I was at a reception last week at the home of the US Ambassador to New Zealand, Mark Gilbert. The event was in celebration of innovation in New Zealand. “We share an ocean,” joked Ambassador Gilbert, as he listed some things America has in common with New Zealand. He meant the Pacific Ocean. New Zealand’s Minister of Science and Innovation, Steven Joyce, replied that our two countries are separated by just “a couple of movies and a sleep” – referring to the non-stop twelve hour flight from Auckland to San Francisco.
It’s true, New Zealand isn’t as isolated as we once were. I’ve journeyed across the Pacific Ocean many times, from Auckland to San Francisco (add on a one hour plane ride from Wellington to Auckland). The flight from Auckland is non-stop and typically overnight, so you’ll leave at 8 or 9pm and arrive in San Francisco about midday. Except you arrive before you leave, because of the International Date Line. So if you depart New Zealand on a Sunday night, you’ll arrive in San Francisco on Sunday afternoon.
Cultural isolation isn’t a problem either. Kiwi innovators have a lot in common with our counterparts in the US. We speak english, we’re smart, we have a can-do attitude and we’re creative. The one thing we need help with, according to Minister Joyce, is marketing ourselves. We kiwis are certainly more reticent. Witness the almost embarressed way that our rugby players celebrate scoring tries, despite scoring more of them on average than our opponents. I must confess that self-promotion was something I struggled with, during my time running the tech blog Read/Write Web (now called ReadWrite). It was almost an oxymoron to be a blogger who didn’t talk himself up, but that’s what I was. I didn’t see it as a challenge though. As long as I was scoring those tries, I was doing fine.
Geographic isolation isn’t much of an issue these days, given that so much can be done over the Internet. Tools like Facebook, Skype and Twitter enable anyone to feel more connected to others, regardless of location. Of course, geography still matters – why else do young entrepreneurs flock to Silicon Valley from all over the world? There’s nothing quite like bumping into fellow tech workers at your local cafe, a meetup, or (best of all) a party. But despite the obvious benefits of face-to-face networking, distance is no longer the tyranny it once was.
I spent nearly a decade running Read/Write Web and for all of that time I was based in New Zealand. I founded the blog in April 2003 and sold it to a US company at the end of 2011. During that period, I never once felt isolated. It was only after the sale, during 2012, that I began to feel isolated. But even then, it wasn’t geographic or cultural isolation that was the problem. It was more a feeling of not belonging anymore.
Feeling like you belong and that you’re connected to people is the opposite of isolation. Another word for it is community. This is what I found when I first started blogging. My goal back then, in 2003, was simply to write about Web technology and try to connect to people with a similar passion. Much to my surprise and pleasure, I connected to many such people through the blog. A good portion of them happened to live and work in Silicon Valley.
At that time, Silicon Valley occupied a near mythical place in my imagination. I had never traveled there (I hadn’t been to the US, full stop) and I had little clue as to what it looked like. Or what its inhabitants looked like. But I soon discovered they were on the same wavelength as me. So I felt a sense of community with these people, who I’d never even met. I felt like I fit in with the people of the blogosphere, much more than I fit in with the people I saw every day at my job in New Zealand.
Even though I found my community in the blogosphere, I was still very much an outsider – because I wasn’t from Silicon Valley. Being an outsider is not the same as being isolated. You choose to be an outsider, you don’t choose to be isolated.
Being an outsider actually worked to my advantage as a tech blogger, because it allowed me to step back and take a bird’s eye view of what was going on in Silicon Valley. I soon attracted other outsiders to write the blog with me: a Russian-born entrepreneur with a gift for deep analysis of Web trends, a big thinking Turkish entrepreneur, a promising young blogger from Rhode Island, a previously unknown Tampa Bay blogger (now one of the best in the business), and a number of talented bloggers from that most alternative of US cities, Portland. Because of this disparate group of outsiders, none of whom were based in Silicon Valley, Read/Write Web became known as an analysis blog which looked at technology a bit differently.
That’s not to say that going to the home of technology wasn’t important. I traveled to Silicon Valley on a regular basis on Read/Write Web business, to attend events and eventually host a couple of our own. I first traveled to the US in 2005, when I attended the second annual Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. I immediately felt welcome in Silicon Valley. People there were curious about this odd fellow behind Read/Write Web and were interested in what I had to say, even if they couldn’t make out my accent sometimes (I pronounced Web as “Weeb,” apparently).
It was a time of trial and experimentation on the Weeb, I mean Web. This era even had a name, “Web 2.0,” although nobody actually knew what that meant. All we knew was that innovation was happening again and that something new was emerging from Internet technology. My opinions about this seachange were as good as anyone else’s. People listened. They liked hearing from me and seeing me. So yes, visiting the valley was important.
For most of my time though, I was in a place that is more than 10,000 kilometres away from the valley. Even so, I never felt that isolation was an issue. I met hundreds of like-minded people through blogging and for the majority of them, it was only a virtual connection. Up till about 2009, I hadn’t even met many of my own staff! I was the only one of Read/Write Web’s full-time workers to live in New Zealand. All the others lived in the US. But again I didn’t feel isolated, because we communicated daily using virtual tools like Skype and Basecamp. I felt a sense of belonging, to both the blogosphere and to the company I’d created.
I sold the blog in late 2011. I continued to work there and travel to the US, to visit the new ReadWrite office in San Francisco and go to events. But things had changed. I was increasingly out of the loop with business decisions, since most of the time I wasn’t in the office when they were being discussed. I was also sensing a certain resentment from people I knew in the valley. On one trip a successful media entrepreneur from the valley, who I knew well, said to me in a rather disdainful voice: “So you just come over here every few months, get what you need and go back home?” The implication was that because I hadn’t chosen to base myself in Silicon Valley when I sold the business, I wasn’t really a part of it anymore. He’d said it jokingly, but it was on the mark. I was beginning to feel like I didn’t belong.
To be clear, this was all my own doing and I have absolutely no regrets. It was my decision to sell the business and it worked out well for me financially. But by selling Read/Write Web, I knew I’d be handing over the controls. I also chose to stay in New Zealand after selling, because of personal reasons. Then when I left the site in October 2012, I stopped regular blogging and focused my attention on a new goal: writing a book. All this led to a feeling of isolation, from Read/Write Web and the blogosphere at large.
The solution was to rebuild my connections to people, which I began to do over 2013 and beyond. People who love Internet technology are still my community, but they are now primarily reachable through social media. So I try to stay active on Twitter and Facebook, and write occassionally on my personal blog. I’m still that same outsider I was when I founded Read/Write Web. Only now my primary creative outlet is different: books. So I make an effort to keep my presence up on the Web, while I slog away at writing books.
The takeaway for fellow entrepreneurs from New Zealand, or indeed any other country that is far away from Silicon Valley, is to stay connected. Find your community and get involved. Geography is no longer an excuse to be isolated. It still matters, but not as much as you’d think. After all, I managed Read/Write Web for nearly ten years from across the ocean.