Nov 042016
 
go-pro-camera-shot

Friday was a bad day for former startup darlings FitBit and GoPro with both companies disappointing investors.

GoPro, whose cameras for a while defined a new wave of adventure videos, announced a loss of $104 million dollars on the back of production issues and further disillusioned stockholders with a forecast of further poor sales in the upcoming holiday season.

Those shareholders have many reasons to be disillusioned with the camera maker’s shares reaching $98 two years ago after floating at $24. Today they are sitting at $11.

FitBit shareholders have suffered similarly, with the fitness band’s shares falling to eight dollars after listing at $20 almost two years ago. Their announcement of further problems on Friday saw the stock price dropping thirty percent on the day.

It may be easy to scorn investors in hindsight, but both companies were emblematic of a new generation of wearable technology and much of their problems today owes as much to them trying to stay ahead of the curve as it does from smartphones developing most of their products’ functionality.

The travails of FitBit and GoPro are typical of a time when new technology is changing business. Some companies  shine brightly then fade while others have a rocky road to success. We’ll have to wait and see if FitBit and GoPro survive.

Nov 022016
 
Fibre broadband rollout

A year back this blog asked if Chattanooga’s experience shows how city infrastructure can drive private sector investment.

“The Gig”, as Chattanooga’s civic leaders have branded the city’s broadband rollout, came about because the city decided to treat internet services as a utility like water and roads. Vice Motherboard reports how this has reaped dividends for the town.

As Vice’s Jason Koebler describes, Chattanooga’s unemployment rate has halved since the depth of the Great Recession and in 2014 was listed as having the third highest wage growth among the United States’ mid-sized cities.

There are downsides though, Koebler warns, and one point is that having good broadband on its own isn’t a sure fire bet.

“Like the presence of well-paved roads, good internet access doesn’t guarantee that a city will be successful,” he writes. “But the lack of it guarantees that a community will get left behind as the economy increasingly demands that companies compete not just with their neighbors next door, but with the entire world.”

The advantage Chattanooga had though was its electricity company was owned by the city which meant a major part of the existing infrastructure was already in public hands and made it relatively easier and cheaper to roll out the network.

What Chattanooga does show is a well planned and structured fibre roll out can be done, it is easy or cheap and takes sensible planning. The latter is something other broadband projects can learn from.

Oct 082016
 
australia-muru-d-demo-night

This is the first of four stories I did for The Australian on why entrepreneurs are making their way to the United States’ Bay Area. 

A combination of accessible capital, a huge market and a collaborative culture are why startup founders are making their way across the Pacific to Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

Despite their government’s ideas boom and an easier funding climate, Australia’s startups still see San Francisco and Silicon Valley as being the promised land. In this four part series we spoke to Aussie entrepreneurs about why they’ve made the move across the Pacific Ocean.

In a noisy coffee shop just off San Francisco’s Market Street, PixC founder Holly Cardew explains why she moved to the city. “It’s a place you fall in love with straight away – it’s the people and the attitude,” says Cardew. “You can do anything, people don’t look at you as if you’re crazy if you want to do something big.”

Wider horizons

Cardew made the relocation to San Francisco to find funding for Pixc, a photo editing service that in 2014 was one of the first group of startups accepted into Telstra’s Muru-D accelerator program. In moving to the US she found American investors have far wider horizons than Sydney’s business community.

“Investors ask ‘what’s next?’” Cardew enthused, “in Australia, you don’t even think about that. Americans tend to think a lot bigger. Australians aren’t trained to think about it.” Another aspect Cardew highlights about the Bay Area business culture is how individuals are always happy to help out, “people always ask ‘how can I help’ she says.

One of those credited by Cardew and by many of the people interviewed for this is Temando founder Carl Hartmann. In an archetypal open plan shared office in San Francisco’s Financial District Harmann explains why he’s quick to help, “I’m here today because people who were kind enough to pay it forward.”

Being there

Temando, a logistics service founded in Brisbane, was started to address the difficulties retailers had in fulfilling customers orders across Australia. Hartmann moved to the United States at the beginning of 2015 to access North American customers and to tap local capital markets. “When you talk to the SV funds it’s very hard to raise money if you aren’t here,” he says. “In Silicon Valley it’s where the action is. If you’re not here you are out of sight and out of mind.”

“It’s difficult to build those sort of relationships from the other side of the world. When you’re here, things can move along quickly because it’s easy to collaborate on things. It’s easier to work face to face. For us it makes sense to be here,” Hartmann says. “There’s a unique energy where everyone has come from all over the world.”

Jack Gonzales of location mapping service MapJam is an example of how fast things can move for companies in the Bay Area. “Last year we were approached by some of the big players who asked if we had our own map tiles,” he recalls. “We realised we had an opportunity.”

Gonzales was speaking at the somewhat chaotic San Francisco campus of 500 Startups across from the city’s Moscone Convention Center. Mapjam was accepted onto the prestigious startup investment and acceleration program last year.

A goldmine in your backyard

“You have a goldmine in your local backyard and you have to capitalise on that. Sometimes it’s really spontaneous, ‘hey can you guys come in on Friday?’ You can’t do that when you’re overseas,” Gonzales says. “Our main customers are here and I really want to conquer the backyard before I conquer the globe, just within walking distance from here there are thirty major players.”

Australia does have some advantages for startups, particularly in labor costs for skilled developers. “It’s three times more expensive to employ staff in the Bay Area,” says Affinity Live’s Geoff McQueen in explaining why he’s kept the company’s technical team in the firm’s home town of Wollongong

McQueen, who moved to San Francisco in 2011 to seek funding for his venture believes “Australia is a good place to do a minimum viable product or proof of concept” and warns budding entrepreneurs to have more “than just just a PowerPoint pitch” when they decide to make a permanent move.

In McQueen’s view it’s important to at least visit the Bay Area early in the process of developing a business. “Come over as soon as you can – even if you only have a light idea,” he says. “Anchor your visit around a conference, whatever is relevant to your target industry.”

Achieving your aims

Despite not finding gold on San Francisco’s grubby streets, most of the entrepreneurs The Australian interviewed were all happy they’d achieved their aims in moving to the US which vary from easier funding availability, access to bigger markets and a more vibrant ecosystem than those in Sydney, Melbourne or the smaller centres.

Ultimately though everyone mentions the supportive nature of the Bay Area’s startup culture, “people ask what can I help you with,” says Pixc’s Cardew. “You can do anything, people don’t look at you as if you’re crazy if you want to do something big.”

Oct 062016
 
sales methods are changing in an era of cloud computing and social media

In most developed countries the small business community is shrinking. What can governments and communities do to grow what should be the most vibrant sectors of their economies?

What happens when a whole industry shuts down overnight? Australia is about to find when its motor industry effectively comes to an end this week.

The fallout for the workers is expected to be dramatic with researchers reporting the soon to be laid off staff being totally unprepared for their predicament.

So worrying is the predicament of those auto workers that Sydney tech incubator Pollenizer is offering small business workshops for laid off workers.

Those workshops will be needed. One of the striking things about the research is just how few of the workers are interested in launching their own ventures despite their poor employment prospects in other industries.

australian_ford_workers_employment_intentions

While the auto workers are a group with relatively low levels of education and work experience, their reluctance to starting a business is shared by most Australians with the nation’s Productivity Commission 2015 enquiry on business innovation reporting the number of new enterprises is steadily falling.

australian-business-exits-and-entries

Despite Australia’s population increasing twenty percent since 2004, the number of new business is falling. The country is becoming a nation of risk averse employees, something not unsurprising given the nation’s crippling high property prices which puts entrepreneurs at a disadvantage.

Australia’s reluctance to set up new ventures isn’t unique, it’s a worldwide trend with most countries not having recovered since the great financial crisis.

The tragic thing with this small business drought is that it’s never been cheaper or easier to set up a venture as  Tech UK and payment service Stripe show in their list the software tools being used by ventures.

Accessibility of tools or even government taxes and regulation isn’t the barrier in Australia. As the World Bank reports, the country is the eleventh easiest place in the world to start a new venture.

In United States experience shows there’s a range of other factors at work dissuading prospective small business founders – interestingly the United States comes in at a mediocre 47th as a place to start a venture in the World Bank rankings.

A healthy and vibrant small business sector is important to drive growth and diversity in the broader economy. The challenge for governments and communities around the world is to find a way that will spark the small business communities, in a world awash with cheap capital that shouldn’t be impossible but we may have to think differently to the ways we are today.

Oct 042016
 
humense-dr-jordy-steve-wozniak

What does one of the biggest Chinese backed investment funds look for in prospective companies? During their recent visit to Sydney China Rock Capital Management’s Venture Capital‘s Toby Zhang and Matt Lee spoke about the company’s investment philosophy.

“In general we invest in very early stage investments – we focus on seed to Series A,” says Zhang, one of the company’s partners. “At these stage of development we’re looking at a combination of talent, technology and market.”

“We like to bring these early technology companies to the markets like China and west coast US where we’re familiar, a lot of the companies partner with us because we can help overseas.”

Zhang and Lee were in Sydney for the announcement of their investment into a local VR video capture company, Humense, the fund’s first foray into Australia.

“When we first started CRCM we only invested in Chinese internet companies,” explained Zhang. “While we’re based in Silicon Valley we were looking at what’s going on in mainland China. We’ve launched three additional funds, all three of these are early stage and cross border. We not only invest in China but also in the US, Israel and now in Australia.

Understanding the founders

“We spend more than fifty percent of our time understanding the entrepreneurs and who’s behind the company. When we form a financial partnership it’s kind of like a marriage where getting a divorce is really difficult so you have to really understand the entrepreneurs.”

“Secondly we look for businesses which can easily pivot if they have to. A good example is a company we invested in recently called Music.ly. We were a fifth stage investor in Music.ly while they still  in Shanghai, we saw entrepreneurs who we knew from their previous jobs so we knew how talented they were and we were prepared to back them.”

“More importantly though was their business’ focus on social media particularly with the age group that the existing platforms were losing traction with.”

“Finally with technology we’re looking for companies that can create barriers early that allows them to outcompete their competitors.”

Humense’s volumetric capture relies on an array of cheap, commercially available cameras to collect the images, something that appeals to Zhang’s investment philosophy.

Opportunities for Virtual Reality

“We spent a lot of time looking at the VR space, particularly volumetric capture,” says Matt Lee who originally hails from Sydney. “we felt in Australia with the background of special effects and animation so we felt there was a strong talent base we could leverage.”

Toby Zhang sees the fund making more investments into the augmented and virtual reality sectors. “We think AR/VR is a global tech movement,” he says. “Although historically we’ve been mostly investing in Silicon Valley and China, we have been constantly looking for opportunities to get to know start-ups, entrepreneurs, and investors from all around the world.”

It’s notable the Chinese backed fund is now looking around the world for investment opportunities and focusing on VR and AR technologies.

That strategy makes sense as the barriers to entry fall and the tech industry’s focus moves beyond Silicon Valley and into new markets. Where the US investment funds go will be the big pointer of future opportunities.

Sep 232016
 
weta_digital

Dealing with the massive wave of data flowing into businesses will be one of the defining management issues of the next decade. One company that is already dealing with this is New Zealand’s Weta Digital.

Wellington based Weta that’s best known for its work on Lord of the Rings and is part owned by director Peter Jackson employs 1400 staff for its movie special effects work and has won five visual effects Academy Awards over its 23 years of operations.

Kathy Gruzas, WETA Digital’s CIO, spoke to Decoding the new Economy at the Oracle OpenWorld forum in San Francisco this week about some of the challenges in dealing with the massive amount of data generated by the movie effects industry.

“We have some very heavy loads.” Kathy states. “We push our systems to the limit.”

Applying powerful systems

One challenge is the sheer computing power required, ‘the render frame processes one frame per server until you have four seconds of footage. Sometimes that takes over night or even longer and for that we use a lot of storage,” Kathy says. “The render farm being six thousand servers will write 60 to 100 terabytes of data a day and read a quarter to half a petabyte each day.”

“We need systems that will be very large to handle the volume of data we generate but also be very quick to handle those read and writes.”

“One render could use a thousand computers, sometimes more, and all of those will be reading and writing against the same block of storage so we have our own software layer that directs those loads but we try to minimise the load on our storage but we have the worst work load you can imagine with lots of servers, lots of small reads and writes and many of them random and concurrent with pockets of hot files.”

Despite the automation, the business is still extremely capital intensive. “In visual effects you probably need at least three hundred artists to work on one film, it’s a very labour intensive process to do the artistry and much like a production line.”

Going mobile

The nature of modern movie production means the effects teams are now part of the shoot which adds another level of complexity for Weta. “Although we are visual effects which is largely post-production we do go out with crews when they’re shooting the movie so we can do reference photography,” says Kathy.

“We do 3D scans so if we need to do something digitally and we do motion and facial capture as well,” she says. “There are 240 muscles that we tweak individually to get the expression. That’s a huge amount of data to capture.”

To do this, Weta created their own ‘road case’ that contains everything they need to grab the shots and store the data they need, “you can’t ask the director retake the shot because we missed something.”

Into the forest

“We have to take the case into the forest and into the rain and everywhere. It’s good having that roadcase that has storage, networking and servers in it.” The case, which was self assembled by Weta’s team is “probably the most travelled Oracle system on the planet,” laughs Kathy with “lots of data capture and sub-rendering.”

Weta’s story illustrates just how managing data is becoming a critical issue for companies. While movie special effects is very much a specialised field that’s far ahead of the curve in its technology use than most businesses, they do show the importance of managing and securing their data.

For other businesses, lessons from Weta is understanding your company’s – including staff and customers’ – needs then investing in the right tools to deliver is essential.

One important difference between technology intensive businesses like Weta and most other organisations is the New Zealand company is doing most of its processing and storage in house. Those without the same needs will almost certainly be shifting these tasks onto the cloud.

Sep 212016
 
mark_hurd_oracle_ceo

Oracle CEO Mark Hurd’s keynote at the company’s Open World conference in San Francisco yesterday illustrated a problem facing businesses around the world and its effects on enterprise software vendors like the one he heads.

“Standard and Poor’s top five hundred companies’ revenue growth is at one percent, their earnings growth is five percent.” “It means what? Expenses are going down.”

“This is the problem that the CEO has,” he says. “Why is it hard to grow revenue. All your investors want you to grow earnings and deliver growth. They have little patience for any long story about why it’s so hard.”

“They don’t care about any issues you may have. Grow earnings, grow cash flow, grow stock price. That’s it.”

Growing in a slow market

As a result of that the easiest way to grow earnings is to grow revenues but when global GDP and markets are flat, the only way to grow is to gain market share, Hurd says. “We have to know the customer better, we have to do a better job of marketing and we have to do a better job of aligning our goods and services to what our customers want. We have to improve our products and processes.”

That imperative for companies to cut their operating costs has had a brutal effect on enterprise IT budgets, “over the past five years, the growth in enterprise IT has been flat.” Hurd says, “the growth in spending has been basically zero.”

Customers drive the market

Like many things in the tech industry, the sector’s growth focus has shifted to consumers, “consumer spending on IT has almost quadrupled in the past decade. So while companies are sort of flat, consumers have been spending like crazy.” Hurd observes, “consumers are more sophisticated, more capable, more knowledgeable and expect better services than ever before.”

“Your customer experience is not being defined by your competitors but by technology fuelled consumers. For instance, AirBnB may be defining customer experience for the hospitality industry.”

“People are using a lot of social technologies in their personal lives,” “we expect ease of use, simplicity, clean interfaces are now things we expect in the enterprise side.”

Crimping innovation

In the enterprise IT sector, Hurd believes the flat market means many companies catering to the corporate market are skimping on Research and Development which in turn is crimping innovation, a factor compounded by cloud providers taking an increasingly larger share of the market.

This is underscored by cloud leader Amazon Web Services spending over ten billion dollars a year on R&D. Hurd’s boast that Oracle is spending half of that shows how the legacy players are struggling.

What stands out in Hurd’s keynote is how legacy providers see cloud computing as their salvation. However Amazon’s dominance in that space is a major obstacle for them.

For consumers, big and small, the shift to the cloud has been a good thing in shaking up the existing industry and making new technologies more accessible to smaller customers. For existing businesses like Oracle, there’s a challenge in adapting to a lower margin, commoditized and quickly changing market.

A bigger question though facing all large corporations, not just software companies, is this new normal of low economic growth. Succeeding in that environment is going require a completely different management and investor mind set to that of the last seventy years.