13 Jul 2022

Bookmarks with Phoebe Harrop

From Afternoons, 2:25 pm on 13 July 2022

Got a "wacky, world-first" idea that could change lives?

Venture capital firm Blackbird Aotearoa is on the hunt for what they call "wild hearts" – tech entrepreneurs with fresh ideas, big dreams and lots of energy.

The company's 31-year-old principal Phoebe Harrop talks to Jesse Mulligan about investment, innovation and a few of her favourite things.

Phoebe Harrop. Photo:

Read - Blackbird looking for New Zealand investment opportunities (RNZ)

Phoebe grew up in New Plymouth and graduated from law school before realising that legal practice seemed "too contained" for her.

"I'm someone who likes to keep their options open and have a very varied work week and career."

She then took the storytelling and problem-solving skills she'd learnt at law school to "where the power was" – the private sector.

While working at the American consultancy firm Bain & Company, Phoebe discovered the change-making potential of start-ups.

"It became clear to me that the most interesting companies were those that were building new technologies and kind of building things from the ground up in terms of culture and their way of working, as well."

From Bain & Company, Phoebe joined Al Gore's green-tech investment company Generation, and then last year Blackbird.

One of the first New Zealand companies Blackbird has invested in is the remote-control cow collar company Halter.

Its founder Craig Piggott is a great example of someone with the life experience, passion for change and drive that a successful start-up needs, Phoebe says

After growing up on a Waikato dairy farm, Piggott studied engineering and worked for Rocket Lab before having the "really wacky idea" of a remote control cow collar, she says.

His invention has now completely changed how dozens of New Zealand farms operate.

After Australians Rick Baker and Niki Scevakin founded Blackbird in 2012, their first-ever investment was the design app Canva, which has since made founder Melanie Perkins a billionaire.

While these early investors in Canva got a 50-to-1 return on their contribution, that isn't the norm, Phoebe says. 

Backing starts ups is an extremely risky business, she says, and only about 10 percent of venture capital investments are returned in full.

"We're in the business of taking the riskiest bets, so everything we do looks risky and many of the investments we make will fail. That's how the best venture capital funds work. They actually have a higher failure but the things that succeed well return the investment."

Blackbird is working to help New Zealand get more "culturally comfortable" with an investment model that has such a high rate of failure, she says. 

"We've had a scarcity mindset in New Zealand because there wasn't always the availability of capital to allow you to have those failures."

When it comes to innovation, the number-eight wire mentality is to our advantage, though, Phoebe says.

"Entrepreneurs like [Rocket Lab founder] Peter Beck just show what's possible if you are really determined to achieve something you'll find a way. And that's an amazing Kiwi piece of DNA that we shouldn't lose."

A few of Phoebe's favourite things...

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life - a memoir by William Finnegan

"It just fills you with wanderlust in the best kind of way."


Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume One 1978 - 1987 - diary entries by Helen Garner

"It's amazing to see the brain of a writer at work."

The Gene: An Intimate History - a science book by Siddhartha Mukherjee

"I'm a hopeless nerd for scientific ideas but I don't have a scientific disposition ... [This book] paints a lot of the human picture behind the science."

Captain Corelli's Mandolin - a novel by Louis de Bernières

"This introduced me to magic realism as a genre, which I do particularly love."

Chat 10 Looks 3  - a podcast by Australian journalists Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales 

"They've been going since 2014 just talking about what they like to read, bake, watch, a little bit of Australian politics on the side. It's an amazing insight into a friendship and I guess a demographic you don't usually hear from - 40-something mothers of three who are whipsmart and fantastic.'

Outrageous Fortune - a TV3 series you can watch on TVNZ

During a family holiday to India, a teenage Phoebe found peace in the evenings by watching this Kiwiana classic in the hotel room.

Volver - a comedy-drama film directed by Pedro Almodovar

'La Noche de Anoches' by Rosalía

"She's got a depth of musicality to her but a lot of sass and fun."

'Rockin' the Suburbs' by Ben Folds Five

Phoebe's family listened to the CD of the Ben Folds Five album Rockin' the Suburbs on the way to school.

"It's pretty anarchic, which is fun when you're 11."

'Shake a Tail Feather' covered by Ray Charles

"The peak of my musical career was playing tenor sax and jazz flute at New Plymouth Girls' School… we had a soul band and this was one of our hits."