My Extended Gap Year

I was recently interviewed for a story about the Future of Work. One of the questions asked how I had arrived at my current portfolio career. As I reflected on the past few years of my working life, I realised that my ongoing journey resembled something of an extended gap year, because of the wide range of interests I have been exploring and the variety of projects I have been working on.


Image sourced from Ivy League Admissions Club

During my “original” gap year between school and university, I was a postman, I volunteered at a community law centre, I worked in a bread factory, on a building site and at a law firm, and travelled abroad. My primary goals then were to get some “real” life and work experiences and think about what I might like to do as a career once I graduated. If nothing else, it showed me how to work with other people, develop some resilience and resourcefulness, and discover what I might be passionate about. And while my career went in quite a different direction to the one I had imagined, the gap year experience was an invaluable part of the learning process.

Since my last corporate gig, I have embarked on what feels to be a continuous personal development programme. Aside from undertaking some professional development, participating in hackathons, serving on advisory boards, guest blogging, co-presenting numerous radio shows, developing a prototype HR app, joining various Meetup Groups, and working with a number of startups and entrepreneurs, most recently I have been working in the digital asset space (Bitcoin, Blockchain etc.) and in innovation using design thinking and collaboration models.

As part of my extra-curricular activities, I have continued to explore various digital tools and platforms for composing, recording and distributing my music – I even wrote a piece for Melbourne’s Federation Bells which is on semi-regular rotation – and I have learned some practical skills in picture framing and constructing display boxes out of Perspex.

What this all adds up to is a continuous desire to keep learning, to keep exploring interesting stuff, maintaining a sense of curiosity and not standing still – stagnation is the death of creativity! And while I may not have imagined embarking on such a career path after working in senior corporate roles for many years, the current journey is varied, seldom boring, and frequently rewarding.

For anyone who may feel they are stuck in their current work, or cannot see where there career is going, I would encourage you to think about taking a “gap year” – to explore, experience and experiment with your career options, to challenge your current perceptions, to take yourself out of your comfort zone, and above all to embrace the potential for change. Even if this does not feel like re-inventing yourself, it should be an invigorating and rewarding experience – and I’m more than happy to share some of my own insights if you want to contact me via this blog.

Next week: Spaghetti in the Cloud


Bridging the Digital Divide

Is there still a digital divide in Australia? If so, how do we bridge that gap? If not, how do we address the apparent chasm that is leaving some “digital have-nots” behind? Is it as simple as rolling out the National Broadband Network and equipping every school child with their own tablet device? Or is it also about creating a digital mindset to ensure everyone can take advantage of the educational, social and economic opportunities that the range of digital technologies has to offer?

Mobile phone internet usage is projected to keep growing. Source: Statista

Mobile phone internet usage is projected to keep growing. Source: Statista

Based on consumer research, we would appear to be a well-connected country, with a high concentration of PC, smart phone and tablet devices, if data from Roy Morgan is any indicator. However, some recent research by Scott Ewing of Swinburne University based on ABS data has suggested that despite the narrowing of the divide, there is a deeper disconnect among those who do not have internet access.

There are multiple factors contributing to this disconnect: socio-economic, age, location and education. I would expect that within 5-10 years, age will be a far less relevant factor in who does or doesn’t have access to the internet. You could also argue that with more people accessing the internet via mobile devices, and with the increasing number of free WiFi zones across our cities (cafes, shopping centres, office buildings), public institutions (libraries, museums and galleries) and transport infrastructure (plus the reducing price of data and storage), cost may not be as much of an issue either. And once the NBN is complete, the percentage of the population without physical access to the internet should likewise be much smaller.

So that leaves education – according to the ABS-derived data, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to access the internet. Should this infer that we aren’t doing enough to teach digital skills in the classroom? Or are we teaching the wrong set of skills? Or is it a bit like learning English grammar or applied mathematics – unless you use them in your everyday life, you soon forget them, and never remember why it was important to learn them in first place?

Computer science, programming and coding courses are increasingly being taught in schools, either as part of the core syllabus or as extra-curricular activities. Many pupils have to use tablets as an integral part of their school lessons. And some schools are also running hackathons and entrepreneurial projects to help students navigate the new world of work shaped by innovation, digital disruption and the “gig” economy.

The changing nature of work is challenging schools and parents to think about how we should be preparing pupils for the future. It’s not just learning about the technology (important as it is to study data analytics, automation, robotics, AI etc.), it’s also about understanding the context and the potential for what it can do. It’s also increasingly apparent that more and more of today’s students want to do work that is meaningful, rewarding, challenging and which helps connect them to their values and “purpose”.

I like to think that as part of a well-rounded liberal education, today’s pupils will receive:

  • a solid grounding in digital literacy (as important and as vital as the 3 R’s)
  • an awareness of how “digital displacement” (through automation etc.) may impact their chosen career path (even in ways which we cannot yet predict – we must assume it will happen, as no profession, trade or vocation will be totally immune)
  • an appetite for lifelong learning (as one of the ways to cope with the inevitable changes they will face)
  • a set of life skills that instill self-awareness, curiosity, resilience, empathy, flexibility and adaptability.

Finally, if we are to truly grasp why this ability to adapt and change is important, we only need look beyond the digital debate and ask why the National Innovation and Science Agenda is failing to cut through. In large part, the NISA message failed to connect with the general electorate because many people could not identify with it, and therefore it did not resonate with them. Just as “necessity is the parent of invention”, so adversity often needs to be the catalyst for embracing change.

Notwithstanding the economic, environmental and societal challenges we face, there is considerable complacency and acceptance that “she’ll be right” – especially within the political, institutional and corporate elites that claim to lead us. As long as so few of the main actors among these bastions of power and influence decline to change their own culture, behaviours and ways of doing business, then it’s not surprising that the public feels unwilling or unable to change.

So our only real hope is to empower the next generations to shape their own future, not to be constrained by our traditional notions of “job” (in my view, an increasingly outmoded economic unit of value….) and think for themselves as to what change they want to create with all the technology, resources and opportunities at their disposal.

Next week: My Extended Gap Year

A Tale of Two #FinTech Cities – Part 2

It feels like the inter-city #FinTech and startup rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney is starting to get personal. The blow-up between Victorian Small Business Minister, Philip Dalidakis and Freelancer CEO, Matt Barrie over StartCon is perhaps the most strident example, but other discontent is bubbling underneath the service.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-10-51-49-amLet’s take a look at what’s actually been happening around #FinTech in Melbourne, and try to understand what might be the cause of this apparent disquiet:

First, the recently announced LaunchVic grants have been met with a mix of gratitude, bewilderment and some sour grapes, based on the people I have talked to in the start-up community. There was a sense of “jobs for the boys”, “usual suspects”, “who?”, and “yeah, good on ya”. Nothing new there, then, when public money is being handed out. High-profile beneficiaries of the initial A$6.5m of grants include FinTech Australia (as part of a major FinTech Conference to be held in Melbourne), FinTech Melbourne (which is now the largest group of its kind outside the US and UK), inspire9, Startup Victoria and Collective Campus.

Second, Stripe‘s CEO, John Collison was in town to celebrate their 2nd birthday in Melbourne. (This is the 3rd time in 2 years Collison has been in Australia – he must love what we are doing here? Or maybe it’s the Victorian government incentives that attracted Stripe to set up in Melbourne: see below.) This time around, there were some major announcements among the celebrations, including:

  • 25% of Australians have paid for something online using Stripe
  • Stripe is launching “Connect” in Australia – making it easier for local businesses to roll out payment solutions in multiple markets overseas
  • Stripe continues to keep its APIs as simple and streamlined as possible – they even support Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition system

There was also a panel discussion with some of Stripe’s local clients, and a Q&A with Collison himself:

  • Andre Eikmeier from Vinomofo commented that payment solutions (like all technology) should be invisible, and just work in the background
  • Ben Styles from Xero explained that integration with Xero’s own APIs is critical, and that they have co-developed some products
  • Nicole Brolan from SEEK said that thanks to Stripe, her business is finally allowing clients to pay invoices on-line

Asked about innovation, Collison argued that mobile phone technology was the spur for services like Uber. However, he’s not especially engaged with Blockchain, as he does not see the use case. He thinks the next major innovation will be in medtech (telemetrics & wearables), and machine learning (speech and image recognition). As he said, “driverless cars are not just about the sensors but what the data is telling you. We know more about the health of your car than your own body.” He also had some words of advice to aspiring local entrepreneurs and startup founders:

  • Having a global or international perspective is determined by your markets, your competition, and access to specific talent pools.
  • It’s probably wrong to aspire to be like Atlassian – you need to understand WHY Atlassian has been successful, not WHAT it did or HOW it did it – which means getting back to core values and core purpose.

Third, as the Stripe celebrations started to kick off, across town FinTech Melbourne hosted an event starring Alex Scandurra, from Sydney’s Stone & Chalk FinTech hub. This was billed as a “pre-launch” for Stone & Chalk’s planned foray into Melbourne, and was part information session, part FinTech love fest, and part fan-boy hangout. Scandurra’s presentation was quick to point out that the “plan is not to bring Stone & Chalk to Melbourne, but to create Melbourne’s own Stone & Chalk”. (Spot the subtle difference?)

To its credit, Stone & Chalk is home to 300 people and 75 startups, has helped start 21 companies and create 150 jobs, and participants have collectively raised $100m in funding, although Stone & Chalk does not take equity. Scandurra also commented that FinTech is not an industry in itself – it is a horizontal that serves all industries.

There seems to be a lot of local clamouring for a FinTech hub in Melbourne. However, unlike the NSW government which has directly partnered with Stone & Chalk, I understand that the Victorian government is not prepared or able to “invest” in such a project – and certainly not before there is some private sector funding on the table.

Meanwhile, the founder of a rival payment system expressed his frustration that the Victorian government “sponsored” Stripe to come to Australia, but won’t offer similar support to local startups. Another FinTech CEO I spoke to was irked that Stone & Chalk would appear to be breaching its own mandate if it set up shop outside NSW.

In fact, could be argued that Stone & Chalk was established in Sydney to directly compete with Melbourne’s startup ecosystem. In large part, this is thanks to the huge success that the Victorian government continues to have in luring major tech companies and global startups to come to Melbourne. Names such as Zendesk, Eventbrite, Slack, Square, Stripe and now Cognizant.

If the debate over Stone & Chalk coming to Melbourne is about creating a local FinTech hub (whether or not the Victorian government tips in some money), we have to examine the need for such a hub. For example, is it simply a question of real estate, so that all the FinTech startups can be co-located in one place? If so, I would have thought that was easy to resolve: there’s a lot of empty office space, and Melbourne rents are cheaper than Sydney; also, a growing number of office landlords recognise the mutual benefits and knock-on effects of hosting co-working venues in their buildings.

We also have to consider if Melbourne’s existing FinTech startup eco-system/infrastructure is willing to come together to underpin such a hub. If so, what is the hub going to do? What is its purpose? What is the missing piece that the hub is designed to fill? And who/what/where is best placed to fill that need/gap?

Looking back, Melbourne has been the home of a number of FinTech businesses, that are now global public enterprises – IRESS, Computershare, Touchcorp, Novatti, for example – so there is obviously something in the local water (or coffee). For me, however, a key barrier for FinTech specifically, and startups more generally, is the inability to connect to institutional funds and investors (Clover being a notable exception?). Other obstacles include the stodgy procurement processes used by the public sector and many large corporations, which make it more difficult for startups to compete for work, and the reluctance by enterprise clients to try a local product or service unless it has been tested and proven elsewhere.

Finally, on a more positive note, it was very interesting to see that founders from Atlassian and Vinomofo are backing Spaceship, a new superannuation fund appealing to a younger, tech-savvy audience.

Next week: Bridging the Digital Divide

Food for thought at #StartupVic’s #pitch night

There was something of a different flavour at Startup Victoria‘s pitch night for September – including the new beverage sponsors! – which may have been helped by the large crowd, and the more polished presentations (judging by the feedback).


Image sourced from Startup Vic’s Meetup page

I will comment on each pitch in order of appearance:

Studio Ninja

Studio Ninja is described as Client Management software for professional photographers. Aimed at the wedding industry, it also holds some appeal for other event planners, DJs, musicians, make-up artists, hairdressers, caterers and florists. But the primary focus is on weddings, and the specific needs of studio photographers, whose workflow is very particular (according to the founders).

Regular attendees at these pitch nights will recall similar CRM/project management tools for other sectors, such as architects and management consultants – which raises questions about how unique each profession really is?

In essence, the software handles lead management, invoicing and cashflow reporting. It is available via subscription, and integrates with payment systems such as Stripe and PayPal, and other service providers such as Uber, and will soon integrate with Xero.

With a reported 40 new sign-ups per day, and around 2,000 members (of which only 300 are currently paid subscriptions), the Studio Ninja team are aiming to grow to 10,000 users and revenue of $4m. Growth is being driven by strong SEO and organic discovery among photographers, and word of mouth referrals.

The panel of judges were interested to know how the software could be sold via peak bodies and professional associations, under a SaaS or white-labelling model, and what potential there is to integrate lead generation and referral solutions. The judges also thought that camera and photography equipment brands could offer a significant sales channel opportunity.


Something of a different pitch came from this bacon flavoured seasoning, which is actually bacon-free. (I should confess that I was once a vegetarian, but when I started to dream about bacon sandwiches, I realised I was missing out… Maybe if this product had been around all those years ago, things would have turned out different. But I digress.)

There was certainly no lack of passion in this pitch, and the founder had even made sure there were free samples to go around, so strongly does he feel about his product. With a 9% conversion rate from website visits, and 2,000 bottles sold this year, there is obviously a niche in the flavourings market for a “guilt-free” bacon experience.

A graduate of the Melbourne Accelerator Program, the founder has cleverly chosen to use a pop-up popcorn stall to generate market awareness, solicit customer feedback, and create visibility for a product that comes in a small jar, and will compete for valuable shelf space in supermarkets.

The business is seeking $100k in seed funding to expand the range of seasonings,
expand overseas, and to resolve issues with production lead times and logistics. But given the challenges in building consumer brands, especially in the food and beverage category, a better option might be to tie up with another snack food or convenience food brand, and use that vehicle for distribution and market reach.


Reground is another food-related startup, but this is all about recycling coffee grounds. The business turns coffee waste – which otherwise goes into landfill – into sustainable uses, thereby reducing the amount of methane gas released into the atmosphere.

With a waiting list of cafes who want to access the service (because cafe owners already pay their local council to take away the waste), Reground will divert part of those waste collection fees and can even help cafes save money. Reground also supplies community gardens with free material for their compost. Other uses for the coffee waste include mushroom production.

As well as offering waste assessment services and potential cost savings, Reground runs a newsletter and provides certification for participating cafes. There is also potential for this Melbourne-based business to go national and even to the USA.

They are also offering a customer app to support logistics around collection, and they operate their own van as there are council limitations on more waste trucks on our streets. Asked by the judges about scaling their business, the founders are considering to build their own waste processing plant. (After the event, I did a quick search, and found a similarly-named business in Canada.)

Allume Energy

Finally, Allume Energy, another sustainability business, this time in solar energy distribution. Or, in their own words, “Democratising access to renewable energy”.

As a social enterprise, Allume offers tenants easier access to cheaper solar energy. Basically, Allume contracts with the property landlord to provide initial funding to install and set up a solar system, and then tenants pay for their energy via a contract licensing system. In addition to working with community and social housing projects in remote locations, Allume also offers a shared system for apartment blocks.

Claiming to provide a 30-50% saving to tenants, Allume requires landlords to commit to a 15 year contract, with a 50% break fee (based on the initial installation and set up costs). Given some of the current challenges in renewable energy (weather events, phasing out of government rebates, and reduction in feed-in tariffs), this scheme to implement very local solar systems will no doubt appeal to landlords and bodies corporate.

And on the night, Reground was the people’s choice – probably because it was a simple but effective proposition, and it appealed to Melbourne’s environmentalists and coffee lovers alike!

Next week: A Tale of Two #FinTech Cities – Part 2