Hoisting NZ tech flag in San Francisco

Bill Bennett explains why a verb is important for Kiwis cracking it in the US
Jamie Wilson, founder and product manager of Hoist, gets a lift from his second software update.
Jamie Wilson, founder and product manager of Hoist, gets a lift from his second software update.

Hoist founder and product manager Jamie Wilson says he will know his start-up is successful when people use the company's name as a verb. That is people saying they are "hoisting" when they write the integration code needed to use the service. It's a tall order, only a handful of tech companies are so ubiquitous that their name is used as a verb in the way. People Google information, they Skype each other and Facebook when spending time on the social media site.

Wilson admits that Hoist becoming a verb is at the upper end of the ambition scale. His says his shorter term goal is to: "Have a base of dedicated, happy, paying customers who provide us enough income to serve them well and innovate further. From there everything else is a bonus."

Hoist is a Wellington-based technology company. It's Wilson's second software start-up; he had an earlier run while a student. After getting started in the New Zealand capital, Wilson and Hoist are now based in San Francisco.

Being close to the world's software development epicentre in Silicon Valley makes a huge amount of sense for Hoist. The company's product is software that developers can use to link cloud applications. By its nature it is technical and specialised. To use Hoist you need to write snippets of code that, say, sends out a Twitter message when a Xero customer invoice is paid.

Wilson says New Zealand isn't any more or less innovative than other countries with similar wealth levels.

We don't punch above our weight. That doesn't mean there isn't great stuff coming out of New Zealand. Raygun and Atomic are massive hitters in the tech space right now, with lively US competitors. Two Kiwi groups Respondly and Gelato have recently been acquired by bigger San Francisco companies.

He says New Zealand's biggest advantage for a software start-up is also its biggest disadvantage: the small customer pool. This can make it hard, but he says: "On the one hand, it forces you to aim for monetisation quicker than foreign companies might. On the other, it can mean companies try to be too many things to too many people in order to find a market segment big enough to service.

"New Zealanders have access to opportunities that can help them get off the ground that wouldn't necessarily be available elsewhere. If you've designed a new way to bank, it's much easier to sit down with the head of technology at Kiwibank than it will be to meet the right people at JP Morgan."

He says scale is an issue New Zealanders can come up against: "It's important for new entrepreneurs to understand that, because even if you're a big fish in your New Zealand pond, you're just another guy or girl with an idea here in the Bay Area."

Another aspect of being a New Zealander in the US is what Wilson describes as a "lack of confidence". He says:

Kiwis are very understated. You might be pitching a product with 100 customers paying $10 a month in revenue and say 'we're not making much' or 'we're pre-revenue', where an American would saying 'we're killing it with 100 per cent of our first customers paying us'.

Wilson says while New Zealand's home-grown innovation is just as good as it is anywhere else in the world, there isn't always the right framework in place to nurture that innovation in a productive way.

Specifically, Wilson talks about the quality of advisers in New Zealand. He says: "We've had two major pivots or corrections in the last two years. Both of them came after revelations about the market and our users that were sparked by advisers overseas. There are many self-proclaimed advisers in Wellington, but many of them don't hold up on the world stage. If we had only relied on local advice, we'd either be dead or spinning our wheels while we spent our investors' capital."

Some of the money behind Hoist comes from Callaghan Innovation. In 2013, the company received a grant worth almost $180,000.

Wilson says: "Because Hoist is such a large undertaking under the hood, we've had to rely on external funds to get us from idea through to a sellable product. We've been the thankful beneficiaries of a Callaghan Innovation research and develop-ment grant as well as being backed by some amazing New Zealand-based angel and seed investors."

Wilson says talking to a lot of customers was key in taking Hoist from an idea to a commercial product.

"It seems trite but it's so easy to talk to two customers, combine their feedback and jump to a conclusion. Some of our upcoming features didn't start to form until I'd spoken to over 100 users."

- NZ Herald

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