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.