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

 

 

Life Lessons from the Techstars founders

Melbourne’s startup community is very fortunate to host some of the leading names in the startup world, who are more than willing to share their experiences and insights in front of packed, eager (even adulatory) audiences. The most recent visitors were Brad Feld and David Cohen, renowned entrepreneurs, and co-founders of the global Techstars accelerator and startup programmes. By the sounds of David’s recent blog, they really liked Melbourne (may have something to do with tennis…). But aside from talking about startups and the local eco-system, they had plenty to say about “startup life” as well.

techstarslogoDuring a fireside chat and Q&A facilitated by Leni Mayo, hosted at inspire9, with the support of Innovation in the Wild in conjunction with Startup Victoria, we learned a lot about what it takes to build a startup community, the role of government, limitations of current VC funding models, plus lots of personal tips on work/life balance etc.

First, based on the so-called “Boulder thesis”, there are four key elements to building a successful startup community:

  1. Entrepreneurs must act like leaders
  2. There has to be a long-term perspective (20 year horizon)
  3. The community has to be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate, and
  4. The leaders have to create activities for everyone to engage

There was also a discussion on why they chose Boulder as their base – which was slightly harder to explain. There was mention of the size of the population, the critical mass of wealthy investors and successful entrepreneurs, the liberal attitudes and culture, and the proximity to Denver (but at the same time, it’s not Denver?). Perhaps it’s something in the water?

Second, the community must rely on network effects, and not attempt to impose structure. That can be particularly hard when trying to co-ordinate scarce resources, attract potential investors, and win the ear of government. But I understand that a community should be capable of being a self-organising entity, as long as there is a clear and shared purpose?

Third, the role of government should be to get engaged (but stay out of the way?). The best thing our elected representatives and their bureaucrats can do is “shine a light on success”. This was particularly pertinent when our guests talked about some of the startups based in the same building where we were meeting: despite being very familiar with these companies in the USA, they had little idea that they were based in Melbourne.

Fourth, the community members have to “act what you want to be” (sort of, “be the change you want to see”?). I take this to be about being authentic, acting with integrity, giving back, and affording people due respect and recognition. Part of this is about having the right settings on culture, and taking responsibility for setting the tone of the community.

Fifth, given that some aspects of the current VC funding model are broken (fewer unicorns, fewer simple but big ideas emerging, too many short-term investment horizons, over-ambitious expectations on returns?), and if we want investors to behave in a certain way (especially if we need them to take a longer-term perspective), we have to educate them, engage them, bring them on the journey.

Finally, it was with remarkable candour that both guests spoke about achieving work/life balance, maintaining healthy relationships with their spouses, families and friends, and learning how/when to switch off. Mostly, they make specific time to take breaks, schedule date nights, compensate for the quality family time when they will be on the road, reflect on what is and isn’t working in all aspects of their lives, and continue to question/challenge themselves. The use of personal coaches and business mentors was also discussed, and it was refreshing to hear that such successful people acknowledge that sometimes they need help, and they certainly don’t have all the answers themselves.

Next week: Talking Innovation with Dr Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic

 

The Maker Culture

London’s newly re-opened Design Museum welcomes visitors with a bold defining statement of intent. According to the curators, there are only designers, makers and users. To me, this speaks volumes about how the “makers” are now at the forefront of economic activity, and how they are challenging key post-industrial notions of mass-production, mass-consumption and even mass-employment. Above all, as users, we are becoming far more engaged with why, how and where something is designed, made and distributed. And as consumers we are being encouraged to think about and take some responsibility for our choices in terms of environmental impact and sustainability.

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

There are several social, economic, technological and environmental movements that have helped to define “maker culture”, so there isn’t really a single, neat theory sitting behind it all. Here is a (highly selective) list of the key elements that have directly or indirectly contributed to this trend:

Hacking – this is not about cracking network security systems, but about learning how to make fixes when things that don’t work the way that we want them to, or for creating new solutions to existing problems – see also “life hacks”, hackathons or something like BBC’s Big Life Fix. Sort of “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Open source – providing easier access to coding tools, software programs, computing components and data sources has helped to reduce setup costs for new businesses and tech startups, and deconstructed/demystified traditional development processes. Encompasses everything from Linux to Arduino; from Github to public APIs; from AI bots to widget libraries; from Touch Board to F.A.T. Lab; from SaaS to small-scale 3-D printers.

Getting Sh*t Done – from the Fitzroy Academy, to Andrea de Chirico’s SUPERLOCAL projects, maker culture can be characterised by those who want: to make things happen; to make a difference; to create (social) impact; to get their hands dirty; to connect with the materials, people, communities and cultures they work with; to disrupt the status quo; to embrace DIY solutions; to learn by doing.

The Etsy Effect – just part of the response to a widespread consumer demand for personalised, customised, hand-made, individual, artisan, crafted, unique and bespoke products. In turn, platforms like the Etsy and Craftsy market places have sparked a whole raft of self-help video guides and online tutorials, where people can not only learn new skills to make things, they can also learn how to patch, repair, re-use, recycle and re-purpose. Also loosely linked to the recent publishing phenomena for new magazines that combine lifestyle, new age culture, philosophy, sustainability, mindfulness, and entrepreneurism with a social conscience.

Startups, Meetups and Co-working Spaces – if the data is to be believed, more and more people want to start their own ventures rather than find employment with an existing organisation. (Under the gig economy, around 40% of the workforce will be self-employed, freelance or contractors within 5 years, so naturally people are having to consider their employment options more carefully.) While starting your own business is not for everyone, the expanding ecosystem of meetups and co-working spaces is enabling would-be entrepreneurs to experiment and explore what’s possible, and to network with like-minded people.

Maker Spaces – also known as fabrication labs (“FabLabs”), they offer direct access to tools and equipment, mostly for things like 3-D printing, laser-cutting and circuit-board assembly, but some commercial facilities have the capacity to support new product prototyping, test manufacturing processes or short-run production lines. (I see this  interface between “cottage industry” digital studios and full-blown production plants as being critical to the development of high-end, niche and specialist engineering and manufacturing services to replace the declining, traditional manufacturing sectors.) Some of the activity is formed around local communities of independent makers, some offer shared workshop spaces and resources. Elsewhere, they are also run as innovation hubs and learning labs.

Analogue Warmth – I’ve written before about my appreciation for all things analogue, and the increased sales of vinyl records and even music cassettes demonstrate that among audiophiles, digital is not always better, that there is something to be said for the tangible format. This preference for analogue, combined with a love of tactile objects and a spirit of DIY has probably reached its apotheosis (in photography at least) through Kelli Anderson’s “This Book Is A Camera”.

Finally, a positive knock-on effect of maker culture is the growing number of educational resources for learning coding, computing, maths and robotics: Raspberry PI, Kano and Tech Will Save Us; KidsLogic, Creative Coding HK and Machinam; Robogals, Techcamp and robokids. We can all understand the importance of learning these skills as part of a well-rounded education, because as Mark Pascall, founder of 3months.com, recently commented:

“I’m not going to advise my kids to embark on careers that have long expensive training programs (e.g. doctors/lawyer etc). AI is already starting to give better results.”

Better to learn how things work, how to design and make them, how to repair them etc., so that we have core skills that can adapt as technology changes.

Next week: Life Lessons from the Techstars founders

 

A few rules on pitching

As regular readers will be aware, I have watched a lot of startup pitches over the past 4 years: the good, the bad, and the plain ugly. Having experienced rather too many of the latter in recent weeks (the names have been withheld to protect the guilty…) I started jotting down a few practical rules on managing the technical logistics of your pitch.

Source: Scientific American, via Wikimedia

The art of pitching (Source: Scientific American, via Wikimedia)

Rule #1 Check Your Tech

That’s everything from the computer drive/USB to the projector and screen, from the mic to the PA, and all cables and connections in between. As in most things, the last mile in the delivery chain can seriously let you down. Plus, simply knowing how to hold and use a mic would be a bonus!

Rule #2 No Videos

Yes, I know videos can be “cool”, but in a pitch setting they end up being a distraction, and I feel that the use of videos can be a cop-out – like you couldn’t be bothered to prepare a proper deck. (Remember those lazy teachers at school who would prefer to show some ancient “educational film” rather than actually teach their subject?)

Plus, embedded web links and the myriad of different formats and hardware compatibility mean videos are notoriously prone to fail. Leave them out.

(As regards the use of live demos or live website connections, this really depends on the nature of the pitch event, and how reliable the technology is. While I have seen some great examples of live app demos, equally, I’ve seen otherwise good pitches derailed by slow internet connections…..)

Rule #3 Check Fonts, Colours, Slide Transition & Automation

As with video compatibility, different slide formats will likely render differently from device to device, from projector to projector. My suggestion is to create your deck with one of the most commonly-used software formats (i.e., not necessarily the latest open source graphics package that no-one else has heard of…), use universal fonts and colours wherever possible, and keep slide transition and animation simple.

Rule #4 Block audio interference over the PA

One recent pitch event I attended was beset with tech problems, including noise from another source that cut into the PA. This was not the fault of the teams pitching, but their presentations suffered as a result. Some simple planning, like making sure the PA is a closed loop or that wireless equipment isn’t on an open channel.

Rule #5 Clickers

Anything that keeps the tech “invisible” is a bonus, and a remote clicker can really make a difference for presenters who don’t have to stand behind/near a laptop or steer via a mouse. But, like all the other bits of tech, not all clickers are equal, and so a bit of familiarization is in order. And used poorly, they can become a distraction, or worse, a prop that becomes like a crutch. Again, it’s about the last mile of delivery, and making sure the tech has been tested in advance.

Rule #6 Know Your Audience

This might seem obvious, but as well as understanding the event format (and any competition rules if applicable), find out who you will be pitching to: is it an audience of fellow startup founders, or investors, or potential customers? What might be the general level of awareness for your industry, product or business model? Who are the judges? Who do you need to impress most? What would be the most important contact you could make as a result of your pitch?

Rule #7 Make The Organisers Accountable for the Tech

In all of this, there is a huge responsibility placed on hosts, venues and tech support at startup events to make sure the technology is there to help, not hinder, the pitch presentations. While organisers can’t necessarily determine the quality of the content, or the presenters’ performance, they can make sure each pitch is competing on a equal tech basis.

Ideally, presenters should all be using the same PC or device, to reduce changeover time and equipment errors. Even better if the decks can be loaded in advance, and each presenter is given time for an AV check beforehand. I also recommend event hosts and venues consider using monitor screens placed in front of the presenters, so they don’t have to keep looking over their shoulders at the big screen – this is especially helpful in large audience settings.

Finally, if the format requires more than one person at a time to be speaking, please make sure they each have a separate microphone……

Next week: The Maker Culture