Jan 312017
 
Will the US Jobs act create American employment and is it relevant to Australia

When the Obama administration approved the US JOBS Act in 2012 it was almost certain the crowdfunding aspects would attract charatans looking to separate gullible investors from their money.

And so it has turned out, with the New York Times reporting how some crowdfunding sites are worried by the poor quality of startups touting for funds on some platforms.

The Times piece follows the story of Ryan Feit, the founder of New York’s Seedinvest who tells how he has rejected substandard proposals only to have seen them embraced by other crowdfunding platforms with often terrible results for investors.

One of the early companies he rejected was shut down by regulators — who labeled it a fraud — after it raised $5 million from investors. And Mr. Feit expects it won’t be the last.

That fraudsters would be attracted to crowdfunding sites is unsurprising and with regulators still working out how to manage investor protection the field is still very much ‘buyer beware.’

High valuations are also an investor warning sign.

Mr. Feit has been particularly worried about companies that have assigned themselves sky-high valuations that will make it hard for investors to ever make their money back. In several cases, companies that he rejected because of their high valuations have shown up on other sites with the same valuations

The unicorn mania of recent years is the cause of this focus on high valuations and is strange for investors as those richly priced stakes are not in their interests or those of employees taking equity in the business. If anything, a ridiculous market valuation should be the biggest warning of all to potential stakeholders.

Ultimately though it may be that crowdfunding equity isn’t about taking a stake in a business but more showing one’s support for a venture suggests, Nick Tommarello, the co-founder of Wefunder.

Mr. Tommarello also noted that many small-time investors so far were viewing their investments more as donations to businesses they like, rather than as investments that will make money.

As JOBS Act equity crowdfunding campaigns are limited to a million dollars each, being the modern equivalent of the ‘friends, families and fools’ may be the future of these capital channels. Hopefully there won’t be too many fools.

Dec 132016
 
Does the digital divide really exist

Earlier this year, Telstra released the Digital Inclusion Index along with its report on measuring Australia’s digital divide.

Last week in Sydney the company hosted a half day conference to look at the ramifications of the 2016 report.

Overall the report was good news with most indicators showing improvements although the gap between the connected and the most disadvantaged has widened since the first index was compiled in 2014.

In general, wealthier, younger, more educated, and urban Australians enjoy much greater inclusion. All over the country, digital inclusion rates are clearly influenced by differences in income, educational attainment, and the geography of socioeconomic disadvantage. And over time, some Australian communities are falling further behind.

The one factor the survey found that is declining nationally is affordability which the authors put down to Australians’ increasing reliance on the internet.

The Affordability measure is the only dimension to have registered a decline since 2014, but this outcome does not simply reflect rising costs. In fact, internet services are becoming comparatively less expensive – but at the same time, Australians are spending more on them.

Sadly affordability isn’t going to improve should the government’s proposed broadband levy of seven dollars a month become reality to subsidise rural users.

That such a levy would be proposed by a government that was opposed to a National Broadband Network and to ‘Big New Taxes’ while in opposition is an irony left for Australian political historians to discuss but it shows how comprehensively the NBN project has failed.

Even sadder is the NBN  isn’t delivering for businesses as it increasingly becomes apparent the network being built will struggle to deliver 21st Century services to most of the nation.

That businesses are struggling to connect emphasises just how serious the digital divide is becoming for the economy – as supply chains in every industry become increasingly globalised regions that aren’t connected risk being isolated from their markets.

Policy makers have to consider the costs of those communities and groups being isolated from the modern economy. If we are going to be serious about building a twenty-first century society then we have to consider how disadvantaged groups and regions access global networks as well as making sure they have the skills to benefit from these technologies.

Mapping the areas of the disadvantage is a good first step but we have to look at how we address the segments of our society that are being left behind.

Nov 042016
 

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
 

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
 

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
 

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.