Jul 152015
 
management and executive training, workshops and keynotes for technology

Last week I was asked by someone considering starting a business what I’d recommend in the way of software for a new company.

That’s a good question as cloud services have completely changed what a business should buy over the past five years when the answer back then would have been to buy a new PC with Microsoft Office preloaded along with a boxed accounting package.

More importantly for a cash strapped business, whether it’s a tech startup or a more conventional business, today’s cloud based tools don’t need new computers and most have free versions that suffice for those early days before a venture has established a cash flow or its viability. That radically changes the economics of setting up a new business.

Google Docs

This is the basic essential tool for a new business giving a basic word processing, spreadsheet and presentation package. The free version of Google Docs is technically only available to educational or home users, but then you are running your new business from home aren’t you?

Paid versions of Google Apps are either five dollars or ten dollars per user per month depending on the features or storage you want. Again for most small business the cheaper version will usually suffice.

For power users, Microsoft Office is often unavoidable as the spreadsheet and wordprocessing features of Excel and Word are far more extensive than Google’s.

Email and calendar functions

Once upon a time your choice of email tool mattered, today it doesn’t as there’s no shortage of free cloud based tools or, if you’re a Mac user, Apple Mail. For most small businesses it’s easiest just to choose Google’s Gmail or Microsoft’s Outlook.com. If you’ve chosen Microsoft’s Office 365 package than Outlook is part of the business bundle.

Also in the past having an online, shareable calendar was a nice to have but often expensive feature that required a server. Now almost all systems come standards with calendars although Google has the edge in terms of sharing calendars between workgroups.

Storage

Being able to store and share files into the cloud has been a boon for small businesses which in the past needed to have an expensive and clumsy inhouse server if they want to share information or even just to access it on the road.

Microsoft give unlimited storage for Office 365 subscribers while Google offer 15Gb for the free Docs service, 30Gb for the $5 Apps Plan and unlimited space for the $10 Apps plan if you have more than five users. Apple’s pricing is more complex with five different tiers although iCloud is a much more elegant solution for backing up iOS and OS X devices.

Two third party storage providers such as Box and Dropbox are also worth considering with both offering advanced tools and integration with other cloud services. Dropbox offers a free version with 2Gb of data, a Pro version including a Terabyte of space and a business version that is unlimited at $17 per month.

Accounting

One of the biggest mistakes a new business makes is skimping on accounting software. This is one of those areas where cutting corners early can be expensive later. The most popular cloud accounting service for small business is Xero which does a great job in integrating with other online platforms including Office 365 and Google Apps for $25 a month.

Xero though is not alone in this field with MYOB, Reckon, Quicken and others fighting for marketshare. It’s best to talk to your accountant and find what they work with as this will save problems when you come to do your books.

Website

Every business needs a web presence. If your new company is a local service, retail or hospitality outlet then you have to be listed on Google My Business which literally puts your company on the map. Listings on Facebook and signing up with all the main social media services is a must do as well.

The cornerstone though of an online presence though is a website and the easiest, quickest and no-cost way is to set up a website on Google’s Blogger platform. Once your business gets up and running then having your own web server running WordPress is the best long term solution but in those early days Blogger will suffice and the upgrade path between the two is surprisingly painless.

Every business though is unique and your business might need more than these five basic tools. If you’re in hospitality and retail you’ll need a Point of Sale solution while if you’re a tech startup products like Slack and Basecamp may be needed as well.

The five basics though are common to all businesses regardless of the industries they’re in and regardless of the aspirations of the owners. The fact you can set up a business for almost nothing is one of the reasons why it’s worth giving it a go.

Jul 142015
 
bronze-buddha-taiwan

Battered by a declining Chinese market for its manufacturing goods, Taiwan is having to look elsewhere for its economic growth.

Startups are one idea report Reuters News describing how the Taiwanese National Development Council set up HeadStart a year ago to create an tech entrepreneur ecosystem by relaxing regulations for registering start-ups, matching funds invested into projects and creating tech hubs.

So far HeadStart has attracted around $US 438 million in funds and now Alibaba founder Jack Ma says he wanted to set up a $300 million fund to support Taiwanese entrepreneurs.

While the Reuters piece focuses on the ecosystem built around fading smartphone maker HTC and the major computer chip fabricators, Taiwan’s strength may well lie in its small business roots as much of the island’s industrial strength has been built, like Japan’s, on its army of small family firms supplying the larger companies.

That Taiwan needs to diversify its economy is a warning to other less advanced economies that depending on a narrow band of exports leaves a nation open to external risks. It might be time for others to be looking at how to encourage their entrepreneurs.

Image of Taiwanese bronze buddha by Shirley B through freeimages.com

Jun 212015
 
China's sock industry illustrates how world manufacturing has too much production

“We have an addressable market of four hundred million dollars a year. It’s a huge opportunity and we could win half of it.”

The business manager speaking – who we’ll call John – was talking about the potential market for his company’s small business product that promises to earn around two hundred dollars a year.

How John came to the four hundred million dollar number was simple. He multiplied the two hundred dollars by the two million small businesses in Australia.

John had fallen for the ‘Chinese sock fallacy’ where a simplistic assumption creates the illusion of a huge market. The idea being that there are a billion people in China all of whom will own five pairs of socks so therefore there’s demand for five billion pairs of socks.

The key part of the fallacy is not knowing whether those billion Chinese or two million Aussie small businesses want your socks or cloud computing services.

Other complications include who are the incumbents currently selling to that market, how many pairs of socks do most Chinese people own, how often do they replace them and what do they pay for a new set?

Suddenly things get complex and the assumptions don’t look so promising as we find with John’s projection of his market.

Looking at the figures for Australia’s small business sector with 61 percent of enterprises having no employees, it’s hard not to conclude most are contractors or consultants who mostly don’t need John’s cloud service.

So the Chinese sock fallacy strikes again.

May 142015
 
HEXO+_ autonomous drone front view

An old saying is necessity is the mother of invention and nowhere is this shown better than walking the exhibition floor of the Internet of Things World conference in San Francisco today.

The Wallflower is a good example of this, thought up of after the founder had to rush home when his partner thought she’d left the stove on (she hadn’t), he thought there had to be something that could monitor this on the market and when he discovered there wasn’t, he invented it.

Snowboarding needs

Probably the sexiest device on the floor is the Hexo+, an autonomous drone designed for video shots. Use the app to tell you what shot you want and it the drone will take off and video you.

Hexo+ was founded by Xavier de Le Rue, a French professional snowboarder who wanted to get shots of his maneuvers but couldn’t afford a crew or a helicopter to do so. The preprogrammed flight patterns represent the most common camera sequences optimised for the GoPro camera.

Probably the most trivial is the MySwitchMate, a mechanical device that fits over a wall light switch. Set it up and you can use its app to flick your lights on and off.

The device was born out of the founder wanting to remotely control his college dorm lights from his bed. While the market seems to be those who don’t want to get out of bed, its main market are those who would like remotely controlled lights but can’t install a smart lighting system.

A niche from a need

What all three of these devices show is how a need by an inventor spurred a  product’s development, in that respect the Internet of Things is no different from any other wave of innovation.

So if you wonder “why doesn’t someone sell this?” it might be an opportunity to set up your own business or invent an IoT device to meet that need.

May 112015
 
ninja-blocks-smarthome-controller

Yesterday Internet of Things startup Ninja Blocks announced it was shuttering its doors after three years of operations, two successful Kickstarter campaigns and three successful fundraising campaigns that netted $2.4 million.

Ninja blocks aimed to become the centre of the smarthome with its simple controllable device but, as many other startups have found out, the costs and complexities of designing, manufacturing and shipping hardware are not trivial.

Last year I spoke to Ninja Blocks and a similar IoT startup which also failed, Moore’s Cloud, about their opportunities and challenges. In the light of both companies failing they are worth watching again.

Daniel Friedman, CEO of Ninja Blocks outlined the company’s plans along with the limits of crowdfunding.

The CEO of Moore’s Cloud, Mark Pesce, had much stronger views on crowdfunding and its limits.

From the Moore’s Cloud and Ninja Blocks story it would be tempting to conclude that pure IoT hardware startup plays are doomed to failure, however the lessons of companies like Fitbit and the Pebble watch show otherwise.

A very good example of success is Spanish IoT company Libelium whose founder and CEO Alicia Asin told Decoding The New Economy two years ago how the company had started under the shadow of the 2009 economic crisis and thrived since.

The failure of Ninja Blocks and Moore’s Cloud really tell us we’re in the early days of the IoT and the business models and technologies are not certain. It’s also a commentary on the risks involved in startup businesses, as investor Dave McClure says, “not every one will be a unicorn.”

As the markets grow and the technologies evolve we’ll be seeing many more IoT startups, few will become billion dollar unicorns and many will fail. That’s the nature of new industries.

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 startup space and Creative HQ through to the quirky Enspiral coworking space.

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 business community and educational institutions, particularly Victoria University.

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.

What I did meet though were plenty of immigrants; from Croatia, Denmark, Holland, the US and, most of all, Australia.

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.