Digital Richmond

How significant is one suburb’s contribution to the startup ecosystem in Melbourne, if not Victoria or even Australia? Well, if the recent panel on Digital Richmond (plus the Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade) are to be believed, VIC 3121 is the epicentre of all things startup.

According to the event description, Richmond (and the adjoining area of Cremorne) is “the stomping ground of choice for Melbourne’s established tech companies and aspiring start-ups alike”.

Hosted in the offices of 99Designs (celebrating bringing their HQ back to Richmond), a panel representing some of the biggest names among Australia’s tech companies (and all local heroes) explored what makes “Digital Richmond” tick – but also identified some of the challenges of growing and sustaining scale-up ventures beyond the confines of a few co-working spaces in converted warehouses and textile factories….

Facilitated by Rachel Neumann former MD of Eventbrite Australia (whose Australian HQ is in Melbourne), and briefly head of 500 Melbourne, the panel comprised some key Richmond/Cremorne tenants: Patrick Llewellyn, CEO at 99designs; Jodie Auster, General Manager for UberEATS in Melbourne; Cameron McIntyre, CEO of Carsales; Nigel Dalton, Chief Inventor at REA Group; and Eloise Watson, Investment Manager at VC fund Rampersand.

To set the scene, mention was made of other established Australian tech-based companies also HQ’d in Melbourne (MYOB and SEEK, the latter of which is also relocating its offices to Richmond), recent local successes such as Rome2Rio and CultureAmp (both born in Richmond), and the steady stream of global tech brands that have come to call 3121 their regional/national home, such as Stripe, Slack, Square and Etsy.

It was evident that each of the panel have previous business connections with one or more of their fellow panelists – so maybe there is simply value in being in close proximity to each other. Success begets success, especially when people are more willing to share connections and introduce new contacts into their networks. (Although, what might this say about diversity? And does it reinforce the notion that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”?)

Despite the number of co-working spaces and tech companies based locally, there are very few substantial, modern office buildings in the area, and only one business park of note. Local startups that need more space will likely have to relocate elsewhere.

Property aside, the panel considered other local infrastructure is generally conducive to success – access to public transport (although Richmond and East Richmond stations are both in serious need of an upgrade), a solid talent base, great coffee shops and proximity to the CBD.

On the downside, there was criticism at the lack of NBN access in such a concentrated pocket of tech companies and startups (with the associated numbers of contractors, freelancers and other members of the gig economy who live in the area and work from home). Car parking was also an issue, although with Richmond being a major public transport hub, I was surprised that this came up. A lack of child care facilities was also mentioned.

Being an inner city suburb, with strict planning laws and designated “heritage overlay” regulations, there are limits to the amount of development that can take place, especially as Richmond and Cremorne are also established residential areas, with medium to high population density. Getting the balance right between economic growth, urban renewal, modernisation and local community preservation is tricky – pity that the organisers had not thought to invite anyone from the local council.

The panel also bemoaned the absence of any tertiary education facilities in the area (by implication, does that mean the Kangan Institute campus in Cremorne doesn’t meet local requirements?). But maybe there are other ways to connect with academia?

The panel discussion then moved on to topics that are beyond the control of the local council or even the State government, yet each has an impact on the startup economy: corporate tax rates; employment visas; the schooling system; vocational education and training; and the need for inter-disciplinary and inter-generational hiring. (They may as well have added industrial relations laws, the productivity debate and smart cities – oh, and the National Innovation and Science Agenda.)

I was also surprised at one of the reasons given for 99Designs bringing their global HQ back to Australia – the appeal of an ASX listing. I know that Australia has one of the largest pools of pension funds in the world, and nearly every person in Australia has direct or indirect investments in Australian equities within their superannuation portfolio. But despite being ranked 15th by market capitalisation, the ASX represents less than 2% of the global market, and even after 25 years without a recession, Australia’s capital markets risk being left behind. If we are to grow the local tech sector, there needs to be much more alignment between where (and what type of) capital is needed, and where the pension funds and other institutional investors like to put their money.

Finally, I always get worried when the likes of Carsales, REA Group, MYOB and SEEK are held up as poster children for the local tech and startup sectors – great businesses, sure, but all about to be totally disrupted by the next wave of startups, and not quite the high-tech sectors that the Victorian government wants to champion (FinTech, MedTech, BioTech, NanoTech, AgriTech, Cyber Security, Smart Manufacturing, EduTech….).

Next week: The NAB SME Hackathon

 

Designing The Future Workplace

Last week’s blog was about reshaping the Future of Work. From both the feedback I have received, and the recent work I have been doing with Re-Imagi, what really comes across is the opportunity to move the dialogue of “work” from “employer and employee” (transactional) to “co-contributors” (relationship). In an ideal world, companies contribute resources (capital, structure, equipment, tools, opportunities, projects, compliance, risk management), and individuals contribute resources (hard and soft skills, experience, knowledge, contacts, ideas, time, relationships, networks, creativity, thinking). If this is this the new Social Contract, what is the best environment to foster this collaborative approach?

Image: “MDI Siemens Cube farm” (Photo sourced from Flickr)

Many recent articles on the Future of Work and the Future Workplace have identified key social, organisational and architectural issues to be addressed:

  1. On-boarding, engaging and “nurturing” new employees
  2. Trust in the workplace
  3. The workplace structure and layout
  4. The physical and built environment
  5. Design and sustainability

Underpinning these changes are technology (e.g., cloud, mobile and social tools which support BYOD, collaboration and remote working), and the gig economy (epitomised by the tribe of digital nomads). Together, these trends are redefining where we work, how we work, what work we do and for which organisations. (For an intriguing and lively discussion on collaborative technology, check out this thread on LinkedIn started by Annalie Killian.)

Having experienced a wide range of working environments (cube farm, open plan, serviced office, hot-desking, small business park, corporate HQ, home office, public libraries, shared offices, internet cafes, co-working spaces, WiFi hot spots, remote working and tele-commuting), I don’t believe there is a perfect solution nor an ideal workplace – we each need different space and facilities at different times – so flexibility and access as well as resources are probably the critical factors.

The fashion for hot-desking, combined with flexible working hours, is having some unforeseen or undesired outcomes, based on examples from clients and colleagues I work with:

First, where hot-desking is being used to deal with limited office space, some employees are being “forced” into working from home or telecommuting a certain number of days each month – which can be challenging to manage when teams may need to get together in person.

Second, employees are self-organising into “quiet” and “noisy” areas based on their individual preferences. While that sounds fine because it means employees are taking some responsibility for their own working environment, it can be counter-productive to fostering collaboration, building cross-functional co-operation and developing team diversity. (One company I worked for liked to change the office floor plan and seating arrangements as often as they changed the org chart – which was at least 3 or 4 times a year – it was something to do with not letting stagnation set in.)

Third, other bad practices are emerging: rather like spreading out coats to “save” seats at the cinema, or using your beach towel to “reserve” a recliner by the hotel pool while you go and have breakfast, some employees are making a land grab for their preferred desk with post-it notes and other claims to exclusive use. Worse, some teams are using dubious project activity as an excuse to commandeer meeting rooms and other common/shared spaces on a permanent basis.

Another trend is for co-working spaces, linked to both the gig economy and the start-up ecosystem, but also a choice for a growing number of small businesses, independent consultants and self-employed professionals. In Melbourne, for example, in just a few years the number of co-working spaces has grown from a handful, to around 70. Not all co-working spaces are equal, and some are serviced offices in disguise, and some are closely linked to startup accelerators and incubators. And some, like WeWork, aspire to be global brands, with a volume-based membership model.

But the co-working model is clearly providing a solution and can act as a catalyst for other types of collaboration (although some co-working spaces can be a bit like New York condos, where the other tenants may get to approve your application for membership).

Given the vast number of road and rail commuters who are on their mobile devices to and from work, I sometimes think that the largest co-working spaces in Melbourne are either Punt Road or the Frankston line in rush hour….

Next week: Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?

 

 

More on #FinTech, #Bitcoin and #Blockchain in Melbourne

The Melbourne FinTech community brought together a bunch of interested parties recently to find out what’s happening locally in Bitcoin and Blockchain. Organised by the Melbourne Bitcoin, FinTech and Silicon Beach Meetups, and hosted by the Melbourne Bitcoin Technology Centre (MBTC), the evening was part open house, part info sharing, and part pitch night.

BitcoinThe MBTC is now a recognised hub for Bitcoin and Blockchain activities, and currently hosts around a dozen startups within its co-working space. Offering a “full service” facility (it even has a Bitcoin miner on site), complete with staffed reception, meeting rooms, event space, a pod cast studio and an outdoor barbecue area, it’s something of a hidden gem in Melbourne’s Southbank. Regulars also get to attend Bitcoin “swap meets”…..

Last week’s event also featured a number of micro-pitches from Bitcoin and Blockchain startups, a few of the MBTC staff and tenants, and a couple of student projects from RMIT.

Given this was almost “speed pitching“, it’s probably not appropriate to go into too much detail:

  • Toodles – a dating app on a decentralized network, using a Blockchain solution for additional security and privacy
  • Blockfreight – the Blockchain for global freight, enabling cargo containers to be shipped around the world with minimal legacy documentation, based on smart contracts, RFID and Blockfreight tokens
  • blockTRAIN – a training provider and consultancy on Blockchain, smart contracts and digital currencies
  • Bitcoin Buskers v2 – sort of MySpace/Bandcamp/SoundCloud for Buskers, to promote their merchandise and to secure international festival bookings, all powered by Bitcoin
  • ACX – Australian Crypto Exchange, offering the largest single Bitcoin order book in Australia
  • Bitcoin Group – explaining that most Bitcoin mining is currently done in China due to cheaper electricity
  • Antstand – portable laptop stand (which you can buy with Bitcoin!)
  • Think Bitcoin – providing consulting and education services, particularly in schools
  • Lyra – an app to track and reduce your personal environmental impact, sort of Fitbit and Smart Meter combined
  • ImagineNation – innovation consultancy, backed by training and coaching, and featuring a 2-day startup game to help organisations transform cultural mindsets around agile, lean, design thinking, UX and incubator/accelerator concepts
  • Brave New Coin – the “Bloomberg for Bitcoin”, providing market data (prices, rates, indices, news) for Bitcoin and other digital currencies*

With the next Bitcoin halving due soon, and a significant uptick in FinTech, Blockchain and Digital Asset investments announced during Q2, this sector is going to look very interesting for some time to come, and it’s good to know that Melbourne, whose fortunes were founded on gold, is staking a claim in these new asset classes.

* Declaration of Interest: I have recently joined the team at Brave New Coin as Head of Business Development – more news to follow….

Next week: University Challenge – Startup Victoria’s Student Pitch Night

A Tale of Two #FinTech Cities – Melbourne vs. Sydney….

Inter-city rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney is nothing new. The fact that neither city is the national capital only adds to the frisson. The usual debates as to which is the better for sport, culture, beaches, food, weather, property prices, live music, public transport and coffee normally mean Melbourne edges out Sydney in most categories. (But then, I’m probably biased – however, having lived and worked in both, I think I am reasonably objective.)*

When it comes to startups, and FinTech in particular, the debate is beginning to hot up. At a recent FinTech Melbourne Meetup the topic was “is there room for both?”. The speakers, Toby Heap for Sydney, and Stuart Richardson for Melbourne, remained tactful and diplomatic, as it’s not really appropriate to talk about which is better – more a case of choosing “which is the right location for your own particular FinTech”. So, the debate avoided mere point-scoring, and tried to establish some commonalities, as well as provide some considered views on the benefits inherent within the key differences.

Both cities have a growing reputation for startup success, built on some core foundations: groups of angel investors and VC funds with an increasing FinTech focus; several accelerator programs, incubators and co-working spaces; and a community of founders and aspiring tech entrepreneurs.

From an industry perspective, two of the four Pillar Banks are headquartered in Sydney, and two in Melbourne. More insurers have their HQ’s in Sydney compared to Melbourne (apart from health insurance, where Melbourne hosts the largest market providers), while Tier 2 and regional banks (by their very nature) are more likely to be located outside either city (not including wholly owned brands of the Big 4).

As for pension funds and asset management, particularly in relation to Australia’s superannuation sector, Melbourne is clearly the bigger player, particularly for the largest industry funds (based on their historical links to the trade union movement). In addition, Melbourne is home to some substantial family offices, as well as specialist asset managers, including overseas firms. After all, Melbourne’s establishment wealth comes from the nineteenth century gold boom.

When it comes to markets, Sydney wins out by virtue of housing the main equities exchange, as well as being a hub for futures, fixed income and forex. Sydney also hosts more investment banks, including local branches of foreign players.

In some respects, the differences can be likened to the market roles and dynamics of London vs Edinburgh, New York vs Boston, Frankfurt vs Munich, or even Hong Kong vs Singapore, for example.

For me, however, the key distinction between Sydney and Melbourne can be summarised as: “Sydney trades, Melbourne invests”.

* Note: Content in Context is taking a well-deserved break. Starting this week, the next few posts will feature some brief blogs on different aspects of FinTech. Normal service will be resumed in early November

Next week: do we need a #FinTech safe harbour?