The lure of offshore shoals

Last week's story about Bulletin Wireless moving its development team offshore, frustrated at its inability to get development funds from the government, tends to provoke one of two responses: regret that Bulletin couldn't get a funding boost, or comments that the government shouldn't be funding business ventures anyway.

Last week’s story about Bulletin Wireless moving its development team offshore, frustrated at its inability to get development funds from the government, tends to provoke one of two responses: regret that Bulletin couldn’t get a funding boost, or comments that the government shouldn’t be funding business ventures anyway.

The debate was compounded somewhat by a related story that developer i-health, which did receive funding, has been sold to an overseas investor.

Bulletin COO Bruce Herbert and team manager Mark Easton are adamant that the company would have retained a New Zealand development base if it had received funding.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Bulletin is moving closer to the US market because the opportunities are so much greater there. Although development could continue in New Zealand, American venture capitalists are known for their insistence that a company’s head office be nearby.

For a New Zealand company like Bulletin that believes it has the right product at the right time, VC firms provide much more than just money. Successful venture capitalists know the industry and its major players; they can make introductions and smooth the path for companies they take under their wing.

Bulletin developers will move in March or April to their new offices in Sarasota, Florida. Apparently they’re looking forward to it, but Herbert is concerned that some of the Kiwi can-do culture will be lost. “The old number-eight fence wire thing, it’s great. I guess we’ll lose that to a degree.”

Mark Easton advises IT entrepreneurs looking for moderate seed capital to avoid the bureaucratic tangle looking for funding and concentrate instead on meeting those New Zealanders who have already brought successful products to market. “Go and talk to certain individuals who know their way around these things,” he says. “That’s the amazing thing about New Zealand — you’ve got these people walking around with all these amazing ideas.”

As for the government's funding programmes, the money on offer isn’t the issue, rather it's the difficulty of learning how to obtain it. “There are a lot of funds out there. There’s got to be a simple process by which you can identify what you should be going for, and who can help you do it.”

He’d also like to see better guidelines for what a successful application entails.

“Once you’ve got those guidelines, there has to be some pretty good reason why you have not got that funding.”

The process shouldn’t be time-consuming, distracting senior staff.

“Maybe a person [should] come into the company and through a quick audit process makes sure that the company’s appropriate for funding. If it’s going to cost you a few thousand dollars to get an audit done, that’s fine.”

Four MBA students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, meanwhile, have been giving their thoughts on how best to develop New Zealand companies. They suggest we have to choose between supporting companies that export overseas and keep their R&D operations in New Zealand, or companies that remain based here in their entirety.

The students listed some of the positives about New Zealand companies: determination and commitment; a culture of energy, enthusiasm and family support; technology innovation and creativity; a “can-do” work ethic; and that “people know what they don’t know”.

It’s a familiar list. New Zealanders are great at thinking out of the box; and diligent at designing and building a product. We’re just not always so good at finishing it and selling it.

As for Easton, he'd like to return one day with useful contacts to perhaps work with local startups. “I love it here in New Zealand,” he says.

Cooney is an Auckland reporter for Computerworld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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