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. In this, the eighth and final instalment, Don Rowe talks to 90 Seconds founder Tim Norton.
If GridAKL is Auckland’s Silicon Valley, Tim Norton is our Steve Jobs. Founder of cloud video production firm 90 Seconds, recent recipients of more than US$7.5 million in Series A funding, Norton is a an entrepreneurial machine, unconstrained by trivial things like fatigue or the possibility of defeat.
His mind works roughly five hundred times faster than his mouth, and the speed at which he talks is a matter of physical possibility rather than mental acuity. And, in the mould of other tech luminaries, he’s as interested in acro-yoga and spiritual health as he is in pivots, mergers and brand positioning.
Speaking over Skype from his home in San Francisco, Norton exuded energy, filling my sedentary Britomart meatbody with more motivation than a bag of your finest single origin Ethiopian yirgacheffe.
Tell me about your Skype handle – thelifestyleartist – what’s that about?
It’s always been a big part of how I’ve rolled really, because I’ve kind of always seen life as an artform. I was always going to set something up around it, and I still will going forward, where I share how I live as a lifestyle artist. In terms of health and fitness, I like keeping healthy, feeling great, in good form, heaps of acro-yoga and stretching and stuff – it’s all stuff I’d normally come up with on my own, so it’s more about lifestyle art, rather than hacking or farming. It’s more about the experience of living. The way I see the mind is that you can condition it and recondition it and change and evolve, and that’s been behind everything really. That’s how I am, who I am, where I am.
It seems more holistic than the stereotypical biohacking, Silicon Valley, Tim Ferriss route.
I think it really is mate. You’re born in New Zealand – I was born in Matamata on a dairy farm – and it’s nice and spacious and natural and real. It’s the real stuff, whereas overseas you get the designed version, the manufactured version, the marketed version, and it almost makes it all look like everything is productised. As a human, nothing is productised, and certainly not life, so I feel really fortunate these days.
We’re building a global company and most people don’t have all those values. It’s just by virtue of being a Kiwi, it’s what you grow up with. Those values are deep inside of you. I can hold my own, put on a good strong image for the company and position the brand really well, build the company financially and so on, but when it comes to being a human and living your life, it’s far greater than all of that.
Living this way is a bit different, it stands out a bit more. It’s recognised as quite valuable almost – not that it’s there to be valued. People say ‘it makes you much more trustworthy, much easier to understand,’ because when they’re doing well monetarily and on a business level, they want to relate on another level, and there’s something there for them.
You were in debt when you first founded 90 Seconds, but opted to go for an early global expansion anyway rather than becoming a powerhouse in New Zealand first. What drove that decision?
There’s two bits to it. One part is personal, it directly relates to me, and then there’s a business reason as well. I don’t separate them, but it’s probably worth laying them out separately here.
Personally, I just needed to be spending time around the world, that’s where I was at in life. I was enjoying travel, but I wanted more. I thought I needed to create a business where it literally is set up in different countries. I wanted to feel fully at home in different countries. I’ve always travelled a lot but I wanted to have bases in other countries where I could turn up and have a home like I do now. I’ve got one here in San Francisco that I’ve had for three or four months, I’ve got a small local team growing with an office. I do the same in Singapore and did the same in Australia and Auckland. That’s one thing driving it.
The second thing is that when it comes to building something, if you don’t go globally early, then you’ve got to figure out what it is globally later, and it’s already hard enough as it is. The best thing I’ve found is to get out there first, put it in front of global customers and you’ll soon find out how it stacks up globally. I’m a pretty visionary dude – not to be superficial, I just am, I just see things – so then I have to think ‘well, am I going to make that reality or not? Because it’s probably going to take a long time’.
I’ve had visions before, and making a vision reality is really hard, and even if it’s a good idea it might be the wrong timing, or it might not be quite the right version of the vision that it needs to be, based on other people. You can sit there and not worry about that stuff, but I like thinking about it. You put it out there early and you start to get knocked around.
We opened up in London after about a year, not even a year, right at the very early stages. As soon as we did that you start getting that pressure from London businesses and London customers and London creatives and that worked really well, because you know the business is holding it’s own. London is a lot more international too, there are a lot of immigrants there, so you start to get international work. American’s generally show up in London before they do in New Zealand so you start to get customers from the US, and that all worked well. Then it was like ‘right, we’ve gotta get into Asia, I love time in Asia, and we better set up in Australia because it’s close by’, then we met two guys who set up in Japan, so it all happened organically. Now we’re setting up in the US and in Berlin and different parts of Asia.
I wanted to have something truly global that had Kiwi roots. Something truly global has the best chance of succeeding, and you definitely get the most learning. If I look at our team there are 13 nationalities across seven countries with six global bases, and they’re just pumped with the multicultural nature of the company. It’s part of our DNA, everybody loves that aspect of it, and you get to learn lots from it. That’s hard to beat, because now it’s a full life experience, moving around the world and all these places are home.
Do you find that brings a different range of skillsets? Travel opens the mind because you see different ways in which things can be done. Has that travel experience and interaction informed the way that you conduct that business?
It definitely does. To speak to that, that’s another key aspect to what we do. Everyone says ‘aw it’s different over there, it’s a different culture,’ but what does that really mean? Obviously there’s a lot of homogeneity there because we’re all humans, but when you get into countries and you set up teams it starts to become clear what the values are there. I love Asia for example, and you bring some of the values from Asia and it’s awesome, and you spread them around the world with 90 Seconds and it’s fantastic, it helps people become better people and they let go of some of their bad habits from one place and will be more accepting of other values. Everyone has learned from that and it’s great.
There are some amazing parts to being a Kiwi, but there are other things that are a bit of a pain in the ass, and it’d be nice if we were able to let go of some of those things. When you get some people from Singapore and Thailand and so on involved, that’s what helps smooth people over. Everyone wants to fit in with one another so they have to move it a little bit. And that’s been cool to see.
We’re about to introduce the US now, and in the US they’re very strong culturally, because some of what they’ve got – it’s hard to say it’s a real culture, but it’s certainly significant in it’s effect. I wanted to hit the US once we had some real culture, and now we’ve got some deep Asian culture, we’ve got some deep Japanese culture, and some of those cultures are really deep, date back a long way and there’s just this beauty to them in many ways including how people conduct themselves. Now that we’re hitting the US it’s good to me, because we’ve got this genuine multicultural feel.
Some of the people we’re hiring in the US are some of the more senior people in the company and they’re aware of what they’re joining and they want to be a part of that. Quite often they’re coming through Silicon Valley and they’ve been a part of companies that have gone global, and it’s hard to doubt the fact that it’s very powerful, but these individuals are looking for something different. They’re attracted to the fact that this company started in New Zealand and has bases in six countries with all these nationalities.
You brought up the fact that they like that we’re in New Zealand, and New Zealand has a strong brand, but it seems like a lot of the opportunities you secured in terms of your recent successful funding were offshore. Would you say it’s true that while New Zealand companies lean heavily on the New Zealand brand they can miss other, bigger VC funds and similar opportunities offshore?
It’s fair to say that probably is the case. I love New Zealand, I’m a Kiwi, and that’s so deep in your DNA. There’s no losing that. But it’s about what else you can put in the mix. It’s a big world out there. It’s ginormous, so you put in half a dozen countries like we have, then it becomes really attractive. In the context of that, New Zealand is a big part of 90 Seconds and people are more open to that component because they want to know how it fits. And then they see the benefits and values we have. For example we’re not a litigious society, we tend to get on and figure things out with each other. I tell them it’s not the fastest moving business environment here, but why would it be? It’s a stable country and that’s why we love it. But here I am with a VC trying to bring significant funding into a company, I need them to feel very sure that we’re global and nothing will hold us back.
But the stability is good because it means we’re trustworthy, and that if they ever want to come to New Zealand they can, and it’s good for the mind and the soul. They get into that. So it’s one of the pieces of the puzzle. You can’t oversell it, but if you get people into what the New Zealand brand really is they’ll like it. Even the people that aren’t really fussed on NZ are suddenly interested because it’s played an undeniable critical role in our global story.
In your negotiations with Sequoia, who are the playmakers when it comes to AirBnB and other companies of that scale, did you find that coming from a country like New Zealand where people aren’t put on pedestals helped you not to freak out?
It’s interesting eh. I’ll be completely honest, because I care so much about New Zealand succeeding. I’ve been knocked around a bit in NZ, because it happened, and I’ve learned from that, but I wouldn’t want to put other people through what I went through. It’s all good, and I’ve learned from everything, but it was a bit unnecessary. If I look at some of the countries we do business in now, they don’t do that at all. They’d actually help the person back up. Because that person is the one in the ring. They may have been knocked down, but they’re the one in the ring, so they get them back on their feet, and get them back out there for another round. New Zealand tries to keep people there. But to whose gain? I’ve hired almost 100 people now in the last five years, and I didn’t do it with a lot of support from the New Zealand side on a lot of fronts. I’m here for the bigger picture, and in the bigger picture that just doesn’t work because not everybody is going to get back up like I did.
You’ve gotta make it hard for people, I believe that, but not try and keep them down. The whole idea is to get them back up and rolling. Because we’ve gotta do something big for New Zealand here, and I’ve always had that in my heart. I want to do something big for New Zealand, and I’ve worked my ass off my whole career, so I was a bit surprised to be knocked down that much. But I took the learnings, and this time around going into these negotiations – and it’s probably why I don’t freak out now – is that I’ve lost everything before. I’ve been through the most frightening times. You’re scared, and you realise it.
But I want to go into high pressure situations and I want to enjoy them, because they are enjoyable. That’s where I like to live, a point where I’m not sure I can get something through, but I think I can. I’m not sure how, but that’s ok because I’ll figure it out in time, and I’m comfortable with it. This time around I was ready for it. I wanted to enjoy it, and I did enjoy it, going through all this really complex negotiating. Once you’re comfortable in that mode of things you get confident taking really huge risks, and that’s what I’ve done with this company.
When I went to negotiations I was really ready for it, and the whole process was exactly what I was looking for. It was really hard, and it was really challenging, and there were bits of me that almost lost it, and it’s on the edge of being truly frightening, but by this point I’ve realised that the more comfortable you can be in hard situations, the harder situations you’ll be able to navigate. I’m a human and a Kiwi, and building this global company I know there’s not many Kiwis like me. I’m not saying that to brag, there just aren’t that many Kiwis like me. I’ve developed or acquired for whatever reason attitudes and qualities that aren’t so common in New Zealand. I know how important they are globally, and therefore i go ‘well I’ve gotta build this company up and make it work.’
International travel seems so important for New Zealanders. Obviously plenty of people go on their OEs, but I’m talking about intrepid, in-depth travel. It’s just so valuable.
It is man, I really think it is. Kiwis know we need to get that stuff in our brains and that we’ll be better if we get it in. It does make a big difference because you can come to big markets like the US, and places like Singapore, where they don’t travel much. They’re in places where there are enough opportunities where you can get away without it, but you still miss something because of it. That is one of the opportunities inherent in New Zealand, you instinctively know that you’re not going to learn enough at home and you better get out there and it’s great, because that’s the truth.
A lot of people living in big cities like LA and New York are pretty focused around that area, and it’s ok for them, but I think there are a lot of cool things about a lot of different cultures. You become a more interesting and valuable person to the overall population of the world. You’re also less likely to skew what you’re offering to a smaller sector of the population because you’re aware that there’s more. I’ve travelled in South East Asia and lived in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia for many years in my early 20s, and every time I’ve started a company from a beach in a little hut in Asia, quietly build it up, keep it all real in a nice climate with good healthy food, nice local people with good values, it’s been a good thing.
But at the same time, you guys are still in some capacity in Auckland, operating out of the Grid. Everybody I’ve spoken with mentioned what a huge influence it is having people like yourself around, people who are cracking it on a world scale. What do you get out of being around these smaller startups?
Everyone is at a different point on the journey.The world is changing hugely, and I see these big macro things like the number of people and the skills they’ve got growing in different countries, and I look at their cost structure. New Zealand’s cost structure, the price of houses and mortgages and so on, make me think ‘Shit!, it’s gonna hurt’. This is not a small thing, it’s going to hurt, because why would someone with the same skills and qualifications in a country with a third of the mortgage price, why would they not get the job in the future? It’s going to be tough.
I’m really disappointed in some of the ways the country is run in that area. I’m disappointed with the way the banking sector is structured, and the rise of the offshore owners. I’m disappointed that it’s easy to build your wealth in property with non-value creating assets. It’s not new, I’ve been disappointed in that since I knew it was happening in my very early 20’s. Still am today. I’m trying to build myself up to have more influence and probably success that gives me better recognition amongst some of those people making those decisions, even in a small way, so that I can at least start to communicate with them a bit better. They won’t say ‘you’re just a hippy on the side of the road who doesn’t have any money.’ Now I can say ‘Well I have got millions of dollars, so what’s up? Can’t we have a conversation around this? It’s not working.’
So because of that, I look at all the humans around the Grid and the other communities like BizDojo and the other entrepreneurial communities where I’ve been at different points in the curve, and, like I said, I’ve been knocked down too much sometimes I think, so one job for me is to be in there and not let that happen when I’m around. If I’m around, it’s not going to happen. If I can see someone who’s worked their ass off, then the job is to help nurture those people, because they’re trying, and that effort will prevail if it’s supported. That’s who I support first and foremost, people who go hard. They’re making it for themselves, and they deserve to know that there’s someone else around, especially if they can see that we’re way further down the curve, and then my job is real clear, it’s to show them the direct line between me and them. Whether you take the same path or not is irrelevant, there’s a straight line all the way back to exactly where you are, and we’re the same. If you can see the same thing you can get to anywhere I am, and further.
I really want to help other people. But helping other people is not easy – I mean to really help them. In order to do that I’ve gotta generate a significant success, that’s what it has to be, where people can go ‘shit, he’s broken through several ceilings there, now we want to know what he really thinks,’ because I’m never gonna give away paper advice. I never do. I’m only going to do it if I genuinely believe it can help, and if it’s not then there’s no point. It’s not self-serving, there’s nothing in it for me, I’m already doing fine, I don’t need to give advice, and I don’t want any money for it, but the whole idea here is let’s get together, get better at doing this, and create more success for us all.
You can probably hear in me quite a lot of conviction. I’m keeping it calm and cool too though because I’m playing a long term game here. I love seeing the community in New Zealand having a go, that’s what it’s all about, even like 10 years ago you didn’t have that many people hovering in the same places. Now it’s getting better, we have these spaces set up, BizDojo has done a cracker of that, the Grid’s awesome, it’s just an awesome space, it’s got a bit of heaving to it, and it makes me feel like I’m home when I’m in that environment. I love being around that.
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 Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.