There’s a revolution underway. Deep within the Auckland Viaduct lurks the beginnings of our own tiny Silicon Valley. At GridAKL, more than 50 startups, in industries as diverse as medicine, robotics and augmented reality, are running the entrepreneurial gauntlet looking to build a high-growth business – or at least get a second funding round.
In On the Grid, a sponsored series with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), we tell their stories. First, coworking pioneers BizDojo.
Anyone who has ever worked in an office has dreamed of not having to work in an office. At least not the traditional kind, anyway. Fifty storeys, every one a battery farm of cookie-cutter cubicles, water coolers, pinned pictures and shit coffee.
And then, with the rise of ubiquitous internet, a change occurred. Working from home became a realistic, real life option. No suits, no ties – no clothes, if you didn’t want them. It should have been the best.
“It used to be that everyone was going to work from home., We’re all going to be remote workers, that was the big thing,” says Jonah Merchant, co-founder and CEO of coworking operator BizDojo. “Working from home is cool, but there’s a missing piece, and that is that we’re all human beings, we’re all social animals, and we all want to be connected.
“We’re actually more productive when we’re working together well as a group. That idea of the individual genius working alone in his basement, that’s kind of the stereotypical view on innovation, but the reality is that probably 99% of innovation doesn’t happen that way. It happens with a whole bunch of people coming together, bouncing ideas off each other and experimenting and learning and doing new stuff. I think that’s where the secret sauce is actually.”
Merchant, like co-founder and chief entrepreneur Nick Shewring, speaks from experience. During the late 2000’s, the pair worked in an Air New Zealand incubator project called Hangar 9 on the Auckland waterfront. Following the model of IDEO, a global design firm from California, Hangar 9 was an amplifier for good ideas, heavily centered around multidisciplinary collaborative work across a diverse range of teams.
Under the leadership of Rob Fyfe, the project revolutionised the long-haul flight experience, and assisted Air New Zealand in its rebirth as a legitimate competitor in the multi-billion dollar airline industry.
“Nick and I were there when Air New Zealand went through a transition from a basket case airline that the government had to bail out to really stepping up and showing that you could be a globally competitive airline that was the best in the world, that could build innovative cool things – and do it all from here,” says Merchant.
“We came out of the back of that and thought ‘Whoa man, we’re pretty spoiled now’, because there aren’t many corporates in New Zealand who have that kind of culture and leadership. That’s when we looked a little bit further afield and thought you know, this shared space coworking model is taking off offshore, maybe we could kind of have our cake and eat it too.”
In 2009 the pair launched BizDojo, New Zealand’s first coworking operator.
Built around a policy of curation and innovation, BizDojo took the best of what Shewring and Merchant learned at Hangar 9 and combined that knowledge with the most recent advances in coworking, itself a concept less than five years old. But whereas the focus in coworking at that time was on desks, chairs, coffee machines and other such infrastructure, BizDojo focused on creating value through fostering a very specific vibe and community.
“We’re all about diversity,” says Merchant “You need that collision of thinking. We’ve always been about curating a mix that gets you a cross-section of a lot of businesses. Our personal jam has always been about the crossover between creative and tech.
“We’ve had everything from artists and social enterprise to not-for-profits from the arts and culture sectors. We’ve had music festival promoters work out of our spaces, sustainability strategists, people like that, and it’s that kind of mix, those interactions, that really makes it interesting.”
Nowhere is this more evident than at GridAKL, Auckland’s burgeoning innovation precinct on the Viaduct. Home to more than 50 resident businesses, GridAKL is the artists’ sanctum of the new age, combining specialists involved in projects as diverse as brain-controlled robots and drone assisted farming. Championed and funded by Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) on behalf of Auckland Council, GridAKL is also the stronghold of BizDojo, who operate and lease the space alongside others in Wellington and Christchurch.
“BizDojo is a commercial entity,” says Merchant. “We have some ambitious goals around helping New Zealanders be more awesome, but we also at the end of the day want to turn a profit, and we want to be something that’s financially sustainable and delivers a good return for us.”.
“The factors that make our business really successful are exactly the same types of things that a council wants when they’re looking at a city. They say ‘Hey we want more businesses to be grown and we want more jobs and we want more innovation and more opportunities.’ Well, all those same factors on a slightly smaller scale are what make the businesses in our spaces at BizDojo successful. These guys are growing and they’re hiring more people and they’re building more cool stuff and there are more amazing stories about what they’re doing. It’s a feedback loop that makes our business really successful, and it’s the exact same feedback loop, on a slightly different scale, that makes Auckland as a city successful.”
While their goals are the same, on an operational level the organisations have entirely different skillsets. As an arm of the Auckland Council, ATEED have the vision and capital to catalyse the construction of an entire precinct, something it would be exceedingly difficult for a singular private operator, or even a collective, to achieve. However it’s up to BizDojo to ensure the project works on the ground.
“Right from day one as partners we’ve been really aligned on outcomes because the outcomes that help us also help ATEED. Being really clear right from the get go about what each respective party is actually good at has helped immensely. ATEED and the Auckland Council are great at setting some big picture visions in terms of ‘We want this to be the precinct, and we want to make sure that from an economic development perspective Auckland is going to really crank over the coming decades’.
“For us the benefit has been that we can amplify the impact we’ve had. When you start working on a precinct at a city level you realise you can impact a lot more people in a positive way. That’s great for the city – but also in the longer term it’s great for us because it allows us to continue what we’re doing.”
The evolution of coworking also continues, says Merchant. As the commercial property sector moves towards shared space environments, a greater level of sophistication and choice is emerging. To borrow a metaphor from Merchant, some people want a McDonald’s and others want an Ostro. But it’s about more than the difference between golden M’s and silver spoons.
“Physical environment, location, those definitely have key aspects to them, and those are the things that will attract people into your space. But then to make them stay is actually a lot less about the infrastructure and the physical parts of the building,” says Merchant.
“You hear a lot about startups, accelerators, incubators and all this sort of stuff, and it all tends to be focused around the idea of growth in business. I think our point of difference at BizDojo is that we’ve always been about incubating people in our environments, so whether you’re a freelancer who’s sick of working from home and wants to come in and have a burn rather than working from their kitchen table, or you’re a traditional high growth start up, the Tim Nortons and 90 Seconds of the world, or even corporates who are wanting to learn how to make their staff think a little more innovatively or in a more creative way, that common element is always the people behind it.”
“Those people might have different needs and might sit on a different spectrum in terms of what support they need to get them going, but if you incubate them and develop them then business success will follow right across the board. Get the people aspect right and then you get the business.”
GridAKL resident Rab Heath is perhaps the best example of BizDojo’s philosophy in action. Co-founder of Haptly, a drone-based pasture and dry feed management system, Heath first met Merchant at a BizDojo event, essentially inviting himself after seeing the name of coworking pioneer Alex Hillman on the bill.
“Rab had seen we were putting on this event with Alex Hillman and totally rang up out of the blue,” says Mechant. “He said, ‘Hey I’m Rab, can I come hang out and see what you’re up to?’ We met him and hung out, had a massive Friday night with him and Alex Hillman, and we were just like ‘whoa’. We couldn’t quite figure out where he fit, but we knew he was an awesome dude with a ton of energy and passion, and we knew we needed to keep in touch.
Eventually when we opened the prototype of this space, we were actually a bit short handed and thought ‘You know what, why don’t we see what Rab’s up to?’ He just came up – and this is totally Rab – he had nowhere to stay, threw his stuff in his car and drove up. He slept in his car for the first weekend on the roof of the carpark. He didn’t tell anyone, he just wanted to be involved. He got involved with OMGTech! off the back of that, got into a couple of different start up ideas and now he’s doing Haptly, which just won the Fukuoka start-up competition [in Japan]. He’s your classic cultural fit for us. High energy, passionate, wants the place to be amazing, wants Auckland to be great, wants us all to be doing cool stuff. It’s good. We need more people like him.”
GridAKL is Auckland’s innovation precinct, located in Wynyard Quarter – powered by ATEED and run by BizDojo. New spaces are leasing soon – click here to find out more.
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.