A growing wave of New Zealand companies are landing on Denver shores

More than two dozen New Zealand firms, many startups, have set up shop in metro Denver and Boulder in recent years, making the region a launching pad for their American ambitions.

New Zealand has about 900,000 fewer residents than Colorado, leaving it with a limited domestic market even when adding in customers from nearby Australia. Though small, the country is a hotbed for innovations with a global reach. Increasingly, those startups are choosing Denver over Silicon Valley and other rivals when it comes to setting up U.S. operations.

“The mindset in Colorado suits New Zealanders very well,” said Andy Burner, vice president of people and business operations at Xero, a provider of cloud-based business accounting software. “I was blown away by how welcoming and open the city is.”

Xero, a rapidly growing competitor to QuickBooks, relocated its Americas headquarters from San Francisco to metro Denver in 2017. From about 80 local employees before the move, Denver is now home to more than 200 of the company’s 300 U.S. workers.

The company is a leader in New Zealand’s tech community, and its decision to leave northern California, the typical landing spot for tech transplants, helped put Colorado on the map. Burner and other Xero executives actively promote Denver, making their compatriots more comfortable with landing here.

Most of the New Zealand companies coming to Colorado are tech-focused, and some focus on aerospace, an industry where Colorado is a leader. Agriculture and energy are other areas of overlap. Among the Kiwi companies setting up operations in Colorado are AD Instruments, Adeption, Auror, Cin7, FileInvite, Fingermark, Holmes Solutions, Medtech Global, TracPlus and Vend.

Burner and other New Zealand executives listed similar reasons for why they chose Denver over northern California, and why Denver beat out rivals like Salt Lake City, Austin and Chicago.

Access to capital, clients and talent are the fundamental reasons why Denver won out over the alternatives, said Ky Hacker, vice president of revenue and operations at FileInvite, a document sharing platform that chose Denver for its North American base in June, a decision that should eventually bring about 140 jobs to Denver.

Denver and Boulder have a strong base of tech expertise, and skilled workers are willing to move here, which is helpful to foreign companies trying to figure out U.S. labor markets. Denver’s interior location and the variety of domestic flights make it easy to reach other markets.

When it comes to connecting with the home office in New Zealand, the Mountain time zone also works. And entry costs are lower than in more expensive coastal markets.

“What really sealed the deal for Denver for us was a quality of life and a culture that meshes well with our business and with New Zealand culture,” Hacker said. “We both want to work hard and grow things fast, but do it in a human way.”

A concerted effort

Although recruitment efforts have now gained a momentum of their own, a key accelerator was an active outreach by  Denver Economic Development and Opportunity and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, which led a trade mission to New Zealand and Australia two years ago.

Stephanie Garnica, global business development director at DEDO, said Denver recruited foreign companies via trade offices until the Great Recession forced it to scale back. In 2018, the city relaunched its international outreach with Garnica and two other employees, reaping a big payback in interest and relocations.

“New Zealand and Australia are big standouts. They are two of our target markets because of the success we have had and because of the existing community here,” she said.

Programs like Denver Startup Week and Global Landing Pad help both established and startup companies from other countries get connected to the local business community. New Zealand and Australia have become so important as sending countries that DEDO dedicated an entire Global Landing Pad program to them in the spring.

“We also know that a positive experience with Colorado, starting with a company’s early investigation and continuing through groundbreaking and hiring here in the state will lead to introductions to other companies. We’ve seen a good deal of that recently with companies from New Zealand and Australia referring companies in their networks to us to explore how they too can successfully grow their business in the state,” said Michelle Hadwiger, the state’s deputy director of global business development, in an email.

Hadwiger said Australia ranks as the third-largest source of foreign direct investment in Colorado, tied with Germany. Despite its small size, New Zealand is the sixth-largest provider of foreign direct investment, alongside France and Switzerland.

A cultural fit

Although the Bay Area represents a mecca for technology startups, doing business there is expensive and the competition for talent is fierce, Garnica said. And with so many options available, employees tend to be less loyal.

“You want to do interesting work and you want to work hard, but you want to enjoy the outdoors too,” said Tom Batterbury, co-founder and co-CEO of Auror, pronounced “ora,” of the shared ethic that aligns New Zealand more closely with Colorado than the hard-driving Silicon Valley culture.

Oceans aside, New Zealand and Colorado both share majestic landscapes and plenty of opportunities for recreation.

“There is the cliché location, San Francisco, and we quickly ruled that out. We had looked at Portland, (Ore.) but it didn’t feel right for us,” he added. Chicago, another city on the shortlist, lacked the outdoor vibe, leaving Denver and Austin.

Auror provides crime intelligence software that helps retailers track and report cases of theft to authorities, leaving them better equipped to capture repeat offenders and bust up crime rings. Early on the company realized it needed to work with retailers globally to succeed. Although the Denver operations consist of six people right now, including Batterbury, the expectation is for rapid growth as the North American market opens up.

“Realistically, 90% of our business is likely to be out of North America over the new few years, and we will expect we will have over 100 people on that team,” he said.

One thing that helped sway Batterbury was a conversation he had with Burner about the merits of Denver over other cities. Now Batterbury recruits other executives from New Zealand. And there are small changes he is noticing that have made life more comfortable here.

“There are a few places that serve New Zealand and Aussie style meat pies and there are now two New Zealand-style ice cream shops, including one next to Sloans Lake,” he said, noting that English meat pies are no substitute. “It makes you feel close to home.”

Another confirmation he made the right choice came when he and his wife had their second child and neighbors came out to support them, acting as surrogates for the family and friends they had left behind.

For Hacker, the presence of other New Zealand companies wasn’t as big a factor as the welcome he found from the Denver business community.

“We could tell when we were having conversations we could tell there as a sense of welcoming and a tight-knit community. People were comfortable making referrals,” he said, adding one hope FileInvite has is to access local venture capital sources to help fund its growth.

The New Zealand Office of Trade and Enterprise, the country’s economic development agency, has a representative in Denver, marking the importance of the connection. And in another sign, New Zealand named Burner as honorary consul for Colorado this summer.

“Colorado is an increasingly important market and growing U.S. hub for New Zealand businesses, especially those in the information technology and aerospace sectors,” said New Zealand’s Consul-General to the U.S., Jeremy Clarke-Watson, in announcing Burner’s appointment.

More so than restaurants serving their favorite cuisine, one thing New Zealanders who have relocated to the state said could cement the relationship would be a nonstop air link between Denver and Auckland. The route of more than 7,200 miles could shave two or three hours off current connections through Los Angeles and align better with sleep schedules, Batterbury said.

For him, confirmation that Denver could support a nonstop flight came when he saw many of the people flying with him between Auckland and Los Angeles jump onto the flight he was taking to Denver.

Laura Jackson, the airport’s vice president of air service development, said Auckland is a target market for future nonstop service.

“The fundamentals of our business case are strong, supported by continued corporate investment between Colorado and New Zealand, and we expect efforts will regain momentum as travel restrictions ease,” she said.

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