The other day I was wasting time looking at YouTube videos and I came across Peter Bence’s channel. Bence is a Hungarian musician who does incredible things with only a piano and a loop machine. His cover of Despactio is thoroughly recommended viewing. After watching some of Bence’s clips, I opened the lid on our old piano and had a play. I was quickly reminded of the fact that, despite all the desire in the world, I’m not a competent pianist and have no right to call myself one.

That analogy has been rolling around in my mind for the past few days ever since I heard Todd Muller in his post-coup news conference telling the voting public just how concerned he is about small business in New Zealand and that he is going to personally take on that shadow portfolio to give it his experience and attention. Now I have nothing against Todd Muller who strikes me as the most quintessential of National Party members, but what struck me was his ardent identifying with the plight of small businesses. It almost felt like he was claiming a lifetime’s experience battling in the small business trenches.

I did a bit of research on old mate Todd and discovered that, after a stint in politics as one of Jim Bolger’s offsiders, he went out into the business world where he had stints at Fonterra and Zespri. Two organizations which are pretty much the definition of not small businesses. Even Apata, the fruit post-harvest company that Muller ran for a while, is a long-established and significant operation. So, for the most part, Muller’s employment career involved corporate office buildings with, one assumes, regular visits down to the farms to keep the farmer shareholders happy.

Now I’ve never been employed by one of these massive corporates, but I have done some consulting to companies like them, and I’m always slightly amazed at what life is like inside these megaliths. Day-to-day activity seems to be a frenetic pace of never-ending meetings, with many staffers running around carrying incongruously large pads of paper. Yellow paper no less. I’ve never actually seen anyone write on said pads, and the actual content of said meetings are an utter mystery to me.

What I’m fairly certain of is that neither Todd, nor any of the thousands upon thousands of colleagues he worked with at Fonterra or Zespri have ever worried about how they were going to pay their staff the next week. I’m pretty sure Todd never had to provide a personal guarantee on the lease of Fonterra corporate HQ and forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty confident that neither Todd nor the legion of other well-paid execs in these sorts of companies spend their nights tossing and turning wondering if their family homes will be taken from them to meet company debts.

These are all very real, and very common experiences of most, if not all, small business owners and, given that New Zealand is a country dominated by small businesses, those lived experiences are something that our politicos need to genuinely understand.

Now, I’m mindful that there is a certain irony in someone seen to be suggesting that just because a person hasn’t got experience of doing something, they shouldn’t be thought of as competent to do it. That is, after all, the clarion call of the National Party as it heads into this year’s election. Their contention being that because the current Government isn’t chock full of people who have worked inside business, that they can’t possibly be entrusted to create an environment within which business can prosper.

Personally I’m not convinced about that argument, there are no end of examples of people making good decisions without having domain expertise – get good advice, use intuition, pattern match from other experiences and all of a sudden decision making isn’t quite as difficult as it might seem.

So I have no beef with Todd beating the small business drum. After all, the more people who know just how important us small business owners are to our economy, the better. But please, Todd, don’t gild the lily, your corporate experience, while likely very useful for balancing the egos of your caucus colleagues, doesn’t make you any kind of small business guru. To claim otherwise is dishonest and disrespectful.

And I’ll carry on trying to improve my performance on the piano but, have no fear, I’ll not be calling myself a skilled pianist any time soon.


Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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