Peter Beck: Backing Kiwi businesses reaching for the stars

OPINION:

The OE – that most celebrated of Kiwi experiences – is something many of us remember vividly. Stepping onto a plane as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed twenty-something ready for adventure in London or New York has become a deeply ingrained part of our cultural identity, at least until Covid came along.

Overseas experiences broaden our horizons, give us new skills and experiences, and supercharge our careers, enabling us to bring knowledge back home to Aotearoa. Why then, do we so often fear the same experience for our companies?

This morning Rocket Lab became publicly traded on the Nasdaq in the United States. Some may lament this as “the loss of another Kiwi business offshore.” The truth is that while Rocket Lab has a lot to celebrate by going public on the US markets, so does New Zealand as a whole.

As the second largest exchange in the world, the Nasdaq delivers us the liquidity required to grow and thrive in the capital-intensive and increasingly competitive space industry. It strengthens our already significant economic footprint in New Zealand, which includes 450+ high-tech jobs (and counting) and a supply chain that supports hundreds of small businesses across the country. It also opens the door to international partnerships that create opportunities for Kiwis internationally.

The inclusion of New Zealanders in NASA internships for the first time ever is testament to the relationships Rocket Lab has helped to foster, as is the MethaneSat program that puts New Zealand at the forefront of an innovative mission to detect global methane emissions from space. This program will also see Rocket Lab lead the development of a new mission control centre in which our future scientists and engineers will learn.

The benefits to New Zealand go far beyond just the space industry though. The immediate Rocket Lab ecosystem has directly incubated startups founded by our engineers. I’m committed to investing in the businesses founded by our incredible team members and the Nasdaq listing only strengthens the ability to do so.

Halter, an agritech firm leading the future of farming, is just one example of this, with many more expected to follow from the injection of capital into the hands of hundreds of smart, motivated young people.

It is only through our relationships with Silicon Valley that we’ve been able to shine a light on New Zealand technology and attract investors who have the funding, expertise, and networks to support our country’s best ideas and most ambitious entrepreneurs.

Several Rocket Lab investors have subsequently invested in other New Zealand companies, a trend we expect to see continue thanks to the profile our Nasdaq listing gives New Zealand overseas.

The benefits of taking locally grown companies global are clear, but there’s a hurdle to clear before we’re likely to see more Rocket Labs, Xeros and Allbirds. We need to encourage entrepreneurs and businesses to think bigger than our borders. All too often ambition is ground down to “reality”.

In high school my careers counsellor scoffed at my plans to build a rocket. My parents were called in and urged not to support such fanciful ideas. No, the sensible thing to do was get a job.

My experience is far from unique. We’re confident in our All Blacks and Olympians when it comes to taking on the world and when they succeed the whole country celebrates with them going global. Our businesses deserve every bit of that confidence and support too.

Adding entrepreneur to the list of encouraged career choices is a good place to start. Celebrating and teaching entrepreneurial efforts more visibly, like we do sport and music, will hopefully make it something young Kiwis feel confident in aspiring to.

And in the same way we encourage our sports teams when they stumble, we need to remember that failure is an option for start-ups too. In fact, it’s an essential process. There’s the tiniest fragment of a failed rocket engine sitting on my desk to remind me of the value of mistakes. If we had let that setback stop us years ago, Rocket Lab wouldn’t be here today.

Making it ok for our start-ups to fail, dust themselves off and start again is also key to growing big, world-changing ideas from Kiwi soil. So, too, is putting away the pruning shears. Studies have revealed that tall poppy syndrome can lead Kiwi entrepreneurs to deliberately limit their business growth because they do not want to stand out and attract attention.

“There are some strong social norms about how you should talk about your ambitions and your achievements so as not to distance yourself too much from your fellow New Zealanders,” said Julie Fry, co-author of the book Ambition: What New Zealanders think and why it matters.

“The glorification of humility does seem to be firmly embedded in New Zealand culture.”

New Zealand is home to a special kind of creative and innovative thinking, the likes of which I’ve rarely encountered overseas. Rocket Lab is just one of many ideas that we can take global and as the next generation of homegrown entrepreneurs sprout, we’ll be there to back them reaching for the stars.

– Peter Beck is the founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab.

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