Apr 072017
 

One of the downsides of the current tech startup boom is the obsession with investor funding, the race to be a billion dollar ‘unicorn’ like Uber or AirBnB obsesses most of us reporting on this space.

The paradox is while we gleefully report businesses raising hundreds of millions of dollars at ever increasing valuations, we’re also discussing how the cost of entering industries or launching new companies is collapsing, making it easier to launch a venture than every before.

Which leads us to good old fashioned ‘bootstrapping’ – funding a business’ growth out of sales.

A recent story I wrote on Sydney based HR tech company Expr3ss! reminded me of that where owner Carolyne Burns described how she financed her business initially through the sale of her house and has never taken a cent from investors over a decade of profitable operations.

Bootstrapping is the traditional way generations of business owners and entrepreneurs have funded their ventures and it’s only in recent years with the rise of the tech startup that venture capital or private equity has been seen as investment sources for most small businesses.

That rise of VC and PE investors though could be partly due to the banks stepping out of their role of financing small businesses as they’ve focused on financial engineering and funding speculators.

Also driving things in the last decade has been the flood of cheap money that’s washed across the world as governments and central bankers try to stave off deflation.

Many businesses needing money to fund capital investment or expansion have found it’s become harder to go to banks or traditional investors and that partly explains the rise of VC’s, Private Equity and the range of new online lender and crowdfunding platforms.

Venture Capital and investor money though never really comes cheap and having raised funds from investors, a founder or business owner’s job becomes as much about managing investor expectations as running the company.

 

For many business founders, the whole reason for starting their own company was to run their own show. So answering to a bunch of investors defeats the purpose of going on one’s own.

Carolyne Burns’ story is a reminder that the best, and cheapest, form of business financing is profitable sales. It’s something we should remember in an age that celebrates loss making companies dependent upon indulgent investors.

Apr 042017
 

With a range of tech companies floating as corporations lose their appetite for acquisitions, companies like Boomi which was bought by Dell in 2010 believe they have an advantage over competitors like Mulesoft which have to answer to the public markets at sky high valuations following their recent stock market listing.

If Chris McNabb, CEO of Dell Boomi, is concerned about his competitor’s successful IPO, he wasn’t showing it when he spoke with Decoding the New Economy at a restaurant in a Sydney office park last week. With Mulesoft’s stock popping 45% on the first day of trade, attention was on how his company would react to such a vote of confidence in his market rival.

“We continue to grow very rapidly, well north of market growth rates. I think you’ll see us consolidate our position at the top of most boards in terms of the number of customers. If you look at Mulesoft’s S1 (the company’s official stock offering document) it shows them with around 1,078 customers while we have 5,300 customers. We almost have an unfair competitive advantage.”

Part of that unfair advantage McNabb cites is the breadth of services now offered by Dell’s merger with EMC where he flagged an increased push across the organisation’s sales team starting in the second half of this year.

“For us to say six months ago that we’d sit here and say that the merger of two 25 billion dollar plus businesses could be bedded down is really saying something. I think it’s one of the best integrations that I’ve ever seen.”

“For Boomi it’s been terrific and continues to be terrific. We get unequivocal support from executives, Michael Dell and the ELT – Executive Leadership Team – has been nothing but a hundred percent supportive.”

“Now we’re looking at what we can do with the EMC Solutions sales team, what we can do with our brothers in the strategically aligned businesses, specifically Pivotal, Virtustream and VMWare. What are the opportunities to go to market more collaboratively with them?”

Boomi’s recent ManyWho acquisition fits into that range of offerings and McNabb believes the workflow platform’s role as a tool helping CIOs manage their organisations’ transitions to cloud services will be a compelling offering.

“Workflow automation – redoing business processes in a structured and an unstructured way – was always a key strategy of ours.”

“Hybrid IT is here for the next ten years, so how do we enable it so customers can buy all the best of breed software they want yet still have a suite like experience?”

“We believe hybrid IT is creating challenges for CIOs and as you  get all these different cloud applications from vendors you’re breaking apart your ERP and creating an integration problem and you’re creating a data management problem along with governance, API management and orchestration.”

“It’s our vision to give CIOs the unified platform the necessary fundamentals in cloud services to address these issues.”

With a solid market position in North America, McNabb sees the Asia-Pacific as the big growth driver for Boomi with channel partners leading the company’s expansion across the region.

“Worldwide EMEA is going through a ton of growth and this region (APAC) is going through a ton of growth. Our expectation is this region will have the highest growth rates – Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia, these are key target areas.”

“If I look at things strategically and how important the channel is to us, is it’s a force multiplier as it allows you to get entire teams being certified and ready to go across regions. It also helps execute in a better way in local markets, you have to be in a region in a big way and if you can get really good certified partners you can do that much better and faster than if you’re hiring and building it yourself.”

Returning to the topic of Mulesoft, McNabb sees not being part of a publicly listed company as one of Boomi’s big advantages.

“We don’t operate on a ninety day ‘shock clock’, we know what the market’s growing at, we know what our platform is capable of, we know we’re going to raise our targets. There isn’t increased pressure to perform.”

“As it turns out, those in the public eye do have the ninety day shock clock to attend to and it will be interesting to see how those first, two, three or four quarterly reviews go. I’ll certainly be an eager listener to their investor calls.”

Ultimately though, McNabb thinks Mulesoft’s IPO and it’s 45% pop on listing vindicates Dell’s ongoing investment in Boomi and the potential of the cloud integration marketplace.

“I look at it as a terrific validation of the marketplace…. It’s good for everybody.”

Mar 302017
 

Thinking about design and getting to market should be a priority for startup businesses says Murray Hunter, founder of Sydney’s Design + Industry.

Having won over 160 design awards during 30 years of running Design + Industry and employing 50 specialist designers and engineers in his Sydney and Melbourne offices, Murray has many insights in what makes a successful product.

“Some of those companies have gone on to become world leaders, it’s a hell of ride and it’s a fabulous relationship where 15 or 20 years later you have a client relationship that’s dominating the world.” he recalls.

Thinking like designers

The current startup scene in Australia provides an opportunity for the country, Murray believes.

“We’re losing manufacturing industry but there’s a whole new wave of businesses and startups based around new technologies, particularly around IoT”

Cyclone pruning shears

“The world wants to think like designers and lead by innovation, which is a really interesting line. You have the American government that wants to design think and you have all these large accounting firms that want to be design thinkers as well.”

“But everyone wants to be innovative and provide a better experience to the customer and we have all these new technologies that are giving us the ability to have a lot more information, be more informative.”

“It started with Apple with the iPod and then the iPhone and it’s led right through so we now have high expectations of what we want for products and services.”

Finding funding

His advice to startups is blunt, “the first thing you need is funding, If you don’t, start the process of development sufficient to develop collateral which enables you to gain investors.”

The development process itself starts with knowing the market.

“Products should be designed to suit the market, not on a hunch,” he says. “So you start with what the market wants and you go backwards. You don’t get dressed and say ‘where are we going’, you find out where you’re going and then get dressed.”

“The intelligent and qualified entrepreneur will have a lot of the problems solved, they’ll have done research, they’ll have knowledge of the market, they’ll know the segments it’s aimed at and quite often they’ll have route to market realised.”

BlueAnt Pump HD earbuds

“Crowdfunding makes a big difference as entrepreneurs can run a crowdfunding campaign, get initial sales and worldwide recognition for it. If it isn’t successful, that could be the end of it. Others know people who can fund it.”

“They may not have funding or they may, we have quite a few suppliers around us who will help with the funding process. We also know private individuals with deep pockets who are interested in investing.”

Changing the design industry

Over the past few years, the design industry has changed dramatically with the rise of Computer Aided Design, 3D printing along with new materials and manufacturing methods. Medical devices are one area that’s seen a rapid change.

“Thirty years ago medical products were low volume,” Murray recalls. “In Australia typically we’d make them out of sheet metal. Now the volumes have increased because the world is more easily accessed so we’re designing for higher volumes.”

CliniCloud non contact thermometer

“We’ve also got low cost manufacturing sources to provide solutions so we can develop a more sophisticated product that will be better received worldwide.

“The biggest change I think has been CAD (Computer Aided Design), the Internet and 3D printing.”

“CAD because we went from 2D drawing to 3D models, the internet because we no longer send DVDs or CAD files to our manufacturing partners and it means we can access manufacturers all over the world.”

“We’re working on a 3D printer that can make biomatter, in other words skin, there’s talk of doing teeth with the rigid externals and soft nerves. So where we go I can only think of organs, prosthetics, replacing cartilage which is a big thing for the elderly.”

Mar 212017
 

Data collection agency Experian’s deal with Finicity to collect and process borrower information is an example of the how Big Data is being used by the financial services sector.

Recently I wrote a piece for Fairfax Media on the Science of Money which included some quotes from Experian’s Australian managers. They were quite explicit about their use of data.

That a company like Experian is adopting more advanced analytics isn’t surprising given the power of the tools available. What’s also driving the adoption is the proliferation of devices available to track people.

Notable among those devices are personal assistants, as David Pogue writes in Scientific American, household technologies like Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple Siri are vacuuming up huge amounts of data on our behaviour, likes and dislikes.

Increasingly all of this is being fed into machines that determine our suitability for marketing campaigns, credit and financial services.

For companies like Experian this is a massive opportunity although the focus on credit suitability betrays a mindset more suited to the 1980s finance boom than the more complex times of the early 21st century.

It’s hard though not to think that given a choice the finance sector will happily use these tools to take us into another subprime lending crisis which would be a shame as these technologies’ potential for allowing us to make better decisions is immense.

How we use these tools will define our businesses, economies and communities over the next thirty years. We need to be careful about some of the choices we make.

Feb 242017
 

What are some of the barriers to increasing diversity in the startup community’s monoculture? Yesterday we had an insight into some of the changes needed at the Women in VC forum held in Sydney.

Samantha Wong, partner at early stage startup accelerator Startmate and Head of operations at Blackbird Ventures, described how Startmate identified some of those barriers among the 51 companies that went through the program and the steps to overcome them.

What Samantha and her team found illustrate how the Silicon Valley model of founding and funding businesses inadvertently creates obstacles for women, older workers, disadvantaged groups and poorer people.

Insisting on Solo Founders

“Previously we had a rule that you couldn’t be a solo-founder. It’s too much work to do it by yourself,” she explained.

There’s good reason for that belief as building any business on your own is hard, regardless of whether it’s a tech startup or a dog walking franchise.

It’s understandable that investors are reluctant to get involved with a ‘one person show’, although a lack of capital is going to make life extraordinarily harder for a sole founder or proprietor.

The myth of the tech co-founder

“You had to have at least one technical co-founder in the team.” Samantha explained, “the reasons for this rule were historical.”

This belief goes back to the origins of the Silicon Valley business model where companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and even Google were founded by ‘two men in a shed’ where one was the marketing or sales whiz and the other delivered the product.

Interestingly many of the recent successes like Facebook, Uber and AirBnB haven’t had that dynamic, probably because the technology industries have matured to a point where developer and product managers are established trades or professions are easily available as well as cloud based tools making technology itself more accessible.

So a ‘tech co-founder’ will almost certainly be useful but isn’t essential to get a business off the ground in today’s tech environment.

Being in attendance

“We had a blanket rule of requiring participants to be in Sydney for the full duration of the program,” says Samantha. “The reason for this we know from experience that ninety percent of the program’s value comes from that sharing which happens between founders, the support and the friendly competitive pressure you get from them. It brings the best out of you.”

Startmate changed its policy so only one of the co-founders needs to be in Sydney. While it doesn’t solve the problem of solo founders with family obligations that don’t want to move, it does make it easier for those with dependents to participate.

Dropping the blanket rules

Over the six years Startmate has been running, they’ve seen a change in the nature of startups joining the program. “When the program started in 2011 we gave a small amount of money to a couple of people to build a product and start attracting customers,” Samantha said.

“By 2016 we were attracting much later companies that already had revenue and the program’s focus became growth and fund raising.”

“So instead of blanket rules we started to ask ‘what does this company need to grow in the next three to six months?’ Do they enough resources right now? Is the product good enough to sell? If you can get good answers to those then it’s worth considering them joining.”

The lessons from Startmate in increasing diversity among their intake are instructive and it indicates the limits of the Silicon Valley model that favours young, middle class men over other groups.

For the tech industry, that focus on one group is a great weakness and means investors are missing a world of opportunities. Ditching existing biases and established wisdom could be a very profitable move from everyone.

Feb 112017
 

Last week, the annual Startup Muster report on the Australian startup sector was released, giving investors, founders and policy makers a valuable snapshot of a vibrant sector of the economy.

The 2016 report had 2711 responses to the online survey which the researchers whittled down to 685 startup founders, 239 potential founders and 474 startup supporters.

Compared to the previous years, the replies are an increase from the 602 in the 2015 survey and 385 the year before. It shows how the Australian scene is growing and evolving.

Still a boys club

A key finding from the 2016 Startup Muster report is the changing gender composition of a group that, quite rightly, has been criticised for being too much of a ‘boys club’. This year’s survey found 24.6% of founder respondents were female, up from 17.4 and 16.1 in the previous two years.

One area where Australia’s startup community does boast diversity is in its industry composition with 17% of the country’s startups in 2016 being focused on the most popular category of Fintech. Notably that sector came in at seventh in 2015.

2015 2016
Marketing Fintech
Content/Media Retail
Retail Content/Media
Big Data Internet of Things
Health Education
Education Marketing
Fintech Social media

Also notable in that list was the disconnect between startups and investors. While 17% of Australian startup founders were focused on Fintech, 42% of investors were. The area most of interest to investors was medical technology (47%) with the Internet of Things second (43%).

Over the next few years it will be interesting to see how investment fashions change, in the UK the bottom seems to have fallen out of the fintech boom while global investments seem to have increased. It’s likely Australia will follow a similar pattern to the wider global trends.

Sydney’s decline

Another interesting shift is the balance between cities and states with New South Wales and Sydney remaining dominant but its position slowly falling,

2015 2016
outside capital cities n/a 23.1
NSW 44 40.9
Vic 17 18.8
Qld 16.5 19.3
WA 8.9 7.3
SA 2.9 6.3
Tas 0.6 2.3
ACT 6.4 6.2

The fall in Western Australia is probably due to the state’s economic collapse in the face of the dying mining boom – many of WA’s skilled and affluent workers are moving out rather than struggling with a declining economy.

Efforts by the Victorian and Queensland governments to promote their startup sectors seem to have had some success although the real winner is South Australia, something underscored by US incubator TechStars’ recent launch in Adelaide.

The big question though is how attractive Australia is as a location for startups and investment capital.

Funding woes

In the 2016 Compass Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking report, Sydney fell four points from the 2012 survey to 16th while Melbourne fell out of the top twenty city rankings.

Due to its position as the second lowest on the Growth Index within the top 20, and its comparably weak statistics around Performance, Funding, and Market, Sydney now ranks #16 (down from #12 in 2012).

Compass’ findings show a critical problem for the Australian sector, regardless of its location, industry or founders’ gender – the lack of later stage investment funds.

That lack of funding means Australian startup founders are particularly sensitive to money issues with Startup Muster finding the most common hindrance to people launching startups is life circumstances requiring a stable income. In a high cost society, the need for a regular salary isn’t surprising.

Startup Muster’s 2016 report is a very useful snapshot of the state of Australia’s tech startup community. It serves as a good guide to what business founders, investors and policy makers should be considering.

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.