Token Issuance Programs – the new structured finance?

We’ve known for some time now that Blockchain and Bitcoin were designed to disrupt the financial services sector. But I suspect that not even the earliest proponents of distributed ledger technology nor the most avid supporters of crypto-currencies anticipated how far and how quickly that disruption would spread. In addition to P2P payments and lending, alternative stock exchanges, and self-executing smart contracts, recent events suggest that digital assets issued on Blockchain infrastructure are themselves the new source of venture capital, that they may even come to be seen as the new form of structured finance (albeit with less complexity and more transparency).

Image: Maria’s Cakes founder issues her own record…. (Source: Maria Lee website)

In the past few weeks, we have seen Token Issuance Programs (sometimes referred to as ICOs – “initial coin offerings” – or token sales) raise extraordinary amounts of capital – $53m for MobileGo, $150m for Bancor. Even allowing for the fact that VC funding rounds have been increasing in recent years, these results are quite staggering – given that the sellers of these tokens have not had to relinquish any equity, or incur any debt either. Because tokens do not represent shares in a company or units in a corporate bond. Nor are they securities in the usual sense, as they do not create any interest or obligation other than an entitlement to be granted a given number of tokens at a predetermined price.

Of course, these tokens may carry the right to use proprietary software or access marketplace platforms, and even acquire future products. In this way, they also resemble crowdfunding projects. But because of the potential returns generated by the increased value tokens may accrue (a combination of network effects, scarcity and market appreciation), there is buyer demand for new tokens backed by the right project.

These token sale results have also benefited from the increased price of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other leading digital currencies – or perhaps the other way round? – as investors get more comfortable with this new asset class. That’s not to say there isn’t talk of a market correction, or even a bubble. But despite the apparent risks, and the occasional exchange outage, new token issuance and crypto-currency trading are generating growing interest – not just from currency speculators, but also asset managers and traditional investors. No doubt helped by developments in markets like Japan, where crypto-currencies are now a legally recognized form of payment.

As for structured finance, some projects are looking to issue tokens that are linked to or represent an underlying asset, such as a pool of loans. In the case of securitization, for example, Blockchain technology can not only help to structure the token issuance (via smart contracts, for example), it can also provide better transparency on the underlying loan performance (using real-time repayment data from bank feeds, for example).

Of course, there have been some speed bumps along the way for Blockchain-derived assets, most notably the infamous DAO “hack” of last year.  Plus, the price of Bitcoin continues to display considerable volatility, which makes it harder for some investors to embrace. And if anyone is wondering why this week’s blog features an image of a Hong Kong cake shop owner, it relates to the Asian Currency Crisis of 1997-98. Maria’s Bakery was a famous chain of shops that sold coupons at a discount, that could be redeemed for cakes at any time in the future. It was a practice that spread to other retail sectors. But during the market jitters caused by failing currencies and a tightening of credit, there was a run on Maria’s coupons, which coincided with a 2% fall on the Hong Kong stock exchange. This may have been coincidental, but it also demonstrates that financial markets can be sidelined by the most unexpected events. Like, who would have made the connection between over-extended home owners in parts of the USA with the worst global financial crisis for 80 years…?

NOTE: The comments above are made in a purely personal capacity, and do not purport to represent the views of Brave New Coin or any other organisations I work with. These comments are intended as opinion only and should not construed be as financial advice.

Next week: Expert vs Generalist

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

Talking Innovation with Dr Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic

As a nice segue to last week’s blog on Techstars, I was fortunate to hear Dr Kate Cornick speak, just before the latest LaunchVic grants were announced. Organised by Innovation Bay, hosted by Deloitte, and facilitated by Ian Gardiner, the fireside chat plus Q&A was a useful insight on a key part of the Victorian Government’s innovation strategy.

launchviclogo innovationbay-feat-800x500At the outset, Dr Cornick stressed that LaunchVic is not an investment vehicle, and it doesn’t fund individual startups. Rather it seeks to support initiatives that help grow the local startup eco-system. (See also my blog on the consultation process that informed LaunchVic’s formation.)

Commenting on why Victoria (and Australia) has the potential to become a world-class centre for innovation, Dr Cornick pointed to a number of factors:

  • A collaborative culture
  • Positive economic conditions (comparatively speaking)
  • Governments (mostly) open to innovation
  • Strong research base

However, a few of the obstacles in our way include:

  • The notorious tall poppy syndrome, whereby Australians are suspicious, sceptical and even scathing of local success – except when it comes to sport and entertainment!
  • An inability to scale or capitalise on academic research
  • Insufficient entrepreneurial skills and experience to “get scrappy”
  • Lack of exposure for highly successful startups (c.$20m market cap) that can help attract more investment

From a startup perspective, Australia also has the wrong type of risk capital: institutional investors are more attuned to placing large bets on speculative mining assets, typically funded through public listings, and with very different financial profiles. (Or they prefer to invest in things they can see and touch – property, utilities, infrastructure, banks.)

So there is still a huge gap in investor education on startups and their requirements for early-stage funding. Part of LaunchVic’s remit is to market the local startup community, promote the success stories, and foster the right conditions to connect capital with ideas and innovation. After all, Australia does have one of the largest pool of pension fund assets in the world, and that money has to be put to work in creating economic growth opportunities.

As I have blogged before, we still see the “expensive boomerang”: Australian asset managers investing in Silicon Valley VCs, who then invest in Australian startups. Although when I raised a question about the investment preferences of our fund managers, Ian Gardiner did point out that a few enlightened institutions have invested in Australian VC funds such as SquarePeg Capital, H2 Ventures and Reinventure.

Dr Cornick also provided a reality check on startups, and added a note of caution to would-be founders:

First, it tends to be an over-glamourised sector. For one thing, founders under-estimate the relentless grind in making their business a success. And while eating pizza and pot noodles might sound like a lifestyle choice, it’s more of an economic necessity. Thus, it’s not for everyone (and not everyone should or needs to build a startup…), so aspiring entrepreneurs would be well-advised to do their homework.

Second, the success of any startup community will be reflected by industry demand. “Build it and they will come” is not a viable strategy. And I know from talking to those within the Victorian Government that unlike their inter-state counterparts, they are not willing (or able) to fund or invest in specific startups, nor in specific ventures such as a FinTech hub. Their position is that industry needs to put its money where its mouth is, and as and when that happens, the Government will look to see what support it can provide to foster and nurture such initiatives – particularly when it comes to facilitating between parties or filling in any gaps.

Third, don’t expect too many more unicorns, and don’t bank on coming up with simple but unique ideas that will conquer the world – meaning, new businesses like Facebook, Uber and Pinterest will be few and far between. Instead, drawing on her earlier comments about research, Dr Cornick predicts that it will be “back to the 90’s”, where innovation will come from “research-based, deep-tech solutions”.

If that’s the case, then the LaunchVic agenda (for the remaining 3 years of its current 4 year lifespan) will include:

  • Getting Victoria on the map, and positioning it as a global innovation hub
  • Raising the bar by educating startups and investors
  • Bringing more diversity to the startup sector, by providing greater access, striking better gender balance, and building a stronger entrepreneurial culture
  • Introducing a more transparent and interactive consultation process
  • Continuing to support the best accelerator programs that focus on startups
  • Making more frequent and smaller funding rounds, each with a specific focus

Asked what areas of innovation Victoria will be famous for, Dr Cornick’s number one pick was Healthcare, pointing to the strong research base coming out of both the Monash and Melbourne University medical precincts. Also in the running were Agriculture, and possibly Cyber-security. (Separately, there is a list of priority industries where the Government sees growth, employment and investment opportunities.)

If one of the biggest hurdles is commercializing research, Dr Cornick suggested that Universities have to re-think current IP practices, including ownership and licensing models, developing better career options in research, and doing more to re-calibrate the effort/reward equation in building research assets compared to building companies and commercial assets.

Finally, Dr Cornick offered an interesting metaphor to describe the current state of Victoria’s innovation potential:

“We have everything we need for baking a cake, but the missing ingredient is the baking powder to make it rise.”

Next week: Gigster is coming to town….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two #FinTech Cities – Part 2

It feels like the inter-city #FinTech and startup rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney is starting to get personal. The blow-up between Victorian Small Business Minister, Philip Dalidakis and Freelancer CEO, Matt Barrie over StartCon is perhaps the most strident example, but other discontent is bubbling underneath the service.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-10-51-49-amLet’s take a look at what’s actually been happening around #FinTech in Melbourne, and try to understand what might be the cause of this apparent disquiet:

First, the recently announced LaunchVic grants have been met with a mix of gratitude, bewilderment and some sour grapes, based on the people I have talked to in the start-up community. There was a sense of “jobs for the boys”, “usual suspects”, “who?”, and “yeah, good on ya”. Nothing new there, then, when public money is being handed out. High-profile beneficiaries of the initial A$6.5m of grants include FinTech Australia (as part of a major FinTech Conference to be held in Melbourne), FinTech Melbourne (which is now the largest group of its kind outside the US and UK), inspire9, Startup Victoria and Collective Campus.

Second, Stripe‘s CEO, John Collison was in town to celebrate their 2nd birthday in Melbourne. (This is the 3rd time in 2 years Collison has been in Australia – he must love what we are doing here? Or maybe it’s the Victorian government incentives that attracted Stripe to set up in Melbourne: see below.) This time around, there were some major announcements among the celebrations, including:

  • 25% of Australians have paid for something online using Stripe
  • Stripe is launching “Connect” in Australia – making it easier for local businesses to roll out payment solutions in multiple markets overseas
  • Stripe continues to keep its APIs as simple and streamlined as possible – they even support Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition system

There was also a panel discussion with some of Stripe’s local clients, and a Q&A with Collison himself:

  • Andre Eikmeier from Vinomofo commented that payment solutions (like all technology) should be invisible, and just work in the background
  • Ben Styles from Xero explained that integration with Xero’s own APIs is critical, and that they have co-developed some products
  • Nicole Brolan from SEEK said that thanks to Stripe, her business is finally allowing clients to pay invoices on-line

Asked about innovation, Collison argued that mobile phone technology was the spur for services like Uber. However, he’s not especially engaged with Blockchain, as he does not see the use case. He thinks the next major innovation will be in medtech (telemetrics & wearables), and machine learning (speech and image recognition). As he said, “driverless cars are not just about the sensors but what the data is telling you. We know more about the health of your car than your own body.” He also had some words of advice to aspiring local entrepreneurs and startup founders:

  • Having a global or international perspective is determined by your markets, your competition, and access to specific talent pools.
  • It’s probably wrong to aspire to be like Atlassian – you need to understand WHY Atlassian has been successful, not WHAT it did or HOW it did it – which means getting back to core values and core purpose.

Third, as the Stripe celebrations started to kick off, across town FinTech Melbourne hosted an event starring Alex Scandurra, from Sydney’s Stone & Chalk FinTech hub. This was billed as a “pre-launch” for Stone & Chalk’s planned foray into Melbourne, and was part information session, part FinTech love fest, and part fan-boy hangout. Scandurra’s presentation was quick to point out that the “plan is not to bring Stone & Chalk to Melbourne, but to create Melbourne’s own Stone & Chalk”. (Spot the subtle difference?)

To its credit, Stone & Chalk is home to 300 people and 75 startups, has helped start 21 companies and create 150 jobs, and participants have collectively raised $100m in funding, although Stone & Chalk does not take equity. Scandurra also commented that FinTech is not an industry in itself – it is a horizontal that serves all industries.

There seems to be a lot of local clamouring for a FinTech hub in Melbourne. However, unlike the NSW government which has directly partnered with Stone & Chalk, I understand that the Victorian government is not prepared or able to “invest” in such a project – and certainly not before there is some private sector funding on the table.

Meanwhile, the founder of a rival payment system expressed his frustration that the Victorian government “sponsored” Stripe to come to Australia, but won’t offer similar support to local startups. Another FinTech CEO I spoke to was irked that Stone & Chalk would appear to be breaching its own mandate if it set up shop outside NSW.

In fact, could be argued that Stone & Chalk was established in Sydney to directly compete with Melbourne’s startup ecosystem. In large part, this is thanks to the huge success that the Victorian government continues to have in luring major tech companies and global startups to come to Melbourne. Names such as Zendesk, Eventbrite, Slack, Square, Stripe and now Cognizant.

If the debate over Stone & Chalk coming to Melbourne is about creating a local FinTech hub (whether or not the Victorian government tips in some money), we have to examine the need for such a hub. For example, is it simply a question of real estate, so that all the FinTech startups can be co-located in one place? If so, I would have thought that was easy to resolve: there’s a lot of empty office space, and Melbourne rents are cheaper than Sydney; also, a growing number of office landlords recognise the mutual benefits and knock-on effects of hosting co-working venues in their buildings.

We also have to consider if Melbourne’s existing FinTech startup eco-system/infrastructure is willing to come together to underpin such a hub. If so, what is the hub going to do? What is its purpose? What is the missing piece that the hub is designed to fill? And who/what/where is best placed to fill that need/gap?

Looking back, Melbourne has been the home of a number of FinTech businesses, that are now global public enterprises – IRESS, Computershare, Touchcorp, Novatti, for example – so there is obviously something in the local water (or coffee). For me, however, a key barrier for FinTech specifically, and startups more generally, is the inability to connect to institutional funds and investors (Clover being a notable exception?). Other obstacles include the stodgy procurement processes used by the public sector and many large corporations, which make it more difficult for startups to compete for work, and the reluctance by enterprise clients to try a local product or service unless it has been tested and proven elsewhere.

Finally, on a more positive note, it was very interesting to see that founders from Atlassian and Vinomofo are backing Spaceship, a new superannuation fund appealing to a younger, tech-savvy audience.

Next week: Bridging the Digital Divide