This year, Rocket Lab plans to blast a 56-foot vehicle into orbit on a mission to revolutionize access to space. The aerospace startup’s affordable launchers are among the first to be tailored to commercial satellite customers. But the rocket won’t take off from Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg Air Force Base—it was manufactured in Auckland and will launch from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. “Tech entrepreneurs are doing all kinds of edgy stuff here that hasn’t been tried before,” says Berkeley grad and software developer turned Wellington-based angel investor Dave Moskovitz. “Stuff that’s like, whoa, why would you go to New Zealand for that?”
It’s a question that’s been whispered about Silicon Valley elites for the past few years, ever since Peter Thiel quietly became a Kiwi citizen; since LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman informed The New Yorker that New Zealand is the tech crowd’s favored end-of-days refuge; since Ellen Pao mocked her former Kleiner Perkins colleagues for coveting “private-jet escape routes to New Zealand.” Indeed, as of October the number of work visas granted to American techies was up 78 percent over the same period in 2012. What gives? Beyond Wellington’s obsessive coffee culture and Queenstown’s unspoiled landscape (a country roughly the size of the UK with just 7 percent of its population), New Zealand has established itself as an unlikely bolt-hole for the impending apocalypse.
“Thirty years ago New Zealand’s biggest hurdle was the tyranny of distance,” says David Cooper of Malcolm Pacific Immigration, who advises high-net-worth individuals looking to relocate there. But as our president subtweets Kim Jong-un and we brace for the next hurri-quake, that 13-hour direct flight from San Francisco to Auckland starts to look inviting. “If I’m someone with a lot of money who wants to survive the end of the world, New Zealand is far away from any place I could conceivably see a nuclear weapon hitting,” says James McKeon, policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
It’s also surrounded by vast expanses of ocean, which has a dampening effect on extreme weather, says James Renwick, a climate scientist at Victoria University of Wellington. “New Zealand is affected more slowly by warming trends than other countries, so we have more lead time,” he says. “It will be fairly pleasant here for quite a while.”
And New Zealand is eager to attract Valley elites: Recruitment efforts are luring tech workers to local startup scenes; LookSee Wellington, which last year flew in techies to attend career info sessions and interviews, received 48,000 applications. Of course, most moneyed Kiwi-wannabes opt for the surer thing, an Investor visa—nearly guaranteed if you meet basic immigration criteria and invest NZ$3 million (about US$2.1 million) for four years or NZ$10 million over three years. Cooper estimates that more than a quarter of his US Investor visa clients hail from California.
Once your abode (or bunker) is under way, integrating is easy, say American escapists. “You can start a business in 20 seconds,” says Moskovitz, who has invested in over a dozen New Zealand startups and renounced his US citizenship in 2015. “You just go on the Companies Office website and plonk down NZ$105.”
Texas native Shawn O’Keefe, now a program director for Wellington-based accelerator Creative HQ, concurs: “Being small and nimble, we don’t have the same level of bureaucracy and bullshit as in the States.” New Zealand recently topped the World Bank’s annual Ease of Doing Business rankings as the nation most conducive to starting a business, registering property, and securing credit.
That same no-BS attitude applies to innovation, O’Keefe says: “New Zealand entrepreneurs aren’t working on an app to find a better sandwich or whatever—they take real-world problems much more seriously.” While that may sound like some Silicon Kiwi spin, the country did introduce a Global Impact visa last year, targeting civic-minded founders tackling society’s biggest challenges. Meanwhile, US app peddlers and hedge funders are quietly burrowing into New Zealand’s epic hills, plotting their real-world escape.
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