The Moxie Sessions: Tertiary schmertiary - why a new generation of tech stars are starting businesses instead of studying them

Stqry co-founder Ezel Kokcu

Life used to be so uncomplicated. You went to school, got UE, studied something sensible (like law or commerce) and joined a big company. You worked your way up over time, maybe spent a year or two in a “development role” overseas, and retired in due course with a pat on the back, a book of photos and the sense of a job well done. Right?

Things are different now, if participants at our Moxie Session on Youth in Technology are any guide. The world has never been friendlier to new ventures, even apparently crazy ideas like a gun to replace your fly-swat that uses salt for bullets can attract substantial interest. Low-risk, low-cost bootstrapping combined with customer-centred design make it easier to start something quickly and grow it if it is successful.

Crowdfunding lets you tap into the power of your support network to fund turning your cookie store into a travelling cookie bus, for example. New technology also makes it a cinch to research markets, find customers, and build your team. Plus you get to work on your own thing rather than having to swallow someone else’s corporate values.

For Ezel Kokcu, co-founder of Wellington cultural place-making app Stqry (pronounced “story”), starting a business and defining your own path is a realistic option but one not usually presented as one to young people. The content of the education system is defined by teachers not by students, and basic things that are essential to business are left out, like how to engage people, how to form and work in teams, and how to bring people together around an idea.

Christian Silver, who created a programme to teach code in schools while still a student, was also interested in education, and focused on how we can engage students in making technology rather than just using it. He is working against some major trends. He says the tablet and the smartphone are so easy that they make people uninterested in how to actually make it work.

Laura O’Connell-Rapira, of campaigning platform Action Station, uses online tools to help young people to take action on issues that they care about. (Fear not gentle reader, by “young” Laura means people “under 40ish.”) For her, the internet age brings real power for people to connect directly with causes and influence change on issues that matter to them, without going through the middlemen or relying on whitewashing corporate CSR efforts.

But don’t you need money to do your own thing? Laura sums up the discussion in the room: “Once upon a time, money would have been a huge barrier to doing just about anything, but now that our medium is digital, money is hardly a barrier at all. We can create content and make things without spending a cent.”

But don’t you need training? One view was that university was a needless distraction when just getting started in business would teach clearer lessons in a much more practical way. But it depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you want to be a doctor or a dentist, then please do go to university for all our sakes.

You might also benefit from focused education on your particular issue: Christian is heading for university to study computer science. But education and what you study should be more of a conscious decision rather than just walking a well-worn path to a future pay-packet.

And don’t you need your own big idea? Not really. Sure you need to bring something to the venture. But you don’t need to be an entrepreneurial go-getter with a plan to change the world. You can jump on someone else’s campaign bus.

Laura again: “sometimes the best thing that you can do is join a team”. And you don’t just have to pick one thing and call that your job. In the modern working world you can have a portfolio of efforts, some that pay the bills, some that provide motivation, and some that might just change the world in time.

So are we going to open our eyes one day and find that every 28-year-old guy in Wellington has a line of artisanal pickles (as reported for Brooklyn by Enrico Moretti? Or perhaps find that our national prevalence of small businesses is not a handbrake on economic performance but just a reflection of the fact that we have lots of successful global businesses set up by folks with an apartment not far from Queen St?

Some in the room, notably business commentator Andrew Patterson, thought that corporates could respond by making smarter use of the talents of the young people that they often seem to ignore today, connecting new hires more directly with the CEO, and putting more young people on boards. If the mostly young Moxie Sessions crowd this time around was representative, there was some gentle scepticism about whether corporate leopards could really change their spots.

Either way, you could be forgiven for thinking that corporates will increasingly struggle to attract and retain talented young people. Particularly if you combine these changes in possibilities with the growing requirement for businesses to do good by their customers and the wider community (something we discussed at The Moxie Sessions just recently. The corporate path is no longer the yellow brick road.

Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see themoxiesessions.co.nz. In March, we were welcomed at the Spark Lab to meet some young people working in technology.

Thanks to Alcatel Lucent and its ng Connect programme for their generous sponsorship that helps to make The Moxie Sessions possible.

Hayden Glass is a consulting economist with the Sapere Research Group, and the convenor of the Moxie Sessions.


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Great to see that the validity and desirability of formal tertiary education and corporate model itself are is being questioned. I think this is a very positive trend.

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Alternatives are awesome until they become the norm.
...a few years down the new yellow brick road.

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I work in the tech space - and while we certainly have an over subscribed number of young talent starting tech businesses - we have a very high number of those failing unnecessarily.

It's great to have a good idea, it's great to spend months creating code, but with no money - and no real experience; that's where it normally ends.

It's different if come from a business family and have that support (and likely a little bit of financial support) or you perhaps have mentored support through a network like the Icehouse (which is awesome btw). but the reality is most of these startups are no resourced to deal with the simple economics of running a business. Yes - you can learn - but it can quickly become chicken and egg stuff.

I'm all for seeing more incubation - start up support businesses and short term mentoring made easily accessible to these young people so they can just get on with being our next generation of entrepreneurs and be less worried about things like where to raise cash, how to employ staff, legal, marketing, grants, tax (the list infinitely moves on).

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