Recent Notes from Europe

Over the past few weeks I have been travelling in Europe – Switzerland, Croatia and Italy. It was a great trip, and prompted a few observations along the way. Here are some key recollections.

First, after making a number of trips by train, bus and boat, it reinforced the sense that in Europe, public transport is seen as an essential service and not just a means of last resort (you know, that notion we sometimes experience elsewhere that suggests “only losers take the bus”). As a result, public transport is generally clean, safe, efficient, punctual and largely affordable. One counterpoint is that as a temporary visitor, accessing and paying for tickets such as multi-day / multi-system travel passes is not always straightforward.

Second, despite the close proximity of the three countries I visited, I had to use different fiat currencies in each location – and in the case of Croatia, although it is a member of the EU, the Euro is not always accepted and it maintains a separate currency (the Kuna) that is not easy to exchange outside the country. And when you get cash out of an ATM, it’s mostly in denominations of HRK200 – but local shops hate having to change large notes. Plus, there are still instances where plastic money is not accepted.

Third, visiting the extensive national art collections in Zurich (the Kunsthaus) and Milan (the Museo Del Novecento) was a great opportunity to see works by significant twentieth century artists beyond the Dadaists and Futurists respectively – including many works that rarely travel abroad.

Fourth, for all my reservations about organised religion, you can’t deny that a key legacy of European Christianity is church architecture, and the associated patronage of the arts. The Duomo in Milan even affords visitors the opportunity to walk along the roof terraces to get closer to the decorative flying buttresses and mini-spires topped with hundreds of statues.

Finally, along with all the excellent food I was lucky enough to order in restaurants, the trip was a great opportunity to sample local and regional wines, especially while in Switzerland and Croatia. We just don’t see that much of these in Australia, for obvious reasons. Plus, the global phenomenon of craft beer is still alive and well, all adding to the gastronomic experience.

Next week: Recent Notes from Hong Kong

Pitch X’s Winter Solstice

The latest Pitch X event, organised by Academy Xi and hosted by YBF Ventures, was held a few days before the (Southern hemisphere) mid-winter – there may not have been any mulled wine, but there was still a warm atmosphere on a cold and wet Melbourne evening. The judging panel was drawn from YBF, Melbourne Angels, Linfox and Clearpoint Ventures.

The usual format applied: 11 startups were each given 90 seconds to pitch, followed by a 90 second Q&A with the judges. The top three were then brought back for a 5-minute pitch, and 4 minutes of Q&A.

The pitches, in order of presentation were (links in the names where available):

Startup 101

A self-styled online startup school, targeting university students and recent graduates. The core premise is that entrepreneurship is not being taught to undergraduates. The judges asked about the MVP, which was not clear, nor was there a breakeven forecast based on the number of students. The founder is offering a freemium model, based on memberships and services. Looking $500k for software development and marketing in China (a key demographic for this business).

Studio Ninja

This is a cloud and mobile PaaS solution for professional photographers. I first covered Studio Ninja in late 2016, when they pitched at a StartupVic event – and it’s great to see that they have managed to bootstrap themselves this far.

Professional photography is competitive, but margins are low. Studio Ninja offers an end-to-end platform for scheduling, contracts, payments etc. They have now integrated with Xero, QuickBoooks, Google, PayPal and Stripe, and have built a community via their chat app, Facebook group and Instagram account. At a basic $29.95 per month, they now have 4,000 paying subscribers, mainly in Australia, UK and US. but need to reinvest in product development, scaling and building further efficiencies. Users are offered a 30-day free trial, with an average 25% conversion rate, thanks to the hook of discounts for early sign-ups, plus a referral program.

RoamingDuck

Calling itself the “Uber of travel”, RoamingDuck offers travelers access to curated itineraries, based on their personal preferences. Using freelance resources (along the lines of Upwork and Airtaskr), the service uses a travel planning dashboard on which the customer and the curator can collaborate. With a quick turnaround, RoamingDuck can help customers build and review an itinerary within 12 hours. With the ability to consolidate and share, the content is easily accessible to users, who can plan anything – even supporting “self-plan” users with a search function.

Freelance curators come from the ranks of existing travel bloggers and services like Travelo, and are subject to a vetting process. There is also an escrow system, so freelances only get paid when the customer is satisfied. Normal travel agents are quite restricted on what they can access or offer, and services like Skyscanner are great for searching individual fares – RoamingDuck is solving the planning issue, and building the itinerary. Asked whether RoamingDuck can support actual bookings, the founder will likely implement this via APIs.

Wastr

According to the founder, households waste about 20% of the food they buy. Wastr is an AI-powered app that is designed to help consumers use what they purchase, rather than letting to go to waste. The solution allows subscribers to scan their grocery receipts, and in return they will receive recipes, notifications on expiry dates, plus other reminders. The app is offered under a freemium model, with a paid service starting at $2 per month.

VRWalker

Described as “VR for your foot” (or the “mouse” for VR), this is a motorised shoe device that allows wearers to experience”walking” within VR applications, without actually moving.
It’s an idea that has been around for a while, but the founder claims to have filed key patents. The shoes work on the concept of intuitive locomotion (linked to the dantian, or our centre of gravity), and are intended to be much cheaper and much more convenient than existing treadmill-based solutions. The founder hopes to have a working prototype by the end of this year. Likely customers will come from areas like construction, engineering and gaming. The judges asked about how insurance would be handled, and the device could be bundled with existing VR headset devices.

The Nurture Project

The Nurture Project is designed to teach life skills to deal with anxiety issues, which according to the founder, affect 30% of the population. Unlike other solutions, this treats the causes as well as the symptoms, using a well-being model built on 5 core pillars, and delivered via a 12-week online program. It is currently aimed at women in their 30s and 40s.

Natural MedTech

Designed to boost the immune, hormone and nervous system naturally, this has come out of a CSIRO project, with a scientific basis that has been peer-reviewed.

Magicast

This is a decentralised online podcast recording and editing service. Existing podcast software is either too complex, or too expensive. Instead, Magicast uses web-based programme development, publication and distribution, offering a two-sided marketplace for content, sound effects, music etc. The judges asked about international competitors, given that podcasting is very much a cottage industry, with relatively few barriers to entry.

Turtle

Something akin to an Uber courier service, Turtle enables customers to obtain goods from overseas that are not available where they live. Targeting expat and diaspora populations, the platform has an escrow function to provide a level of trust. It was not clear who would be responsible for tax, customs and quarantine issues.

Young Shaman Foundation

Having run a number of leadership development retreats on country for women in indigenous communities, the founder is now seeking funding to develop and extend the program she currently offers.

SecureStack

Helping companies to secure the cloud, with a focus on cyber security, the founder pointed out that key problems are caused by “cloud sprawl” – the uncontrolled proliferation of content, services and applications hosted and running on cloud-based servers. Using a proprietary cloud infrastructure security design, the startup has already secured two clients and $100k in revenues. Now looking to raise $2m, for an 18-month runway, in order to gain 100 clients. The solution is agnostic as to which cloud service clients use. Traditional cloud management and compliance is saturated, whereas SecureStack’s value proposition is in the security layers.

After much deliberation, the winners were:

1. StudioNinja
2. RoamingDuck
3. VR Walker

Next week: The Metaphorical Glass Jaw

Tales from Tasmania

There’s a slightly misleading advertisement for Tasmania that greets arrivals at Melbourne’s international airport. “You got off one stop too soon” is the message. But there are no scheduled international flights to or from Tasmania, so overseas visitors must travel via the Australian mainland. Just one of many idiosyncrasies that occurred to me on a recent visit to the island state.

On this trip, I experienced the snowfalls on Kunanyi (Mount Wellington), sampled the local produce at the Farm Gate Market (a popular destination, no doubt helped by TV programmes such as “Gourmet Farmer”), enjoyed tasting the wine at Moorilla, the cheese and beer on Bruny Island, and the beer at the Cascade Brewery.

I also spent a very wet day in Richmond – but some attractions in this historic village are at risk of pricing themselves out of the market, especially outside the summer season. And despite being another popular destination, the shops and galleries along Hobart’s Salamanca Place seemed tired and lacklustre, especially when compared to what else Tasmania has to offer.

In particular – MONA. Its opening in 2011 has added to Tasmania’s growth in tourism, and no trip to Hobart would be complete without a visit. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but what David Walsh has managed to achieve here is nothing short of incredible. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is…. The current exhibition, ZERO, is a powerful survey of this post-war movement in German art.

Notwithstanding the cutting edge culture represented by MONA, you can’t help feeling that Tasmania represents a microcosm of the Australian psyche, and in particular the tension between traditional, conservative beliefs, and modern, progressive thinking. Tasmania was the last state to decriminalise male homosexuality (following Federal intervention), and abortion was only decriminalised as recently as 2013. The fact that access to publicly funded abortion is extremely limited may or may not be linked to the state’s high rate of teenage pregnancy – but it is certainly the background to a high-profile unfair dismissal case.

Tasmania has been the setting for other significant social and political battles (and ecological victories), especially those involving logging and damming. The state’s natural beauty and reputation for a clean environment makes it popular with overseas visitors (and probably some prospective survivalists in the wake of New Zealand’s new property ownership laws). However, the growth of short-term holiday lettings is seen as contributing to a local housing crisis.  And the significant contribution that tourism makes to the local economy cannot hide the fact that on the basis of total and per capita GSP, Tasmania’s economy looks comparatively insipid.

Next week: Sakamoto – Coda and Muzak

Modern travel is not quite rubbish, but….

OK, this might be a first world problem – but where has the glamour gone in modern travel? I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel for work – however, so much of the pleasure has gone out of the experience.

“They promised us cocktail bars…” (image sourced from Australian Business Traveller)

Of course, safety is paramount, and increased surveillance, screening and security checks are to be expected, if not actually welcomed. So we are all accustomed to allowing extra pre-boarding time to clear each stage of the process. It also makes sense, I suppose, that each airport has slightly different requirements – but the need for variety should not be an excuse for inefficient systems, poor directions from airport staff and a lack of clarity on what is expected of passengers.

There’s also the issue of how much actual time to leave to clear pre-boarding – up to two hours or more for some international flights. Then there’s the challenge of being in transit – in recent months, I have found myself on more than one occasion having to run from one terminal to another, even though the airline has assured me there was plenty of time between connecting flights. The implication being, passengers will have to endure even longer stopovers…

It also seems that about 40-45% of flights I have taken over the past couple of years have not departed on time. Sure, things like weather conditions can cause schedules to be impacted, but how many times have you heard the mealy-mouthed announcement: “we apologise for the delayed departure of this flight – this was due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft.” And the reason the incoming flight was late? Never a mention.

Often, the pilot is able to make up for lost time – which makes you wonder how much “fat” is built into airline schedules? And then so many times the arrival gate is not available, or the air-bridge is not in place, or the passenger steps are not ready…

And as for waiting to collect your luggage off the belt, the usual delay is just another factor contributing to customer frustration. No wonder passengers try to take as much cabin baggage with them as possible – which only adds to the boarding and disembarkation time.

I could look at some of the positives, in things like catering and on-board entertainment. Overall, airline food has become rather more acceptable than my experiences of charter flights in the 70s and 80s; and passenger preferences and dietary requirements are accommodated – that is, where food is available and included in the price of a standard ticket. But at times I’m reminded of the story that the only reason airlines offer meals is to keep passengers in their seats during the flight.

Which is probably why in-flight movies were introduced….  an area where airlines have managed to lift their game, in terms of the variety of content, quality of devices, and personalised, on-demand service.

But have you noticed the trend for travelogues masquerading as in-flight safety videos? Or the comedy routines? Or the big-name stars? No doubt an attempt to gain passenger attention, and get them off their mobile devices for a few minutes. How realistic are these safety films? Rarely are they made to show the exact cabin layout or filmed from the actual passenger perspective. (The films reveal far more generous leg room than most passengers experience.) If you don’t think these pre-take-off instructions are that important (or if you believe that most passengers must already know what to do), consider this: during a recent fatal air accident, mobile phone footage showed so many passengers wearing their oxygen masks incorrectly – despite the number of times they must have sat through the safety screening.

I’ve often thought that before long, with all the safety and other factors, the only way we will be able to travel by air is either naked, or comatose.

Next week: All that jazz!