Wellington: A Capital Place for a Startup

New Zealand's capital city is home to hundreds of startups, some with a bright future – and some not.

Wellington isn't the first city that springs to mind when one thinks about technology startups in New Zealand. Auckland would receive that honour, not least because it has a population that's around four times as large as the capital's.

There are other reasons why an observer might relegate Wellington to 'also-ran' status. Despite being the seat of government, which itself accounts for a significant number of technology businesses and some of the highest IT consultancy rates in the country, some believe that the city is dying. It certainly lacks Auckland's double-digit annual property price inflation, though it's hard to portray that as a negative.

Walking through the capital, reports of its death seem greatly exaggerated. Spring is cautiously arriving, warm sunlight beginning to counteract the grim southerlies that can knock 10 degrees off the temperature in the space of an afternoon. Streets are busy yet not packed, but then this compact city rarely bustles, unless you count the bar and club scene of Courtenay Place on a Saturday night.

It's a good size for a city: big enough to have variety, small enough to be manageable, with plenty of attractive venues for young entrepreneurs wanting to wind down after a hard day's strategising and coding.

And it's not lacking in startups. Cloud accounting software company Xero is the most newsworthy example of recent years and its meteoric rise has left some analysts wondering why it hasn't decamped to Auckland. There's no sign of that happening yet, with at least three large waterfront buildings playing host to Xeroites with their distinctive blue-logo T-shirts, sweatshirts and drinks bottles.

But there are other startups with lower profiles. Keen to counter the image of Wellington as wet, windy and populated with overpaid civil servants, work is afoot to demonstrate the breadth of business acumen here. Earlier this year, Massey University and the Dominion Post newspaper jointly announced that the city had more than 400 startup businesses, all drawn by the unique qualities of this bijou city.

Those qualities include Wellington's business-friendly environment. Wellington Institute of Technology is based here, churning out graduates with the necessary STEM skills to work in any logic-based business. Victoria Business School, part of Victoria University of Wellington, provides people with the other skills required for startup success.

There's government funding earmarked for start-ups, and an economic development agency geared towards helping new and existing technology businesses grow. Shared IT office space and incubation environments are available in the CBD and elsewhere (BizDojo is one example). These are perfect for bringing together different startups to help them learn, grow and interact with each other.

Not all of those startups were pure technology offerings, but then the line between business and IT is a little contrived these days: each informs and depends upon the other. Still, it's possible to pick out a few Wellington start-up companies with technology at their heart.

Here's a selection of the IT-oriented start-ups listed in the Massey / DomPost publicity, with an update on where they appear to be now:

  • Wipster: "Inventors of a beautifully simple platform that helps everyone involved in the video making-process share their feedback." Nice looking website, sufficient arty staff sporting beards and a Twitter feed that was updated moments before I wrote this sentence. Still based in Wellington but with an office in California too. Looking good.
  • LearnKo: "Originators of an online teaching site helping people in China learn English through face-to-face lessons with Kiwi tutors." Slick and polished website in Chinese and English, looks to be well developed, with offices in Wellington and Shanghai. An interesting example of remotely-provided education.
  • PledgeMe: "Instigators of a collaborative way to help fund and support creative projects online." Busy website with a nice take on crowdfunding: doing it locally and for artistic efforts that otherwise might be overlooked. One of the first licensed equity crowdfunding platforms in NZ, in a market that's still new. Worth watching.
  • Publons: "Creators of a world-leading, crowd-sourced, peer-review platform for academic articles." Website being regularly updated with new reviewed content, looks to have a fairly substantial team on-board, new features and functions announced in August. And, speaking as a science nerd, it's a nice idea whose time has probably come.
  • Expander: "Creators of a tracking and analytics platform that gives export brands tools to fight counterfeits, as well as helping them link to consumers." Now based in Auckland with a different website brand that's freshly updated. Interesting technology with a proven market. Should do well.

Of course, launching a startup isn't always plain sailing. Some of the prominent startups mentioned in the joint PR exercise are apparently no longer in business:

  • KidsGoMobile: "Producers of state-of-the-art digital parenting software that helps children learn to be responsible on their mobile devices." Website seems to have died. Facebook page went quiet in March.
  • Teamisto: "Originators of smart online tools to help grassroots teams, clubs and competitions run like well-oiled machines and generate new streams of sponsorship revenue." Website is not contactable at the given URL.
  • PaperKut: "Inventors of a white-label, paperless receipt platform that helps anyone, from high-street retailers to public transport operators, deliver electronic receipts to customers." Dead website. Facebook page silent since February.

Some of the listed startups appear to be in a state of limbo. Take a look at Beek, for example ("Creators of an interactive 3D panorama platform that connects people to places with a range of marketing, sales and training tools."). Seriously, just look at the website: it's gorgeous. But after an initial flurry of activity, their Facebook page hasn't been updated since January.

It's a similar story for Jig Lab ("Originators of a boutique R&D consultancy specialising in 3D reality-capture software and hardware."). Their website is dated 2013 and goes nowhere. Facebook page hasn't been updated since March.

Perhaps they're just too busy working to worry about such details.

On balance, the ratio between success and failure here is about what you'd expect. It's a tough market out there, and it's not enough just to have a good idea: you also have to make it work. Not everyone has the drive, dedication and skills to run a successful start-up. But quite a few Wellingtonians seem to have the knack.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.