound business model.

“I think the industry as a whole, over the past decade, has had to do that - focus on proving the value of what it was they were building, rather than saying ‘well, we’ll sell eyeballs and who cares what the revenue model is’.”

Being in Wellington, SilverStripe gets a good proportion of its revenue from central and local government, and this, Minnee admits, is a shrinking market.

“Government agencies have to be very careful about what they spend and that’s noticeable. But I think there’s an opportunity, much like at the beginning, we’re forced to prove the value of what it is we’re providing. To that end, we’re working on a new product, targeted at providing government departments with a lot of what they [need in the way of] basic services in a cost-effective way. We call that SilverStripe Express.

“It’s based around the same content management system and framework we’ve had for years and it’s essentially going to be a collection of features and services that we see as being common requirements on government department websites, such that you can have more out of the box and get the basics up and running more cost-effectively.”

Version 3 of the regular SilverStripe is on beta release. The stable release will be coming out in the next few months. That’s got a lot more tools for rapidly putting together web applications and websites specifically tailored to the customer’s needs,” he says.

Does the move towards more consistent all-of-government ICT framework with syndicated purchasing mean potentially reduced business for s provider such as SilverStripe?

“I can see the rationale for [the all-of-government arrangement], says Minnee. “If a lot of government agencies purchase slightly different things under slightly different contracts I can understand there might be inefficiency. The difficulty with those things is that if done poorly, they limit scope for innovation. My main hope is that the people putting together these AoG platforms leave sufficient room for departments to be able to innovate.

Once you explore the finer detail of a government agency’s services “a one-size-fits-all approach becomes less applicable,” he says. “You have to think more deeply about what service the government department is providing in this instance, what do users want and what’s the best interaction online to facilitate that.

“It’s unlikely that all-of government approaches will produce effective outcomes for that kind of project,” he suggests.

SilverStripe prefers to work with companies that see the web as a strategic part of their business, “improving business and tying people more deeply into the way that organisation works”, rather than simply as an organisational “face”, Minnee says. “We work with a number of different industries – central and local government; the membership organisations like AA, banks like Westpac and non-profits like Plunket. We work for a broad range of sectors. But they all see the web as strategic to their business.”

This is the second in a series of three articles about the Wellington IT scene. Tomorrow we look at the government's move to open data.

See also Former IRD CIO turns tech entrepreneur

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