#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….

 

 

 

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…

 

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

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