Wellington is a thriving mecca for the start ups of New Zealand. And perhaps the godfather of Wellington start ups is American born Wellingtonian Dave Moskovitz
An enthusiast, investor and business mentor he can often be found coaching startup companies through the Lightning Lab Programmes or mentoring teams of early-stage entrepreneurs at Wellington Start Up Weekend. I met Dave for the first time at TEDxWellington 2014 where he delivered a TEDx talk about the Four Superpowers of the Internet . A kind faced and unassuming man, tall with a grey mop of hair, Harry Potter glasses and gentle manner, Dave is both a realist and a dreamer, with the Internet and computers his weapons of choice. On a wild and woolley Friday lunchtime on the Wellington waterfront Dave and I meet again over a bottle of Six Barrel Soda to discuss how he came to live in New Zealand, sign language, the birth of the Internet and, of course, Startup Weekend.
“I guess I lived a fairly boring childhood” says Dave. Despite this claim, Dave had a love of learning and work instilled in him young. He was born to a Jewish family and grew up in Los Angeles, California in the 1960s. His father was an electrical engineer (he has a couple of patents to his name) and his mother is an educational psychologist who taught at California State University in Northridge. The family were involved in the Jewish Community (something Dave continues through to this day). Dave’s uncle was a computer programmer and the relationship inspired Dave’s love of computers. “It was the coolest thing in my eyes” he remembers. His first encounter with computers was with a programmable calculator in the seventh grade of high school. “I thought it was really great how you could programme it to do all sorts of things.” Dave picked up some books about computer programming from the library and started to learn.
Smooth operator - “I got to write my own operating system so that was really cool”
In Dave’s youth computers were still primitive. It was the end of the punch-card-era when a programmer had to punch out programmes on punch card and send them away (“only to find you had missed a semi-colon and the programme didn’t work”). The year was 1974 and at 14 Dave was proficient in computer programming. His first contract job was working for a company on a US Navy project. “While I was in high school they were studying the computer-human interaction between US grunts and missile guidance systems” he remembers. The upshot was the Navy decided to scrap the instruction manuals for weapon guidance systems and turn the instructions into comic book form so the grunts could understand them. “I managed to find a job from someone who needed a junior trainee programmer” he explains “I got to write my own operating system so that was really cool”.
Working has always had a positive association for Dave. “My dad had his own business.” Dave explains “building broadcast test equipment for the television industry. He had a company that generated colour bars and put titles on screens. He sent me to work when I was about 8 years old soldering printed circuit boards - on 25 cents an hour. But I got to spend a lot of time with Dad.” For Dave, work has always been about learning and applying it to other interesting things. Despite good work prospects, LA was not something that really excited Dave. As soon as he left high school he decided to explore the world.
He moved to the bay area to study a four year degree in computer science and linguistics at the University of California in Berkeley. Dave continued to apply his knowledge working on interesting projects while he studied. He was involved in automating the University of California’s library, so instead of looking through catalogue cards you could search for books online for the first time across all the libraries.
While studying he met a New Zealand man called David Teece via his upstairs neighbours who kept raving about how great his country was (for the record, the Nelson born New Zealander was a US based organisational theorist and Professor in Global Business at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley). Feeling the urge to travel, Dave went to the New Zealand consulate, got a phonebook and posted letters to all the companies with anything to do with computers in Wellington. He was told prospects were good and to come out - so the Californian decided to travel all the way to the antipodes, landing in Wellington on a cold grey day in 1982 with horizontal rain. Within a week he was working at Fletcher Challenge on Ghuznee Street at Atlas House.
Wellington in 1982: “There wasn’t a lot to do really - the shops shut at 12pm on Saturday"
The Wellington of 1982 was quite a different one from the vibrant start up city we live in today. Dave’s first flat was in Hawker Street in Mount Victoria. “There wasn’t a lot to do really - the shops shut at 12pm on Saturday. It used to look like someone had dropped a neutron bomb. But that changed gradually into the Wellington we have today.” Dave thought Wellingtonians had a higher level of education than Americans, something he attributes to the fact New Zealand didn’t get TV until the 1960’s so people of his generation had grown up talking to each other and reading books. “The general education level and concern about the world was a lot higher. It really attracted me” Dave recalls.
Dave left the job at Fletcher Challenge and soon tired of working in the mainframe industry for banks and government. Instead, he enrolled to do a PhD in applied linguistics at Victoria University studying New Zealand sign language. While working on his PhD (“I never completed it”, Dave admits) he and his colleagues created and completed the dictionary of New Zealand sign language. “I’m really proud of that. Partly because of that, New Zealand Sign Language became one of the official languages of New Zealand. Had the language not been sufficiently described and documented, possibly it would never have happened.” You can now see it in it’s current for using the data they collected in the 1990’s. The online dictionary, is http://nzsl.vuw.ac.nz (Dave did the back-end of the data base).
The Birth of the Internet
One day, in late 1993, while working on his PhD at Victoria University, someone sent him an email telling him to download a programme called ‘Mosaic’. (For those of you who don’t know - I had to look it up because I was about 4 at the time - Mosaic was one of the first internet browsers. After the release in 1993 of Mosaic, web use expanded rapidly, in part because it used “point-and-click” graphical manipulations and was the first browser to display both text and images on a single page). Dave realised that this software was going to change everything. “It was everything computing had promised to be for the last 20 years but never actually managed to achieve” Dave recalls. “I went home that night and told my wife, Kate Frykberg, that this internet thing was going to be amazing. I brought all my friends up to my office to show them, parading the world wide web, telling them it would change everything. Nobody got it. In the end I went back to my wife and told my wife ‘Kate, we have to start a business doing web development’. She agreed.”
The business was to be ‘The Web Limited’, born in 1995 and one of New Zealand’s first internet development companies. “It was the 302 domain name in the .co.nz space - now there are 600,000. We built websites for companies like Telecom and Land Information New Zealand” Dave remembers. They later sold the company in 2002 to KPMG. But by then, Dave had the startup bug. His interest led to his job now - a mentor, an investor and coach and general start up enthusiast “…trying to rise the tide so all boats can float” as he so elegantly puts it.
Accelerating Wellington towards Startup Weekend
Today, Dave is an investor in the Lightning Lab Limited Partnership (a 12 week accelerator programme) and in some of the companies it has produced. He is also working with another accelerator ‘R9’ currently and generally helps companies he invests in get off the ground. He is also on the council of Internet New Zealand, is a director in the Domain Name Commission, is on the board of Open Polytechnic and the board of a couple of other startups.
“You get great ideas and great teams, no matter how small the Startup Weekend is.”
However, one of Dave’s biggest passion projects is Startup Weekend, a programme where people get together to solve a problems, create a company and pitch to investors, some of whom will invest in those companies, all in one weekend. Startup Weekend originated in Auckland in 2011. Dave was invited to be a mentor at the second Startup Weekend. He then proposed running Start Up Weekend as a nation wide event and volunteered to run one in Wellington. Now in 2016 the 41st Startup Weekend has just run. “You get great ideas and great teams, no matter how small the Startup Weekend is.” Around 2700 people and hundreds of mentors have gone through Startup Weekend. At the pitch evening on Sunday night people bring friends, colleagues and family to see what’s going on. Often local MP’s and the mayor will attend. People come together at Startup Weekend like they do no where else. It’s is all about connecting entrepreneurs to the resources they need to thrive.
Time after time
I ask Dave what keeps him coming back, especially to such a full on scene that demands a lot of energy. “I love seeing a team of entrepreneurs take an idea and really make it hum, excel and work. There is a lot of personal growth. If you stick with them over a number of years you see them grow and expand in their abilities, maturity and how they see themselves and the world. I find it rewarding see people achieve self realisation and actualisation. It means a lot to me.”
Dave used to keep a track of the startups in Wellington (there was around 20 in 2011), but since then there are now too many to keep record of - which he loves. “Suddenly I hear they have been around for a few years. It’s like wow. When you watch people exceed and excel - that’s really beautiful.” Dave pauses. “Actually, there’s a word for that in Yiddish - naches” he laughs. ‘Naches’ literally means the joy or pride you get from seeing others succeed, something that feels very appropriate for Wellington.
“Actually, there’s a word for that in Yiddish - naches” he laughs. ‘Naches’ literally means the joy or pride you get from seeing others succeed, something that feels very appropriate for Wellington.
So when is the next one? There are Startup Weekends coming up at the end of April in Christchurch, mid-May in Auckland and at the end of May in Wellington. There are also around 9 organised for later on in the year around New Zealand. “If you are considering coming to Start Up Weekend” Dave says “You don’t need to be the world’s best business person or the world’s hottest dev or the world’s brightest designer to attend. You just need to come along and apply yourself over the course of the weekend to take the idea and turn it into a business.” For example, in Dunedin, Dave was blown away by a new non-tech idea - a card game to divide chores called ‘Job Well Done’ (you can read about it here). After a successful PledgeMe campaign they had raised $450 in 8 hours. Another newly created company at Startup Weekend Dunedin had an acquisition offer by the end of the weekend.
So what tips does Dave have? Startup Weekend is all about methodology, he says. Dave recommends looking at the problem first and finding a way to solve it. They is also strong emphasis on finding out whether a business idea can be validated or not. At the end of the weekend, judges award points for validation, execution and business model. Some people come over and over. Many mentors keep coming back too. “They do it because of the enthusiasm, the energy and - in those high pressure environments - you really find out what people are made of. You get really close to them.”
Why is Wellington such a great place for startups? It all comes down to scale. “We are not so small we don’t have resources but we are not so large that we fragment into self contained inward looking groups. People really do want to work with each other in Wellington, even with people they don’t like. We all want to make Wellington better. And it helps that you can walk across town in 20 minutes - although it takes you 30-40 because you keep on bumping into people you haven’t seen in a while - it’s great. If I go to the airport and I don’t run into someone I know I feel cheated. It’s like family. That scale is very important and I don’t want to lose it. That’s all.” With Dave on board, I feel confident as a Wellingtonian that Wellington will continue to be a great place to start something up, for years to come.
If you want to know more about Startup Weekend, or sign up for a ticket, check out the website.