Mar 202017
 

Following the post on Building Digital Communities a few weeks ago, some friends forwarded me an excellent article from New Zealand tech evangelist Dan Khan on what he learned from from observing the development of Boulder’s tech community.

Khan’s view is values are at the root of building a startup community, an open and distributed network of people bringing their disparate but relevant skills to a region is what builds an industry cluster.

Equally it’s about values being aligned so the community reinforces its own strengths and advantages.

To many, the startup community is not a tangible thing. Instead, it’s an amorphous, ever-changing network of support, knowledge, resources, and relationships which gives those creating ventures, a boost up to the next level when they need it.

It’s simultaneously a safety net that eases founders down when their ideas fail; and a resounding cheerleader and network of scale for those flying high.

The New Zealand experience is informative as Wellington’s tech sector explodes on the back of special effects studio, WETA along with Xero and the vibrant startup community based around initiatives like Enspiral. So much so the city is offering free trips to prospective workers.

Enspiral itself is a good example of grass roots community initiative where a contractor’s collective has grown to 300 strong organisation building connections between Wellington’s creative, tech and businesses groups.

History is on the side of those building grass roots communities as almost every industrial hub has grown out of motivated individuals harnessing a local region’s advantages to dominate a sector.

As Steve Blank’s Secret History of Silicon Valley describes, the rise of today’s venture capital tech sector business model came out of a group of driven individuals leveraging the United States’ massive electronics research spending through the mid Twentieth Century along with a boost from tax changes in the late 1970s.

Silicon Valley’s startup culture owes a lot to government spending and policies but the development of today’s ecosystem took fifty years and many motivated individuals working together.

Which brings us to to the Victorian state government’s funding the establishment of a 500 Startups outpost in Melbourne. This is part of a sustained campaign to subsidise global tech companies’ setting up their regional offices in the city.

As part of that campaign the Victorian state government has promised to spend sixty million Australian dollars on building a startup ecosystem in Melbourne, it’s a classic example of top down planning.

History hasn’t been kind to Victoria in its tech industry subsidies, with the state government spending ten of millions at the beginning of the century to develop region’s gaming industry only to see the sector collapse as a high Australian dollar and soaring costs saw international studios leave and local producers close.

In 1998, then Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, triumphantly proclaimed subsidising Netscape’s Australian office would lead to Melbourne becoming a global tech centre. Twenty years later, that game continues.

500 Startups founder Dave McClure hints at how the outpost will be limited, “Partnering with Melbourne and LaunchVic helps us bring a slice of Silicon Valley to Australia through our startup, investor, and corporate programs.”

So there’s a strong sense of deja-vu, dare one say even cargo cult thinking, in the weekend’s announcement.

While bringing a slice of Silicon Valley to Melbourne is nice, it doesn’t build an ecosystem which will take years of patient encouragement of local, motivated individuals. What’s worse, the government intervention threatens to distort the market and stifle the culture of grass roots development Khan identifies as being critical.

The question for Melbourne’s startup community is how much patience does the government have? The nation’s political culture of announceables, which the current state minister is an enthusiastic participant, doesn’t bode well.

For the moment, the priority for the Melbourne startup community is to decide if public sector funding should be a critical part of their ecosystem. If government subsidies for foreign businesses are the answer then ensuring bipartisan and long term political support for strategic initiatives should also be close to the top of the list.

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.

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 012016
 

Last week accounting automation service Blackline listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange with a valuation of over a billion dollars.

The listing was a triumph for the company’s founder and CEO Therese Tucker who started the company in 2005 after a client asked her to find a way to manage the ten thousand spreadsheet their firm used for accounts reconciliation.

We spoke to Therese last year during a visit to Australia where she described some of the challenges of building a business.

Therese’s journey is an interesting, and inspiring, tale of how you don’t have to be a twenty something white guy to build a billion dollar tech business. Her story is worth listening to.

Oct 182016
 

As part of Telstra’s Muru-D business accelerator opening its latest startup intake this week, Annie Parker and Ben Sand, the organisation’s co-founder and Entrepreneur in Chief respectively, spoke to a small group of journalists on Tuesday about what they were looking for in the next batch of applicants and how the tech startup sector is changing.

Ben’s entrepreneurial journey from a scrappy, underfunded Aussie startup to a hot Silicon Valley property and back to a corporate incubator is an interesting tale in itself.

His first venture, an edu-tech startup called Brainworth founded in 2010, operated out of a dilapidated inner city Sydney terrace. The business acheived traction and Ben’s team won a ScreenNSW interactive media grant two years later.

Failing the Kickstarter test

Ultimately Brainworth petered out after missing a Kickstarter round. As Ben says, “I focused on getting out the maximum viable model rather than the Minimum Viable Model and the money ran out.”

As Brainworth withered away, Ben joined former university friend, Meron Gribetz at his Augmented Reality startup Meta which went onto join the Y Combinator program. The company went on to attract $23 million dollars in investment, primarily from Hong Kong and Chinese investors, and now has 150 employees.

Earlier this year, Ben returned to Australia after seeing Mick Liubinskas’ blog post about moving to the United States. In that article, his predecessor put out a call out for those interested in replacing him at the Sydney office which Ben answered.

Australian advantages

Now firmly settled into his Sydney role, Ben sees computer vision as one of the biggest opportunities in the tech sector. Bringing together disparate technologies like virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and smart sensors, computer vision allows machines such as autonomous vehicles, drones and medical diagnostic equipment to pull together sources of data that lets machines see what is going on in the world around them.

Computer vision is a field where Australia has an advantage, Ben believes. “Adelaide is the second most funded city in the world in computer vision,” he points out with investments like Cisco’s into South Australia’s Kohda Wireless driving the local industry.

Ben and Annie don’t see the next group of Muru-D applicants being restricted to any one field despite Ben’s background in AR and interest in machine vision. “It’s more the psychology of the founders,” he says.

Mentoring the next wave

Three years of experience is also delivering dividends, observes Annie. “I’m starting to see the early cohorts starting to mentor and support the newer ones. That’s part of what Muru-D is part of, creating the ecosystem.”

Over the three years, there’s also been quite a few adjustments to the Muru-D process, Annie observes. “We change the model each year by about thirty percent.” she says.

Another thing that has changed is that later stage startups can apply for the program which will be open until November 4.

“I’m excited and I’m very confident we’re going to get great outcomes for these people,” says Ben of the next Muru-D cohort. “We’ll be working on getting the most confident founders on board and hopefully helping them to aim high.”

Oct 132016
 
radio programs for techonology, web, social media, cloud computing and computer advice

This Thursday night join Dom Knight and myself on ABC Nightlife to discuss what tools you can use to start or improve your business and how can we encourage more people to have a go.

Last week the last Australian car making jobs finished and a survey of the Geelong Ford workers found only one percent were interested in starting a new business.

If you missed the spot, you can listen to the podcast through the Nightlife website.

Despite the reluctance to start new businesses it’s never been easier to do so with a range of tools making it simpler to run one. Tonight on the Nightlife we look at some of those tools and what we can do to encourage more people to have a go at running their own companies.

For the program, I’ve a compiled a list of tools businesses should be using. It certainly isn’t exhaustive or definitive and if you have any suggestions on better or newer tools, I’ll be happy to add them.

Some of the questions we cover on the program include;

  • who ran the survey of motor industry workers?
  • what were most of them going to do?
  • so what sort of businesses can these workers go into?
  • what programs are being offered to these workers?
  • how has starting a business changed over the past twenty years?
  • is the focus on tech startups intimidating people who might want to start a business?
  • what are the basic tools every business should have?
  • a few years ago social media was all the rage, does it matter any more?
  • what’s the number one advice for anyone thinking of starting a business?

Join us

Tune in on your local ABC radio station from 10pm Australian Eastern Summer time or listen online at www.abc.net.au/nightlife.

We’d love to hear your views so join the conversation with your on-air questions, ideas or comments; phone in on 1300 800 222 within Australia or +61 2 8333 1000 from outside Australia.

You can SMS Nightlife’s talkback on 19922702, or through twitter to @paulwallbank using the #abcnightlife hashtag or visit the Nightlife Facebook page.