VCs battle it out in the reverse pitch night

As part of the Intersekt FinTech Festival, the organisers, FinTech Australia partnered with Startup VIC and NAB to host a “Reverse Pitch Night”.Turning the tables on the usual pitch night, four VCs were invited to pitch to a panel of startup founders.

Representatives from Rampersand, Reinventure, YBF Ventures and NAB Ventures battled it out on stage to demonstrate why founders should want to work with their firms. Since I have been involved in pitching or presenting to two of these funds, and I know people involved with all four firms, I will aggregate these reverse pitches, highlight the common themes and try and pick out some of the key points of differentiation and/or competitor advantage.

Following a similar startup pitch format (problem, solution, team, achievement and future growth), each VC stressed the importance of getting the “right money”, and identifying the ways in which VCs can help with growth and people as well as capital. So it’s as much about how VCs can add overall value, rather than just the size of the cheques they can write.

Despite the supposed differences, there were a lot of similarities. There was much talk about how the VC model is broken, yet I didn’t see much in the way of novel funding or structuring solutions. Also, with NAB and Westpac directly involved in two of the funds, and ANZ linked to a third, isn’t this compounding the problem – aren’t banks part of the problem?

While having access to a bank’s balance sheet may result in larger cheques, the average size of individual investments looks to fall within a similar range. And of the deals that were referenced, a number were co-invested by the same funds and/or the same international partners. So doesn’t that itself restrict or constrain the variety of deals that can be struck?

On the positive side, most of the VCs allocate a substantial proportion (50%) of their funds for follow-on rounds. Some funds actively help to incubate the companies they invest in, even though they may still only take a minority stake. So the focus is on building a portfolio, and helping to scale the right companies. In one case, the VC has only invested in five out of 1,000 opportunities, so clearly there is a challenge with the screening process, or we just aren’t seeing the right startups.

Or maybe the smart startups realise they don’t need/want VC money in the first place? Only one of the four VCs specifically mentioned working with a startup that has launched an ICO – surely the most disruptive development to hit traditional VC funding in a long while?

Finally, given this was a FinTech-related event, I didn’t see any evidence of how these firms are using better technology to manage VC funding.

Surprisingly, given the reaction from the audience, the panel judged Reinventure to be the winner.

Next week: FF18 pitch night – Melbourne semi-final

Gigster is coming to town….

Melbourne’s Work Club recently hosted Gigster Senior Project Engineer, Catherine Waggoner, in conversation with Venture-Store’s George Tomeski. Part of Startup Victoria‘s Fireside Chats, it likely herald’s Gigster opening an office in Melbourne, to service local clients and to tap into the local developer community.

gigsterFor the uninitiated, Gigster describes itself as the “world’s engineering firm”, that helps clients scope, design and build software, apps and digital products. Using an established product development methodology, and drawing on the resources of a 1,000 strong network of freelance designers, developers and product managers, Gigster is taking much of the pain out of the costing and requirements process for new projects, as well as building a growing client base of enterprise customers.

Not mincing her words, Ms Waggoner opened her remarks by commenting, “The software development industry model is f*#$ed”, because:

  • Requirements are poorly defined
  • Scoping is laborious
  • Development costs blow out, and
  • The whole process is not very transparent and not very accessible.

As a case in point, she mentioned the significant cost disparity between what some digital design agencies or app studios might quote for building an iOS product compared to what Gigster would estimate. By: breaking projects down into the distinct stages of scoping, design and pre- and post-MVP; only engaging the “best of the best talent”; using proprietary tools both to estimate fixed rate costs (rather than billable hours) and to define and source solutions; and re-using content from a library of “Community Software” resources, Gigster is able to deliver quality projects in shorter time, and on more modest budgets. For example, based on the large number of projects that they have fulfilled, their “Gigulator” estimating tool incorporates 5,000 possible features.

From an investor perspective, Mr Tomeski mentioned that the “VC inflexion point is getting much earlier” in tech startups. Meaning, with lower development costs (and potentially, reduced valuation multiples), investors are looking to get in sooner, with lower exposure, but still generate reasonable returns on exit, thanks to cheaper establishment costs.

Of course, Gigster sits at the heart of the gig economy, a huge issue when it comes to discussing the Future of Work. Interestingly, many of Gigster’s contractors are themselves startup founders, who freelance while building their own businesses. But such is the strength of the network, something like 35%40% of their contractors work full-time for Gigster – they like the flexibility combined with the continuity. Many of the contractors are referrals from existing team members, and a number of teams (known at Gigster as “houses” – presumably a frat thing?) have bonded to such an extent that they get allocated specific projects to work on together, even though they themselves may be working in different locations, based on previous projects.

Working for Gigster is probably a career choice for some contractors, because there is a variety of projects to work on, and the opportunity to be involved from start to finish. Which may be the opposite if working in a more corporate or enterprise environment, where work may be routine, repetitive and reasonably narrow in scope.

If Gigster does decide to set up shop in Melbourne (with encouragement from
InvestVictoria) they will be joining the likes of Slack, Stripe and Square, tempted by financial and other incentives. Such a move may challenge a number of local digital agencies, who will face even more competition for talent and customers.

According to Ms Waggoner, enterprise clients represent 40% of the business, and should comprise 60%-80% very soon. Not only that, but the average deal was initially $15k, now it’s more like $100k. However, enterprise clients have a much longer sales cycle. Plus, many innovation teams within enterprises are more like loosely formed groups of niche experts, so they need training on how to think like a startup. When you consider the greater dependency on legacy software by corporate clients (where it may make financial sense to retire some assets and build afresh, but the emotional disruption can be huge…), combined with the greater emphasis placed on after-sales service, Gigster has had to adapt its business model accordingly.

But Gigster must be doing something right. They’ve stopped outbound marketing and prospecting, relying on in-bound leads, repeat business and client referrals. There has been a shift from a sales focus to a customer focus, complete with a dedicated customer success team.

A number of audience questions related to getting VCs interested in your idea: What do they look for? How do they assess opportunities? How far should you go in building a product before you can attract funding? What’s the best way to validate an idea? etc. Much of this is about product/market fit, building the right team, getting customer traction, and executing on your strategy (aka Product Development 101.) As part of her closing comments, Ms Waggoner noted that unlike some of the high-profile VC funds (e.g, Y-Combinator, Techstars and 500 Startups) many VCs are becoming more sector specific, because they prefer to invest in what they know and understand.

Next week: Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy

Talking Innovation with Dr Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic

As a nice segue to last week’s blog on Techstars, I was fortunate to hear Dr Kate Cornick speak, just before the latest LaunchVic grants were announced. Organised by Innovation Bay, hosted by Deloitte, and facilitated by Ian Gardiner, the fireside chat plus Q&A was a useful insight on a key part of the Victorian Government’s innovation strategy.

launchviclogo innovationbay-feat-800x500At the outset, Dr Cornick stressed that LaunchVic is not an investment vehicle, and it doesn’t fund individual startups. Rather it seeks to support initiatives that help grow the local startup eco-system. (See also my blog on the consultation process that informed LaunchVic’s formation.)

Commenting on why Victoria (and Australia) has the potential to become a world-class centre for innovation, Dr Cornick pointed to a number of factors:

  • A collaborative culture
  • Positive economic conditions (comparatively speaking)
  • Governments (mostly) open to innovation
  • Strong research base

However, a few of the obstacles in our way include:

  • The notorious tall poppy syndrome, whereby Australians are suspicious, sceptical and even scathing of local success – except when it comes to sport and entertainment!
  • An inability to scale or capitalise on academic research
  • Insufficient entrepreneurial skills and experience to “get scrappy”
  • Lack of exposure for highly successful startups (c.$20m market cap) that can help attract more investment

From a startup perspective, Australia also has the wrong type of risk capital: institutional investors are more attuned to placing large bets on speculative mining assets, typically funded through public listings, and with very different financial profiles. (Or they prefer to invest in things they can see and touch – property, utilities, infrastructure, banks.)

So there is still a huge gap in investor education on startups and their requirements for early-stage funding. Part of LaunchVic’s remit is to market the local startup community, promote the success stories, and foster the right conditions to connect capital with ideas and innovation. After all, Australia does have one of the largest pool of pension fund assets in the world, and that money has to be put to work in creating economic growth opportunities.

As I have blogged before, we still see the “expensive boomerang”: Australian asset managers investing in Silicon Valley VCs, who then invest in Australian startups. Although when I raised a question about the investment preferences of our fund managers, Ian Gardiner did point out that a few enlightened institutions have invested in Australian VC funds such as SquarePeg Capital, H2 Ventures and Reinventure.

Dr Cornick also provided a reality check on startups, and added a note of caution to would-be founders:

First, it tends to be an over-glamourised sector. For one thing, founders under-estimate the relentless grind in making their business a success. And while eating pizza and pot noodles might sound like a lifestyle choice, it’s more of an economic necessity. Thus, it’s not for everyone (and not everyone should or needs to build a startup…), so aspiring entrepreneurs would be well-advised to do their homework.

Second, the success of any startup community will be reflected by industry demand. “Build it and they will come” is not a viable strategy. And I know from talking to those within the Victorian Government that unlike their inter-state counterparts, they are not willing (or able) to fund or invest in specific startups, nor in specific ventures such as a FinTech hub. Their position is that industry needs to put its money where its mouth is, and as and when that happens, the Government will look to see what support it can provide to foster and nurture such initiatives – particularly when it comes to facilitating between parties or filling in any gaps.

Third, don’t expect too many more unicorns, and don’t bank on coming up with simple but unique ideas that will conquer the world – meaning, new businesses like Facebook, Uber and Pinterest will be few and far between. Instead, drawing on her earlier comments about research, Dr Cornick predicts that it will be “back to the 90’s”, where innovation will come from “research-based, deep-tech solutions”.

If that’s the case, then the LaunchVic agenda (for the remaining 3 years of its current 4 year lifespan) will include:

  • Getting Victoria on the map, and positioning it as a global innovation hub
  • Raising the bar by educating startups and investors
  • Bringing more diversity to the startup sector, by providing greater access, striking better gender balance, and building a stronger entrepreneurial culture
  • Introducing a more transparent and interactive consultation process
  • Continuing to support the best accelerator programs that focus on startups
  • Making more frequent and smaller funding rounds, each with a specific focus

Asked what areas of innovation Victoria will be famous for, Dr Cornick’s number one pick was Healthcare, pointing to the strong research base coming out of both the Monash and Melbourne University medical precincts. Also in the running were Agriculture, and possibly Cyber-security. (Separately, there is a list of priority industries where the Government sees growth, employment and investment opportunities.)

If one of the biggest hurdles is commercializing research, Dr Cornick suggested that Universities have to re-think current IP practices, including ownership and licensing models, developing better career options in research, and doing more to re-calibrate the effort/reward equation in building research assets compared to building companies and commercial assets.

Finally, Dr Cornick offered an interesting metaphor to describe the current state of Victoria’s innovation potential:

“We have everything we need for baking a cake, but the missing ingredient is the baking powder to make it rise.”

Next week: Gigster is coming to town….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Lessons from the Techstars founders

Melbourne’s startup community is very fortunate to host some of the leading names in the startup world, who are more than willing to share their experiences and insights in front of packed, eager (even adulatory) audiences. The most recent visitors were Brad Feld and David Cohen, renowned entrepreneurs, and co-founders of the global Techstars accelerator and startup programmes. By the sounds of David’s recent blog, they really liked Melbourne (may have something to do with tennis…). But aside from talking about startups and the local eco-system, they had plenty to say about “startup life” as well.

techstarslogoDuring a fireside chat and Q&A facilitated by Leni Mayo, hosted at inspire9, with the support of Innovation in the Wild in conjunction with Startup Victoria, we learned a lot about what it takes to build a startup community, the role of government, limitations of current VC funding models, plus lots of personal tips on work/life balance etc.

First, based on the so-called “Boulder thesis”, there are four key elements to building a successful startup community:

  1. Entrepreneurs must act like leaders
  2. There has to be a long-term perspective (20 year horizon)
  3. The community has to be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate, and
  4. The leaders have to create activities for everyone to engage

There was also a discussion on why they chose Boulder as their base – which was slightly harder to explain. There was mention of the size of the population, the critical mass of wealthy investors and successful entrepreneurs, the liberal attitudes and culture, and the proximity to Denver (but at the same time, it’s not Denver?). Perhaps it’s something in the water?

Second, the community must rely on network effects, and not attempt to impose structure. That can be particularly hard when trying to co-ordinate scarce resources, attract potential investors, and win the ear of government. But I understand that a community should be capable of being a self-organising entity, as long as there is a clear and shared purpose?

Third, the role of government should be to get engaged (but stay out of the way?). The best thing our elected representatives and their bureaucrats can do is “shine a light on success”. This was particularly pertinent when our guests talked about some of the startups based in the same building where we were meeting: despite being very familiar with these companies in the USA, they had little idea that they were based in Melbourne.

Fourth, the community members have to “act what you want to be” (sort of, “be the change you want to see”?). I take this to be about being authentic, acting with integrity, giving back, and affording people due respect and recognition. Part of this is about having the right settings on culture, and taking responsibility for setting the tone of the community.

Fifth, given that some aspects of the current VC funding model are broken (fewer unicorns, fewer simple but big ideas emerging, too many short-term investment horizons, over-ambitious expectations on returns?), and if we want investors to behave in a certain way (especially if we need them to take a longer-term perspective), we have to educate them, engage them, bring them on the journey.

Finally, it was with remarkable candour that both guests spoke about achieving work/life balance, maintaining healthy relationships with their spouses, families and friends, and learning how/when to switch off. Mostly, they make specific time to take breaks, schedule date nights, compensate for the quality family time when they will be on the road, reflect on what is and isn’t working in all aspects of their lives, and continue to question/challenge themselves. The use of personal coaches and business mentors was also discussed, and it was refreshing to hear that such successful people acknowledge that sometimes they need help, and they certainly don’t have all the answers themselves.

Next week: Talking Innovation with Dr Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic