Aug 292015
 
president-obama-makers-faire

The Obama Administration teams with Apple, HP, Boeing and others to develop a Silicon Valley based wearable tech hub with $170 million in funding reports Venture Beat.

Over $17o million will be invested by the US government and its private sector partners in hybrid flexible electronics manufacturing research that may well underpin the next generation of wearable and embeddable devices.

For the US, its success in the electronics industry is based upon its strong research sector. Making the investments today will help the nation compete as the technology landscape evolves.

Aug 252015
 
commonwealth-bank-in-lockart-nsw

One of the things that strikes you when wandering around London’s Docklands district is the sheer amount of advertising for financial technology companies.

That London has established this position should surprise no-one, its civic and national leaders have been aggressive in maintaining the city’s position as technology has swept through the banking sector.

One of the notable things when interviewing the Chief Executive of London and Partners, Gordon Innes, two years ago was how engaged both the city’s business and political leaders were in the development of the town’s technology sector and the financial industry was a natural focus.

An example Innes gave of that engagement was the co-operation between the offices of the Prime Minister and the London Mayor where staffers meet on a monthly basis to agree on business and technology policy, which is then put into action by Westminster and the UK Parliament.

Poaching the Aussies

The benefits of that co-ordination and focus are global, with the London fintech sector attracting startups from as far as Australia.

Australia’s experience, or lack of it, in the fintech sector is notable. As the story linked above mentions, the UK Trade and Investment agency actively scouts out promising businesses while the local state and Federal equivalents sit on the sidelines (disclaimer: I worked for the New South Wales government on its digital economy strategy).

For Australia, the late entry into fintech doesn’t bode well. The country’s financial sector is overwhelmingly weighted towards domestic property speculation – a structural weakness seen as a strength by most Australians – and the country’s high costs make it tough for startups.

Defining a competitive advantage

High costs in themselves aren’t a barrier to a city’s success – London, New York and San Francisco themselves would be among the highest cost places to do business on the planet.

To justify those costs a city needs a competitive advantage and there’s little to suggest Sydney or Melbourne have anything compelling as a financial centre beyond a bloated domestic banking industry fixated on residential property.

Two of the arguments used to support Australia’s claims are it is on the doorstep of Asia and it is in the same timezone as the growing East Asian powerhouses.

Timezone myths

If timezones do matter in modern business, the sad truth for the Aussies is the powerhouses themselves – specifically Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore – are in roughly the same longitudes so any time differentials aren’t great.

Being on the doorstep of Asia is probably one of the greatest Australian myths of all – it’s actually quicker to fly from Beijing to London than it is to Sydney. London might be on the edge of Europe – one US entrepreneur once told me how they can get Spanish developers into the UK in an afternoon – and New York is the gateway to the United States however there’s little reason to go Down Under for any other reason than to visit Australia.

The power of history and focus

Comparing London to Sydney is useful though as it shows the power of history and trade routes. London became a global financial centre because it was the financial centre of a global empire just as New York is today and possibly Shanghai in the not too distant future.

For the Aussies, the trade routes aren’t so encouraging in indicating the country has a future as a financial sector. Even ignoring history, the commitments of governments and local corporations are at best half-hearted compared to their global competitors – as we see with London poaching Australian businesses.

One of the strengths in those global centres is a constant re-invention and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances – how China adapts to a rebalanced economy will define whether it remains a global economic power – and in the UK the government is looking at the next big things in biotech and the Internet of Things, two areas where it has strengths and can attract global investment and skills.

For countries and regions aspiring to be global players, they need not just to be playing to their own strengths but also to where the future lies and not be late entrants into the current investment fad.

Aug 212015
 
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore presents the prize to the small businesss award winner

Yesterday I hosted the second day of the CPA Australia Technology, Accounting and Finance Forum that looked at how the accounting profession is being affected by the changing technology landscape.

There’s plenty to write about from the day and how the accounting profession is facing technological change which I’ll write up shortly but one theme from the day was striking – that older small businesses owners are struggling to deal with adopting new tech.

Gavan Ord, the CPA’s policy advisor warns older practitioners are opening themselves to disruption and  the Australian business community is in general is at risk as older proprietors aren’t investing or embracing technology at a rate comparable to their overseas competitors.

Older small business owners

That older skew in small business operators is clear, in 2012 The Australian Bureau of Statistics found 57% of the nation’s proprietors are aged over 45 as opposed to 35% of the general population.

Even more concerning is many of those small business owners expect to retire with a 2009 survey finding 81% were intending to retire within ten years – it would be interesting to see how those ambitions changed as the global financial crisis evolved.

A risk to the broader economy

This blog has flagged the risks of an aging small businesses community previously, but Gavan Ord’s point flags another risk – that older proprietors being reluctant to invest in new technology means a key segment of the Australian economy is unprepared for today’s wave of technological change.

A key message from the CPA forum was that the shift to cloud computing is radically changing the business world as sophisticated data management, analytic and automation tools become easily available. Companies, and nations, that don’t take advantage of modern business tools risk being left behind in the 21st Century.

Jul 292015
 
facebook-buy-button-powered-by-stripe

Payment service Stripe joins the unicorn club as credit card company Visa becomes the latest investor reports the Re/Code website.

Two years ago this site interviewed John Collison, one of the Irish twins who founded Stripe about their mission to bring the payments industry in the 21st Century.

With the Visa investment it now means two of the world’s three major credit card companies are investors in Stripe, the other being American Express, and this shows the incumbent players are acutely aware of the changes happening in the payments world.

That credit card companies are investing in the businesses that threaten to disrupt their industry indicates the incumbents’ savvy management; while there are cultural and ethical barriers in trying to undercut the existing profitable products, having a stake in the new competitors gives companies like Visa and AmEx to remain relevant in a post credit card world.

For Stripe, investment from what could have been their major competitors not only takes some of the pressure off the the business but also opens opportunities for technology sharing and access to bigger markets.

Probably the most important thing for Strip with the Amex and Visa investments is they legitimise the business and the entire payments startup sector. It’s an important vote of confidence in the technologies and market.

For the Collison twins it also helps build better businesses, as John told Decoding the New Economy two years ago, “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.”

Now more people will be looking at what they can build on these payment platforms.

Jul 182015
 
THE_BEAD_MAKER_--_Apprentice_Watches_the_Master_--_A_Rosary_Shop_in_Old_Meiji-Era_Japan

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 012015
 
bonuses, commissions and other incentives can distort a business

“Raising money is like ordering dinner,” says startup founder Geoff McQueen about attracting investors. “If you’re only a little bit hungry, you should only buy an appetizer.”

McQueen was writing about his company, professional services platform Affinity Live, achieving its first round of funding. While the amount raised is a relatively modest two million dollars, the main gain for the company is getting some experienced business people on board.

Unlike many of the high profile billion dollar ‘unicorns’, cash flow positive businesses like Affinity don’t need large swags of cash to grow. As McQueen points out, big investment rounds put pressures on management and risks the company’s culture changing “from one of discipline and taking on the world to one of comfort and entitlement”.

Pushing out the owners

Another risk for founders is they could end up diluting themselves out of the business they’ve built, as venture capital investor Heidi Roizen points out it’s possible for the creators of a billion dollar startup to find themselves broke.

Roizen observes “venture capital is not free money. It’s debt. And then some”, something that’s overlooked by many commentators who think a fund raising – and the resultant valuation  – goes straight into the pockets of a company’s founders.

Unless it’s Google Ventures doing the investment, it’s unlikely the founders will be buying Porsches after a VC round and usually the funding goes into growing the business. For many big name startups those capital needs can be huge as we see with Uber where reports indicate the company is currently losing two dollars for every dollar it earns.

Beating the burn rates

Most businesses though can only dream of burn rates in the hundreds of millions a year and their needs are far more modest illustrating McQueen’s point about excess capital.

As we saw in the dot com bust it was the lean and focused companies that survived the downturn, there’s little to think the next industry shake it will be different. That’s why companies like Affinity Live and founders like Geoff McQueen will probably still be around when the dust and hype settles.