Tech, Travel and Tourism (revisited)

Just over two years ago, I posted a blog on how the tourism and travel industries needed to embrace the opportunities brought about by digital disruption. Having been on half a dozen overseas trips in the past 12 months, I can see that there have been some improvements in the traveler experience, but there is still a lot of room for improvement…

One of the biggest benefits has been the expanded integration of public transportation information into Google Maps. Navigation and route planning, right down to which platform to board from or which subway exit to take, has been a huge boost to the traveler UX. Many cities are now using integrated stored value cards for public transport, but limitations still exist: for example, some systems don’t make it that easy for overseas visitors to obtain the card itself, others make it hard to re-load other than by cash; while only a few systems, like Hong Kong and Japan, support multiple point-of-sale transactions for shops, restaurants and other services.

Another plus for frequent travelers has been the increased adoption of chip-enabled, e-passports which streamline the immigration entry/exit process (but only for participating countries, of course). Laborious paperwork still exists in many cases with arrival/departure cards and customs declaration forms – but over time, these processes should become more streamlined with the adoption of digital IDs and biometrics.

Using local mobile phone networks may have gotten easier with compatible operating systems, but even with pre-paid travel SIM cards and data packages, access costs are still disproportionately expensive for overseas visitors. Sure, there are more and more public WiFi services and hotspots available, but most still require users to provide personal data and/or reveal security weaknesses. Even though I recently purchased a mobile pass to access “free” WiFi services abroad, it’s hard to see what value it offers, because it only works after I have already logged onto the WiFi network.

Getting flight information, notifications and alerts via SMS and e-mail has improved considerably, along with easier online booking tools and mobile check-in solutions – and of course, QR codes now support paperless boarding cards. But I’ve noticed that some airline apps don’t support full integration with mobile phone wallets, and consolidating ticketing and invoicing information (e.g., for consolidated expense reporting) from multiple airlines and booking platforms still feels a long way off.

Finally, a constant irritation for travelers are the card transaction fees that most hotels still pass on at checkout – as if many guests are likely to pay in cash! – compounded by the FX fees that the credit card companies also like to charge. All up, this can mean an average of between 3% and 5% in additional fees, in a situation where hotel guests are something of a captive audience. Transaction fees remain a target for further disruption….

Next week: Token ring – a digital ID solution

 

 

 

#Blockchain heralds a new railway age?

Last week, I suggested that digital currencies might be the new portals. Reflecting further on my work with Brave New Coin*, it also occurs to me that the growth of Blockchain resembles the railway mania of 19th century Britain. Hopefully it won’t end in the same over-investment and asset bubble – but there are some interesting similarities.

“Railway Mania” – Image sourced from Business Pundit

First, the railways displaced the canal system, just as canals overtook roads as the key means of transportation. For these purposes, if we compare roads to the Internet, and canals to the World Wide Web, then Blockchain is the next generation of the “information superhighway”. Blockchain and distributed ledger technology, along with crypto-currencies, digital assets and smart contracts are powering the “new” internet – the Internet of Things, the Internet of Money, the Internet of Value Exchange.

Second, and in a similar vein, the Internet was designed primarily as a means of communication. Then, the web enabled e-commerce, content distribution and on-line interaction. Now, Blockchain technology is supporting a range of new activities – such as tokenizing tangible and intangible assets; securing personal data and financial accounts; decentralizing networks, exchanges and registries; and validating immutable transaction data.

Third, the proliferation of public, private and permissioned Blockchains is prompting the development of technical standards for the design, architecture, security and taxonomy associated with this technology – as railway systems have implemented common safety and operating standards. There is also the need for interoperability between Blockchains, just as railway networks have had to address different track gauges among competing operators.

Of course, on the downside, railway mania led to heightened speculation, failed or over-optimistic prospectuses, and duplication of competing networks as developers sought to secure the most lucrative routes.

And let’s not overlook the issue of forking, which Blockchains are having to address in order to meet the demand for increased processing capacity and/or to iron out potential design weaknesses. In some ways this resembles the creation of railway branch lines – in some cases, these subsidiary routes would become more important than their parent main lines; and may even have outlived them, following the Beeching restructures in the 1960s.

Finally, for all the benefits that Blockchain undoubtedly holds, challenges remain with “on-ramp / off-ramp” access – a bit like disconnected transport interchanges or uncoordinated train timetables.

*Note: the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent the views of Brave New Coin or their clients.

Next week: Long live experts….

 

 

 

StartupVic’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…

 

Music Streaming Comes Of Age

Last Saturday was the 10th International Record Store Day, an annual event to celebrate independent music shops. A key feature is the list of exclusive and limited edition vinyl releases, most of which can only be bought in selected participating stores – in person and on the day. But there are also loads of other promotions and live events, designed to get people browsing the racks in their local retail outlet. In an age when streaming services now account for the bulk of US music industry revenues, what is the future of the neighbourhood record shop (those that are still left, that is)? Will streaming services kill off digital downloads, as well as sales of physical product like CDs and records?

Despite the sense of doom that has permeated the record industry in recent years (if not decades!), there is also a feeling that, just as the internet has not yet managed to kill off the publishing industry, digital has not yet killed the radio star. The independent music industry in particular has found a way to survive, and retail stores are still an important part of the business.

So, what are the recent trends in music industry sales and business models?

First, the continued rebound in vinyl sales (at least in the UK) show that there is renewed interest in this 70-year-old format, with industry data showing a 25-year high (but not yet a return to the 1980s’ peak). Record Store Day is generally credited with boosting vinyl sales. And to be fair, even music streaming services have contributed to this growth, through curated content, recommendation engines and user preferences: meaning that listeners get exposed to a wider range of music and artists than they would from traditional Top 40 radio, and they get to explore and discover new music.

Second, digital downloads, once seen as the industry growth engine, are facing a pincer attack, from streaming services as well as vinyl sales. No wonder that Apple is expected to slowly and quietly retire the iTunes download store, and shift more focus onto its own Apple Music subscription service. The music industry (especially the dwindling number of major labels) didn’t really “get” the internet. Having just competed in the CD-format wars, the major labels then competed on digital file formats, and tried to lock their digital content to proprietary players and software protocols. Some of this reticence was justified – thanks to digital piracy and illegal file sharing – but they didn’t (and still don’t) help themselves by poor CX on their retail websites (if they have an e-commerce presence at all), and adherence to arcane geo-blocking.

Third, many musicians are benefiting from increased exposure via streaming services – although with Apple Music and Spotify seemingly leaving the other platforms far behind, the downside risks from a dominant duopoly don’t need spelling out. Especially as the royalty payments from streaming are generally much smaller than they would have been from physical sales, “traditional” downloads and radio airplay. This source of friction between labels, their artists, music publishers and online content platforms surfaced again earlier this month, in a spat with YouTube over fees for video streaming.

Fourth, in a new move in the streaming wars and the battle to win mobile screen real-estate, Australian startup Unlockd has just secured a deal with MTV UK to stream free music videos in return for viewing ads. It’s also a move designed to counter ad-blockers and locked screens, while finding another way to distribute sponsored content. Elsewhere, some mobile carriers are now including music streaming services as part of customers’ un-metered data consumption, although what this may mean for artist royalties and the revenue share from ad-supported content on Spotify etc. is unclear.

Fifth, as another example of how the music industry is having to adapt, UK startup Secret Sessions is using a combination of social media, independent/unsigned artists and major brand licensing deals to find new ways to generate revenue streams for artists that can no longer count on income from traditional sales-based royalty deals, especially with the diminished licensing revenues from streaming services.

Sixth, as further evidence that all is not well in the world of music streaming, SoundCloud continues to lose its way. Once the music service of choice for user-contributed content created by independent and unsigned musicians, it got greedy and has been subject to recent speculation about its financial health and future.

Initially, SoundCloud was all about the makers and producers – helping artists connect with their audience, via a simple but effective website and mobile app. It also meant that at first, SoundCloud charged musicians and labels under a “pay to publish” model, while listeners could simply stream (and sometimes download) all this content for free. Then, it alienated many of its earliest supporters and champions, by introducing “ad-supported” streaming (with priority access going to labels and artists with big marketing budgets, who could also attract/demand the lion’s share of the advertising revenue).

SoundCloud also seriously messed with the app, making it far less useful to artists, and then introduced its own subscription-based streaming service, SoundCloud Go. Only, it wasn’t satisfied with just one subscription model, and recently announced an “upgrade” – whereby the “old” service became “SoundCloud Go+“, and a “new” SoundCloud Go was launched. Confused? You will be….

Meanwhile, Bandcamp continues to outperform the industry, in terms of annual sales growth, and has become a unique platform that offers music streaming, digital downloads and even physical product. (Frustratingly, Bandcamp is still blocked from selling digital content directly via iOS devices – even though much of this content is unavailable on either iTunes or Apple Music. Surely that’s anti-competitive?) And now there’s an amusing string of “SoundCloud vs Bandcamp” memes doing the rounds which may say a lot about the respective fortunes of these rival services.

Finally, the last word on the current state of music streaming and digital downloads should go to the artist known as L.Pierre. He has just announced the release of his latest and final (vinyl-only) album under that particular moniker, with an accompanying artist statement which could be seen as both an indictment upon and a requiem for the music industry.

NOTE: Apologies to my readers for any confusion regarding the timing and accessibility of this post. Thanks to WordPress, this article “missed” its scheduled time, and the outgoing e-mail notification had a faulty link. Normal service will hopefully be resumed next week…

Next week: Startup Vic’s E-commerce Pitch Night