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….

The network(ing) effect

To paraphrase Metcalfe’s law, the value of a network is proportional to the number of connections, squared (n²). Which is why valuations on social media platforms like Facebook and networking services like LinkedIn are mainly calculated on the number of users and subscribers, based on the volume of transactions and a notional value of each member engagement that can be sold to advertisers and other third parties. But as a user, these networks are largely two-dimensional – you are either “connected” to someone (or not), or you “like” something (or not? – Facebook does not support “dislike”). Whereas, in the real world, our relationships and connections are more multi-faceted, and our preferences are more nuanced than binary.

I was recently reminded of the 1990’s dinner party game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and the notion that we are all connected to each other by no more than six degrees of separation. At a networking event last month, I was talking to a senior executive from a major bank, whom I had just met. Within 5 minutes, we realised we had a number of mutual connections. In fact, when I looked at LinkedIn, I discovered we had more than 20 “1st degree” relationships in common, most of them deep network connections I have maintained over many years. And although LinkedIn was helpful in confirming the “proximity” of our business and personal networks, it was only by meeting in person that these links would have been identified.

Similarly, at lunch last week, a business associate I’ve known for several years’ mentioned names of two people he had been working with this year, in completely separate contexts and in unrelated situations. Turns out that I knew both of them personally. Again, LinkedIn may have been able to “confirm” these relationships, but the “value” was in already being connected.

So, this may suggest that the true network value of Facebook and LinkedIn is overstated, because:

a) the number of potential network connections far outweighs the number of actual connections

b) the limitation of binary classification of relationships does not allow for the depth and complexity inherent in our networks of relationships

c) neither platform allows users to build contextual connections (apart from basic linear profile information).

In the end, the quality of relationships wins out over the number of connections. As Kevin Bacon so aptly put it:

If social media and networking platforms measure success only by the number of “likes” and “followers”, then they devalue the importance of building deeper connections and sustainable network relationships.

Next week: Token Issuance Programs – the new structured finance?

Update on the New #Conglomerates

My blog on the New Conglomerates has proven to be one of the most popular I have written. I’d been contemplating an update for a while, even before I heard this week’s announcement that Verizon is buying the bulk of Yahoo!. Talk about being prescient…. So, just over two years later, it feels very timely to return to the topic.

Image sourced from dc.wikia.com

Image sourced from dc.wikia.com

Of the so-called FANG tech stocks, when I was writing back in May 2014, Facebook had recently acquired WhatsApp and Oculus VR. However, apart from merging Beats Music into its own music service, Apple has not made any big name deals, but has made a number of strategic tech acquisitions. Meanwhile, Amazon has attempted to consolidate its investment in delivery company, Colis Privé, but got knocked back by the French competition regulators. Netflix finally launched in Australia in March 2015, and within 9 months had 2.7 million customers, a growth rate of 30% per month. Finally, Google has since renamed itself Alphabet, and purchased AI business Deep Mind.

Over the same period, Microsoft appears to have reinvigorated its strategy: back in May 2014, Microsoft had just completed its acquisition of Nokia. Since then, Microsoft has announced it is buying LinkedIn (following the latter’s purchase of Lynda.com in 2015), but has also shut down Yammer, which it had only bought in 2012. The acquisition of LinkedIn has been framed as a way to embed corporate, business and professional customers for its desktop and cloud-based productivity tools (and maybe give a boost to its hybrid tablet/laptop PCs). On the other hand, Microsoft has a terrible track record with content-based products and services, as evidenced by the Encarta fiasco, and the fact that Bing is an also-ran search engine. I think the jury is still out on what this transaction will really mean for LinkedIn’s paying customers.

So, what are the big tech themes, and where are the New Conglomerates competing with each other?

First, despite being the “next big thing”, VR/AR is still some way off being fully mainstream (although Pokémon GO may change that….). Apple and Google will continue to go head-to-head in this space.

Second, content streaming is not yet the new “rivers of gold” for publishing (and the sale of Yahoo! might confirm that there’s still gold in those advertising hills….). But music streaming (Apple, Spotify, Amazon and Google – plus niche services such as Bandcamp and Mixcloud) is gaining traction, and Amazon is building more content for SVOD (to compete with Netflix, Apple and Google). But quality public broadcasters such as BBC, ABC and NPR are making great strides into audio streaming (via native apps and platforms like TuneIn) and podcasting. One issue that remains is the fact that digital downloads and streaming still suffer from geo-blocking, and erratic pricing models.

Third, Amazon continues to build out its on-line retail empire, even launching private label groceries. Amazon will also put more of a squeeze on eBay, which does not offer fulfillment, distribution or logistics and is a less attractive platform for local used-goods sellers compared to say, Gumtree.

Fourth, Amazon is making a play for the Internet of Things (which, for this discussion, includes drones), but both Apple and Google, via their hardware devices, OS capabilities and cloud services, will doubtless give Amazon a run for its money. Also, watch for how Blockchain will impact this sector.

Finally, payments, AI, robotics, analytics and location-based services all continue to bubble along – driven by, for example, crypto-currencies, medtech, fintech, big data and sentiment-based predictive tools.

Next week: Another #pitch night in Melbourne…

 

 

 

 

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