A start up bridge to San Francisco

By Gill South

Kiwi Landing Pad hub puts New Zealanders right in the heart of software development community.

San Francisco is attracting the start-up software community - including New Zealanders - to the city. Photo / Getty Images
San Francisco is attracting the start-up software community - including New Zealanders - to the city. Photo / Getty Images

In the heart of the San Francisco software developers community, at the Kiwi Landing Pad in SoMA, Taupo teen Olly Johnston is testing his photo-sharing idea to Facebook and other savvy tech companies for product validation.

The 18-year-old has contacts, his mother's cousin is Gower Smith - the NZ entrepreneur behind the successful automated retail solution provider, ZoomSystems based in San Francisco. Smith, who does a lot of mentoring at the Kiwi Landing Pad, the hub for ambitious NZ tech businesses wanting a toehold in the US, has installed him there to network.

"Gower said three months in San Francisco doing the thing you love is equal to doing a three year degree," says Johnston.

Since his arrival, the budding entrepreneur has changed his idea to make it into an app.

"I met with the mobile product manager of Facebook, a friend of Gower's.

He said the main thing to worry about was scalability," says the former student.

"I could have spent a long time in NZ working on that, carrying on with it, and it would not have had the reach. Here is where the biggest market is and it would not have caught on."

Johnston is doing exactly what he should be doing, says Catherine Robinson, director of the Kiwi Landing Pad, and a seasoned entrepreneur, on the founding team of Xero among other start-ups. He's seeking product validation in the best informed place in the world.

"I'm loving every second of this. I want to come back," says the bright teen.

The Kiwi Landing Pad is the brainchild of entrepreneur John Holt and Sam Morgan, a private public partnership with the Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment.

Xero was the first resident there and current residents include Vend, Mako Networks, Eventfinder, NZTE, Biomatters and Streamtime.

Holt says: "The tech scene in general has changed enormously over the past 10 years. It's more realistic than ever to see Kiwi tech hitting the global scene without all the people and assets moving offshore - Sonar6, Aptimize and Litmos have proved this recently.

"A lot has changed in the Bay Area since I first started coming here in the mid-90s," he says. "San Francisco City has made a massive effort to attract the start-up software community at all levels to the city - SoMA ( South of Market Area ) specifically."

"We made the call that this would be the right place to set-up if we wanted to land people right in the heart of the action - only a few months later Twitter moved its entire staff into a building in the next block from KLP," he says.

One long term KLP resident is the fast growing Mako Networks, the NZ network management company which specialises in Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) compliance solutions.

North American President Simon Gamble, who has incorporated the business in the US, estimates that 75 per cent of the company's business will be coming from North America in the next three years.

Gamble, a company co-founder, sees San Francisco as the technological hub in the world.

"The US as a whole is very open, you do get a lot more of a hearing from senior executives here. If you have got a product or a solution that benefits a bigger organisation, their reps will give you the time of day."

End users of the Mako system are gas stations and fast food restaurant chains so Gamble spends a lot of time at their industry conferences.

"US companies don't care if you are a New Zealand business if we have got good technology," he says. "You need to be able to compete on the same footing," he warns. "You need to provide 24 hour support if doing business in America, and it has to be American."

With a total of 70 people globally and a turnover last year of $10 million, he might float the company at some stage, perhaps first on the NZX and then Nasdaq. "We could start in one and go on to the other," says Gamble.

Danushka Abeysuriya, CEO, lead engineer of smart phone software developer, Rush Digital Interactive was at KLP in San Francisco during February for a month on the Catapult programme. The US city is a mecca for gaming, computer development and platform development, he says.

During his month in San Francisco, Abeysuriya says he has wanted to get product validation for a game engine, for software framework validation and new business opportunities.

"The US is the primary market for us with a lot of the main developers here." The big names are in San Francisco such as Electronic Arts, which has a catalogue of thousands of games and Zynga, owner of Facebook games such as FarmVille.

"They are accessible as long as you are not wasting their time - they want to hear the next best thing," he says.

"The investors here know the jargon. They are able to ask the right kinds of questions," he says.

Andrew Radcliffe, co-founder and CEO of Blackhawk GPS Tracking Security, was also in town on the Catapult programme to explore opportunities in the US. Blackhawk tracks cars for the finance industry. If clients don't pay their finance, the Blackhawk device in the car disables it.

Radcliffe plans his trips around the regular industry tradeshows. "I arrange my meetings around them, otherwise I'd spend $50,000 travelling to see people."

In the US, Blackhawk is creating a platform for the dealership finance market, to integrate all the automated collection systems.

"There is a potential 500,000 dealers who could use it," says Radcliffe.

Another ambitious Kiwi, Andrew Somervell, COO of Eventfinder, the online guide to events, says his strategy is to partner with large media companies. "I'm out with top tier media companies here," he says. And LA is not far away with vast entertainment conferences.

"Being here is absolutely everything. Having an address, a local number matters."

Meanwhile New Zealand tech business Streamtime, which designs integrated business management software for creative agencies, is stepping up its commitment to the US. The KLP resident's global sales director is joining business development manager, Kate McLeod in San Francisco.

"Over one and a half years, my role has been to gain insight into markets. The US is like 50 different countries it's so diverse," says McLeod, whose partner works at Apple.

Clients appreciate that you are in the US. "When you say you are in San Francisco, it's a massive plus," says McLeod.


Gill South's US visit was self-funded.

- NZ Herald

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