101 #Startup Pitches – What have we learned?

During the past 3 years of writing this blog, I have probably heard more than 100 startup founders pitch, present or share their insights. Most of these pitch nights have been hosted by Startup Victoria, with a few on the side run by the Melbourne FinTech Meetup and elsewhere.

Image sourced from Startup Victoria Meetup

Image sourced from Startup Victoria Meetup

Based on all these presentations, I have collated a simple directory of each startup or pitch event I have covered or mentioned in this blog, as well as a few key accelerators and crowdfunding platforms.

What have we learned over that time?

First, apart from the constant stream of new startups pitching each month, it’s been impressive to witness the Melbourne startup community collaborate and support one another.

Second, some of the international founders who have spoken are among the rock stars of startups – and we are fortunate that they have been willing to spend time in Melbourne.

Third, a number of the local startups who have pitched during this time have become well-established and well-known businesses in their own right.

This all means that besides creating great products and services, and being willing to share their experiences, the founders have helped aspiring founders and entrepreneurs to appreciate the importance of:

  • product-market fit;
  • working with agile processes and lean startup models;
  • tackling prototyping and launching MVPs;
  • learning what to measure via key metrics;
  • figuring out funding; and
  • knowing when to pivot or fold.

Looking at the cross section of pitch nights, panel discussions and guest speakers, there are some significant trends and notable startups to have emerged:

Industry focus: Not surprisingly, the pitches are heavily biased towards FinTech, MedTech, Education, Digital Media, Enterprise Services and Consumer Services. There are a some key startups focused on devices (e.g., SwatchMate and LIFX); a smattering in recruitment, fashion, gaming, health and well-being, property services, social media and even logistics. But there are surprisingly few in environmental technology or services.

Business models: Two-sided market places abound, as do customer aggregators, sharing platforms (“the Uber for X”, or “the AirbnB of Y”), freemium apps and subscription services (as opposed to purely transactional businesses). There are also some great social enterprise startups, but surprisingly no co-operative models (apart from THINC).

Emerging stars:  Looking through the directory of startups, some of the star names to have come through during this time, based on their public profile, funding success, awards (and ubiquity at startup events….) include:

CoinJar, LIFX, Tablo, SwatchMate, etaskr, DragonBill, Culture Amp, Eyenaemia, Timelio, Moula, nuraloop,  Konnective, OutTrippin and SweetHawk.

Acknowledgments: Some of the startups and pitches in the list are just ideas, some don’t even have a website, and some didn’t get any further than a landing page. However, I have not been able to include all the startups that turned up at Startup Alley, nor the many more startup founders I have met through these events (but whom I didn’t get to see pitch or present), nor the startup ideas that were hatched during the hackathons I have participated in. And there are a few startups that I could not include because I heard them pitch at closed investor events. Finally, I am and have been very fortunate to work with a number of the startups listed, in various capacities: Brave New Coin, Ebla, Re-Imagi, Slow School of Business and Timelio. To these startups and their founders, I am extremely grateful for the opportunities they have given me.

Next week: Putting a Price on Value

 

University Challenge – #Startup Victoria’s Student #Pitch Night

There were around 500 people in the audience for last week’s #StartupVic University Startup Battle, which either says there was nothing better to do on a chilly Melbourne evening, or that this new Meetup format is working – or that the students of today are less interested in finding a job, and more interested in building their own career opportunities that connect with their purpose. (Our political leaders should take note….)

A sell out audience for the University Startup Battle (Image by Stefan Welack sourced from Twitter)

A sell out audience for the University Startup Battle (Image by Stefan Welack sourced from Twitter)

After a series of campus competitions, the finalists on the night were representing 6 of Victoria’s universities, and revealed a wealth of talent, ideas, innovation and inspiration. In order of appearance, the pitches were:

InternMe – (Victoria University)

With a tagline of “Experience the Experience”, this is a 2-sided market for graduate recruitment, that revealed some interesting stats about the student employment market.

Revenue is expected to come from fees for successful placements, and job advertisements. The business plans to cover work experience, internships, part-time and temporary work during study, as well as permanent and full-time roles.

Currently sourcing leads via LinkedIn and social media (notably Instagram), the founders say they may include psychometric profiling tools for better matching applicants with opportunities.

The pitch was to raise $100,000 for website development, but as the judges commented during the Q&A, the biggest challenge is engaging employers. As regular attendees to these pitch nights will recall, this mismatch or disconnect between students/graduates and employers continues to provide startup opportunities.

Printabox – (Swinburne University)

This website is designed to reduce the time, cost and complexity of ordering short-run branded boxes. Basically a self-serve model, the founders have spent $500,000 in development costs, primarily on a proprietary design tool. The resulting products come in 3 standard sizes – perhaps more customisation will become available?

The target clients are the 44,000 online stores in Australia who often need small numbers of branded boxes for sending out customer orders. But as the judges noted (based on a quick online search) there does appear to be a lot of competition. And although Printabox claims that their source code is protected, they have not applied (or are unable to apply) for a design patent.

Mech X Innovation – Project Ora – (Deakin University)

The founders have developed a hardware device that fits on standard tablet computers, and is designed to help children reduce and prevent eyesight damage caused by too much screen time, and by being too close to the device.

Essentially a Bluetooth-enabled accessory linked to an app, Ora monitors the amount of user screen time, proximity to the device and ambient lighting, and can be used in conjunction with “time outs”, scheduled messages and reminders to “go and do something else”. It can be semi-customised, so that parents can create a reward system, for example.

According to the designers, the competitor products (Appomate and samtime) are app-based only, and focus on time and distance – not lighting. Ora may also integrate with other devices, e.g. FitBit, but the target market is children and teenagers up to age 18, and their parents.

Asked about their path to market, they are planning a crowdfunding campaign. The key to adoption, though, will be via schools (who either provide or prescribe what devices pupils use) and schools suppliers (e.g., digital text books and e-learning tools).

ICallDibs – (Monash University)

This idea grew out of direct user experience, namely how can overseas students coming to Melbourne buy and sell furniture? The business is aiming to provide a market place for “Second Hand Furniture, First Class Deals”.

The biggest challenges faced by international students when buying/selling furniture are transportation, timing and finding buyers/sellers. The business will offer bundled services, including storage and removals/delivery, via partnerships.

The company aims to target international student agencies, and will ensure better matching between buyers and sellers (although they may want to consider changing the name unless they can trademark it….).

Rather than an “Ask”, the team offered a “Give” in the form of a customer discount for the evening’s attendees.

When asked about logistics and insurance, the founders clarified that the counterparts (buyer and seller) bear the direct risk. The business takes their commission upfront, then release the order details to the customers.

Assignment Hero – (Melbourne University)

It felt that this app, a collaboration tool for group work (sort of Slack for education?) was speaking to the converted, given the audience response. In short, having access to lots of different collaboration tools sounds great, but they each only do one or two things (albeit, really well). And if you use more than one app, you end up with too many tools and too many notifications.

While students may hate group assignments, they’re an important aspect of learning how to work with other people and acquiring other soft skills. They also seem to comprise a greater component of student assessments – possibly because they require less direct teacher-student face time?

Rather than build a whole new system, the founders have opted for native integration with Google Docs, plus some dashboard reporting tools (including the amount of individual input to a project).

The app is free to end users, but will generate revenue from education providers (enterprise sales) and on-demand services and commissions. When asked about existing tools like Moodle and Blackboard, the founders noted that these were designed for teaching, not collaboration.

It was also noted that existing productivity apps are not easily accessible by students (although no doubt, as with education content providers, enterprise app vendors will make student versions and pricing available). Plus, the “edtech” sector is of particular interest when linked to life-long learning, professional development and self-directed study.

Eat Up – (RMIT)

Finally, Eat Up is a social enterprise trying to address the number of school children who turn up at school without anything for lunch – estimated to be as many as 1 in 8 schoolchildren. Personally, I find this an indictment on our society – why should anyone in Australia need to go without basic food? – but the causes/reasons are far too complex to address here.

Essentially a partnership for sourcing, assembly and distribution, Eat Up has created a service model which they hope to roll out in more and more schools. They tap into the established Food Bank network for supplies, engage TAFEs to prepare the lunches, and use OzHarvest and SecondBite for logistics. There has also been support from Virgin Australia, ygap, Karma Canteen and Education Changemakers.

Eat Up aims to avoid passing on the costs to kids, parents or schools, and in part takes inspiration from another social enterprise, Thank You Water.

During a panel Q&A, the founders were asked about the apparent lack of technical skills or resources on their teams. In response, it was noted that there are many open source apps, available templates and market places for code and plugins. One founder commented that despite studying computer science, he used very little of what he learned to develop his app.

Revealing another apparent weakness in their pitches, the founders were quizzed on their respective sales models, costs of acquisition and pathway to revenue. The responses suggested that the startups risk being limited by their own inexperience, and that they each need to do more market analysis, assessment of customer willingness/ability to pay, and identify the best ways to scale their businesses.

There was also a lack of clarity around near-term goals and milestone planning.

In the end, the winner was Assignment Hero, no doubt reflecting the needs of the audience, plus the fact that the business has gained traction with some universities.

Next week: ASIC’s new regulatory sandbox for #FinTech #startups

#AngelCube favours B2B #startups…

The latest intake to AngelCube‘s accelerator program presented at the recent Startup Victoria meetup event. It was interesting to see that all 6 pitches were aimed at B2B audiences, since I have heard several angel investors and startup advisers express a strong preference for end-consumer products (or those with 2-sided markets). Perhaps there is more appetite for enterprise solutions, despite the longer lead times for sales, and the challenge of strategies required to displace incumbant products.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 5.18.46 pmWhether there is a new interest in B2B startups, or whether more founders are identifying B2B opportunities, there’s probably some further analysis to be done. Meanwhile, here are the 6 fledgling startups in the order they pitched on the night:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 5.45.53 pm1. Peer Academy

Peer Academy aims to “change the way professionals learn”. It does this by offering students access to open enrollment classes via an online market place. The classes are conducted by facilitators and experts (“hosts”) who have been “screened” for quality by Peer Academy, with a focus on “soft” management and leadership skills.

Peer Academy hopes that students will act as “warm leads” for corporate sales, by taking their classroom experience back into their organisations, and acting as champions or brand advocates. With follow-up introductions to training and HR managers, Peer Academy then curates programs for corporate clients, by matching training needs to individual users.

I like the notion of “peer-to-peer” learning (although I presume that the hosts are expected to have more advanced and developed skills than their students), and there is certainly a trend for alternative learning platforms. At least one major bank has expressed interest in sourcing corporate training via Peer Academy, who take a 30% commission on course sales.

A huge challenge will be to engage corporate clients who already have established relationships with trusted training providers, or who have existing panels of approved organisations, or who outsource training procurement to third parties.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.04.05 pm2. Jack

Workplace wellbeing is becoming big business ($5bn and counting?), and in the process, sedentary workers are in the firing line. According to Apple CEO TIM Cook, “Sitting is the new cancer”, and hence the recent fad/trend/fashion for sit-stand desks which is driving market interest in ergonomic solutions. The team at Jack have built a device that can monitor how much time people are sitting or standing, and even provide some feedback on user posture.

As you would expect, Jack uses cloud connectivity to monitor user activity, and to relay data via cross-platform apps and dashboards. It also uses elements of social media engagement and gamification, and has already launched a pilot scheme with several desk suppliers, as well as a paid beta at a well-known payments provider.

Customers will buy the device plus pay for a monthly subscription service. There is a direct competitor, but Jack claim their device can be retrofitted to any sit-stand desk. The unit price is much higher than, say a Fitbit, but since this is not a consumer product, Jack is confident it can sustain current pricing.

Finally, with the data it aims to collect, Jack reckons it may even be able to help reduce insurance premiums, although this will no doubt be subject to actuarial scrutiny, Work Cover and OH&S requirements, as well as data privacy issues.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.24.11 pm3. Coin-Craft

In the professional services and consulting sectors, tracking project costs and resourcing have become highly demanding activities – witness the plethora of project management, costing, billing, ERP and time-tracking solutions on the market. Based on personal experience, the founders of Coin-Craft have identified a specific need among architects, and have built an all-in-one tool for Project Management, Cashflow Analysis and Resource Planning. Built “for architects by architects”, Coin-Craft is designed to help clients stay optimal, by managing staff over/under utilisation, and tracking cashflow projections.

The system also claims to integrate with third-party accounting software, and has around a dozen firms using the service, with another 30 in the pipeline. Although Coin-Craft have chosen a niche client base to protect their market entry, they claim the solution can also be adopted by engineering practices, graphic art studios and project management firms.

However, feedback from the audience suggested there are already similar, mature products that are tracking individual billable hours against specific projects, so Coin-Craft may need to work on their value proposition and differentiation.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.38.22 pm4. CurveUp!

As social media and content marketing become more ubiquitous (if not more sophisticated), companies need to understand the value of their direct marketing spend. Mostly, they can do this via web analytics, e-commerce tracking, campaign conversions, and cost of customer acquisition. According to CurveUp! however, measuring the ROI of your PR activity is not so easy using “conventional” social media monitoring tools. For example, CurveUp! claim they can deliver tailored reports to show which blog post or article converted to a ticket sale for a concert or event.

Currently using web and online sources only, CurveUp! track mentions and link this to customer data. Some platforms, such as Instagram, are harder to track, and even via a possible API solution, it will only be possible to monitor the number of views and shares, but otherwise little or no data will be available.

However, at least one online market place has expressed interest, and CurveUp! has the potential to integrate with Facebook and Google, so that clients could possibly use campaign codes to track referral activity from mention to firm sale. Overall, the service will need to align itself with the ROI outcomes linked to PR campaign goals – which will vary between clients and markets, depending on organisational KPIs around brand advocacy, share of wallet, products per customer and customer satisfaction.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.56.07 pm5. TribeGrowth

In a similar vein, the team at TribeGrowth claim to have built “artificial intelligence for social media marketing“. Their goal is to help clients build an audience and get customers, via the use of “intelligent engagement” to generate conversions.

Initially targeting startups, professional service providers and the hospitality sector, TribeGrowth offers a tiered monthly subscription service, and claims to be a (cheaper) alternative to agencies or even Twitter ads.

Currently in private beta (and so far, only designed for Twitter and Instagram), TribeGrowth focuses on audience growth by careful selection of connections and influencers. According to the founders, this is not “pay & spray”, but uses machine learning to refine audience outreach and engagement.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.59.11 pm6. SweetHawk

Finally, and in what was probably the most technical presentation of the evening, came SweetHawk, which is building “voice for e-commerce”. I have to confess that, although I had previously heard about this product, I’m still not totally clear how it works.

In essence, it’s an outbound platform that enables companies to have more focused/targeted real-time conversations with warm sales prospects, namely people who are visiting their websites. Personally, I would find that a bit spooky, if I was browsing a site and suddenly a widget popped up asking me if I wanted to receive a call right there and then. Isn’t it a bit like stalking?

The business model is designed to offer tiered services in return for monthly subscription fees – depending on call volumes and functionality, such as workflow tools. I would see it as sitting somewhere between an outbound sales call centre and a SaaS-style inbound helpdesk solution.

On the plus side, I do see the opportunity to deliver superior and more responsive customer service, except that SweetHawk appears to be a sales and prospecting platform, not an after-sales or support solution. I’m also used to live chat tools that pop up on various software and other service sites I use, so I would probably engage with a similar offering if I was browsing to purchase.

Final Thoughts

While none of these pitches has so far demonstrated anything truly disruptive (but let’s not criticise them for that), they all seem reasonably sensible and logical solutions using a mix of digitally-driven technologies (cloud, mobile, social, peer-to-peer, data analytics) that we are all increasingly familiar with. So, rather than major game changers, I see each of them building on established platforms. By refining the potential that new technologies and business models are creating, they are tapping into better-defined client needs rather than taking a “build it and they will come” approach.

In conclusion, I was generally impressed by the 6 pitches on offer, although some of the presentations will no doubt be reworked in light of the audience feedback and Q&A, and before the plucky founders hit the investor road show organised by AngelCube.

The event was hosted by inspire9, and sponsored by BlueChilli and PwC.

Next week: More on FinTech – another look at data and disintermediation

 

 

Deconstructing #Digital Obsolescence

Remember the video format wars of the 1980s? At one point, VHS and Betamax were running neck and neck in the consumer market, but VHS eventually won out (although the also-ran V2000 was technically superior to both). Since then, we’ve had similar format battles for games consoles, video discs, computer storage, CD’s and e-books. It’s the inevitable consequence of operating platforms trying to dominate content – a continuing trend which has probably reached its apotheosis with the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 streaming service. This convergence of hardware and software is prompting some contrary trends and, if nothing else, proves our suspicion of hermetically sealed systems…

about-format2

Trevor Jackson embarks on a format frenzy….

1. Digital Divergence

Earlier this year, UK music producer Trevor Jackson released a collection of 12 songs, each one pressed on a different media format: 12″, 10″ and 7″ vinyl; CD and mini-CD; cassette; USB; VHS; minidisc; DAT; 8-track cartridge; and reel-to-reel tape. Of course, he could have also used 78 rpm shellac records, digital compact cassettes, Digital8 tapes, 3.5 and 5.25 inch floppy disks (still available, I kid you not) or any of the multitude of memory cards that proliferate even today.

While Jackson’s “Format” project might seem gimmicky, it does demonstrate that many digital formats are already obsolete compared to their analogue counterparts (and until very recently, I could have played 8 of the 12 formats myself – but I’ve just donated my VHS player to our local DVD store).

As I have blogged previously, there is an established body of digital/analogue hybrids, especially in data storage, and I can only see this continuing as part of the creative tension between operating systems and content formats.

2. Digital Archeology

Each new hardware/software upgrade brings a trail of digital obsolescence (and a corresponding amount of e-waste). It’s also giving rise to a new discipline of digital archeology, combining forensics, anthropology and hacking.

Back in 2002, it was discovered that a 15-year old multimedia version of the Domesday book was unreadable* – yet the hand-written version is still legible, and available to anyone who can read (provided they can decipher 1,000-year old Norman English). Apparently, it has taken longer to decrypt the 1986 video disc than it took to create it in the first place.

More digital archeologists will be needed to mine the volumes of data that reside in archival formats, if we are to avoid losing much of the knowledge we have created since the advent of the personal computer and the public internet.

3. Digital Provenance

We’re used to managing our data privacy and computer security via password protection, network protocols and user authentication. If we think about it, we also question the veracity of certain e-mails and websites (phishing, scamming, malware, trojans etc.).

A while ago I blogged about the topic of digital forgeries, and the associated phenomenon of digital decay. Just as in the art world, there is a need to establish a method of digital provenance to verify the attributes and authenticity of content we consume.

We are already seeing this happen in the use of block chains for managing cryptocurrencies, but I believe there is a need to extend these concepts to a broader set of transactions, while also facilitating the future proofing and retrofitting of content and operating systems.

4. Digital Diversity

In response to closed operating systems, sealed hardware units and redundant formats, there are several interesting and divergent threads emerging. These are both an extension of the open source culture, and a realisation that we need to have transferable and flexible programming abilities, rather than hardwired coding skills for specific operating systems or software platforms.

First, the Raspberry Pi movement is enabling richer interaction between programming and hardware. This is especially so with the Internet of Things. (For a related example, witness the Bigshot camera).

Second, Circuit Bending is finding ways to repurpose otherwise antiquated hardware that still contain reusable components, processors and circuit boards.

Third, some inventive musicians and programmers are resuscitating recent and premature digital antiques, such as Rex The Dog‘s re-use of the Casio CZ-230S synthesizer and its Memory Tapes to remix their first single, and humbleTUNE‘s creation of an app that can be retrofitted to the original Nintendo Gameboy.

These trends remind me of those Radio Shack and Tandy electronics kits I had as a child, which taught me how to assemble simple circuits and connect them to hardware. (And let’s not forget that toys like LEGO and Meccano started incorporating motors, electronics, processors and robotics into their kits many years ago.)

 5. Salvaging the Future

Finally, as mentioned above, built-in digital obsolescence creates e-waste of the future. A few recycling schemes do exist, but we need to do a better job of reclaiming not just the data archives contained in those old disks, drives and displays, but also the materials from which they are made.

* My thanks to Donald Farmer of Qlik for including this in his recent presentation in Melbourne.

Next week: #FinTech – what’s next?