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Startup Aotearoa launches to boost number of successful founders

Startup Aotearoa

The national platform provides coaching to early-stage founders to set them on the right path.


Fiona Rotherham

Ministry of Awesome head of programmes Zach Warder-Gabaldon

A recent Startup Genome report estimated that to have a healthy startup ecosystem New Zealand needs one startup company for every 1,000 people – in other words around 5,000 high-growth startups. We only have around half that, and 58 percent of them are based in Auckland.

What will shift the dial? In what is the first nationally coordinated startup programme, the Ministry of Awesome and Creative HQ have co-led the establishment of Startup Aotearoa,  which deals with people who want to become startup founders but don’t know how to go about it.

Think of it as a kindergarten before you go to school. The New Zealand startup ecosystem primarily supports later-stage startups or offers fragmented earlier support depending on what area of the country you’re in. 

Part-funded by Callaghan Innovation, Startup Aotearoa will provide coaching services to create a funnel at the top of the pipeline, and participants, if they want, will then be referred to other ecosystem providers.

Zach Warder-Gabaldon, head of programmes for the Christchurch-based Ministry of Awesome, says the ecosystem has tried to create more startups through incubators and accelerators, but that presumes a certain level of readiness by entrepreneurs or companies.

“The thesis behind this is to have an always-on, always-door-open programme. Any person with any idea – mums, dads, students, you name it – they can say ‘I have this idea, but I don’t know how to get started and who can help me?’ Startup Aotearoa is the answer to that.”

Joe Slater, GM of startups at Creative HQ in Wellington, says the new programme plugs a gap in the startup sector at the very early company stage, where people may be sitting on the fence about whether or not to give their idea a crack.

“There’s a lot of support at the middle and late stages from government agencies and things, but if we’re trying to become a startup nation and have lots of exports then we certainly need a lot of support at the top of the funnel, which is where this comes in and can really help build strong foundations.”

Creative HQ GM of startups Joe Slater

Better connected

Slater says venture capital firms and accelerator programmes collectively turn away hundreds of applications a year, but with a little help those startup ideas could be turned into valuable propositions. 

There is also a clear understanding that the New Zealand startup ecosystem is too fragmented and parties need to better work together, he says. Startup Aotearoa involves Creative HQ, Ministry of Awesome, GridAKL in Auckland, Soda Inc in Hamilton, The Factory in Manawatū  and Angel Investors Marlborough in Nelson, and will be expanded further to other regions depending on demand.

Startup Genome’s global research indicated startups operating in highly connected ecosystems grow 2.1 times faster than those operating in poorly connected ecosystems. 

The Upstart Nation report to the government last year recommended, among other things, better ecosystem connectedness, founders asking for more help, and improving the quality of that help.

“The data shows us that while Kiwi founders are good at making initial connections, we are poor at asking for help. Feedback also indicated that founders felt that many of the mentors or advisors they were connected to did not have relevant experience, particularly in scaling globally,” noted the report.

Startup Aotearoa offers free personalised one-on-one coaching sessions provided by a team of paid advisors who are experienced in building companies or have been involved in helping others do so. It can be delivered face-to face or online depending on where the founder is based.

Warder-Gabaldon says advisors have been thoroughly vetted to ensure they have the right required mix of hard and soft skills.

“Maybe they’ve founded startups or they’ve been high-level operators and managers in startups, but they understand the journey, even from the very early days.”

The idea is to keep the coaching local to the founder’s region, although there will also be sector experts who can help in certain areas.

When describing the group of advisors, he uses the metaphor of a salad bar and “that it was a really vast salad bar”.

Startup coach Jamie Cairns

The coaches

Startup Aotearoa will use set criteria to assess whether candidates are a fit for help. The criteria include being New Zealand based and having a globally applicable idea. Coaching is limited to 10 sessions that will be tailored to the founder’s goals – such as gaining entry to an accelerator.

Jamie Cairns, one of 16 coaches nationwide, has had plenty of hands-on experience both founding and running startups Snap Internet, The Colocation Company, CropLogic and Taska Prosthetics. He was also general manager innovation at the former Canterbury Development Corporation.

The coaches will ask the right questions of founders rather than saying yay or nay to their ideas, he says, though they may suggest a pivot.

“There have been plenty of companies down here that have been fobbed off by other advisors as being just a spare-time hobby or whatever that have gone on to major achievements – Ethique is probably a good example.”

“I don’t think it is about torpedoing ideas, but asking the right questions and bringing people around to thinking are the expectations they have for this company going to be replicated in the results and market size they’re looking for.”

“The worst thing you could do is just give them the Shark Tank negative treatment and discourage them from even looking at anything else.”

Soda Inc's businss manager Anna Devcich

Anna Devcich, business manager for Soda Inc, says local mentoring and being able to meet face to face will be important to founders. The business growth organisation has previously dealt with founders seeking incubator support and mentoring, and Devcich says initially they’re primarily seeking validation.

“What we found previously was when we thought ‘oh yes this business might have a bit of legs’, it just gave them a bit of a boost and a bit of a ‘maybe I am onto something’.”

The trick is to then get the idea out of the founder’s head and ensure they understand market validation and their customer, she says.  

Coaches will also ask founders if they are the right people to lead their companies because executive leadership is not for everybody, says Cairns.

He hopes Startup Aotearoa will help fast-track early-stage processes for founders.

“There are so many things that are falling by the wayside, or that people don’t know where to go, so they sit on the shelf. It’s a real tragedy. I hope this initiative is going to encourage people to come forward.”

Amua founder Roger Johnson

Good feedback

Founder Roger Johnson is one year into building his agritech startup Amua with co-founder Thomas Ponter-Amor. The startup is part of the Ministry of Awesome’s accelerator Founder Catalyst and will shortly pilot trials on-farm of its patented technology to divert farm nitrates out of fresh water and turn them into sustainable natural fertiliser. 

It’s close to finalising a working prototype that it hopes will reduce nitrate leaching and nitrous-oxide emissions by utilising nitrogen already on-farm, at half the cost of imported synthetics.

A Canterbury farmer and former industrial designer, Johnson originally had another idea: a fold-away suspension seat for marine and aviation applications. 

But once he ran it past a couple of people (Jeffrey Ling and Shawn Melley) in the Christchurch startup ecosystem, they advised him to focus more on his second idea: helping improve the environment by reducing nitrate leaching.  

That feedback gave him early confidence to chase that goal, and the idea that he first had in 2014 when he went farming and learned about the long-standing cow urine patch problem. 

Johnson says he’s had a ton of support from different people and two Callaghan Innovation grants, but would have welcomed a programme like Startup Aotearoa when he started out as it would have been easier to get hold of people in one spot.

The advice he and his co-founder did get from various local mentors, including successful founders, he says, has meant Amua is ahead of its development milestones. 

“It’s just blown me away. I honestly feel like it’s not Thomas and me, it’s actually that whole ecosystem around us. When they say it takes a village, I can see what they mean. Some of the calls that you have with people or meetings can be so influential and change your direction.”

He estimates more than 80 people have each given Amua up to a few hours of their advice and energy: “That’s the village,” he says.

Slater says the programme aims to help around 800 founders a year.

“We’re plugging a gap and really hoping that we can empower hundreds of people to start great companies that they might not otherwise have.”

This story was brought to you by Startup Aotearoa.


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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