7 Biggest Lessons Interviewing 121 Kiwi Business Legends

I live a very privileged life; I’m thankful every day.

As a 20-year-old, I travel around the nation interviewing New Zealand’s most successful entrepreneurs, executives and investors for my media brand, Unfiltered. It is a dream job.

But it got me thinking. Over the past year, I have interviewed, in extreme detail, over 121 of the country’s most successful business brains. And through that experience you learn a lot, and you gather a lot of information.
So reflecting over 2015, what are 7 of the biggest business lessons I have learnt through talking to a huge number of extremely successful business folks?

1. Karen Walker: If your fashion brand is from New Zealand, you’re already at a disadvantage.

New Zealand is a proud place. Kiwis are proud people, and the “New Zealand Story” generally helps Kiwis export their products globally. But if you’re in fashion, you’re “going into the game basically with less than zero because New Zealand is not where fashion comes from. It’s just not part of the brand DNA.” Karen Walker would know: her brand is in 1020 stores globally, and has been worn by superstars such as Adele, Lady GaGa, Beyoncé and Scarlett Johansson (just to name a few). Karen Walker went one step further: “It’s is a ridiculous idea of creating a fashion brand from New Zealand. It’s the the craziest thing in the world! There’s absolutely no advantage to it whatsoever. We’ve got the time differences, and getting the stuff here. Oh my God! It’s a nightmare. But it is what it is and that’s what we chose, so we make it work, but it’s a stupid idea.”

2. Diane Foreman: psychometrically appraise anyone you’re looking to do business with.

Diane Foreman, CEO of the Emerald Group, “gets” people. In fact, she is so determined to find the right people, that she has interests in a recruitment company, Emergent, which she uses as a vehicle to find smart executives. Diane is full of wisdom, but one of the biggest things I learnt from my interview with her is to “never assume anything” when looking to invest in a new business. Read and interrogate the business plan and get the people you’re going to be working with “psychometrically appraised.” “Know those people, know their strengths and their weaknesses and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle.” Finally, ask yourself, would I leave my children with these people? If the answer is no, don’t get into business with them! Trust is everything.

3. Brendan Lindsay: Nail one thing… and build a killer business! Stay focused.

Sistema Plastics Founder, Brendan Lindsay, is one of New Zealand’s lowest profile, yet most successful entrepreneurs. And one of the greatest and smartest Kiwis I know. Sistema employs 650 staff, exports to 82 countries and does all of its manufacturing here in Auckland (Brendan refuses to take manufacturing overseas as he’s too passionate about New Zealand). Brendan started Sistema in his garage over 30 years ago, and today has millions of customers globally. So what is the lesson here? Do one thing really, really well, and nail it. Brendan has maintained laser focus over the past 30 years and in turn has built a highly profitable, highly respected business. Says Brendan: “We believe that our brand is strong enough that we could go into pots and pans and kitchen utensils and whatever. But at the moment, I see that as a distraction.” There is a lesson for us all in this: stay focused. (harder said than done in today’s world!)

4. Peter Cooper: building and selling will not create long-term value.

Peter Cooper is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He understands the fundamentals of business like no one else. Not a guy to seek the limelight, Peter Cooper rarely does interviews. So who is he? Well, Peter Cooper, Californian-based, is the Founder & Executive Chairman of Cooper & Company, the developer of Britomart (Auckland), The Landing (Bay of Islands) and Southlake Town Square (Texas, U.S.). In Texas, Peter and his team started with farmland 20 years ago, and today, Southlake Town Square boasts 1.4 million square foot of development (10x the size of St. Lukes in Auckland), with another 2 million square foot of development to go over the next 20 years. The longevity of Peter’s thinking is incredible, and very rare in a world when people want “now” all of the time. So why focus on the long-term? I asked Peter: “if you’re just building and then selling, you pay tax, you have a whole lot of other people that are fed in that process, and it really isn’t the way to create long-term value, so that led us to wanting to find a very large site that we thought had particular specifics. One of the specifics that drove us was that we wanted it to be as close as possible to a large, large airport. Because in the history of American development, it was freeways and off ramps that drove where people used to build. And today it’s airports. So we found this land which was halfway between Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and Ross Perot Alliance Airport, which is the largest industrial airport in the world.”

5. Cecilia Robinson: You can look after your family and still build an epic business… these two efforts are not mutually exclusive!

In life, we very rarely find true balance. Balance is bloody hard. But if Cecilia Robinson can do it, I’m pretty sure anyone can. Cecilia Robinson is the Co-Founder and Group CEO of My Food Bag, a Kiwi startup that has grown from 0 to $100 million revenue in 3 years. So she’s about as busy as they come. In my Unfiltered interview with Cecilia Robinson, she explained that “you won’t see me in the office at seven o’clock in the morning or at seven o’clock at night. Every single one of my staff members will tell you that, I will never be in. In fact generally not before nine and I’ll be out by four because I’ve got a family. I have breakfast with my son every morning, I cook him dinner every night, I bathe him, and the same with my husband. We’re parents first and foremost, then after that we’re business owners.” Talk about a good attitude for a startup entrepreneur to have!

6.Eric Watson: If you’re not adding value, what are you doing?

Eric Watson is one of New Zealand’s most active investors. Through his investment vehicle, Cullen Investments, he has interests in market sectors covering fashion retail, financial services, agriculture, real estate, sports and entertainment; including Bendon Lingerie, Hart Dairies, Warriors, Watson Bloodstock and Westbury Estate. So what is the most important thing in any investment? I asked Eric, and his answer, although not surprising, is vitally important: “I should not be involved as an active shareholder unless I can add value. If you’re an active shareholder, and if it’s a private company, you need to understand that there’s a good reason for you to be there, not just for the sake of the business but for your own sake as an investor. If you’re not adding value, what are you doing there? You should be somewhere else.” Eric went on to explain that you also “have to have experts working with you as your partners.”

7.Claudia Batten: you’re going to need traction in the U.S. market to get venture capital funding.

No Kiwi understands the U.S. market better than Claudia Batten. Having left her safe and cushy job at Russell McVeagh, New York-bound, with no plan, no connections and no idea, only “a vision of making it happen,” Claudia managed to WOW New Zealand with her amazing success. Just three years after this bold and brave move, the company Claudia co-founded (Massive), was sold to Microsoft in a deal reportedly worth up to U.S. $400 million. I asked Claudia to explain how Kiwi companies can obtain venture capital funding in the United States: “for most American VCs, you’re going to need traction in the market and I think this is something a lot of New Zealand businesses miss. You just can’t pick up a business that’s got some traction in New Zealand and go to the U.S. and expect to get V.C. investments right off the bat. You need to have enough money to get into the U.S., deploy your product there and get traction in the market before going out to the V.C.s. That doesn’t stop you from telling them “We’re here. We’re planning on doing this. We’ll come back and see you in six months when we’re killing it.” But you can’t go in and just try and get funding in the U.S. from zero – usually.”

For more information on leading New Zealand business stories, and Jake Millar’s full interviews with Karen Walker, Diane Foreman, Peter Cooper, Cecilia Robinson, Eric Watson and Claudia Batten, visit unfiltered.co.nz

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