Apr 252015
 
wellington-new-zealand-city-view

It bills itself as ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ however something is going on in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, as its technology sector takes off.

Last week I was in Wellington, partly to attend the Open Source, Open Society conference and also to have a look at how the city is doing so well as one of the leading startup cities.

While I’ll have a number of posts about the city, startup scene and conference over the next couple of weeks, it’s worthwhile noting some basic impressions that came from the visit.

The size of the city, Wellington is a small town with a population of 200,000, brings both advantages and negatives for the business and startup communities.

Small is sweet

One of the advantages of being so small is the business community is relatively accessible, a number of entrepreneurs told me how easy it is for them to find the specialists they need given there’s usually two degrees or less separation between everyone.

Normally having a small business community means it gets insular, particularly in a capital city where the business of government can create a bubble effect. What’s notable about Wellington is most of the businesses are looking outward towards the US, Australia and East Asia.

The city’s intimate business environment also improves trust within the community as one Aussie expat told me, “if you rip off anyone in this town pretty well everyone knows about it by the end of the weekend. It keeps everyone honest.”

Being small, the city makes it easy to walk around which compounds the business networking opportunities. A businesswoman, who is also a lifelong Wellingtonian, observed how she allows an extra 15 minutes to walk anywhere as she finds herself stopping for conversations.

Three dominant businesses

Having three successful businesses in the city – TradeMe, Xero and Weta – has both its upsides and disadvantages with the bigger players tending to dominate the employment market and funding opportunities.

Of the three businesses, TradeMe is the most domestically focused while Xero is growing in the tech sector and Weta is the most diverse with its range of special effects and movie production services.

With Weta, the business is exposed to the vagaries of the global film industry as Statistic New Zealand survey of movie production shows.

The film industry is one of Wellington’s important employers with the sector supporting around two thousand businesses in the city, although I didn’t get time to explore how much of an overlap there is between the tech and film industries.

TradeMe is largely a domestic focused business that provides a steady work and skills base for the local workforce. While it’s the least internationally exposed business of the three, it’s probably also the most consistent.

Xero, like Weta, is a globally expanding business and its success is attracting investors and expats from North America and Australia. While its the smallest of the three it’s probably the business that has done the most raise Wellington’s profile in the tech industry.

Community spaces

What’s particularly notable are the number of coworking spaces in Wellington ranging from the straightforward Bizdojo and Creative HQ through to the quirky Enspiral.

The availability of shared spaces makes the city attractive to startups and adds to the vibrancy of the local tech community which links into hipster pursuits such as craft beer.

Communities like Enspiral also add another dimension to the local startup and creative industries environment by connecting entrepreneurs with their peers and service providers.

Partnerships with government

One aspect I didn’t get to explore while in Wellington was the relationship between the city’s educational institutions, particularly Victoria University, with the business community.

Similarly I didn’t get the opportunity to discover how much of a role local and national governments have had in the development of Wellington’s tech scene. It seems to be relatively hands off although some government agencies have supported Weta with co-investment funds.

Talking to some of the US and Australian expats it was clear that lifestyle combined with opportunity with lifestyle, as one Aussie emigre told me “I couldn’t get the water views, access to the city and be able to walk to work back home like I can here.”

While these are superficial thoughts that I’ll expand on over the next week as I decipher notes and listen to interviews, there’s no doubt that Wellington is carving a position as one of the global centres of the new economy. How big it becomes will depend on how many other businesses grow to the size of Xero or Weta.

Feb 042015
 
60_McDonalds-La-Deheza-Chile

One of the biggest business innovations of the late Twentieth Century was the franchising model. Now as technology changes that way of working isn’t necessarily the force it was a quarter century ago.

While the concept itself wasn’t new – The East India Company at the beginning of the Seventeen Century was a type of franchise – the model really took off in modern business with the automotive industry where different manufacturers granted franchises to their brands.

After World War II it was the fast food industry that developed the franchise model into a tightly controlled, procedure driven way of doing business.

Building the fast food franchise

The fast food franchise model worked well for everybody; for the brand, it meant they could expand without huge layouts of capital while for budding local entrepreneurs purchasing a franchise meant buying into a proven business model with a known brand name.

McDonalds was the leader in the fast food franchising sector; the company expanded across the US and then globally on the back of the procedures first developed by the founding brothers then expanded by Ray Croc as he sought to roll out an industrial scale burger chain where a cheeseburger in Arkansas tasted the same as one in Alaska.

To achieve this, he chose a unique path: persuading both franchisees and suppliers to buy into his vision, working not for McDonald’s, but for themselves, together with McDonald’s.  He promoted the slogan, “In business for yourself, but not by yourself.” His philosophy was based on the simple principle of a 3-legged stool: one leg was McDonald’s, the second, the franchisees, and the third, McDonald’s suppliers. The stool was only as strong as the 3 legs.

Croc’s concept was fantastically successful as the franchisees took the operational risks and stumped up most of the capital while McDonalds providing the branding, procedures and supplies.

Many other industries, and fast food chains, copied Croc’s idea and the modern franchise model spread from hamburgers to lawn mowing to industrial safety services. During the 1970s and 80s, a smart, hard working entrepreneurs could do very well buying one of the bigger franchises.

Wobbling franchises

Around the turn of the century though that model started to wobble; during the 1990s the sharks began to move into the franchising industry with many sub-standard systems. McDonalds and the other fast food chains compounded the problem of poor performance by selling too many franchises in a mad dash for growth.

Young entrepreneurs have changed as well; rather than raising several hundred thousand dollars to pay franchise fees to be constrained by a strict set of procedures, today’s keen young go getters are more interested in the opportunities of building new businesses from scratch as startups.

Access to capital is also a problem as today its harder to raise money from a bank unless a business owner has ample home equity or other real assets to secure lending; the risk adverse nature of banks is making it harder for these capital intensive businesses.

Technological change

The killer though for the franchise model seems to have technological and social change; as consumer lifestyles and preferences changed, so too has the underlying demand for both franchises and their products.

McDonalds’ fading in the United States illustrates this change as companies like Chipotle take over from the once dominant chain as technology has made it more efficient to standardise procedures and customise food service.

Once McDonalds was an investor in Chipotle and Quartz Magazine describes how the relationship foundered with one of the key points of friction being differences over the franchising model.

“What we found at the end of the day was that culturally we’re very different,” Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells said. “There are two big things that we do differently. One is the way we approach food, and the other is the way we approach our people culture. It’s the combination of those things that I think make us successful.”

Just as technology – the automobile created the increasing suburbanisation of America – drove McDonalds’ growth so too is it now contributing to the chain’s demise as chains like Chipotle can cater to a market with different expectations and deliver a product that doesn’t need the mass production techniques of the 1950s.

As a consequence, the big procedure driven model of franchising isn’t so necessary any more. While the concept of franchising remains sound, what worked in the post World War II years isn’t so compelling today.

It’s fashionable to think of companies like newspapers as being the victims of technological change but the truth is most of the businesses we think as being dominant today are the result of advances over the last 150 years, the evolution of McDonalds and the franchising model is just another chapter.

Nov 062014
 
uber-logos

A great interview with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick by Kara Switzer in Vanity Fair touches on the mental difficulties facing startup founders.

 

He was depressed after his first start-up failed badly and his second went largely sideways. He was, as he recalls, deeply afraid of failure. “I had gone through eight years of real hard entrepreneuring. I was burned. So, I just wasn’t ready yet,” says Kalanick. In fact, he had been living at home with his parents in his childhood bedroom not long before his trip to Paris, after those two start-ups had failed to flourish.

xys

Nov 022014
 
las-vegas-downtown-project-tony-hsieh-tour-container-park-praying-mantis

Stepping off the bus at Las Vegas’ Fairmont Street in the early morning is a reminder of how seedy nightlife areas look in the harsh daylight.

The reason for being in Downtown Las Vegas on a warm Monday morning was to tour Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, a scheme to revitalise the rundown and neglected town centre of the gambling and convention mecca.

One of the striking things about Las Vegas is how much of it pretends to be somewhere else; The Luxor, New York, New York, The Ballagio. It’s almost as if the fantasy land of the American Dream is a little embarrassed about where it is.

Not that the tourists are embarrassed with millions pouring in every year to enjoy the gambling, entertainment and the pasteurized sin on offer along Las Vegas’ glitzy strip of mega casinos.

welcome-to-las-vegas

Five miles north the mega casinos and bright lights, the luck runs out. The best thing locals have to say about Las Vegas’ downtown district is “it is better than it was.”

One of the reasons it’s better is because of one man — Tony Hsieh, the founder of online shoe retailer Zappos. Hsieh moved his business to Las Vegas because, in the entrepreneur’s view, San Francisco was ‘hostile towards company service.’

The Downtown Project is the result of a promised $350 million investment by Hsieh to invigorate the city centre of Las Vegas.

However the project has hit problems with Hseih recently stepping down from his position, layoffs being announced and community programs being cut back, leading critics to claim the project is in jeopardy.

So a tour of the project during a recent visit to Las Vegas was well timed to judge how things are going.

The tour starts with the small group meeting at The Window, an arts and meeting space on the ground floor of the Ogden residential tower which closed down in September as part of the scheme’s recent cutbacks.

Gathering in the room with our tour leader Maggie is a somewhat spooky experience with all The Window’s furniture, books and exhibits intact as on the day they were left at the end of the space’s six month lifespan.

las-vegas-downtown-project-tony-hsieh-tour-deserted-windows-space

Leaving the room’s contents intact and unpacked doesn’t engender confidence that The Window will find a new home. In all, starting the tour in the abandoned workspace is an unsettling start.

After a quick explanation of The Downtown Project, Maggie leads takes us around the corner to the Ogden’s residential entrance where we ride the elevator to Tony Hsieh’s upper level apartment.

The building doesn’t have a fourth or fourteenth floor; something familiar to anybody who’s lived in a city where property developers are courting Chinese investors — the sound of the word ‘four’ in Mandarin and Cantonese has unlucky overtones.

On the way up to the Twenty-Third floor apartment it’s also an opportunity to gauge the dynamic between the residents of the building; in reviews of the complex, many residents not associated with Hsieh’s projects have complained they have been marginalised.

las-vegas-downtown-project-tony-hsieh-tour-apartment-hanging-garden

Once in Hsieh’s apartment, it’s an impressive look into the domestic life of a modern successful internet tycoon with common workrooms, open plan living and a jungle themed party room featuring a hanging garden.

las-vegas-downtown-project-tony-hsieh-tour-refurbished-casino

The most important thing about Hsieh’s apartment is it gives a sense of perspective of the project with views across the downtown district, a panorama of the Las Vegas strip with the huge casinos rearing out the suburbia and the refurbished Goldspike Casino that is becoming a community hub of sorts.

Hsieh’s apartment also gives some ideas of the plans the tycoon has, particularly the  Life Is Beautiful festival that Maggie promises will be a “combination of Burning Man and South by South West.”

las-vegas-downtown-project-tony-hsieh-tour-life-is-beautiful-festival

Returning to street level from Hsieh’s apartment does give the impression there are two breeds of residents in The Ogden; the Zappos and Downtown project crowd who treat the other residents with polite disdain.

The dismissive attitude towards non-tech outsiders is common among the technology startup communities around the world but that doesn’t make it any less jarring for those living with it in their building.

Stepping out into the mid morning heat of Las Vegas, we go around the corner to the Beat Coffeehouse, part of the Emergency Arts Collective that’s based in a disused medical centre and which, interestingly, isn’t part of Hsieh’s downtown project.

las-vegas-downtown-project-tony-hsieh-tour-refurbished-department-store

A block further along is The Container Park, the retail and entertainment hub of the Downtown Project that welcomes visitors with a giant preying mantis, shown at the beginning of this post.

The container park is an interesting rag tag collection of independently owned food and retail outlets, a test laboratory for hospitality and bricks-and-mortar shopping outlets. In the mid morning heat it’s somewhat deserted.

Unfortunately that’s where our official tour concluded and it was time to explore the dubious delights of downtown Las Vegas on our own. The locals are right, there isn’t much.

Later that evening I returned to see how The Downtown Project and downtown Las Vegas itself do at night. The difference with daytime is spectacular.

Getting off the bus at the Fremont Street Experience with its roofed in mall the boasts the world’s biggest video screen is a great difference from its dowdy daytime appearance.

Fremont Street jumps with the tame bacchanalia that’s the hallmark of Las Vegas; all the false unfulfillable promise of sexual and economic success that defines modern America.

las-vegas-downtown-project-tony-hsieh-tour-fremont-street-experience-at-night

The three block walk from West Fremont street to the Container Park is stark; while the Beat Coffeehouse is packed with drinkers enjoying the live band, the street is dark and quiet; it’s quite easy to feel uncomfortable on the short walk.

At the Container Park itself, things aren’t exactly busy. A few families play on the central green while a band plays. Few of the food stalls are selling anything and most of the shops are closing at 8pm. While it’s a Monday night, it’s not encouraging.

las-vegas-downtown-project-tony-hsieh-tour-container-park-at-night

Leaving Downtown Las Vegas on the WAX express bus — fifteen minutes to the MGM Grand down the interstate rather than the hour plus trudge down the strip on the Deuce — it’s a good opportunity to reflect on a superficial tour of the Downtown Project.

For young families wanting to move from the wallet crushing costs of San Francisco  and Silicon Valley, Las Vegas could be an option but it’s going to require more business than Zappos and a small cluster of startups.

The city is going to need more drop in spaces like The Windows — something like Google Campus is going to be needed to encourage smart young entrepreneurs to make the journey and try their luck.

Another aspect is more accommodation is needed as right now the housing stock around the downtown district is either run down or overpriced — while cheap by San Francisco or New York standards prices don’t reflect the fact Las Vegas is not an economic powerhouse like the two cities.

The Ogden building is an example of everything that is wrong in the current global property mania with high priced, high maintenance apartments aimed at rich investors rather than ordinary people and their families.

For residents transport also remains a problem although Las Vegas’ public bus system is surprisingly good, one suspects the service is subsidised by the immensely popular Deuce double decker buses carrying crowds of tourists up and down the strip.

To get a San Francisco or Brooklyn type critical mass into the city requires a high density population and a deeper local tax base which is something beyond Hsieh’s power.

Las Vegas also has the problem that it is in a competitive field with towns like Kansas City and Des Moines among others all vying to attract young entrepreneurs to their low cost communities. Just being cheaper than Mountain View or South of Market is not enough on it’s own.

Overall, it’s not hard to leave Las Vegas with a feeling that the Downtown Project is floundering. To build a community like that envisioned by Tony Hsieh takes more that $350 million and a few years work; it’s a lifetime commitment and it needs several generations of funding.

That the Fremont Street Experience and The Beat Coffeehouse are both jumping while the Container Park is quiet also tells us that building a community requires diverse groups and that no one guiding agency, private or public can build a thriving industrial centre.

It is possible that Zappos and Hsieh may plant the seed for Las Vegas to become a technology and business hub, but there’s a long way to go and it will need more than one man to drive it.

“Build it and they will come,” was something I heard constantly about the plans to invigorate the city’s centre from its supporters and Las Vegas residents. Whether the Downtown Project is Tony Hsieh’s field of dreams is for history to judge.

las-vegas-downtown-project-tony-hsieh-tour-apartment

 

 

Sep 242014
 
therese-tucker-blackline-ceo-founder

In 2005, Therese Tucker’s company was down to its last three staff when a customer suggested a new line of business. Today BlackLine is valued at over 200 million dollars and about to list on the stock market.

A few week ago Therese described her journey from a struggling software startup to a hundred million dollar business on the Decoding the New Economy YouTube channel.

BlacklLine’s business automates financial processes  as Tucker explains, “we have the interesting job of providing software that helps companies automate all the things around accounting and the financial close that they currently do on spreadsheets.”

At the time of Tucker’s pivot, the business was supplying a wealth management system when that prescient customer asked her to develop an application to manage the ten thousand spreadsheets they were struggling with for accounts reconciliation.

BlackLine wasn’t Tucker’s first business having been involved in a series of ventures after working as an electrical engineer designing automation systems before moving into the IT industry.

“There’s a reason for the term ‘serial entrepreneur.” Tucker says, ” it’s a bug that once you catch it you really don’t want to rest until you’ve been successful at it.”

For aspiring entrepreneurs Tucker’s advice is blunt — “The best advice is ‘don’t do it’. Because if you listen to that advice you’ll never make it.”

“It’s the people that are crazy and are determined to work themselves to death and to fail and fail and fail until they don’t fail. It takes that kind of grit and determination.”

“If I tell you not to do it, then that’s great advice for you.”

Sep 222014
 
Google-campus-london-cafe

We’re past the time where business owners can dismiss new technologies as toys says Profitable Hospitality’s Ken Burgin.

Ken’s Profitable Hospitality website is a must read for anybody in the industry and I was lucky enough to be the the guest of his 99th podcast where we discussed payment systems, marketing and the challenges facing restaurant and cafe operators in a changing marketplace.

In the podcast we discuss PayPal’s plans for the retail sector along with how startups like Stripe look to disrupt the sector and what Apple’s announcements last week will mean to the payments industry.

The key message from the podcast is the entire sector is facing massive changes both from technology and changing consumer behaviour.

Like many other industries, the successful restaurant and cafe businesses over the next decade will be those who have the flexibility to adapt to a very different world.

Sep 092014
 
visa-mobile-payments

Interviewing Stripe co-founder John Collison in the company’s crowded, noisy lunch room in San Francisco’s Mission District is a good place to appreciate how quickly the online payment service has grown since it was founded three years ago.

Stripe was founded after twenty-four year old Collison and his brother Patrick encountered problems with online payments in their previous businesses, “we came to Stripe because we had built apps and webservices before and it was phenomenally difficult to take a product you had built and turn it into a business.”

“At the time you had two options; you could turn your business over to PayPal, which was problematic for a whole bunch of reasons, or you’d build something from scratch.”

“It was clear to us that neither of the options were very good so we went about building something better.”

Silicon Valley’s strengths

Since its establishment Stripe has grown from ten employees to 150, something the founder believes shows the strength of California’s Bay Area over areas like Collison’s native Ireland.

“One of the things that I like about Silicon Valley is that people here tend to be relatively risk tolerant. Joining an unknown internet payments company three years ago, most people would say ‘you’re out of your mind’. But the psyche around here is that’s a reasonable thing to do.”

Another aspect that attracts Collison to San Francisco is that most of his employees at Stripe have run their own businesses or startups themselves. Having a workforce of risk tolerant, independent self starters makes it easier to manage a fast growth company.

Pitching for funding

The Bay Area’s appetite for risk is reflected in how investors look at businesses; “in the startup world, people like to maximize the opportunity rather than reduce the risk,” observes Collison.

Collison’s advice for startups seeking funding is to get have users on board that validates the idea, “when we pitched Peter Thiel we had production user for four or five months. What made us think there was something here was that those users were really passionate.”

The other attraction for Thiel and other members of the ‘PayPal mafia’ – Thiel’s fellow PayPal founders Elon Musk and Max Levchin are also investors in Stripe – was their first hand dealings with the problem of online payments.

“With the PayPal guys specifically, they really get this. Early on this was what they were trying to do with PayPal – make it easy for people to move money around the world.”

Entering the era of mobile commerce

The problem today that Collison sees with PayPal is that it is a product based on a desktop view of online commerce in a time where the industry is moving to mobile.

“One of the things that has held online commerce back for so long is the purchasing experience has such a high barrier to it.”

”We’ve replicated the mail order form on the internet. It feels to me that in five to ten years time we will not be in the same world with people like Google and Facebook improving the identity story. That’s exciting because that helps merchants sell more.”

“That whole model comes from a desktop era so if your building a lyft or a mobile site it doesn’t make much sense.”

Beating the 1980s business model

For the credit card and banking industry, the payments sector is even further behind. Collison believes that until recently the payments industry was based upon a 1980s business model where the costs of inefficiency were pushed onto merchants and small business.

“All the banks and companies that offered services at the time were operating in the 1980s,” says Collison. “The business model was based on the old way of your customers being people within a fifteen block radius, on the internet your customer base is the whole world.”

Building new industries

With Stripe Collison sees an opportunity for new industries to develop out of easier ways of collecting payments, particularly given much of the world’s population in areas like Africa and China doesn’t have credit cards.

“If we just building a business to take transactions from PayPal and get them onto Stripe, that’s not that interesting. What is interesting is if we can create new types of transactions that would not have existed otherwise.”

“By providing better infrastructure for anyone to build a global business. That will change the kind of things people will build.”