Are we aiming high enough?

Mahesh Muralidhar, Venture Capitalist

8 January 2023, 16.7k views

Bear Grylls once said there is only one word to describe New Zealand – EPIC. He’s right, we are epic, but are we aiming high enough to future-proof our country? Join Mahesh Muralidhar, Venture Capitalist, as he shares his thoughts on the importance of reinvigorating our economy, what we can do to encourage more start-ups and frontier businesses, and why they are essential for a successful New Zealand.

“There is only one word for New Zealand – EPIC!” said Bear Grylls.

New Zealand is epic. Our young beautiful country. Our modern-day democracy which has punched above its weight and has had the confidence and identity to stand up for its principles. We are the nation of Kate Sheppard, Ernest Rutherford, Whina Cooper, Edmund Hillary, the All Blacks, Lorde and Lydia Ko.

I moved to Aotearoa as a young teen in the mid ’90s. I grew up in a simpler New Zealand, a hopeful New Zealand. A proud New Zealand. We won the America’s Cup, had a record-breaking South African tour and a movie trilogy that saw our local talent beating the Hollywood
elite to their own trophies. New Zealand was hitting loud, clear global notes consistently. Recently though, it feels like that hope and pride has been blunted. Crime has increased, our brain drain has escalated, there is a cost of living crisis, and I hear from our youth, especially, that sense of hope has really dwindled.

So why is this? A country’s well-being and stature is impacted by how well the economy is going. Our economy has not been growing at the rates we need it to, and critically our net exports to GDP ratio is dropping at alarming rates. We have not reimagined our economy. Agriculture and tourism are critical pillars, but we need to grow sectors which generate even higher levels of productivity. We need our economy pumping again. We need to once again be a country that produces and exports world-class products. Fonterra and Xero are great stories, but we need more frontier firms, to future-proof our economy.

In my view, startups offer the most legitimate accelerated pathway to building these frontier firms. Canva is an Australian startup success that I was part of – it started off with two youngsters from Perth in 2011 and, by the end of last year, was valued at $40Bn USD. This is twice the GDP of Christchurch. With every multi-billion dollar startup success story like Canva comes thousands of jobs, leading to more resources and investment into education and health,and a pipeline of opportunities and hope for the next generation.

So how do we build a vibrant startup ecosystem in New Zealand? Three things:

  1. Leaders across all areas of business, politics, civic society need to dream bigger, be open and curious around global best practice and recognise we are playing a global game for talent and resources.
  2. Our economic systems need to promote higher levels of risk and ambition through reduction of red tape and taxes.
  3. We need to bring in the right fit global talent to help steer our startup ecosystem as well as the entities to support it.

So wait, what is a startup?

Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, which produced Dropbox, Airbnb and other massive tech companies defined a startup as a business that aims to and achieves 5% growth week on week as a general standard.

Technology, especially the prevalence of software, has made it possible for anyone in the world to make a product from anywhere and market it to customers everywhere in the world.

Paul Callaghan, tech entrepreneur and New Zealander of the Year in 2011, believed that just 100 NZ entrepreneurs can turn this country around. He talked about trusting Kiwis to build global companies, of setting up systems and promoting a culture that infuses the natural entrepreneurial spirit we have but to dream global, dream big, dream world-changing, world defining products.

To do this, as a society, we need to celebrate and encourage our entrepreneurs to dream even bigger. Instead of asking about “when are you going to break even?”, we should be asking and nudging “how can you be bolder and be the best you can be?” Richie McCaw famously scribbled on a piece of paper that he wanted to be … not just an All Black but…”A Great All Black”.

Our founders must back themselves to be global business leaders, who think beyond the limits of New Zealand constraints. To see global business leaders as peers and global standards as the right fit benchmark. Being New Zealand great or famous is just not going to cut it. Be open, be inquisitive and play a global game from day one.

And finally, we need to walk the talk. To have the humility to bring in the knowledge and expertise to build global startups; as well as the systems and economic incentives to nurture them.

A proud, successful, and even happier New Zealand is one that I dream of every day. And I know we can make it a reality. Are you with me?

I’m Mahesh Muralidhar, Venture Capitalist, for The Common Room.


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