4 Things I Learned from Spark

If you’re attending or working at Auckland University, you can’t go wrong with getting involved in Spark, a student-led organisation that spearheads the university’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. Since 2008 I’ve been through the Spark system as a competitor, winner (mostly loser), as a lead on the management team, as mentor and as a judge. There have been many lessons learned but here are my top four:

Meet cool people

When you want to start a company, all kinds of really cool people get involved in lots of awesome ways, bringing a diversity of thinking, skills and approaches to the table. Grinding out ideas with people is a great way to get to know your network in a semi-professional way.

When one of my high school friends, then a computer science masters student, Peter Chen, said he had an idea he’d like me to work on with him, I didn’t realise how much I’d get hooked. We went on to win a small prize in 2008 and got to know each other a lot better in the process. He liked the experience we went through so much that the following year he submitted 12 ideas with 12 different people; not because he wanted to win so much as he found it such an excellent vehicle for getting to know people.

Bottom line: Use Spark to strengthen your network and learn to work with people from other disciplines.

The entrepreneurial mindset

Spark got me to reframe the way I look at all research and development that took place at university. My top question for every 4th year engineering student was “how will this project be taken to market?”. The cool thing is that every year, they get better at answering the question. The answer is becoming more important.

Spark helps take this question to every sphere of the university; they bring a fantastic pragmatism to the arts and social entrepreneurship, really pushing you to think through creating something sustainable, even when the primary goals aren’t commercial.

One of the things that we suck at in New Zealand is commercialisation, often demonstrated by our lousy ratio of publications to patents. Over the long term, I believe difference between these two capabilities is largely about the mindset that is brought to R&D in the first place. Spark helps to cultivate this mindset everywhere.

Bottom Line: Spark gives you the mindset so that the work you do can reach the audience, community or market it needs in order to survive.

Starting a company will kick your ass

I completely fucked up with my team when we went through the 100K challenge in 2009. World’s best portable composting toilet isn’t obviously sexy; but the business opportunity and social need were massive. Not only that, but the technology founder who brought in the IP had a kick-ass prototype in the works that we could really test and prove demand with.

We went on to win the then titled 40K Challenge, which for us included $20,000 seed capital and six months at The Icehouse[1]. Within a week, the other member of our trio decided to drop out, she was early in her studies and, as far as I could tell, didn’t want another distraction. Six weeks later the technology founder and I sat down and he said I should walk away as well. We haven’t spoken since.

We had some fundamental differences of opinion around next steps for the organisation, in particular the appropriate strategy for taking the technology to market (in-house manufacturing vs licensing). I’d also arranged to work half-time at Lee ter Wal Design to keep personal cash flow while we grew the business out of The Icehouse. This didn’t sit too well with him either. Since there was no shareholder agreement at that stage, there was an inevitable dispute over shareholding[2]. I don’t think I’d get myself in the same position now, but if I did, I’d walk away faster. Sorry dude.

Regardless of this, the experience sculpted a large part of how I operate today and what I aspire to in the businesses I help build and the selling I do. When we were doing the final presentation, largely done by me, I emphasised the strength, unity and completeness of our team. I really admired the members of that judging panel, and it turned out I was full of shit. Sorry guys.

Bottom Line: Starting a business is a lot harder than you think and working with other people is also hard, particularly when money is on the table. Have the tough conversations early and often.

It’s not about the competitions

There are so many competitions focused on starting, planning and pitching a business that a lot of start-ups become distracted from doing what their core mission is; getting people to pay money for a product or service that you provide. Winning competitions can give you a false sense of achievement and can take your time away from accomplishing these things.

People should enter the Spark competitions, because they’re at university, it’s fun and you’ll learn a lot. For some of them, they’ll get to the hard part of making something worth paying for. But we still need the 80 teams to try and put a business plan together each year, because this kind of work is contagious and stays with you when you’re done. This is how cultures change. A phrase I heard early on was that we were creating ‘business savvy scientists’ - there’s nothing our country needs more. An extra few hundred people every year thinking about starting a business has had a massive impact on the hallway conversations at the university. But these conversations continue when people leave as well; they can infect our NGOs, research institutions, government and businesses alike. A competition is just the conversation starter.

Bottom Line:Changing the culture of our university is just the first step to changing the culture of our country into one with grand aspirations to create world-leading businesses and a better society.

Now go!

Spark launch is last Tuesday, but if you missed it don’t worry, the first V2B is next week, go along, learn some stuff and start getting a team together. If you’re not at university any more, you should come check it out anyway, you might be able to offer some help, and at the very least meet some good people.


  1. A little-discussed facet of The Icehouse’s incubation is that it used to include surrendering 4–6% of stock to The Icehouse, so although there is usually a price ticket for residency, the prize itself doesn’t get you in there without another, often more significant cost. Whether this was a worthwhile sacrifice was a considerable source of tension between my co-founder and I. I was for it, but was giving up less overall. These days, fortunately, you don’t have to give up equity for a residency that you won through Spark.  ↩

  2. Sacha Judd wrote a great pair of articles on Rowan Simpson’s blog that are worth checking out: Call me Maybe Part 1 and Part 2. When I went through Spark, start-up governance was one of the least-addressed areas in the their education programme. These articles are a good starting point.  ↩