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

In an earlier blog on privacy in the era of Big Data and Social Media, I explored how our “analog identities” are increasingly embedded in our digital profiles. In particular, the boundaries between personal/private information and public/open data are becoming so blurred that we risk losing sight of what individual, legal and commercial rights we have to protect or exploit our own identity. No wonder that there is so much interest in what blockchain solutions, cyber-security tools and distributed ledger technology can do to establish, manage and protect our digital ID – and to re-balance the near-Faustian pact that the illusion of “free” social media has created.

Exchanging Keys in “Ghostbusters” (“I am Vinz Clortho the Keymaster of Gozer”)

It’s over 20 years since “The Net” was released, and more than 30 since the original “Ghostbusters” film came out. Why do I mention these movies? First, they both pre-date the ubiquity of the internet, so it’s interesting to look back on earlier, pre-social media times. Second, they both reference a “Gatekeeper” – the former in relation to some cyber-security software being hijacked by the mysterious Praetorian organisation; the latter in relation to the “Keymaster”, the physical embodiment or host of the key to unleash the wrath of Gozer upon the Earth. Finally, they both provide a glimpse of what a totally connected world might look like – welcome to the Internet of Things!

Cultural references aside, the use of private and public keys, digital wallets and payment gateways to transact with digital currencies underpins the use of Bitcoin and other alt coins. In addition, blockchain solutions and cyber-security technologies are being deployed to streamline and to secure the transfer of data across both peer-to-peer/decentralised networks, and public/private, permissioned/permissionless blockchain and distributed ledger platforms. Sectors such as banking and finance, government services, the health industry, insurance and supply chain management are all developing proofs of concept to remove friction but increase security throughout their operations.

One of the (false) expectations that social media has created is that by giving away our own personal data and by sharing our own content, we will get something in return – namely, a “free” Facebook account or “free” access to Google’s search engine etc. What happens, of course, is that these tech companies sell advertising and other services by leveraging our use of and engagement with their platforms. As mere users we have few if any rights to decide how our data is being used, or what third-party content we will be subjected to. That might seem OK, in return for “free” social media, but none of the huge advertising revenues are directly shared with us as ordinary end consumers.

But just as Google and Facebook are facing demands to pay for news content, some tech companies are now trying to democratise our relationships with social media, mobile content and financial services, by giving end users financial and other benefits in return for sharing their data and/or being willing to give selected advertisers and content owners access to their personal screens.

Before looking at some interesting examples of these new businesses, here’s an anecdote based on my recent experience:

I had to contact Facebook to ask them to take down my late father’s account. Despite sending Facebook a scanned copy of the order of service from my father’s funeral, and references to two newspaper articles, Facebook insisted on seeing a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Facebook assumes that only close relatives or authorised representatives would have access to the certificate, but in theory anyone can order a copy of a death certificate from the UK’s General Register Office. Further, the copy of the certificate clearly states that “WARNING: A CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY”. Yet, it appears that Facebook was asking to see the certificate as a way of establishing my own identity.

(Side note: A few years ago, I was doing some work for the publishers of Who’s Who Australia, which is a leading source of biographical data on people prominent in public life – politics, business, the arts, academia, etc. In talking to prospective clients, especially those who have to maintain their own directories of members and alumni, it was clear that “deceased persons” data can be very valuable to keep their records up to date. It can also be helpful in preventing fraud and other deception. Perhaps Facebook needs to think about its role as a “document of record”?)

So, what are some of the new tech businesses that are helping consumers to take control of their own personal data, and to derive some direct benefit from sharing their personal profile and/or their screen time:

  1. Unlockd: this Australian software company enables customers to earn rewards by allowing advertisers and content owners “access” to their mobile device (such as streaming videos from MTV).
  2. SPHRE: this international blockchain company is building digital platforms (such as Air) that will empower consumers to create and manage their own digital ID, then be rewarded for using this ID for online and mobile transactions.
  3. Secco: this UK-based challenger bank is part of a trend for reputation-based solutions (e.g., personal credit scores based on your social media standing), that uses Aura tokens as a form of peer-to-peer or barter currency, within a “social-economic community”.

Linked to these initiatives are increased concerns about identity theft, cyber-security and safety, online trust, digital certification and verification, and user confidence. Anything that places more power and control in the hands of end users as to how, when and by whom their personal data can be used has to be welcome.

Declaration of interest: through my work at Brave New Coin, a FinTech startup active in blockchain and digital assets, I am part of the team working with SPHRE and the Air project. However, all comments here are my own.

Next week: Investor pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

#AngelCube favours B2B #startups…

The latest intake to AngelCube‘s accelerator program presented at the recent Startup Victoria meetup event. It was interesting to see that all 6 pitches were aimed at B2B audiences, since I have heard several angel investors and startup advisers express a strong preference for end-consumer products (or those with 2-sided markets). Perhaps there is more appetite for enterprise solutions, despite the longer lead times for sales, and the challenge of strategies required to displace incumbant products.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 5.18.46 pmWhether there is a new interest in B2B startups, or whether more founders are identifying B2B opportunities, there’s probably some further analysis to be done. Meanwhile, here are the 6 fledgling startups in the order they pitched on the night:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 5.45.53 pm1. Peer Academy

Peer Academy aims to “change the way professionals learn”. It does this by offering students access to open enrollment classes via an online market place. The classes are conducted by facilitators and experts (“hosts”) who have been “screened” for quality by Peer Academy, with a focus on “soft” management and leadership skills.

Peer Academy hopes that students will act as “warm leads” for corporate sales, by taking their classroom experience back into their organisations, and acting as champions or brand advocates. With follow-up introductions to training and HR managers, Peer Academy then curates programs for corporate clients, by matching training needs to individual users.

I like the notion of “peer-to-peer” learning (although I presume that the hosts are expected to have more advanced and developed skills than their students), and there is certainly a trend for alternative learning platforms. At least one major bank has expressed interest in sourcing corporate training via Peer Academy, who take a 30% commission on course sales.

A huge challenge will be to engage corporate clients who already have established relationships with trusted training providers, or who have existing panels of approved organisations, or who outsource training procurement to third parties.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.04.05 pm2. Jack

Workplace wellbeing is becoming big business ($5bn and counting?), and in the process, sedentary workers are in the firing line. According to Apple CEO TIM Cook, “Sitting is the new cancer”, and hence the recent fad/trend/fashion for sit-stand desks which is driving market interest in ergonomic solutions. The team at Jack have built a device that can monitor how much time people are sitting or standing, and even provide some feedback on user posture.

As you would expect, Jack uses cloud connectivity to monitor user activity, and to relay data via cross-platform apps and dashboards. It also uses elements of social media engagement and gamification, and has already launched a pilot scheme with several desk suppliers, as well as a paid beta at a well-known payments provider.

Customers will buy the device plus pay for a monthly subscription service. There is a direct competitor, but Jack claim their device can be retrofitted to any sit-stand desk. The unit price is much higher than, say a Fitbit, but since this is not a consumer product, Jack is confident it can sustain current pricing.

Finally, with the data it aims to collect, Jack reckons it may even be able to help reduce insurance premiums, although this will no doubt be subject to actuarial scrutiny, Work Cover and OH&S requirements, as well as data privacy issues.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.24.11 pm3. Coin-Craft

In the professional services and consulting sectors, tracking project costs and resourcing have become highly demanding activities – witness the plethora of project management, costing, billing, ERP and time-tracking solutions on the market. Based on personal experience, the founders of Coin-Craft have identified a specific need among architects, and have built an all-in-one tool for Project Management, Cashflow Analysis and Resource Planning. Built “for architects by architects”, Coin-Craft is designed to help clients stay optimal, by managing staff over/under utilisation, and tracking cashflow projections.

The system also claims to integrate with third-party accounting software, and has around a dozen firms using the service, with another 30 in the pipeline. Although Coin-Craft have chosen a niche client base to protect their market entry, they claim the solution can also be adopted by engineering practices, graphic art studios and project management firms.

However, feedback from the audience suggested there are already similar, mature products that are tracking individual billable hours against specific projects, so Coin-Craft may need to work on their value proposition and differentiation.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.38.22 pm4. CurveUp!

As social media and content marketing become more ubiquitous (if not more sophisticated), companies need to understand the value of their direct marketing spend. Mostly, they can do this via web analytics, e-commerce tracking, campaign conversions, and cost of customer acquisition. According to CurveUp! however, measuring the ROI of your PR activity is not so easy using “conventional” social media monitoring tools. For example, CurveUp! claim they can deliver tailored reports to show which blog post or article converted to a ticket sale for a concert or event.

Currently using web and online sources only, CurveUp! track mentions and link this to customer data. Some platforms, such as Instagram, are harder to track, and even via a possible API solution, it will only be possible to monitor the number of views and shares, but otherwise little or no data will be available.

However, at least one online market place has expressed interest, and CurveUp! has the potential to integrate with Facebook and Google, so that clients could possibly use campaign codes to track referral activity from mention to firm sale. Overall, the service will need to align itself with the ROI outcomes linked to PR campaign goals – which will vary between clients and markets, depending on organisational KPIs around brand advocacy, share of wallet, products per customer and customer satisfaction.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.56.07 pm5. TribeGrowth

In a similar vein, the team at TribeGrowth claim to have built “artificial intelligence for social media marketing“. Their goal is to help clients build an audience and get customers, via the use of “intelligent engagement” to generate conversions.

Initially targeting startups, professional service providers and the hospitality sector, TribeGrowth offers a tiered monthly subscription service, and claims to be a (cheaper) alternative to agencies or even Twitter ads.

Currently in private beta (and so far, only designed for Twitter and Instagram), TribeGrowth focuses on audience growth by careful selection of connections and influencers. According to the founders, this is not “pay & spray”, but uses machine learning to refine audience outreach and engagement.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.59.11 pm6. SweetHawk

Finally, and in what was probably the most technical presentation of the evening, came SweetHawk, which is building “voice for e-commerce”. I have to confess that, although I had previously heard about this product, I’m still not totally clear how it works.

In essence, it’s an outbound platform that enables companies to have more focused/targeted real-time conversations with warm sales prospects, namely people who are visiting their websites. Personally, I would find that a bit spooky, if I was browsing a site and suddenly a widget popped up asking me if I wanted to receive a call right there and then. Isn’t it a bit like stalking?

The business model is designed to offer tiered services in return for monthly subscription fees – depending on call volumes and functionality, such as workflow tools. I would see it as sitting somewhere between an outbound sales call centre and a SaaS-style inbound helpdesk solution.

On the plus side, I do see the opportunity to deliver superior and more responsive customer service, except that SweetHawk appears to be a sales and prospecting platform, not an after-sales or support solution. I’m also used to live chat tools that pop up on various software and other service sites I use, so I would probably engage with a similar offering if I was browsing to purchase.

Final Thoughts

While none of these pitches has so far demonstrated anything truly disruptive (but let’s not criticise them for that), they all seem reasonably sensible and logical solutions using a mix of digitally-driven technologies (cloud, mobile, social, peer-to-peer, data analytics) that we are all increasingly familiar with. So, rather than major game changers, I see each of them building on established platforms. By refining the potential that new technologies and business models are creating, they are tapping into better-defined client needs rather than taking a “build it and they will come” approach.

In conclusion, I was generally impressed by the 6 pitches on offer, although some of the presentations will no doubt be reworked in light of the audience feedback and Q&A, and before the plucky founders hit the investor road show organised by AngelCube.

The event was hosted by inspire9, and sponsored by BlueChilli and PwC.

Next week: More on FinTech – another look at data and disintermediation

 

 

The David and Goliath of #Startup #Pitching

Anyone wanting to follow the startup scene in Melbourne will quickly discover that there are meetups, hackathons and user groups nearly every night of the week. Who needs a social life when we’ve got startup happenings to keep us entertained, busy and off the streets! The frequency and close proximity of these events can lead to some interesting contrasts; one such example came when Oxygen Ventures‘ annual splash The Big Pitch was held the same week as UpWork‘s more modest Networking & Pitch Night (part of The Pulse Meetup). It was almost a case of David and Goliath…

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 5.58.28 pmScreen Shot 2015-06-19 at 5.58.57 pmThe biggest difference between the two events was the prize on offer – the Big Pitch offers the winners up to $5m in venture capital funding; The Pulse offers $500 in Upwork credits (and high fives all round). No doubt, the application, screening and selection process is more onerous for the former than the latter. And as was frequently pointed out once The Big Pitch gala proceedings got underway, this competition is “serious” and “adult”. But that’s not to say that the entrepreneurs pitching at The Pulse weren’t equally passionate or serious. Most of the finalists at The Big Pitch had already launched products and were gaining market traction, as had several of those presenting at The Pulse.

So, in the interest of objectivity (and pure entertainment), here are the 10 pitches I watched across the two competitions, in no particular order, with my personal comments on each. Without going to the respective websites, can you work out which startup finalists belong to which competition?

LaundryRun

Too little time, long day at work, or just can’t be bothered doing your washing? Let LaundryRun pick up your dirty clothes at a time of your choosing, and bring them back when you need them all nice and clean. Tapping into the trend for concierge services for busy inner city hipsters, hackers and hustlers, LaundryRun is joining the likes of YourGrocer to outsource domestic services.

Given that the founders already have a traditional laundry and dry-cleaning business, one assumes they know to make the economics work (they claim the customer pricing is comparable to walk-in trade). Plus they have had some early media coverage, and it makes sense to focus on higher-density neighbourhoods, especially if they can establish regular pick-up and drop-off schedules.

But the problem will be in getting enough repeat business, although if most of the collection and delivery is done in the evenings, maybe that addresses the need for consolidation (and gets round peak traffic hours).

Gamurs

As I have confessed before, gaming is not my thing. I don’t see the appeal, I barely understand the jargon, and I certainly don’t have any aesthetic appreciation for the advertising, graphics and branding that goes into these products. But I accept that it’s a big business, and that the gamers of today are possibly the software geniuses of tomorrow.

Gamurs claims to be the ultimate social network for all things gaming. It has had some user interest (probably because it is a free platform), but it felt that there was nothing really new here. Despite a dedicated team, and some impressive growth projections (albeit only for Australia) it was difficult to see where the revenue would come from as there are competing channels, and the games industry is built around platform and brand verticals.

The pitch mentioned “content consumption” a lot, but I had no idea what that meant, and I was left thinking this was simply an on-line magazine for enthusiasts and hobbyists.

EpicCatch

I’ve seen this exact same pitch before. It’s cute, and has an interesting angle on the online dating model. Sort of MeetUp meets Tinder, with a focus on curated dating experiences. But other than some neat one-liners, this presentation was really an in-person advert designed to drive customer usage.

I’m sure the business will do well among its target demographic (although not quite sure they have this totally figured out), but unsurprisingly it did not win because according to some recent research, VC’s don’t like the dating business model.

  Biteable

This self-serve provider of templates for animated videos presents a very neat idea, and was established to fill the gap between expensive agency services, complicated pro tools and clunky DIY apps. It’s free to use, but for $99 you can remove the Biteable watermark.

There are limited options for changing some aspects of the template content, but maybe this will form part of the up-sell model. However, the numbers look questionable – how many repeat users would there be, and wouldn’t frequent users go for professional solutions anyway?

Perhaps there are strong niches or use cases that Biteable could explore, rather than trying to gain traction across a wide market?

CoreCool

Referring to the number of fatalities in India’s recent heat wave, CoreCool demonstrated a human need for their simple low-energy heating and cooling solution, especially for the elderly and the infirm. Using tested technology to regulate core body temperature (in essence, a contact heat exchange unit), CoreCool also sees a market in the recreational and well-being sectors.

If the product makes any claims as to its medical or health care benefits, it may need to comply with the relevant class of therapeutic goods regulations. It was not clear whether any clinical trials have been undertaken or whether the product is subject to any patents. However, there was lots of support for the idea among the audience.

Development challenges include scaling production to achieve retail pricing, and maximizing battery life.

FLEET

This was a project that proved very popular with the audience, even though it is still at concept stage – quite literally, it has not yet got off the ground. FLEET plans to bring cheap satellite internet to the estimated 60% of the world’s population that are not connected, or don’t have access.

With impressive scientific credentials, a passionate presenter and market research to back her case, it was easy to see why this pitch was many people’s favourite. But without the co-operation of incumbant telcos and their willingness to trade with a third-party platform, FLEET may struggle to establish a business case, unless they can hook into alternative distribution technology and supply chains.

At the very least, FLEET could provide a shot in the arm for Australia’s satellite industry.

Blinxel

Pitches always look better when the presenter can provide a product demo. Such was the case with Blinxel, a startup that is looking to bring simple and low-cost AR/VR video and hologram-like content to your smart phone or tablet.

Using a dedicated depth camera, Blinxel can capture video content, then upload the file via the cloud to your device. The team behind Blinxel is a bunch of enthusiastic 3-D content producers who want to disrupt the current high-cost model, which is also wasteful, as little content is recycled and OEM’s are apparently locked into proprietary technology.

I can see many uses, from education to tourism, as long as the content creation process is scalable, the need for stand-alone technologies can be minimised, and the price/speed/quality equation makes sense.

SocialStatus

Aiming straight for the marketer’s heart, SocialStatus aims to provide social media analytics on steroids – although only supporting Facebook pages at present. With a focus on peer and industry benchmarking, SocialStatus is building its expertise around the key metrics of engagement, growth and click-thru rates.

Adopting a freemium model (plus a 2-tier subscription price) and using simplified tools (canned reports and automated data from streamlined metrics), SocialStatus looks clean, easy to use and speaks directly to content marketers and community managers.

Unless they can protect their analytical IP, and extend coverage to other social media platforms, I think SocialStatus may find it difficult to defend their position.

Meet&Trip

A simple pitch: if you are travelling overseas, and want to connect with fellow travellers who might be interested in planning and sharing a road trip, this is the solution for you. Claiming that Facebook and other social networks don’t allow you to create time and location-based forums that are both moderated, curated and for a specific purpose, Meet&Trip aims to connect users with similar interests and lifestyles.

It’s a nice idea, but other than being specialist bulletin/message board, I can’t see what else Meet&Trip has planned, or how it intends to fund itself.

In the analogue world, most major cities and tourist destinations used to publish magazines dedicated to the interests of travellers, backpackers and itinerant expats. They had classified adverts of the kind: “planning a trip to Uluru; share expenses and driving; no boofheads”. Maybe this still happens? As an aside, London’s Antipodean community used to park and trade their dormobiles along the Thames Southbank – so anyone looking to buy a VW Combi and “do” Europe with like-minded travellers knew exactly where to go.

Storie

I have to admit, when I heard this pitch, my immediate reaction was, “Oh. Yet more video content that I don’t have time to watch (or care about).” And despite the apparent novelty of being able to capture, edit and share content from within the same app (i.e., build a series of scenes into a story before you hit “publish”), it felt like yet another social media pitch in search of a business solution.

Kudos to the young team for bringing their idea to our attention – but to me it felt like it was trying to take the best bits of YouTube, Vine, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr without adding anything radically new.

As with Biteable (above), my recommendation to Storie would be to explore commercial opportunities among deep or niche content-rich markets, rather than trying to scale across shallow, thin and widely dispersed public audiences.

Conclusions

  • The winners in their respective competitions were SocialStatus and CoreCool, with honourable mentions for LaundryRun, FLEET and Blinxel.
  • We are starting to see some further variegation among startup pitches – more firmware, hardware, B2B – but the bulk are still pushing consumer-based, ad-backed products targeting the (over)crowded markets for sharing social, mobile and video content.
  • Reflecting Melbourne’s ethnically diverse startup scene, a significant number of these pitches were made by recent migrants to Australia.
  • Several pitches confined their growth potential to the domestic market – which is understandable, but self-limiting. Despite its reputation as a relatively early adopter of new technology, by and large Australia is still quite conservative, with a tendency to favour incumbant brands that operate in semi-protected duopolies and oligopolies (supermarkets, telcos, banks, newspapers, automotive).
  • I don’t believe in disruption for its own sake, but few of the pitches offered truly disruptive business models, other than through pricing (i.e., charge nothing and hope that advertising will cover the costs) or via self-service solutions. I would like to have seen more disruptive intent around supply chains, distribution and channels to market.

Next week: Deconstructing #Digital Obsolescence

 

The Great #Data Overload Part 3: Differentiating in a #Digital World

Have you noticed that what was once old is new again? In particular, I’m talking about traditional direct marketing techniques, such as door-to-door sales, print circulars, and telephone cold calling. It’s as if businesses realise that to be heard and to get noticed in the digital world, you have to do something different or unexpected, and nobody expects to see a door-to-door salesperson these days!

MBPI mostly work from a home office, and in recent months I have had door-knockers trying to sell me car tyres, energy-saving devices and fire extinguishers. That’s in addition to the telesales calls persuading me to switch phone and utility providers, take out insurance or upgrade my security software (yes, I know that last one is probably a scam). Plus, more and more local businesses and tradespeople are using good old-fashioned leaflets and letter box drops (which is interesting, given that around 58% of local search is done on a mobile device).

Why are some advertisers reverting to this form of direct marketing?

I can think of several reasons:

  • They need to cut through the digital noise and reach their target audience via “novel” promotional tactics.
  • Their products and services are less-suited to on-line or in-app purchasing decisions.
  • Their sales activities are focused on acquiring existing customers from competitors, a conversion process more likely to succeed via personal contact.
  • Or simply, the costs make more sense.

Why is it important to differentiate? 

It’s 10 years since “Blue Ocean Strategy” was published, which stressed the need to stand apart from your competition (“avoid the shark-infested waters”). The message is even more relevant today, because the ubiquity of social media and content marketing platforms means that everyone has access to the same tools, and it’s not that difficult to play technology catch up; and while there may be good reasons for your business to engage with these channels to market, you also need some alternatives, like offering direct customer engagement that is not wholly reliant upon on-line and digital. That’s why some banks are opening more branches as part of their growth and customer acquisition strategy, why some retailers are offering “buy on-line, collect in-store”, and why some service companies are moving to an integrated, end-to-end customer experience, so that customers get the same person helping to resolve their problem from start to finish.

How to differentiate?

Standing out from the crowd (for the right reasons!) is critical to attracting customer attention. Competing on price alone is typically a race to the bottom where nobody wins. Getting noticed, especially when everyone is using the same marketing tools and sales offers, may mean doing something unusual or unexpected (for example, ALDI‘s “anti-ads”) as part of your marketing campaign. Or connecting directly with your audience in a way that doesn’t rely on “Likes”, “Shares” or “Follows”.

Sometimes it’s as simple as as this leaflet (shown above) found in my letter box the other day. At first, I thought it was a flyer for a local bar. Then, I noticed it was promoting a new smart phone app. On closer inspection, the flyer comprised a printed sheet hand-pasted onto a page torn from a magazine. That’s a lot of manual effort to promote a digital product, but using a lo-tech solution that totally makes sense! (No doubt, it appeals to the hipster crowd, ’cause retro’s cool, right?) So, the element of surprise (if that was the intention) worked – it got my attention because I wouldn’t have expected to receive a leaflet for a new app.*

Next week: “Why? Because we’ve always done it this way…”

Notes

* For an interesting story on the power of the unexpected, see Adam Posner’s talk on customer loyalty programs.