Paul Wallbank

Paul Wallbank is a speaker and writer charting how technology is changing society and business. Paul has four regular technology advice radio programs on ABC, a weekly column on the website and has published seven books.

Dec 012015
Jon Mevdev and Our Crowd founders

Jon Medved is one of those credited with driving the current Israeli startup boom having been involved as either a founder or investor in over 100 startup companies over the past two decades.

His current venture, OurCrowd, is a fund raising platform for startups seeking investors. Since being launched in 2013 the service has raised over $34M for 31 portfolio companies.

At the Australian-Israeli Bridge Investment summit in Sydney last week, Jon was a keynote speaker and panellist describing the startup and technology landscape of Israel. Following his morning sessions, he spoke to Decoding the New Economy about Crowdfunding, investment regulation along with both Australia and Israel’s place in the world.

Thanks Jon, let’s start with what OurCrowd do

We’re the world’s largest equity crowdfunding platform. We focus on sophisticated investors. What they call in America an accredited investor, which means that you have to have substantial assets in order to crowdfund at this point because we’re offering shares in private partnerships that then are essentially investing on a per company basis so it’s more like democratized venture capital than it is classic Kickstarter crowdfunding.

You, as an individual, to get into one of my deals have to commit $10,000 per deal. So that’s real money. You get complete choice. We sift through thousands of companies, select about 2% of those that we look at. We put them up on our website. We invest our own money and then you just choose to join us. We aggregate the variety of the investors and join us from 110 countries around the world and then we write a single check with the aggregated amount and that’s often millions of dollars so it’s not like couple 100k or 50k. This is real money.

Our biggest round has been $16 million with the other money. We invest in companies across all sectors and all stages. We’re sector agnostic as well as stage agnostic and we’re now geography agnostic. We’re from Israel and the majority of our deals are in Israel, but we’re increasingly investing in the States. Here in Australia, we’ve done two deals. Our first was launched, our first deal in India, deals in the UK, soon Latin America, etc., etc.

So where are the areas that you’re seeing the biggest growth?

The Internet of Things is just unstoppable.

On the hardware side or on the software analytics side?

Both, we have software for inter-device connectivity. We have software for big industrial control of the Internet of Things. We have devices themselves that are really cool. Things that are doing location of things, things that are doing analysis of non-connected devices. We have companies that are linking the physical world to the virtual world. I’m just a huge believer. I think this is such a big trend, and we haven’t even seen the beginning of it. It’s just getting started.

How did the idea of OurCrowd come about?

I’ve been 30 years on the tech business as an investor and as an entrepreneur, taking companies public, have been bought. I ran venture capital funds. I’ve been an Angel Investor, so I’ve been around the block several times.

I’m too young, at least in spirit, to hang up the spurs, and I wanted to do something that would combine three distinct loves that I have. One is I love investing. Two, I love disrupting and being an entrepreneur. And the third is I love Israel. I live in Israel. But I really believe that Israel has a role to play in history and the world beyond its small population.

I tried to mix up investment, entrepreneurship, and Israel, came up with OurCrowd because the idea is that today, the whole venture capital angel investing thing is very important in terms of powering innovation, but no one has disrupted that or changed that methodology for 50 years.

Some old venture funds, some old angel investments and some of the disadvantages of current practice is number one, you’re limited typically regionally or city. There’s the Boston Common Angels or South Coast Angels or the Melbourne Angels that, God forbid, don’t invest in Sydney. That’s fine for that period of time. That doesn’t work anymore. Basically, you’ve got to be global. The companies need global help. I’m here. Are they okay?

So, this was very disruptive I think of the existing way the people invest because it was going to turn something which had been very hyper and local into a global event, but it was also going to disrupt the business by bringing in completely uninvolved people. It turns out that in America, which I know very well, there are 10 million of these accredited households. About a hundred thousand have ever made an angel investment.

Literally, 1% of the rich people have ever done this kind of investing. So, I said, “Before we bring the whole world then which is going to happen, and people are working on legislation here and elsewhere, let’s first empower the wealthy to get access to these deals because really, if you look at who are the guys who’ve been investing in the next Facebook or the WhatsApps of the world, same couple of hundred angel investors in Silicon Valley and maybe the same 50 funds and everybody else has been screwed.

Basically, you’re not invited to the party. You know when you can get to the party? It’s when these companies get public. That’s what they’re called private companies. They only problem is that these companies go public and they are already at $50 billion valuation. Who wants to come to that party? It’s not a fun party. I want to get people into the company when they’re being priced at $10 million or $5 million or $20 million so you can ride it to the billion dollars and the individual can make a hundred times his money or hundreds of times the money.

I think we are disruptive both on the global thing in terms of being inclusive and giving people choice because until now, the Faustian bargain you had to make was either I’m going to have a choice, therefore, I am an angel which means I’m on my own. If I’m the newbie, figure it out, read a book, get a mentor. How do I make an investment like this? What’s a term sheet? What’s preferred stock? Who’s the lawyer I should use? How do I…That’s very hard for somebody who doesn’t grow organically in the system to access that.

You could go to a venture fund, but at a venture fund get ready to write a million or $5 million check. Get ready to be turned down by all the good funds in the valley who don’t need your money, and get ready to not have any discretion or fund. You can’t choose a deal. You basically hand over the money and say, “See you in 10 years.” It becomes like another investment. I said, “No, let’s go find a way to let people choose their own investment but within a safe platform in context where we’ve done the work, where we handle the legal, we protect the rights, we aggregate everybody so when we invest, we’re treated like the big boys. We get the same stock that a General Electric or an Andreessen Horowitz or a Telstra will get, we get for that individual. And you can get in for 10 grand. That’s where the subversive part comes.

I came up with this idea, figured that it would also be a really cool way to help Israel because all these people that get hot and bothered about startup nations, “Okay, yeah. I want to invest.” Good luck. How do you do it? They still have that same problem. They’ve got to go do it on their own and figure out, especially if they’re living abroad, how do you do that? Or find a venture fund. This is a different way, and it’s got legs. And we’ve managed now to cross the $200 million threshold. We’re $50 million Aussie dollars raised here, which is pretty cool. So it’s a big chunk of the money coming from Australia. Got a thousand investors here, 10,000 around the world, 90 companies and growing fast.

Were there any specific reason, apart from your own passion about Israel, for setting up there?

No, because our regulatory approach, which I think is the right one has been based on…In the U.S., they call it Reg D 506, but it’s all based on the exemption you get for being a venture capitalist or the exemption you get to do private placements among accredited or sophisticated investors. The regulators worldwide basically say, “You know what? If you got bucks, we leave you alone as long as you play by the rules, but we’ll not regulate these private in place because otherwise, how the hell will your companies grow to get ready to go public?”

We threaded that needle if you will, and restrict our platform to those who are accredited or sophisticated according to their…Is it they call it qualified. Each area is different. In Israel, at the moment, it’s like almost $4 million of assets. The test here in Australia is two and a half. In the U.S., it’s only 1 million outside of your home. There are different income tests, and we essentially geolocate our websites. We flow those requirements down based on where you’re from. We spend a boatload of money on our friends, the lawyers. We have a lot of lawyer friends.

We talk to the regulators regularly because they’re really trying to figure this out and want to open this business up except they have a series of difficult decisions to make. So their first big decision is whether or not they want to do this according to a junior IPO model which says, “Okay, go ahead and let the crowd into invest in startups but, they’ll buy stock directly in the company.” They’ll call them issuers. For example, the proposed regs here in Australia demand that the companies become non-listed public companies.

They demand 20 or more shareholders already, then we’ll let you crowdfund. Our whole approach is no, these guys should all go directly on the cap table. With all due respect, that screws it up. It prevents venture capitalists of note to really come. In other words, if they’re serious VCs, a company with a hundred or 200 individual investors, some with couple hundred dollars, forget it.

They’re going to go, “This is too hard.”

Because all these guys got to sign documents. It’s a mess. They got to vote. Our structure, which is to have a SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) or intermediary partnership whereby we act as the nominee, we’re managing the process, we have a board member, that first of all, affords protection to the investor so they now have the right to get over a certain percentage of holding, which gives them anti-delusion, anti…They get preemptive rights. They get information rights to all the good…which the VCs have.

Now, we flow that down to our individual investor which no standard crowdfunding platform would have. More importantly, it’s good for the company because they now got a single shareholder who looks just like another VC fund and so we get to bring the company the advantage of having thousands of investors interested on the platform and pushing them forward but none of the headache of having to manage them all directly.

The regulators hopefully will figure out that our kind of structure doesn’t have to be mandated but should be at least allowed and in certain parts of the world, the regime as they are foreseeing it transform from accredited only to non-accredited broad based from what they call wholesale to resale, wholesale to retail, they are not allowing this, at least for the retail. If that’s the case, we won’t be in the retail again. We’ll stay with the accredited supposed to get it because we believe this is a sine qua non.

We don’t want to get a placement fee that the company pays or a slotting fee to go raise money. That’s going to get a negative selection process. It’s basically going to say that, “You know what, crowdfunding, you get the remainders,” the type B, like the socks or the underwear that have a defect. The better companies will go to venture capital. The worse ones, you’ll have to deal with that. Maybe you’ll get lucky.

That’s totally not our approach. Our approach is, we want to invest alongside Sequoia, Andreessen, Excel, and we do. In other words, we get OurCrowd into those deals which you really want to get into and in order to do that, it has to be managed. It has to be aggregated into a venture partnership, and then we want the focus of the whole process to be not ending at funding, but beginning at funding because the biggest mistake that the junior IPO approach makes is when you do an IPO, you hand the check over to the company. It’s gone public. You say, “Good luck.” Maybe you cover it.

In research, if you’re an investment bank, maybe you’ll try to do a secondary later, but you’re not involved. You don’t sit on the board, you don’t give guidance, you’re not trying to add value all the time. Whereas in venture, if you don’t, that’s the definition of dumb money. You don’t want to be dumb money. You want to be involved and we want to use our special asset, which is the fact we got these 10,000 global investors that can provide access and assistance to these companies like nobody’s business.

Going back to that regulation side, which jurisdictions do you think are ahead of the pack in this?

Look, UK is really ahead because they have just basically almost chosen not to regulate. I think that’s interesting. I think that this whole business can be fraught with danger, and I think there is regulation in the UK but very, very light handed. I think that’s the right approach.

I think that we’re going to have to experiment, we’re going to break some eggs and let the market figure out which model works. Hopefully, people will not get ripped off. By the way, just recently there was a terrible fraud in the U.S. from a guy who put together an oil and gas deal that seems to have gone on the lam and that was one of these platforms where they don’t do diligence.

Part of our whole gestalt is that we not only curate the investors and manage the deals and build SPVs, but we carefully diligence every company. We make mistakes like anybody else, but at least we hope we’d be able to weed out the obvious frauds unlike other sites that just allow people to put up whatever they like. The UK seems to be letting a lot of stuff there. The US has got this wonderful 685-page new decision that the SCC just passed.

Under the JOBS act

Under the JOBS, took them four years of work, almost. We’ll see who’s out there, but everybody is working on it. I think that you guys will get it right. I don’t think anybody feels that what will come in the first go round will be what will be ultimately. This is new stuff and for us, the major issue is that we got a thriving, rolling, wonderful business based on sophisticated, accredited, qualified investors. It’s growing really well.

There’s a ton of additional growth that we can have here, and while we would like to be with the wave of history and let everybody in, we don’t want to sacrifice our principles. If the jurisdictions won’t allow us to create intermediary structures where we can manage it, where we can be essentially incentive not at a placement to get the deal done, but we get incentive primarily on the success of the investment. In other words, we believe that we should be taking our fees from the investors, not from the companies because if we take money from the companies, we’re going to get the worst companies.

Then the companies say, “Hey, I don’t need you. I’ll go to a venture fund.” But I want to be able to compete and cooperate with the venture fund where the guy says, “Hey, I’ll take money from these venture funds and take money from you but at least I don’t have to pay either of you, right?” Then the investor pays for the privilege of hopefully making money. If we don’t make money, it’s not going to work. If no one makes money in this, none of these models are going to work. I think that our approach at least stands a better chance at returning real money because we’re getting good companies. You don’t need to pay us to get them up with the site. They have to convince us that they’re worthy.

You mentioned due diligence before. What happens when I’ve got a business, I come to you and say, “I’d like to fund my business through your funding.”

We run you through the wringer. We first ask, “Where is your kindergarten teacher and how do we reach her?” That kind of stuff. In Israel, by the way, it’s very easy because…Excuse me, if you pee in our pool, people know.

It’s not like people, the whole country knows. Diligence is rather easy. It’s little harder for us outside of Israel, but we rely often on our investor base to help us because we have deep tied investors who are from around the world.

We like to co-invest with other funds, and other family offices and corporations. We share diligence information, but we have a whole team that runs these companies through, I would say, a very rigorous diligence process. That includes not only checking out the team but also talking to their customers, verifying the data they’ve told us is correct. Speaking to technology experts, market experts, competitors, etc.

Going on to the Australian side of it, how do you find the Australian business culture versus the Israeli business culture.

I think Australia is amazing. I’ve become a real fan of this country and a huge fan of the current prime minister. I think you guys got an amazing guy there (new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) who’ll actually have the potential of making a significant impact on the business culture and national culture of the country.

You got everything in place more or less. You’ve got great technology, world-class universities [inaudible 00:21:42] billions of dollars exporting education. You’ve got progressive, interesting big enough size companies in the Telstras and the Qantases and the Commonwealth (Bank). These are not small businesses.

Great, unbelievable pool of capital and it’s second in the world in terms of superannuation funds. I think it’s a matter of time until the stars align and you break out in terms of realizing your innovation potential. We’re betting on it.

That’s why we’re spending so much time down here. We’re fans of everything Aussie, and I think that the sense of isolation and a little bit like we’re out of the mainstream and we’re far away and all that stuff, that goes away, not only when hopefully planes will fly twice the speed they do today, but I think it goes away notionally [SP] and culturally and what not.

We’re just a small world. You have a lot of great Aussies who are in the valley so there’s a good money here and there’s a good. I think this is going to happen fast. I bet you that if the number is 200 million or so being invested in Australian VC, that grows tenfold over the next couple of years.

So in the Australian market, what’s your priority at the moment? Are you looking for investors putting money in or are you looking for businesses to invest in?

Yes and yes. It starts with the investors because our strategy is once we build an investor community like we’ve already begun to do here, we have a thousand investors, ain’t too shabby when they’re all sophisticated investors. I think it makes us probably…We’re now the largest crowdfunding for equity platform in Australia. That’s where it starts, but it certainly doesn’t end there. What happens is, through that network, a lot of these are investors who have deals, and they start sourcing us deals. They provide the diligence infrastructure for looking at deals and they more importantly, provide this business development shock force that can help our deals grow here as well as help our companies from Israel around the world enter this market.

This is a very interesting market. It’s big enough to actually make some money and it’s small enough to get in. The people here are nice. They’re not cut-throat. They don’t steal from you. I think it’s actually an interesting place to prove a product. It doesn’t have the explosive scale of the U.S. or European or an Asian market, but it’s a good place to make your initial mistakes and to find high standard customers who will get you through your paces.

Listening to a number of your conversations today, you seem to be fairly down on the more traditional, if you like, type of crowdfunding.

No, I like Kickstarter and Indiegogo because they don’t pretend to give you, the investor, any upside. You got a t-shirt. If you’re expecting more, then you’re a fool. It’s just the fun. It’s just like going to a…I don’t know. It’s about charity. It’s about backing somebody. You get a cool product early. In other words, if you’re a gadget guy, you get to buy them for half price. Maybe they ship and maybe they don’t but that’s the risk you’re taking. That’s fine. And anyway, you’re only talking about a couple hundred bucks. People can afford that.

What I’m afraid of is uncontrolled equity sites where people think they are buying stocks and not having the control that would prevent fraud from happening, as well as even good intentioned guys who are just letting companies put cool video up and then people start putting real money, and there’s nobody there. Forget the fraud, just nobody to help the two guys and a dog build the company, to find additional money, to provide support. That can screw it up for all of us because the consumer is not necessarily, wealthy or not, that sophisticated to say, “Oh, this crowdfunding is right. That’s what crowdfunding is…” As soon as crowdfunding gets a bad name, you hurt everybody.

Nov 302015

Quartz magazine describes how the American middle class has lost its taste for mindless consumerism. Companies in sectors as diverse as department stores, motor manufacturers and restaurant chains are being caught by surprise as consumers turn away.

As a result business models based on selling ever increasing amounts of cheap products are now being questioned as consumers look for better quality goods and experiences over volume.

This change in consumption patterns should concern both governments and businesses as the mindset the assumptions underpinning planning decisions, infrastructure provision and revenue projections are based upon known public behaviour.

Changed consumption patterns mean new business models, the old thinking is going to fade with the old customer mindsets.

Nov 292015

The Turnbull government and its ministers face a big test in the upcoming innovation statement this week and will need to follow through with tangible results.

In 1976 Clive James visited Sydney fifteen years absence from his hometown. In his book Flying Visits he described the changes that had happened during his time away including some observations on the nation’s thriving movie industry with the comment “premature canonization is the biggest threat facing the young Australian film director today.

James’ words came back to me at an Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce in Sydney last week where the hosts were gushing over 25 year old Wyatt Roy, the Federal Assistant Minister for Innovation, last week.

There’s a lot to like about Wyatt Roy, he’s an intelligent and articulate minister with a self depreciating sense of humour and a touch of humility – qualities generally not associated with Australian politicians – though the old guard gushing over his youth and the achievements of his two months in office can be embarrassing.

In many ways the fawning over Wyatt Roy is emblematic of the general sense of relief in Australian business now the Turnbull government has left behind the nightmare of the vindictive and petty middle aged adolescents who made up the Abbot administration while also being a world away from the backward looking grey Liberal Party stalwarts of the Howard era and the self interested suburban Labor apparatchiks of the Rudd and Gillard years.

The question though is whether the hopes pinned on Turnbull and Roy can be realised which is why there are so many hopes being pinned on this week’s expected release of the government’s Innovation Statement laying out a policy framework for the nation’s economic pivot.

For Australia the stakes are high, the resource sector is collapsing and the property market – the real key to the nation’s suburban prosperity – is looking brittle. Policies that encourage new businesses and industries are now essential to maintain the country’s living standards.

To date Canberra’s policy makers have not managed the economic changes well; the Intergenerational Report earlier this year blithely ignored the effects of technology on the future workforce and its implications to incomes, jobs and government budgets, while three years after the Gillard government’s Australia in the Asian Century report it’s remarkable how dated the document with its underlying assumption of never ending resources demand now looks.

So the Innovation Statement matters in laying out a strong view for the future of Australia however even if it does prove to be a strong, forward looking document, the Turnbull government will need to follow up with substantial actions.

The real risk with all the talk of innovation is that it will be siloed, along with IT, as “something the geeks and young kids” do. For the this week’s announcement to be anything more than more fine words from the Innovation Bureaucracy then it has to be backed by strong reform to taxation, social security, immigration and corporate governance regulations.

While the canonisation of Wyatt Roy and Malcolm Turnbull may well be premature many Australians, including this one, are hoping those hopes are well founded. This week’s Innovation Statement will be the first test.

Nov 282015
Kevin Ashton IoT panel in Sydney

Last week I posted a long interview with Kevin Ashton, the man who coined the ‘Internet of Things’ tag, on startups, innovation and how the media manages to misreport technology. It was a good, but lengthy, interview.

The good folk at Smart Company have rewritten the piece into a much more readable story so if you thought the first post was tl;dr – too long; didn’t read – then you may find the edited version much more concise and useful.

Nov 272015
Piggy Bank

The industry that benefited most from the economic reforms of the last twenty years of the 20th Century was the banking industry.

With the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan three decades of good times began for the banking sector.

Now the good times are drawing to a close warns former Barclays boss Antony Jenkins who told a London audience how the banking industry faces an ‘Uber moment’.

While Jenkins focused on the fortunes of branches and frontline staff, the technological change facing almost all aspects of banking from tellers to risk analysts and upper management are all facing massive changes as artificial intelligence moves into fields that a few years ago most believed couldn’t be automated.

For the incumbent banks shareholders this is mixed news, on one hand it makes their existing operations vastly more profitable – the One Percent become the .001%.

On the other hand for the incumbents, the market is opening up new competitors and as Jenkins points out some of these disruptors will be the banks of the future. At the moment though established banks will do all they can to interfere with new entrants.

While interference will only go so far, the real challenge is to get ahead of the changes which is why financial technologies (fintech) has become such a hot topic in the last three years with major banks sponsoring or opening their own incubators, accelerators and hackathons.

Another important aspect in a changing environment is that of regulation and with the banks winning from the deregulations of the 1980s and 90s it may well be that we’re going to see a tightening on their powers as technology changes the playing field.

One thing is for sure, bankers are about to find times as exciting and challenging as many of the industries they displaced late in the Twentieth Century.

Nov 262015

In the early 1990s I was working for a British company in Hong Kong and regularly commuting to Taipei. On a Cathay Pacific flight back from Taiwan one Friday afternoon, I found myself on the same flight as the organisation’s Asia-Pacific director who graciously got me into the lounge for a beer.

Over that beer he told me how earlier in the year he’d been asked by one of the pukka English directors why he was bothering spending so much money in business development for ‘third world countries’ like Taiwan and South Korea.

Jeff, as we’ll call the director, laid down a challenge to his board. “Come out and have a look for yourself,” he told them.

Some of the UK based directors took Jeff up and flew out to Hong Kong, first class on BA of course, and then continued on to Taipei where they suitably amazed to be greeted by a first world city.

“They genuinely believed they were going to fly in a DC-3 and be met by a bunch of rickshaw wallas,” laughed Jeff, a long standing English expat. “The Brits don’t get East Asia.”

It seems things haven’t changed much as veteran venture capital investor Mike Moritz made a similar point at a speech in London yesterday that the West doesn’t understand China, particularly Europe.

“People underestimate China, especially in Europe,” Business Insider quotes Moritz as saying. “They have very little sense of the size, strength, and scale of ambition of the leading Chinese technology companies.

Moritz pointed out the fund he leads, Sequoia Ventures, is now placing over half its money in non-US companies with Chinese businesses being high on the list.

The West’s misunderstanding of China goes beyond business, with The Economist warning that many nations are soon going to have to choose between the PRC and the United States as Beijing sets up its own network of global alliances and trade accords.

So far the United States has responded to this with clumsy efforts like the Trans Pacific Partnership, an attempt to quarantine China’s influence in the Western Pacific that actually gives PRC  based businesses a competitive advantage over nations that enter the deal which does little more than strengthen US corporate interests.

Already in Africa, the results of China’s economic efforts are being seen. A good example is the new Ethopian Railway where the Chinese were quick to fund a project that EU and World Bank lenders had dragged their feet on.

Just as English businessmen in the 1990s misunderstood what was going on in East Asia, it seems ignorance of Chinese growth and intentions are even more widespread today. There may be some shocks coming for countries like Australia who assume today’s realities are tomorrow’s.

Nov 252015

Are we seeing a new digital divide develop between big and small businesses, particularly in areas like retail and hospitality?

This thought occurred to me during a radio spot earlier today where we were talking about Apple Pay’s Australian launch. Many small businesses don’t have the capital or expertise to implement many of these new technologies.

A number of factors contribute to this including the legacy systems installed in small businesses, the proprietors having a poor understanding of technology and, most importantly, the lack of either capital for reinvestment or cashflow to fund the monthly charges that are standard for cloud computing services.

The expensive cloud

One unstated factor with cloud computing services is how the cost of services add up. For example a Premium 10 Xero customer with Receiptbank attached is looking at a $100 a month in charges. It’s not hard to see how adding cloud based Point of Sale, rostering and customer service software could see a small business incurring $400 a month in fees, throw in Salesforce and you could be looking at a very expensive exercise.

No doubt for those companies that can afford these services this is money well spent but for many margin or low turnover businesses, the charges could be a deal breaker.

Spaghetti Junction

Another aspect to the cloud services is the myriad of different platforms that need to be stitched together in most businesses, one cloud service founder calls it “digital spaghetti.”

Managing this bowl of complexity isn’t easy and raises a number of business risks as different services apply varying policies and practices to the data they collect and store. A breach or service failure at one could cause a ripple effect through all business operations.

For many small business owners, particularly older proprietors, managing this complexity is intimidating if not downright scary.

It may well be there’s a number of opportunities for a canny service provider to offer an out of the box small business solution, but for many older small operators with limited capital and restricted cashflow affording such a product might also be difficult.

The risk though for those businesses is they will find themselves falling further behind as markets, consumer demands and the workforce’s expectations evolve. A business digital divide could be fatal for those caught on the wrong side of it.