“Wellington is one of the best places in the world right now to do a start up” Finn Lawrence, programme manager at Lightning Lab tells me.
In his brown leather jacket, rolled up jeans and with impressive beard, Finn looks like he would fit more easily into a underground rock and roll gig than the stereotype of the Wellington IT sector. He also is friendly, personable and talks at a brisk canter - something that again goes against the stereotype of the industry.
But Finn would know. 6 weeks ago, he left his stable job working as an IT consultant to go and support the new business accelerator series run by Wellington company Creative HQ, Lightning Lab XX. He took a leap of faith because, as he told me a few weeks ago while we catching up for lunch at Crab Shack, “This is where I want to be - I want to be working in this arena. There is no other job I would rather do”.
What is Lightning Lab?? And why should you do it?
But what is Lightning Lab? For those of you who have not heard of it before, Lightning Lab is a 12-week mentor-intensive, business acceleration programme based on the accelerator model developed by TechStars in the US. Started in 2013 by Creative HQ, five programmes have been run across the country to date - accelerating 45 start up companies through their early stages. Over half are still operating - much better odds than the 1-in-10 new companies that make it by going alone.
At the end of a three month programme, the participants pitch at an event called “Demo Day” - where hundreds of the country’s top investors will assemble to get first dibs on some of the high-growth companies that the programme generates. The latest programme, Lightning Lab “XX” focuses on women-led start up businesses - meaning there’s at least one woman on the founding team. This is rarer than you’d think, Finn tells me - data over the last few years tells us that 82% of new start up companies have all-male teams at the beginning. Applications to be part of the programme are open now and will run until 18 December 2015, and the programme kicks off on International Women’s day - the 8th of March.
"I went to this Wellington house party - and I knew I was going to like it here"
Finn might be in the start up world now, but by his own admission, it was a crooked path to get there. Finn’s Irish and Kiwi parents brought him up in the south of Spain. He lived there until he was 10, when his parents relocated to the still sunny climate of Nelson. After he finished school, Finn moved to Christchurch as did two years of a mechatronics degree. But he admits he never felt like Christchurch was the right fit for him as a place to live “You would go to these parties and people would all be standing around in groups, just talking to the people they went to school with” he observes. After the earthquakes hit in 2010, Finn decided to move away for good and settled on Wellington - both for the city, and also the friends he knew that were already living here. He says his first night out highlighted the “Wellington” difference. “I went out to this house party, and I could tell I was going to like it here. Everyone had this warm energy and people were talking passionately about what they were doing, exchanging ideas. I loved it”. From then on, Finn was hooked on the city.
The journey to find out what made Finn tick in his career was less straightforward at first. Finn started out in Wellington studying Architecture but found it didn’t give him the detail focus he enjoyed. He figured out that the was more interested in the “how” rather than the “what”, and tells me he was expecting Architecture to be more like working as a draughtsman of plans. Over this time he worked at white-table cloth restaurant, Shed 5. After spending some time working full time, he moved to a diploma at Weltec in computer science. That led him to his love of coding.
What was it like to do Lightning Lab? Finn explains
After studying, Finn kept up his interest in computers and coding, but quickly was asked by friends of his to help them with a project they were working on. This turned out to be a start up - and they had an application open for the 2014 Lightning Lab programme. “I was like, ‘You guys are much better coders than me, do you really want me?’” Finn laughs. “But they were like, no, we need a marketing guy, and you are good at selling stuff”.
They were accepted as one of the ten teams in that years programme, and Finn dove headlong into the project, and while his team’s idea ended up not working out because they didn’t want to sell to the major tech company it was based off, he tells me he “learnt so much” from the experience. “Lightning lab basically solves all the problems that make it hard to do well in the beginning - lack of access to capital and resources, lack of mentorship, lack of space to work in. It takes away those distractions so you can focus on the business. Our venture didn’t work out, but we could have spent 2 or 3 years working away on it, before we asked those hard questions. This way, we failed, but we failed early”.
Now that he’s back with Lightning Lab, but on the other side of the table, Finn is looking for more applicants for the next programme, which he is very excited about. “It’s not about having all-women companies, it’s not about excluding men, but it is about having at least one woman founder in a C-type role” he explains. “We want to support a diverse start up ecosystem, and a good start to that is tackling the gender balance by investing in more women founders. The emphasis is also less focused on tech this time around, and we’ve worked on getting the balance of mentors and investors to 50-50.”
At the completion of the programme in June 2016, the successful teams that get through will have their turn to pitch on the big stage at Demo Day “We are really excited to see what comes out of it. Nothing like this has been done before in any of the the Lightning Lab programmes.”
And with Finn on board, I feel fairly certain that next year’s teams will be in good hands.