Startup Vic’s E-commerce #Pitch Night

A new venue, and a new theme – last week’s Pitch Night organised by Startup Victoria was hosted at Kensington Collective, and featured four contestants each working in different areas of e-commerce.

With some high-profile judges (including Ahmed Fahour, outgoing CEO of Australia Post, and Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic), and an audience warmed by hot soup and mulled wine on a very cold and wet Melbourne night, it was not surprising that the event was packed out, despite the weather.

In addition to hearing the competing pitches, attendees were also able to meet with a number of other e-commerce startups exhibiting in “silicon alley”, including: VolStreet (a new market place for consumer goods), Liven (a loyalty program for restaurants), Buying Intelligence (data on retail trends from the fashion industry) and Straight From Farmers (a D2C platform for agricultural produce).

As per the usual practice of this blog, the startups appear in the order in which they pitched (and click on the startup names for their website links):

 Passel

Passel’s business model is built on a crowdsourced solution for same day deliveries, so that shoppers can get their purchases quicker from omnichannel retailers. According to the founders, a high percentage of online cart abandonment is due to freight costs, and delivery times.

Using something akin to the Uber model, retailers will book a delivery that could be fulfilled by one of their own staff on the way home, or by another shopper if they are in the vicinity. Same day delivery is apparently more secure, and with a registration process for delivery “agents” and no charge to the retailer until proof of delivery, Passel is also designed to de-risk the delivery service. But, not quite delivery drones across suburbia!

Currently running a limited trial at Bayside Mall in Frankston, Passel is putting most of its efforts in to training staff at the stores they work with, to make sure the process is bedded down.

The judges had a range of questions and observations about the business proposition and assumptions behind the pitch, such as: Retailing can be quite a separate function to distribution and fulfillment, and for larger retailers stock management may cover several stores, or be handled by core distribution centres – so how will shops retailers be able to match orders and deliveries on a same day basis? Within large outlets, the time taken for delivery staff to actually locate an item may become burdensome, so has Passel considered geo-coding within stores? What is the opportunity outside Australia?

My own observations about this pitch included: what are the issues with insurance, what is the fit with click’n’collect services, and is there a bigger opportunity in solving current problems with the use of contract couriers on demand?

Vesta Central

Describing itself as “a marketplace for destination partners“, Vesta Central is also one of a growing number of Product Data Distribution Platforms (PDDP), between suppliers and retailers. Essentially, it offers an API to allow manufacturers to upload their inventories to support downstream distribution and sales.

Citing technological, time and cost barriers for product suppliers and retailers to upload and distribute product data, Vesta Central’s main proposition is to help move from physical to digital, via a centralised master data platform. From here, retailers can pull product data in real-time.

I’ve seen similar startups and businesses that also provide product manuals, technical specifications and even product training to sales staff, so the judges also felt that the founders need to gain a better knowledge and understanding of the competitor landscape. Another word of advice they had for the pitch was, “Let go of the PowerPoint…”

To Me Love Me

With a tag line of “Fashion Tech – Made To Measure“, this startup is trying to address the issue of incorrectly fitting clothes which is creating retail dissatisfaction.

Using key measurements and six data points, the service develops personal profiling
based on a proprietary algorithm according to body shape and style preferences. In return, it can offer curated, personalised, and even some custom-made suggestions and recommendations – but mostly ready-to-wear brands.

Aiming to help brands bond with their customers, the service also introduces social elements via peer/customer feedback. The service provides a seamless experience and offers a level of control to customers – but essentially, it’s a data play: collecting, aggregating and distributing customer statistics and profiles to the industry.

Although the pitch mentioned a SaaS model (with three tiers of service and pricing), the economic model was not fully outlined. However, the judges were clearly impressed by the founders’ international contacts in the US, UK & Europe, and their global ambitions.

CableGeek

With one simple sales proposition (“selling trusted mobile accessories at low prices“), CableGeek aims to address three common problems in this retail product category: Inconsistent product quality, high retail mark-ups, and difficulties in buying online (especially the shipping costs on lower-price items).

The CableGeek solution includes: free shipping from Australian suppliers, offering global brands, a focus on mobile (ApplePay), and key partnerships (instant pickup via Blueshift’s IBP, and fulfillment via eStore Logistics).

With a Google customer review rating of 4.8, CableGeek must be doing something right. Asked about what sets it apart from the competition, and how it will fend off competition, the founders cited the end-to-end automation plus their own full stack development – so any challenge is more likely to come from large retailers (who don’t necessarily have the focus or the in-house technical capabilities?).

However, given that the business was started by Ryan Zhou, who is also a co-founder of CoinJar, the judges wondered whether he would be over-stretched, or unable to commit 100% to this new business – especially as in this type of retail business, the only way to succeed is by dominating market share, which requires full-time commitment.

The judges were obviously won over by To Me Love Me‘s approach, as it took out first place on the night. There was also a sense that it was the only pitch that clearly had a real eye on international opportunities, and had demonstrated some serious industry credentials.

It was also interesting that a couple of the pitches referred to issues with delivery costs in Australia, especially for smaller, lower value items – something that the incoming CEO at Australia Post might want to address?

Finally, it was disappointing that there was no opportunity for questions or input from the audience – with one of the largest turnouts ever for a regular pitch night, Startup Victoria needs to think about how to incorporate more audience participation – these events should not just be a spectator sport.

Next week: Law & Technology – when AI meets Smart Contracts…

 

Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy

In a recent and very informative fireside chat, Linda Kozlowski, COO of Etsy was in conversation with Sarah Moran, CEO of Girl Geek Academy. Key themes of the discussion included the challenges in building a “global/local” platform, making sure you are addressing the right audience needs, and in a two-sided market place, knowing how to balance the interests of sellers and buyers.

etsyOrganised by StartupVic and hosted by inspire9, it was yet another example of how fortunate Melbourne is to attract and host so many leading global figures in the startup world, willing to share their insights (as well as learn more about the local startup scene – which probably does not get as big a rap as it should, especially in mainstream media).

With previous operational roles at both Alibaba and Evernote, Linda brings a strong combination of experience in tech and market places, and describes her current position as covering “CX and revenue from end-to-end”. Her primary focus is on product development, global expansion and addressing sellers’ problems.

At Etsy, the aim is to develop a global product platform that is culturally diverse. There is a natural tension between fully localised customisation (which can be costly to maintain – translation, version control, managing updates), and a “best of breed” model that can serve most users (which can lead to too many compromises). So instead, Etsy pursues a strategy of locally originated products and features, combined with open APIs.

Etsy has also identified sellers as their core audience. This means that so much of the CX is actually determined by sellers’ needs, to whom Etsy then serves up customers to the platform via social media, content marketing and SOE. Etsy sees this as a point of differentiation when considering traditional retailers who often end up squeezing their suppliers on pricing and margins.

In balancing the needs of two-sided markets, again Etsy focuses on the seller first – because buyers want to see depth of inventory and a range of quality products, so get sellers on-board and the buyers will come.

Asked how Etsy avoids buyers going direct to suppliers, Ms Kozlowski commented that it all really depends on where transactions happen: make the CX is so sticky that sellers want to stay on the platform, offer great seller features, and bring in quality buyers. On the other hand, it’s a healthy market place, so there is no mandating or exclusivity – because of course, successful sellers will sell in multiple places.

Etsy believes in investing in the right technology and the right marketing at the same time. For example, although the business was started in 2004, Etsy only began brand marketing in 2016. The types of marketing deployed include storytelling, identifying key differentiators, understanding customer influences, extensive content strategy, plus performance marketing (site traffic, SEO) to see what else customers may be looking for. According to Ms Kozlowski, a retail site should spend about 20-30% of revenue on marketing, otherwise you are buying traffic and customers (red flag to investors!) Alternatively, establish some ROI goals for marketing costs, especially performance marketing, and during the startup phase (up to 1 year) begin with 15-20% of revenue.

At the heart of Etsy’s business model is an evolving technology and e-commerce platform that allows micro-businesses to run at scale. The USP is a community of network effects: 1.7m sellers, 27m buyers, 40m products, 12,000 “teams”, whose “captains” recruit other sellers. (Australia is actually in Etsy’s Top 5 markets.) In addition, Etsy aims to act with integrity in respect to dispute resolution and addressing fraud – they use machine learning to detect rogue sellers (although often, buyer disputes are a reflection of seller inexperience, rather than fraudulent behaviour). Etsy also offers training and support to resolve disputes, and the community is very good at policing itself.

What are some of the unexpected challenges of market places? When it comes to distinguishing between commodity items and unique creative products, technology will under-price and displace commodity goods that are easily made. It’s also important to build human-to-human connections, and to have a global perspective – for reasons of quality and diversity, and not self-limiting your business, especially when it comes to managing different market and economic cycles. Remember to “follow the data”, and anticipate demand and trends. Among some of the technology challenges, dealing with different devices in different countries can be an issue.

In conclusion, Ms Kozlowski offered some advice for anyone thinking of launching a market place:

First, consider why there are very few local e-commerce markets in Australia (from my personal perspective it’s a complex mix of retailers getting burned in the dotcom boom/bust, cosy market duopolies, and perpetual geo-blocking…). But let’s not forget that Alibaba has just opened its Australian & New Zealand HQ in Melbourne, likely to ruffle a few feathers in the retail sector.

Second, embrace a local/global mix (for the reasons mentioned above)

Third, don’t price too low (although Australia is notorious for being a “price-sensitive” market…).

Finally, the conversation ended with a tantalising glimpse of “the future consumer” (Gen Z) where makers connect directly with buyers.

Next week: Spaceship launches the future of superannuation

Gigster is coming to town….

Melbourne’s Work Club recently hosted Gigster Senior Project Engineer, Catherine Waggoner, in conversation with Venture-Store’s George Tomeski. Part of Startup Victoria‘s Fireside Chats, it likely herald’s Gigster opening an office in Melbourne, to service local clients and to tap into the local developer community.

gigsterFor the uninitiated, Gigster describes itself as the “world’s engineering firm”, that helps clients scope, design and build software, apps and digital products. Using an established product development methodology, and drawing on the resources of a 1,000 strong network of freelance designers, developers and product managers, Gigster is taking much of the pain out of the costing and requirements process for new projects, as well as building a growing client base of enterprise customers.

Not mincing her words, Ms Waggoner opened her remarks by commenting, “The software development industry model is f*#$ed”, because:

  • Requirements are poorly defined
  • Scoping is laborious
  • Development costs blow out, and
  • The whole process is not very transparent and not very accessible.

As a case in point, she mentioned the significant cost disparity between what some digital design agencies or app studios might quote for building an iOS product compared to what Gigster would estimate. By: breaking projects down into the distinct stages of scoping, design and pre- and post-MVP; only engaging the “best of the best talent”; using proprietary tools both to estimate fixed rate costs (rather than billable hours) and to define and source solutions; and re-using content from a library of “Community Software” resources, Gigster is able to deliver quality projects in shorter time, and on more modest budgets. For example, based on the large number of projects that they have fulfilled, their “Gigulator” estimating tool incorporates 5,000 possible features.

From an investor perspective, Mr Tomeski mentioned that the “VC inflexion point is getting much earlier” in tech startups. Meaning, with lower development costs (and potentially, reduced valuation multiples), investors are looking to get in sooner, with lower exposure, but still generate reasonable returns on exit, thanks to cheaper establishment costs.

Of course, Gigster sits at the heart of the gig economy, a huge issue when it comes to discussing the Future of Work. Interestingly, many of Gigster’s contractors are themselves startup founders, who freelance while building their own businesses. But such is the strength of the network, something like 35%40% of their contractors work full-time for Gigster – they like the flexibility combined with the continuity. Many of the contractors are referrals from existing team members, and a number of teams (known at Gigster as “houses” – presumably a frat thing?) have bonded to such an extent that they get allocated specific projects to work on together, even though they themselves may be working in different locations, based on previous projects.

Working for Gigster is probably a career choice for some contractors, because there is a variety of projects to work on, and the opportunity to be involved from start to finish. Which may be the opposite if working in a more corporate or enterprise environment, where work may be routine, repetitive and reasonably narrow in scope.

If Gigster does decide to set up shop in Melbourne (with encouragement from
InvestVictoria) they will be joining the likes of Slack, Stripe and Square, tempted by financial and other incentives. Such a move may challenge a number of local digital agencies, who will face even more competition for talent and customers.

According to Ms Waggoner, enterprise clients represent 40% of the business, and should comprise 60%-80% very soon. Not only that, but the average deal was initially $15k, now it’s more like $100k. However, enterprise clients have a much longer sales cycle. Plus, many innovation teams within enterprises are more like loosely formed groups of niche experts, so they need training on how to think like a startup. When you consider the greater dependency on legacy software by corporate clients (where it may make financial sense to retire some assets and build afresh, but the emotional disruption can be huge…), combined with the greater emphasis placed on after-sales service, Gigster has had to adapt its business model accordingly.

But Gigster must be doing something right. They’ve stopped outbound marketing and prospecting, relying on in-bound leads, repeat business and client referrals. There has been a shift from a sales focus to a customer focus, complete with a dedicated customer success team.

A number of audience questions related to getting VCs interested in your idea: What do they look for? How do they assess opportunities? How far should you go in building a product before you can attract funding? What’s the best way to validate an idea? etc. Much of this is about product/market fit, building the right team, getting customer traction, and executing on your strategy (aka Product Development 101.) As part of her closing comments, Ms Waggoner noted that unlike some of the high-profile VC funds (e.g, Y-Combinator, Techstars and 500 Startups) many VCs are becoming more sector specific, because they prefer to invest in what they know and understand.

Next week: Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy

Putting a Price on Value

In the course of my consulting work, I often work with clients (who are themselves consultants and service providers) to review their pricing models. The goal is to help my clients clarify what they are charging for, to ensure that both they and their own customers are comfortable with the price. What often emerges is that on its own, “time-based” pricing is becoming harder to justify, unless there is a clear understanding of the resulting value created and transferred.

adding-valueAmong some of the major consulting and professional service firms, there is a growing awareness that pricing based on billable hours alone is no longer sustainable. This in turn is forcing firms to review how they put a price on their work. They recognise the need to shift from billing clients for “time and materials”, to generating license fees and royalties for the use of proprietary IP, and to offering “XaaS” models that comprise a blend of “always on” retainer and actual service delivery, neither of which is wholly based on time or effort spent.

At the same time, many input costs are actually decreasing:

  • Reduced staff overheads via offshoring and outsourcing
  • Cheaper technology (although we consume more of it)
  • More open source tools and freeware available
  • Ubiquity of BYOD
  • Greater use of remote working, telecommuting and hot desks

What this means for the clients I work with is that they need to have a better grasp of the amount of effort applied and the level of expertise they deliver to their customers. If there are significant parts of the project costs that have to be measured by actual time spent, then it is important to make sure that the customer understands the effort required.

How else can consultants and professional service firms demonstrate value, other than by billable hours alone?

To begin with, clarify exactly what the customer thinks they are paying for. There can be nothing worse than consultants spending most of their time and effort on tasks or activities where the customer does not see a material benefit, or which the customer does not value.

Clearly, if there are measurable and quantifiable outcomes for the customer, then that is a good basis for demonstrating value. For example, direct cost savings to the customer, or reduced opportunity costs in terms of time to market or other factors. However, it may be harder to demonstrate the direct benefit of some qualitative outcomes, at least in the short term.

Some pricing models include a consultant “success fee” coupled to a share of revenue, profit or costs savings (which can be high-risk for consultants if they have no control over the implementation and execution). Other consultants are working with their clients to co-create products and services, which can generate standalone revenue streams from the shared IP. Others are adopting more collaborative approaches to consulting which build long-term value through the quality and nature of the relationships which are more like partnerships than transactions. This can remove the customer’s anxiety that the “meter is always running”, although such arrangements still require expectations to be managed through agreed boundaries and clear rules of engagement.

One model I use with clients is to figure out the nature (as well as the amount) of the value they are being asked to deliver, based on why the customer is buying, as much as what they are paying for. Some of the factors to consider include:

  • Risk mitigation – is the customer in effect buying an insurance policy, transferring their own risk, or reducing their exposure to risk?
  • Must have – is the customer having to meet a regulatory or compliance obligation?
  • Best practice – does the customer aspire to be among the best in their industry?
  • Competitive advantage – is the customer getting something unique or hard to replicate?
  • Peer pressure – does the customer need to meet a recognised standard or level of competence?
  • Situational – does the customer need to build or acquire appropriate skills and capabilities?
  • Urgency – is the customer willing to pay more for a speedier service? (This is one area where time-based pricing can still be relevant!)

It’s also important to understand how customers are funding their purchase. For example:

  • which cost centre is paying for the service?
  • what is the purchasing criteria?
  • what cost/benefit analysis has been done?
  • is there a specific budget allocation, or is it coming out of existing operating costs?

Of course, consultants are frequently hired to bring an alternative (and sometimes critical) perspective to their clients’ problems. In which case, getting an external opinion has value in itself, and the customer should accept there is a cost associated with having access to someone else’s brain – even if it is only for a few hours.

Finally, for an alternative perspective, I would refer to recent comments made by Ash Maurya (author of “Running Lean”, and creator of Lean Canvas) when he was in Melbourne. Talking about how to scale startups, he made the observation that, “selling time [as a consultant] is not scalable … There’s only 24 hours in a day.”

Next week: Food for thought at #StartupVic’s #pitch night