By Fraser Scott (for designindustry Limited)

Published in the Christchurch Press, 16 March 2009.


No phrase captures as much about New Zealand culture and aspirations as 'number eight wire'.

These three words, entrenched in our world view as they are, speak of our isolated, resource-deprived place in the world. They communicate our inventiveness and resourcefulness. And, perhaps more subtly, they declare our rejection of anything 'high-falluting' or 'too flash'. The cardinal sin for the New Zealander is to be anything but 'down to earth'.

A person that has a 'number eight wire' mentality is definitely down to earth, but also a 'good bloke' that can fix stuff and make it work. Without a fuss.Our icons conform to this model perfectly. Sir Ed 'knocked the bastard off'. No big deal, no fanfare.

In the film 'The World's Fastest Indian' we see Burt Munro, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, building a bike from scratch, by hand, and showing those 'bloody yanks' a thing or two. We read or view the stories of these heroes, edited as they are for dramatic effect, and we experience that momentary sense of national pride that is so rare for the New Zealander (at least relatively).

But is the 'number eight wire' model really a good one for New Zealand? Does it really work as we imagine it to?

Let's take a look at the story of John Britten and the Britten motorcycle for a moment. Casually stroll through the official Britten motorcycle website and you will quickly get a sense that the celebration of the 'poorly resourced but doggedly determined' kiwi battler is alive and well. The story explains how "as a child John Britten built go-karts out of old packing cases and at the age of twelve had saved enough money to buy a petrol motor and build his first motor powered go-kart." Some years later, John decided to design a new type of bike from scratch, after failing to obtain the performance he desired from a Ducati race bike he stripped and redesigned.

The story goes that "John pictured his finished result first with a hot glue gun and a roll of number eight wire." John then "did all his own drawings, made his own patterns and designed his own engine". John went on to develop the famed V1000 and raced it around the world. As the official website explains: "the Britten has been so successful because what started out as a hobby in a garage at home, became a world class motorcycle recognised for its brilliance in engineering all over the world. Unlike established companies who invest huge amounts of money in the development work and are obligated to show a result for that money, John Britten persevered on a trial and error basis until he was successful."

That last sentence speaks volumes; a two-fingered salute to the 'corporate types' and a stern rejection of any kind of formal processes or 'showing results for money spent'.

John Britten beat the world. John Britten built something great. John Britten did it his way. But the truth of the Britten motorcycle and the man they called 'the Backyard Visionary' is, like all great stories, somewhat more complex than it appears. Dorenda Britten, John's sister and designindustry Managing Director, worked alongside John through the last of these tumultuous years and served as his "biscuit maker, design consultant and sounding board". Dorenda says that John was a "typical innovator/entrepreneur: obsessively focused, absolutely determined and desperate to prove something". She says that as Britten Motorcycle Company grew, there were some key problems that limited both its success and its ability to sustain a competitive advantage.

"Every time we were at a race", Dorenda explains, "There would be dozens of photographers hovering round taking photos of the bike. Then people would come up and touch the bike; lifting up bits of the bike to see how it worked and what its secrets were. There was no way you would ever be able to touch any other team's bike. But John didn't really care – he would be talking to someone, caught up in his passion to win the race". All attention was considered to be good attention. Anyone that was interested was assumed to be a supporter.

Far from seeking to protect the intellectual property and innovation embodied in the Britten, John was focused simply on winning. These sort of 'corporate' considerations were of little interest to someone more comfortable tinkering in the workshop. But the 'open-source' attitude John demonstrated was not reciprocated by others. Dorenda tells of a visit John made to Yamaha's factory: "They invited him in but he wasn't allowed to see anything or touch anything. He wasn't even allowed in the design room".

While Britten was winning races, Yamaha was building a brand, keeping an eye on the competition and protecting their investment. And this, says Dorenda, was the key problem with John's approach: the focus was always short term. "He was not interested enough in where the company might go, what might be built or what might be achieved in the future. He was always just focused on winning the next race. Any other discussion was just seen as a distraction from winning the next race", says Dorenda. This short term focus was exacerbated, believes Dorenda, by the fact that so much of what made Britten motorcycles great was contained within John's head.

Dorenda explains: "John saw all of it as a personal challenge, as something to prove. He didn't spend a lot of time with other people in the team talking strategy or where he wanted to take the company. That was 'business-talk' and John never really saw Britten Motorcycles as a business". So, says Dorenda, when opportunities to develop the company, to grow Britten Motorcycle Company into an institution that could still be winning races today, John baulked or delayed. And then, when John tragically succumbed to cancer at age 45, Britten Motorcycle Company essentially died with him. The potential that existed within the oft-retold story was lost. All that now remains of Britten Motorcycle Company are a handful of bikes in the hands of museums and private collectors around the world.

No more wins. No more startling innovation. All that remains of what could have been a world-beating company is a website that sells Britten polar fleeces, t-shirts and mouse pads. So often in New Zealand entrepreneurs and innovators have great ideas and tremendous personal energy, but not the ability or determination to commercialise their ideas into sustainable businesses. Some would say that turning Britten into a 'big corporate animal' would go against the very spirit of what John stood for, or that the bikes never would have been created had John not 'done it his way'. Maybe so. But what if John had taken the time to slow down and share what was in his head? What if he'd found the right person to develop the business while he focused his efforts on developing the bikes? What if John had built, or allowed the building of, an enduring brand; a company where the knowledge did not reside in one man's head?

Perhaps if IP had been captured and protected, strategy determined and the future considered Britten Motorcycle would still be the darling of the tracks today. The story of Britten Motorcycle Company's demise is a sad one, punctuated by a host of 'if onlys'. It's also a story that is being relived in innovative and fast-growing companies throughout New Zealand. And the problem can be attributed to the countless coils of 'number eight wire' that take the place of strategy in our creative enterprises.

Great ideas and creative talent is the starting point, but without strategic rigour, objectivity and – gasp – the sober voices of the left brained number crunchers, organisers and managers, great ideas just go to waste. Successful, innovative companies are a balanced fusion of the left-brain 'rationals' and the right-brain 'creatives'.

Only these companies will see the dreams of their 'backyard visionaries' come to fruition.