Nov 212014
different technology standards like video cassettes cause problems

One of the irritations of being in Australia is the often insular and myopic view many of the nation’s business and community leaders have.

A consequence of that insularity is that business operates at a slower pace than in more competitive markets; there could be up to a five year lag between technologies being introduced in North America, Europe or East Asia and them being rolled out Down Under.

That lag creates an arbitrage opportunity for canny local investors, this post on the Investment Biker Analyst blog illustrates the thinking .

I’m not sure about the barriers to entry for potential competitors to Digivizer because part of my view as an investor since I got back to Australia is the way the markets geography has always insulated it from quick counter-punches. Think about the way the UK always seems to be the second place North American business rolls out it’s plans for sector domination. We’ve seen it over and over again. Australia on the other hand is well down the list as the market, while affluent is at 25million quite small. Also it’s a long way to come if you have to get on a plane . . . Oh, and besides that the “Aussies” can find us themselves without investing extra start-up capital.

Mike’s model is the standard for the Aussie start community; local entrepreneur looks at the hottest businesses in Silicon Valley, sets up a minimum viable copycat, pitches to investors who put money in on the hope of making a profitable exit to a dumb local player or to selling out to the market leader when they finally decide to set up an Australian operation.

Increasingly the second option isn’t working as the big player are either moving into the market quicker, which also screws the first exit option, or the locals are asking too much for their cheap knock offs.

As a consequence the local copycats are increasingly finding themselves stranded in the marketplace.

Quickflix is a good example of the local knock offs being stranded, having copied Netflix’s business model, the company has toddled along for a decade with its movie and entertainment delivery business and now faces Netflix starting an Aussie operation.

With a formidable competitor entering the marketplace, Quickflix is frantically trying to shore up its defenses, having made a $5.7 million capital raising and committing to cut costs.

One suspects though this will be nowhere near enough to build up defenses against Netflix, incumbent cable operator Foxtel, fellow steaming service Fetch TV or the bizarrely named and probably doomed Stan service setup by an uneasy coalition of fading old media companies.

In an increasingly connected world relying on the tyranny of distance to protect your business is a losing game, something that many Australian companies and investors are yet to learn.

Then again, as long as the coal trains keep running, maybe Australians don’t have to worry.

Nov 132014

Finally Twitter have announced the changes they will be making in an effort to attract more users.

The changes are risky, and controversial, as messing with people’s feed risks alienating loyal users. If the changes prove unpopular it may make Twitter’s problems worse.

Whether the changes are enough to justify Twitter’s sky high stock market valuation and can attract the numbers of users the company needs to keep the faith of investors remains to be seen.

Zuckerberg’s Curse is biting Twitter hard and the company needs to figure out whether frantically trying to entice uninterested users and meet high, and possibly impossible, benchmarks is the best course for the service’s future.

Oct 282014

Twitter yesterday released its third quarter 2014 results which saw the stock drop a stunning thirteen percent in the half hour after the announcement.

For Twitter’s management and shareholders the worrying thing about the stock drop is the result was in line with analyst’s expectations, the shares fell because its clear the service isn’t getting the traction investors believe is necessary to succeed online.

Investors however have only themselves to blame; as a business Twitter is simply not worth it’s thirty billion dollar stock market capitalisation; it may be worth five billion, it may be worth ten but it’s desperately overpriced at its current prices.

Zuckerberg’s curse

Almost all social media services, and many tech startups, are suffering the curse of Mark Zuckerburg — Facebook’s success has led investors to believe that all online businesses should be valued in the ten of billions.

Making matters worse, Facebook’s billion dollar purchases of Instagram, Oculus VR and WhatsApp have baked the expectation of huge valuations into the startup community. Now every service with a modest user base believes it’s worth something similar to WhatsApp’s $19 billion.

The worry is that companies like Twitter carry out dumb and ill advised things to emulate Facebook and maintain its overvalued stockprice which will damage both their brands and customer base.

For many of these social media services it might be worthwhile admitting that they aren’t Facebook and accept they are a niche product.

It may well be those niches are more profitable than being a mass market product and the idea that online success involves huge takeup is just another relic of the Twentieth Century broadcast model.

Unfortunately while Facebook dominates the social media market and Google continues to draw most of its revenue from online advertising, the wild over valuations and flawed business models will continue.

Oct 232014
sales methods are changing in an era of cloud computing and social media

Today GE had their At Work conference in Sydney where CEO Jeff Immelt was interviewed by Westfarmers’ boss Richard Goyder.

One of the key messages from Immelt in his interview with the Australian conglomerate’s CEO was that finding growth in a flat global economy is going to take hard work and creativity; just relying on increased domestic spending is not longer an option.

Immelt was particularly pointed about the developed world’s economies, “the US is best since the financial crisis, growth is broad based but it’s still in the two to two-and-a-half percent range. It may be that’s the new normal.”

“Europe and Japan are pretty tough, forty percent of the world’s economy is still difficult, not going downward but stable and flat.”

Preparing for a slow growth world

“We’ve prepared ourselves for a slow growth world but one where you can invest in growth.”

“There’s still opportunities out there,” Immelt observed. “We’re going to have to make our own growth.”

Part of that growth story relates to the end of the consumerist era where debt funded consumer spending, particularly in the US, drove the global economy.

“We are coming out of a time period of the last ten or fifteen years where the US grew four and half percent every year with no inflation. So the US was the dominant economy in the world during the 1980s and 1990s.”

“We knew that was not going to be the same, so we’re in a world with no tail wind where we think greater focus on things like R&D, globalisation and things like that which will be critically important.”

Changing business focus

One of things Immelt did after the global financial crisis was to change the focus of the business away from the consumer finance division that had been a river of gold over the last thirty years back to being an industrial infrastructure company.

“Everyone needs to paranoid about relevancy and what they do great in the world today. There is no shelf life for reputation or anything else.”

“The engine of growth in the US when it was growing at its best was the US consumer, both in the combination of their own wealth and in taking on leverage. That was the engine of growth from 1980 to 2007.”

“It ended badly, but those were big engines of growth. What will be the next engines of growth?” Immelt mused.

Asian consumers to the rescue

Immelt sees the rise of Asian economies as being the next growth drivers with over billion consumers rising in affluence.

Whether those Asian economies can generate the growth that the hyper-developed economies of North America, Europe and Japan were able to provide during the past thirty years remains to be seen given China’s, and most of Asia’s, consumers having nothing like the West’s spending power.

The truth is we’re decades off Asia’s huddled masses having the economic strength to carry the global economy in the way the western world’s consumers did for the closing decades of the Twentieth Century.

For economies like Australia that are largely based upon domestic consumption funded by debt, this will mean a massive redirection of the economy away from renovating houses to investing in productive industries.

Immelt’s message to business leaders is clear; don’t rely on a rising tide of domestic growth to keep you afloat. Companies are going to have to find new markets and products if they want to grow, waiting for customers to arrive is no longer an option.

Sep 092014

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.”

Sep 052014

When consulting group Gartner placed the Internet of Things at the peak of their hype cycle last month it raised concerns that the technologies might be about to take a tumble.

Speaking to Networked Globe this week in San Jose; Maciej Kranz, VP and GM of Cisco’s technology group described how he believes the IoT’s evolution from the top of the hype cycle to the plateau of acceptance will be quick.

“We’re happy that Gartner put IoT on top as it means there’s awareness,” said Kranz. “We hope to prove Gartner wrong, that in IoT we don’t go through the classic hype cycle we go from hype into reality.”

Kranz’s reasoning while the IoT will suffer a short spell, if any at all, in Gartner’s ‘trough of disillusionment’ is because the major industry players are working closely together to build the sector and its standards.

“Where we think it’s a little bit different from some of the other hype cycles than some of the other hype cycles is that we continue to work very close at the industry,” Kranz explained.

“Because we’re all working as an industry to make it real it will go through the disillusionment and quickly into a reality.”

This may well turn out to be true if the big players like Cisco and GE in the industrial space along with companies such as Google and Apple in the consumer sector stay committed to the concept. If the major vendors stay the course, then it’s likely IoT technologies won’t suffer much at all.

Another aspect in the IoT’s favour is that it isn’t really a specific technology or product at all, instead being more of a concept bought about by various technologies such as home automation, industrial controls and cloud computing all reaching maturity.

Rather than one separate item on the Gartner hype cycle, the IoT is really made of dozens of different technologies that are mostly on the ‘plateau of acceptance’ themselves.

Kranz sees Gartner’s listing of the company as being on the top of the hype cycle as being a vindication for how the IoT has been adopted by industry and the community, “it is remarkable how we’ve gone in the last nine months from people saying it’s a vision to n

Aug 242014

At the peak of the dotcom mania in 1998 delivery services were all the go, those days are back reports Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times.

“We’re really well funded, so that is not something we’re as worried about,” Aditya Shah, Instacart’s general manager says. “Growth is the most important factor.”

This is the classic Silicon Valley Greater Fool model, where the aim is to get as many customers as possible to make the business attractive to a cashed up large corporation.

It might work, but the odds of being an Amazon or Salesforce – both companies have barely made a profit in the decade and a half they’ve been running – is unlikely.

One of the big problems is that delivery doesn’t scale, the ‘last mile’ problem of getting the goods to the customer remains the most complex and expensive part of the process.

Drones may solve the labour cost problem and sophisticated algorithms from companies like Uber may make the process more efficient but it’s unlikely an ad-hoc delivery service can ever scale to the degree these entrepreneurs project, unlike the post office and courier services where the system is built around predictable delivery routines.

Uber is the company that validated the model of today’s delivery startups, as Miller mentions;

“Meanwhile, venture capitalists joke that every other entrepreneur they meet pitches an “Uber for X,” bringing goods and services on demand: laundry (Washio), ice cream (Ice Cream Life), marijuana (Eaze) and so on.”

It’s hard to see how the current craze of delivery startups will end any better than the Webvans and dozens of other services that soared and crashed in the late 1990s, however business models are changing and it may be one of these will find the formula that works in the new economy.