Nov 262015

In the early 1990s I was working for a British company in Hong Kong and regularly commuting to Taipei. On a Cathay Pacific flight back from Taiwan one Friday afternoon, I found myself on the same flight as the organisation’s Asia-Pacific director who graciously got me into the lounge for a beer.

Over that beer he told me how earlier in the year he’d been asked by one of the pukka English directors why he was bothering spending so much money in business development for ‘third world countries’ like Taiwan and South Korea.

Jeff, as we’ll call the director, laid down a challenge to his board. “Come out and have a look for yourself,” he told them.

Some of the UK based directors took Jeff up and flew out to Hong Kong, first class on BA of course, and then continued on to Taipei where they suitably amazed to be greeted by a first world city.

“They genuinely believed they were going to fly in a DC-3 and be met by a bunch of rickshaw wallas,” laughed Jeff, a long standing English expat. “The Brits don’t get East Asia.”

It seems things haven’t changed much as veteran venture capital investor Mike Moritz made a similar point at a speech in London yesterday that the West doesn’t understand China, particularly Europe.

“People underestimate China, especially in Europe,” Business Insider quotes Moritz as saying. “They have very little sense of the size, strength, and scale of ambition of the leading Chinese technology companies.

Moritz pointed out the fund he leads, Sequoia Ventures, is now placing over half its money in non-US companies with Chinese businesses being high on the list.

The West’s misunderstanding of China goes beyond business, with The Economist warning that many nations are soon going to have to choose between the PRC and the United States as Beijing sets up its own network of global alliances and trade accords.

So far the United States has responded to this with clumsy efforts like the Trans Pacific Partnership, an attempt to quarantine China’s influence in the Western Pacific that actually gives PRC  based businesses a competitive advantage over nations that enter the deal which does little more than strengthen US corporate interests.

Already in Africa, the results of China’s economic efforts are being seen. A good example is the new Ethopian Railway where the Chinese were quick to fund a project that EU and World Bank lenders had dragged their feet on.

Just as English businessmen in the 1990s misunderstood what was going on in East Asia, it seems ignorance of Chinese growth and intentions are even more widespread today. There may be some shocks coming for countries like Australia who assume today’s realities are tomorrow’s.

Nov 032015

Today San Francisco goes to the polls and one of the many questions being put to voters is Proposition F, an initiative to put restrictions on short term rentals.

Also known as the AirBnB initiative, Proposition F is also being seen as part of San Francisco residents’ push against the tech community’s takeover of the city.

In countering the Proposition F supporters, AirBnB hasn’t helped its case with a clumsy public campaign and an aggressive $8 million war chest to support the initiatives opponents, but the real problems for the service lie in the hostility towards the tech and startup community in general.

A notable thing about the new tech community is how their staff are isolated from the community around them. Probably the worst example of this in Southern California where Google has been accused of harassing homeless people on the public footpaths around its Venice Beach complex.

While having onsite facilities may make sense in remote Silicon Valley business parks, in city areas like San Francisco this only creates hostility from those who feel displaced by the new elite.

The remoteness of the new tech elite is also shown in their companies’ attitudes towards customer support. Services like AirBnB, Facebook and Google consistently try to reduce their support overheads by pushing responsibility onto users and contractors by making it difficult, if not impossible for the public to contact them.

Inevitably that remoteness from the general community breeds distrust and hostility. Which is what we’re seeing now being directed towards AirBnB.

Paradoxically, despite the hostility towards the tech community and AirBnB, they are probably not the reason for San Francisco’s soaring property prices as around the world the price of homes is soaring as the effects of cheap money filter through investment markets.

As long as those prices keep soaring beyond the reach of working and middle class residents, AirBnB and the tech community can expect to continue feeling the pressure. Although it’s not hard to think though that a bit of humility might help their case.

Nov 032015

Watching from afar, the reaction to Malcolm Turnbull becoming Australia’s 29th Prime Minister has been remarkable as suddenly the nation seems to have collectively woken up to the fact they are fifteen years into a new century.

In a few short weeks Australian public servants have started engaging in hackathons and business leaders whose idea of an investment was a property plan disguised as a casino have started raising VC funds.

The question though for Australia is this too little and too late after three decades of concentrating on property speculation and betting on a never ending Chinese economic miracle?

New leadership

In Malcolm Turnbull – who only rejoined the Liberal Party in the early 2000s after careers as a journalist, barrister and banker – Australia for the first time in forty years doesn’t have a party apparatchik as Prime Minister.

While this wasn’t a problem during the 1970s and 80s under Fraser and Hawke, by the 1990s the shrinking membership base of Australian political parties meant increasingly the ‘talent’ coming up the ranks was lacking perspective outside the narrow factional groupings most of them were beholden to.

This became brutally apparent with the last three Prime Ministers who were fully hostage to their party factions. In Gillard and Abbott Australia had two party operatives who were no doubt talented in internal party manouvering but hopelessly out of their depths as government leaders – Abbott often seemed to be more interested in settling the battles of 1980s Sydney University student politics than governing the country.

Describing Prime Minister Rudd would take a thesis in political psychology which is way beyond the scope, or interest, of this writer.

The consequences of this were an Australian political leadership that was disinterested in the real economy beyond guaranteeing the social compact that property prices would double every decade and ensure their support in the key swing electorates of suburban Australia.

An insular business community

For the business community the insular focus of Australian society and its politicians worked well too. As the economy turned inwards in the 1990s under the Keating and Howard governments, so too did Australia’s conglomerates who realised clipping the ticket of a consumer economy was far easier than competing on global markets.

The best example of this were Australia’s banks which essentially gave up on lending to business unless it was guaranteed by property. This graph from Macrobusiness illustrates just how the nation’s banks focused on property speculation.

Australian bank lending, courtesy of Macrobusiness.

Australian bank lending, courtesy of Macrobusiness.

That focus on housing and consumer spending underpinned on rising property prices distorted the entire business sector and ingrained in the Australian psyche that the key to riches and prosperity was to get a relatively low skilled ‘safe job’ and borrow as much money as possible.

A good example of this are the regular stories of sweet twenty something wunderkinds who have built multi million dollar property portfolios while working in pizza shops or as administrative assistants.

Possibly the greatest damage Australia’s property obsession has been on the nation’s youth where the message has been ‘don’t gain a globally competitive skill set or education, just get an entry level job at the real estate agents and buy as much property as the bank will allow you.’

Turnbull’s challenge

Like Gough Whitlam, the last Prime Minister not a creature of their party factions, the reform challenge facing Turnbull is immense as 25 years of complacency have left Australia with an uncompetitive economy – as it had for the incoming Labor government of 1972 – with added complexity of having to maintain property prices to keep its economic miracle and social compact ticking over.

The similarities to Whitlam are also striking in the support Turnbull has from the population. One of the striking things on returning to Australia after spending most of the last three months in the United States has been the sense of relief that the inept horror movie of the Abbott government (Attack of the Clueless Zombies) is over and a realisation that Australia has actually entered the 21st Century and not regressing back into the 19th.

Agendas for reform

Entering the 21st Century won’t be easy though for Australia. Completing the reforms of the education sector, started half heartedly by Gillard and then trashed by Abbott in settling the scores of his student politics days, is one major challenge along with reforming tax and social security systems that focuses on asset hoarding and speculation over productive investment.

Possibly a greater challenge is to wean the Australia business sector off its ticket clipping mentality and rediscover its desire to compete globally. It may well be that encouraging the startup sector makes more sense in rebuilding the economy’s competitiveness as many of the nation’s insular conglomerates and their well fed executives are too used to milking the domestic consumer rather than taking on the world.

The end of kitchen renovations

The biggest challenge of all though will be to wean Australians off their property addiction, particularly those under 50 who have neglected their global skills as they focused on renovating their kitchens.

Given the scope of these reforms, such an agenda will require a clear mandate from an electorate that has been complacently accepting guaranteed good times as long as refugees are turned back, the terrorists among us imprisoned and gay couples prevented from marrying for the last 25 years. Making the argument for change is probably going to be Malcolm Turnbull’s greatest task.

For Australia the stakes are high. It’s not likely the 21st Century will be as kind to The Lucky Country as the Twentieth was.

Jul 262015
how easy is it to make money online

Is capitalism dead? Journalist Paul Mason discusses his book outlining a post capitalist future on a Guardian Live panel that covers how technological change is undermining the foundations of what we understand to be capitalism today.

While it’s arguable that capitalism is dying, more likely its evolving away from the current corporatist, consumerist model driven by easy credit, the panel makes some excellent points about how technology is changing the underpinnings of our society’s economic structures.

While the video’s long at 90 minutes, it’s well worth watching for some interesting observations on how our society and economies are evolving in a connected century.

Jul 232015
the temptation to discount for business owners and managers

Around the world threatened incumbents are turning to their political cronies to protect them from competition with businesses using technologies their cosy managers and shareholders never envisaged would exist.

In Australia, one of the laziest industries has been the retail sector. Long coddled by cosy duopolies and favourable regulatory arrangements, retailers ignored the changes to their markets since the web arrived in 1995.

Of the Australian retail industry probably the most cosseted of all was the department store duopoly. Protected by their market share and product licensing agreements, Myer and David Jones neglected investments in their internal systems and largely ignored the online world, with DJs even shutting down their website in the early 2000s.

Insular Australia

Eventually it became obvious to even the most insular Australian retailer that the internet was here to stay however in the meantime canny Australian shoppers had discovered buying overseas online was substantially cheaper, and much easier, than local stores.

Faced with offshore competitors that beat them on price, range and service, the Australian retailers started lobbying the Federal government to lower the threashold, currently $1000, that customs would take an interest in and add the ten percent Goods and Services Tax (GST) and various fees and duties. In the hope the bureaucracy would discourage local shoppers looking overseas.

Mistaken lobbying

The campaign to lower the GST threashold was a mistake says Ian Moir, the current Chairman of now South African owned David Jones. “It set Australian retailers back because they spent more time trying to persuade governments to do this than they did thinking about what the long term future for the business is.”

Moir was speaking yesterday in Sydney at an Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce lunch panel titled ‘Reframing retail for the digital age: The importance of an integrated approach’. Joining the DJs executve on the board were Craig Dower, the CEO of Salmat and David Mustow, Head of Retail & Consumer at Macquarie Bank.

The message from the lunch was clear – technology savvy customers were demanding more from retailers now smartphones are driving purchase decisions. “Everyone talks about Big Data and how you use it as an organisation,” observed Scottish born Moir. “Not enough people talk about the big data the customer has on their mobile phones.”

Mobile first

Moir’s view on mobile was endorsed by Macquarie’s Mustow who stated “if you’re investing in this space it’s mobile first.” Salmat’s Downer added to this with Salmat’s research that found 55% of online retail sales are coming through mobile devices.

That Australian consumers have one the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates and are also among the planet’s most avid web user only shows how poorly local retailers have responded to the web and mobile devices over the past two decades.

When Moir took the reigns at David Jones last August after Woolworths South Africa – unrelated to the local supermarket giant – the company was making a piddling one percent of its sales online. The new management has grown this three fold but it’s still trivial compared to Australians’ appetite for online shopping.

Dampening overseas demand

The appetite of overseas online sales will dampened should the proposed GST changes reducing the taxable threshold on imports to $20 be introduced as consumers deal with the bureaucracy, delays and costs of Australia’s dysfunctional customs system however Moir warns this will only be a temporary respite, “these changes only affect you in the short term, it tends to sort itself out over time.”

Indeed for retailers, the GST changes will probably only benefit customs agents and bloated ticket clippers like Australia Post along with introducing a whole range of unexpected consequences as foreign retailers and local entrepreneurs find opportunities in the new tax regime.

While the champagne may taste sweet for Australia’s retail lobbyists as they celebrate their likely win over brunch at Sydney’s exclusive Balmoral Beach Club this Sunday, their employers are going to find that swaying the politicians is the easy part – it’s ultimately the market that guarantees your success.

Jul 172015

As services like Uber change the definition of employment, the company finds it has become an issue for the US Presidential race.

The New York Times reports how the Democratic candidates, led by Hilary Clinton, and the Republicans are carving out their positions on the sharing and on-demand economies.

Notable in the current discussion is low little support there is for the incumbent taxi companies and their drivers which shows how in most states and cities the medallion and licensing regulations have been used to stifle competition and discourage service.

For cab drivers that characterisation is somewhat unfair given cabbies themselves in many cities are exploited and are as much the victims of a bad systems as the passengers.

That the future of work and the structure of these services is now in the political spotlight, the issues raised by the new business models are going to get more examination and – hopefully – some ideas on addressing the changes needed to deal with a very different workforce in the 21st Century.

Mar 262015
Big data takes our online, shopping and social media use it is the business challenge for our time

This morning I’m speaking on ABC Radio’s Overnights about the risks of the Australian government’s law to force telecommunications companies to retain users’ metadata for two years.

While the act, currently before the Senate having passed the House of Representatives last week after the poorly named ‘opposition’ Labor Party supported it, mandates that telcos and ISPs will have to retain the details of users’ connection times, places and type of device for two years and that government agencies will be able to access this data without a warrant.

The program was broadcast on 26 March 2015 at 4.15am Eastern Time with Trevor Chappell and is can be listened to on the ABC radio website.

Some resources on the data retention bill follow;