“There’s a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?”

As a follow up to last week’s post on business strategy, this week’s theme is product development – in particular, the perennial debate over “product-market fit” that start-up businesses and incumbents both struggle with.

Launch it and they will drink it….. (image sourced from Adelaide Remember When via Facebook)

The link between business strategy and product development is two-fold: first, the business strategy defines what markets you are in (industry sectors, customer segments, geographic locations etc.), and therefore what products and services you offer; second, to engage target customers, you need to provide them with the solutions they want and are willing to pay for.

The “product-market fit” is a core challenge that many start-ups struggle to solve or articulate. A great product concept is worth nothing unless there are customers who want it, in the way that you intend to offer it, and which aligns with your go-to-market strategy.

I appreciate that there is an element of chicken and egg involved in product development – unless you can show customers an actual product it can be difficult to engage them; and unless you can engage them, how can they tell you what they want (assuming they already know the answer to that question)? How often do customers really say, “I didn’t know I needed that until I saw it”? (Mind you, a quick scan across various crowd-funding platforms, or TV shopping channels, can reveal thousands of amazing products you didn’t know you couldn’t live without!) Of course, if your product development team can successfully anticipate unmet or unforeseen needs, then they should be on to a winner every time! In fact, being ahead of the curve, and understanding or even predicting the market direction is a key aspect of business strategy and product development for medium and long-term planning and forecasting.

Then there is the “build it and they will come” strategy. A bold move in most cases, as it involves upfront deployment of capital and resources before a single customer walks through the door. The image above is the only visual record I can find of a soft drink marketed in South Australia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. And you read the label correctly – a chocolate flavoured carbonated beverage (not a chocolate milk or soy concoction). It was introduced when the local manufacturer faced strong competition from international soft drink brands. No doubt it was designed to “corner the market” in a hitherto under-served category and to diversify against the competitor strongholds over other product lines. Likewise, is was launched on the assumption that people like fizzy drinks and people like chocolate, so hey presto, we have a winning combination! It was short-lived, of course, but ironically this was also around the time that soft drink company Schweppes merged with confectionery business Cadbury, and commentators joked that they would launch a chocolate soda, or a fizzy bar of chocolate….

With data analysis and market research, it may be possible to predict likely successes, based on past experience (sales history), customer feedback (solicited and unsolicited) and market scans (what are the social, business and technology trends). But obviously, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In my early days as a product manager in publishing, we had monthly commissioning committees where we each presented our proposals for front list titles. Financial forecasts for the new products were largely based on sales of relevant back catalogue, and customer surveys. As product managers, we got very good at how to “read” the data, and presenting the facts that best suited our proposals. In fact, the Chairman used to say we were almost too convincing, that it became difficult to second guess our predictions. With limited production capacity, it nevertheless became imperative to prioritise resources and even reject some titles, however “convincing” they seemed.

Then there is the need to have a constant pipeline of new products, to refresh the range, retire under-performing products, and to respond to changing market conditions and tastes. In the heyday of the popular music industry from the 1960s to the late 1990s, the major record labels reckoned they needed to release 20 new song titles for every hit recording. And of course, being able to identify those 20 releases in the first place was a work of art in itself. For many software companies, the pipeline is now based on scheduled releases and regular updates to existing products, including additional features and new enhancements (particularly subscription services).

An important role of product managers is knowing when to retire an existing service, especially in the face of declining or flat sales. Usually, this involves migrating existing customers to a new or improved platform, with the expectation of generating new revenue and/or improving margins. But convincing your colleagues to give up an established product (and potentially upset current customers) can sometimes be challenging, leading to reluctance, uncertainty and indecision. In a previous role, I was tasked with retiring a long-established product, and move the existing clients to a better (but more expensive) platform. Despite the naysayers, our team managed to retire the legacy product (resulting in substantial cost savings), and although some clients chose not to migrate, the overall revenue (and margin) increased.

Finally, reduced costs of technology and the abundance of data analytics means it should be easier to market test new prototypes, running proofs-of-concept or A/B testing different business models. But what that can mean for some start-ups is that they end up trying to replicate a winning formula, simply in order to capture market share (and therefore raise capital), and in pursuit of customers, they sacrifice revenue and profit.

Next week: Who checks the fact-checkers?

 

 

 

Brexit Blues

Reading the latest coverage of the Brexit farce combined with the inter-related Conservative leadership contest, I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s description of fox hunting:

“The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”

Whichever candidate wins the Tory leadership race and, as a consequence, becomes the next UK Prime Minister, they will inevitably fail to deliver a satisfactory Brexit solution, simply because there is no consensus position.

But the underlying cause for this impasse is a series of flawed processes:

First, the promise made by previous Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on EU membership was flawed, if not highly disingenuous – because from the start, there were no terms of reference. Cameron chose to make it part of his manifesto pledge ahead of the 2015 general election campaign. Even at the time it felt like a desperate ploy to appease the mainly right-wing and Eurosceptic faction of the Conservative party. Despite being generally in favour of the UK remaining within the EU (but with “looser ties”), Cameron probably never expected that he would have to deliver on his referendum promise let alone lead the Brexit negotiations. Behind in the polls, the Tories were expected to lose the election. Instead, they won, but with a much reduced majority – which should have been the first warning sign that all was not going to be plain sailing with Cameron’s EU referendum pledge.

Second, the referendum question put to the electorate in 2016 was itself flawed. Cameron had originally talked about renegotiating the UK’s terms of EU membership, much like Margaret Thatcher had done with some considerable success in the 1980s. There was certainly no mention at all in Cameron’s January 2013 speech of a “No-deal Brexit”. However, the referendum question put to the voters was a stark, binary choice between “Remain” or “Leave”. As some have argued, the design of the referendum should have been enough to render it invalid: both because the voters were not given enough reliable data upon which to make an informed decision; and because there was no explanation or guidance as to what type of “Leave” (or “Remain”) outcome the government and Parliament would be obliged or expected to negotiate and implement. Simply put, the people did not and could not know what they were actually voting for (or against). I am not suggesting that the voters were ignorant, rather they were largely ill- or under-informed (although some would argue they were actually misinformed).

Third, the respective Leave and Remain campaigns in the 2016 referendum were both equally flawed. The Leave campaign was totally silent on their proposed terms of withdrawal (I certainly don’t recall the terms “Hard Brexit” or “No-deal Brexit” being used), and their “policy” was predicated on the magic number of “£350m a week“. And the Remain campaign failed to galvanize bipartisan support, and was totally hindered by the Labour leadership’s equivocation and ambivalence towards the EU (which has only deepened as Jeremy Corbyn refuses to confirm what his policy actually is).

Finally, the Parliamentary process to implement Brexit was flawed from the start. Cameron jumped ship and ending up passing the poisoned chalice to Theresa May. The latter had supported Remain, but now had to lead the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. However, rather than trying to build consensus and broker a truly bipartisan solution (this is not, after all, a simple, one-dimensional party political issue), May proved to be a stubborn, inflexible and thick-skinned operator. Now, there are threats to prorogue Parliament in the event that MPs vote against a No-Deal or Hard Brexit, if a negotiated agreement cannot be achieved by the October 31 deadline. May’s negotiation tactics have only resulted in deeply entrenched and highly polarised positions, while she ended up painting herself into a corner. Good luck to her successor, because if nothing else, Brexit is casting division and national malaise across the UK.

Next week: Pitch X’s Winter Solstice

 

Spaceship launches the future of superannuation

Backed by some stellar names in the tech and startup worlds, Spaceship describes itself as a superannuation fund designed to “invest where the world is going, not where it’s been”. Squarely aimed at 18-35 year-olds (and savvy people in their 40s and 50s….), it is the brainchild of Paul Bennetts (a Partner at AirTree Ventures), Andrew Sellen (ex-Marketing Manager at Australian Ethical Investments) and two tech co-founders, Dave Kuhn and Kaushik Sen. Their central thesis is that global tech stocks are the future, and that these assets should form a greater part of a fully diversified portfolio, with a 10-year plus investment horizon.

spaceship-logo-03I first connected with Paul a couple of years ago, when I was working with a legal technology startup that was an early graduate of the Melbourne Accelerator Program. He was interested in what we were doing at Ebla, but the company was at too early a stage for him to invest in. But I’ve kept an eye on what Paul has been doing since, and have followed the Spaceship story quite closely. We last caught up very briefly during a recent roadshow event in Melbourne, as part of the Spaceship beta launch.

Any new superannuation brand, especially if it is neither an industry fund nor a retail fund backed by a major financial institution, is going to struggle to attract members: the industry and public sector funds have the benefit of workplace incumbency (sometimes backed by industrial awards), and the big retail funds have extensive distribution channels via advisor platforms, dealer groups and financial planners. As for corporate superannuation funds, in my experience, many of these employer-run funds are often a re-badged or customised version of an existing retail fund, or a highly outsourced business that retains the company name for brand recognition among employees.

Spaceship is challenging the market by using technology (and very targeted marketing) to streamline the recruitment and on-boarding process. As evidence of its marketing success, Spaceship claims to have built a waiting list of 12,000 prospective members in just 30 days, mostly through social media and word-of-mouth. And as evidence of its success in attracting “smart” money, witness some of the big names who have backed the venture as investors, or joined as members themselves.*

Not surprisingly, Spaceship is also developing some interesting content marketing and social media tactics to drive member engagement. This includes thought leadership on portfolio diversification, understanding investment horizons, accessing investments in early-stage tech companies, and investing in tech brands that its members love and use.

But while much of the media coverage for Spaceship has been positive, it has already drawn detractors (almost in the same breath…). Some of the latter reckon that it won’t achieve necessary scale to be sustainable (in light of APRA moves to drive consolidation among smaller funds), it will be highly concentrated in its exposure to tech stocks (which have a tendency to be more volatile), and without face-to-face contact with members, it will be harder to drive customer engagement.

Given that, following some delays, Spaceship does not launch to the general public until the end of this month (it is still running a waitlist), it’s probably a bit churlish to say it is doomed to failure before it has even really begun. Equally, having worked in financial market research myself, I have met with a number of industry, public sector, retail and corporate superannuation funds who cite member engagement and retention as one of their biggest challenges. The main issue is this: how do you interest an 18-year old in something from which they won’t derive any benefit for at least 40 years?  And once you have got their attention, how do you sustain that interest over the lifetime of their membership and into retirement?

Now technology is having a larger part to play in disrupting the superannuation industry, and changing the way members interact with their fund. As the COO of a major industry fund said recently at a FinTech Victoria event, “consolidating your super balances is only three clicks away” (to which Spaceship, replied “it’s now only one click!”). But it’s not enough to have a smart phone app to check your balances, switch investment options or make voluntary contributions. Members are looking for other services, such as financial education, estate planning, insurance, loans and mortgages, and tailored advice. Plus, they expect much more streamlined processes and pro-active member support.

I suspect that a key factor that will likely contribute to Spaceship’s potential success is the growth of the gig economy:

First, with more people working as freelancers, contractors or becoming self-employed, they will have no ties to a fixed workplace or a single employer – so they will be drawn to a fund product that appeals to their independence and flexibility.

Second, much of the gig economy lies in the tech and startup sectors, so again, prospective members might well be looking for a fund that invests in what they are interested and involved in themselves.

Third, if we are all expected to live and work longer, and if we are going to have to rely more on our own accumulated retirement assets, a fund that fully aligns with this long-term investment philosophy is hopefully going to be better placed to help us meet our financial goals.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that the Australian superannuation industry is both large ($2.1tn in assets as at September 2016, and the 3rd largest pool of pension funds in the world), and highly regulated (for very good reason). Equally, it has been slow to adapt to a changing economy and to different market factors, and is increasingly dominated by just a few big funds. Among some large industry funds, there is almost a cosy, symbiotic relationship between their members (who work in say, construction, energy, mining) and some of the assets the funds invest in (infrastructure, buildings, utilities). (But that may prove to be Spaceship’s USP – representing members who work in the tech sector?)

Although the Australian superannuation and managed funds sectors have established strong capabilities in administration, trustee, custody and asset management services, many of these back-office operations run on legacy IT systems which are potentially ripe for disruption. Plus, while government initiatives look for ways to attract more offshore institutions to place their assets with Australian fund managers, under various financial passport arrangements Australian institutions can invest in offshore funds domiciled and managed in key investment centres such as Luxembourg and Singapore.

Finally, new entrants to the superannuation industry are less likely to be reliant on incumbent and legacy service providers, and more able to take advantage of emerging technologies such as blockchain solutions (distributed ledger platforms), and fully integrated end-to-end CX (mobile apps and tools).

* Declaration of interest and disclaimer: I was successful in signing up to Spaceship in beta/waitlist, and have allocated a small portion of my own super to the fund. I do not have any other commercial connection with Spaceship or its founders. I have not been paid to write this article, nor should it be construed or interpreted as financial advice – it has been provided for general information only. BE SURE TO SEEK YOUR OWN INDEPENDENT FINANCIAL ADVICE BEFORE MAKING ANY FINANCIAL INVESTMENT.

Next week: Gaming/VR/AR pitch night at Startup Victoria

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