In the last few weeks, my LinkedIn media feed has inexplicably been populated by technology companies “going public.” These companies have reached the seeming Holy Grail of existence, where they are big enough to justify listing on a public stock exchange. Traditionally they mark this event with big banners on Wall Street, a big party and cheesy videos of over-excited executives ringing the bell to mark the start of that days’ trading.
Having spent 15 or so years working in the technology sector and specifically around Silicon Valley, I know many of the current crop of tech companies that are listing and remember spending time with the founders back in the day when all they were was an idea, many sleepless nights and total belief in what they were doing.
Those girls and guys are heroes and should be applauded for their commitment, faith, bravery and perseverance. I have nothing but admiration for their journey. But while I celebrate what they have achieved, I also sometimes think about the people who aren’t on that journey, and how it must feel for them to be constantly reminded that “big” is what the world sees as credible.
I was reminded of this the other day when chatting with the founder of FunDiggityDog. Louise has spent decades as a chef, travelling the world and cooking with and for such luminaries as Gordon Ramsay. Wanting a simpler, quieter and (I suspect) less expletive-filled life, Louise came home to Southland. When Covid struck and the hospitality industry went into freefall, Louise had a look around for something to do.
Being a pet-ower and, specifically, a dog lover, Louise decided to start making dog toys. The driver for this wasn’t just to give her three dogs something to play with, but a desire to plot her own destiny, produce a product of quality and contribute in some small way to sustainability. Instead of the usual mass-produced imported pet toys, she decided to hand-make toys using the by-product of predator control initiatives – namely possum skins.
Fast forward to today and hundreds of dogs around the country play with a product that not only has a smaller negative impact on the environment than imported alternatives but is, at least in some small way, contributing to positive environmental outcomes.
So what does all of this have to do with publicly listed technology companies? Well, the other day when chatting to Louise, she expressed an awareness that there are some aspects of business that she understandably doesn’t know about. In trying to find those answers she made the usual rounds of the local and national organisations set up to help with business growth and was frustrated that they didn’t seem particularly interested in one woman’s passion project, focusing instead on the usual suspects – high growth software companies.
Now I absolutely understand that companies like Xero and TradeMe, which employ hundreds of workers, generate lots of revenue (in Xero’s case much of it from offshore) and generally increase GDP at a disproportionately large rate relative to their employee numbers, are a great thing for NZ Inc. I don’t mean in any way to lessen the importance of what they do. But the issue is that in focusing almost exclusively on who will be the next Xero or the next TradeMe, we lose sight of building diversity and flexibility into our economy.
I’m also mindful that a decade or more ago, a young guy with a seemingly weird obsession about space was tinkering in his backyard with homemade rockets. At that time there was zero attention from business support organisations for aviation – these organisations believed that was the domain of the largest global economies and military superpowers. Fast forward to today and RocketLab, the creation of that obsessive young man, Peter Beck, is a global force to be reckoned with. Maybe in trying to pick the sectors and the individuals who will be successful, we run the risk of missing the golden nuggets.
Now dog toys are not rocketships and I’m not suggesting that Louise’s enterprise will ever be a globally-recognised brand like RocketLab is. But odes that really matter? One woman plotting her own destiny, trying to tread lightly on the planet, and contributing in her own way to economy – isn’t that a win in itself?
We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that companies like Gallagher, RocketLab and (shameless plug) Cactus were borne through the passion and focus of their founders, without any intention to become huge. Let’s celebrate enterprise of any size and of any style, lest we direct our economy into a one-way street.