What might we expect in 2017?

On a number of measures, 2016 was a watershed year. Unexpected election results, fractious geopolitics, numerous celebrity deaths, too many lacklustre blockbuster films, spectacular sporting upsets (and regular doping scandals), and sales of vinyl records are outpacing revenue from digital downloads and streaming services. What might we expect from 2017?

Detail from "The Passing Winter" by Yayoi Kusama (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Detail from “The Passing Winter” by Yayoi Kusama [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Rather than using a crystal ball to make specific predictions or forecasts, here are some of the key themes that I think will feature in 2017:

First, the nature of public discourse will come under increased scrutiny. In the era of “post-truth”, fake news and searing/scathing social commentary, the need for an objective, fact-based and balanced media will be paramount. In addition, the role of op-ed pieces to reflect our enlightened liberal traditions and the need for public forums to represent our pluralist society will be critical to maintaining a sense of fairness, openness, and just plain decency in public dialogue.

Second, a recurring topic of public conversation among economists, politicians, sociologists, HR managers, career advisors, bureaucrats, union leaders, technologists, educators and social commentators will be the future of work. From the impact of automation on jobs, to the notion of a universal basic income; from the growth of the gig economy, to finding purpose through the work we do. How we find, engage with and navigate lifelong employment is now as important as, say, choosing high school electives, making specific career choices or updating professional qualifications.

Third, the ongoing focus on digital technology will revolve around the following:

  • The Internet of Things – based on a current exhibit at London’s Design Museum, the main use cases for IoT will continue to be wearable devices (especially for personal health monitoring), agriculture, transport and household connectivity
  • Fintech – if a primary role of the internet has been for content dissemination, search and discovery, then the deployment of Blockchain solutions, the growth in crypto-currencies, the use of P2P platforms and the evolution of robo-advice are giving rise to the Internet of Money
  • Artificial Intelligence – we are seeing a broader range of AI applications, particularly around robotics, predictive analytics and sensory/environmental monitoring. The next phase of AI will learn to anticipate (and in some cases moderate) human behaviour, and provide more efficacious decision-making and support mechanisms for resource planning and management.
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality – despite being increasingly visible in industries like gaming, industrial design, architecture and even tourism, it can feel like VR/AR is still looking for some dedicated use cases. One sector that is expected to benefit from these emerging technologies is education, so I would expect to see some interesting solutions for interactive learning, curriculum delivery and student assessment.

Fourth, and somewhat at odds with the above, the current enthusiasm for the maker culture is also leading to a growing interest in products that represent craft, artisan and hand-made fabrication techniques and traditions. Custom-made, bespoke, personalized and unique goods are in vogue – perhaps as a reaction to the “perfection” of digital replication and mass-production?

Fifth, with the importance of startups in driving innovation and providing sources of new economic growth, equity crowdfunding will certainly need to come of age. Thus far, this method of fund-raising has been more suited (and in many cases, is legally restricted) to physical products, entertainment assets, and creative projects. The delicate balance between retail investor protection and entrepreneurial access to funding means that this method of startup funding is constrained (by volume, amounts and investor participation), and contrary to stated intentions, can involve disproportionate set up costs and administration. But its time will come.

Finally, as shareholder activism and triple bottom line reporting become more prevalent (combined with greater regulatory and compliance obligations), I can see that corporate governance principles are increasingly placing company directors in the role of quasi-custodians of a company’s assets and quasi-trustees of stakeholder interests. It feels like boards are now expected to be the conscience of the company – something that will require directors to have greater regard to the impact of their decisions, not just whether those decisions are permitted, correct or good.

One thing I can predict for 2017, is that Content in Context will continue to comment on these topics, and explore their implications, especially as I encounter them through the projects I work on and the clients I consult to.

Next week: The FF17 Semi Finals in Melbourne

Bridging the Digital Divide

Is there still a digital divide in Australia? If so, how do we bridge that gap? If not, how do we address the apparent chasm that is leaving some “digital have-nots” behind? Is it as simple as rolling out the National Broadband Network and equipping every school child with their own tablet device? Or is it also about creating a digital mindset to ensure everyone can take advantage of the educational, social and economic opportunities that the range of digital technologies has to offer?

Mobile phone internet usage is projected to keep growing. Source: Statista

Mobile phone internet usage is projected to keep growing. Source: Statista

Based on consumer research, we would appear to be a well-connected country, with a high concentration of PC, smart phone and tablet devices, if data from Roy Morgan is any indicator. However, some recent research by Scott Ewing of Swinburne University based on ABS data has suggested that despite the narrowing of the divide, there is a deeper disconnect among those who do not have internet access.

There are multiple factors contributing to this disconnect: socio-economic, age, location and education. I would expect that within 5-10 years, age will be a far less relevant factor in who does or doesn’t have access to the internet. You could also argue that with more people accessing the internet via mobile devices, and with the increasing number of free WiFi zones across our cities (cafes, shopping centres, office buildings), public institutions (libraries, museums and galleries) and transport infrastructure (plus the reducing price of data and storage), cost may not be as much of an issue either. And once the NBN is complete, the percentage of the population without physical access to the internet should likewise be much smaller.

So that leaves education – according to the ABS-derived data, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to access the internet. Should this infer that we aren’t doing enough to teach digital skills in the classroom? Or are we teaching the wrong set of skills? Or is it a bit like learning English grammar or applied mathematics – unless you use them in your everyday life, you soon forget them, and never remember why it was important to learn them in first place?

Computer science, programming and coding courses are increasingly being taught in schools, either as part of the core syllabus or as extra-curricular activities. Many pupils have to use tablets as an integral part of their school lessons. And some schools are also running hackathons and entrepreneurial projects to help students navigate the new world of work shaped by innovation, digital disruption and the “gig” economy.

The changing nature of work is challenging schools and parents to think about how we should be preparing pupils for the future. It’s not just learning about the technology (important as it is to study data analytics, automation, robotics, AI etc.), it’s also about understanding the context and the potential for what it can do. It’s also increasingly apparent that more and more of today’s students want to do work that is meaningful, rewarding, challenging and which helps connect them to their values and “purpose”.

I like to think that as part of a well-rounded liberal education, today’s pupils will receive:

  • a solid grounding in digital literacy (as important and as vital as the 3 R’s)
  • an awareness of how “digital displacement” (through automation etc.) may impact their chosen career path (even in ways which we cannot yet predict – we must assume it will happen, as no profession, trade or vocation will be totally immune)
  • an appetite for lifelong learning (as one of the ways to cope with the inevitable changes they will face)
  • a set of life skills that instill self-awareness, curiosity, resilience, empathy, flexibility and adaptability.

Finally, if we are to truly grasp why this ability to adapt and change is important, we only need look beyond the digital debate and ask why the National Innovation and Science Agenda is failing to cut through. In large part, the NISA message failed to connect with the general electorate because many people could not identify with it, and therefore it did not resonate with them. Just as “necessity is the parent of invention”, so adversity often needs to be the catalyst for embracing change.

Notwithstanding the economic, environmental and societal challenges we face, there is considerable complacency and acceptance that “she’ll be right” – especially within the political, institutional and corporate elites that claim to lead us. As long as so few of the main actors among these bastions of power and influence decline to change their own culture, behaviours and ways of doing business, then it’s not surprising that the public feels unwilling or unable to change.

So our only real hope is to empower the next generations to shape their own future, not to be constrained by our traditional notions of “job” (in my view, an increasingly outmoded economic unit of value….) and think for themselves as to what change they want to create with all the technology, resources and opportunities at their disposal.

Next week: My Extended Gap Year

The David and Goliath of #Startup #Pitching

Anyone wanting to follow the startup scene in Melbourne will quickly discover that there are meetups, hackathons and user groups nearly every night of the week. Who needs a social life when we’ve got startup happenings to keep us entertained, busy and off the streets! The frequency and close proximity of these events can lead to some interesting contrasts; one such example came when Oxygen Ventures‘ annual splash The Big Pitch was held the same week as UpWork‘s more modest Networking & Pitch Night (part of The Pulse Meetup). It was almost a case of David and Goliath…

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 5.58.28 pmScreen Shot 2015-06-19 at 5.58.57 pmThe biggest difference between the two events was the prize on offer – the Big Pitch offers the winners up to $5m in venture capital funding; The Pulse offers $500 in Upwork credits (and high fives all round). No doubt, the application, screening and selection process is more onerous for the former than the latter. And as was frequently pointed out once The Big Pitch gala proceedings got underway, this competition is “serious” and “adult”. But that’s not to say that the entrepreneurs pitching at The Pulse weren’t equally passionate or serious. Most of the finalists at The Big Pitch had already launched products and were gaining market traction, as had several of those presenting at The Pulse.

So, in the interest of objectivity (and pure entertainment), here are the 10 pitches I watched across the two competitions, in no particular order, with my personal comments on each. Without going to the respective websites, can you work out which startup finalists belong to which competition?

LaundryRun

Too little time, long day at work, or just can’t be bothered doing your washing? Let LaundryRun pick up your dirty clothes at a time of your choosing, and bring them back when you need them all nice and clean. Tapping into the trend for concierge services for busy inner city hipsters, hackers and hustlers, LaundryRun is joining the likes of YourGrocer to outsource domestic services.

Given that the founders already have a traditional laundry and dry-cleaning business, one assumes they know to make the economics work (they claim the customer pricing is comparable to walk-in trade). Plus they have had some early media coverage, and it makes sense to focus on higher-density neighbourhoods, especially if they can establish regular pick-up and drop-off schedules.

But the problem will be in getting enough repeat business, although if most of the collection and delivery is done in the evenings, maybe that addresses the need for consolidation (and gets round peak traffic hours).

Gamurs

As I have confessed before, gaming is not my thing. I don’t see the appeal, I barely understand the jargon, and I certainly don’t have any aesthetic appreciation for the advertising, graphics and branding that goes into these products. But I accept that it’s a big business, and that the gamers of today are possibly the software geniuses of tomorrow.

Gamurs claims to be the ultimate social network for all things gaming. It has had some user interest (probably because it is a free platform), but it felt that there was nothing really new here. Despite a dedicated team, and some impressive growth projections (albeit only for Australia) it was difficult to see where the revenue would come from as there are competing channels, and the games industry is built around platform and brand verticals.

The pitch mentioned “content consumption” a lot, but I had no idea what that meant, and I was left thinking this was simply an on-line magazine for enthusiasts and hobbyists.

EpicCatch

I’ve seen this exact same pitch before. It’s cute, and has an interesting angle on the online dating model. Sort of MeetUp meets Tinder, with a focus on curated dating experiences. But other than some neat one-liners, this presentation was really an in-person advert designed to drive customer usage.

I’m sure the business will do well among its target demographic (although not quite sure they have this totally figured out), but unsurprisingly it did not win because according to some recent research, VC’s don’t like the dating business model.

  Biteable

This self-serve provider of templates for animated videos presents a very neat idea, and was established to fill the gap between expensive agency services, complicated pro tools and clunky DIY apps. It’s free to use, but for $99 you can remove the Biteable watermark.

There are limited options for changing some aspects of the template content, but maybe this will form part of the up-sell model. However, the numbers look questionable – how many repeat users would there be, and wouldn’t frequent users go for professional solutions anyway?

Perhaps there are strong niches or use cases that Biteable could explore, rather than trying to gain traction across a wide market?

CoreCool

Referring to the number of fatalities in India’s recent heat wave, CoreCool demonstrated a human need for their simple low-energy heating and cooling solution, especially for the elderly and the infirm. Using tested technology to regulate core body temperature (in essence, a contact heat exchange unit), CoreCool also sees a market in the recreational and well-being sectors.

If the product makes any claims as to its medical or health care benefits, it may need to comply with the relevant class of therapeutic goods regulations. It was not clear whether any clinical trials have been undertaken or whether the product is subject to any patents. However, there was lots of support for the idea among the audience.

Development challenges include scaling production to achieve retail pricing, and maximizing battery life.

FLEET

This was a project that proved very popular with the audience, even though it is still at concept stage – quite literally, it has not yet got off the ground. FLEET plans to bring cheap satellite internet to the estimated 60% of the world’s population that are not connected, or don’t have access.

With impressive scientific credentials, a passionate presenter and market research to back her case, it was easy to see why this pitch was many people’s favourite. But without the co-operation of incumbant telcos and their willingness to trade with a third-party platform, FLEET may struggle to establish a business case, unless they can hook into alternative distribution technology and supply chains.

At the very least, FLEET could provide a shot in the arm for Australia’s satellite industry.

Blinxel

Pitches always look better when the presenter can provide a product demo. Such was the case with Blinxel, a startup that is looking to bring simple and low-cost AR/VR video and hologram-like content to your smart phone or tablet.

Using a dedicated depth camera, Blinxel can capture video content, then upload the file via the cloud to your device. The team behind Blinxel is a bunch of enthusiastic 3-D content producers who want to disrupt the current high-cost model, which is also wasteful, as little content is recycled and OEM’s are apparently locked into proprietary technology.

I can see many uses, from education to tourism, as long as the content creation process is scalable, the need for stand-alone technologies can be minimised, and the price/speed/quality equation makes sense.

SocialStatus

Aiming straight for the marketer’s heart, SocialStatus aims to provide social media analytics on steroids – although only supporting Facebook pages at present. With a focus on peer and industry benchmarking, SocialStatus is building its expertise around the key metrics of engagement, growth and click-thru rates.

Adopting a freemium model (plus a 2-tier subscription price) and using simplified tools (canned reports and automated data from streamlined metrics), SocialStatus looks clean, easy to use and speaks directly to content marketers and community managers.

Unless they can protect their analytical IP, and extend coverage to other social media platforms, I think SocialStatus may find it difficult to defend their position.

Meet&Trip

A simple pitch: if you are travelling overseas, and want to connect with fellow travellers who might be interested in planning and sharing a road trip, this is the solution for you. Claiming that Facebook and other social networks don’t allow you to create time and location-based forums that are both moderated, curated and for a specific purpose, Meet&Trip aims to connect users with similar interests and lifestyles.

It’s a nice idea, but other than being specialist bulletin/message board, I can’t see what else Meet&Trip has planned, or how it intends to fund itself.

In the analogue world, most major cities and tourist destinations used to publish magazines dedicated to the interests of travellers, backpackers and itinerant expats. They had classified adverts of the kind: “planning a trip to Uluru; share expenses and driving; no boofheads”. Maybe this still happens? As an aside, London’s Antipodean community used to park and trade their dormobiles along the Thames Southbank – so anyone looking to buy a VW Combi and “do” Europe with like-minded travellers knew exactly where to go.

Storie

I have to admit, when I heard this pitch, my immediate reaction was, “Oh. Yet more video content that I don’t have time to watch (or care about).” And despite the apparent novelty of being able to capture, edit and share content from within the same app (i.e., build a series of scenes into a story before you hit “publish”), it felt like yet another social media pitch in search of a business solution.

Kudos to the young team for bringing their idea to our attention – but to me it felt like it was trying to take the best bits of YouTube, Vine, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr without adding anything radically new.

As with Biteable (above), my recommendation to Storie would be to explore commercial opportunities among deep or niche content-rich markets, rather than trying to scale across shallow, thin and widely dispersed public audiences.

Conclusions

  • The winners in their respective competitions were SocialStatus and CoreCool, with honourable mentions for LaundryRun, FLEET and Blinxel.
  • We are starting to see some further variegation among startup pitches – more firmware, hardware, B2B – but the bulk are still pushing consumer-based, ad-backed products targeting the (over)crowded markets for sharing social, mobile and video content.
  • Reflecting Melbourne’s ethnically diverse startup scene, a significant number of these pitches were made by recent migrants to Australia.
  • Several pitches confined their growth potential to the domestic market – which is understandable, but self-limiting. Despite its reputation as a relatively early adopter of new technology, by and large Australia is still quite conservative, with a tendency to favour incumbant brands that operate in semi-protected duopolies and oligopolies (supermarkets, telcos, banks, newspapers, automotive).
  • I don’t believe in disruption for its own sake, but few of the pitches offered truly disruptive business models, other than through pricing (i.e., charge nothing and hope that advertising will cover the costs) or via self-service solutions. I would like to have seen more disruptive intent around supply chains, distribution and channels to market.

Next week: Deconstructing #Digital Obsolescence

 

Taxing the Intangibles – coming soon to a screen near you!

No sooner had Netflix launched in Australia than Treasurer Joe Hockey announced the imposition of GST on “intangibles” purchased from overseas vendors. The Treasurer has also indicated that the GST-free threshold for on-line imports will be lowered from the current $1,000. Dubbed the “Netflix tax”, Australian consumers should now expect to pay more for their digital content such as video, music, software and e-books, even though on most evidence, we are already charged more for comparable products than in other markets.

Geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers…

Backdrop

We all know why the Treasurer has proposed this scheme: the Government has to make up for declining tax receipts, and appease the States who are squabbling over the allocation of GST revenue between them. Plus the current Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance by companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft (who divert locally sourced income to offshore entities to reduce their income tax liability in Australia) is driving the public and political agenda on global tax minimization schemes (which are nothing new, of course).*

But it’s not as simple as slapping an extra 10% on the price of a movie download, even though GST is a relatively easy and cost-effective way of generating tax revenue. For one thing, there is little consistency in how vendors currently sell their digital products in Australia. Secondly, geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers, leading to the sort of content piracy infringement that will now make local ISP’s and their subscribers more vulnerable to legal action, following the recent “Dallas Buyers Club” court ruling. Thirdly, local retailers who have long campaigned to have the GST-free threshold removed or lowered fail to acknowledge why customers prefer to shop from overseas vendors.

Goods & Services Tax

GST (similar to VAT in Europe) is a simple consumption tax. It applies to the sale or supply of most items (except things like fresh food and health services) at a flat rate of 10%.

Even better, the Government and the tax authorities rely on businesses to collect, report and remit GST receipts, making it relatively cheap to administer (when compared to other taxes) via the Business Activity Statement process managed by the Australian Taxation Office.

The GST is a key topic of the current review of the tax system – likely to result in a higher rate (or different rates), and/or broader application to items not currently included.

Vendor Inconsistency

In principle, I don’t have a problem in paying GST on digital items I buy from overseas vendors – but there is so much inconsistency that there is a risk of consumers having to pay two lots of sales tax.

For example, every iTunes receipt issued by Apple Pty Ltd (an Australian entity) states that the sale amount already includes GST – in which case, Apple should be remitting that component to the ATO, and no need for a price increase.

However, Adobe chooses to invoice me from Ireland, and as such no GST (or VAT) is applied, but I am charged forex fees, even though the invoice amount is expressed in Australian dollars, because my bank treats this as a foreign transaction.

Meanwhile, although some UK vendors I buy from direct do not apply GST/VAT on my orders (Amazon UK included), others do – meaning I risk having to pay both the GST and VAT. As a further sign of vendor inconsistency, Amazon’s US store does not appear to deduct US sales tax for foreign customers; neither the UK or US Amazon stores sell music downloads to Australian customers; and Amazon’s Australian store only sells e-books and apps.

Geo-blocking

The decision in the “Dallas Buyers Club” IP infringement case brought by Voltage Films, has again drawn attention to Australia’s poor reputation for copyright piracy as evidenced by the number and frequency of illegal downloads.

Some journalists have commented that distributors often delay the local release of imported content (for various reasons) although this was not seen as a justification for piracy (and quite rightly so).

While foreign films are frequently released later in Australia, it’s interesting that TV (even free to air channels) has woken up to this, and now broadcasters rush to fast-track imported shows to keep audiences happy.

It’s also interesting to note that the Productivity Commission, as part of its competition policy review of IP laws, has suggested that if local rights holders and distributors choose not to exercise their commercial rights, under a “use it or lose it” model, third-party distributors would be able to step in. This also has the potential to undermine the archaic industry practice of geo-blocking, whereby sales of music, film and TV content (physical and digital) are restricted by territory.

Local retailers and distributors need to lift their game

Does the absence of GST really encourage consumers to buy from offshore retailers? I would beg to differ.

Local rights holders often do not bother to make content and products available in Australia. And local retailers won’t usually stock products if they are not readily available from wholesalers or distributors.

I recently had to contact an overseas artist, the UK record label and its Australian distributor several times to make their music available online in Australia. The local distributor had not bothered to release the content, even though they had the rights, but geo-blocking prevented me from accessing it legally from overseas suppliers.

It’s the combination of inadequate local distribution, non-availability, higher prices and lacklustre service that encourages Australian consumers to buy from overseas, even if that means circumventing geo-blocking. In many cases, I doubt the addition of GST will be a serious deterrent to online overseas shopping.

In my own case, I once found that the local branches of a global retail brand chose not to stock the item I wanted, and their US parent geo-blocked me from ordering on-line. So I resorted to buying in the “grey” or parallel imports market, from an offshore vendor willing to ship direct to Australia. It was still cheaper, even after shipping costs, and even if GST had been added (I probably paid US sales tax on the transaction anyway), than if I had bought from a local retailer (assuming they bothered to stock the item).

Hopefully, this debate on GST and the Productivity Commission’s review of competition policy will finally give local retailers an incentive to do a better job of serving their customers.

* The debate on corporate tax minimization might want to look at where “value” is created, and where the revenue is booked, that gives rise to a tax on the resulting profits. For me, the retail value of intangibles such as digital products is created when someone pays to download them, at the point of sale – i.e., in the consumer’s geographic location.  Although the vendor may argue that the IP is owned by an offshore entity to whom they must pay royalties, the individual download itself does not have any standalone value, until it is accessed by the consumer. Even a high rate of royalty repatriation could not be more than the retail price, so logic might suggest that local profits should be taxed accordingly.

Next week: What can we learn from the music industry?