This week, Kim Lesch chats with Dan Khan, the Program Director of the Lightning Lab, New Zealand’s first Digital Incubator.

Dan Khan

Name: Dan Khan
Twitter: @lightninglab

The Lightning Lab has just launched in Wellington – what does it hope to achieve and what does it do for digital startups?

Lightning Lab is an intensive three-month accelerator programme designed to give small teams with great ideas (and in interesting markets) the best launch possible in growing into a serious high-growth venture able to compete on the world stage. It is a combination seed investment fund and mentor-led program where we give teams of founders the essential 4Cs of early stage entrepreneurship:

  • Cash,
  • Coaching,
  • ‘Co-founders-in-residence’ and,
  • Connections.

We invest up to $18K into teams of up to three founders in exchange for 8% equity in their venture. We then push New Zealand’s best- and some international world class- mentorship through them to accelerate those ventures to the next level, and at lightning-speed. With our growing onshore- and offshore- networks, this means startups can build these ventures much faster and with much better support than going alone or bootstrapping themselves.

In our opinion, Lightning Lab fills a vital hole in both the tech startup ecosystem which will allow New Zealand startups to ‘level-up’ to be ready to compete with similar startups in better-connected, better-financed, and more supportive marketplaces such as Silicon Valley.

You’ve just moved to Wellington from Auckland – is the startup scene different between the two cities? 

Yes and no. The most noticeable difference is there’s a feeling of energy and community around the Wellington startup scene, which, given its geography, allows it to seem more cohesive than Auckland with many things within walking-distance of each other.

In my experience there’s actually quite a bit happening in Auckland, but it’s often under the radar, decentralised, and not well-published. This is changing however: ATEED have really started getting interested in this early-stage space and are now regulars at my local Auckland startup events – intersect this with their Wynyard Quarter Innovation Precinct project and it feels like Auckland is really starting to pull it all together.

I also say there’s not differences in that both ecosystems suffer the same problems – visibility and access to resources and mentors, and a clear path from idea to execution and funding. As Brad Feld writes in his latest book, Startup Communities, the startup ecosystem is really created by entrepreneurs, and fed into by other organisations. With time and focus being the two most important assets for any startup, you naturally find that entrepreneurs are too busy to self-organise without lots of support from these feeders. Events like StartupWeekend have been great to help boost this early ecosystem, but before Lightning Lab, there’s always been the question of what next after StartupWeekend?

One of my goals is to make Lightning Lab a focal point to share resources back into the ecosystem. It’s this multi-generational and cyclic growth that will really fuel our ecosystem to be sustainable and easily accessible to drive future economic growth in the sector.

The Lightning Lab

Will you be hosting events at the Lightning Lab?

Absolutely. As you can probably tell, my wider personal goals for getting involved so deeply in the Lightning Lab is to build a top-quality tech startup ecosystem in New Zealand and this includes everything that happens outside and around the accelerator programme as well as inside.

Having come from the UK, I don’t just mean in Wellington either; Lightning Lab presents an opportunity to reboot the Tech Startup ecosystem nationwide and I hope with Lightning Lab leading by example, this will give NZ startups a renewed focus on execution and clearer pathways offshore and faster. The pricetags for many events supposedly targeting entrepreneurs are actually entrepreneur-unfriendly, so us hosting affordable or free community events are key to building an inclusive and open ecosystem.

What kind of opportunities are available to get involved?

Our mentor-led model of acceleration is based on the same model that internationally-acclaimed accelerator TechStars uses (we are in-fact NZ’s only partner as part of their Global Accelerator Network), and thus the actual running of this programme is pretty lean. As part of our educational objectives of seeding what we’re doing back into the community, we actually use an internship model to help with the actual programme operations. This allows younger incoming students with an interest in entrepreneurship to get direct first-hand experience of the ins-and-outs of what it takes to run a startup team and learning by proxy from our mentors. We also have a number of paid positions which are for more experienced people in the community – these ‘co-founders-in-residence’ work part time on our payroll for the exclusive benefit of our teams, allowing them to bootstrap their own team-building stage until they find the right engineering, marketing, and design talent. We are yet to recruit both full teams so several opportunities still exist to get directly involved in this way – if this sounds like you, contact Sam Bonney, our programme manager for more details.

The other main opportunity for involvement is on the mentoring-side. Whilst we have over 60 mentors across New Zealand and International involved, we’re still building that list to include other great technology minds across several sectors and skillsets. If you do know someone who has had some success in the tech field and wants to give back to help other budding entrepreneurs, we’ll be more than happy to have a talk and find ways to include them into our programme if there’s a fit.

What other NZ wide startup communities can you recommend?

There are not many nationwide communities servicing the early stage startup market in NZ, which is why it’s been so hard to establish something in Auckland. Although a few Auckland entrepreneurs have recently setup an active Facebook group called ‘NZ Tech Startup Ecosystem‘ which is getting some good traction as a place where startups hangout and help each other. Other than this there’s plenty of local startup communities that can be found on – including the Auckland Tech Startups group that I run, and groups down in Wellington like Hackers and Founders, and Lean Startup Wellington. Perhaps the StartupDigest mailing list is a good place to start if other entrepreneurs are looking for where the local community resources are near them.

[Editor’s note -> this is precisely why we’ve launched The Fetch in New Zealand! To bring all of the above resources together in one easy-to-read biweekly email digest. Subscribe for free @]

The Lightning Lab application deadline is December 5.  They are holding information evenings all over New Zealand from November 22 – stay tuned to The Fetch to discover when an event is on in your area and check out their website.

About our curator // Kim Lesch is the curator for Auckland. You can find her on Twitter here: @kim_lesch.