The uncomfortable truths of Kiwi business
When it comes to the global success of Kiwi businesses, are we really the renowned, worldly innovators we think we are?
While the rest of the world is inventing the next nano-gadget or changing the face of industries that fundamentally affect the way we live, New Zealand remains a country seemingly content to live off primary sector exports, one that shies away from risk and one that takes a largely parochial view of business.
Don’t get me wrong: with the right application of our talents we have a lot to offer the world – some of our biggest and brightest are genuine influencers on a global scale. But it should be noted that, while the average Kiwi believes we punch above our weight on the world stage, it tends to be those exceptional few we are referring to.
The truth is, if we aspire to be more impactful and relevant in overseas markets, it is critical for the next tier of New Zealand businesses to be much more proactive in thinking and acting ‘globally’.
This doesn’t just mean farming out our operations or products offshore; anyone can do that.
It means addressing the pathological caution that leads to a lack of appetite for innovation in this country. It means developing the experience and expertise needed to engage with the rest of the world. And it means putting greater focus on investment rather than falling back on costcutting.
In short: we’re overcautious, we’re inexperienced and we’re just too mean, and that needs to change.
The future is not for the cautious. How many managers do you know who gladly take risks with their people? How many give their younger staff stretch assignments, really big challenges that create big learning opportunities? How many set the tone and create the environment for new and innovative thinking? And how many establish processes for ideas to be created, assessed and turned into something exciting?
Sure, this is nothing new; businesses have been talking about the benefits of creative processes for years. The issue is, in New Zealand that talk hasn’t led to action, and because of this Kiwi companies are slowly losing the confidence of one of their strongest links to world markets – engaged and high achieving expats working in increasingly senior roles offshore.
Our expats are seeing companies that are not tuned in to the way business is trending globally. They see the gulf between the innovative, new wave of thinking of their adopted market and the ‘same old, same old’ caution back home, and can’t help but be uninspired.
Convincing them that we are truly geared towards acting and thinking globally is key to unlocking these markets, and it starts with demonstrating a passion for innovation and new world thinking.
This is where our lack of experience becomes evident. Kiwis are some of the world’s best tourists – we have been everywhere and seen everything. Yet, strangely, we are among the worst traders. Either we fail to recognise business opportunities or we lack an understanding of how to leverage them.
And without practical, real world experience, those opportunities will continue to pass us by.
More experience means getting out in the world and learning what our customers want and how to sell to them. It means getting back into the classroom and up-skilling where necessary. And above all, more experience means recognising our shortcomings against global competition and working to address them.
Lean Meats, a Hawke's Bay lamb company, know all about this. Its move into the US market saw the company’s chief executive relocate to California to develop knowledge of the local market. The company is experiencing phenomenal growth under the Atkins Ranch brand – a name which, in itself, shows a certain level of savvy resulting from local market learning. I can’t think of any Hawke's Bay farm with the word “ranch” on its sign.
This isn’t to say we need to abandon our ‘Kiwiness’ – it is an integral part of our selling potential in so many markets. Rather, more experience means learning how to leverage it at the right times to make connections in international markets.
That’s what Jeremy Moon, founder of Kiwi clothing label Icebreaker, is doing in Australia. His product screams ‘Aotearoa’ in a market which many believe to be a tough sell for our national brand. Not for Jeremy, with his Marino jumpers being snapped up by punters in Sydney and Melbourne by the thousands.
Jeremy’s point of difference is his understanding of how Aussies want to see and experience Brand New Zealand. His story is as much about a sensational Kiwi product as it is about sound market education and a passion to sell his vision to the world.
Our competition is no longer the shop down the street; it’s the fast moving startup in China and they’re not waiting for us. They’re studying for post graduates and doctorates, they’re up-skilling and they’re hustling for business.
This is why the “she’ll be right” attitude should no longer have any place in New Zealand business. Instead it must be replaced with innovation, learning and investment in our people, lest we risk being left behind.
Phil Veal is a founder and managing director of Matakite Capital, an alternative asset manager based in New Zealand. He is chair of DialedIn, a provider of cloud sales software. Phil has a Bachelor of Engineering with honours from the University of Canterbury and chairman of Kea, New Zealand’s global network. Phil is an active investor in early stage businesses.