In a little under three weeks, Kristen Lunman will know if her hard work supporting seven technology start-ups has paid off.
All seven are financial technology ventures – “fintechs” in the jargon – and the immediate challenge is to get them to the point where they are ready to seek investment.
As the programme director for New Zealand’s first fintech-focused business accelerator programme, the pressure is on in the countdown to demo day. That’s when the teams will pitch their business plans and – they hope – attract the crucial dollars that will enable them to forge ahead.
Lunman is no stranger to taking big chances.
The 39-year-old expat Canadian moved to Wellington six years ago with her husband and two pre-school children after falling in love with the country when the couple honeymooned here.
So when the kids were two and three we packed our suitcases up and moved,” she says.
They chose Wellington because it suited both her and her husband’s career ambitions.
“Ironically, my husband is in banking and I am in fintech.
“I have always been entrepreneurial-spirited and my husband is risk-averse.”
But together they make a good team, she says.
With a background in marketing, Lunman initially worked for property data company CoreLogic before shifting to online video review start-up Wipster.
Lunman says it was the time she spent there that enabled her to understand this country’s start-up sector.
“I got really got entrenched in the New Zealand start-up ecosystem,” she says.
Then the role with business incubator Creative HQ came up, to co-ordinate Kiwibank’s Fintech Accelerator programme ,and she jumped at the chance.
She says it’s about “being part of the movement … taking an entire sector looking at financial problems and looking at ways to solve it.
“It is not just about the three-month journey – the vision for the programme is actually as a catalyst to bring the financial ecosystem together.”
Lunman moved into the role in December, before the programme’s launch, and helped whittle down the more than 70 teams which auditioned for a place.
Nine teams made the final cut but already two have dropped out – one early on because of a family bereavement, and the other just last week after it became clear their idea was not going to be viable to take to market.
She says losing teams along the way is a normal part of the process, and “it’s better to do so before they get funding.”
Out of the seven teams, two are corporate – working on ideas put forward by Kiwibank and Xero – while the other five are what she calls organic.
The 12- to15-week programme is based on an American system which has been tailored to New Zealand and provides intensive mentoring.
The teams have to live in Wellington and commit fully to the experience during the three months.
I got really entrenched in the New Zealand start-up ecosystem.
Kristen Lunman, programme director for Kiwibank FinTech Accelerator
The ideas range from a team who want to make it easier and cheaper to transfer money to the Pacific Islands, to a wealth management team called Sharesies who want to make it simpler for anyone to invest with as little as $50.
Another team wants to work with property managers to improve their rental experience, while a fourth is proposing to offer businesses “robo-advice” on insurance.
Another hopes to take real accounting data from businesses and present it to students to help them get real-life experience of managing businesses, before they head out to get a job.
Lunman’s job is to focus on what the teams need in order to accelerate their good ideas into the market. That typically involves a pilot test which allows them to work on gaps and problems.
She says one of the unique challenges for fintechs is that the sector is highly regulated, so not only do their business concepts have to work, they also have to meet the regulations.
“We have been working very closely with the FMA (Financial Markets Authority) and MBIE (Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment).”
Lunman hopes that at the minimum, half of the teams will be at an investable stage by May 19, but ideally they would all be there.
Initial investments for start-ups are typically in the $500,000-$700,000 range and will come from a variety of sources including angel investors – individuals who are sufficiently well-off to take a punt on a start-up venture.
Lunman says the key ingredients for a promising start-up include having a passionate team that wants to solve a problem, and a market to take the solution to. But even then it can be hard to get a new venture over the line.
“It is not an easy road. Timing, ownership – all sorts of things have to come together.”
She doesn’t believe that having a financial background is necessary for start-up fintechs, and says some people have been successful without it.
“It’s just everyday Kiwis and businesses that have access to technology. I’m not convinced it has to come from the banking environment.”
She points to Apple Pay as an example, where technology has provided a money solution.
So far there hasn’t been a lot of disruption in New Zealand’s fintech sector.
Online crowd-funding platforms have opened up alternatives for both businesses and individuals to raise money, but they remain tiny in comparison with the major banks. And robo-advice – low-cost online financial advice based on algorithms – will be allowable here next year, after a law change that is now in the pipeline.
But Lunman says disruption is near-impossible in New Zealand.
“Banks have all the money and the customers,” she points out.
Instead, she believes there will be more of a move towards collaboration.
“Banks certainly recognise the need to innovate,” she says, but their silo approach and size make it hard for them to move quickly and introduce innovations.
“I think banks are looking to fintechs and recognising they do need to work with them.”
In Australia, Lunman says three major banks have already set up fintech hubs to work with and there are 15 fintech accelorator programmes.
Here, Kiwibank has been the first to back a fintech programme, but Lunman says others are talking about it.
This isn’t a 9 to 5 commitment. We live and breathe what we are doing.
“I think we have got some work to do in terms of engaging some of the major players – other banks/insurance players.
“They are starting to discuss it but it will take some time.”
Despite the slow start, she believes collaboration will take off over the next five years. Regardless of the challenges, Lunman believes New Zealand has the opportunity to become a fintech hub.
New Zealanders are much more open than many people to using technology to help with their finances, she says, and points to our past as early adopters of eftpos technology.
“In North America they were still using cheques when I left.”
She says being in New Zealand presents no greater challenge for fintech start-ups than being in any other part of the world.
“I don’t think there is a greater challenge – it’s just different. A start-up is hard in any ecosystem.”
She points to Finland and Denmark – smaller countries which have thriving tech start-up sectors.
“They are small so they had to go global first.”
While those countries have Europe at their door, New Zealand has Asia, Australia and the US. “They are just different challenges really.”
As for what will happen to her after the programme, she doesn’t know yet but is confident she wants to keep working with start-ups.
“For myself personally that is to be determined. I know I want to stay in the start-up space. I would love it to be fintech.”
And while the programme is the first to focus on fintechs she doesn’t believe it will be the last.
“I don’t believe this is a one off.”
• Job: Programme director for the Kiwibank Fintech Accelerator
• Age: 39
• Originally from: Canada
• Education: Bachelor of Commerce degree majoring in marketing and international business from the University of Northern British Columbia
• Family: Married to Kyle and has two children: Adelyn 10, Grayson 9
• Last movie watched: The Lego Batman Movie
• Last book read: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
• Last overseas trip: To Vietnam in 2016 as part of a New Zealand tech delegation to explore the tech scene in South East Asia.