Apr 242014

Earlier this month, Sydney video streaming company Viocorp changed leadership with founder Ian Gardiner stepping down as CEO.

For Gardiner, the decision was tough and in a blog post he described how the company was founded and grew and why it was time to step away. That decision though was not without some pain.

I have nurtured and loved this little startup as it has grown up like one of my children.

And like my children it can occasionally be frustrating, difficult and highly erratic and unpredictable. But most of the time it is fantastic and hugely rewarding. And I love it with a passion that is hard to describe.”

However children one day grow up and leave home. Viocorp is not a start-up any more. It is a serious business with massive potential. And I feel that my skills as a product innovator and fire-starter are not the ones that Viocorp needs for this next stage of our journey.

I spoke to Ian Gardiner in a noisy Sydney Cafe in February for the Decoding The New Economy YouTube channel shortly after he’d made the decision to step down as CEO where he elaborated on the reasons for the change.

“I ended up getting further and further away from the stuff I’m actually good at,” he said. “You end up as the founder and entrepreneur in a place that is not good for anyone.”

“As a result of that the business doesn’t go in the direction you want.”

The right manager for the job

Gardiner’s decision illustrates an important truth about business; different management skills are needed at different stages of development.

A good example of this was with the corporate slashers of the 1980s – CEOs like GE’s Jack Welsh and ‘Chainsaw Jack’ Dunlap here in Australia were the right men to shake moribund organisations. A decade later both were out of favour as the needs of the business world and their companies had moved on.

Similarly the skills that are needed to found and grow a startup are very different to those required to steer a more mature business. This is why Facebook’s experiment with retaining founder Mark Zuckerberg as CEO of a hundred billion dollar company is so fascinating.

With Viocorp, Ian Gardiner and his investors have made a very mature decision about where they see the future of the business, as the now retired CEO told me earlier this week: “The punchline is that I’m happy about it, and very excited about the future of Viocorp.

Apr 232014
happy guy with lots of money

Silicon Valley is in the grip of a mass delusion says Reuters’ Felix Salmon in a blog post that dissects the reality of life as a startup founder.

The Most Expensive Lottery Ticket in the World starts with nod to Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ No Exit: Struggling to survive a modern gold rush that examines the harsh truths and brutal realities of building a new business.

Salmon though goes further in skewering some of the myths around startups; pointing out that with 90% failure rates not everyone can be ‘killing it’, yet few startup founders will admit their venture are doing anything else but crushing the market, despite the mantra of ‘celebrating failure.’

Possibly the most telling point Salmon makes is on the myth of the engineering entrepreneur, the truth is most coders value stability over the uncertain life in startup.

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that computer engineers make particularly good entrepreneurs. Quite the opposite, in fact: engineers tend to do quite well in structured environments, where there are clear problems to solve, and relatively badly in the chaos of a startup, where the most important skills are non-engineering ones, like being able to attract talent and investors. No Exit makes it very clear that the life of a startup founder is a miserable one, and that engineers are invariably happier when they’re working for a big company.

Life in a startup, or any small business, can be miserable if you don’t have the skills – and most importantly the risk appetite – for doing your own thing. This is a point often missed by those hyping the start up world.

Salmon’s piece is a good read and it illustrates that founding a business or taking the risk of working in a startup is not for everyone. It’s a timely reminder for anyone looking at liberating themselves from their cubicle and making the jump into self employment.

Apr 102014
A small business closing due to rent increase

Facebook’s latest changes to its layout creates more problems for small business using social media as the real estate available on its site for eyeballs gets smaller.

The social media giant has been catching criticism recently for changes to its algorithm that make it harder for businesses to be seen online.

In the hospitality industry, discontent was articulated by the Eat 24 website which closed its Facebook Page down after finding the problems too hard.

With the changes to the online advertising feed, it makes it even harder for small business to be seen on the platform as reduced space means higher prices for the space that remains available.

It’s hard to see small businesses getting much traction with the changes when they’re up against big brands with large budgets.

On the other hand for the big brands, the importance of proper targeting becomes even greater as wasting

A challenge for small business

The big problem now for small business is where do you advertise where the customers are?

A decade or so ago, this was a no-brainer – the local service or retail business advertised in the local newspaper or Yellow Pages. Customers went there and, despite their chronic inefficiencies, they worked.

Now with Facebook’s changes, it’s harder for customers to follow small business and this is a particular problem for hospitality where updates are hard.

The failure of Google

Google should have owned this market with Google Places however the service has been neglected as the company folded the business listing service into the Plus social media platform.

Today it’s hard to see where small business is going to achieve organic reach – unpaid appearances in social media and search – or paid reach as the competition with deep pocketed big brands is fierce.

Services like Yelp! were for a while a possible alternative but increasingly the deals they are stitching up deals with companies like Yahoo! and Australia’s Sensis are marginalising small business.

So the online world is getting harder for small business to get their message out onto online channels.

For the moment that’s a problem although it’s an interesting opportunity for an entrepreneur – possibly even a media company – to exploit.

Apr 082014
Suitcase of cash for funding a business

Israeli tech startup Waze was always an interesting business; the idea of combining crowdsourcing and social media to provide traffic reports was fascinating concept that seemed to work well.

When Google bought the company two years ago, it was seen as one of the success stories for Israel’s vibrant tech startup scene, but a LinkedIn post by Waze’s founder Noam Bardin suggests the acquisition was not what the founders wanted.

One of Waze’s mistakes was the valuation of its A round which significantly diluted the founders. Perhaps, had we held control of the company, as the Founders of Facebook, Google, Oracle or Microsoft had, Waze might still be an independent company today.

Not being an independent company is also a weakness for Waze, as Google have shown in the past they are ruthless in shutting down businesses they’ve acquired and there’s no guarantee that Bardin’s creation won’t meet the same fate.

Google though are not alone in this, Yahoo! is notorious for neglecting companies they’ve acquired and today Microsoft announced it’s closing the Farecast travel price prediction service it bought for $115 million six years ago.

Oren Etzioni who founded Farecast in 2004 isn’t happy about this according to Geekwire, however that’s the downside of selling your baby to another business – its destiny is now in the buyer’s hands and their vision may not be the same as the founders’.

A good example of a company controlling its destiny is Atlassian, the Australian founded collaboration tool service, which the Wall Street Journal describes as being “one of the world’s most valuable venture-backed companies.”

In many respects Atlassian is the opposite of the Silicon Valley business model with an emphasis on engineering and product development over sales and marketing. Atlassian’s founders aren’t focused on hyping the business with the aim of selling to a deep pocketed greater fool.

For founders, the tricky balance in raising enough money to achieve their objectives while not giving away a controlling interest. Get it wrong and a founder ends up being forced into a course of action they didn’t want to do, as Noam Bardin found.

Bardin’s post on the Israeli business community and startup scene is an interesting perspective into the strengths and weaknesses of the country’s entrepreneurial culture, much of which would be familiar to many outside of Silicon Valley.

One big lesson though for founders, Israeli or otherwise, is don’t give away too much equity too early, or the investors make take you to places you didn’t want to got to.

Apr 022014

“This is the most difficult time in history to be a wine maker, declares Paul Mabray, Chief Strategy Office and founder of Vintank.

“Never has the wine industry been as competitive as it is today.”

Update: The Wine Communicators of Australia, who sponsored Mabray’s visit, have posted Paul’s presentation that covers this post’s theme in more detail.

Mabray’s business monitors social media for wineries and collects information on wine enthusiasts. Since Vintank’s founding in 2008 the service has collected information on over thirteen million people and their tastes in wine.

Rewriting the rule book

Social media, or social Customer Relationship Management (sCRM), is what Mabray sees as being part of the future of the wine industry that’s evolving from a model developed in the 1970s which started to break down with the financial crisis of 2009.

“In the old days there was a playbook originating with Robert Mondavi in the 1970s which is create amazing wine, you get amazing reviews and you go find wholesalers who bring this wine to the market.”

“As a result of the global proliferation of brands the increase of awareness and consumption patterns where people like wine more, those playbooks didn’t work in 2009 when the crisis started.”

With the old marketing playbook not working, wineries had to find other methods to connect to their markets and social media has become one of the key channels.

Now the challenge in the wine industry, like all sectors, is dealing with the massive amount of data coming in though social media and other channels.

The cacophony of data

“If you rewind to when social media came out, everyone had these stream based things and the noise factor was so heavy,” says Mabray.

“For small businesses this creates an ‘analysis to paralysis’ where they’d rather not do anything.”

Mabray sees paralysis as a problem for all organisations, particularly for big brands who are being overwhelmed by data.

“The cacophony of data at a brand level is just too much,” he says.

“It’s as noisy as all get go and I think the transition is to break Big Data down into small bite size pieces for businesses to digest is the future, it shouldn’t be the businesses problem, it should be the software companies’.”

A growing digital divide

Mabray sees a divide developing between the producers who are embracing technology and those who aren’t, “the efficiencies attributed to technology are obvious whether they’re using CRM, business intelligence or other components.”

“The people who are doing this are recognising the growth and saying ‘hey, this stuff actually works! If I feed the horse it runs.”

While Mabray is focused on digital media and the wine industry, similar factors are work in other industries and technology sectors; whether it’s data collected by farm sensors to posts on Instagram or Facebook.

Facebook blues

Mabray is less than impressed with Facebook and sees businesses concentrating on the social media service as making a mistake.

“I think that every social media platform that’s been developed had such a strong emphasis on consumer to consumer interaction that they’ve left the business behind, despite thinking that business will pay the bills.”

“As a result almost every single business application that’s come from these social media companies has met with hiccups. That’s because it wasn’t part of the original plan.”

Facebook in particular is problematic in his view, “it’s like setting up a kiosk in the supermall of the world.”

The business anger towards Facebook’s recent changes is due to the effort companies have put into the platform, Mabray believes; “everyone’s angry about Facebook because we put so much into getting the data there.”

“We said ‘go meet us on Facebook’, we spent money collecting the items and manufacturing the content to attract people and now we have to spend money to get the attention of the people we attracted to the service in the first place.”

Despite the downsides of social media Mabray sees customer support as one of the key areas the services. “It’s easy to do in 140 characters.”

Context is king

“Everything come back to context. There’s this phrase that ‘content is king’,” Mabray says. “Context is king.”

“Anyone can produce content. It’s a bull market for free content. We have content pollution – there’s so much junk to wade through.

Mabray’s advice to business is to listen to the market: “Customers are in control more than they have ever been in human history: Google flattens the world and social media amplifies it.”

For wineries, like most other industries, the opportunity is to deal with that flat, amplified world.

Mar 272014

The purchase of virtual reality headset designer Oculus by Facebook has raised some interesting questions about crowdfunding sites.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, many of those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign that Oculus ran now feel betrayed by the company selling out to the social media giant.

Founder Palmer Luckey explained the companies sale to the WSJ as a quest for more funds; “a lot of people don’t understand how much money it takes to build things — especially to build hardware.”

Crowdfunding is tough

That ties into what founders have told Decoding the New Economy about crowdfunding startups; it’s tough and it easy to underestimate the capital required to launch a project.

Ninja Blocks’ Daniel Friedman told Decoding the New Economy last February that the main thing the company had learned from its successful Kickstarter campaign is that crowdfunding is a good way to raise funds for specific projects but a lousy way to fund a business.

Moore’s Cloud wasn’t as successful as Ninja Blocks and in his Decoding the New Economy interview, founder Mark Pesce described how he’d “rather eat bullets” than crowdfund a hardware startup again.

Startups are always hard, but it’s difficult not see how the high moral purpose often citing from Kickstarter project founders clashes with the ruthless moneymaking of Silicon Valley.

Discrediting crowdfunding

The criticism of Oculus also illustrates how crowdfunding lies between traditional investment and sales; those contributing to crowdfunding projects are true believers, not just customers and certainly not investors in a legal sense.

In recent times Kickstarter has been discouraging hardware startups from using their service; mainly because of the high risk of failure and disaffected contributors. The unhappiness with Oculus vindicates that move.

Oculus’ sale to Facebook may make many Kickstarter contributors doubly wary of Silicon Valley style startups trying to raise funds through crowdsourcing campaigns.

Lords of the Digital Manor

Looking at Oculus’ move, it’s hard not to conclude we’re seeing another cynical version of the Lords of the Digital Manor business model where enthusiasts are exploited by entrepreneurs looking for the big Silicon Valley pay off.

For Kickstarter and the other crowdfunding platforms, this is a problem as cynicism about the motives of those posting projects is probably a greater risk than the fear of being ripped off.

It may well be that Oculus marks a big change in the types of projects that get successfully funded, certainly the next hot hardware startup that tries crowdfunding is going to find things much harder.