Shawn O’Keefe on Startup Diversity and Business Opportunities in New Zealand

This June Wellington was lucky enough to attract its latest US export – Shawn O’Keefe, after a 14-year tenure at SXSW Interactive. Hailing from Austin, O’Keefe has established himself as a strategist, entrepreneur, global networker, and thought-leader, and has arrived on our shores to embark on his latest endeavour – Programme Director for Wellington’s Lightning Lab Manufacturing, a product accelerator delivered by Creative HQ in Lower Hutt this year.

LightningLab Logo Suite -03

It shouldn’t take too long for Wellington to feel like home to O’Keefe, because apparently it isn’t so different from his hometown in Texas. The Austin vibe, with an easy going nature and “plenty of hipsters running around” is well entrenched in Wellington, as well as their shared capital city status and generous offerings of tertiary institutions. O’Keefe acknowledges he hasn’t been here for long, but already has observed some promising positives about New Zealanders, and potential to grow the existing creative innovation hub that exists.

Shawn O'Keefe

“There is this sincerity to want to see others succeed, and that kind of group think, that benefit of all is something that we have in in the States and Austin, but not to the degree that you guys have here and that is a really good sign.”

O’Keefe is a firm believer that good things happen at intersections. Intersections of industries, personalities, ideas, and experiences. He applied this thinking in the formative years of the Music, Film, and Interactive parts of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival, where he was producer and strategist for 14 years. The festival itself is a testament to the magic that can happen at the convergence of industries. Each year improved on the last, with external organisations coming in to speak about whatever topic they desired, essentially shaping the event in an iterative process of feedback and flexibility.

SXSW became an opportunity to create some of these intersections for the attendees, but O’Keefe was mindful of balancing that with the logistics of running a festival. “It was a challenge of trading navigation and wayfinding, and being able to get around this overwhelming event, versus helping foster the kind of collisions and interactions that we wanted to happen.” O’Keefe compared this to a modern office layout we see around and likely work in ourselves, with open floor planning encouraging communication and collaboration between co-workers who may not otherwise be interacting.

In the context of startups, the more diverse the team the better. O’Keefe suggested that traditionally the start-up world appears to value an aggressive go-getter, a type of personality considered a classic ‘entrepreneur’. However, the industry is by no means reserved for these characters.

“Certainly there are entrepreneurs that are leaders that can really rally a team, and they are wired differently than folks who may have a brilliant idea but don’t always know how to market themselves and don’t really consider themselves an entrepreneur. So I think it is important that a start-up ecosystem has all of those kinds of personalities.”

“The more diverse they are, the more healthy those start-up ecosystems are.”

And there’s more good news for those who are keen to get on the start-up scene but scared of not fitting the startup mould. “You don’t have to be wired a certain way to be successful in [start-ups]. Part of that process of becoming an entrepreneur is you learn your weaknesses and your strengths very quickly, you learn how to collaborate the right way and how to bring in people that compliment your skill set and that’s really all it is.”

One final pearl of wisdom from O’Keefe, his advice to those aspiring business stars, sits very comfortably in our Kiwi lexicon. DIY. Learn everything you can. “I say this to young people all of the time, particularly millennials because they are really the first generation [this applies to], and it sounds a bit harsh, but there are no excuses anymore.“

Don’t know how to code? Go learn it. Don’t know your way around the Creative Suite? Go learn it. Don’t know how to get your ground breaking business idea off the ground? Go learn it. Or come and see us at Creative HQ; we know a thing or two about that.

For more information about Lightning Lab Manufacturing and their upcoming Demo Day in Lower Hutt on November 19th check out http://www.lightninglab.co.nz/manufacturing-wellington/