Beyond Blocks, Tokyo

Thanks to my work with Techemy and Brave New Coin, Content in Context is currently on the road, attending various Blockchain and crypto events in Tokyo, Vienna, NYC and Chicago. The next few blogs will attempt to capture notes from the field.

Techemy CEO, Fran Strajnar presents on the new asset class of digital value

In Tokyo, the Beyond Blocks Summit was a stellar affair, with marquee blockchain projects and major investors presenting on stage, alongside cosplay characters, light shows, upbeat music and a crowd of crypto fanatics.

Given the significant developments in Japan’s regulatory framework for crypto-currency trading, there was a lot of interest in the presentations by bitFlyer, Quoine and Smart Contract Inc.

As with the recent APAC Blockchain Conference in Melbourne, there was a strong representation from China’s growing base of Blockchain projects (but not ICOs, of course), keen to demonstrate their infrastructure projects.

There was much debate about regulatory developments across Asia, made all the more interesting by the announcement that Monex is acquiring Coincheck, despite (or because of?) the recent hack on NEM tokens held on the local exchange.

Among international key speakers were Patrick Byrne from Overstock and tZERO, John Burbank of Passport Capital, and Techemy’s own Fran Strajnar – all looking to the future of this new asset class, especially so-called security tokens.

Interspersed throughout the two days were panel discussions and presentations on scaling, infrastructure, decentralized exchanges, stable coins and the future of ICOs.

Although this was only their second event of this kind, the Beyond Blocks team have quickly established themselves on the conference circuit.

Next week: Token Investment Summit, Vienna

 

Startup VIC’s Retail & E-Commerce Pitch Night

As with the same event last year, this pitch night was again hosted at the Kensington Clik Collective. Going by the audience numbers, the retail tech and e-commerce start-up sector continues to generate widespread interest, despite (or because of?) the fragile state of most bricks and mortar retailing in Australia, and the onslaught of global online shopping from the likes of Amazon and eBay.

The four pitches in order of presentation were:

barQode

According to the founder, it all started with a scarf… and how he might have paid more for the item at the time he wanted it (but less than the retail price), compared to the eventual discount price a few months later. If only he had been able to bargain on the spot. Enter barQode – a location-specific app that enables customers to make an offer on an in-store item, and retailers to match or counter the customer offer.

To be clear, this is not (yet) a price comparison tool or even an on-line platform – it’s an app aimed at specific, location-defined, in-store purchases.

While simple in concept, the app does require a huge behaviour change by shoppers. Australians are infamous for being “price sensitive” buyers (not the same as being “cheap”, as one retail consultant once corrected me). Cost plays a huge role in purchasing decisions, especially as choice is often limited in a sector dominated by an oligopoly of brands, and a traditionally restricted market in terms of parallel imports and geo-blocking.

But barQode requires Australians to get comfortable with the notion of haggling, and that is quite a culture shift. Yes, some retail brands offer price matching against their competitors, but as this pitch pointed out, this is all about in-store purchases and prompting a more emotional engagement.

Most of the questions from the panel of judges focused on the competition, customer acquisition and market entry. Using a combination of platform fees and analytics services, barQode claims to be cheaper than the competing platforms, which also risk dis-intermediating retailers from their direct customers. Costs of acquisition were not disclosed, since the app is only in very select beta. The founders appear to be targeting discount retailers rather than selecting a specific category launch. This raises the prospect of only attracting bargain hunters who are already tempted by stock clearance offers (a race to the bottom?) – rather than engaging with select brands who can afford to yield some margin while potentially securing a new customer base.

The team claim to have a patent pending (they are working on image recognition, rather than simply relying on bar codes and other inventory data), and is seeking $350k in seed funding prior to a $1.5m Series A.

Epic Catch

Under the banner, “The social collective – date differently”, Epic Catch claims to be fostering organic connections via shared experiences for singles.

I have seen this start-up pitch couple of times before, where the initial emphasis was on being a new kind of dating service. But now, presumably with more experience and more market research, it claims to be addressing the “loneliness epidemic” – despite all the so-called “connections” people have via social media (and given recent events at Facebook, how much longer will that particular trend run?)  there is actually less and less personal engagement in the world.

According to data cited by the founders, in Australia, 35% of households consist of single people, a figure expected to reach 60% by 2036. At the same time, single people (neither age nor other demographics were defined) each spend an average of $12,000 a year on social activities. (It would have been interesting to see a breakdown of this spending pattern by consumer category, season, age, gender and location?)

The business model relies on a mix of subscriptions, commissions and affiliate fees, via a business partner model, member fees and booking fees. The founders are looking to raise $1.5m, primarily to fund marketing costs, as customer acquisition has mostly been organic, word of mouth, and SEO. To help them on their journey, the founders have appointed a solid advisory board, in their quest to counter the “fast food culture of dating and matching apps”.

Winery Lane

Winery Lane is a curated online market place, servicing independent wineries. Currently engaged on an equity crowd funding program (to raise $900k in return for 18% equity), the founders suggest that the $7.5b wine industry suffers from too many brands. A few large names dominate the market (by supply and by retail consumption), and a long-tail of boutique and specialist wine makers struggle for recognition (even though they often have a superior product). The biggest challenge is: producers can’t control the end distribution, especially small producers.

Winery Land has identified three core personas of wine lovers: geek, aspirational, and seeker. Their goal is to connect independent wine makers with this target audience, by removing the risk for sellers – through enabling them to share their wine-making narratives, and only charging a success-based commission on sales.

The business model is to target 50-60 independent wineries, and charge a 30% sales commission, while offering a 20% discount to customers on 12 or more bottles.

Asked by the panel (which included a representative from Vinomofo) about potential competitor Naked Wine, the founders claim they operate in different segments – in particular, their focus on selling genuine wines (and not running private labels).

Behind the platform is a data acquisition component – by “pooling” their mailing lists, participating wine makers can actually reach a larger (pre-qualified) audience. The judges felt that marketplace models for wine are still to be proven, and wine makers are naturally very protective of their customer lists, to whom they can usually pre-sell their normally small vintages.

[As a piece of random market research, the next day I spoke to one wine-seller representing a boutique producer at a pop-up market in the lobby of a CBD office building. He claimed that by participating in a growing number of these pop-up markets around Melbourne over the past 12 months, he had increased the size of their customer list 10-fold. When I asked whether his sales and marketing strategy included using platforms such as Naked Wine, his opinion was these services were often more like marketing software. They may also require producers to discount too heavily, that they resemble something of a bulk distribution model, and that it was akin to a “pay to publish” model for wine makers – based on the cost of getting stock on to the inventory. And while it isn’t perfect, MailChimp was good enough tool for building, engaging with and growing their customer lists.]

Postie

This SME marketing platform highlights a major paradox:  small brands engage better than big brands, but social media and e-mail engagement are both declining.

Using Instagram-based campaigns, Postie has doubled average campaign engagement to around 42%, and tripled typical click-thru rates to 6%. Postie has also reduced the time to create a campaign from 5 hours to 8 minutes.

While there is some template flexibility, there are limited options, as Postie draws on the Instagram design aesthetic.

According to the founders, there are 15 million brands on MailChimp, and 8 million brands on Instagram. What makes Postie different is that it owns its e-mail campaign client, and brands get to control their own retail inventory management.

Despite some of the challenges in SaaS marketing solutions, Postie has seen success with some specific verticals such as hairdressing, but admits that is hasn’t quite got the right product-market fit. As a result, and as a means to scale growth, Postie is starting to train users, to become more of a self-serve solution.

Somewhat surprisingly, the judges voted Epic Catch the winning pitch – I guess it is hard to ignore the founder passion, and the decision to pivot away from being a “traditional” dating platform. Meanwhile, the people’s choice (based on Twitter votes) was for Postie, and by a large margin – I suspect because many start-up founders, entrepreneurs and SME owners in the audience would welcome such a service for their own business.

Next week: The fate of the over 50s….

Tech Talk on Crypto

There’s an adage about not investing in something you don’t understand. There’s another about not betting more than you can afford to lose. And then there’s crypto, which in the words of TV commentator, John Oliver represents “Everything you don’t understand about money combined with everything you don’t understand about computers.” So it was with great interest that I attended last week’s General Assembly’s Tech Talk on Crypto, presented by a team from Bitcoin.com.au.

This intro to crypto was actually very illuminating, as much for the audience questions as the presentation itself.

To begin with, there was an attempt to explain the underlying technology of Blockchain; which, thanks to a certain YouTube video, seemingly reduced Blockchain to a trading platform or networked database. There was also an analogy to the internet itself: first, we just had protocols like TCP/IP; then we had web browsers; next we had e-mail clients; now we have Netflix.

Next was a reference to Bitcoin‘s mining infrastructure, its associated monetary policy, and the specifics of Bitcoin’s tokenomics. And then we jumped straight to Ethereum and the development of smart contracts – with particular reference to their potential to disrupt/transform the legal profession and the insurance industry.

There was brief mention Venezuela’s “petro”, a government-issued, oil-backed cryptocurrency, as evidence of further disruption in financial markets (although the petro has raised a number of concerns in some quarters). And, in a week when revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica dominated the news, the speakers talked about Blockchain applications displacing even core social media, offering more privacy and control over our personal data and content.

The first of the audience questions were about crypto valuations. “The market decides”, which prompted some comments about market volatility and speculation. There were also some comments about regulation, tax, privacy and security.

Next question: “What about hacking?” “That’s more of a problem with exchanges, than user wallets.” That lead to a brief discussion of different types of wallet, which I’m not sure everyone in the audience fully understood.

We then moved on to look at other types of coins, and specific Blockchain use cases (such as remittance services, patient healthcare records, identity, P2P solar energy trading, voting, education etc.). In particular, Golem (crypto-powered network computing), Brave (crypto-enabled web browser), Steemit (earn crypto from your content) and TenX (an everyday crypto payment solution) were projects that the presenters liked.

Finally, to underscore how little some people understand about fiat currency and traditional financial markets, one attendee, struggling to fathom how the price of Bitcoin was determined, insisted that with equity markets, “the Stock Exchange sets the price…”

Next week: Startup VIC’s Retail & E-Commerce Pitch Night

 

 

 

APAC Blockchain Conference

The 2nd APAC Blockchain Conference was held in Melbourne last week. According to the organisers, the previous event attracted about 150 people. This year, registrations were around three times as many. The Blockchain story is only just beginning, if the level of interest and the range of conference topics are anything to go by. Here are a few random observations from the two-day event.

A story is just what we got from Robert Kahn, speaking on the role he played in developing the TCP/IP protocol, and the evolution of “Digital Object Architecture” as a way to identify any type of data, regardless of the technology used to create, store or retrieve it.

From NEO founder Da Hongfei we heard about dBFT (Delegated Byzantine Fault Tolerance), and ANZ’s Nigel Dobson outlined the use of Blockchain and DLT (distributed ledger technology) to remove transaction inefficiencies in commercial property lease guarantees. Civic Ledger CEO Katrina Donaghy talked about her work on “Civic Commodities” (government-issued permits and licenses) and “Sustainable Commodities” (water trading, patent registrations).

Gingkoo CEO William Zuo and Novatti‘s Blockchain Head Peter Christo introduced their collaboration on a Blockchain-based cross-border payment platform. There was a presentation on Hcash by Andrew Wasleyewicz, which talked about the “7 H’s” of their solution. While the quirkiest (and possibly most engaging/authentic presentation of Day 1) came from ConsenSys‘s Blockchain expert Lucas Cullen, who told us “7 Reasons Why Not To Use Blockchain Technology” (compulsory listening for any hapless corporate CTO under board pressure to come up with a DLT strategy…).

In between was Data 61‘s Zhu Liming who talked about some of the wider implications and opportunities for Blockchain in his capacity as Chair of the Australian Blockchain and DLT Standardisation Committee. There were also some insights from Gilbert & Tobin‘s COO Sam Nickless on how lawyers must embrace the new technology to avoid becoming disintermediated.

A diverting interlude from economist Lord Desai suggested that “Bitcoins are not coins, and cryptocurrencies are not currencies”. Many might agree, but we already know they are a new asset class in their own right, and need to be treated as such.

Standards (both technical and regulatory) were the topic of a panel discussion comprising mainly lawyers and regulators. The remaining panels on Day 1 (representing commerce and industry) addressed key themes of Blockchain scaling, interoperability, privacy, security and commercial deployment.

Day 2 began with an interesting keynote from former ASIC Chair, Greg Medcraft, now at the OECD. Mr Medcraft is no stranger to the debate on cryptocurrencies and ICOs, but chose to focus his remarks on the benefits, risks and opportunities for Blockchain. On the plus side, Blockchain can reduce the number of intermediaries in a transaction, it provides traceability and transparency, it increases the speed of payments (and reduces the cost), it offers data security, and it provides greater access to markets (e.g., SME supply chains). He foresees fiat and asset-backed digital currencies, and government support for Blockchain solutions in areas such as identity, provenance, supply chain and AML. Plus, for consumers, there should be greater trust and security, better financial access and inclusion, lower costs and better products. Key risks remain, however, in data privacy, security (ID, authentication, cyber-attacks), and consumer and investor protection. Policy makers need to be pro-active and forward-looking, keep up to date on these rapid developments, and co-ordinate across industry, sectors and globally. Citing some of the issues associated with ICOs, Mr Medcraft then urged regulators to exchange information with their counterparts and identify best practice, avoid regulatory arbitrage, create greater legal certainty, and raise awareness of the risks and rewards.

Victor Wang from the China Wanxiang Group followed up with a presentation that re-cast Blockchain as a new economic model, drawing on his reading of “Das Kapital”, and introduced the concept of GBP (“Gross Blockchain Product”). According to this theory, Blockchain is a means to redistribute and reallocate resources and assets; it is transforming the cost of transactions and value exchange; it is creating new assets; and it is building new products and services, as well as the delivery mechanism itself.

We heard from Zuotian Luan of Fortuna Blockchain on the future of OTC derivatives, and how decentralized exchanges are addressing legacy problems of counter-party and credit risk, operational efficiency, and lack of liquidity. He sees a “decentralized margin system” as a long-term solution that will reduce the costs of posting and managing collateral on traditional OTC exchanges.

There was an interesting discussion on the future of capital markets themselves, reflecting the perspective of traditional exchanges, clearing houses and custody providers, plus tZero. (As an aside, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many representatives of the “back office” at the conference, including trust banks and share registries. However, there didn’t appear to be anyone from the brokerage or advisory side, and no-one from the ASX, even though their Blockchain project to replace/enhance CHESS has been widely lauded as being in the vanguard of this new technology.)

Finally, a quick plug for my colleague, Fran Strajnar, CEO and co-founder of Brave New Coin who moderated a panel on ICOs. I think he summarized the tone of the discussion really well, when he said this is probably the only financial services sector that is asking for regulation. “Tell us the rules and let us get on with the job.”

Next week: Tech Talk on Crypto