Startup Vic’s Secret Pitch Night

For its August meetup event, Startup Vic presented The Secret Pitch. Designed to highlight inequality in investment decisions, it combined voice-modulation software, and was a bit like The Voice meets Blind Date. Hosted at the Victorian Innovation Hub with support from Rampersand, LaunchVic, Stone & Chalk and Weploy, the Judges were selected from Rampersand, Light Warrior Ventures, AWS, Impact Investment Group and Venture Capital Exchange. By sitting with their backs to the presenters, and having to rely on only the slides and the disguised voices, the Judges had a limited idea of the identity of the presenters.

The pitches in order they presented (websites embedded on the titles):

FRDM

Described as “your closet in the cloud”, and dedicated to “making fast fashion sustainable”, FRDM is subscription-based service for “shared” clothing – customers borrow and return each item after use. Apparently, we are  buying more clothing but using it less.  The circular model is set up to break down and recycle garments over a three year lifecycle. it’s an emerging, but competitive space – competitors include Glam Corner, Le Tote, and Unlimited. Asked about their approach to circulation and cleaning, the founders assume three “wears”  with a 30% margin per customer but admit that they are still lacking some logistics experience. The goal of having items delivered on time, in the right place and in an acceptable condition is still being developed. Firmly aimed at women aged  22-28 years old, I suggest FRDM think about a their name, as my search revealed at least two similar URLs – https://frdm.co and http://frdm.io.

Assignment Hero

I have covered this startup before. It’s positioned as a collaboration platform for tertiary students. When it comes to team project work, there appears to be a disconnect between prescribed apps (Dropbox, Facebook Groups, Evernote, Google Docs, etc.) and the activity notifications and alerts they generate – in short, too much “noise” which overwhelms the students, which gets in the way of them completing their tasks.

Offering a dashboard, the platform is natively integrated with Google Docs. Users can track individual contributions to each document (based on time spent, and using track changes). To me that system is very easy to game – what’s to stop users simply editing for the sake of boosting their rating? How does it deal with plagiarism and copyright abuse? How does the app evaluate the quality, depth or rigour of contributions? Who owns the content that is uploaded to the platform?

Claiming to be signing up 42 new users every day, with repeat users, the founders offer a B2C model – providing access to suggested solutions via on-demand student services and products, and charging a 30% commission on each sale. Student sign-up is free, but the platform can recommends products to users. There is also an SaaS offering for universities, established via paid trials. But the B2B model is a long sales cycle, with the goal being annual licensing fees. Asked how about the viability of the Google relationship, the founders explained they tried using their own document editor, but customer  preference is for Google (and Microsoft) products.

Asked about how Assignment Hero compares to other collaboration tools such as Atlassian’s JIRA, Trello, Confluence, Slack, etc. the founders suggested that these are aimed more at enterprises, and that their own UX/UI is sexier than existing education tools such as Blackboard. As with all such platforms, the key is to enable users to manage the project, not manage the project management software….

Book An Artist

This two-sided market place is designed to help clients to find or connect with an artist. According to the founders, finding the right one is hard. Instagram’s search function is not location based, and the platform is dominated by big names.

With 80 artists on board, Book An Artist charges a 10% commission, and has completed around 40 transactions with an average ticket size of $2,200. Traction has been achieved via referrals, influence programs, SEO and Google Ads. Initially focused on commissions for murals and graffiti works, the founders plan to expand into sign writing, textiles, illustrations, mosaics, installations and calligraphy. With a presence in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the founders are seeking $500k in funding. Currently using external agencies and contractors to handle administration, the funding will largely be allocated to marketing to drive engagement.

Although the commissions appear to be at a higher price point compared to other creative market places, what prevents platforms such as  Fivr,  99Designs or Canva moving into this space? Also, how does Find An Artist handle things like copyright, IP licensing, attribution or planning permission for external works?

Aggie Global

This is a food sourcing platform, connecting small farmers to large markets. Because of current market structures and procurement processes, businesses often can’t “see” what produce is available to them locally. Based on the founders’ experience in Fiji, where the local economy ends up having to import food to feed tourists, they have run an actual in-market pilot program, but are still building the e-commerce platform.

The results of the pilot achieved a 6x increase in both farmers’ income and hotel cost savings. Tourism is the 1st or 2nd largest industry in 20/48 developing countries. Importing food to satisfy tourist demand is therefore an issue.

For farmers, the service offers a freemium model, while businesses pay a 5% transaction fee and an annual subscription. Currently researching other markets, managing the supply chAIn for quality control, provenance, organic certification etc. is critical. The MVP aims to get farmers keeping proper records via face to face training, and gaining recognition for existing farming practices.

Asked about the cost of data connectivity and access for farmers in remote locations, the founders explained that data is stored offline and uploaded periodically. They are also investigating the use of AI/ML for predictive supply and demand. They also need to manage timely delivery as well as tracking environmental and climate data.

Part of the solution lies in making sure there is appropriate produce for the market, while matching local cuisine to tourist expectations. Too often, local chefs try to emulate western menus, so they need to help develop alternatives and foster innovation.

Maybe the Startup Vic organisers were saving the best til last, as Aggie Global took out the People’s Choice and was declared the Overall Winner by the judges.

Next week: Recent Notes from Europe

Demo Day #2 – Startmate

The same day as the recent Startupbootcamp event, the latest cohort of 8 founders to complete Startmate’s programme in Sydney held their own Demo Day in Melbourne.

The pitches in order of appearance were (websites links embedded in the names):

Muso

A live music marketplace, connecting venues and artists. Venue booking managers are too busy to research available talent, and artists face an inordinate number of individual processes to manage bookings and post-event admin. So Muso joins the dots, curates the artists, and takes a share of the listing and booking fees. In a world where more and more independent artists are self-releasing their recordings via platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud, it makes sense to extend this to managing their own tour bookings. Muso already claims to have booked 400 gigs at an average fee of $300, and also plans to expand into the US, UK and NZ markets. Currently seeking $1.2m seed funding.

VAPAR

Fault detection in infrastructure is highly manual, subjective and very expensive. VAPAR is using machine learning and cloud hosting to automate the analysis of video footage for underground pipes and sewers. A task that can currently take 2 weeks to complete can now be done in 2 minutes. Clients upload their footage and fixed asset data via a web platform, and VAPAR generate a report based on the image scanning. The business model offers a free trial access, a paid pilot project engagement, and a price per metre of pipe. Currently seeking $500k in seed funding.

VEXEV

According to the founders, vascular disease is the single largest cause of death, so there is increased focus on detection and prevention. Measuring and tracking blood flow patterns can be expensive and invasive. VEXEV uses 3D imaging captured from safer and lower cost ultra-scan technology, to measure disease progression, and to monitor and predict patient outcomes. Already secured seed funding from Blackbird Ventures.

Glamazon

This is a marketplace for at-home beauty services, “bringing a salon experience to your own living room”. According to the founders, a beautician could earn $80 per treatment compared to $23 if they work in a salon. Glamazon also offers its own business management platform via a SaaS model.

Cogniant.co

An app to “predict and manage mental health disorders before they happen“. Offers a dashboard interface for clinicians to manage their client case load, using data collected on patients’ activity and behaviour via their smart phone devices and sensors. Looking to raise $1m in seed funding. My personal observation is that a key contributing factor towards certain mental health disorders appears to be increased screen time (social media, apps that track our every move, binge watching, constant content streaming and always being “on”), leading to increased isolation, among other symptoms. While I can see the value of the data capture and analysis, hopefully the process does not reinforce the negative connotations.

Pixelated Induction

Introducing ClickCharge, a scalable wireless charging system that enables any surface to become a conductive medium. Some may remember that Apple tried its own solution, AirPower, that quietly ran out of steam. ClickCharge claims to have 3 times the charging area of AirPower, and can even charge laptops, via its inter-connecting tile design. Having filed an international patent, the founders are seeking $1.7m in seed capital to fund the build of 40,000 units for which they are currently taking pre-orders.

Bioscout

A remote system for crop monitoring and disease detection, using airborne particle tracking and analysis. Having run some field trials with banana and avocado crops, the team has identified considerable cost savings for farmers, both in terms of produce protected, and reduced use of preventive chemicals. (With the industry currently spending $2.5bn on crop monitoring and disease prevention, yet still losing $2.4bn in damaged fruit, any savings must be welcome.) Remote devices provide real-time monitoring and alerts combined with an analytics dashboard. Cost is expected to be $30k per device, plus $2k per month. The latter is presumably to pay for satellite connectivity, as the founders discovered that a key challenge for farmers is the lack of mobile phone reception in remote and rural areas.

Live Graphic Systems

This startup is aiming to reduce the cost of creating branded graphics for live sports streaming, from $5k per game to $100 per game. Current solutions involve manual processes, custom software, expensive hardware and dedicated people to operate them. Live Graphic Systems offers a scalable solution that connects brands to live streaming events, at near-zero marginal cost.

Next week: Startup Vic’s EdTech Pitch Night

 

 

 

Startup VIC’s Retail & E-Commerce Pitch Night

As with the same event last year, this pitch night was again hosted at the Kensington Clik Collective. Going by the audience numbers, the retail tech and e-commerce start-up sector continues to generate widespread interest, despite (or because of?) the fragile state of most bricks and mortar retailing in Australia, and the onslaught of global online shopping from the likes of Amazon and eBay.

The four pitches in order of presentation were:

barQode

According to the founder, it all started with a scarf… and how he might have paid more for the item at the time he wanted it (but less than the retail price), compared to the eventual discount price a few months later. If only he had been able to bargain on the spot. Enter barQode – a location-specific app that enables customers to make an offer on an in-store item, and retailers to match or counter the customer offer.

To be clear, this is not (yet) a price comparison tool or even an on-line platform – it’s an app aimed at specific, location-defined, in-store purchases.

While simple in concept, the app does require a huge behaviour change by shoppers. Australians are infamous for being “price sensitive” buyers (not the same as being “cheap”, as one retail consultant once corrected me). Cost plays a huge role in purchasing decisions, especially as choice is often limited in a sector dominated by an oligopoly of brands, and a traditionally restricted market in terms of parallel imports and geo-blocking.

But barQode requires Australians to get comfortable with the notion of haggling, and that is quite a culture shift. Yes, some retail brands offer price matching against their competitors, but as this pitch pointed out, this is all about in-store purchases and prompting a more emotional engagement.

Most of the questions from the panel of judges focused on the competition, customer acquisition and market entry. Using a combination of platform fees and analytics services, barQode claims to be cheaper than the competing platforms, which also risk dis-intermediating retailers from their direct customers. Costs of acquisition were not disclosed, since the app is only in very select beta. The founders appear to be targeting discount retailers rather than selecting a specific category launch. This raises the prospect of only attracting bargain hunters who are already tempted by stock clearance offers (a race to the bottom?) – rather than engaging with select brands who can afford to yield some margin while potentially securing a new customer base.

The team claim to have a patent pending (they are working on image recognition, rather than simply relying on bar codes and other inventory data), and is seeking $350k in seed funding prior to a $1.5m Series A.

Epic Catch

Under the banner, “The social collective – date differently”, Epic Catch claims to be fostering organic connections via shared experiences for singles.

I have seen this start-up pitch couple of times before, where the initial emphasis was on being a new kind of dating service. But now, presumably with more experience and more market research, it claims to be addressing the “loneliness epidemic” – despite all the so-called “connections” people have via social media (and given recent events at Facebook, how much longer will that particular trend run?)  there is actually less and less personal engagement in the world.

According to data cited by the founders, in Australia, 35% of households consist of single people, a figure expected to reach 60% by 2036. At the same time, single people (neither age nor other demographics were defined) each spend an average of $12,000 a year on social activities. (It would have been interesting to see a breakdown of this spending pattern by consumer category, season, age, gender and location?)

The business model relies on a mix of subscriptions, commissions and affiliate fees, via a business partner model, member fees and booking fees. The founders are looking to raise $1.5m, primarily to fund marketing costs, as customer acquisition has mostly been organic, word of mouth, and SEO. To help them on their journey, the founders have appointed a solid advisory board, in their quest to counter the “fast food culture of dating and matching apps”.

Winery Lane

Winery Lane is a curated online market place, servicing independent wineries. Currently engaged on an equity crowd funding program (to raise $900k in return for 18% equity), the founders suggest that the $7.5b wine industry suffers from too many brands. A few large names dominate the market (by supply and by retail consumption), and a long-tail of boutique and specialist wine makers struggle for recognition (even though they often have a superior product). The biggest challenge is: producers can’t control the end distribution, especially small producers.

Winery Land has identified three core personas of wine lovers: geek, aspirational, and seeker. Their goal is to connect independent wine makers with this target audience, by removing the risk for sellers – through enabling them to share their wine-making narratives, and only charging a success-based commission on sales.

The business model is to target 50-60 independent wineries, and charge a 30% sales commission, while offering a 20% discount to customers on 12 or more bottles.

Asked by the panel (which included a representative from Vinomofo) about potential competitor Naked Wine, the founders claim they operate in different segments – in particular, their focus on selling genuine wines (and not running private labels).

Behind the platform is a data acquisition component – by “pooling” their mailing lists, participating wine makers can actually reach a larger (pre-qualified) audience. The judges felt that marketplace models for wine are still to be proven, and wine makers are naturally very protective of their customer lists, to whom they can usually pre-sell their normally small vintages.

[As a piece of random market research, the next day I spoke to one wine-seller representing a boutique producer at a pop-up market in the lobby of a CBD office building. He claimed that by participating in a growing number of these pop-up markets around Melbourne over the past 12 months, he had increased the size of their customer list 10-fold. When I asked whether his sales and marketing strategy included using platforms such as Naked Wine, his opinion was these services were often more like marketing software. They may also require producers to discount too heavily, that they resemble something of a bulk distribution model, and that it was akin to a “pay to publish” model for wine makers – based on the cost of getting stock on to the inventory. And while it isn’t perfect, MailChimp was good enough tool for building, engaging with and growing their customer lists.]

Postie

This SME marketing platform highlights a major paradox:  small brands engage better than big brands, but social media and e-mail engagement are both declining.

Using Instagram-based campaigns, Postie has doubled average campaign engagement to around 42%, and tripled typical click-thru rates to 6%. Postie has also reduced the time to create a campaign from 5 hours to 8 minutes.

While there is some template flexibility, there are limited options, as Postie draws on the Instagram design aesthetic.

According to the founders, there are 15 million brands on MailChimp, and 8 million brands on Instagram. What makes Postie different is that it owns its e-mail campaign client, and brands get to control their own retail inventory management.

Despite some of the challenges in SaaS marketing solutions, Postie has seen success with some specific verticals such as hairdressing, but admits that is hasn’t quite got the right product-market fit. As a result, and as a means to scale growth, Postie is starting to train users, to become more of a self-serve solution.

Somewhat surprisingly, the judges voted Epic Catch the winning pitch – I guess it is hard to ignore the founder passion, and the decision to pivot away from being a “traditional” dating platform. Meanwhile, the people’s choice (based on Twitter votes) was for Postie, and by a large margin – I suspect because many start-up founders, entrepreneurs and SME owners in the audience would welcome such a service for their own business.

Next week: The fate of the over 50s….

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