Hemi Rolleston: Modesty curbs NZ tech success

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Callaghan Innovation's interim chief executive Hemi Rolleston. Picture / Supplied
Callaghan Innovation's interim chief executive Hemi Rolleston. Picture / Supplied

It seems even our brightest tech innovators exhibit that classic Kiwi self-deprecation in public, and - as a group of 20 such businesspeople discovered this month - it's something we need to get over when selling on the world stage.

Callaghan Innovation has just taken a delegation of 20 firms from all over New Zealand to the world's biggest software-as-a-service conference in San Francisco, the SaaStr Annual.

For those uninitiated in tech-speak, SaaS stands for Software as a Service, which describes any cloud service where consumers are able to access cloud-based software applications over the internet, as opposed to buying the software themselves.

Google, Facebook and Twitter are all examples of SaaS.

One of New Zealand's best known examples of a SaaS company is Xero, which develops cloud-based accounting software for small- and medium-sized businesses.

From humble origins in New Zealand in 2006, this is now one of the fastest-growing global cloud-accounting companies in the world, used in more than 180 countries.

Xero is killing it on a world scale and proving you can build a truly global business from New Zealand.

There is no reason why others can't follow.

We as Kiwis just have to believe it.

The delegates Callaghan Innovation took to San Francisco got a good dose of validation when mingling with 10,000 companies from the global SaaS community.

Ryan Baker, founder of Dunedin appointment scheduling software business Timely, said:

"As Kiwis I think you tend to beat yourself up a bit and underplay your own success. We went to the conference not really knowing where we sit in terms of being able to compare ourselves with many similar companies.

"But there were a lot of people who really understand how hard it is to get started and what it's taken for us to get where we are - in four years we've grown to 35 staff and 7000 customers, and been profitable for the last nine months," said Baker.

"I think a lot of people look at the Silicon Valley companies and see them as overnight successes, but speakers at the conference were talking about building long-term sustainable companies and were 10 to 15 years into that experience.

"So I think it's important for people to know - especially if you're a first-time founder - that if you haven't built the next Facebook that's fine. A more normal approach is to plan a long-term business over a five or 10-year period."

One of our other delegate's products got snapped up by the SaaStr organisers in San Francisco.

They were so impressed with the Strea.ma software of Hawke's Bay company Mogul that they used it for their conference.

Strea.ma enabled the organisers to have a live, interactive social media wall, making it easier for attendees on all sorts of social media to join the conversation, share a thought, or upload a photo. This was great exposure for the product.

Likewise, another company from the Callaghan Innovation group was able to secure a fantastic opportunity for taking its product international.

Trevor Montgomery from Auckland firm Innovative Health Solutions, whose product Prometheus uses webcams to give users real-time feedback on their posture when working at their computer, was lucky enough to have a chat with one of the big business networking giants.

"On the back of that we're in the early stages of an implementation plan for them to trial our product in a couple of countries."

Not bad, considering they hadn't even gone to market yet - aiming for an April 1 launch.

Like others, Montgomery has also noted how important it is to overcome that typical Kiwi innate sense of modesty, especially if it means underselling ourselves or our products.

"One thing that really stood out was the importance of getting your price point right. Don't discount your product as it will look like it's inferior. And don't be the lowest price on the market because people's perceptions will change about how useful or valuable your product is," said Montgomery.

"It was good to see Kiwis up on the stage presenting. It made you feel you could stick your chest out a bit and say 'Yeah we're Kiwis and we're doing this!'"

It's a message I hope is ringing in the heads of all our Kiwi SaaS firms as they return to New Zealand with a renewed sense of confidence and belief in their abilities to succeed on a global scale - as the likes of Xero have proven before them.

As SaaS continues to get bigger - growing to an estimated US$112.8 billion ($155.6b) in the next two years - Kiwi firms cannot afford to hold back.

Hemi Rolleston is Interim chief executive of Callaghan Innovation

- NZ Herald

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