The Startup Blueprint series shares stories of founders and team members from some of Aotearoa's most epic and fast-growing startups. Hear about their journeys, learn from their insights, and maybe leave with a dose of inspiration.
We spoke with Helen Robinson; professional director, legendary tech executive, founder of many startups including Organic Initiative (Oi), and champion of 'doing good at scale'.
Meet Helen Robinson, one of Aotearoa's undercover legends. If you found yourself sitting across from her she wouldn’t be one to eagerly divulge much about her illustrious career. Instead, based on her thoughtful and insightful advice, you might start to cotton on that you’re sitting across from someone who has blazed an incredible, purpose-driven trail.
Some highlights (but by no means an exhaustive list) of Helen’s accomplishments and impact include:
Numerous executive positions, notably Managing Director of Microsoft New Zealand; Forming the TZ1 Registry, a financial markets environmental asset registry that in the space of 4 months became the world’s largest of its kind, before being acquired by Markit Group (now S&P Global) a little over 1 year from inception; Her role as Founder and CEO of Organic Initiative (Oi), the first environmentally and non-toxic period care available in NZ (that has since gone global and saved over 2.5 million kg's of plastic waste); The Chair, Director, and Board positions she takes in mission-driven businesses, such as The Network for Learning (N4L), NIWA, Auckland Tourism, JUNOFEM and Kara Technologies; And, the awards she has taken home such as the NZ Supreme Woman of Influence award in 2016 and an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for services to technology and business in the 2017 Queen’s Honours Awards.
An early innovator in the global tech scene, an embodiment of impeccable women leadership in traditionally male-dominated spaces, and an example of how you can have a fulfilling career while living in alignment with your values, it was a no-brainer to sit down with her to pick her brain on all things startup and governance for this month’s Startup Blueprint interview.
You’ve built the most tremendous and exciting career, what have been some of the highlights of your journey in NZ and global business?
The early days of computing were hugely fun and exciting. Somehow you just knew you were on a journey that was leading to massive changes in lives and in business. At the start of my career in tech, the only computers were mainframe and mini-computers, no PCs, no laptops, no mobile phones, no internet, no cloud computing, no ransomware, and no cyber threats. This evolution and constant change meant you always had to be flexible and nimble, no different really to today. The sheer magnitude and diverse scale of the application of technology grew and grew. What was innovative and advanced in those early days included things like screens on every desk, the formation of a data entry team, getting a dot matrix printer to print packing slips in the warehouse, placing the first touch screens in production facilities, introducing an automated way to excel in customer service with CRM...all of these are mundane today but super advanced in their early days.
With a specialty in commercialising businesses, I have always loved the thrill and the game! Managing ambiguity and making decisions, always learning. It was easy to see from the outset that what makes a great business are the relationships you form and the fact that Kiwis really can make anything happen.
Setting up the TZ1 Registry on behalf of NZX and taking it to the world has to be a highlight - from the company incorporation on 1 Jan 2008, launching in the market in April 2008, becoming the biggest worldwide by August 2008, receiving an offer to buy the company, to a signed Term Sheet in Dec 2008. We settled the sale for $56m 18 months from start after investing $3M. The registry was for all intents and purposes built on a software-as-a-service model with integral compliance and processes to ensure the authenticity of the environmental financial assets (if you are interested, the registry is largely the same model we set up and remains the world's largest - see here).
From a commercial standpoint, it was a huge success, but as with everything in life and business, it was everything else that was significant. Firstly, it was my first foray into the environmental world and climate change, and truly understanding the pivotal role human beings have played in our destruction and our endeavouring to use market mechanisms to change the world. We worked with the world's largest investment banks and projects to drive significant change in an era when there was so much scepticism about the reality of climate change. Unfortunately, it has taken tragic events and more than a decade for most of the world, people, businesses and governments to realise the catastrophic outcomes we are causing if we do not invest in climate change fast. It is so gratifying to observe that every financial institution (pretty much) incorporates sustainability and environmental investing as a critical priority today. So being at the forefront of financial instruments to drive climate strategies was not dissimilar to that in the computing evolution.
People and relationships are the second (or first!) highlight - in every direction of every business there are linkages between people and the difference that these relationships make. Building strong relationships not only opens doors, but it also builds long-lasting friendships and connections. I am talking this week with a friend from the Registry days - an Australian neurosurgeon who moved into the finance world and ended up leading Fixed Income and Commodities for one of the world's largest investment banks, based in NYC (when we met) and who not only worked on significant environmental project investments but who was the person who introduced us to Markit Group who purchased the Registry. This week we are meeting to get his advice about moving an amazing NZ deep-tech company forward in the US market. People really are what make the world go round.
And it's what you do with the people that matters. One highlight at Microsoft was when it came to my attention that our cleaner had been with the company for more than 16 years and had not been recognised. He was one who everyone knew and he knew everyone, but was unobtrusive, just getting on with his work every day. Without anyone's knowledge, I called an "All-Hands" meeting in the Hub (the team kitchen / break-out area). Then went personally to get our cleaner to join us. Standing up I spoke about the company's values of accountability, teamwork, respect and hard work and that we were recognising someone who epitomised these. Once I announced the person everyone was so delighted, cheered and some cried. We had organised for this incredibly well-deserving team member's wife to be there too. It was such a special occasion...the little things count!
Your motto is “Do Good… At Scale” Describe what this means to you and how it guides the decision-making process for the roles and projects you take on.
Very early on I recognised that every person has a responsibility to do their best and be their best, and that single persons truly can make a massive difference to worldwide outcomes.
In my tech executive days, it was easy to see the impact that good technology was making on people and business and that we were on a fast-paced rollercoaster that we could leverage, incorporate and use to drive positive change with. So from about the early 2000s my priorities shifted slightly to ensure that my involvement was always capable of mass scale and that I "did good" in some way.
In tech, in financial markets, in health, in consumer products...It is illustrated in the many board roles I have had over the years including as inaugural Chair for The Network for Learning (N4L) which was tasked with enabling the transformation of all schools in NZ to be technology based. We rolled out NZ's largest virtual private network (890,000 users including NZ's most vulnerable) a year ahead of plan and half of the allocated budget. This was such a significant project and almost every child today in NZ will be using the N4L network for fast and safe internet. Of course, it was the people who were involved that made it successful, from the fabulous board of directors, to John (CEO), Jeremy (CTO), and all of the team.
Setting up Organic Initiative (Oi) was a deliberate strategy to remove plastics and toxic chemicals from hygiene products. Unfortunately, all mainstream period and incontinence products are not biodegradable and contain toxic chemicals. Half the population for half of our lives use these products and if we continue to use conventional products all we are doing is creating massive plastic waste. As with many businesses Oi really is about education - how do we educate women that we have a choice to both protect the planet and maintain our health and well-being - all for potentially the price of a quarter of a cup of coffee per month? Oi's on a mission!
So every company in which I am involved has the ability to make a difference at scale. This lays the foundation for every decision and company I am involved with.
If you were to sit down with a founder just starting out, what advice would you give them when it comes to forming a board? And what should they keep in mind as the company scales?
There still is a lot of scepticism about boards in early-stage businesses. However, you learn over time the critical impact and influence that a good board has on your business. A couple of suggestions:
- Make sure you like and respect the people you bring onto the team (obvious I know but you have to trust the people who govern the company)
- A board should be diverse (and not gender or otherwise) but diverse in thinking (which often does mean gender, culture etc!).
- Remember that a board is there to enable the team and company to be successful; in loose terms, this means removing any barriers which get in the way; the board is not there to create work for the team
- Be transparent about everything good, bad and ugly that is going on in the business
- The board will help ensure regulations and compliance of the company are met; this is especially helpful if the founder/s are new to business
- The board will know when outside expertise is needed and how to prioritise
- The relationship between the Chair and the CEO is very important; the CEO and Chair should talk at least once a week informally to catch up - don't ever be afraid to ask for advice - that is what the board is for
- A board is extremely helpful when fundraising and selling the company, and helps provide confidence to investors/acquirers
As the business scales, the board and executive should constantly review their value to the business. At the start of a company journey, a board may be perfect for that time but may not be right going forward. This is the same for the executive. One of the hardest things you learn, but actually is the most freeing, is knowing when to hand the reins over to someone else. A good board enables the business to be successful.
'As the business scales, the board and executive should constantly review their value to the business. At the start of a company journey, a board may be perfect for that time but may not be right going forward. This is the same for the executive. One of the hardest things you learn, but actually is the most freeing, is knowing when to hand the reins over to someone else. A good board enables the business to be successful.'
There are varying ways to run board meetings, for a startup what do you consider to be an effective approach and format?
An experienced Board and Chair will not waste time on unimportant matters but focus on what the priorities are. Boards should be a bit of fun and hugely engaging, with everyone inputting to the discussions around the table.
Board papers should be kept tight but tell the story of how the company is performing and discuss any issues at hand.
A standing agenda should include:
- Compliance matters first (health & safety, legal, decisions needed)
- Any questions on the papers (taken as read) including finance, sales, operations etc
- Focusing most of the time on growth, strategy and issues
An early-stage company board should still meet at least monthly and probably for a couple of hours at a time that suits everyone. There will inevitably be times when out-of-cycle board meetings are needed. Founders should never be afraid to ask for help or to talk with the Chair about calling an urgent board meeting.
My view is that for a smaller company that is just starting out board attendance should include everyone that matters - whoever is important, whether they are directors or not. It saves lots of hassle and secrecy. Transparency is very important and helps foster a great team.
You’ve worked with many talented CEOs from government, corporates and startups - how can a CEO build a strong and useful relationship with their board to make the most of the expertise in the room?
As above the CEO and Chair should have a strong relationship built on mutual trust. They should talk at least once a week informally, even if it is just to say hello (there is never nothing to say!). Always tell the Chair if you are talking with other directors (so there are no surprises).
The CEO should get to know all the directors and make sure that they all have good knowledge about the business, especially if they are new to the company. Every Director should have diverse skills and therefore these should be leveraged when needed; for example, my skills are commercialisation and sales; others may be legal or technical - engage the director's help when needed.
Be completely transparent with the board - share everything you believe is material, good, bad and ugly. The Board is there to help. They are there to make your ship go faster and help make good decisions in the best interests of the company.
Don't ever be afraid to ask for help or advice. You are not a super-human and are not expected to know how to do everything. The best board too will be one where they feel like they are making a difference.
You are such a positive and vocal supporter of the startups whose boards you sit on, what qualities and core skills do you think a startup director should have?
In my view, a startup director should:
- Love the business and what it stands for
- Embrace the company's core values
- Have strong strategic and planning skills
- Should be diverse in their experience and thinking
- Should not be afraid to speak out
- Needs to understand the difference between startup, mid-sized and corporate entities and not create unhelpful bottlenecks
- Know when a decision is needed and know how to reach that decision
- Understand the importance of investing in the business for growth (not holding the company back)
- Be connected and know how to reach strategic partners and people
- At least one or more directors should have experience in the markets in which the company plans to operate
- Be experienced in compliance and regulatory matters which are relevant for your business
- Be respectful and inclusive (without exception)
- Never be domineering
- Intelligent and quietly confident
- At least one or more directors should have experience in the industry in which your company operates
- Understand and be knowledgeable (if not very helpful) about the importance of funding, fundraising, cash management, and solvency
🔥 Quick-fire questions 🔥
What’s one thing you’d do differently in business if you went back in time?
Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes what you really think is important isn't so important after all so listen to the people around you.
And what’s one thing you’d definitely repeat/do again?
Speed to market...one of my strengths (and weaknesses) is to go fast. Most times this is a huge asset and means you achieve great results quickly (learning as you go). Procrastination will get you nowhere.
Most useful resource you’ve listened to/read/absorbed recently that you’d recommend to others
There is lots of noise about ChatGPT and why you should care - I found this article very good (actually for all businesses not just startups).
What do you do when you need inspiration?
Call up trusted longtime colleagues and friends. When all else fails do yoga (I don't look like I do yoga but I do and love it - everyone should do yoga!)
You can find Helen here.
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