Graeme Tuckett meets one of Wellington’s most successful — and visionary — entrepreneurs

The Interview: Melissa Clark-Reynolds

Melissa Portrait

Chick­ens.

It was the chick­ens that told me I’d got this one wrong.

When Dan the edit­or let me know that my next assign­ment would be an inter­view with Melissa Clark-Reyn­olds, I drew a blank. Dan, in his admir­ably con­cise way, said some­thing like “suc­cess­ful busi­ness­wo­man, really inter­est­ing, I think she’ll be great”.

And then, chickens.

There’s no get­ting away from the fact that Melissa Clark-Reyn­olds lives in one of plu­ti­est streets in town. There’s a view across to Pen­car­row to the right, and to the left, the city is laid out like a box of fairy lights wait­ing for a tree.

But Melissa’s gate is a mod­est thing, and once I get it open, there is no white­washed Roseneath palace wait­ing behind it, just a pretty ver­ti­gin­ous set of steps lead­ing down to a bog-stand­ard and pleas­antly dishevelled weather­board house. And stand­ing guard on the steps, spoil­ing for a feed or a fight, are a gang of decidedly good-look­ing chickens.

Now, I’m kept by chick­ens myself, and I appre­ci­ate a healthy gaggle when I see them. These are some fine-look­ing fowl, but surely they are a bit out of place here.

Back home in Paekakariki, the loc­als look at you with pity and sus­pi­cion if you con­fess to not hav­ing a few chooks around the house. But this is Roseneath, and though I might expect to see the ton­i­est of organ­ic, free-range and prob­ably Montessori-edu­cated egg-brand car­tons in the recyc­ling bins around here, I’m not actu­ally expect­ing to meet any livestock.

So, I’m kind of wide-eyed and bemused as I get to the front door, which is instantly flung open by a per­fectly excel­lent-look­ing woman of about my own age, who I recog­nise imme­di­ately as someone I’ve had a yarn with at a few parties.

Whose name, I remem­ber, is Melissa.

Melissa Clark Reyn­olds whoops with laughter.

 

Hah! You didn’t know it was me did you!? Come in, we’re hav­ing some people over for a bar­be­cue soon. You’ll stay, eh?

 

And all I can reply, as the scene sinks in, and my daft pre­con­cep­tions crash down around me, is, “Chick­ens. You have chickens.”

 

Yeah. Come and meet them. I’ll show you around.

 

Melissa’s house is ter­rif­ic, it really is. If you could see it, you would love it too. It’s an older place — 1930s or 1940s if I had to guess — on a scrubby and steep bit of land high above Ori­ent­al Bay, more than three-quar­ters of the way up Mt Vic­tor­ia. It is a ser­i­ously lovely spot, and I like very much that the house that occu­pies it is mod­est, cosy and pretty much dwarfed by its own wooden decks.

 

When I bought the place, the deck wasn’t here. It was the first thing I did. Can you ima­gine? Someone lived here for years, and nev­er wanted to sit out­side and see all this on a summer’s evening.

 

So, that’s the set­ting. We chat for half an hour or so like old mates, and then, as I belatedly real­ise that the bar­be­cue is get­ting busy, and Melissa has a dozen oth­er things she needs to do, I actu­ally ask a couple of ques­tions, which inev­it­ably lead to us head­ing off on anoth­er agree­able tangent.

 

I did an hon­ours degree in anthro­po­logy at Vic­tor­ia, and that was fant­ast­ic. I talk a lot now at high schools, and I often talk to groups — boys mainly — who want to be game design­ers, and IInterviewalways say to them, do phys­ics, but also do art, or lit­er­at­ure, or anthro­po­logy. Some­thing that will actu­ally teach them to think, not just learn. I believe this so pas­sion­ately, there’s so much know­ledge in the world, and it’s all at the tips of your fin­gers. It’s not hard to find know­ledge. But great ima­gin­a­tion, great storytelling, great nar­rat­ive, real invent­ive­ness, those things are still rare.

            Just ima­gine what our edu­ca­tion sys­tem could be if we designed it again from the ground up…

 

This is a sub­ject that is closer to my heart every day. And, look­ing back over this whole series of Fish­Head inter­views, I can see it is becom­ing a recur­ring theme.

Maybe we should host a din­ner party for Tilly Lloyd, Andrew Armit­age, Nic­ola Gaston, John Edwards, Sima Urale, Peter Hamb­leton, Joy Cow­ley, Rodger Fox, Annette King, The Bresolin broth­ers, Russ Kal­iv­ati and all the oth­ers, and record the con­ver­sa­tion. There must be a doc­u­ment­ary in that, surely?

 

I was an unusu­al kid, I went to uni­ver­sity at 15. And I know for a fact that I didn’t find a com­munity of people who were into the same stuff — a group of people that I felt real com­mon interest and com­mon aims with — until I was at university.

            So, I hear all these people today wor­ry­ing that social media is in some way mak­ing kids more isol­ated — and I know that there is a point to what they are say­ing, it is true that there are kids sit­ting at home chat­ting on a media plat­form, when once they might have been hav­ing those same con­ver­sa­tions on the bus or whatever — but we for­get that there’s a whole oth­er group of kids that social media enables in a way that noth­ing else did.

            The kids who didn’t talk on the bus, or join the clubs at school, the ones who are a bit dif­fer­ent and whose interests are a bit out of the usu­al New Zea­l­and sphere; sud­denly these kids have got the whole world to talk to.

            The media — the old media — they are so wil­fully mis­lead­ing about that. All they are inter­ested in is the so-called dangers of social media — the times it gets used for bad — but that is just absurd. For every ‘bad use’, there’s a mil­lion pos­it­ive inter­ac­tions between people around the world who might nev­er oth­er­wise have met, shar­ing dis­cov­er­ies, writ­ing, music, art, science.

            You might just as well try to demon­ise the telephone.

 

Melissa Clark-Reyn­olds is described by most web­sites she appears on as a ‘seri­al tech­no­logy entre­pren­eur’. She was the young­est woman to attend uni­ver­sity in New Zea­l­and. When acci­dent com­pansa­tion insur­ance was opened up to com­pet­i­tion in 1999, she trans­formed her health and safety con­sultancy into Fusion, New Zealand’s largest private acci­dent com­pens­a­tion insurer (even­tu­ally selling to South­ern Cross). She talks and ment­ors around the coun­try on lead­er­ship and entre­pren­eur­ship. She sits on sev­er­al boards, includ­ing Radio New Zea­l­and, Atti­tude TV and the Min­istry for Primary Indus­tries Invest­ment Advis­ory Pan­el, and she was a dir­ect­or of the New Zea­l­and Centre for Gif­ted Edu­ca­tion. Melissa is also a fero­ciously good din­ner guest, and a com­plete hoot to talk to.

 

I’m look­ing at the TV ser­vices that are avail­able now, and all they’re doing is try­ing to save their tra­di­tion­al mod­el. Same with banks — their web­sites are just tell­er machines on your laptop. But it’s just so… dated, already.

            And when the tra­di­tion­al mod­els try digit­al, that’s all you get. But that’s not even scratch­ing the ser­vice of what a digit­al world can deliv­er. The broad­casters and the banks and the news­pa­pers, and all the oth­er busi­nesses who have tried to launch Inter­net products, they just don’t get it. Or they do get it, but they can’t see any way of mak­ing money out of it, so they’re run­ning scared and try­ing any stop­gap they can make.

            But we already know what the future looks like. And, unfor­tu­nately, it’s the pir­ates who got there first. The future is people choos­ing exactly what they want to watch, or read, or do, from any­where in the world, at any time they want to have it.

            Now, there is no get­ting away from that, and any­one who tries to delay it hap­pen­ing is going to go under. But they are all for­get­ting that the good pro­viders — the good writers, the great news­pa­pers and pro­gramme-makers and film­makers — will always find an audience.

            And I hon­estly believe that people will still want to have books on their shelves, and magazines in their racks and a night at the movies, because there are very sound physiolo­gic­al and psy­cho­lo­gic­al reas­ons why those things still have real value to us.

            I hate the pir­ates as well. Artists, musi­cians and cre­at­ors have to be paid for their work. So that’s the chal­lenge. And I really won­der wheth­er it is the chal­lenge that will start to ush­er in a whole new sys­tem of pay­ment, a whole new way of com­merce that is quite dif­fer­ent from what we have now.

 

It is one of the things we find ourselves tak­ing about a lot. Of mak­ing the new media pay, but keep­ing it with­in everyone’s reach. There is a great­er need — and demand — today than ever before for stor­ies, qual­ity journ­al­ism, great nar­rat­ives, but the busi­ness mod­els that once sup­por­ted the industry are effect­ively dead in the water. We are liv­ing through a revolu­tion, which Melissa argues has not even really begun.

 

Ideas are easy — you and I could sit here and brain­storm for ten minutes and come up with a whole raft of ideas. But really, who gives a fuck? It’s the exe­cu­tion that mat­ters, and that takes real thinking.

            I hear about ‘innov­a­tion’ all the time, and it’s such a mean­ing­less word. So what if some­thing is new? That doesn’t of neces­sity make it bet­ter. Innov­a­tion isn’t the same thing as improve­ment. Any­one can come up with some­thing ‘innov­at­ive’, but com­ing up with a genu­inely good idea that makes people’s lives bet­ter? That takes thinkers, not these buzz-word spout­ers we seem to be employing.

At which point I’m nod­ding along in agree­ment with such vehe­mence I damn near put my neck out.

How do we identi­fy prob­lems worth solv­ing, and then solve them? That’s what we should be asking.

            Why aren’t we teach­ing philo­sophy in school? Any­one who knows what philo­sophy actu­ally is, knows that this is a good idea. But the prob­lem is the name. If we just called it ‘com­mon sense and crit­ic­al think­ing’, then all these par­ents who don’t want their kids to be learn­ing ‘namby-pamby’ philo­sophy would jump at it. It’s branding.

            I think in your life, you might find your­self think­ing about some really big prob­lems. Not just our petty day-to-day stuff, but peace, prosper­ity, poverty… the big things, and I think that here, in the safe, warm, secure coun­tries, we have a mor­al oblig­a­tion to put resources — espe­cially our intel­lec­tu­al resources — into solv­ing these prob­lems. There are solu­tions, though they might be eco­nom­ic­ally unpal­at­able to some people at first, and we have to work out ways to imple­ment them. I think we owe that to the world.

            Some­thing that mat­ters so much to me is ser­vice — work­ing in the ser­vice of oth­er people. I’m in a pos­i­tion now where I can actu­ally spend some time help­ing oth­er people, and it’s fant­ast­ic, but every­one should know the value of that. Spend­ing time shar­ing know­ledge and ideas — that shouldn’t be a lux­ury. That should be some­thing every­one has the chance to exper­i­ence, but so many people don’t think they have the time, or worse, they don’t think they have any­thing to offer.

 

I ask Melissa what she would do if she could instantly change one thing in Wel­ling­ton. Her answer is imme­di­ate and unequi­voc­al. 

 

Real high-speed Inter­net, free for everyone.

            In New Zea­l­and, we are a long way from our phys­ic­al mar­kets. There’s noth­ing we can do to shorten the dis­tance, but we work hard and we spend money to at least make the trans­port as mod­ern and cost-effect­ive as it can be.

            But our weight­less exports — our digit­al pro­viders, and in Wel­ling­ton we have some abso­lutely world-beat­ing com­pan­ies — we are stuck with Inter­net that is years behind what Europe and Asia are using. People might snort about First World prob­lems or whatever, but Inter­net con­nectiv­ity is the equi­val­ent of road and rail and ships for hun­dreds of New Zea­l­and com­pan­ies. And our infra­struc­ture simply isn’t up to the stand­ard of our com­pet­it­ors, and our markets.

            That and, nation­ally, an edu­ca­tion sys­tem that teaches think­ing and curi­ous­ity, not just the reten­tion of pre-exist­ing knowledge.

chickens

Spoken like an inner-city chick­en-own­er I reck­on. But, I am biased. 

 

You know, I love New Zea­l­and. I choose to live here, and I choose to live in Wel­ling­ton. It’s a fant­ast­ic place. I love that I can be swim­ming at a clean beach in the middle of a city, and that I can catch a bus into town, or walk across the whole cent­ral city, and I don’t have to join a gym to get my exer­cise. But I am always going to be one of those people who revolts against ideas that aren’t work­ing. I love this place, and this life, but things can be bet­ter, for every­one, and I reck­on if we can make things bet­ter, then we have to com­mit to that.

About Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writing, broadcasting and business ownership between his many and varied leisure activities.

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