Jul 262015
how easy is it to make money online

Is capitalism dead? Journalist Paul Mason discusses his book outlining a post capitalist future on a Guardian Live panel that covers how technological change is undermining the foundations of what we understand to be capitalism today.

While it’s arguable that capitalism is dying, more likely its evolving away from the current corporatist, consumerist model driven by easy credit, the panel makes some excellent points about how technology is changing the underpinnings of our society’s economic structures.

While the video’s long at 90 minutes, it’s well worth watching for some interesting observations on how our society and economies are evolving in a connected century.

Jul 232015
the temptation to discount for business owners and managers

Around the world threatened incumbents are turning to their political cronies to protect them from competition with businesses using technologies their cosy managers and shareholders never envisaged would exist.

In Australia, one of the laziest industries has been the retail sector. Long coddled by cosy duopolies and favourable regulatory arrangements, retailers ignored the changes to their markets since the web arrived in 1995.

Of the Australian retail industry probably the most cosseted of all was the department store duopoly. Protected by their market share and product licensing agreements, Myer and David Jones neglected investments in their internal systems and largely ignored the online world, with DJs even shutting down their website in the early 2000s.

Insular Australia

Eventually it became obvious to even the most insular Australian retailer that the internet was here to stay however in the meantime canny Australian shoppers had discovered buying overseas online was substantially cheaper, and much easier, than local stores.

Faced with offshore competitors that beat them on price, range and service, the Australian retailers started lobbying the Federal government to lower the threashold, currently $1000, that customs would take an interest in and add the ten percent Goods and Services Tax (GST) and various fees and duties. In the hope the bureaucracy would discourage local shoppers looking overseas.

Mistaken lobbying

The campaign to lower the GST threashold was a mistake says Ian Moir, the current Chairman of now South African owned David Jones. “It set Australian retailers back because they spent more time trying to persuade governments to do this than they did thinking about what the long term future for the business is.”

Moir was speaking yesterday in Sydney at an Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce lunch panel titled ‘Reframing retail for the digital age: The importance of an integrated approach’. Joining the DJs executve on the board were Craig Dower, the CEO of Salmat and David Mustow, Head of Retail & Consumer at Macquarie Bank.

The message from the lunch was clear – technology savvy customers were demanding more from retailers now smartphones are driving purchase decisions. “Everyone talks about Big Data and how you use it as an organisation,” observed Scottish born Moir. “Not enough people talk about the big data the customer has on their mobile phones.”

Mobile first

Moir’s view on mobile was endorsed by Macquarie’s Mustow who stated “if you’re investing in this space it’s mobile first.” Salmat’s Downer added to this with Salmat’s research that found 55% of online retail sales are coming through mobile devices.

That Australian consumers have one the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates and are also among the planet’s most avid web user only shows how poorly local retailers have responded to the web and mobile devices over the past two decades.

When Moir took the reigns at David Jones last August after Woolworths South Africa – unrelated to the local supermarket giant – the company was making a piddling one percent of its sales online. The new management has grown this three fold but it’s still trivial compared to Australians’ appetite for online shopping.

Dampening overseas demand

The appetite of overseas online sales will dampened should the proposed GST changes reducing the taxable threshold on imports to $20 be introduced as consumers deal with the bureaucracy, delays and costs of Australia’s dysfunctional customs system however Moir warns this will only be a temporary respite, “these changes only affect you in the short term, it tends to sort itself out over time.”

Indeed for retailers, the GST changes will probably only benefit customs agents and bloated ticket clippers like Australia Post along with introducing a whole range of unexpected consequences as foreign retailers and local entrepreneurs find opportunities in the new tax regime.

While the champagne may taste sweet for Australia’s retail lobbyists as they celebrate their likely win over brunch at Sydney’s exclusive Balmoral Beach Club this Sunday, their employers are going to find that swaying the politicians is the easy part – it’s ultimately the market that guarantees your success.

Jul 182015

As the world worries about whether China is the next Japan, the Japanese themselves are getting on with life in a low growth economy.

One of the latest ideas is to convert disused golf courses into solar energy farms as manufacturing giant Kyocera proposes a solution to deal with the nation’s power shortage after the closure of the Fukushima power plants.

Japan’s golf course boom of the 1980s, which they exported around the world, was a classic case of overinvestment driven by easy money and lax lending standards. Something that China has certainly had in spades.

The aging nation isn’t doing a perfect job however with the Washington Post reporting that the country’s over 65s are convicted of more crimes than juveniles and the sad reason is seniors are shoplifting to survive.

One of the major mistakes made by Japanese governments through the 1990s was to pour money into corrupt civil projects to stimulate the economy. That money was largely wasted on bridges to nowhere and bullet trains to tiny towns which did little to add to the nation’s productivity or build a safety net for the aging population.

Japan may well be leading the way for other aging nations, we need to heed their mistakes before our societies follow them.

Jul 132015
steam train and inefficient business

Are today’s tech unicorns like the 19th Century railway companies? Massive consumers of capital and ultimately transformative technologies but never in themselves particularly profitable?

In the 1840s Britain was gripped by a railway investment mania which saw 10,000km of railroads built in 1846 alone, the current network extends 18,000km.

Eventually the bubble popped after the Bank of England raised interest rates, something that should focus the minds of many of today’s investors.

The UK railway boom left a legacy of valuable infrastructure across Britain, Europe and the Americas, perhaps we’ll see a similar legacy from today’s boom.


Jul 062015

“If Indians can work in Google. Why can’t Google be made in India?” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked last week when he launched the Digital India program.

Digital India is an ambitious project based on three areas of vision; getting infrastructure to all billion Indians, digitally empowering those citizens and improving government through the use of technology.

Certainly the project has caught the imagination of the business community with Indian tech companies pledging $US 72 billion to the initiative with the promise of over a million jobs being created.

In the past, India has been notable for its slow, bureaucratic business ways but Prime Minister Modi is promising to change all of that under the Digital India initiative.

“The world is changing, quicker than ever before and we cannot remain oblivious to that. If we don’t innovate, if we don’t come up with cutting edge products there will be stagnation”

While India’s government is talking the talk, actually changing the nation’s business community is going to be a huge but not impossible task although the Digital India project has had a difficult history.

That task though is necessary as South Asia has for decades lagged the growth of the countries to their East however now countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have the benefit of younger workforces while powerhouses such as China, Japan and South Korea age.

Should we see an Indian Google in the near future it won’t look like today’s Silicon Valley giants given the cultural differences between America’s Bay Area and India’s business communities.

However if we do see an ‘Indian Google’ it will be huge given the size of the nation’s domestic market. Like China’s Alibaba, a successful local enterprise can become a global player just based on its user numbers.

There’s many barriers to an Indian Google happening but those who scoff at the idea should remember how fifty years ago the thought of Japan being a high tech manufacturer were laughed at and the idea of China being the world’s factory was unthinkable.

Jun 282015
Skilled workers are essential to building industries

With 85 percent of Americans now online it’s safe to say the internet has reached saturation point in North America.

However not all groups have been as quick to get online and the Pew Internet Survey has a detailed analysis of adoption rates across different demographic segments.

The results aren’t particularly surprising with lower adoption rates reflecting class, race and education differences although older age groups are the fastest growing segment.

Ultimately adoption comes down to affluence with the key chart being the connection rates across income groups.

What the Pew report does illustrate is how critical the internet is to income levels and why it’s important for the disadvantaged to be connected for them to participate in the new economy.

For countries following affluent nations in internet adoption, getting disadvantaged communities connected might be one of the easiest ways they can improve national income, education and well being.

Jun 242015

While the discussion of the workforce of the future focuses, quite rightly, on the role of workers how employers and businesses fit into a changed economy is important as well.

For businesses, the future of work affects not just the staff they employ but also the markets they cater for as those workers are also their customers. This is even truer for small businesses catering for local markets.

The Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA) report issued last week describes some of those shifts in the economy and they are as important to businesses as workers.

Where the money is

The key thing from the report is that some communities are going to be more seriously affected by automation than others. The map of Australia that accompanied the CEDA report showing the likelihood of jobs being lost in across the nation underscores that imbalance.


In those areas expecting large disclocation, business is about to get tougher as workers find their skills are no longer valuable in the face of automation.

Similarly, if local industries are becoming more automated then businesses servicing those industries are also going to need the skills to meet their customers’ more advanced needs.

Consumer facing risks

So small businesses in those districts of great disruption have to consider their markets; if they are consumer facing then their customer base could be shrinking while if they cater to other businesses then capital investment and finding skills in the new technologies are going to be required.

Even there, the picture is cloudy as upstream industries will be affected. A town that serves as an agricultural centre, for example, will see smarter farms using less labor.

In that town, those businesses servicing other businesses that serve local consumers will see their market getting thinner while those servicing the smarter farms and processors will need to buy new equipment and find workers with the skills to operate it.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, it describes what’s happened to rural communities around the developed world as farming became industrialised through the Twentieth Century and the process is continuing as combines become self driving and automation replaces a lot of tasks currently done by labourers or manually operated machines.

Challenging the commuter belt

The question though is not just for rural enterprises, it applies for businesses everywhere as the workforce changes. It may well be the areas affected the most are commuter belt suburbs where white collar workers are displaced by artificial intelligence and algorithms creating problems for the local economy that’s based on services the needs of those middle class households.

It’s difficult to say for sure and that’s why the CEDA measures are based upon probability. For business owners and managers though, they’ll need to watch shifts in their marketplaces closely and watch for the opportunities that will undoubtedly arise from a changing economy.