VCs battle it out in the reverse pitch night

As part of the Intersekt FinTech Festival, the organisers, FinTech Australia partnered with Startup VIC and NAB to host a “Reverse Pitch Night”.Turning the tables on the usual pitch night, four VCs were invited to pitch to a panel of startup founders.

Representatives from Rampersand, Reinventure, YBF Ventures and NAB Ventures battled it out on stage to demonstrate why founders should want to work with their firms. Since I have been involved in pitching or presenting to two of these funds, and I know people involved with all four firms, I will aggregate these reverse pitches, highlight the common themes and try and pick out some of the key points of differentiation and/or competitor advantage.

Following a similar startup pitch format (problem, solution, team, achievement and future growth), each VC stressed the importance of getting the “right money”, and identifying the ways in which VCs can help with growth and people as well as capital. So it’s as much about how VCs can add overall value, rather than just the size of the cheques they can write.

Despite the supposed differences, there were a lot of similarities. There was much talk about how the VC model is broken, yet I didn’t see much in the way of novel funding or structuring solutions. Also, with NAB and Westpac directly involved in two of the funds, and ANZ linked to a third, isn’t this compounding the problem – aren’t banks part of the problem?

While having access to a bank’s balance sheet may result in larger cheques, the average size of individual investments looks to fall within a similar range. And of the deals that were referenced, a number were co-invested by the same funds and/or the same international partners. So doesn’t that itself restrict or constrain the variety of deals that can be struck?

On the positive side, most of the VCs allocate a substantial proportion (50%) of their funds for follow-on rounds. Some funds actively help to incubate the companies they invest in, even though they may still only take a minority stake. So the focus is on building a portfolio, and helping to scale the right companies. In one case, the VC has only invested in five out of 1,000 opportunities, so clearly there is a challenge with the screening process, or we just aren’t seeing the right startups.

Or maybe the smart startups realise they don’t need/want VC money in the first place? Only one of the four VCs specifically mentioned working with a startup that has launched an ICO – surely the most disruptive development to hit traditional VC funding in a long while?

Finally, given this was a FinTech-related event, I didn’t see any evidence of how these firms are using better technology to manage VC funding.

Surprisingly, given the reaction from the audience, the panel judged Reinventure to be the winner.

Next week: FF18 pitch night – Melbourne semi-final

The NAB SME Hackathon

The recent week-long Intersekt fintech festival kicked off with a 48-hour hackathon, sponsored by NAB, hosted by Stone & Chalk and York Butter Factory, and designed to meet the needs of NAB’s SME customers.

Using NAB’s own transaction data APIs, participants were asked to come up with a solution to one of the following challenges:

1. How to make the lives of SME owners easier
2. How to help SMEs generate more business

12 teams competed over the weekend, and each presented their ideas to a panel of industry experts. Clearly, these were not the usual startup pitches (and none have a public website), but it was interesting to see the results. Projects are listed here in the order they presented:

NABTax – “tax audit insurance”
Designed to encourage better/best practice tax governance among SMEs, it uses a combination of a tax risk rating linked to a reduced cost of premiums for tax audit insurance.
The solution would help SMEs to be better prepared for an ATO request for information, aid understanding of the ATO’s current small business benchmarks, and provide insights on the ATO’s data matching protocols.
Essentially it would generate a risk rating based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of supporting documents supplied by the SME.

EasyPay – “reconciling invoices and receipts”
Deploying an e-invoicing model, the platform would generate a unique reference number, linked to an ABN, and generate a QR code to be scanned by the payer.
At its heart, it would better match invoices and payments. The service would be sold under a freemium model, and would be compliant with the New Payment Platform (NPP).
The main challenge would be in reaching and gaining traction with consumers (the bill payers).

ORDR – “managing cash-flow, inventory ordering and sales”
Drawing on a dashboard showing SKUs of items in stock, it would use machine learning
to predict stock ordering requirements. Although this concept was based on actual SME experience, the panel felt that there would be integration issues with existing POS and supply chain systems. Also, how would it link to CRM data, and how would it be able to both accommodate new season stock, and accurately forecast demand?
Finally, what level of SKU data is actually available from NAB transaction data?

Just-In-Time MBA – “a financial/business coaching app for SME owners”
According to data presented by the team, 60% of SMEs fail within their first three years. And given there are something like two million micro-businesses in Australia, and 250,000 new ones established each year, if nothing else, there is a huge opportunity to reduce this failure rate.
Using the available APIs (plus data from the SMEs’ accounting systems), the platform would analyze payments data and issue alerts designed to prompt remedial action.
Based on the presentation, it seemed that the proposed analysis is only capturing cash-flow – clearly, the real value and insights would come from holistic health checks.

NAB SME Connect – “connecting small business to customers”
Using a number of data inputs, this service would push deals in real-time to your smart phone. The customer app shows only relevant offers – based on preferences, proximity, etc. The client SMEs can see the level of interest and demand, to generate “Smart Deals” based on transaction data. The panel wondered about the opt-in model, and also felt there were already similar competitor products, or that any competitive advantage would be difficult to defend.

Wait< – “wait less for elective surgery”
Aimed at time-poor SME owners, the team wanted us to think of this as an “eBay plus Afterpay for elective surgery”. Taking the approach of a two-sided marketplace, it would
support transactional loans to cover the cost of surgery, and match customers (patients) to suppliers (health care providers). Drawing on NAB’s current healthcare payment services, the solution would combine NAB’s transaction banking and health APIs, plus Medicare APIs (for patient and practitioner verification), to generate a pre-populated lending form. No doubt designed to appeal to NAB Health, this was a very niche project.

Tap & Go – “turning customer loyalty into rewards more easily and more cheaply”
This idea would enable SMEs to use transaction data to decide who gets a discount, and how much. Built on a merchant administration platform, it would capture transaction data from POS systems. It would be offered as a subscription service for merchants. The panel wondered how this solution compared to the competition, such as Rewardle.

TAP – “smarter marketing solutions”
Commenting that only 16% of SMEs are maximizing their online presence, this service is designed to increase merchants’ digital presence. It would use NAB APIs to manage and track campaigns – by comparing the data to past sales periods and previous campaigns. Campaigns would also be linked to social media accounts. The panel questioned how the solution would fare against competitors such as Hootsuite.

StopOne – “integrated hub for making data driven decisions and connect with a NAB banker”
Conceptually, this was a very ambitious project, designed to let SMEs use dashboards and forecasting from NAB transaction data (and other sources), to drill down into visualized data records. It would also integrate with social media insights, incorporate a messaging platform to allow SMEs to communicate with their bankers, and enable SMEs to share their dashboard with a business banker. The panel queried the cost of the data analytics for the SME, which presumably comes on top of their existing accounting software.
They also suggested the team take a look at what 9 Spokes is already doing in this space.

Spike – “accounts payable solution”
Currently, paying invoices can involve a 10 step process. The average SME has 90 suppliers. Accessed via a NAB accounts payable login, the solution incorporates the Google vision API to capture an image of the invoice and extract key data points. The SME then chooses the date and account for payment, the invoice is stored in the cloud, from where is posted to the Xero ledger, and the NAB payments portal. In addition, the client can share purchase order data with their supplier to pre-populate the invoice. It could
also optimize expenses, by recommending offers or product switches. When asked about the commercial model, the team suggested it could be offered free by NAB, who get access to extra data.

nablets – “focus on things that matter”
According to this team, 90% of SMEs are not taking full advantage of digital tools. Using NAB APIs and event-based triggers, clients would use their NAB Business Connect account login to create “if this then that” rules and tasks. It would also leverage open banking data APIs. The panel asked about the logic and the parameters to be embedded in the rules-based activities, as well as the proposed categories and range of functions to be automated. They also wondered how it would actually help SMEs to adopt digital tools – some of which are already integrated into the current banking portal.

NAB Hub – “Small Business Hub”
Designed to present banking data the way customer wants to see it (P&L, balance sheet, net asset position etc.), it would also help in generating leads for pre-approved loan products, and help with investments via optimized rates, and for insurance cover it would
assist with policy reviews, claims and risk analysis. The panel asked if this was intended to be a NAB add-on or a standalone product. They also suggested the team look at what Tyro is doing around lending analysis – but recognized that there was possibly a place for this type of tailored advice.

Based on the judging, the winners and runners-up were:

1. Just-in-time MBA
2. Spike
3. NABTax

Meanwhile, the crowd favourite was Just-in-time MBA, and the best innovative idea was TAP.

If I had to summarise the presentations, it would be as follows:

1. Most of the presentations were still talking about yesterday’s/today’s banking products, rather than products of the future
2. There was very little evidence of projects designed to help SMEs grow their business
3. Any effort to gain traction for these projects will revolve around changing customer (and bank) behaviours….

Next week: VCs battle it out in the reverse pitch night

 

 

Digital Richmond

How significant is one suburb’s contribution to the startup ecosystem in Melbourne, if not Victoria or even Australia? Well, if the recent panel on Digital Richmond (plus the Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade) are to be believed, VIC 3121 is the epicentre of all things startup.

According to the event description, Richmond (and the adjoining area of Cremorne) is “the stomping ground of choice for Melbourne’s established tech companies and aspiring start-ups alike”.

Hosted in the offices of 99Designs (celebrating bringing their HQ back to Richmond), a panel representing some of the biggest names among Australia’s tech companies (and all local heroes) explored what makes “Digital Richmond” tick – but also identified some of the challenges of growing and sustaining scale-up ventures beyond the confines of a few co-working spaces in converted warehouses and textile factories….

Facilitated by Rachel Neumann former MD of Eventbrite Australia (whose Australian HQ is in Melbourne), and briefly head of 500 Melbourne, the panel comprised some key Richmond/Cremorne tenants: Patrick Llewellyn, CEO at 99designs; Jodie Auster, General Manager for UberEATS in Melbourne; Cameron McIntyre, CEO of Carsales; Nigel Dalton, Chief Inventor at REA Group; and Eloise Watson, Investment Manager at VC fund Rampersand.

To set the scene, mention was made of other established Australian tech-based companies also HQ’d in Melbourne (MYOB and SEEK, the latter of which is also relocating its offices to Richmond), recent local successes such as Rome2Rio and CultureAmp (both born in Richmond), and the steady stream of global tech brands that have come to call 3121 their regional/national home, such as Stripe, Slack, Square and Etsy.

It was evident that each of the panel have previous business connections with one or more of their fellow panelists – so maybe there is simply value in being in close proximity to each other. Success begets success, especially when people are more willing to share connections and introduce new contacts into their networks. (Although, what might this say about diversity? And does it reinforce the notion that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”?)

Despite the number of co-working spaces and tech companies based locally, there are very few substantial, modern office buildings in the area, and only one business park of note. Local startups that need more space will likely have to relocate elsewhere.

Property aside, the panel considered other local infrastructure is generally conducive to success – access to public transport (although Richmond and East Richmond stations are both in serious need of an upgrade), a solid talent base, great coffee shops and proximity to the CBD.

On the downside, there was criticism at the lack of NBN access in such a concentrated pocket of tech companies and startups (with the associated numbers of contractors, freelancers and other members of the gig economy who live in the area and work from home). Car parking was also an issue, although with Richmond being a major public transport hub, I was surprised that this came up. A lack of child care facilities was also mentioned.

Being an inner city suburb, with strict planning laws and designated “heritage overlay” regulations, there are limits to the amount of development that can take place, especially as Richmond and Cremorne are also established residential areas, with medium to high population density. Getting the balance right between economic growth, urban renewal, modernisation and local community preservation is tricky – pity that the organisers had not thought to invite anyone from the local council.

The panel also bemoaned the absence of any tertiary education facilities in the area (by implication, does that mean the Kangan Institute campus in Cremorne doesn’t meet local requirements?). But maybe there are other ways to connect with academia?

The panel discussion then moved on to topics that are beyond the control of the local council or even the State government, yet each has an impact on the startup economy: corporate tax rates; employment visas; the schooling system; vocational education and training; and the need for inter-disciplinary and inter-generational hiring. (They may as well have added industrial relations laws, the productivity debate and smart cities – oh, and the National Innovation and Science Agenda.)

I was also surprised at one of the reasons given for 99Designs bringing their global HQ back to Australia – the appeal of an ASX listing. I know that Australia has one of the largest pools of pension funds in the world, and nearly every person in Australia has direct or indirect investments in Australian equities within their superannuation portfolio. But despite being ranked 15th by market capitalisation, the ASX represents less than 2% of the global market, and even after 25 years without a recession, Australia’s capital markets risk being left behind. If we are to grow the local tech sector, there needs to be much more alignment between where (and what type of) capital is needed, and where the pension funds and other institutional investors like to put their money.

Finally, I always get worried when the likes of Carsales, REA Group, MYOB and SEEK are held up as poster children for the local tech and startup sectors – great businesses, sure, but all about to be totally disrupted by the next wave of startups, and not quite the high-tech sectors that the Victorian government wants to champion (FinTech, MedTech, BioTech, NanoTech, AgriTech, Cyber Security, Smart Manufacturing, EduTech….).

Next week: The NAB SME Hackathon

 

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