Startup Governance

The recent debacle involving LaunchVic and 500 Startups comes at a time when startups and entrepreneurs are facing increased public scrutiny over their ethical behaviour. Having a great idea, building an innovative or disruptive business, and attracting investors is not carte blanche to disregard corporate governance and social responsibility obligations. So how do we instil a better “moral compass” among startups and their founders?

The TV sitcom, “Silicon Valley”, is drawn from experience of the software industry, but it also reveals much that ails the startup economy. As funny as it is, the series also highlights some painful truths. Scenes where founders “trade” equity in their non-existent companies are just one aspect of how startups can develop an over-inflated sense of their own worth. These interactions also reveal how startups can reward inappropriate behaviour – if sweat equity is the only way founders can “pay” their team, it can lead to distorted thinking and impaired judgement, because the incentive to go along with poor decision-making is greater than the threat of any immediate sanction.

A key challenge for any startup is knowing when to seek external advice – not just legal, tax or accounting services, but an independent viewpoint. Many startups don’t bother (or need) to establish a board of directors – and if they do, they normally consist of only the founders and key shareholders. The role of independent, non-executive directors is probably under-valued by startups. But even an advisory board (including mentors who may already be guiding the business) would allow for some more formal and impartial debate.

Another challenge for startups is that in needing to attract funding, they can find themselves swimming with the sharks, so doing due diligence on potential investors is a critical task in building a sustainable cap table that will benefit the longer term aims of the business.

Equally, if startup founders are motivated to “do their own thing”, because they are driven by purpose or a higher cause, or they simply want to make a difference, they can risk having to compromise their values in order to engage with bigger, more-established companies. So they may end up emulating the very behaviours they sought to change or challenge. Neither startups nor big corporations have a monopoly on unethical behaviour, but if founders stray from their original founding principles, they will soon alienate their stakeholders.

Finally, nurturing the “conscience” of a startup is not something that should be left to the founder(s) alone. The vision has to be shared with, and owned by everyone involved, especially as the business scales. Everything should be measured or tested against this criteria – “does it stay true to or enhance our reason for being here?” Without a clear sense of what is important to a startup, it will also struggle to convey its core value proposition.

Next week: Digital Richmond

 

What might we expect in 2017?

On a number of measures, 2016 was a watershed year. Unexpected election results, fractious geopolitics, numerous celebrity deaths, too many lacklustre blockbuster films, spectacular sporting upsets (and regular doping scandals), and sales of vinyl records are outpacing revenue from digital downloads and streaming services. What might we expect from 2017?

Detail from "The Passing Winter" by Yayoi Kusama (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Detail from “The Passing Winter” by Yayoi Kusama [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Rather than using a crystal ball to make specific predictions or forecasts, here are some of the key themes that I think will feature in 2017:

First, the nature of public discourse will come under increased scrutiny. In the era of “post-truth”, fake news and searing/scathing social commentary, the need for an objective, fact-based and balanced media will be paramount. In addition, the role of op-ed pieces to reflect our enlightened liberal traditions and the need for public forums to represent our pluralist society will be critical to maintaining a sense of fairness, openness, and just plain decency in public dialogue.

Second, a recurring topic of public conversation among economists, politicians, sociologists, HR managers, career advisors, bureaucrats, union leaders, technologists, educators and social commentators will be the future of work. From the impact of automation on jobs, to the notion of a universal basic income; from the growth of the gig economy, to finding purpose through the work we do. How we find, engage with and navigate lifelong employment is now as important as, say, choosing high school electives, making specific career choices or updating professional qualifications.

Third, the ongoing focus on digital technology will revolve around the following:

  • The Internet of Things – based on a current exhibit at London’s Design Museum, the main use cases for IoT will continue to be wearable devices (especially for personal health monitoring), agriculture, transport and household connectivity
  • Fintech – if a primary role of the internet has been for content dissemination, search and discovery, then the deployment of Blockchain solutions, the growth in crypto-currencies, the use of P2P platforms and the evolution of robo-advice are giving rise to the Internet of Money
  • Artificial Intelligence – we are seeing a broader range of AI applications, particularly around robotics, predictive analytics and sensory/environmental monitoring. The next phase of AI will learn to anticipate (and in some cases moderate) human behaviour, and provide more efficacious decision-making and support mechanisms for resource planning and management.
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality – despite being increasingly visible in industries like gaming, industrial design, architecture and even tourism, it can feel like VR/AR is still looking for some dedicated use cases. One sector that is expected to benefit from these emerging technologies is education, so I would expect to see some interesting solutions for interactive learning, curriculum delivery and student assessment.

Fourth, and somewhat at odds with the above, the current enthusiasm for the maker culture is also leading to a growing interest in products that represent craft, artisan and hand-made fabrication techniques and traditions. Custom-made, bespoke, personalized and unique goods are in vogue – perhaps as a reaction to the “perfection” of digital replication and mass-production?

Fifth, with the importance of startups in driving innovation and providing sources of new economic growth, equity crowdfunding will certainly need to come of age. Thus far, this method of fund-raising has been more suited (and in many cases, is legally restricted) to physical products, entertainment assets, and creative projects. The delicate balance between retail investor protection and entrepreneurial access to funding means that this method of startup funding is constrained (by volume, amounts and investor participation), and contrary to stated intentions, can involve disproportionate set up costs and administration. But its time will come.

Finally, as shareholder activism and triple bottom line reporting become more prevalent (combined with greater regulatory and compliance obligations), I can see that corporate governance principles are increasingly placing company directors in the role of quasi-custodians of a company’s assets and quasi-trustees of stakeholder interests. It feels like boards are now expected to be the conscience of the company – something that will require directors to have greater regard to the impact of their decisions, not just whether those decisions are permitted, correct or good.

One thing I can predict for 2017, is that Content in Context will continue to comment on these topics, and explore their implications, especially as I encounter them through the projects I work on and the clients I consult to.

Next week: The FF17 Semi Finals in Melbourne

Challenging Monocultures via Crop Rotation

Agricultural scientists are advocating a return to crop rotation. They argue that if farmers diversify what they grow each season, they can achieve more sustainable environmental and economic outcomes. Whereas, industrial-scale, intensive and single crop farming depletes the soil, and requires the use of expensive (and potentially harmful) pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In short, monocultures are self-limiting and ultimately self-destructive.

Indoor salad garden, Itoya department store, Ginza, Japan (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

Indoor salad garden, Itoya department store, Ginza, Japan (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

The same concept applies to teams and organisations. If we only associate with people who look, talk, sound, think and act like us, we not only risk group-think, we also promote unconscious collective bias. While it might seem comfortable to only deal and interact with “people like us”, it creates unrealistic cognitive and cultural homogeneity.

I understand why we often talk about “finding our tribe”, but for me, I find connections and shared values among several tribes: partly because no single community can provide for all our needs; partly because at their worst, monocultures can result in in-breeding….

One antidote to organisational monocultures is to promote diversity (especially cognitive diversity), so you mix up the elements that make up a team or an entity. Another solution (a bit like crop rotation itself) is to alternate and rotate roles on a project, within a team or at the executive level. (Some corporate boards already practise this.)

I once had a marvellous CEO who liked to boast that he had worked in every department within the company, from editorial to production, from sales to marketing. Not only did he have a more complete view of the organisation, he also had a much better understanding of how to get each department to collaborate.

At the individual level, alternating roles within the organisation can help them to acquire new skills, develop fresh perspectives, build different networks, gain valuable experience, and avoid going stale.

If you are uncomfortable with the horticultural or biological analogies, then perhaps the work of Michael Simmons is more palatable. From his research, “simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success”.*

Another way of looking at this notion of “crop rotation” is through the lens of a corporate turnaround, or a company trying to move from start-up to scale-up.

In the former scenario, the owners, board and CEO recognise that they need to bring in different people, even if only on a short-term basis, to help them:

  • Review the status quo objectively
  • Identify new ideas and fresh thinking
  • Enhance in-house skills and resources
  • Apply a circuit-breaker to unblock the stalemate
  • Join the dots between different parts of the organisation, the market and the client base

In the latter situation, bringing in specialist advisers, or “pop-up boards”, can:

  • Provide an injection of strategic focus
  • Develop a dynamic business planning process
  • Ramp up capacity or capability in a very short space of time
  • Open up new networks or provide access to capital, resources and markets
  • Expand the team’s “bench strength” at critical times

As an independent consultant with a portfolio of interests, I provide an interim resource to my clients, fulfilling different roles depending on their specific requirements. I also serve on pop-up and advisory boards.  And because I am naturally curious, and like to immerse myself in different ideas, I am an “open networker”, meaning that I engage and connect with different people across the various groups of which I am a member. Where I increasingly add value is in joining the dots between otherwise unconnected or seemingly disparate elements.

Next week: Latest #FinTech Round-Up

* Thanks to Jessica Stillman at Inc.Com for bringing this article to my attention

Do we need a #FinTech safe harbour?

As part of the recent FinTech Melbourne Meet Up, there was some discussion on the regulatory challenges startups face when trying to validate an early-stage concept. The notion of a safe harbour or “regulatory sandbox” has gained some momentum, with ASIC’s Innovation Hub, and a commentary by Deborah Ralston, of the Australian Centre for Financial Services, who is also inaugural Chair of ASIC’s Digital Finance Advisory Committee.

If we assume that the main purposes of financial regulation are: system stability, minimum professional standards, consumer confidence, investor protection, market transparency and risk mitigation, then I doubt anyone can deny the benefit of a formal and robust compliance regime. However, technology and innovation are combining to challenge and disrupt the inherent inefficiencies that can accrue within a static regulatory environment (especially one that is reactive, rather than pro-active), which is largely designed to monitor legacy frameworks and incumbant institutions.

While the ASIC initiative is not the same as obtaining an ATO private tax ruling, it does at least show that the regulator is keen to be more consultative in helping startups test new ideas. But the reality is the cost of initial compliance and licensing can be a barrier to a new venture, before the concept has even been market-tested. So perhaps there is an opportunity to ring-fence emergent FinTech ventures, so they can explore real-world applications, but limited by market scope, number of participants, transaction values and timeframes. (Such a model already exists for private equity offerings….)

As it stands, in the case of P2P lending platforms, a startup might find itself having to be licensed and regulated as a financial services provider, an approved consumer credit provider, an authorised depository institute and possibly a licensed financial planner as well. That’s a lot of compliance for a new business that might not even have a single customer.

From my own experience, what constitutes “financial advice” is subject to very wide interpretation. Several years ago, I was responsible for introducing a new financial product to the local market – a bond pricing information service. The service was aimed only at institutional investors (not retail customers), based on collated and published data supplied by existing market participants. Nor was it a real-time data feed; rather, it delivered intraday and end of day prices calculated on actual traded bonds. Yet the regulator determined this constituted “financial advice”, even though no trading recommendation or investment decision was inherent in the data. It was also designed to offer a more transparent and objective process for pricing portfolios of less liquid or rarely traded securities, where mark-to-market solutions are unavailable or inappropriate – thereby providing some clarity to market participants.

Meanwhile, the responses to shady advice and other malfeasance inflicted upon retail investors by “established” financial institutions and “traditional” financial planners usually take years to work their way through the legal and regulatory processes of investigation, mediation, settlement and prosecution. (And if anyone wants to understand what actually caused the GFC, well before the term FinTech had been coined, check out John Lanchester’s book “Whoops!”)

Next week: What I want from a mobile banking app.