Feb 062016
we need to treat chinese markets carefully

As the Chinese economy adjusts to new economic realities, some of the costs are beginning to be felt.

In China’s North-East where the economy is dominated by state owned enterprises in staid heavy industries, workers are moving to more promising regions and local leaders are worried.

However with the Chinese economy pivoting, things aren’t doing so well in the more laissez-faire South Eastern provinces either with workers giving up their precious New Year’s holidays to protest unpaid wages and unfair treatment.

For the Chinese government, this worker unrest is a serious problem. How the country’s leaders try to address the causes could well have global ramifications as the world’s economy faces the reality of massive economic overcapacity.

Out of the box thinking is needed, but it may not be enough to overcome the fears and needs of ordinary, angry workers. What is clear is that an economic pivot is never smooth.

Jan 302016
thomas edison

Around the world governments are trying to replicate the Silicon Valley startup model. But does that model really matter?

On the Citylab website, Richard Florida looks at which cities are the leading centres for startup investment.

Unsurprisingly eight of the top ten cities are in the United States with San Francisco and San Jose leading the pack. While London and Beijing make up the other two, the gap between the regions are striking with the Bay Area being home to over quarter of the world Venture Capital investment while the Chinese and London capitals com in at around two percent.


While these proportions are impressive, the numbers are not. The total VC investment identified by Florida in 2012 is $45 billion, according to the Boston Consulting Group there was $74 Trillion of funds under management in 2014.

That makes the tech venture capital sector .06% of the global funds management industry.

In the US alone over 2013 small businesses raised $518 billion in bank loans, more than ten times the global VC industry.

What this scale shows is how small the tech startup sector really is compared to the broader economy and, more importantly, how the Venture Capital model perfected in the suburbs of Silicon Valley is only one of many ways to fund new businesses.

Even in the current centre of the startup world, it’s estimated less than eight percent of San Francisco’s workforce are employed by the tech industry although that goes up to nearly a quarter in San Jose.

None of this is to say the startups are not a good investment – Thomas Edison’s first company raised $300,000 in 1878, $12 million in today’s dollars, from New York investors including JP Morgan. The Edison Electric Light Company, while relatively modest went on to being one of the best investments of the 19th Century.

That twelve million dollar investment looks like a bargain today and it’s highly likely we’ll see some of today’s startups having a similar impact on society to what Edison did 140 years ago.

Edison’s success created jobs and wealth for New Jersey and New York which helped make the region one of the richest parts of the planet during the Twentieth Century and that opportunity today is what focuses governments when looking at encouraging today’s startups.

So it’s understandable governments would want to encourage today’s Thomas Edisons (and Nikola Teslas) to set up in their cities. The trick is to find the funding models that work for tomorrow’s businesses, not what works for one select group today.

While the Silicon Valley venture capital model receives the publicity today, it isn’t the model for funding most businesses. Founders, investors and governments have plenty of other options to explore.

Jan 252016

For the developing world, broadband and mobile communications are helping

In Myanmar, the opening of the economy has meant accessible telecommunications for the nation’s farmers reports The Atlantic.

At the same time, Indian Railway’s Telecommunications arm RailTel is opening its fibre network to the public, starting with Wi-Fi at major stations.

What is notable in both cases is the role of Facebook. In India, Facebook’s project to offer free broadband access across the nation is meeting some resistance and it’s probably no coincidence Indian Railway’s WiFi project is being run as partnership with Google.

In Myanmar on the other hand, Facebook and Snapchat are the go to destination for rural communities, it will be interesting to watch how this plays out as farmers start to use the social media service for price discovery and finding new markets – as Tencent Chairman SY Lau last year claimed was happening with Chinese communities.

One of the promises of making the Internet available to the general public was that it would enable the world to become connected, thirty years later we may be seeing the results.

Jan 162016

Silicon Valley could be soon surpassed by China warns Uber’s Travis Kalanick.

While sceptics could dismiss Kalanick’s claim as his simply sucking up to his hosts in Beijing where he made the comment, or put the statement down to a PR campaign for his company’s renewed push into China, there may be a kernel of truth.

If for nothing else, the Chinese diaspora across the Pacific Rim is known for its entrepreneurial drive. From Bangkok to San Francisco and Sydney, Chinese communities have a reputation for being full of smart and hardworking business people.

Added to the Chinese cultural aspect is history. Fifty years ago car makers in Detroit and motorbike manufacturers in Birmingham, England, scoffed at the idea that their Japanese competitors could overtake them.

Within a quarter of a century they were proved wrong.

Another concern for Silicon Valley is that it could be losing its edge. As veteran journalist Tom Foremski points out, increasingly workers in the Bay Area live in a privileged bubble.

Foremski discusses how younger, creative and innovative workers are finding opportunities in cheaper and more diverse American cities like New York’s Brooklyn.

America’s diversity, and depth of its economy, will continue to be a strength for the foreseeable future but Americans, particularly those in the Bay Area, shouldn’t be resting on its laurels.

Travis Kalanick’s warning might be dramatic, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

Jan 112016
workers in a building site

That automation is having a profound impact on existing jobs is beginning to be appreciated by governments. A study by the New South Wales government’s Parliamentary research service examines what the effects will be on the Australian state’s economy.

Like equivalent overseas studies, the report finds over half the state’s jobs – a total of 1.5 million positions – could be at risk from computerisation.

An interesting aspect of this is the bulk of the impacts being felt in the mining, construction and logistics industries. While there’s no doubt those sectors will be hard hit, particularly for lower skilled workers, the assumption is higher level positions in management and supervisory roles won’t be as greatly affected.

Examples of this include ‘professionals’ only being at a 4.6% risk of being displaced and ‘General Managers’ at 5.0%. This compares to labourers at 96.1% and 95.7% of ‘filing and registry clerks’ losing their jobs.

While there’s no doubt the lesser skilled roles are at immediate risk, and have been for decades, the rise of artificial intelligence and business automation are increasingly going to put management roles at risk.

Quibbles aside, the report is a good read on the impacts of automation and computerisation on what has been one of the western world’s more successful economies.

The hollowing out process of Australia’s middle classes it describes show that phenomenon is not just confined to the United States and this probably creates the greatest challenge to politicians as populists seek to blame foreigners and minorities for much of the population’s declining fortunes.

Almost every government in the world is facing these issues and the efforts of public servants and economists to accurately describe what’s happening has to be applauded and encouraged.

For voters and workers, reading these reports to understand the forces changing their industries and communities is essential to making informed choices at the ballot box and the workplace.

Jan 022016

The rise and fall of industrial hubs is a topic that fascinates this blog and the excellent BBC and US National Public Radio series Six Routes to a Richer World discusses how countries as disparate as Germany, Brazil, China and the United States are carving their own paths to prosperity in the 21st Century.

In the US segment, the show looks at one of America’s industrial centres of last century – Dayton, Ohio.

The home of the Wright Brothers, Dayton also saw the invention of the cash register, air conditioner and even the self starting motor. In the early part of the Twentieth Century it held the most patents per capita of any US city and workers flocked to the region for high paying manufacturing job.

Manufacturing, and research, is largely gone from Dayton today and the question posed is could the successful cities of California’s Bay Area follow a similar path this Century.

Whether Silicon Valley and San Francisco fade will be a matter of historical forces that are difficult to see right now, but the likelihood can’t be underestimated.

Dec 282015
market stall

Being an entrepeneur has become fashionable in western countries, but according to the Global Entrepeneurship Monitor it’s not the developed nations which are the most enterprising.

UK purchasing platform Approved index took the GEM’s 2014 report and looked at which countries have the most entrepreneurs, defined as being “the percentage of an adult population who own (or co-own) a new business and has paid salaries or wages for at least 3 months.”

Surprisingly Uganda came out on top with 28.1% of the population meeting the GEM’s criteria for being entrepreneurs with Thailand and Brazil in second and third place. Of the developed nations, Australians were the most entrepreneurial at position number 26.

This raises the questions of what is the definition of an entrepreneurs and what drives people to become one?

What drives entrepreneurs?

Part of the answer to the second question is necessity. In Nigeria, a part time business is known as the “5 to 9 job” and, as the BBC reports, those evening enterprises are the way most Nigerians see as being a pathway to the middle classes which wouldn’t be possible for most wage earners.

That becoming an entrepreneur is often a result of necessity is borne out by Uganda’s profile in the GEM report where the authors note are scathing about the government’s support of business.

The biggest enabler of entrepreneurship in Uganda is its internal market dynamics. The most significant constraints are the unsupportive government policies, in terms of bureaucracy and taxes, and a lack of financing.

Indeed, the GEM itself noted in its 2014 report on global entrepreneurship that “there tends to be more entrepreneurial activity in less competitive economies” and Uganda ranked 122nd of 144 economies in the World Economic Forum’s 2014/15 Global Competitiveness Index.

Comparing the indexes

Looking at the Countries listed in the GEM’s top ten and listing the countries by the World Economic Forums competitiveness index ranking and the World Bank’s ease of doing business index starkly illustrates the correlation between business strangling bureaucracy and people setting up their enterprises outside the regulatory strictures.

GEM rank


WEF rank

World Bank rank 










































Of the top ten countries by their entrepreneur ranking, only Chile and Thailand make the top 50 of either the World Bank’s Ease of Business index or the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. To summarise, the urge to be entrepreneurial is a reaction to a poor business climate.

Defining entrepreneurs

What we could be seeing is a poor definition of an entrepreneur although it’s hard to draw the line between a Ugandan housewife who sets up a market food store and an Australian family that buys a fast food franchise. Is one more entrepreneurial because they have more access to capital?

Perhaps the Silicon Valley definition of an entrepreneur – the founder of a technology startup – is a more appropriate however that excludes vast tracts of western economies and almost all the developing world.

On many levels the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s definition is probably the fairest as it indicates how many people are starting their own ventures regardless of their capital position or the nature of their business.

If the GEM’s definition is fair then the leader board indicates that maybe having a nation of entrepreneurs is actually the symptom of a constrained business community rather than that of a vibrant economy.

Maybe political and business leaders need to be careful what they wish for when they call for a more entrepreneurial nation.