Entrepreneurs bring ‘diversity of thought’

 Last updated 05:00 30/05/2014
claudia batten

‘A DOER’: Serko director Claudia Batten says the lives of entrepreneurs are too often glamorised. ‘‘It is the least glamorous thing possible.’’

Women of Influence 2014

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For some people, “networking” is a mystery and for others it’s a chore.

But for Claudia Batten, who was last night named the youngest winner of the supreme award at the World Class New Zealand Awards, it has been both a professional passion and a way to give back to the entrepreneurial community.

The 39-year-old Samuel Marsden School and Victoria University law graduate hit the headlines in 2007 when the New York software company she co-founded, Massive Software, was bought by Microsoft for a confidential figure some reports put as high as US$400 million.

She went on to co-found and then sell an advertising agency, Victors & Spoils, which was built on the principle of crowd-sourcing ideas for clients. Now she is on to her third start-up, digital networking app-maker Broadli, which aims to help people categorise and get more value from their social networking contacts, all the while trying to use her own contacts to help fellow Kiwis get a leg up in the United States.

The World Class New Zealand Awards are run by expat network Kea and New Zealand Trade & Enterprise. The award is recognition, Batten believes, for the help she has provided to fellow Kiwi entrepreneurs, particularly over the past 18 months.

Kea chief executive Craig Donaldson said Batten had been an inspiration to New Zealanders. “Claudia exhibits all the qualities that New Zealanders admire; generosity, openness, creativity, enthusiasm, intelligence, courage and leadership.”

Batten admits she was a little disappointed by how the Massive sale was originally portrayed in New Zealand, and the obsession with the sale price.

Now it just feels “weird” to revisit the topic at all, given she has worked harder every year since its sale gave her a springboard, she says.

“People miss the backstory of Massive, that there was significant venture capital in there,” she says. “The story is not the price of the sale, it is that a person on a very safe and secure career path at Russell McVeagh in Wellington thinks I’m not sure this is for me’, jumps on a plane to New York, having never been there or lived outside of Wellington, and manages to help create this company that gets picked up by Microsoft.”

Batten now lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband Mark, a metal sculptor, but expects to increase the frequency of her visits to New Zealand to every couple of months. Her multiplying connections to the country include her role as a director of travel software company Serko, which this week announced its initial public offering on the NZX.

She is also the chairwoman of Auckland firm Star86, which has built a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game designed to boost kids’ self-confidence and which will soon shift its base to the US. “As kids are exposed to more screen-time we need to be doing stuff that is fun for them but helps them develop their strength of ‘self’,” she says.

Batten describes her own success as in large part due to “resilience”, saying the lives of entrepreneurs are too often glamorised. “It is the least glamorous thing possible. It is a scrappy fight and you don’t get to bypass that. I have shitty days and horrible, difficult things happen and I know if I can’t persevere through that I won’t have a success.”

Two of her current projects are to find a way for Auckland’s Icehouse technology incubator, whose board she also sits on, and Kea to work more closely together, and to find a more structured way for Kiwi start-ups to be able to identify the resources in the US that might be able to help them.

Entrepreneurialism is in the “DNA” of Kiwis as an immigrant nation, she believes, even if too many are prepared to settle for the “boat, bach and BMW”.

New Zealand still does its technology sector a “disservice” by undervaluing technology companies, she says, though that reputation has the flipside of attracting US interest.

“My pitch to investors is ‘come out, we’ve got great ingenious companies, the valuations are really low and it doesn’t suck to visit’,” she laughs.

Working out how she could best contribute to company boards in her more recent role as an independent director was something she initially struggled with. “I don’t enjoy pontificating. I am a ‘doer’.”

She wouldn’t advise filling a boardroom with entrepreneurs but says it is important to push out some “shirts and ties” and increase diversity. “Entre-preneurs bring diversity, not necessarily of colour or gender, but the diversity we need is diversity of thought.”

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