The increasingly popular Lean Startup Melbourne kicked off 2014 with a session on Melbourne’s Startup Ecosystem. And while the tag of World’s Most Livable City is a draw card for attracting startup talent, the apparent lack of institutional investor interest in the startup movement is creating a barrier to funding options.
After the traditional beer’n’pizza, an audience of around 300 people was first treated to a couple of lightning talks: Scott Handsaker’s presentation on Melbourne’s startup infrastructure was a great survey of the networking events, meet-up groups, co-working spaces, incubators, tech co-founders, angels and media resources. It also confirmed what everyone already knew, that the local startup community is thriving, and represents a positive force for change and innovation especially in the SME space (which is traditionally seen as the backbone of Australia’s economy). This was followed by Simon Moro’s guide to offshoring/outsourcing development and coding projects – including many helpful and practical tips.
Then came the main event, a panel discussion chaired by Indi from OutTrippin featuring serial entrepreneurs and startup gurus Susan Wu, Leni Mayo and Brendan Lewis. (For a brief but succinct write-up, see my fellow blogger Chris Chinchilla’s account.)
The main takeaways for me were:
1. Strong local infrastructure, but not yet as robust or scalable as Silicon Valley, London or even Dublin (Melbourne ranks #18 in the world)
2. Great community enthusiasm, but not clear what the role of government is or should be (e.g., should public money be used to “pick winners”?)
3. An established coterie of successful angels and VCs, but total lack of interest in the sector by institutional investors (e.g., still focused on investing only for profit, not in changing market behaviours)
In fact, the conspicuous absence of institutional investors at this type of event simply underlines why they actually represent a barrier to funding options for local startups. Here are 10 reasons why I believe instos have not engaged with the local startup community:
- They don’t understand the technology – this is not a new complaint; I have heard many entrepreneurs and corporate advisers bemoan the lack of appreciation for new technology developed locally.
- Not made here – conversely, there is suspicion about successful technology from overseas that is not yet proven in Australia (which is a challenge for local licensees seeking to develop local market opportunities).
- Preference for asset-based lending – partly influenced by regulatory attitudes, banks and other lenders prefer to lend against secured assets, such as plant, equipment or the family home. However, many startups and young entrepreneurs don’t own such assets (or their businesses are designed to be less capital-intensive). Instead, especially in the early stages, they would like to see funding based on cashflow lending linked to their current and future revenues (which are increasingly subscription and annuity based).
- Don’t understand the business models – with new technology come new business models, which traditional lenders and investors struggle to get their heads around. Traditional lending criteria are tied to traditional business concepts.
- Restrictive investment criteria – post-GFC, banks are more risk averse, and the regulators are also stifling investment product innovation with more stringent risk and regulatory capital management. In addition, institutional operating costs are eating into investor and lender margins, and local investment banking is diminishing, especially as foreign banks continue to scale back their local presence or exit altogether.
- Lack of a credible second board for smaller listings – if you don’t want, or cannot justify the cost of a full IPO on the ASX, then your options for raising wider shareholder capital are limited to platforms like ASSOB or NSX, neither of which have quite the same profile as London’s AIM or Hong Kong’s GEM.
- Restrictive crowd-funding options – yes, there are active crowd-funding platforms available in Australia (e.g., Pozible), but in most cases the “investor” has to be rewarded by tangible products and services (which has stymied some crowd-funding efforts by local film-makers), otherwise the financial market regulators might come knocking on your door. (This may change, if/when VentureCrowd begins to launch.)
- Tax structures can favour equities – without getting all technical, the use of franking credits by Australian companies offers considerable benefits to their shareholders via relevant tax concessions. As such, this makes equities (especially highly liquid stock) attractive to institutional and retail investors, and therefore inhibits the use of alternative funding options.
- Limited corporate bond market – most corporate bonds in Australia are bought by institutional investors, and despite various attempts to stimulate demand among retail investors, the vast majority of individual investors can only access these bonds via managed funds (which carry manager fees and other administrative costs), or more complex financial instruments such as hybrid securities. The institutional market itself is not especially liquid (there is limited trading activity), and if the federal government scales back public borrowing, this reduces the availability of treasury benchmarks for corporate bonds.
- Lack of loan syndication – it is common in many overseas capital markets to establish small syndicates of institutional investors to participate in corporate lending opportunities. This can help spread the risk for lenders, and diversify the funding base for borrowers. However, because of the loan sizes, and the highly concentrated banking market, there is little need or demand for loan syndication among Australian banks.
Until there is a better way to fund local startups beyond the initial rounds of angel and VC money, Australian entrepreneurs will continue to beat a path to Silicon Valley to raise capital. The irony is, a lot of Australia’s $1.6tn in assets under management are allocated to US money managers to invest back in Australia – in my opinion, this is an expensive boomerang. Instead, we need to build better dialogue (and more direct dealings) between the local startup community and our institutional lenders and investors.