BNZ Start-up Alley – a conversation with Nat Torkington

We’ve excited about the BNZ Start-up Alley and we’re already getting some great entries in!

Nat Torkington will be the MC for the event on the evening of Thursday 16 Feb at Webstock. Each of the six finalists will have 3 minutes to pitch to our panel of judges and then face a grilling of five minutes of questions. Nat is also part of the selection panel choosing the finalists.

We really pleased Nat agreed to do this and, honestly, can’t think of anyone better for the job. We recently talked with Nat about the competition, what he’s looking for and the NZ start-up scene.

Webstock: When we asked if you’d like to be involved in the competition as MC for the “Pitch to judges” session and as part of the panel selecting the six finalists, you wanted to know more about what sort of finalists we were looking for. In particular, you were adamant that the focus needed to be on companies with a product, with working code, with customers. Rather than someone with an idea. Why’s that important for something like this?

Nat: To be brutal, ideas are cheap. To be sure, Facebook was just an idea at one stage. But so was Ferret. How can you tell the difference? You build it and you see if people like it. There are a lot of business plan contests which, unless they actually check to see how the company is doing, reward people for being great writers. I wanted to make sure we didn’t fall into that trap: someone with a great idea doesn’t need a trip to San Francisco, they need to get their hands dirty!

Webstock: What role do competitions like this have in supporting and fostering a start-up environment or ecosystem?

Nat: At a high level, anything that normalizes the idea of startups is great. Many New Zealanders have an innate shyness about setting out on their own to make a mark on the world; our meritocratic instincts kick in when we think about being more than self-employed, and “ambition” is a dirty word. Yet, for the country’s sake and for our own, we need more of it. So contests like this are social proof to would-be entrepreneurs that it’s okay and not incredibly deviant to start a project that might just change the world.

And practically, the rewards are going to be good for some of these startups. Webstock has some brilliant and connected people in the audience, so the ability to make yourself known to those folks is golden. “Hey, we’re making these widgets and need help breaking into Europe!” is quite likely to be met with “I worked for a widget distributor in Germany; here, let me make introductions!”, as much as “Getting the iPad site going is kicking my ass” will be met with “hey, we can share our stylesheet tricks”. And then there’s the chance to spend time in San Francisco … there’s nothing quite so energising as being surrounded by brilliant people who support ambitious dreams of hard-working entrepreneurs. It’s like being at Webstock, only it never ends! (The coffee and design aren’t as good, though!)

Webstock: You’ve read Rowan Simpson’s recent post on the NZ start-up scene. What’s your thoughts? Is he spot-on?

Nat: Rowan and I go back and forth on this. He’s arrived at a place where he’s skeptical of everything but his sleeves-rolled-up get-amongst-it approach. I see success stories who got their start in business plan contests, who came out of incubators and flew, who took dumb money and still succeeded.

Success is where you’ve built something people want, and more people are paying you for it today than paid you yesterday, and you didn’t run out of money before you had more income than expenses. Everyone takes a different path to that point, and there’s no magic bullet that’ll get you from idea to your own island. Different people need different things at different times.

That said, it’s bloody hard to be helpful to a startup. It’s easy to give them money. Sometimes money is what they really need, but most of the time the money is necessary but not sufficient for success. It just gives you longer to find that thing people will pay you for, and to get sales growing faster than expenses.

Sometimes a startup needs help figuring out how to make money. Sometimes they need help with the product. Sometimes they need help closing deals. Sometimes they need The Meeting with The Person. Rowan’s genius is that he’s focused on helping the startup get past obstacles and delays, much more so than most other investors and incubators and similar startup mechanisms.

The BNZ Startup Alley is a targeted intervention: you think the Webstock audience and publicity can help you get past roadblocks? You think a trip to San Francisco will help you close deals with customers or partners? We can help you. You just have to survive the hard questions from Sam Morgan on stage in front of hundreds of your peers…

Webstock: Finally, what sort of things will you be looking for in helping select the six finalists? What’s going to make them, their start-up and their product or service stand out from the crowd?

Nat: I’m looking for variety: finalists who are going in different directions and need different things. It’d be a dull night if we had six todo list companies, each of whom needed help pitching for funding!

Thanks for your thoughts Nat. And for everyone intending to enter, the competition closes on Friday 13 January.

Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda – interviewed by Matt Haughey

One of the pleasures of being involved with Webstock is the opportunity to meet people like Rob Malda and Matt Haughey. And the chance to get the founder of MetaFilter to interview the founder of Slashdot just seemed too good to pass up!

We’re privileged to present this interview for you. Rob talks about standing on the shoulders of a previous generation near the end of the interview — those of us working in the web today stand on the shoulders of Rob and Matt. Enjoy the read…

Matt: I was a daily reader of Slashdot from about 1997 onwards (I usually ignored the Linux stuff but liked everything else), and it was a key inspiration for me starting MetaFilter. I thought I could combine the new (for late 1998) short link style of blogs like,, and with a community setup like Slashdot, but I specifically wanted a simple comment UI, so I basically looked at slashdot and made sure there was no threading, no ratings, no sorting, no extraneous form elements so it could just be a big textarea and a post button for comments.

What’s your reaction to hearing that? Did you ever wish the UI/design of early Slashdot could be different? What did you think of the big first wave of blogs around the year 2000 starting to take off?

Rob: That’s a lot of questions 😉

Regarding the simpler UI, initially Slashdot had a fairly simple UI as well. For the first 10 months there weren’t even user accounts: all posts were anonymous. But as we grew in size, the other cruft had to be added to allow defensive measures. By mid-1999 we had the roots of our moderation system in place, which existed for 2 reasons: To stop spam/trolling/garbage, and to promote quality content. But the latter was the byproduct of the former. The thing I tend to forget is that from 1997 to 2000, I was basically the entire engineering for the site. Also, I was the primary writer. And I was starting a business. So when the dust settles, the UI was pretty good for the era, but filled with compromises that I wouldn’t have to make today.

Regarding the first wave of blogs, I guess if I’m honest about it, I often feel like Slashdot never got the fair credit it deserved. As “Blogging” became a mainstream buzzword that you’d hear about on CNN, Slashdot simply got lost in the history. From my perspective, we figured out many of the details of Social Media Aggregation years before, and then a second generation came along and got all the credit… and it wasn’t because of their UI or technology or skill, it was because Slashdot was ALWAYS a niche operation. I stuck to my guns for my entire ride that Slashdot was one specific subject. A specific tone. A certain culture. In the earliest years, that niche represented a sizable percentage of the internet community. Blogging was completely mainstreamed by the time the Bush/Kerry campaigns and the networks made it conventional wisdom. At that point, bloggers were no longer “Nerds”, they were just people willing to type.

Matt: Looking back, I seem to recall Slashdot sort of aligned itself with more of a “we are a forum!” mantra back then. I remember in all the weblog early history stuff people would mention Slashdot or The Drudge Report as having some quasi-blog like elements but not really calling themselves that or embracing it. Does that mesh with your memories of the time? I seem to recall that for some reason in the late 90s, a lot of people felt it was important to say they weren’t blogging or blogs, but were instead journals or forums or everything/nothing (remember e/n?).

I recall weblog and blog being associated with a new fad around 1999 and there being some backlash — do you think that might be why Slashdot isn’t really considered an early blog but more of a paleo or proto kind of blog-like thing?

Rob: Slashdot was a lot of things, which is probably why it never gets pigeon-holed into any single bucket. We were a blog, a forum, a community, a social news system, and in fact we were a social network (you can still friend/foe people!) years before the term was popularized by that Book website and others. Since we were all of those things, we’re generally thought of as something else.

I still shun the term Blogging just as I shun the term Tweeting. It’s all just writing. It’s like trying to subdivide Novelist, Columnist, Blogger, Tweeter. Words are words. It’s not really interesting to keep slicing and dicing and sub-categorizing to me. I just write some stuff or share some stuff. Distinguishing between “Journalist” and “Blogger” is a waste of time. I’m all of those things and none of them.

Matt: I know the late 90s were kind of crazy for everyone, definitely including Slashdot, but if you could sum up your time at Slashdot through the following decade (2000-2010), how would you describe it? What were your day to days like during that stretch of the 2000s?

Rob: For me personally, I feel like Slashdot was very strong in the first half of that time. If you wanted to mark a few milestones, the bursting of the dot com bubble and then 9/11 represent sort of the end of Early Slashdot. At that point we knew what we were and what we were doing. We continued down that path for many years. Our traffic continued to grow, and since we were cheap to run, the rest of the business mostly ignored us. I don’t think people really understand how small scale of an operation it all was: we had 2-3 engineers for much of this time, and 3-4 writers. This basically was our entire operation and production teams. We were lean and mean, but it meant that we were unable to perform significant engineering changes. For the first 2-3 years, when I was doing all of the engineering I could simply sit down and build a new feature. But at some point, the mere act of maintaining a stable platform for our users, with our incredibly limited human and hardware resources became problematic. For a former hardware company, we had a remarkably limited amount of hardware. So instead of engineering new functionality for our users, we engineered more optimized systems. We became very scalable. And eventually this caught up with us. By the mid 2000s, the next generation of social media came onto the scene: the Diggs and Reddits of the world, and we didn’t have the resources to compete.

By the end of the 2000s and up until I left last summer, my focus shifted to be more on the editorial side. I wanted the product side to succeed: to add new features for the users, to fix bugs and stuff. But it was really hard to accomplish anything significant. For awhile, Slashdot’s engineering was a single guy. He was responsible for anything anyone wanted. Just one guy. Now he was an awesome engineer: but a solitary person can’t handle all the engineering and operational responsibilities for a site like Slashdot. The system has parts that are a decade+ old. So while the editorial group was able to do some good work, the site itself remained almost unchanged for the last few years save for a few superficial changes.

Matt: Did you have any big side projects during your time at Slashdot? Anything you’re most proud of that isn’t Slashdot?

Rob: These days I spend a lot more time with my 2 boys. I also did some early work on Everything2, I wrote a column for a magazine for several years. But I was pretty intensely focused on Slashdot for 14 years. The job was good to me too. I was well paid, and got to see some amazing things (like a Shuttle Launch and the inside of Pixar!). And it continues to sort of payoff for me: I’m looking forward to going to Webstock. I’ll meet some interesting people, and with any luck get to see something awesome connected to The Lord of the Rings. I’m told New Zealand is lovely in Feb.

Matt: What’s it like these days, I imagine it’s weird to view the site as a user and not have god-like admin controls. Do you still check in on the site?

Rob: I read Slashdot now exclusively via RSS. I’m still pleased with the majority of the editorial work being done. I’ve submitted a few stories anonymously too. But the day that all my admin controls disappeared I basically logged out and it truthfully hurts to go back. I miss it tremendously, and really wish that they had granted my request to be allowed to continue to post as an occasional special contributor or something. I suspect I’ll always feel like a piece of my heart is missing.

Matt: What’s next for you, do you have any general areas of the technology world that interest you these days?

Rob: I promised my wife that I would take a few months off from work before I began looking for a job. That time is now at an end, so it’s basically time for me to start shoving my resume out there and seeing what my next chapter looks like. I’m very interested in the way internet news is created and replicated. I’d love to find a way to work in that field again, but not directly as a news editor. I’d like to perhaps work on the tools that people use to consume. Alternatively, I love photography and writing, so I’d really like to have the chance to do more in depth writing on the subjects that interest me. Slashdot was always pretty limiting: 100-200 words was the typical max. It rarely afforded the opportunity to witness an event first person, or directly ask a question to someone who might add insight. I think it did some bad things to my short term memory- spending 14 years focused on such short snippets of information has done a real number on the attention span. But I’m still following very closely the tech world, especially gadgets, tablets, phones, open source, sci-fi, movies… Slashdot was after all based on the stuff I was personally interested in. That will never change.

Matt: Huh, I think of you as more of a creator and a maker than a guy that has a regular job. Have you considered building your own new thing or collaborating with various news organizations that could use your technical expertise? (I’m thinking of all the database-journalism stuff going on with people like Adrian Holovarty that helped launch Everyblock and what places like MSNBC are pushing and what the Boston Globe and The Atlantic are doing, or heck even what the Poynter Institute is trying to do with pushing reporters to learn some coding to better present data)

Rob: I tend to engross myself pretty hard core into things, so I just had to go cold turkey for a few months. You describe me in a very flattering light. I guess I’ll find out in the next few months if it’s deserved. I think I have some really unique skills and experiences that I hope will be useful somewhere in a way that provides me with interesting and meaningful work. For so many years Slashdot meant so much to me: I felt like the work i was doing mattered so much more than just a paycheck. Anyone who has been lucky enough to be in that sort of position would understand I guess. I imagine your work on MetaFilter might be similar- and since you’ve had the good sense to retain ownership, you are able to continue to shape your creation according to what you think is best. That matters a lot.

Matt: What’s your favorite bit of technology that you’ve encountered in the last year?

Rob: I saw the final shuttle launch. I cried. It’s really such an old technology, but it brought together my childhood and adult dreams in a single moment.

Matt: What’s your biggest disappointment in the tech world these days?

Rob: The internet is simply not as free as it was when Slashdot began. Government is increasingly legislating away our rights and criminalizing actions that are impossible to regulate. I know it’s inevitable, but it’s still disappointing to witness. The joy of logging in to an IRC chat room in the early 90s, to talk to people who were innovating powerful technologies simply for the sake of it was absolutely intoxicating. To be able to talk to the guy who was responsible for some component of your system. We were all pseudo-anonymous strangers brought together by the technology that we loved, and the belief that an open future was spread out before us. The future will be exciting for my children, but I’m afraid that their technology will come in boxes welded shut at the factory. Their software locked down. Linux, and the Internet broke everything wide open. It’s taken 20 years to get a lot of it boxed back up again. I hope there are still air cracks by the time my kids are old enough to jam screwdrivers in there.

Matt: Yeah, I definitely see that trend as well, there seems to be a real push-pull on the consumer side with simplicity and control. The iPad is a technical wonder, but it does have real limitations on what software you can run and what kinds of files you can view on it. People have speculated that perhaps by 2015 you might buy a Macbook that doesn’t have write access to the hard drive, and part of me understands why that would revolutionize computing for a lot of people but be absolutely horrible for power users like you and me.

Rob: And not just to power users, but to the next generation. We all stand on the shoulders of the generation before. This is true in EVERY medium. Writers, Artists, Programmers, Engineers. The trend in the last few decades to lock everything down… be it with rivets and welds, or with patents and copyrights that never expire… we’re crippling the next generation. The joy I felt being able to gut a PC, from the hard drive to the kernel during my formative years… you’re right: an iPad is amazing. I own one and love it. But what I got out of my first PCs in the 80s was more than what my kid will get out of an iPad today. I’m not trying to wax nostalgic, but there’s a potentially dark future out there. We’re crippling the next generation in the name of quarterly profits. Creativity and innovation requires more balance.

Matt: Thanks Rob for taking the time to talk!

Lauren Beukes – interviewed by Bruce Sterling

In the first of our interviews with Webstock ’12 speakers, we asked Bruce Sterling to interview Lauren Beukes. Lauren was excited enough about this to tweet with the hashtag #AlsoholyshitBruceSterlingisinterviewingme.

Here’s the interview. Thanks to both Lauren and Bruce.

Bruce: Since you’re a South African writer from Cape Town, you must get all those South African Writer cliche’ questions from your many foreign interviewers. Why don’t you tell us about a few of those? You don’t have to actually answer them.

Lauren: Ha, actually no-one’s really made a big deal about that. Or not unreasonably so. They usually ask me about other South African writers, which means I get to list my favourites (some of whom are friends). Best stuff I’ve read lately: Siphiwo Mahala’s wonderful African Delights, Deon Meyer’s edge-of-your-seat thriller, 13 Hours, Diane Awerbuck’s Cabin Fever, full of perfectly beautiful and fractured short stories and SL Grey’s incredibly disturbing consumer horror, The Mall.

Bruce: If somebody in distant New Zealand has pretty much never heard of “Lauren Beukes,” what do you think they should wise-up-to first?

Lauren: The best place to get a sense of me is on Twitter. Also, if my Wikipedia profile is still stating that I’m a kraken-wrestling zeppelin pirate queen, that’s not *entirely* true. [Ed: sadly, it’s not]

Bruce: You seem to be into a lot of creative work that isn’t award-winning futuristic South African cyberpunk thriller novels. Stuff like kid cartoons, techno-art, political satire, TV scripts, music and comic books. What gives with all that? Is that like your “transmedia strategy”?

Lauren: I love the idea that it might have been part of a grand tactical plan rather than lucking into some very cool things along the way. I’m a brilliant “managed procrastinator”. I’ll do anything to avoid writing a new book, including documentaries, comic books and kids animated TV shows. And it’s a nice balance. In 2009, I was writing a cute pre-school show for Disney about a little princess and her dragon friends by day and going home to write dark messed-up fiction about a magical criminal Joburg underworld by night. It suits me to vary my projects. It means I don’t get bored. I had a day job as a freelance journalist for a very long time and then got into TV script-writing, documentary making and, for the moment, I’m now focusing entirely on comics and novels.

Bruce: I hear you “directed” a TV documentary recently. With what, gaffers, best boys, lighting and all that? That sounds like a lot of hard work.

Lauren: Ha! More like a skeleton crew running around trying to catch up to our subjects, three hopefuls in the run-up to the Miss Gay Western Cape beauty pageant. I was really lucky to work with a brilliant experienced crew, including DOP, Nick van der Westhuizen, editor Izette Mostert and my husband, Matthew Brown who produced and did some of the editing, all on a ridiculous schedule. The trailer is here, if anyone wants to check it out.

Bruce: One of your novels has its own techno soundtrack compilation. Would madame care to expound on that?

Lauren: Again, I wish I could say this was part of some strategic brilliance on my part, but it just seemed like a cool thing to do. When I finished writing Moxyland, I approached African Dope Records, which has always been the future sound of Cape Town to me, and asked them if they’d consider doing a soundtrack to the book. They were a bit taken aback, but the idea intrigued them and they signed on to do a CD and digital release. HoneyB and I handpicked tracks from their catalogue to match the mood of the book and Fletcher of Krushed & Sorted did the final mix. And then we did it again for Zoo City, with HoneyB pulling in extra tracks for that authentic Joburg sound, with kwaito and disco soul and electronica from GhettoRuff and KaleidoSound as well as a selection of artists from Dope’s list.

Bruce: Webstock has got lots of web-geekery going on. Why don’t you entice the readers with some thrilling descriptions of the personal hardware set-up that you use every day? For instance: Ever find a word processor you actually liked? Me neither.

Lauren: I use Word. I know that’s sacrilege. But Pages doesn’t do the stuff I need it to do and I just can’t get into Scrivener. It feels like the time I spend learning how to use it and adjusting my brainspace is time I could be spending writing. The most important software I use is Freedom to lock me out of the Internet for set durations so I don’t mess around. Otherwise, Kindle for travel reading, iPhone for Twitter and email and entertaining my three year old and an iPad 1 for reading Wired and wasting time I should be spending writing (or learning to use Scrivener) by playing Plants vs Zombies.

Bruce: So, what does that three-year-old eat? She looks pretty lively. I can remember dietary preference being a major power-issue at that age. 3.

Lauren: Oaties! It’s a less sugary generic of Cheerios. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, plain yoghurt, spinach, crumbed chicken, fish fingers, bacon and carrots dipped in tomato sauce (but never more than three). It is a big power struggle. And she’s very, very stubborn. And smart. And often outwits us.

Bruce: You sure are super-active on Twitter. And you commonly tweet stuff like: “Was the US military drone virus caused by pilots playing Mafia Wars?” You wanna explain Twitter to people who still think it’s all about tweeting one’s lunch?

Lauren: Partly, it’s about finding cool curators of interesting links that wouldn’t normally cross your input field (although I suspect most Webstockers would have already picked up that particular one, which was from BoingBoing). You turn up some great stuff that I never would have found on my own, so does William Gibson, Charl Blignaut, @gammacounter, @theremina and @joeyhifi, among others I follow.

It’s an open conversation, a way of engaging with intriguing minds, of having cool random strangers engage with you, in a way that’s not weird or invasive (apart from that guy who was all “Yo, ‘sup, read my shit! I’m an awesome fukin writer.” by way of introduction.)

Bruce: Besides trips to other nations of the southern hemisphere, what comes next for Lauren Beukes?

Lauren: I’m hard at work on my new novel, The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer, which is due out in early 2013, and a twisted take on Rapunzel for Vertigo’s Fairest mini series, a spin-off of Bill Willingham’s brilliant and epic Fables, which should be out around August 2012.

Webstock 12 launch

When we started Webstock in 2006 one of the things that drove us most was paying tribute to the people that had inspired us — people like Russ Weakley, Doug Bowman, Steve Champeon, Kathy Sierra, Kelly Goto and Joel Spolsky. We’ve tried to keep that attitude with each subsequent Webstock, finding people who are doing bold, inspiring, amazing, awesome work and bringing them to New Zealand to share, and teach and, yes, learn.

So we thought it would be nice for this Webstock ’12 launch to bring it back home and feature some inspiring, bold and boundless Kiwis. And we’re taking a slightly different tack to our usual format. Each speaker will have 20 minutes to share with us something that’s inspired/challenged/influenced them. It may be a piece of music, a person, an activity, a book etc. It may completely unrelated to their work. But from it, they’ve gained some sort of inspiration, excitement, perspective that’s affected one area of their work/life, or perhaps that carried through to all aspects. We’re excited about what we might hear!

Three of the speakers are proving that the geographical isolation of New Zealand is no barrier to being world-class.

Rich Chetwynd is the founder of Litmos LMS which has been recently acquired by Callidus Software Inc (NASDAQ: CALD) a big kahuna SaaS company in the US.

Layton Duncan (who has one of the coolest company names ever – Polar Bear Farm) has been building cutting-edge, kick-ass iPhone apps since before the iPhone was officially launched!

And Vaughan Rowsell, sometime cycle tourist and possessor of a world-class mustache, is doing something potentially very big and disruptive, and certainly very exciting and innovative with VendHQ.

The fourth speaker is Pip Adam, current holder of the NZ Post Best First Book awards for Everything We Hoped For. Currently working on her PhD she’s one of those rare and wonderful people who cross the geek/creative divide. (Ok, it’s really a manufactured divide, but you know what I mean!).

And we’re also excited to announce Nicky Hager as our fifth speaker. He is the author of four best-selling books and has been described as, “quite simply one of the world’s best investigative journalists”.

His 1996 book, “Secret Power”, which probed global intelligence systems, was described as a masterpiece of investigative reporting. It won a US journalism award and led to a year-long European Parliamentary inquiry.

Hager’s 1999 book, “Secrets and Lies” exposed unscrupulous PR campaigns. In 2002, “Seeds of Distrust” caused a political furore with its revelations of the political management of the genetic engineering issue. His fourth book, “The Hollow Men” which exposed the internal workings of the NZ National Party, prompted the resignation of the Parliamentary Leader Don Brash on the day that the book was released.
– Scoop

But wait, there’s more…

Those who rock up to the Webstock ’12 launch on the 15th will be challenged to pit their wits and strain their brains to decipher another type of code – (think Da Vinci) – and the ultimate Code Cracker of the evening will win a free ticket to Webstock ’12! Instructions will be handed out at registration and the winner announced at the end of the evening.

And, of course, those at the launch will get the FIRST SNEAK PREVIEW of the Webstock ’12 speaker lineup!

So, things to do:

Find out more about the launch.

Go register!

See you at the Paramount on Thursday 15 September for the launch of Webstock ’12.