Recent Notes from Europe

Over the past few weeks I have been travelling in Europe – Switzerland, Croatia and Italy. It was a great trip, and prompted a few observations along the way. Here are some key recollections.

First, after making a number of trips by train, bus and boat, it reinforced the sense that in Europe, public transport is seen as an essential service and not just a means of last resort (you know, that notion we sometimes experience elsewhere that suggests “only losers take the bus”). As a result, public transport is generally clean, safe, efficient, punctual and largely affordable. One counterpoint is that as a temporary visitor, accessing and paying for tickets such as multi-day / multi-system travel passes is not always straightforward.

Second, despite the close proximity of the three countries I visited, I had to use different fiat currencies in each location – and in the case of Croatia, although it is a member of the EU, the Euro is not always accepted and it maintains a separate currency (the Kuna) that is not easy to exchange outside the country. And when you get cash out of an ATM, it’s mostly in denominations of HRK200 – but local shops hate having to change large notes. Plus, there are still instances where plastic money is not accepted.

Third, visiting the extensive national art collections in Zurich (the Kunsthaus) and Milan (the Museo Del Novecento) was a great opportunity to see works by significant twentieth century artists beyond the Dadaists and Futurists respectively – including many works that rarely travel abroad.

Fourth, for all my reservations about organised religion, you can’t deny that a key legacy of European Christianity is church architecture, and the associated patronage of the arts. The Duomo in Milan even affords visitors the opportunity to walk along the roof terraces to get closer to the decorative flying buttresses and mini-spires topped with hundreds of statues.

Finally, along with all the excellent food I was lucky enough to order in restaurants, the trip was a great opportunity to sample local and regional wines, especially while in Switzerland and Croatia. We just don’t see that much of these in Australia, for obvious reasons. Plus, the global phenomenon of craft beer is still alive and well, all adding to the gastronomic experience.

Next week: Recent Notes from Hong Kong

Startup Vic’s Secret Pitch Night

For its August meetup event, Startup Vic presented The Secret Pitch. Designed to highlight inequality in investment decisions, it combined voice-modulation software, and was a bit like The Voice meets Blind Date. Hosted at the Victorian Innovation Hub with support from Rampersand, LaunchVic, Stone & Chalk and Weploy, the Judges were selected from Rampersand, Light Warrior Ventures, AWS, Impact Investment Group and Venture Capital Exchange. By sitting with their backs to the presenters, and having to rely on only the slides and the disguised voices, the Judges had a limited idea of the identity of the presenters.

The pitches in order they presented (websites embedded on the titles):

FRDM

Described as “your closet in the cloud”, and dedicated to “making fast fashion sustainable”, FRDM is subscription-based service for “shared” clothing – customers borrow and return each item after use. Apparently, we are  buying more clothing but using it less.  The circular model is set up to break down and recycle garments over a three year lifecycle. it’s an emerging, but competitive space – competitors include Glam Corner, Le Tote, and Unlimited. Asked about their approach to circulation and cleaning, the founders assume three “wears”  with a 30% margin per customer but admit that they are still lacking some logistics experience. The goal of having items delivered on time, in the right place and in an acceptable condition is still being developed. Firmly aimed at women aged  22-28 years old, I suggest FRDM think about a their name, as my search revealed at least two similar URLs – https://frdm.co and http://frdm.io.

Assignment Hero

I have covered this startup before. It’s positioned as a collaboration platform for tertiary students. When it comes to team project work, there appears to be a disconnect between prescribed apps (Dropbox, Facebook Groups, Evernote, Google Docs, etc.) and the activity notifications and alerts they generate – in short, too much “noise” which overwhelms the students, which gets in the way of them completing their tasks.

Offering a dashboard, the platform is natively integrated with Google Docs. Users can track individual contributions to each document (based on time spent, and using track changes). To me that system is very easy to game – what’s to stop users simply editing for the sake of boosting their rating? How does it deal with plagiarism and copyright abuse? How does the app evaluate the quality, depth or rigour of contributions? Who owns the content that is uploaded to the platform?

Claiming to be signing up 42 new users every day, with repeat users, the founders offer a B2C model – providing access to suggested solutions via on-demand student services and products, and charging a 30% commission on each sale. Student sign-up is free, but the platform can recommends products to users. There is also an SaaS offering for universities, established via paid trials. But the B2B model is a long sales cycle, with the goal being annual licensing fees. Asked how about the viability of the Google relationship, the founders explained they tried using their own document editor, but customer  preference is for Google (and Microsoft) products.

Asked about how Assignment Hero compares to other collaboration tools such as Atlassian’s JIRA, Trello, Confluence, Slack, etc. the founders suggested that these are aimed more at enterprises, and that their own UX/UI is sexier than existing education tools such as Blackboard. As with all such platforms, the key is to enable users to manage the project, not manage the project management software….

Book An Artist

This two-sided market place is designed to help clients to find or connect with an artist. According to the founders, finding the right one is hard. Instagram’s search function is not location based, and the platform is dominated by big names.

With 80 artists on board, Book An Artist charges a 10% commission, and has completed around 40 transactions with an average ticket size of $2,200. Traction has been achieved via referrals, influence programs, SEO and Google Ads. Initially focused on commissions for murals and graffiti works, the founders plan to expand into sign writing, textiles, illustrations, mosaics, installations and calligraphy. With a presence in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the founders are seeking $500k in funding. Currently using external agencies and contractors to handle administration, the funding will largely be allocated to marketing to drive engagement.

Although the commissions appear to be at a higher price point compared to other creative market places, what prevents platforms such as  Fivr,  99Designs or Canva moving into this space? Also, how does Find An Artist handle things like copyright, IP licensing, attribution or planning permission for external works?

Aggie Global

This is a food sourcing platform, connecting small farmers to large markets. Because of current market structures and procurement processes, businesses often can’t “see” what produce is available to them locally. Based on the founders’ experience in Fiji, where the local economy ends up having to import food to feed tourists, they have run an actual in-market pilot program, but are still building the e-commerce platform.

The results of the pilot achieved a 6x increase in both farmers’ income and hotel cost savings. Tourism is the 1st or 2nd largest industry in 20/48 developing countries. Importing food to satisfy tourist demand is therefore an issue.

For farmers, the service offers a freemium model, while businesses pay a 5% transaction fee and an annual subscription. Currently researching other markets, managing the supply chAIn for quality control, provenance, organic certification etc. is critical. The MVP aims to get farmers keeping proper records via face to face training, and gaining recognition for existing farming practices.

Asked about the cost of data connectivity and access for farmers in remote locations, the founders explained that data is stored offline and uploaded periodically. They are also investigating the use of AI/ML for predictive supply and demand. They also need to manage timely delivery as well as tracking environmental and climate data.

Part of the solution lies in making sure there is appropriate produce for the market, while matching local cuisine to tourist expectations. Too often, local chefs try to emulate western menus, so they need to help develop alternatives and foster innovation.

Maybe the Startup Vic organisers were saving the best til last, as Aggie Global took out the People’s Choice and was declared the Overall Winner by the judges.

Next week: Recent Notes from Europe

You said you wanted a revolution?

In terms of popular music and the “revolutionary” counter-culture, the Hippie Dream was born during the Summer of Love in 1967 (Haight-Ashbury to be precise) and died in December 1969 (The Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont). The tipping point was probably The Beatles’ “White Album” released in 1968, featuring “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution 9”. Along the way, we had the “14 Hour Technicolour Dream (April 1967); the Monterey Pop Festival (June 1967); the first Isle of Wight Festival (August 1968); the Miami Pop Festivals (May and December 1968); Stones In The Park (July 1969); oh, and Woodstock (August 1969). From visiting the current “Revolutions: Records + Rebels” exhibition at Melbourne Musuem, the most significant outcome from this era was Woodstock, even though it came close to being a self-inflicted human, environmental and logistical disaster. It was only saved by a combination of the emergency services, the military, local residents – and sheer luck.

This ambitious and uneven exhibition spans the years from 1966 (The Beatles’ “Revolver”, The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”, and Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”) to 1970 (Deep Purple’s “Deep Purple in Rock”, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, and The Stooges’ “Fun House”). Despite covering the peak psychedelic era of “Sergeant Pepper”, “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and “The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”, the exhibition leaves you with the impression that Woodstock is the only enduring musical or cultural event from this time. Yet, the music portrayed in Woodstock is far from revolutionary – being mostly a bland collection of highly-derivative (and by then, almost passé) rock, blues and folk.

It almost feels like the curators of this exhibition set themselves up for failure. By trying to cover such a broad spectrum of political, social, economic and cultural themes, and then view them primarily through the rather narrow lens of popular music, the net effect is a grab bag of museum artifacts assembled with little coherence, all accompanied by a rather insipid soundtrack selection.

I’m not doubting the importance and lasting significance of the topics included (civil rights, peace movement, feminism, class war and gay liberation) – but the attempt to tack on some Australian relevance almost backfires. Let’s not forget that homosexuality was not decriminalised in Tasmania until 1997, and abortion is still not decriminalised in NSW. In fact, Australia was possibly more progressive on some issues in the early 1970s (anti-Vietnam War, ecology, feminism) than it is today with the current resurgence of populism, nationalism and religious conservatism.

Anyway, back to those “Records + Rebels”. I was surprised there was nothing about the radical developments in jazz or improvised music by the likes of Miles Davis (“In A Silent Way, “Bitches Brew”), The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ornette Coleman, or labels like ESP, BYG and ECM. Absent also was any reference to the mod and early skinhead movements that were the antidote to hippiedom, embracing soul, r’n’b and reggae music. No mention of Soft Machine (who were contemporaries and colleagues of both Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix). Very little significance given to The Velvet Underground (probably the most influential band of the era in terms of inspiring the music that came after the hippie dream dissipated). And where were the likes of Can, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk (their first album came out in 1970….) to represent the German rejection of traditional Anglo-American rock and roll?

On a somewhat depressing note, apart from Woodstock, two of the other enduring “brands” of this era that were on display were Richard Branson’s Virgin empire, and Time Out magazine…. So much for the Children of the Revolution.

Next week: Top 10 Gigs – revisited.

 

Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV

In last week’s blog on the attention economy, I alluded to the trade-off that exists between our desire for more stimulus, and the need to consume more (sponsored) content to feed that hunger. Given the increasing demands on our available attention span, and the rate at which we are having to consume just to keep up, it feels like we are all developing a form of ADD – too much to choose from, too little time to focus on anything.

Christian Marclay – “The Clock” – image sourced from Time Out

Personally, I place a lot of the blame on music videos. Initially, this format merely reduced our attention span to the length of a 3-minute pop song. (Paradoxically, there was also a style known as the “long form music video”, which stretched those 3 minutes into a 10-20 minute extended narrative). Then, in recent years, the video format has been distilled to a series of jump cuts – no single shot lasts more than a few frames, and the back-n-forth between shots often has no narrative cohesion other than serving the technique of the jump-cut itself. I sometimes wonder if the reason for so many jump-cuts is because too few of today’s pop stars can really dance, forcing the director to distract our (minimal) attention from the poor moves. (Note: pop stars who can’t dance should take a leaf out of The Fall’s playbook, and call in the professionals, like Michael Clark…)

I have previously made a brief mention of Slow TV, which made a return to Australian channel SBS this summer in the form of trans-continental railway journeys, a UK barge trip (can it get any slower?) and a length-ways tour of New Zealand. These individual programs can screen for up to 18 hours, a perfect antidote to the ADD-inducing experience of jump-cut music videos and social media notifications.

Concurrently in Melbourne, two installation works are on display that, in their very separate ways also challenge the apparent obsession with rapid sensory overload in many of today’s video content.

The first is “The Clock”, by Christian Marclay – a sequence of finely edited clips sourced from a multitude of films and TV programmes that together act as a real-time 24 hour clock. The work also manages to reveal a beguiling (dare I say seamless?) narrative from such disparate and unrelated scenes that you really do begin to wonder how the story will end…. The fact that some of the scenes are quite mundane (and whose main function is to indicate the passage of time), while others are iconic cinematic moments, only adds to our real-time/real-life experience of the ebb and flow of the seconds, minutes and hours.

The second is almost the complete opposite. “Cataract”, by Daniel Von Sturmer comprises 81 screens, each showing looped sequences of somewhat banal events. Although each video event is no more than a few seconds, and none of the loops are synchronised with each other, it does not feel like a series of jump-cut edits. This is partly because the events, despite their brevity, are all engaging in their own way; and partly because even though we know it is a loop, we somehow expect something different to happen each time (maybe because our brain is wired to find a narrative even when none exists?).

According to the gallery’s description of “Cataract”, “the world is full of happenings, but it is only through selective attention that meaning is found”. Quite appropriate for the attention economy and jump-cut culture – meaning is where we choose to see it, but if we are not paying the appropriate amount of attention or if we are not viewing through a critical lens, we risk missing it altogether.

Next week: The Future of Fintech