Wellington. First thing in the morning, the sun is out (one of our twenty three allocated days a year) and I’m talking to Rohan Wakefield outside the Memphis Belle Coffee House on Pigeon Park. Jessie makes a great coffee and the café itself is an eclectic mess, it looks like someone took the full contents of a hipster’s house and vomited them into a small corner shop.
Rohan is co-founder of a company called Dev Academy, which is part of Enspiral, a cluster of startups on the very edge of innovation based in Wellington’s informal tech precinct that stretches from Xero to Te Aro taking in Courtenay Place and Cuba Street, a far cry from the corporate and government sector at the north end of the CBD.
Enspiral is a cluster of tech-based businesses and startups that are working together to create a common community. Rather than adopting the old business models based on competition and dinosaur processes, these guys and girls work together collaboratively and play together as well. They are the new generation of high-tech entrepreneurs who have put community value above profit.
Founded by Joshua Vial in 2010, Enspiral now encompasses more than ten startups and over a hundred professionals in a thriving tech community.
“Each business pursues purpose over profit. For example Dev Academy will invest a portion of its profits into projects attracting school-aged children to a career in tech.”
Dev Academy is what Rohan and I are talking about today. It breaks some traditional business models and while it is still a relative fledgling, it has the promise of a very successful business that could be replicated globally.
“There is certainly a shortage of hireable technical talent in Wellington. When Dev Academy achieve what they aim to it will be a huge benefit to tech companies” – Ari Sargent CEO of Powershop
Rohan and Joshua originally set out to setup a recruitment company with a focus on sourcing ICT professionals, in particular, developers. The initial focus, tech people hiring tech people was well received, though one of their customers joked “good luck finding developers.”
‘Although there are a reasonable number of computer science and software engineering graduates they’re trained in out of date technologies and methodologies. These candidates needed a lot of up skilling before they start to contribute to company income. One of Wellington’s most iconic tech companies said “we don’t have the resources to train the graduates we need to grow our company – every grad we take on takes more of our senior devs away from developing our product.”’
Very quickly Rohan and Joshua found that it was true. The number of suitable developers in the market was low. Trying to find developers was proving hard and the market was thin. So what to do. Any other recruitment agency would have either thrown in the towel or started head hunting. Not these two. They decided that they would create developers, and the put them into the local companies. A big ask.
The first thing they did was talk to over forty local companies about their requirements. A massive exercise that whittled down what kind of developers they would need including details of the technology skills required. Then, they had two options. Import the developers, or create the developers. So they got on a plane and went to San Francisco to talk to Dev Bootcamp. A company that was turning out developers in as little as nine weeks through a seriously intense boot camp process.
They brought that model back to New Zealand and established the Dev Academy.
“This is a great initiative to increase the skills of New Zealanders in the IT sector as we build more globally competitive businesses. This partnership with Dev Academy is a great step forward and I look forward to working with Dev Academy students and seeing the results on graduation day,” Rod Drury, CEO of Xero
What interested me was the model that they chose. It threw out the tried and true system of using competition to breed out the best and took a far more collaborative and open approach, a tech community, to come up with the answers. Enspiral as an overarching entity is doing something different, and they weren’t afraid to share their goals, and ask for help, locally and internationally.
One of Enspiral’s members, Linc Gasking, founder of Free Range, invited Lee Ka-shing, founder of Horizons Ventures, to visit New Zealand to meet eighty two high-tech startups in four cities. Horizons Ventures said that New Zealand, and Wellington in particular, had the fundamentals of a great start up and innovation industry, but that it was underdeveloped. Isolation from markets means meant that we needed a coordinated strategy from government and industry to build our start up ecosystem.
I asked Rohan what it was that they thought government could do to support them. He gave me three thoughts:
“To co-develop a long term strategic plan and build up a functional infrastructure for our start up ecosystem to thrive.
Also for the government to have a procurement preference for NZ Tech providers. Time and time again we see international service providers over spend, under deliver and blow out timelines. Government should be walking alongside our local tech industry to develop their capability to solve out IT needs locally.
From the Dev Academy perspective. Government could overhaul the way tech is taught in our schools. It is an exciting industry that is crying out for diverse talented people. If Government supported community and industry led programmes to deliver tech training into schools with the aim of attracting talent to a career in tech, our future would be much brighter.”
Pretty simple and pragmatic ideas. Work with the wider ICT industry and support them by investing in the necessary infrastructure, give a preference to local ICT providers when it comes to government work, and overhaul tech training from schools through to tertiary providers.
“Wellington already has a strong tech and creative flavour. It needs to build an industry that will fill the void left by the flight of corporates to Auckland. Wellington has a collective feel and focuses on problem solving – it’s less concerned about building personal wealth.”
Creative Wellington recently brought out Troy Henikoff, a well-known international start up guru in the tech scene. He made six points about Wellington, which can be extended to the ICT industry as a whole in New Zealand.
- Startup communities have to be entrepreneur-led (government can support, but can’t drive community development)
- Ecosystem development is a long term investment – think in terms of 20 years
- You have to be inclusive of anyone at any level
- This is not a zero sum game. Startups don’t compete – there are no losers and winners at the ecosystem level. The ecosystem learns from positive and negative experiences.
- Give before you get – put energy into things and do not expect something back – grow the ecosystem – change your corporate thinking.
- You need events to bring everyone together, to keep energy flowing around the system.
After three coffees at Memphis Belle my head was buzzing. I shook hands with Rohan and he headed off back to his tech precinct. I felt positive that ICT in New Zealand stood a great chance of turning out more tech start-ups. Enspiral is just one of dozens of tech start-ups that were thriving in New Zealand. Prospects were looking up, and with a push from local business and central government, the new models had the potential to change all the rules.
“Out of all of the other centres Wellington leads the way in start-up development. We have a strong foundation of service providers and we are starting to think of Tech as one of the key incomes of our region. Undoubtedly we have a long way to go to be a thriving tech town.”