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New Zealand’s Startups

Chris Bacon: "Get as many founders in your life as possible"

Networking may seem too hard for some startup founders but others say it’s a vital skill.


Fiona Rotherham

Komodo Wellbeing co-founder Chris Bacon

Komodo Wellbeing CEO and co-founder Chris Bacon came to New Zealand from the UK seven years ago to do a PhD, which he never got around to finishing because he set up a company instead. 

Christchurch-based Komodo pivoted three years ago into a data-driven wellbeing platform that enables schools to make effective interventions with students.

Bacon says he’s learnt the value of networking as a startup entrepreneur over time and was really forced into it because he didn’t know anyone when he arrived in New Zealand.

“I had to build something because I had nothing,” he says.

Like many startup founders focused on growing their businesses, Bacon says he “naively” devalued networking early on as just talking to random people who didn’t really add much value to him at that point. “It’s hard sometimes to see that long-term game of ‘what does that actually lead to?’, but once you’ve been in the game for a few years you realise how important it is.”

The Startup Genome report commissioned by MBIE observed that startups with high local connectedness grew 2.1 times faster than startups just trying to do their own thing. Many Kiwi founders surveyed for the report said they were easily able to reach out and meet fellow founders given the relatively small size of New Zealand’s ecosystem.

While New Zealand’s overall culture encourages collaboration and informal mentorship, the flip side is Kiwi founders hesitate to ask for tangible help from other founders rather than just ‘catching up’. 

Marian Johnson – a member of the Government’s Startup Advisors Council and CEO of the Ministry of Awesome, which provides startups with advisory support – says the social piece is there but the transactional piece is lacking. 

She also notes that women founders of high-growth companies are less likely to be well networked in the startup ecosystem and, specifically, less likely to be well networked in venture capital and capital-raising networks. This potentially feeds into why women founders aren’t well represented in funding statistics. 

David Downs – chair of the NZ Hi-Tech Trust, which aims to help high-tech companies grow – says networking is vitally important to startup founders, particularly in New Zealand where it’s relatively easy to access people.

“But you’ve got to know the people that can get you into those right circles.”

Networking is useful in a number of areas, Downs says – from capital raising, to looking for employees or potential customers, to accessing startup ecosystem support and the connectivity you need when starting a business.

“We’re lucky in New Zealand that our two degrees of separation thing is such that fairly quickly you can get to someone who knows someone who knows the thing that you need to know, or can connect you to the right person or the right opportunity.”

Downs has a habit of meeting two to three new people a week from people who have reached out to him, usually through connections.

“I’m really open to that sort of thing, though it does cause a bit of chaos in my calendar,” he says. “But it’s incredible how often dipping into that network becomes useful; someone might ask me for a mentor and I’ll know somebody I met for a coffee six months earlier.”

Ministry of Awesome CEO Marian Johnson

Lead with a question

Downs says networking is a learned skill and not always the easiest for those who are more introverted.

“But it’s part of the job of a startup founder. You can spend your whole time focused on your product but that’s not going to make your business successful. You’ve got to understand how to get that product to market and how you’re going to find the right investors, or employees or whatever.”

Early on, Bacon says people would tell him to speak to certain people and not be afraid to talk, but he found that challenging.

“You have to approach it from an advice-driven perspective. You have to go in with a question to ask, otherwise time and time again if you’re not careful you go into what feels like pointless conversations because you don’t have that ask at the end of it.”

When talking to investors, rather than just saying ‘I want your money’, you should put a question back to them asking ‘this is our challenge. Have you solved that before or can you introduce me to someone who has?’, he says.

Bacon says the first lesson he learned about networking was to speak to other founders and get as many in your life as possible. When you first start up you’ll want to talk to people who are just one step ahead of you and have just set up their shareholder agreements or gone through a seed round or got their first customers, he says.

“They’ve experienced the challenges and the problems that you’re going to face either today or tomorrow. That’s my biggest learning and I wish I had put myself around more founders earlier on.”

Komodo was originally based at the University of Canterbury’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, then moved to Te Ōhaka Centre for Growth and Innovation, which houses early stage high-growth startups. The company has now shifted into the Health Technology Centre, which houses other healthtech startups.

When dealing with a group of founders you’ve connected to, let yourself be open and vulnerable, he says.

“You naturally want to pull that image of ‘we’re awesome, we’re smashing goals’, and all of that. It’s hard to put that aside and go ‘we have this problem’ or ‘we have this challenge’. When you find founders, they’re the ones you should be the most vulnerable with because it’s a tough journey and they understand it.”

Bacon and Partly co-founder Nathan Taylor have created an informal group on Slack of around 150 different startup founders across Christchurch who connect bi-monthly to have the equivalent of watercooler conversations on the challenges they’re facing and solutions they’ve found.

Johnson says most cities in New Zealand now have some kind of startup community where new founders can reach out to other founders, whether online or in person. 

“Go find it and go start hanging out with it,” she says. “For example, in Auckland there’s a community called Startup Grind where you will always see and meet other people who are on the same path as you. And that’s beneficial in multiple ways – not just knowing you’re not alone but getting solid advice from people who have already navigated the current challenges you’re navigating.”

NZ Hi-Tech Trust chair David Downs

Incubator or accelerator?

Downs is not a huge fan of incubators and accelerators, but admits they work well for some as they put founders in an environment with like-minded people doing similar things.

“I don’t think it’s exclusively the only way to get ahead. There are now around the country meetups, ad hoc events and different cluster groups that have got those ways of connecting that don’t need the formality or the rigidity of going through a particular programme.”

Johnson says they can be helpful at a certain stage, but an incubator will be too early for those first starting out.

“But being part of a startup community is absolutely ideal at that stage. You can test, you can question, you can get help, you can look at other people’s lean canvasses and you can just be part of that general optimism right at the very beginning.”

The time to look at an incubator, she says, is after you’ve built something and have some validation around your customer and demand for the problem you’ve solved. 

“Once you have that nailed then that is when being in an incubator is incredibly important because it’s at that stage that an incubator, if well run and well guided and with the right mentors and community in place, can keep you on the straight and narrow so you don’t divert your focus into things that will put you into long rabbit holes.”

Johnson says once a founder is part of an incubator or accelerator they should try to get out of the house and into a space with others like them.

“Those watercooler moments happen all the damn time and particularly when you’re in a space that is just for startups. It’s important to check that wherever you go has other founders rather than just being a co-working space and that those people are you in two years, as that will be an inspiration – ‘I can do that’.”

International networks

Bacon says the single most valuable networking element he’s connected with was the Startmate Accelerator for Kiwi and Australian startups, for which Komodo was selected at the end of 2021.

Through Startmate he was introduced to a range of international founders, mentors and advisors who he says “open your mindset up” to what you haven’t yet thought about.

“It helped us raise investment rounds, it’s helped us connect with some of the best founders in the world, and that international connection is just as important as connecting to excellence within New Zealand if you want to take your company on to a more broader international scope.”

The Startup Advisors Council’s recent report said founders often face challenges establishing international connections that can help them access markets, expertise and funding opportunities, and they needed continued Government support to facilitate global connections. Founders who joined former prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s trip to the US in mid-2022 would attest to the ongoing value of the trip and the connections made, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise, it said.

The report recommended expanding New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s role in international connectivity for startups to include creating consistent, regular ecosystem-level connectivity between New Zealand and the leading global startup ecosystems.

Other feedback from founders was that many of the mentors or advisors they were connected to didn’t have relevant experience, particularly in scaling globally. The report recommended a new national body, Accelerate Aotearoa, be set up to establish a systematic programme of founder and mentor connections.

There are already some great connectors within New Zealand; members of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, for example, provided 5,000 hours of mentoring to startups last year. But the report said not all connectors have been well utilised, and Accelerate Aotearoa could help by taking the lead in pulling together a national view of the scaleup talent within the ecosystem.


Fiona Rotherham

Fiona Rotherham has worked at numerous business publications as editor, co-editor and senior journalist. Her passion for startups was sparked while working at former entrepreneur magazine Unlimited of which she was also editor.

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