Life in San Francisco's
tech hustle

Leadership Network member Mahoney Turnbull describes herself as biz-dev strategist, lawyer, super-connector, ideator, product nerd and curator of user obsession.

Mahoney at hacker conference TechCrunch

She is a Kiwi on the go. She moved to the West Coast of the United States in 2015 to work with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), where she relished the opportunity to help grow New Zealand start-ups internationally.

“It was an awesome challenge and an eye-opener to the business and investment world of North America.”

Recently, Mahoney was part of an early stage fintech (financial technology) team that was chosen to be part of the latest round with venture fund and 'seed accelerator' 500 Startups.

The idea behind 500 Startups, according to its founder Dave McClure, is that, “You’ve got to invest in 500 possible failed start-ups to get one unicorn.”

Mahoney describes the accelerator experience as an “amazing, exhausting but exhilarating ride to go on.”

“These accelerators are like kitchens, not restaurants. You have to really get dirty and cut through the noise to find value for your team and the business,” she says.

The team was working on an artificial intelligence financial chatbot built on IBM Watson, a supercomputer that combines artificial intelligence and sophisticated analytical software.

Mahoney’s role during the program focussed on experience design, product strategy and growth but, as is the case for all early-stage start-ups, she wore multiple other hats.

She says the key to survival is constantly adapting to whatever is necessary to execute the next iteration or product launch.

Playing in the ‘conversational commerce’ arena, the app involved serious data security considerations, which played nicely into Mahoney’s Honours dissertation on the future of New Zealand’s big data and privacy laws.

Life in the accelerator was a full on experience, she says. Training sessions and new material is thrown at competitors daily, from lectures to founder talks, pitch training, investor sessions and external events.

Everything culminates on Demo Day where competitors pitch in front of investors and media.

There are some fantastic accelerators around and accepting more international teams is an increasing part of the San Francisco diversity mandate, she says.

Teams from New Zealand are accepted with open arms, and Mahoney encourages others active in the tech start-up scene to apply.

“You’re an anomaly if you don’t have multiple gigs on the go as well as managing to keep incredibly active both physically and mentally so you never miss a beat.”

Mahoney is now hustling in the San Francisco Bay area, helping accelerate high-growth French SaaS (software as a service) start-ups in the US market.

This is also a challenge: "deep diving" into augmented retail companies as well in the burgeoning artificial intelligence space – a domain she describes as both awesome and terrifying at the same time, depending on where exactly you see this technical movement leading.

In terms of what life is like in San Francisco, Mahoney says it feels like “Welly on silicon steroids: super competitive, but the vibe, energy of the city and its historic grit is fantastic."

"You’ve got all the extremes – hyper wealthy, hyper poor, hyper motivated, and the hyper-Burning Man," she says.

“You’re an anomaly if you don’t have multiple gigs on the go as well as managing to keep incredibly active both physically and mentally so you never miss a beat.”

Mahoney Turnbull has been a member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network since 2011, and has lived and worked in China, the Pacific, Hong Kong, NZ, Australia and now the US.

By Masina Taulapapa