Date posted: 1/12/2016 8 min read

New Zealand business on the world stage

Digital entrepreneur Claudia Batten talks about her new role helping more local businesses achieve global success

In brief

  • Batten was a key player establishing Massive, which was sold to Microsoft for US$400 million
  • She is becoming regional director for North America for NZ Trade and Enterprise
  • NZ needs more digital entrepreneurs to get involved be more globally ambitious

Photography by Chris Gorman

Claudia Batten says she “just kinda digs life”. It’s a fairly laidback statement from a woman who exudes energy — be it over the phone, in her blogs and tweets, or in one of the many articles written about her.

The US-based Kiwi expat has achieved phenomenal success as a digital entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurial path began in the US when she became part of the team which founded Massive, a first-of-its-kind network for advertising in video games which was sold to Microsoft in 2006 for a reported US$400m.

This was after eschewing a safe role in corporate law in Wellington in the nineties and heading to New York with no real plans, certain only that law was not the right path for her.

She says she happened to meet the right people at the right time. “It’s a great story about allowing yourself to be a little lost — giving yourself the opportunity to find your new home when you know that where you currently are is not pushing every conceivable button,” she says.

While the Massive team knew they were working towards “a pretty big vision”, they hadn’t dared to dream that the company would become so big.

Back then the success stories such as Facebook, Pinterest and Snapchat had yet to happen, so there weren’t “big player” role models.

“We were kind of just doing our thing and trying to make a vision happen, which is really the authentic way to be an entrepreneur.

Squiggling

Batten’s move to New York is the kind of decision or choice she calls “squiggling” — not being afraid to make sideways and backwards steps in the quest to move forward.

“Be the biggest, bravest, boldest version of yourself that you can be,” she encourages.

Her move to New York is her own squiggliest line — the one which changed her life the most.

“The only way I got through that was by continuing to push, and it was hard — there were a lot of moments where it felt very lonely and very difficult and that’s the epitome of the squiggly line. It’s a hard journey.”

Her latest squiggle will see Batten step off the purist entrepreneurial path to share what she’s learned from 15 years in the technology sector. In March she becomes Regional Director for North America for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, based in Los Angeles, overseeing key relationships across the US, Canada and Mexico.

Batten has been instrumental in helping New Zealand businesses achieve international success, mentoring and advising boards and start-ups, and she’s looking forward to her new role helping businesses in the North American market. Batten loves the concept of digital. She traces the obsession back to her first year at law firm Russell McVeagh in Wellington in 1997 when staff first got computers on their desks. She was amazed at the change that happened inside the firm as a result of this.

It completely changed how people operated.

“Digital has allowed us to connect and to do things in ways that we could never have imagined.”

She sees limitless potential with digital.

“I think business is my ultimate obsession. I see digital as this really incredible enabling device, a transformative device to take business places it has never gone before.

“The reason I’m obsessed with digital is that it’s fundamentally transformational if business sees these trends and advances and takes advantage of them.”

Those who don’t risk getting left behind, she says.

Next victory

Batten co-founded Victors & Spoils in 2009 with a new team. It was the first advertising agency built on the principles of crowdsourcing.

“Victors & Spoils was something that had been sitting at the back of my mind for at least a year prior to doing it and the reason for that was that, as we scaled Microsoft, I was diving deeper and deeper into that question of how we get advertisers to continue their support of what we’re building.”

At that time, advertisers weren’t using digital the way Batten thought it could be used.

“While I didn’t obviously see Facebook doing what it’s done — I wish I had — I could see that there was this real shift in how consumers were interacting with digital media and early signals of the shift into social media. Really, this complete disruption of advertising is what I could see happening.”

She says while “complete disruption” has yet to happen there are more players every day.

“It seemed to me we needed a fresh, smart way of looking at digital advertising so I had this idea I wanted to start advertising that was focused on digital.”

The idea was then planned, funded and sold (French company Havas bought a majority interest in the agency in 2012) more quickly than she could have imagined — testimony to the team having the right idea at the right time.

“It was very quick and very, very exciting.”

After the success of Massive, Batten admits she had a huge vision for Victors & Spoils.

The company is still going strong, although it has moved in a different direction than Batten had initially envisaged, becoming more of an advertising agency than a digital platform.

“Sometimes you will make compromises to make sure you can live to see another day versus dying on the vine with your true vision intact.”

Batten says there is a little science to successfully exiting a company, “plus a lot of wishful, optimistic thinking around the continuation of the journey and the dream”.

Sometimes you will make compromises to make sure you can live to see another day versus dying on the vine with your true vision intact.

Exit strategies

Being an entrepreneur involves knowing not just when — and how — to get in, but knowing when to get out.

“I don’t know if you actually ever know when it’s the right time to sell,” Batten says.

“When you make that decision you know that you’re locking yourself in to becoming part of somebody else’s vision, rather than necessarily moving your own one further.”

When an entrepreneur gets presented with an opportunity to exit a company they need to consider where they are at, whether they can move forward on their own, or whether they need the support of an entity that’s going to take them to the next place, Batten says.

There are a number of ways to get support from another company.

“Partners could take small stakes, they could take big stakes, they could acquire you, support you – you get to a certain point when you know you need these strategic partnerships to move forward and there are multiple ways you could come together.”

She says while the “big guns” are needed to add value, a start-up also needs to ensure these big guns “are hearing your story”.

“That’s why I’m a big fan of PR — you’ve got to make sure people are hearing about you.”

Equally, you need to make sure people who are in your network are aware of what you are doing, and that you make purposeful connections with the right folk in strategic relationships.

For example, Massive’s partnership with Microsoft came about after Massive evolved to such a degree that it was able to engage in strategic discussions with the software giant.

While Batten is a great fan of networking and connectivity, her next business venture was designed to solve the problem of too much connectivity and to offer a way to manage connections.

So she and two other women co-founded Broadli, a mobile app which helps people organise their LinkedIn network in a meaningful way.

This provides an alternative to “stalking” people on LinkedIn who might be able to help you professionally, then connecting with them in a very “cold start”.

Batten says if they don’t know you they won’t know whether to help you, or why they even should.

“With Broadli we pre-filter that — you put out what you need help with and then your networks suggest people they think you should connect with to help you with that.

“Then people who are connected to you and know you well and know your work can make an introduction, like a recommendation.”

Broadli started with “a big bang”, with its launch covered by Fast Company. While the team has now taken a step back to review business, Batten continues to be involved with the company.

“My personal belief is that all companies have their own journey and their own path and timing, and Broadli decided that it needed to slow down.”

To be one… or not to be one

What Batten loves most about being an entrepreneur is the people.

“Trying to create something — with a team — something that hasn’t existed before, is a great experience.”

She also loves convincing other people to share the journey and finding ways to win as a group.

This desire to create something that has never existed before is “the entrepreneurial crack”, and that’s the addiction that gets entrepreneurs out of bed every day, she says.

Having worked in law and in the mechanical side of running business, then from working at Microsoft, she enjoys operational execution. But having and creating a huge vision that, without you, couldn’t exist, is the biggest motivator.

She describes herself as a change agent, as well as an entrepreneur.

“I think I’m that before I’m an entrepreneur — and that’s the bit that I really do enjoy the most.”

When asked if there’s a formula for success as an entrepreneur, she says she doesn’t believe in formulas.

“I disregard them right at the outset. The best filter or way of seeing what you need to have as an entrepreneur is an inward one. My mantra is be the biggest, bravest, boldest version of yourself that you can be.

“You have to be fully dialled in to all your capabilities and be very, very brave in the decisions that you make to be able to even think about being an entrepreneur, let alone going through that journey.”

That journey involves knocking on a lot of doors and “kissing a lot of frogs”.

“You’re going to get ‘no’ a lot and you’ll be tempted to minimise your vision, with safety becoming a consideration.”

She says if someone can show up and interest people and sparkle in front of them and take them along on your journey and make brave, difficult decisions, then that’s the “formula” for being an entrepreneur.

“It’s about turning up every day and being magnificent.”

Dream weaving

Batten compares the way she operates in the business world to the way she operates in the kitchen.

“I read recipe books, then I put them down and I create. If I need to know what temperature a meat needs to be cooked at I look up that recipe. I think that being an entrepreneur is really similar to that — you can’t follow a recipe. You can read a lot of recipes and get a very good idea and then you have to create your own recipe.”

Batten saying being an entrepreneur will mean sacrifices, though she’d call them something else.

“The better way to look at it is: this better be the one thing you really care about.”

The all-consuming nature of pursuing a dream means people will struggle with feelings that they are being a terrible parent or a terrible partner, or whatever the circumstances are, she says.

“There’s not a lot of time for you to do anything else but be obsessed about the problem you’re trying to solve. Frankly, if you look at the really big success stories you’re going to see that most of those people put their heads down and don’t say boo to the world for three to four years to make this thing happen.”

But Batten says she would feel she was making a sacrifice if she couldn’t pursue a vision.

“This is my orientation, this is what I love doing. I love building businesses. It would be a sacrifice for me not to do this.”

She says her friends know she’s “useless” and her husband knows she’ll work while they travel, as she has structured her life, which has in recent years been in Boulder, Colorado, around her vocation as an entrepreneur.

But people do need to take rests and step away from things sometimes.

She’s doing this very thing by taking the role with NZTE, and helping build other people’s businesses while pulling back from Broadli.

“I’m not doing it because I’m bowing out of being an entrepreneur per se, I’m doing it because I’m really excited about trying this a different way.”

I’m the ultimate Pollyanna – it’s about turning a negative into a positive.

Some views from the top

Batten attributes her abundant energy to her infinite curiosity.

“I love to learn and I love to help other people so I’m just infinitely fascinated by what’s happening, what people are doing, connecting those dots. I just kinda dig life.” She does what she loves, but has taken some great risks to really find this.

“Ultimately, I get to live an extremely fulfilling, exciting life.”

Part of her success would have to be due to her outlook. She enjoys problem solving, rather than viewing problems as a negative.

“I’m the ultimate Pollyanna — it’s about turning a negative into a positive. When you can do that all day long and find the positive in the negative it is really energising.”

While Batten has achieved phenomenal success she is upfront that there have been failures along the way.

“You can look at my story in aggregate and it’s a total success. Somebody called me ‘the golden child’ the other day, and I really laughed because I thought it doesn’t feel like that.”

She says a lot of people give up the moment they hit something hard.

“But by solving those big challenges, solving those hard things, coming to that problem-solving place day after day after day — frankly being the last person standing — that’s where the success comes from.”

So don’t go thinking she wakes up with perfect hair, perfectly manicured, in a great outfit, walking through life with a bird tweeting on her shoulder, she says.

“The success comes from some seriously hard graft. I love that. You have to love that challenge, you have to love creating something new.”

She says Broadli could be considered a failure right now.

“There are a lot of things in my world that are at the point where I could give up, but the name of the game is you have to be that passionate about the problem you are solving that you keep going when other people would fall out.”

She had two ideas she was trying to establish over the past couple of years before Broadli but she says some ideas are just not meant to happen.

“There’s a big difference between continuing to push through the hard things and seeing that what you’re working on is not viable for whatever reason.”

NZ’s start-up scene

Batten says New Zealand’s start-up scene is best compared with Boulder, where she lives, rather than trying to gauge how it fares when compared with the US as a whole.

“The US is actually a really complex market. Specifically within the start-up community, there are very mature start-up communities like the [Silicon] Valley. There are ones that are pretty well on their way like New York and then there are real start-up scenes like Boulder.”

Parallels include needing to grow talent and needing to have some big wins, which in turn give rise to more big wins, as happened with Silicon Valley, she says.

“Not only do these big wins create a lot of wealthy people, but also people with a lot of experience, who can then help guide — and fund — the up-and-coming companies.”

New Zealand has started to have some big wins, and she applauds the success of Rod Drury with accounting software system Xero, which continues to expand internationally. But the country needs digital entrepreneurs to get involved in the “ecosystem” and help counsel the younger ones coming through.

“We’re attempting that — I don’t think we’re being fully successful at that. I’d like to see us use our networks more, be a little bit more open to taking advice.”

New Zealand is so geographically isolated that it starts to impact the way people there think, she says, whereas they need to be more globally ambitious. And as the youngest ever recipient of the prestigious World Class New Zealander Supreme Award in 2014, at 39, in recognition of her achievements and her work inspiring the entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Zealand, Batten’s surely the ideal person to show them how it’s done.

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.