Meet our 2015 NEXT Woman of the Year: Claudia Batten

With two start-ups launched and sold, Claudia Batten now helps other Kiwi businesses succeed. We find out about her desire to keep learning, her entrepreneurial force, and her advice for other women.
NEXT Woman of the Year 2015 Claudia Batten

NEXT Woman of the Year 2015 Claudia Batten

Claudia Batten Supreme Winner 2015 – Business & innovation

Sitting in the reception of a boutique hotel in the relaxed beach suburb of Santa Monica, Los Angeles, is serial entrepreneur and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s head of North America Claudia Batten.

Although her face is hidden, she taps away at her white iPad and iPhone, sprawled on the seat beside her. That’s how we know it’s her before we even see her face, because, well, she is New Zealand’s answer to digital royalty, having successfully created and sold two digital start-ups. So it’s only natural, on a day she’s kept free for this interview and shoot, she’s still working.

A hope and a dream

After initial introductions and niceties the 41-year-old buries her head again. “Sorry, I’ve just got to get this out to the team,” she says in a Kiwi accent with an American twang she’s coined ‘Ameri-Kiwi’. She taps away at the screen for a few more seconds. “I send my team my wins and losses each week so I try to capture what’s been awesome and what’s been not so awesome,” she says.

“It’s really important I show a human face to my team. It’s easy for people who have had success to show up like they have it all figured out and that life is easy. It’s not. There will always be things you need to work on, good days and bad days, and things you fail at.”

By team she means the more than 30 workers across the North American NZTE office where she’s been at the helm for six months. For those of you who don’t know, it’s their job, and now Batten’s, to grow companies internationally – for the benefit of New Zealand. The office, based in the heart of Santa Monica, is just 10 minutes’ drive from our current location, and Batten’s temporary home, the Palihouse hotel. She lives in the modestly sized accommodation with her artist husband Mark Castator, and their golden retriever Rugby (so named because “he gives a good tackle”).

Her two 20-something stepsons have flown the coop so the trio relocated from Boulder, Colorado when Batten started at the NZTE; she jokes that every time she starts a new project or job, she moves city. The move to work for a governmental organisation could be construed as unexpected for Batten, who’s known as one of New Zealand’s greatest exports. Her name might not be as well-known as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or The Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington but she’s certainly up there in terms of breaking new ground in the digital advertising world.

Claudia is our 2015 Woman of the Year

In 2002 Batten quit her job as a lawyer at Russell McVeagh and left New Zealand on a hope and dream, moving to New York and eventually starting Massive, a first-ofits- kind network for advertising in video games. It sold to Microsoft in 2006 for a reported US $400 million. She often gets asked what she’s worth and it’s one of her most hated questions. “It’s so irrelevant because money doesn’t bring happiness so it’s just such an inaccurate measure of anyone’s value in this world,” she says. “It just makes me sad, it’s not that it angers me, it disappoints me, which is the ultimate putdown. ‘I’m not angry I’m just disappointed’.”

Taking the lead

Following Massive, Batten moved to Boulder Colorado and co-founded Victors & Spoils (V&S), the first advertising agency built on the principles of crowdsourcing, which was sold to a French company in 2012. The sum was never disclosed but it’s safe to say it made Batten a pretty penny. Instead of sinking her teeth into another start-up or becoming a venture capitalist, her next natural response was to try to help people. “When I stepped down from V&S I had a different mentality and I wanted to learn. I’m quite obsessed with learning and so I decided to help any entrepreneur who contacted me and speak at any event I was asked. It was a very yes-oriented ethos.”

She thought she’d do that for six months and then something would pop up but nothing piqued her interest. In the meantime she was helping people and companies to manifest their entrepreneurial dreams. “I was super-conscious of the fact one-onone I wasn’t going to have the impact I thought I’d have.” Enter a recruiter who knew of the role at NZTE and suggested Batten go for it.

“He said ‘I know you care about this, I know you’re passionate about this and I can see you light up around it. NZTE needs a new leader in North America, and you should do the job’. I said ‘You’re kidding?’”, she exclaims laughing. “No!” But the more she looked into it, the more she saw untapped opportunity: incredible Kiwi entrepreneurs who were almost limiting themselves when they approached the North American market. She knew she could help.

Supporting role

Aside from her job at NZTE, Batten is a mentor. And it’s clear she mentors a fair few people judging by the frequent calls and emails she fields each day. She quickly tots up the numbers to give us a rough idea.

“Yesterday I sent about seven to eight emails where I checked in with people doing stuff outside of NZTE. And I had a 40-minute call to someone to see what’s going on with them. That’s reaching around 10 people in one day, so that’s 50 or 60 a week. Some of those will be regular, and some of those will be one-offs. I don’t have them all under my wing, guiding them every step of the way. There is a place for that, but I’m much better in a way where they know I’m there, they know I’ve got their back and whenever they need me I’m ready to step in.”

She has eager entrepreneurs from all over the map – Chile, Brazil, Ukraine, Serbia and of course New Zealand – contact her. People a couple of generations above asking for support as they try to digitally educate themselves, to millennials who are lost in the insanity of the corporate world. It’s not always women either, although she does believe females are going to resonate more with her, and that’s a win as far as she’s concerned. Of course if you’re a Kiwi woman who’s into anything digital or tech, you’re in a good position. “There’s not many of them so they instantly go to the top of the queue,” she says excitedly.

For someone who has achieved so much at a relatively young age you may be surprised to learn her biggest accomplishments have nothing to do with the bottom ‘I’m looking for someone who has a great attitude, great vision and frankly is a great person. My filter for people is great mind, great heart’ line – it’s being able to do what she loves to do every day – helping others achieve

greatness. Batten’s no psychic though, although she’s had her own business victories; she doesn’t have a crystal ball to predict the future. When it comes to judging if something will be successful or not she often looks at the person creating it.

“I’m looking for someone who has a great attitude, a great vision and frankly is a great person. My filter for people is great mind, great heart. If you’ve got one and not the other I’m not interested. If you’ve got both then I’ll support you to the ends of the earth.” Batten also has her hand in a couple of “little start-ups”. One is Broadli, an app designed to support a new, giving-focused approach to networking. She works on this with two American women who are based in New York and has a weekly call with them at 6am every Friday. As you can imagine, Batten’s experience makes her a highly sought-after board member. Right now she’s on about five, ranging from a children’s music foundation board that supports music in US schools, to

others more in line with her NZTE work, like The Icehouse which helps to grow Kiwi businesses. Oh, and she’s in the middle of writing a book on her ‘squiggly line’philosophy: her belief it’s never a straight road to success. You keeping up? It’s exhausting just listing everything Batten is involved in and she admits she does struggle with overload because she gives so much of herself to other causes. “I’ve talked to other people about this and they say ‘Claudia, you have to learn to say no.’ I say ‘I’m just not interested in saying no’.”

Claudia is making waves in the digital advertising world

Still just Claudia

NZTE colleague and Beachheads Network manager Simon Court likens Batten to a cross between the Tasmanian Devil and The Road Runner. “She’ll whizz past you, and if you can grab hold and keep hold – you’re off for a wild ride that’ll change your life. But if you let go you have to wait for the next pass – if there is a next pass.”

Batten gets up at 4am on weekdays and can be working until 9pm when she has to shut down the computer to give herself time to wind down. But she’s ‘on’ 24/7, always thinking, always analysing and often travelling from country to country championing her causes and making contacts. Clearly she’s a very busy lady and juggling everything with her personal life is her biggest challenge. However, aside from answering that one email when we first met, she makes you feel like you’ve got her undivided attention. She doesn’t check her phone constantly, and when it rings, she switches it to silent.

To relax she likes to go for walks, and enjoys just “sitting down doing nothing for huge periods of time”. Those times are rare, but when she does get them she’ll binge watch shows like hit series Orange is the New Black or watch “trash television” like Teen Mom and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. It’s a surprising admission and Batten is unapologetic about her tastes. That said, she’s obviously very smart. The interview is peppered with quotes from philosophers and inventors – but she’s equally comfortable talking about fashion and beauty, marvelling at what Jenna Lyons has done for fashion label

J. Crew and talking about the latest beauty products. We get the impression no matter what the subject, Batten knows a little (or a lot) about it, which is possibly a side effect of being so well read. Her email browser on her phone has articles open from the New York Times, New Scientist, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rolling Stone as well as blogs and podcasts. “That’s my consumption – I’m all over the place,” she says of the selection. “I’m fascinated by the different pieces and then I bring it all together again.” Growing up in Wellington’s Karori, Batten is the eldest of two. Her dad worked in finance and her mum worked in real estate. Entrepreneurship was in the DNA from a young age, she says. From age 12 she would read The Economist and Fortune magazines her dad would bring home and she always enjoyed being part of adult conversations.

Despite her success, to her parents she’s still just Claudia.

“They know I build businesses and sell them and the names and dollars associated but I think I’m just their kid, so with all of the pomp and circumstance and celebration of Claudia, they’re like ‘it’s just our pain-in-the-ass daughter’. I think that’s great – all my friends are like that too,” she says. “I think it’s important to be surrounded by all that humility.” It’s obvious Batten’s parents are also incredibly proud of her. At an event this year her mother introduced herself to Prime Minister John Key as ‘Claudia’s mother’. “She came back to the table and said ‘He knows who you are.’ I’m like ‘Yeeeeeeah!”

Change is good

So what’s her advice to all those budding businesswomen out there?

“You should have a BHAG – a big hairy audacious goal. What’s that thing you’re going to bring to the world no one else can?” She also suggests following your intuition and do the things that make you uncomfortable. “When I was a lawyer, my deliberate discomfort was I moved to New York and I left my law firm, and my secure job. I got a lot of question marks from people and no one understood what I was doing – neither did I by the way – but I did it.”

The conversation inevitably reverts to NZTE, and we have to ask the question we’re all thinking – what’s in it for her? “F**ked if I know,” she says, laughing, before answering seriously. “This will sound so corny but I’m just following my path. I’m just really clear I’m good at this. I’ve been doing it a long time, I understand business, I understand North America and I understand how to coach and mentor people it seems. I think my parents will probably tell you I’ve been telling people what to do since I was three years old so it does come very naturally.” She’s not only changed the way NZTE does things, she’s also altered the workplace, ripping down the tired 80s-style cubicles and investing in cutting-edge standing desks. As well as putting her stamp on aethetics, she’s also very clear on what NZTE should be doing for entrepreneurial Kiwis.

“We want to create this elevator so a New Zealand entrepreneur comes in and they go ‘bing’, they hit NZTE North America, and ‘donk’ they go up and come in and have access to North America in this whole new way,” she says. “I want to create these processes so there is a system that exists when I leave, that’s the Claudia system… let’s just hope what I do is replicable.” Something tells us the force that is Claudia Batten isn’t replicable. Then again, perhaps with Batten at the helm she’ll make sure it is.

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