Apr 072017
 

One of the downsides of the current tech startup boom is the obsession with investor funding, the race to be a billion dollar ‘unicorn’ like Uber or AirBnB obsesses most of us reporting on this space.

The paradox is while we gleefully report businesses raising hundreds of millions of dollars at ever increasing valuations, we’re also discussing how the cost of entering industries or launching new companies is collapsing, making it easier to launch a venture than every before.

Which leads us to good old fashioned ‘bootstrapping’ – funding a business’ growth out of sales.

A recent story I wrote on Sydney based HR tech company Expr3ss! reminded me of that where owner Carolyne Burns described how she financed her business initially through the sale of her house and has never taken a cent from investors over a decade of profitable operations.

Bootstrapping is the traditional way generations of business owners and entrepreneurs have funded their ventures and it’s only in recent years with the rise of the tech startup that venture capital or private equity has been seen as investment sources for most small businesses.

That rise of VC and PE investors though could be partly due to the banks stepping out of their role of financing small businesses as they’ve focused on financial engineering and funding speculators.

Also driving things in the last decade has been the flood of cheap money that’s washed across the world as governments and central bankers try to stave off deflation.

Many businesses needing money to fund capital investment or expansion have found it’s become harder to go to banks or traditional investors and that partly explains the rise of VC’s, Private Equity and the range of new online lender and crowdfunding platforms.

Venture Capital and investor money though never really comes cheap and having raised funds from investors, a founder or business owner’s job becomes as much about managing investor expectations as running the company.

 

For many business founders, the whole reason for starting their own company was to run their own show. So answering to a bunch of investors defeats the purpose of going on one’s own.

Carolyne Burns’ story is a reminder that the best, and cheapest, form of business financing is profitable sales. It’s something we should remember in an age that celebrates loss making companies dependent upon indulgent investors.

Apr 032017
 

On the back of last week’s discussion about Amazon’s Australian expansion, I spoke to Sydney community radio station 2SER-FM this morning about the challenges facing suburban shopping strips.

Like the rest of the world, Australia’s suburban and small town retail strips have been doing it hard for a generation. While technology has a lot to do with this, it’s not online commerce that’s the killer.

The decline, recovery and shift of the suburban retail strip really started in the 1960s as people moved to the suburbs and started shopping at supermarkets – the technology driving that shift was affordable motor cars and refrigerators.

Around the developed world, the removal of tram (or streetcar) systems during the 1950s and 60s also hurt the inner city shops as local foot traffic declined. In Sydney it’s striking that fifty years after the removal of the tram system those suburbs that developed around them are still easily recognisable.

Shifting back to the city

In the 1980s another shift happened. Suddenly in the inner city became fashionable again for affluent and young residents and a new generation of shopkeepers sprung up attracted by relatively cheap rents.

The shift we’re now discussing is that generation of the 1980s and 90s has been dispersed as rents become increased or shops are demolished for apartment blocks that cater for the populations moving back into the inner cities now suburbia isn’t so fashionable.

Like all shifts this has consequences – just as the corner grocery store and local butcher was forced out of business by supermarkets in the 1960s and 70s, today the indy fashion store or old fashioned immigrant run cafe is being displaced by high priced gelato shops and restaurants catering for whatever the current food fad is.

The push against consumerism

With increasing rents, tenants increasingly become upmarket brands although the upper end of the market though is not what it was as the middle classes – particularly in cities like Sydney, San Francisco, Singapore and London – find soaring property prices make it harder to indulge in luxury items.

So high rents are driving shopkeepers out of business and in Australia at least, the perverse incentives in taxation laws and investment regulations means that landlords have a positive disincentive to drop their asking prices, which means vacancies increase.

Renew Newcastle successfully skirted landlords’ reluctance by ‘licensing’ space rather than leasing it from landlords. This allowed land banking property developers and valuation conscious commercial owners to let out space without formal leases that created legal or financial issues.

Regional challenges

It will be interesting to see how Newcastle will perform as that land banked buildings are being developed into apartments and, the developers hope, high rent shops.

For other regional areas the news isn’t as great with technology in everything from mining to agriculture automating more jobs out of existence. Much of the decline in country towns and regions during the Twentieth Century was due to the mechanisation of farming.

Pervasive broadband promises some hope for regional communities but at present both jobs and wealth are being increasingly concentrated into major population centres. This however may be a transition effect exacerbated by governments propping up financial sectors after the 2008 economic crisis.

It’s interesting too that the financial sector now is undergoing an automation revolution not dissimilar to that of the twentieth century agriculture industries, something that’s bad news for cities and governments staking their future on those sectors.

Technology driving change

A lesson from the last hundred years is how technology changes our communities, the arrival of refrigeration and the motor car allowed suburbs and supermarkets to develop. While tractors and trucks radically changed the structure of rural communities.

With the rise of new technologies in everything from agriculture to transport and manufacturing, we’ll see similar changes to our societies and businesses in coming years.

The changes faced by today’s retail business are part of an evolving economy, just as the horse and tram dependent city of hundred years ago looked very different from car dependent suburbias of the late 20th Century, tomorrow’s cities will look very different from today’s.

Mar 312017
 

The long awaited launch of Amazon in Australia seems to be finally happening with reports the giant is scouting locations for logistics centres for a late 2018 launch.

While some are predicting a retail apocalypse, not all are convinced Amazon will do well. Australia doesn’t have a catalog culture buying culture like the United States and, as german supermarket chain Aldi found, the nation’s high property prices and restrictive zoning rules makes acquiring sites difficult.

A further impediment for Amazon in Australia is the last mile with Australia Post dominating the delivery business, despite its mediocre service, and the dominance of incumbent retailers in the suburbs where most Australians live means the US giant isn’t guaranteed success.

Whether Amazon’s entry into a market does mean a retail apocalypse is also another question, while its clear the mall era is drawing to close there are plenty of success stores with chains like Ulta Beauty, Sephora and Kiehls – not to mention the Apple Store – thriving despite Amazon’s growth over the past twenty years.

In the Australian context, a bigger question should be around why local equivalents haven’t thrived with Billabong, Pumpkin Patch and Kathmandu all failing while the established majors have barely glanced at overseas markets – Harvey Norman and Westfield being the stand out exceptions, although the former hasn’t been a great success.

Even in Amazon’s original market of bookselling, big chains like Borders have fallen victim but local independent bookshops have survived and grown despite the online threats. So local retailers can weather an Amazon onslaught.

Another benefit of Amazon starting in Australia is to encourage new business, particularly given the US giant is rumoured to be focusing on groceries as it gives new entrants to the market an opportunity to enter without having to deal with the stultifying duopoly that dominates the market.

One thing is clear though, Australian retailers have been slow in moving into online and international markets, probably due to the luxury of catering to consumers in an economy that hasn’t been troubled by recession for a generation.

The year’s warning that Amazon will be opening shop is a warning for Australian business to lift their game and compete. Those who don’t won’t have any excuses.

Mar 302017
 

Thinking about design and getting to market should be a priority for startup businesses says Murray Hunter, founder of Sydney’s Design + Industry.

Having won over 160 design awards during 30 years of running Design + Industry and employing 50 specialist designers and engineers in his Sydney and Melbourne offices, Murray has many insights in what makes a successful product.

“Some of those companies have gone on to become world leaders, it’s a hell of ride and it’s a fabulous relationship where 15 or 20 years later you have a client relationship that’s dominating the world.” he recalls.

Thinking like designers

The current startup scene in Australia provides an opportunity for the country, Murray believes.

“We’re losing manufacturing industry but there’s a whole new wave of businesses and startups based around new technologies, particularly around IoT”

Cyclone pruning shears

“The world wants to think like designers and lead by innovation, which is a really interesting line. You have the American government that wants to design think and you have all these large accounting firms that want to be design thinkers as well.”

“But everyone wants to be innovative and provide a better experience to the customer and we have all these new technologies that are giving us the ability to have a lot more information, be more informative.”

“It started with Apple with the iPod and then the iPhone and it’s led right through so we now have high expectations of what we want for products and services.”

Finding funding

His advice to startups is blunt, “the first thing you need is funding, If you don’t, start the process of development sufficient to develop collateral which enables you to gain investors.”

The development process itself starts with knowing the market.

“Products should be designed to suit the market, not on a hunch,” he says. “So you start with what the market wants and you go backwards. You don’t get dressed and say ‘where are we going’, you find out where you’re going and then get dressed.”

“The intelligent and qualified entrepreneur will have a lot of the problems solved, they’ll have done research, they’ll have knowledge of the market, they’ll know the segments it’s aimed at and quite often they’ll have route to market realised.”

BlueAnt Pump HD earbuds

“Crowdfunding makes a big difference as entrepreneurs can run a crowdfunding campaign, get initial sales and worldwide recognition for it. If it isn’t successful, that could be the end of it. Others know people who can fund it.”

“They may not have funding or they may, we have quite a few suppliers around us who will help with the funding process. We also know private individuals with deep pockets who are interested in investing.”

Changing the design industry

Over the past few years, the design industry has changed dramatically with the rise of Computer Aided Design, 3D printing along with new materials and manufacturing methods. Medical devices are one area that’s seen a rapid change.

“Thirty years ago medical products were low volume,” Murray recalls. “In Australia typically we’d make them out of sheet metal. Now the volumes have increased because the world is more easily accessed so we’re designing for higher volumes.”

CliniCloud non contact thermometer

“We’ve also got low cost manufacturing sources to provide solutions so we can develop a more sophisticated product that will be better received worldwide.

“The biggest change I think has been CAD (Computer Aided Design), the Internet and 3D printing.”

“CAD because we went from 2D drawing to 3D models, the internet because we no longer send DVDs or CAD files to our manufacturing partners and it means we can access manufacturers all over the world.”

“We’re working on a 3D printer that can make biomatter, in other words skin, there’s talk of doing teeth with the rigid externals and soft nerves. So where we go I can only think of organs, prosthetics, replacing cartilage which is a big thing for the elderly.”

Mar 162017
 

What has gone wrong with Australian innovation? For a nation so wealthy, it’s remarkable how poorly the country performs globally in terms of bringing new products or technologies to market.

At Ad:Tech Sydney yesterday, The Great Australian Innovation Fail panel discussed what has gone wrong and what can be done to get the nation back to a position more in line with its comparative affluence.

Boasting a range of digital media veterans and startup founders, the panel was far from a group of muttering naysayers. Although all but Fleet Systems’ Flavia Tata Nardini were distressed at the failure of Australia’s innovation agenda and the country’s general disdain for new businesses and technologies.

Michael Priddis, the CEO of research and development consultancy, Faethm,  pointed out that automation and artificial intelligence are not the future but the present and the job losses are happening now across industries.

Caitlin Iles, founder of XChange, added that she believes the estimates of nearly fifty percent of Australian jobs being lost to automation are actually understating the effects and it’s more like 90% – “a doomsday statistic” – which is something that Priddis endorsed in observing how the mining industry has automated in the past decade.

The employment shifts are being ignored by governments, says Beanstalk Factory’s Peter Bradd. “They have to get their heads out of the sand. We need to be supporting workers in threatened jobs to reskill. That’s just not happening at the moment.”

Australia’s underperformance is stunning when you consider tech startup exits, says the Information Industry Association’s Tony Surtees. Unsurprisingly Silicon Valley dominates the global statistics with over 47% of the global value with London, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv following. Sydney was at the bottom of the table with only .01% of value.

The value of exits is a problem, but that is more about the capitalisation of startups and may be changing. A bigger problem lies in how Australia’s corporate sector innovates and engages with new technologies.

Corporate Australia’s failure to engage is shown in the OECD ranking the country at 81st globally in ‘innovation efficiency’, while the nation is tenth in inputs it fails dismally in applying those inputs into outputs.

This is reflected in corporate Australia’s failure to compete globally outside the mining sector. Basically Australian executives have little desire in international markets and most have no interest in engaging with researchers, universities, innovators or entrepreneurs.

“People don’t like to collaborate,” says Peter. “They want to keep everything to themselves.”

“The CEOs of Australia’s top twenty companies need to get together with CSIRO and the universities and fix this problem. There’s money on the table.”

Whether Australia’s business leaders are prepared to pick up that money, or they’re happy and comfortable with their lot is probably the question of whether Australia can start to pull its weight in the innovation stakes.

“In ten or fifteen years we’ll be screwed if we don’t,” concludes Michael.

Mar 092017
 
what are the rules when asking for something for free

Last week I was asked to help a British events manager to help with their research for an Internet of Things conference in Singapore.

This is the sort of thing I would happily do for free or a cup of coffee if it were a friend or a worthy cause but this was a stranger working for a large multinational corporation who’d found me through a LinkedIn or Google search.

Knowing that tickets for their European and North American events are around two thousand dollars, I politely asked for a consulting fee.

What happened next is predictable and I discussed some of the issues on the Australian marketing and media site, Mumbrella.

 

In a content and context driven world it’s interesting how the business models of the middlemen increasingly rely on exploiting those delivering the product – be it Uber, Facebook or a big conference organiser.

How sustainable those models are remains to be seen. It’s hard to see how entire industries can survive on underpaid or unpaid workforces.

Mar 012017
 
A small business closing due to rent increase

As part of the Meeting the The Future Head-on event in Sydney tonight I thought it may be worthwhile to list down the key points I’ll be making about future proofing businesses in these times of change.

Reading the Jobs for NSW report, it’s telling that 70% of the state’s jobs are in inward facing industries and for the main part they are losing competitiveness. That leaves them exposed to international competition and automation.

It’s easy think that many domestic services business – which make up the bulk of Australia’s small business sector – are immune from competition but the example of how Uber has upended the taxi industry is an example of how even the most protected sectors are still vulnerable.

Focus on the customer

Over the last twenty years Australia has sleep-walked into becoming a high cost economy and most Australians still seem in denial about just cripplingly expensive the country has become.

Four years ago this blog posted on how Sydney was only second to Zurich as the most costly place in the world to base a startup.

There’s nothing wrong about being as expensive as Switzerland or Germany or Japan, but to compete globally it means offering high value goods and services. The easiest way for a smaller or high growth business to do that is to focus on providing stellar customer service.

Being better than the bloke next door is not good enough, that service has to compare with the best in the world in your sector.

Keep the business lean

Yesterday’s post looked at how corporations are outsourcing, the same applies to smaller businesses. Anything that doesn’t directly involve customers should be outsourced or automated.

For smaller businesses, shifting to modern payment, banking and accounting systems is relatively straightforward and setting up automation within those applications is easy.

Similarly any employment should be virtual unless it is directly involved in serving, supporting or selling to customers.

Adapt quickly

Not only is it important to keep the business lean financially but also in mindset. In recent years the tech startup community has adopted the Lean methodology and adapted it to their much volatile world.

That startup thinking is useful for non-tech businesses as it encourages a company to be far more responsive to market or economic shifts along with identifying product lines or ideas that aren’t performing.

Invest in the business

One of the biggest weakness for Australian businesses of all sizes is they are undercapitalised – even the biggest businesses tend not to retain profits and give them back as dividends to shareholders.

From a small business perspective this is understandable as the high cost of living in Australia means proprietors have to pull out an income to pay their million dollar mortgages in Sydney and Melbourne.

However what this does mean is that businesses are chronically undercapitalised resulting in them not spending enough on equipment, technology or staff training.

If you’re making a profit, try to put as much back into the business as possible and if you need more find an investor who shares your vision for the venture.

Looking global

Probably the most depressing thing about Australia in 2017 is just how insular the nation’s economy has become in the last twenty years. In New South Wales export related jobs have fallen from 32% of the overall workforce to 29% and the slight growth in tradeable services is entirely due to the education sector.

Even if there’s no intention to export, understanding the global trends and benchmarking performance against international leaders is one of the best safeguards for a business wanting to survive over the next twenty years.