#GOAPNZ @the_icehouse – reviewed

Andy Hamilton started with a joke. “Turn around folks…”

“Isn’t it beeeoootifool!”

“Aren’t we lucky to be in this beautiful building. Aren’t we lucky to live in this beautiful city!”

As if realising Andy’s mistake, Sir Stephen Tindall addressed the issue with words to the effect that neither this building, nor the improvements to this waterfront would be here without New Zealand winning the America’s Cup, which he had a hand in, having given a hand to, full of cash. And that he hoped and expected – since they’re such a great team – we’ll win it back and be able to pour more billions of dollars into this “beautiful” city.

Grey clouds churned around the harbour. Grey water lapped at the pier. The view “behind us” was grey broken by the dark hill of Northcote and the jumble of lousy buildings around the shore, buildings that although temporary, fitting the architectural vernacular of this part of the world, were exceeded in every way by the tent we were in, this beautiful piece of excreted plastic tethered to the wharf and held upright and outstretched by lightweight struts. Obtrusive LED strips added mood and the room shone white against the grey outside. The wonderful acoustic conditions of a tent were further complimented by a state-of-the-art hired PA in use for speakers, who were at most seven metres away, that made them sound at least fifty metres away and in a reverberant bubble or rubber balloon.

We were in this beautiful building to celebrate – how the email put it – the arrival in New Zealand of the Geeks On A Plane, happy geeks from America, the home of those brave enough to take up the geek flag and wave it and even take it on tour, in a plane, to spread the geek gospel. We were celebrating this arrival, this visitation, and so needed to remind ourselves that we were worthy, against this beautiful outlook, in this beautiful city, which still needs billions spent on it to make it livable.

This was Dave McClure’s idea, the geeks explained, to take a plane. They were college drop-outs who couldn’t afford to then but who now had enough money to travel. A strategy of dazzling simplicity. Did they know when they boarded the plane that we would be in Auckland on a dull Tuesday night in a tent celebrating their arrival in New Zealand?

Ice House organised the celebration. Having recently met with Ken Erskine and Kevin Park from Ice House, I could claim a discount on my tickets, still the price of dinner for two and wine, which it in fact included, since it was advertised as a traditional NZ barbie for our foreign visitors. So food was laid on and strangely short waiting staff circulated in the early and later parts of the evening with trays of full glasses and bottles. One of the staff had been unlucky enough to lose the balance of his tray on his hand and send beer fountaining all over the arriving suits – not the geeks, thankfully.

I haven’t written here much about my infiltration of start-up culture. Perhaps I should start. Perhaps I should stop. Since this cultural infiltration has been and is for the sake of my own start-up, for Little Elephant Ltd.’s social media offering, or proposition, called company. Perhaps I might harm my chances by speaking of it, my chances of having my offering or proposition accepted, supported and celebrated. Perhaps however it will be to my cost if I don’t write or speak of it since I will have missed an opportunity.

#GOAPNZ – or a hashtag to that effect – appeared behind Andy Hamilton on the screen. Twitter were a sponsor. Here Andy made another joke. Some of his colleagues had been sending him messages with the hashtag GOATNZ instead. This was incorrect. To find the event and keep up to date with what Twitterage and Tweetment the twats at the barrage of laptops and tablets off to stage-left were giving it, you should go to #GOAPNZ, with a P, @the_icehouse.

Improvising freely after the spectacle of a competitive triple bout of pitching, pitches, pitchery, I informed a fellow networker – for this was what the traditional barbeque and drinking were supposed to encourage – networking – that the system I am proposing or offering – to any taker who is willing and able to give – would make this whole hashtag nonsense a thing of the past. Along with its confusing acronyms and the unnatural speech that has otherwise sensible people using acronyms and hashtags, as if they were to say LOL and BTW and IMHO. ROFL. #ROFL.

The centrepiece of the celebration was then the pitching competition. Each person had two minutes to pitch from the stage to us, the audience, their idea. The geeks off the plane sat on stage, left of the pitcher, and a group selected by Ice House, including Sir Stephen, sat on stage, to the right of the pitcher. The judges were all in the background of the pitcher, because this was the role they were supposed to assume. They shared the stage to judge how well each pitcher sold their idea. Competitive pitching is a descendant of those training sessions for itinerant salesmen, where the salesperson has first to get his foot in the door, and then convince the put-upon housewife that as a houseperson she should spend what little discretionary capital she has on drugs or a new thousand-dollar vacuum cleaner.

the_icehouse billed the event as “NZ Rocket Pitch Competition” – not a question of getting from the plane to the rocket and the hell out, but an allusion to the length of time before the keeper of the house slams the door in the face of the itinerant seller, who, still dusty from the road, starts softly to sob, picks up his battered suitcase of sextoys and lingerie, and checking his polyester suit for tell-tale tear stains, fixes his smile for the long road ahead. In the descendant scenario, the rejecting party is the investor, or more likely Angel. The Angelic race move among us. They share with their celestial namesakes a penchant for collecting souls in return for elevation, since early-stage investment in untried business ‘ideas’ entails paying as little as possible for as great a share of the business as they can get away with, withal that even this angelic behaviour is in the throes of being standardised, sanitised and set at a limit of a 30% share for investing … as little as they can get away with, in a heavenly transaction called, pragmatically, The Deal.

The pitcher must be versed in the patter of a highly formalised style of persuasion. Here of course, in the tent, called mockingly The Cloud, we were not going to be persuaded to invest. It was for sheer spectacle and fun. And here, of course, the geeks and Sir Stephen and others, were not really about to help the pitcher, but judge him or her. And really, there was not an idea in the pitcher. Each pitch concerned young but established businesses, one with a projected revenue of 73 million, for, as it happened, inserting sensors into cows to upload data from the inside of the cow to the cloud. Whence it was supposed to descend like grace or fall like manna from heaven into the palms of the poor farmer and aid him or her in his or her efficient extraction of value from the virtues of the animal on an industrial scale. No doubt it could also warn of dangerous CO2 levels leaving the anatomy of the cow and other effluvia.

I am taking liberties describing this poetic process, since the ‘cloud’ is obviously code, not to be confused with The Cloud, and the ‘palms of the poor farmer’ refers to some sort of digital device, handheld or occupying the farmer’s desk, to make farming increasingly an office job. The ‘cloud’ is a delicious sort of digital debt and the nomenclature a euphemism for owing to a mechanism of mechanical memory storage so much, in so many layers of imbricated deficit, that were it overnight-and-day to materialise it would put the global economy into freefall. Just a second, has this happened?

Hearing Susanne’s Rocket Pitch for Kahne, the hilarious cow tech, Dave – Dave, Andy, Sir Stephen, we were all by now on a first name basis, this being the only name stickered on our badges – Dave McClure, distracted from his constant online background checks of the pitcher’s business credentials, said that the number 73 million was the only thing that had registered with him from the whole two minutes Susanne was speaking. If you have 73 million, what the hell are you doing here? he asked, with a certain level of redundancy. It registered with me that none of the 12 – a reason for this number? Geekspell, the musical? as a friend sugggests – businesses represented seemed to require Angelic elevation.

This had been my experience of IBM’s SmartCamp round of pitchery as well, where there was one pitch concerned with quantum encryption of computer hard-drives, hardly an idea, a reality which had won a hugely lucrative contract with NASA. The difference with what went on in the tent called The Cloud was not to be found in the existing success or quality of the business being pitched but that IBM spent the day before that spectacle and the fun of the competition in exactly the sort of intensive training a travelling salesman could use. Here the process was pitch, judge, dispatch and let that stand as a celebration of the geeks’ arrival in beautiful Auckland.

the_icehouse had split the chosen 12 into three sponsor-appropriate categories. The only category which seemed to possess any internal logic in its grouping dealt with applications of material technologies, called “Return on Science” suitably to flatter the sponsor, Return on Science. Dave averred of this group that it was lucky they all seemed to have customers since their pitches fucking sucked ass. Andy, our courageous MC, mastered the moment, where for a moment naturalness had pierced the beautiful and celebratory bubble, by saying that the reason he’d asked at the evening’s outset we keep it seemly was that he is religious and does not approve of the use of the word fuck.

General hilarity ensued. Of the self-congratulary sort that only serves to restore complacent bubbles around events like this one. Or polyethylene sheet or whatever it is from which The Cloud is fabricated.

It was a theatrical evening, then, organised by the Ice House to promote itself and cheapened by its self-promotion. With stale bread. A patronising MC. Risible gestures at national or civic bolsterism. Low entertainment. Of no conceivable use to the parties pitching except being seen. By geeks. From America. To which we were asked to bear witness, authorise and share in, co-complicit. A celebration of mediocrity. And vested interests. No more or less. Another night of New Zealand theatre.

Then, there was more. Andy introduced J Geek and the Geeks to really finish off the evening with a routine that seemed to have been borrowed – perhaps they had given it away? – from a gay male strip review, tiny piupius, bad make-up and charming smiles, celebrating the geeks’s arrival in beautiful New Zealand with some native entertainment. As I heard one of our geek visitors say with deep insight to a journalist who asked probingly what he made of the place, he’d been amazed by the traditional Maori welcome. That there were still people in the world in this day and age with such a deep connection to the land.