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Idealog—in the ideas business

Rod Drury: Repeat offender

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Idealog January/February 2007, page 28. Photograph by Alistair Guthrie

Rod Drury just doesn’t know when to stop. He co-founded net developer Glazier Systems in the mid-90s before selling it to Advantage Group. He’s the chief technology officer of US-based Context Connect and sits on the advisory board of Trade Me. Earlier this year he sold his email management company, AfterMail, to US-based Quest Software for US$45 million, and in November he won the Entrepreneur of the Year title at the 2006 Hi-Tech Awards. Time to relax? No way—Drury is investing in a string of local IT startups and blogging up a storm too. Just what is it that he wants to prove?

Many New Zealand companies show promise but that’s all. What’s different about your ventures?

When people are sort of talking about what makes me different, it seems that I’m just incredibly passionate and I really enjoy doing this stuff. When you know it’s what you do and you get a real buzz from it, then you grow. I also see entrepreneurship as a series of steps—you’re always learning, building up your networks, putting relationships in the bank.

What’s the next step?

I’m not an investor, or looking for ideas to come in. I’m more using my money to build the stuff I need to get built. I also think it’s really important that we build our pipeline of talent … we’ve found a number of great developers and some young, hi-tech CEO types, and marketing types. We’re giving them the cash to do that nought-to-60mph phase where we can get them out of their services businesses where they’re just charging hours, and use their skills to create some intellectual property. What’s neat with the Web 2.0 space is that there are a huge number of opportunities with very, very low capital requirements, yet the reach of the applications is truly global.

You’re a believer in Web 2.0—but isn’t this the boom before another bust?

Oh, I’m counting on it. We saw the craziness happening in ’99 and 2000 and I thought man I hope I’m around when this happens again. As New Zealanders we’re always quite dismissive of the hype, so what we’re doing, which is kind of neat, is using our services heritage. We’re taking a lot of the Web 2.0 techniques that happen in a consumer space and applying them to high-value business problems.

For example, we’re launching [a web-based planning company]. We’ve got Tim Norton there as a young CEO. He has the cash to go and build that company and see how far it can go in six to 12 months. At that point we can see if we need additional funding, but we’ve created the value and that’s a planning tool we’ve always wanted as a business. We’re doing another one in sales tracking, which again is a tool all New Zealand companies that are exporting want. It makes sense to have these small companies building the tools we need to run our businesses and other businesses.

Wellingtonians reckon they’re leading the Web charge …

The reason it’s working in Wellington is two-fold. It’s the weather and the culture that keep people inside. Like when was the last great software that you saw coming out of Australia? The weather is too good, they can never have a software industry.

But the really good thing is that Wellington is so small that networks develop really quickly—the Ruby on Rails group, the Unlimited Potential groups, these networks of people in their mid-twenties through to late-thirties. It’s just part of the social culture. So, you take that, you throw blogging on top of it, all those things and we just see these networks accelerate faster than anywhere else. It’s a very warm Petrii dish in Wellington.

What kind of people do you want to work with?

We’re looking for people who have passion and can make things happen, people who see an obstacle as an opportunity. You really see the difference when people contact me through my blog—the ones who have done their homework and are trying to use the relationship to drive things forward, and the people who are building relationships. Unfortunately it’s very, very rare.

I think culturally we’re not good at entrepreneurship. And hopefully by seeing a few high-profile success stories, we can get more people into it, because we need to develop this pipeline of people. We’re finding that getting the money is quite easy, but getting the resources to spend the money on is really hard.

What has your blog done for your business?

I’ve been blogging for three years and it’s been the best investment I’ve ever made. People find me quickly on Google and see that I have a whole heritage of thought and things I’ve done. It’s sort of ratcheting up your personal brand. It’s a very easy thing once you get into the habit, and it’s very cathartic.

I was watching what [Silicon Valley-based Kiwi] Andy Lark was doing. Andy’s one of my business heroes and I saw the marketing side—he was building himself into his own brand. Even people like Jeremy Moon, when he’s out there pushing Icebreaker, he’s also developing his own brand.

Who inspires you in Enzed?

One of the sad things about New Zealand is that there are very few business heroes. Most have moved offshore. Stephen Tindall is a clear one.

One guy who has really impressed me lately is Mark Solomon, the chair of Ngai Tahu. I sat next to him on the plane the other day, he’s a cool guy. I’m interested in how they take a much more custodial view of assets, which I think is something we can all learn from.

But there are very few people you can really admire in the business world here. Compare us to Australia—they have huge business heroes like James Packer, people who really put themselves out there. They don’t get shot down, everyone is behind them, they’re national heroes.

He has his knockers too …

Oh absolutely, yeah, a little bit Ned Kellyish perhaps, but that’s all part of the Australian psyche.

Do you feel we’re at a point of change in New Zealand?

Well it is happening. We’re seeing insider money now investing in a bunch of small ideas. We’re so incredibly networked and we know exactly what’s going on all over the world. And we’re grabbing the good stuff and throwing time and passion into these things. I think it’s absolutely changing.

Isn’t it time you relaxed? Why aren’t you spending your days on a beach, or flying your helicopter or whatever? What drives you?

I just love business. Business is sport—it’s the thing you bounce out of bed to do. I would say there’s never been a better time to be in IT. But also I think as New Zealanders, we talk about the knowledge economy and we have to do it. We can’t be happy with billing $150,000 worth of hours every year; we’ve got to earn a million dollars per person. For us to have this lifestyle, I think there’s a responsibility for the IT industry to really focus on exporting and making sure that we’re leveraging these fantastic tools we have. Just billing time is not enough.

Originally published in Idealog #7, page 28

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“The weather is too good, they can never have a software industry”

What a heap of old tosh! It is good copy but it has nothing to do with reality.

I suppose this is why Rod is a successful entrepreneur and I remain a humble employee.

Why? Because you can't fit your tongue in your cheek?

I'd believe that. Software development is a pretty intense process, not for the faint hearted, requires focus over time. A place like Wellington maybe has a good balance between skilled people and not too many distractions.

Iceland also has a high % of programmers so Wellington/NZ=Iceland - same difference?

Tauranga is also a great place to develop software. Less wind. So is MYOB pulling out of NZ or is it just a rumour?

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