Investor #pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

For the most recent pitch night I attended, I had a welcome change of scenery: I was invited to join fellows from the London chapter of the Startup Leadership Program (and a few from Paris) as they pitched to an audience of investors, mentors and well-wishers at Deloitte’s HQ.

In no particular order, the pitches were as follows (the names link to the startup websites):

Selified

This FinTech business is making customer identity management as easy as taking a selfie and photos of relevant documents, combined with multifactor verification. They claim to be able to “verify people anywhere in the world in less than a minute”.

Selified certainly seems capable of streamlining and automating new account on-boarding, and reducing the time it takes banks and card companies to collect customer data for loan and credit applications. However, there are many similar solutions out there, and some, like Proviso, are already installed at major banks. So, the challenges for Selified include: demonstrating a valid USP (or maybe the combination of what it does?); working out a SasS plus transaction pricing model; and new client installations versus displacement sales.

Re-Imagi

Declaration of interest: I have been working with, and sometimes mentoring the team at Re-Imagi for the past year or so. (Hence my ticket to tonight’s event). So, I’ll try to be objective!

Re-Imagi describes itself as “enabling decision makers to unlock human capital inside their organisation through collaboration”. By harnessing in-house innovation, creativity and collaboration among employees (through the use of design thinking, employee engagement, and unique data capture and analysis) Re-Imagi was able to change the behaviour of 42% of participants at a global bank, within the course of a two-week programme.

From experience, one challenge for the team is describing the essence of the business – since it cuts across innovation, enterprise platforms, people analytics and design thinking. At its core, it acts as a prism through which to view a range of social movements that all companies are struggling with: e.g., the Future of Work, the Future of Ageing, the Future of Money etc. But key to success will be connecting with corporate champions who “get” what the benefits are, and are willing to embrace change and welcome some external input and perspective to their current processes.

0tentic8

A very topical subject, namely a blockchain-based solution enabling agricultural producers to access financial services, and provide more transparency on supply chains.

According to the founders, there are around 500 million farmers in the developing world who do not have bank accounts. The platform will verify each stage in the supply chain – from providing a digital ID for each farmer through to tracking end customer purchases.

Part of the goal is to give farmers a verifiable financial profile that can enable financial inclusion and access to bank services, as well as supporting “field to table” provenance.

Unfortunately, on the night, the presentation was a little unclear as to strategy and execution. It’s certainly a great idea, and one of a number of AgriTech startups looking to deploy blockchain technology along the food production, manufacturing and distribution supply chains.

Secret Sessions

Here’s a business that is aiming to turn the music industry on its head. In some ways, it’s an A&R agency for the digital age; in others, it’s a curated service linking artists, fans and consumer brands, that can potentially generate more revenue for bands (from sponsorship, content creation and licensing) than traditional record label deals or license fees from streaming services.

With backgrounds in video production, digital media and music distribution, the founders are well-placed to execute on their strategy. Secret Sessions is already working with some major consumer brands who want to connect with new artists who have established a core fan base via social media, a dedicated YouTube channel, and special live events.

As a part-time musician (and one-time recording artist myself), I recognise the changing economics of the music industry. The model has been totally disrupted by digital, and the days of multi-album deals with multi-million dollar advances are long behind us. However, I can’t help thinking that if the only way people can discover and connect with new music is via a branded advertising campaign, does it in any way compromise or impoverish the artistic merit of the content? In the 1980’s and 90’s, when household brands started sponsoring world tours by major artists, it generated a bit of a fan backlash – but maybe I’m just old-fashioned, and no doubt I’m not the target demographic.

Owlmaps

Owlmaps is targeting the enterprise SaaS market, offering their take on a knowledge management platform. Organisations need a way to identify and access “hidden” skills that lie within their existing workforce, and Owlmaps does this using a talent-mapping and skill-matrix tool.

It aims to provide a dashboard solution so that users can identify skills distribution, and skills in demand, as well maintain an audit of current staff. Owlmaps places itself at the intersection of enterprise content management, learning management and collaboration solutions, and has launched several pilots with startup accelerators, academic programmes and member-based organisations. The business model is based on tiered SaaS subscriptions.

There are a plethora of software solutions that address, in some way the problem of “in-sourcing” the right skills and experience, especially for new projects or ahead of planned restructures. These platforms are either part of “traditional” HR tools (what I sometimes refer to as “human accounting software”), project management tools, or ERP applications. No doubt, some organisations are also using their recruitment tools to maintain “current” (at the time of hiring) profiles of their employees. But they are often laborious to use and update, and the tools themselves become the process…

Owlmaps may need to demonstrate it can integrate with legacy tools, but it may also need to help end users (employees) understand what’s in it for them – maybe it can serve as a prompt to take some further professional development or skills training? I also wonder if Owlmaps needs to identify a specific industry sector, rather than trying to appeal too broadly?

imby.bio

I have to say that I really like the intent behind this startup – helping a new generation of urban gardeners connect with their back yards. It’s essentially a gardening app with some built-in smarts, that also acts as a channel to market for the retail horticultural sector, by enabling users to connect with and buy from suppliers direct.

A few of the app features seem so obvious when you think about them: take a photo of an unknown plant and get it identified; use your location data to get tips and recommendations on which plants to grow, and how to care for them; get reminders to water/weed/feed your plants. But why haven’t any of the existing gardening brands taken this market by storm? Apparently, this retail sector is very fragmented, with a large number of independent nurseries and garden centers, who rely on loyal, local customers. And many gardeners still like to use traditional printed seed catalogues from their regular suppliers.

The path to market is also slightly complex, since imby.bio is planning to work with local, offline communities to begin with, and offer the app for free (initially, at least). There are other market segments that could present opportunities (such as education, botanical gardens and parks, gardening clubs, even gardening magazines and TV shows), although the synergies between them are not entirely obvious. Plus there may be an opportunity to sell or license data captured via the app, although this is not a priority. But I applaud the vision, and an app that can help us to plant the right flowers to support our bee populations has to be encouraged.

Eligent

This is a solution born out of the founder’s personal need and experience – a multi platform task management tool for virtual collaboration within creative, digital and advertising agencies. The solution is designed to streamline the production process at each stage of a project, help co-ordinate better communication between teams (especially those working remotely), and track costs.

Also using a freemium and tiered pricing model, this cloud-based application already claims to have 100 active users across 20 teams. And with strong industry experience, the founders are pretty confident of their solution design. (There was also mention of a re-seller programme, although no details were provided.)

However, it does seem a crowded space, with the range of collaboration and project management tools seemingly growing by the month. And while I’m sure there are some unique aspects as to how the creative industries work, are they so really different? I myself have seen at least two other similar tools pitched before – Coin-Craft (architects), and Studio Ninja (photographers) – and in each case, the founders were adamant that their fields had specific needs that justified dedicated platforms just for their professions.

Capium

Capium is a suite of cloud-based productivity, client management and practice management tools for the tax and accounting profession. As part of the UK’s digital tax regime, everyone will need to have their own Personal Tax Account, and annual tax returns will be increasingly submitted online. So, Capium’s mantra is “making tax digital”.

In their two years of trading, Capium has secured 380 paid-for accounts with professional firms, representing 38,000 businesses profiles, plus around 4,000 freemium accounts (SMEs) being serviced direct.

So, rather like the successful Xero business model, Capium is recruiting accounting firms as their re-sellers and advocates. The founders also recognise that there are a range of new and existing competitors (with high, mid and low-tier solutions), but Capium is showing some impressive growth rates.

I’m not so familiar with the UK tax and accounting market, but my significant other is an Australian CPA and BAS agent, so I know what she likes (and dislikes) about each of the accounting platforms she has to use – meaning that no system is perfect, and each has one or more feature or function that is better than their competitors! Finally, even leading platforms like Xero, Quickbooks and MYOB have to build and maintain different versions for each market they serve, which can be an expensive operating model.

Taste Of Kenya

There was no doubting the founder’s passion and personal investment in this business – a project connecting coffee growers direct to retailers. Designed to offer growers a better deal and ensure they are paid in a more timely fashion, Taste Of Kenya is attempting to disrupt the existing supply chain by buying direct from Kenyan growers, and removing 5 levels of intermediaries to supply coffee retailers in the UK. Taste of Kenya pays at source at the time of purchase, and manages the processing, shipping and logistics.

Because of the competition, and due to their current limited capacity, Taste of Kenya has decided to target coffee retailers who want to source more ethically and more directly from growers. From four container shipments in the first year, volumes are designed to grow to 15 containers (240,000 kg) in year 3.

With around 30 farmers on their shortlist, and a target market of 200+ coffee retailers in London, I suspect that this may never be a business that can scale. But that’s OK (after all, weren’t we once told that “small is beautiful”?) as the business model and the social objectives are clear. Maybe the real opportunity will be in showing others how they can do the same?

Clikd

Clikd is a dating app with a couple of key features – first, it is photo-based; second, it allows users to set their own questions for prospective dates if they don’t want to use the built-in content. The founders describe it as “photo-social”. The pitch included a working demonstration, and it certainly looks like a lot of fun to use.

I’m somewhat wary of dating apps. I’m not the target audience, I’ve never used one, and I know that some investors dislike the business model – there’s the reputation risk, plus if the app is really good at its job, customers won’t be subscribers for very long, so there is considerable churn.

But, maybe it appeals to the social media generation, who are more comfortable using these tools, or who have different social attitudes. Certainly for people who have just moved to a new city where they don’t know anyone, such an app could help them meet new friends.

User adoption is key to success, and the founders have scoped an in-depth marketing and launch campaign. They have also formed a significant partnership with an outdoor media brand.

Adalys

This MedTech business is enabling smart medical data through patients’ profiles and unpublished clinical trial data, by structuring, analyzing and aggregating the growing volumes of medical data and delivering it to doctors, clinicians, pharmacies, hospitals, Big Pharma and health care groups.

Part of the goal is to make clinical trials more effective (by providing structure to the data, and making greater use of data analytics), and by allowing new data to build on existing and real-time data more easily, it should help take some of the data costs of current practices. The business model is based on SaaS subscription revenues.

With a number of trials and installations at hospitals, plus 700 individual patients on the platform, Adalys is connecting “clinical trials with real world data”. E-health solutions for managing patient records, resource planning and tracking prescription drug costs are high on most governments’ public health agendas. However, issues of patient privacy, low take-up among GPs and a lack of “incentives” makes traction challenging.

Or Du Monde

This was probably a first for me – a jewellery startup. Not only that, Or Du Monde claims to be the leading green jewellery business in France, by only using ethically sourced diamonds, recycling gold, and as far as possible using local craftspeople, to support its sustainable goals. Gold mining generates huge amounts of ore waste, and most people will be aware of the issues associated with “blood diamonds”.

The gems used by Or Du Monde are sourced direct from mines that have established appropriate working conditions, also enabling country of origin certification.

With a strong family presence in the industry, the founders probably knew their business better than anyone else in the room. But one thing that wasn’t quite explained was the B2C click and mortar retail model. From my limited knowledge, the diamond market is closely controlled by just a handful of companies, so I’m not sure how direct sourcing works. Also, on the retail side, there are obviously high-end luxury brands, and mass-market high street chains.

I’m guessing that Or Du Monde aims to sit in between, as a niche or boutique brand, appealing to a certain customer profile. The pitch made reference to the “branded jewellery” sector (representing 20% of the market, and growing), but I assume this involves intensive brand marketing and strong distribution networks – again, not much explanation, although the business plans to have 9 stores around the world by 2020.

Finally, because much of the business is made-to-order, they company does not have to hold large inventories, and more than half of the revenues come from online sales.

Checkit-Out

Quoting some research that 90% of buyers use online customer reviews, Checkit-Out is aiming to update this now well-established model. In fact, the founders believe that there has been “no evolution in 15 years”, and there is some suggestion that customer reviews are now a less trusted source. (I suppose search result rankings and paid-for SEO have distorted the market?)

Incorporating gamification and aiming for an “influent” audience base, Checkit-Out allows users to upload 1 minute videos of their restaurant visits, from the restaurants themselves. (This is the first market segment the founders are targeting.)

I wasn’t sure what the revenue model was – restaurants pay a commission on bookings or referrals made via the app? – and it wasn’t clear how or how often the video content gets updated. I’m also sure that some restaurants may not be too happy about diners filming their experiences and posting them online, while they are still dining – managers and waiters probably have enough to do coping with diners taking photos of every dish for their social media pages….

Finally, as with most user-defined and user-contributed content platforms, we tend to gravitate to the reviewers whose views and tastes appear to align with our own – understanding how that model works would be incredibly valuable.

 

Note: I’m extremely grateful to Steven Hess, Program Leader, and the team at Re-Imagi for inviting me to participate in the dress rehearsals, and to attend the pitch night itself. It was a very interesting and worthwhile experience, and noticeable that the program fellows had taken on board much of the feedback that myself and other mentors had provided at the rehearsals.

Next week: Tribute

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

startupvic

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.

Deliciou

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

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

There’s an awful lot of coffee in Japan (but not much espresso…)

Living in Melbourne all these years, I have become spoilt when it comes to the choice and quality of coffee on offer in the numerous cafes and bars around the city. So when I go overseas, I can get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t get my morning doppio. And I don’t mean an over-priced and over-rated big brand product from a certain you-know-who-you-are multinational chain store. My recent experiences in Japan, which has the third largest coffee consumption by nation, revealed that espresso-style coffee is on the increase, but is competing with some entrenched coffee tastes.

Walter de Maria "Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown" (Photo: © Rory Manchee - all rights reserved)

Walter de Maria “Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown” (Photo: © Rory Manchee – all rights reserved)

On my recent trip to Japan, I not only found some excellent new espresso outlets, I also acquired a renewed respect for siphon and filter coffee, which are both great when they are done well. As anyone who has been to Japan will know, coffee (both hot and cold) frequently comes in a can, either from a vending machine or a convenience store. In cafes, the coffee is usually brewed, and however good the coffee beans, this style just doesn’t do it for me. Rarely have I seen a cafetière (“plunger”) or percolator in use, although iced drip coffee is something of a delicacy.

From three weeks of travel, here are some of the highlights:

In Tokyo’s Ginza district, there is the Renoir Coffee Room which has a certain appeal, if you like authentic retro (i.e., it’s probably the same decor since the 1970’s, without a hint of irony or post modernism). Certainly a favourite with an older clientele, presenting a genteel atmosphere (somewhat undermined by the popular smoking section) and a reminder of a slower, gentler time. In the absence of espresso, I had a standard filter or pour over coffee, and despite being a little on the weak side, it had just enough of a roasted flavour to compensate. Rating: 6/10

Over in hipsterish Ebisu, I was expecting to find loads of local coffee shops, packed with neo-beatniks, retro-hippies and proto-punks, and the constant hiss of espresso machines. Not to be – maybe it was too early in the afternoon, but there were few options. Marugo Deli is more of a juice bar and organic cafe, that also happens to serve espresso. It was a friendly place, nice atmosphere, but the coffee was nothing special. Rating: 6/10

Down in Himeji, after a challenging climb to the top of the castle on a hot day teeming with hundreds of other visitors, it was a welcome relief to escape into the cool, calm comfort of Hamamoto Coffee. Again, they don’t serve espresso, but they specialise in siphon coffee (something I probably haven’t had since I used to visit the former Martinos Coffee Lounge in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay in the 1990s). Sitting at the counter meant that I got to see the whole process close up, as the bar tender kept several siphons going at the same time. It’s as much an art as working a good espresso machine, and makes for interesting entertainment. The coffee itself was bold, yet mellow at the same time – full-bodied but smooth with an almost zesty edge. HIghly recommended. Rating: 8.5/10

Wandering around Kyoto‘s hipster quarter close to Nijo Castle, I came across Cafe Bibliotic Hello! (quirky name, quirky building!!!) where it’s easy to while away the time browsing through the library of art books and sampling the excellent baked goods from the adjoining store. The espresso was a welcome bonus, and was the best I’d had up until then on this trip. Rating: 8.5/10

Outside Kyoto, in Saga-Arashiyama (near the bamboo forest), % Arabica has recently opened its second Kyoto coffee shop. Overlooking the river, this tiny cafe is really only a takeaway stand, but everything has been designed for maximum aesthetic effect. There’s clearly a personal statement being made here, almost verging on the pretentious/precious, but not surprisingly it is very popular with the passing visitors. And the coffee is also pretty good – full-roasted, robust, just enough acidity, and an excellent crema. Rating: 9.5/10

Back in Tokyo, nearing the end of my trip, I spent a day walking around the district of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, visiting the numerous galleries, second-hand bookshops and the Kiyosumi Gardens. In 2014, the New Zealand-based Allpress Espresso roastery and cafe group opened a branch here, in a former timber warehouse. It’s an interesting space, and is bringing some serious competition to a rival coffee roaster nearby (which only serves filter coffee to its customers). However, not all the locals seem to have taken to espresso – after having the coffee menu explained to them, a number walked out without trying, looking somewhat confused. But for me, having an Antipodean barista was obviously a plus. Rating: 9/10

Finally, I tried a couple of other espresso bars on my stay in Shimo-Kitazawa, one of which was not much more than an espresso stand, offering good coffee (Rating: 7.5/10), but the service was very slow. I can’t remember the name, and I can’t find a website for it, but it was close to the west entrance to the railway station. This trendy neighbourhood has a number of well-regarded coffee shops, but sadly, I did not have enough time to visit many of them. Next trip, perhaps.

Next week: More #FinTech stuff