Business as Unusual

At the time of writing, the Victorian Government has decided to defer the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, in the wake of a sudden spike in community transmissions. There was always a risk that opening up too much, too soon, would result in a second wave of coronavirus infections, as people returned to work, as shops, restaurants and bars started to re-open, and as people began socializing on a larger scale. There is even talk of more drastic local restrictions in so-called hot-spot areas.

Meanwhile, the deferment (and the extended State of Emergency) is creating further uncertainty for businesses in an already fragile economy. In recent weeks, I have been attending a number of on-line seminars on the broad theme of business in the post-pandemic era. Variously described as the “new normal”, the “new new normal”, and even the “next normal”, things are unlikely ever to be the same, and not many punters are willing to bet on the resumption of business as usual.

Here are some of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead:

Future of Work

As employees head back to the workplace, employers will need to balance the need for productivity and business continuity with the obligation to provide a safe working environment. Some staff can’t wait to get back to the office, some will prefer to continue working from home (if they can), while a large number would probably welcome a mix between the two. This has prompted debate on introducing a 4-day working week, the introduction of team rostering (e.g., alternating one week in, one week out), and possibly the end of hot-desking.

Overall, new work practices will necessitate a re-think on office space, workplace location and employee facilities. Some commentators have predicted that companies will need to extend their current premises (to allow for adequate space per employee); while others suggest CBD workplaces may need to decentralize towards more suburban or regional hubs (to reduce commuting times, to relieve congestion on public transport and to allow people to work closer to home). The latter may also stimulate local economies as people reallocate their commuting costs and daily expenses into local shops, cafes and services.

Innovation

Change and uncertainty should drive companies to innovate – in fact, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently spoke about innovation in light of the pandemic. His view is that current technological trends will only accelerate, and industries facing disruption will be displaced even faster. So no time for complacency, and no point waiting for normal service to resume.

Necessity has driven many retail and restaurant businesses towards more online engagement with their customers, and those that have been shown to be creative, resilient and agile appear to have found a way through the lock-down. Equally, many businesses used to delivering their services in person have had to find ways to embrace digital solutions – no doubt enhancing their digital transformation in the process.

Self-sufficiency

We’ve heard about the need for food and fuel security – especially when supply chains are disrupted, and when countries pursue “domestic first” policies in relation to essential goods and commodities.

While Australia is a net food exporter, we still have to import many daily staples. Primary producers have come to rely on lucrative export markets, so in the light of trade wars and import bans, local farmers and consumers alike will need to adjust their expectations – on choice, price, seasonal availability and market volumes.

Australia is also in the enviable position of being potentially self-sufficient in energy – but although we are rich in renewables, we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and recent events revealed our vulnerability to volatility in the oil markets. It suggests the current environmental and economic debates around weaning ourselves off coal, oil and gas are only going to become more critical.

There has also been a call for a larger domestic manufacturing base – not only to enhance workforce skills and productivity, but also to ward off supply chain disruption. Some have called for a return to domestic car production. Even if that were desirable, let alone a realistic option, I don’t imagine that anyone would welcome the bad old days of churning out Australian-made gas guzzlers that nobody wants to buy. We would need to advocate for smarter cars, energy efficient and non-fossil fuel vehicles, environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing process, and possibly different car ownership models (in line with the trend for ride share businesses and smart city solutions) and more creative financial incentives to the industry than wholesale subsidies.

Other manufacturing sectors that are getting attention include medicines and medical supplies (surely there must be a market for domestically-produced PPE made from bio-degradable materials?), clothing (again, an opportunity for environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing processes), processed goods (after all, we already have much of the raw material), domestic appliances and technology.

One area where Australia has also proven vulnerable is in recycling. China and the Indian Sub-continent are pushing back at taking and processing our exported waste. So we have to get smarter at recycling household waste (paper, plastic, glass and metal) especially if in a post-pandemic world we see a return to single-use items and additional sterile and protective packaging for foodstuffs and personal products. We also need to look at e-waste, and find ways to extract more recycling value from obsolete devices.

The lock-down during the pandemic has also highlighted an opportunity to re-connect with the “make do and mend” mentality of our parents and grandparents. Again, if supply chains are disrupted, buying a replacement item might not be an option. But often, nor is it possible to buy replacement parts – either they rely on the same supply chains, or there are no user-serviceable parts available. What if manufacturers and distributors had more of an obligation to take back and recycle their products, or to include more interchangeable parts in their designs, and enable consumers to become more self-sufficient in repairing and maintaining their electronic and electrical goods?

Federal, state and local governments have a huge role to play here – from mandating the use of more recycled and recyclable materials, to incentivizing recycling schemes, from supporting local repair workshops and “maker” projects, to creating more common and open standards around components and replaceable parts.

Finance and Digital Money

At a time when many people are on reduced income and/or or relying on government welfare, the pandemic has also demonstrated a need to rethink our relationship with money in general, and cash in particular.

The latest round of QE by governments and central banks to offset the financial impact of the pandemic has highlighted once again the fragility of current monetary policies, including fractional reserves and treasury buy-backs. The decision to print money on demand will only increase public appetite for crypto currencies as a legitimate store of value – including stable coins and (ironically) central bank digital currencies – and paradoxically, accelerate the removal of physical cash from the economy.

In times of crisis, digital currencies can also transfer money to remote recipients faster and cheaper than traditional means (i.e., incumbent remittance businesses, bank transfers, payment gateways), and actually increase transparency and traceability.

The lock-down also revealed that many people did not have a sufficient financial buffer to withstand job losses, especially in the casual workforce and the so-called gig economy. This suggests a new approach is required for how people are remunerated for their labour and services, taxed on their income, and incentivized to save for the future. Current systems cannot address these issues because they are over complex, far too rigid, and totally dis-empowering of the people they are designed to serve and support.

Digital currencies (along with the benefits of Blockchain technology, and the new economic models represented by digital assets and tokenization) will enhance trends such as decentralization, peer-to-peer networks, trust-less systems, fractional ownership and more sophisticated barter structures.

Bitcoin was created in response to the GFC, it has now come of age in the post-COVID-19 era.

Next week: Antler Demo Day – Rewired

 

 

 

 

 

Australia Post and navigating the last mile

Over the years, Australia Post has featured in this blog. And here. And over here too.

You would think I had no more to say on the topic. (Believe me, I’d prefer to have something else to write about – but it’s the summer, it was a long weekend, the weather is frying my brain, etc.)

But Auspost just loves to keep delivering poor service (see what I did there?).

From direct personal experience, four times in about as many weeks Auspost have failed to meet their own service levels for parcel delivery. In short, on each occasion their drivers claimed to have attempted delivery, but did not leave any notification. As a result, the parcels were delayed, and it was only when I received the “Final Reminders” from my local post office that I had any idea these items were awaiting collection.

Each time, I have lodged a formal complaint. In fact, I was encouraged to do so by the counter staff, who indicated that my experiences were not unique, and that they were as exasperated as I was. They also suggested that the front line staff are not being listened to by management.

With each complaint, I have been advised that “the relevant people will be spoken to”, and I have been assured “it will never happen again”. But it keeps happening, and nobody at Auspost can adequately explain why.

OK, so once could be a genuine error. Twice sounds like poor performance. Three times, and it starts to seem like a regular occurrence. But four times, and it points to a systemic problem, a failure which Auspost seems unable or unwilling to address.

So pervasive is Auspost’s reluctance to engage in genuine, honest and open dialogue with their customers (remember the National Conversation?), that at one point, a supervisor I spoke with refused to confirm the address of my local parcel delivery office. During another call, when I asked for some basic information as to whether other people in my area had made similar complaints, I was advised to submit a Freedom of Information request to obtain that sort of data.

After the second occasion, and sensing that Auspost was not getting the message, I also submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman. However, the latter said that “twice was insufficient” for their office to take any action. Ironically, the exact same time as I took the call from the Ombudsman, the postie was delivering yet another “Final Reminder” card, in respect to a third parcel for which there had been no evidence of a previous “Attempted Delivery”. I’m still waiting for the Ombudsman to get back to me….

More importantly, I’m still waiting for Auspost to notify me of what specific steps they have taken to resolve this pattern of poor service.

Meanwhile, Auspost keeps boasting about all the parcels they are delivering, thanks to the boom in online shopping. It’s just a pity that (from my experience), they are doing a really poor job of it.

Next week: What should we expect from our banks?

 

 

Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy

In a recent and very informative fireside chat, Linda Kozlowski, COO of Etsy was in conversation with Sarah Moran, CEO of Girl Geek Academy. Key themes of the discussion included the challenges in building a “global/local” platform, making sure you are addressing the right audience needs, and in a two-sided market place, knowing how to balance the interests of sellers and buyers.

etsyOrganised by StartupVic and hosted by inspire9, it was yet another example of how fortunate Melbourne is to attract and host so many leading global figures in the startup world, willing to share their insights (as well as learn more about the local startup scene – which probably does not get as big a rap as it should, especially in mainstream media).

With previous operational roles at both Alibaba and Evernote, Linda brings a strong combination of experience in tech and market places, and describes her current position as covering “CX and revenue from end-to-end”. Her primary focus is on product development, global expansion and addressing sellers’ problems.

At Etsy, the aim is to develop a global product platform that is culturally diverse. There is a natural tension between fully localised customisation (which can be costly to maintain – translation, version control, managing updates), and a “best of breed” model that can serve most users (which can lead to too many compromises). So instead, Etsy pursues a strategy of locally originated products and features, combined with open APIs.

Etsy has also identified sellers as their core audience. This means that so much of the CX is actually determined by sellers’ needs, to whom Etsy then serves up customers to the platform via social media, content marketing and SOE. Etsy sees this as a point of differentiation when considering traditional retailers who often end up squeezing their suppliers on pricing and margins.

In balancing the needs of two-sided markets, again Etsy focuses on the seller first – because buyers want to see depth of inventory and a range of quality products, so get sellers on-board and the buyers will come.

Asked how Etsy avoids buyers going direct to suppliers, Ms Kozlowski commented that it all really depends on where transactions happen: make the CX is so sticky that sellers want to stay on the platform, offer great seller features, and bring in quality buyers. On the other hand, it’s a healthy market place, so there is no mandating or exclusivity – because of course, successful sellers will sell in multiple places.

Etsy believes in investing in the right technology and the right marketing at the same time. For example, although the business was started in 2004, Etsy only began brand marketing in 2016. The types of marketing deployed include storytelling, identifying key differentiators, understanding customer influences, extensive content strategy, plus performance marketing (site traffic, SEO) to see what else customers may be looking for. According to Ms Kozlowski, a retail site should spend about 20-30% of revenue on marketing, otherwise you are buying traffic and customers (red flag to investors!) Alternatively, establish some ROI goals for marketing costs, especially performance marketing, and during the startup phase (up to 1 year) begin with 15-20% of revenue.

At the heart of Etsy’s business model is an evolving technology and e-commerce platform that allows micro-businesses to run at scale. The USP is a community of network effects: 1.7m sellers, 27m buyers, 40m products, 12,000 “teams”, whose “captains” recruit other sellers. (Australia is actually in Etsy’s Top 5 markets.) In addition, Etsy aims to act with integrity in respect to dispute resolution and addressing fraud – they use machine learning to detect rogue sellers (although often, buyer disputes are a reflection of seller inexperience, rather than fraudulent behaviour). Etsy also offers training and support to resolve disputes, and the community is very good at policing itself.

What are some of the unexpected challenges of market places? When it comes to distinguishing between commodity items and unique creative products, technology will under-price and displace commodity goods that are easily made. It’s also important to build human-to-human connections, and to have a global perspective – for reasons of quality and diversity, and not self-limiting your business, especially when it comes to managing different market and economic cycles. Remember to “follow the data”, and anticipate demand and trends. Among some of the technology challenges, dealing with different devices in different countries can be an issue.

In conclusion, Ms Kozlowski offered some advice for anyone thinking of launching a market place:

First, consider why there are very few local e-commerce markets in Australia (from my personal perspective it’s a complex mix of retailers getting burned in the dotcom boom/bust, cosy market duopolies, and perpetual geo-blocking…). But let’s not forget that Alibaba has just opened its Australian & New Zealand HQ in Melbourne, likely to ruffle a few feathers in the retail sector.

Second, embrace a local/global mix (for the reasons mentioned above)

Third, don’t price too low (although Australia is notorious for being a “price-sensitive” market…).

Finally, the conversation ended with a tantalising glimpse of “the future consumer” (Gen Z) where makers connect directly with buyers.

Next week: Spaceship launches the future of superannuation

Final StartupVic Pitch Night of 2016

There was something of a festive mood in the room for StartupVic‘s final pitch night of 2016, hosted at inspire9. It certainly had an end of term feel, as a number of the long-term Startup Vic team members said their farewells before moving on to new ventures. So it will be interesting to see how these monthly events continue to evolve in 2017.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-4-01-47-pmContinuing the theme of recent pitch nights, diversity was the key – this month’s startup hopefuls came from the energy, AI, environmental and consumer sectors. As usual, I will comment on each pitch in the order that they presented:

BioFuel Innovations

With the simple aim of turning waste into fuel, BioFuel Innovations uses an enzyme, as opposed to a more caustic chemical catalyst, to convert used cooking oil from restaurant kitchens into biodiesel. Given this greener and more sustainable process, the company can use lower quality feedstock, consume less energy and reduce the amount of waste water.

Having built a pilot plant in Dandenong, the founders are currently developing a containerised “turnkey solution” comprising a pilot micro-refinery, which can be financed by 3rd party lenders (a bit like some solar energy schemes). However, they are seeking funding to gain access to a startup accelerator program.

With a number of existing service providers that collect used cooking oil from restaurants and food processing plants, BioFuel Innovations only plan to produce their own fuel on a small scale. Rather, their business model is to sell micro-refineries for biodiesel production.

Asked by the judges why they are focusing on biodiesel rather than other higher-yield fuels, the team pointed out that some of those products require high temperature processing, and therefore consume more energy. Also, in concentrating on this type of biodiesel production, the founders believe they are helping to solve the problem of disposing of waste oils. However, longer term, they may explore even more sustainable energy derivatives and regeneratives. And in Asia Pacific, for example, there is a need to re-process palm oil residues.

Finally, a key to their success will be streamlined manufacturing processes and logistics, such as building supply chain partnerships for the shipping containers that hold the micro-refineries.

Breathable

This is an environmental design concept that aims to use plants to replace air ventilation systems in offices and homes. Based on research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, Breathable uses an algorithm based design solution. Taking into account the building dimensions, natural light, air flow, number of people, amount of mechanical and electrical equipment, etc., the team can design the right combination and layout of plants for each given location.

Established as a bootstrapped social enterprise, whose profits go to helping asthma sufferers and patients with respiratory complaints, Breathable is hoping to make a large and sustainable impact.

The first question from the judges was, why set up in Australia? The team explained that given certain plants are not allowed here, the underlying algorithm has to be reconfigured for native plants, by a local team.

This was a very timely comment, given the recent episode of “thunderstorm asthma” in Melbourne. However, the judges were a little concerned that while there was a clear connection between purpose and passion, they wondered whether it is more of a lifestyle business for the founders, especially as thus far, no IP has been registered or protected. (On this specific point, the team simply said, “we challenge people to do it better”.)

There is an expansion plan, to develop fully self-sustaining eco-systems – such as using plants to power lights that help generate photosynthesis. But big goals need big marketing budgets, and with an active waiting list of 20 corporate clients, the challenge for the business is in how to scale.

MagicPi

I should say upfront that based on what I had read in advance on their website, this pitch was not what I had expected. Instead of a presentation on artificial intelligence, we got a pitch about Australia’s Chinese tourism “problem”. Namely that, based on a 2016 report from Bloomberg, by 2020 Australia will host 5 million Chinese visitors a year, representing a $13bn market. (And as I know from having worked with the founders at China Digital, many tourist destinations in Australia are far from China ready.)

Using natural language AI (cognitive, cloud, machine learning – “Siri with a human touch”) MagicPi is targeting Destination Marketing Organisations (conventions, conferences, local tourism boards). They plan to create content and solutions for client websites, and then take a commission on bookings. With a presence on both WeChat (including a voice recognition bot) and AliPay, MagicPi has a long-term vision of being the “intelligent interface for everything”.

However, the judges questioned whether the solution works or even exists. They felt that there was currently no visibility for investors or consumers. Claiming to have built a demo app, the team stated that there is a lack of quality information for Chinese tourists, and people are willing to pay for premium content – and to distinguish mere “recommendations” from the visitor “reality”.

Despite adopting a deliberate enterprise solution, the judges felt that the pitch needed to stress the “why”, rather than focusing on the problem.

The Cider Link

I should mention that I first met the team from The Cider Link about a year ago, and was intrigued by their mission to build an online craft cider market that connects makers with customers. (So much so, that I connected them to local wine producer, Richard Stockman, who invited them to appear as guests on his weekly food and drink radio program.)

The Cider Link is challenging both the market duopoly for cider retailing, and the ubiquity of “commercial” cider, much of which is produced from bulk juice mixed with alcohol – rather than being fomented from freshly pressed fruit, as is the case with craft ciders.

Cider is currently enjoying 10% annual growth by volume (based on bottle shop sales alone). So, online, cider and craft are all “on trend”. The founders have built a commission-based market place, and with connections to producers who are members of industry body Cider Australia, The Cider Link is also appearing at festivals and related events.

In the Q&A with judges, the team explained that success for them would be sales of 1000 cases a month, making it a $1m business. They also plan to take the model to the UK, which has the largest cider market in the world.

In addition to attracting more customers, the founders are seeking investment to improve sales conversions and support some advertising.

Given the mix of pitches, and the range of business models and sectors, based on judging criteria and audience votes, the winner was Breathable.

Next week: End of Year Reflection