Breccan McLeod-Lundy, CEO of Ackama, has been Co-Chair of NZRise since 2019 and a Board Member since 2014, we had a catch up with him to find out all about him.
Tell us about your background, where you are from and how you got into tech?
I was born in Palmerston North and mum and I travelled quite a bit during my childhood. As a result I spent quite a bit of time in Palmy, Hawkes Bay, Adelaide, a Hippy Commune in Queensland and a few state schools in Queensland. Along the way there were some stints back in New Zealand.
I managed to skip a couple of years of school and started university at 16, finishing my undergrad in 2 years. From there I did my honours in philosophy and jumped into my first startup straight after that.
It was citation management software which was taken to prototype, however it ultimately failed and I learnt some good business lessons. Students don’t have money for software and large organisations don’t want to buy software from a 19-year-old.
What got you into tech?
My uncle gave me an old Commodore 64 at the tail-end of the first wave of computers and I was lucky that it came with an array of coding textbooks and software which I dove into. I have been programming ever since.
Then I moved to Wellington and got my only ever corporate job as a software developer. It was there that I got involved with Ruby on Rails and the ROR community. Looking back, my work-life balance wasn’t that balanced, and I rose quickly in the business, developing and learning daily.
It was at this stage that I got into Enspiral, and through the surrounding social network I met Josh Forde, my business partner. We started with contract work and it was in this space that we noticed a gap in the way we were doing things. Our loose community of developers meant that we were not always able to get the support to fulfil supporting commitments, and we wanted to make sure that we could look after our clients and provide more job security.
We took the leap and started hiring to build a traditional business for long-term change. From there things grew naturally and, in those early years, we focused on how startups work in the social enterprise and charity spaces, slowly winning bigger system work and then government contracts.
Why did you join NZRise?
We were looking for an organisation with a focus on social responsibility and we felt that NZRise was pushing in the same direction as us and were aligned to our principles.
Did growing up the way you did, especially the commune, give you more of a push towards social causes?
Yes, I think that seeing for myself that a good intention without taking an action doesn’t help or change things. I also observed that just because you find a better way of doing something doesn’t mean that people will automatically adopt it.
Once most people reach 25, altruism and doing the right thing often falls to the side as the real world rises up to challenge you. How did you combat that as it is clearly a massive part of who you are?
I’ve never been one who fell into the trap of shows of wealth as we became relatively successful. We live well below our means and even when we managed to buy a home, we kept on flatmates and I don’t see the need for more.
I really don’t feel the pressure to have more cash, if I did I’d just invest it in more interesting things and businesses where we can make a change.
Having expanded into Australia four years ago, what lessons have you learned that can be imported and exported – the strengths and weaknesses of both environments?
The biggest wins that we took to Melbourne from Wellington were our case studies as it is much easier to build a serious track record in New Zealand. In Australia the bigger players tend to have a monopoly, making it much harder to work on significant projects that solve a core problem.
Australia is a much more corporate market, less government work, with different ways of getting things done. Business operates on a larger scale, which assists us with revenue. This is becoming so much more important to enable us to retain talent. As the market opens up more to remote work, we have to ensure that our rates keep up with those that Melbourne or others may offer. New Zealand is facing price-pressure regarding the most you can charge versus what people expect to earn, and this has been exacerbated by some shortages and tighter immigration rules.
What are the alternatives, outsourcing to India?
I think that some things can be done like that, sure. If I want something that adds up 1, 3 and 5 until I get to 25, easy. However, things like data sovereignty and cultural norms need to be done by teams who are local and understand the market. That kind of work cannot be outsourced. The projects that we care about with broader outcomes need a solid local base.
A good example of local user experience is that we have a specific sign language in New Zealand and there are challenges to that which only a local would understand. Explaining the ‘why’ of ‘why we are different’ to the rest of the world just causes more confusion.
Ackama is 12 years old and you have the experience to match that, what advice would you give a young Breccan now?
If you want to grow a services business, doing it young is the hardest way to do it as it becomes easier as you get older, have more experience, and a network upon which to draw from.
You absolutely have to do the hard work yourself in order to get clients who will stay with you. You must have a key competency for the work, otherwise you simply will not be able to make the revenue or complete the tasks. Ask yourself ‘what am I bringing to this and what am I building?”
Within services firms there are different goals and you can create and offer viable services if you are good at what you do and hire a few others who are good at what they do. Work with a few clients, be agile and open to doing the hard yards.
If you decide to grow, be aware that there are layers of complexity. Between 12-20 and 30-50 people is where you start to build management layers. This is hard to do the first time as your income versus your costs of salaries for management hurts your ability to invest in growth. Getting over those hurdles means that you need some clients who pay you really well and you won’t be upset if they go elsewhere.
You might also choose to accept clients that no one else wants to work with. It might be that they are hard to work with, or there is some aspect such as negative social alignment, these are often clients that you have but don’t talk about too often.
I am not sure if we would have grown now if we had to make that decision and we would probably have chosen a different path. It is up to each persona and company to decide how they choose to run.
Or you can just take all of the work, make lots of money and, if you’re happy with that in your heart, then no one can stop you.
If it’s just about money, go and get a job. The multinationals will pay you far more than your value right now and you will be in the same place financially, or even better off, in a few years. If it’s a New Zealand level of rich you want, that’s the quickest and easiest option.
With the costs of living at the moment, what do you think we need to do?
I think we need to ride it out, we can’t change too quickly, but we can’t be too risk averse either. Messaging takes a long time to change so we need to start now.
We just need positive messaging from the government with regard to people who are here and who want to come here.
From when you joined NZRise to now, and the future, what direction do you want to go?.
Constant pressure about remembering we are here as a country, and how our labour laws and tax settings work. We are doing well with steady pressure and slowly getting things right, such as with procurement visibility.
We are progressing with New Zealand suppliers, Catalyst Cloud is a great example of how a kiwi business has landed great and significant government work.
We still have a problem with lack of technical understanding at Ministerial and Official level, and we are working on that. I feel that we just need more competence across the board, however the cost of great technical skills far exceeds what the government can pay. If you are able to write a nationwide set of policies, your value in the private sector would significantly outstrip government salary bands.
As a life-long learner, what do you do to keep up to date?
Reading is my biggest passion and it’s a broad mix and a few subscriptions at the right cadence. I tend to not look at the firehose of news daily, but prefer deeper content in books and articles.
The 5-minute-read of something I particularly hate, where people then think they are experts, it’s the exception and the data and the interpretation that is important, rather than the summary and this is the problem with many trend-based activities.
Any final thoughts?
Transparency and buy-in are key building blocks to know how, why and what things are being bought. We have a large spend by the government with little of it being traceable and it is necessary to know this. Government is big and complex, can’t prioritise, and when it does, we lack the skills in tech to make the right calls.
We can change that with NZRise and we need tech competency at the highest levels.