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…

 

 

 

 

“I’m reframing, the situation….”

As a break from my consulting and business development work, I have been taking lessons on picture framing. My significant other is an artist, and she has commissioned me to mount and frame a number of her works for a forthcoming exhibition. Things got off to an interesting start, when I inadvertently framed the first print the “wrong” way round (see the image below). Because there wasn’t an obvious top or bottom, I didn’t realise that I hadn’t placed the image in the way she intended. But, luckily, this “error” created a fresh perspective, and I realised that I was simply doing what I do all with the time with my clients when I reframe the information, problems or situations they present.

"Eclipse" (© Margaret Manchee)

“Eclipse” (© Margaret Manchee)

Some recent examples of where I have helped my various clients to reframe a situation and make a breakthrough when they have become stuck or blocked in their own thinking include:

  • shifting from a “retail” sales model to a “wholesale” strategy that focuses on aggregators and distributors;
  • treating an employer as just one part of a mixed portfolio of clients, rather than thinking that the regular job was a barrier to acquiring more direct clients;
  • refining the sales process to avoid giving away too much proprietary information during the RFP process, but still demonstrating value by delivering the best solution in terms of quality and technical capabilities;
  • repositioning the business to leverage proprietary data and analytics to build long-term revenue streams via commercial relationships and partnerships, rather than competing for increasingly price-sensitive, commoditized and transactional work;
  • adopting a more client-centred approach when designing a new on-line product that hitherto had been viewed internally as simply a technology-driven service extension;
  • using a service-design model for developing and delivering a communication strategy that needs to engage multiple stakeholders who simply want to know “what’s in it for me?”

Another useful insight that my picture framing has given me is the use of complementary and contrasting mount boards and mouldings to emphasise certain colours, to bring out highlights, to add depth and perspective, or to the give the illusion of infinite space and/or possibilities. Again, all things which I bring to the discussions I have with my clients.

Next week: FinTech Melbourne’s latest pitch event

Challenging Monocultures via Crop Rotation

Agricultural scientists are advocating a return to crop rotation. They argue that if farmers diversify what they grow each season, they can achieve more sustainable environmental and economic outcomes. Whereas, industrial-scale, intensive and single crop farming depletes the soil, and requires the use of expensive (and potentially harmful) pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In short, monocultures are self-limiting and ultimately self-destructive.

Indoor salad garden, Itoya department store, Ginza, Japan (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

Indoor salad garden, Itoya department store, Ginza, Japan (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

The same concept applies to teams and organisations. If we only associate with people who look, talk, sound, think and act like us, we not only risk group-think, we also promote unconscious collective bias. While it might seem comfortable to only deal and interact with “people like us”, it creates unrealistic cognitive and cultural homogeneity.

I understand why we often talk about “finding our tribe”, but for me, I find connections and shared values among several tribes: partly because no single community can provide for all our needs; partly because at their worst, monocultures can result in in-breeding….

One antidote to organisational monocultures is to promote diversity (especially cognitive diversity), so you mix up the elements that make up a team or an entity. Another solution (a bit like crop rotation itself) is to alternate and rotate roles on a project, within a team or at the executive level. (Some corporate boards already practise this.)

I once had a marvellous CEO who liked to boast that he had worked in every department within the company, from editorial to production, from sales to marketing. Not only did he have a more complete view of the organisation, he also had a much better understanding of how to get each department to collaborate.

At the individual level, alternating roles within the organisation can help them to acquire new skills, develop fresh perspectives, build different networks, gain valuable experience, and avoid going stale.

If you are uncomfortable with the horticultural or biological analogies, then perhaps the work of Michael Simmons is more palatable. From his research, “simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success”.*

Another way of looking at this notion of “crop rotation” is through the lens of a corporate turnaround, or a company trying to move from start-up to scale-up.

In the former scenario, the owners, board and CEO recognise that they need to bring in different people, even if only on a short-term basis, to help them:

  • Review the status quo objectively
  • Identify new ideas and fresh thinking
  • Enhance in-house skills and resources
  • Apply a circuit-breaker to unblock the stalemate
  • Join the dots between different parts of the organisation, the market and the client base

In the latter situation, bringing in specialist advisers, or “pop-up boards”, can:

  • Provide an injection of strategic focus
  • Develop a dynamic business planning process
  • Ramp up capacity or capability in a very short space of time
  • Open up new networks or provide access to capital, resources and markets
  • Expand the team’s “bench strength” at critical times

As an independent consultant with a portfolio of interests, I provide an interim resource to my clients, fulfilling different roles depending on their specific requirements. I also serve on pop-up and advisory boards.  And because I am naturally curious, and like to immerse myself in different ideas, I am an “open networker”, meaning that I engage and connect with different people across the various groups of which I am a member. Where I increasingly add value is in joining the dots between otherwise unconnected or seemingly disparate elements.

Next week: Latest #FinTech Round-Up

* Thanks to Jessica Stillman at Inc.Com for bringing this article to my attention

#StartupVic launches new-look #pitch event

The team at Startup Victoria have been working hard over the summer: not only have they brought on a whole bunch of new commercial sponsors, but they have also launched a new format for their pitch nights. The idea is to invite startup founders to register their interest in pitching to a panel of judges. The contestants get the opportunity to compete in front of a live audience, for a chance to win face time with local VC’s, along with some other startup goodies.

global_446720634It’s not Shark Tank (there’s no hard cash on offer), nor is it an open mic night (there is a pre-screening and audition process) – but it does enable entrepreneurs to test their pitch, get some early exposure, and receive some great feedback and advice. It also doesn’t matter what stage the startups are at, although businesses that already have some market traction or have built and tested an MVP are probably in a better position to compete.

The launch night saw pitches from four startups, who are at various stages of development. In no particular order they were:

Ad Hoc Media with Passenger Pad, a digital Out Of Home advertising medium for taxis, using interactive touch screens inside the cab. To date, there has been a low take-up rate of this technology by the taxi industry in Australia, mainly due to regulatory issues, but the landscape is changing. With a background in taxi electronics and hardware, the founders are about to launch with 400 taxis in Melbourne, and plan to expand to other cities. There is no doubt that using a combination of passenger, location and fare data (duration, time of day, pick-up and drop-off points), the screens will be able to offer brands and their media buyers targeted audiences and in-depth customer analytics. The challenge will be to offer advertisers a competitive rate card, especially as this is essentially a new medium: it offers viewer choice like TV, can serve up targeted content like web or mobile, and is ideal for special offers linked to location and time of day.

Global Patient Portal offers a free platform for e-health records. Having already launched in Kolkata, India with 40,000 users signed up in 11 weeks, GPP is aiming at lower socio-economic communities and emerging markets. The initial business goal is simple: to support ownership of e-health records by users. Using a combination of bootstrapping and NGO funding, GPP has been able to hire a team of “scribes” in India who sit in on patient consultations and capture the medical notes, which can then be referred to at the next consultation. (Currently, a lot of time and resource is wasted because patient records are captured on paper, which is easily lost once the patient leaves the clinic.) Commercial revenue will come from selling anonymized patient data (subject to legal compliance, privacy obligations and data accuracy) for research and policy planning purposes. In choosing to launch in Kolkata, GPP was aware that in some more affluent urban communities in India, the favoured means of patient communication is WhatsApp?, so they would be less likely to adopt a separate platform. Also, in Australia, having talked to GPs about the various government attempts to establish the e-health system for patient records, I am aware of a reluctance within the medical profession to buy in to the scheme: first, there is no financial incentive for them to capture patient data via a common e-health platform; second, why would they want to share patient data with their competitors?

prevyou is aiming to disrupt a large part of the recruitment and job ad market, by directly connecting students with job opportunities at SMEs. The two-sided market effectively crowdsources available jobs from SMEs, who typically do not have access to the hiring market or to full-time and dedicated HR resources. The goal is to streamline the hiring process, and to offer a mix of standard and premium services (e.g., video resumes, applicant screening, skills matching, personality profiling etc.) and later to add validation of applicant credentials and qualifications. In return, the business will take a commission once a job has been offered and/or candidate hired. While the focus is initially on capturing the market for casual and part-time jobs, the judges urged them to look at the enterprise HR market (under an outsourcing or white label model?). Looking ahead, there is the opportunity include student internships (although, like the legal issues with Year 10 work experience, internships and placements present additional challenges such as achieving student learning outcomes and other employment law issues).

OurHome is an app to help families manage, share and track household chores, so that children learn to take some responsibility around the house, and they can get rewarded for their contribution. It emerged out of an earlier app, Fairshare, that was aimed at shared houses. Apparently, people living in shared houses don’t care enough about whose turn it is to clean the bathroom, or are happy with paper charts and lists on the fridge door. Describing itself as “an integral household tool with indirect network effects (i.e., like Google, not Facebook)”, OurHome also claims to be the #1 chores app. Using advanced algorithms, and other features such as customisation and Dropbox integration, the app also introduces an element of gamification through rewards (intrinsic and extrinsic). For busy families, it replaces those fridge notes and task charts (although, as the judges noted, there’s no calendar yet). Of particular interest is the very positive feedback the team have had from families who have children with ADD.

Despite a few technical glitches (concerning mics and audio quality), the first new-look pitch night was a success, and Global Patient Portal won the on-line audience vote. I was luck enough to meet with one of the teams a few days later. They thought it was a useful experience, but they hadn’t quite known what to expect, and they had anticipated more of a grilling from the judges and tougher questions from the audience.

Next week: More In The Moment