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

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