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I’ve never viewed myself as an entrepreneur

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How Urban Intelligence cofounder, Mitchell Anderson, made academic theory user-friendly.


Mary Hurley

Founder Mitchell Anderson presenting his work internationally

When Mitchell Anderson started his engineering degree at the University of Canterbury seven years ago, he did not expect to leave with a doctorate and a business. 

His startup, Urban Intelligence was born in 2021 to support decision-makers in risk management and resilience, with the help of his supervisor, turned-co-founder, Dr Tom Logan. 

With similar areas of interest, the co-founders had connected at the university following Logan’s return from an academic stint in the United States. 

Anderson says: “We were doing some research and, early in the process, it became apparent the decisions of local government, regional councils and the private sector were being made from inappropriate pieces of evidence. Climate change and disaster events aren't static, so why should the evidence we use to prepare and react be?”

“For us, it was saying the way we handle risk in Aotearoa, quite generally and for a magnitude of reasons, is really poor and there are now proven methods with much better ways of doing it that can involve the real owners of risk: communities.” 

Anderson and Logan decided they could turn academic research into something applicable and easy for decision-makers to understand. At first they envisioned a consulting service, but soon realised a SaaS business had greater potential to scale their mission of enabling evidence-based decisions for a resilient future. 

“My soft spot is product development; how we stay at the bleeding edge of research and practice,” Anderson says. “We always had the software and models supporting our consulting work, but we realised focusing on the software is where we can add the most value, not just nationally but globally.”

In late 2023, Urban Intelligence released its digital platform, Resilience Explorer, which supports the user in navigating challenges posed by climate change and natural hazards. Designed in collaboration with iwi and councils, it offers intuitive geospatial mapping, visualisation of asset and network data, interactive simulations of hazard events, and risk assessments based on world-leading research.

Bootstrapped thus far, the startup has grown to a team of 17, approximately 12 full-time employees, in the last two years, and increased its revenue sevenfold. To date it has supported more than 20 districts and organisations to understand their risk, and build resilience across 6 million assets and sites from more than 900 hazard scenarios.

The platform has also attracted global interest. The co-founders recently presented forums across Australia, Europe and the USA, notably the International Society of Risk Analysis Conference in Washington DC, and Anderson says they are currently negotiating “a couple of contracts”. 

Anderson sits down with Caffeine to discuss his founder journey. 

Mitchell Anderson

What do you wish you knew when starting out? 

It’s boring, but Tom and I come from very technical backgrounds. The whole business thing was quite new to us. 

That’s not to say we were completely useless starting out. We certainly had a decent idea of what we were doing and were smart enough to investigate wherever we didn’t, but there was a lot we didn’t know. I wish we had backed ourselves a little more.

The biggest issues were pricing and sales. We were trying to sell a product we were passionate about, but we were building for a new market. 

At the start, we spent a lot of time thinking over every decision, going out and seeking advice, which takes time and money, especially when the advice received was more or less: “you guys are in a new space and are going to have to figure it out”. 

I wouldn’t say I advocate for the fail-fast method, but I think there is somewhere between risk aversion and failing fast safely. 

What did you learn from things going wrong? 

Because we weren’t well-versed in the business and strategy space, it was key for us to have advisors to bounce ideas off in the very beginning. In this early stage, we very nearly made a mistake with advisor equity.

Within two months of starting the company, we engaged a recommended advisor. The first thing he did was talk about these ESOP agreements as standard practice for experienced individuals with new start-ups. He wanted a slice of the pie for monthly meetings that would last no longer than an hour.

It was a completely new language to us and we very nearly went through with it. Thankfully, we held out. Two and a half years later, we haven’t given away any equity, though investment is very much on the cards as we look to supporting decision-makers and communities globally.

Resilience Explorer interface

How did you realise not to go down that path?

It was a gut feeling more than anything. The individual’s approach raised a few red flags. If he had gone about the same thing differently, he probably could have swung us. 

You have to be a devil on the details and take the time to understand your contracts and what your partner wants from the relationship. 

Who have you worked with that’s been helpful to your success?

Since we started, Dr Charlotte Brown and Dr Tracy Hatton from Resilient Organisations have been our main consulting partners. 

They’ve been invaluable in terms of understanding daily business operations. As we work in similar fields, we’ve been able to test assumptions with them and work directly with them to deliver meaningful work. I don’t think we would be where we are now without their support and working alongside them. 

Of course, there’s Tom Logan, my co-founder. He drives innovation, can see where the status quo is going wrong, and knows how to tackle it. It’s been great shadowing him over the last few years. 

There’s also Michelle van Gaalen, the managing director of Smith&Smith. She’s been an advisor for the last couple of years. She has brought a real commercial spin and support to the operations and governance space, which, as a new founder, is a completely different world.

Finally, the CHAP team from Christchurch City Council were our first major partners, and since the initial work, we have formed great personal and professional relationships. Their team has been at the forefront of adaptation from a local council perspective, which has helped us direct the product in the right direction for many other councils around the country.

Cofounder Dr Tom Logan

What is the best advice you received along the way? 

I tossed and turned this over a bit, but the one I’ll give is quite simple: Whenever you make any decision, it’s easy to get trapped in the excitement of what it will look like if it goes well and most of the time it does. 

But, the question posed to us when we started the company was: How does this go wrong? What are the scenarios where this gets really awkward or blows up in everyone’s faces? Then, what mechanisms can you put in place to stop that from happening? 

What advice would you give an early-stage entrepreneur? 

Over the last two and a half years, I’ve been dragged more and more away from the technical side of things into leadership, strategy, operations and that kind of stuff. It’s been an excellent learning curve.

It made me realise you have to be a generalist, and you have to be committed: thinking about your team and mission in the early hours of the morning and late into the night. What got me through was being able to align my personal goals – partner and family included – with the goals and trajectory of the company. This makes it easier to get through those rough patches all founders will have been through.

Resilience conference in Nelson Tasman

What was your first entrepreneurial moment? 

The way I see it, entrepreneurship has two parts, curiosity and innovation; the question of how do we do this better?

I’ve never viewed myself as an entrepreneur, so to speak, but I’ve always been curious, pulling things apart at a young age to see how they work, or finding easier ways to do daily mahi.

As I got older, I took that interest and became more specialised through university and other means, honing those skills and applying that curiosity until it became innovation.


Mary Hurley

Mary Hurley brings three years experience in the online media industry to the Caffeine team. Having previously specialised in environmental and science communications, she looks forward to connecting with founders and exploring the startup scene in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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