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

 

Form over content – when the technology is the product?

This week, I had my first experience of 3D cinema, with the rather amazing “Gravity”.

Image source: gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

Image source: gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

I wouldn’t say I’m an instant convert to the 3D format, but I certainly agree with many of the critics – that “Gravity” is not only a film that warrants 3D, it is possibly the best space movie since “2001: A Space Odyssey”. And while the CGI and 3D technologies combine effectively to take a relatively simple story and turn it into an epic, it is not just a case of “form over content” – there is real substance in this film, a great example of using the technology to enhance the audience experience, rather than hoping it can paper over the cracks of clumsy narrative and lame dialogue.

My hesitation in embracing the 3D experience stems from a suspicion that the format dictates the story, that the technology is the product. A few days before watching “Gravity”, I saw posters advertising the new Hobbit movie, “The Desolation of Smaug”. Not content with the “standard” 3D version, there is also a new format “3D HFR” (High Frame Rate, whatever that means). Oh, and for traditionalists there is also “normal” 2D.

Personally, I could never get into the whole Lord of the Rings saga – even as a child, Tolkien’s stories left me cold. So I have not seen any of the films, but when I saw a 3D preview for “Smaug”, my worst suspicions were confirmed: this really is a case of form over content, which is ironic given the legacy of the source material. To me, the 3D images looked like the pages of a children’s pop-up book, because the depth of vision is so poor that the actors look like animated cardboard cutouts badly superimposed on CGI landscapes.

Many contemporary productions, full of CGI and “enhanced” for 3D make Walt Disney’s Penguin Dance in “Mary Poppins” look far more naturalistic in comparison. And what about “Who framed Roger Rabbit?” as the pinnacle of live action meets cartoon imagery – surely Jessica Rabbit has more vitality than all the characters in “Avatar” put together?

Technology is a wonderful thing – used creatively and effectively it can deliver fantastic results, making great content even better. But used slavishly, and as an end in itself, it cannot compensate for poor material, and at best becomes a sterile technical exercise.

Outside of a small circle of friends, there’s only connections…

"A Dance to the Music of Time" is an epic tale of friendships and relationships

How many true friends can a person really have? Friends you would go to the cinema with, and who would walk out with you if you didn’t like the film? Friends whom you would invite to stay at your home for the holidays? Friends who would tell you when you had made a fool of yourself, but not hold it against you? Friends from whom you would borrow money or to whom you would lend money?

Social networking makes it all too easy to connect with people we’ve barely or never met. Instead of investing our time and effort in cultivating meaningful and lasting friendships, social media encourages us to “collect” as many virtual friends as possible, and we spend increasing amounts of time in vicarious “sharing” – but how many of these “connections” can we actually count on as our friends?

The question occurred to me as I read the First Movement of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, a literary tour de force situated somewhere between Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” and Evelyn Waugh’s sequence of novels from “Decline and Fall” to the “Sword of Honour” trilogy.

At the heart of Powell’s 12-novel saga is a group of four friends – Jenkins, the narrator, and his three contemporaries from school – Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool. As we follow their adventures over a 50-year period, we discover the interweaving relationships and often tangential connections that run through their lives. We also witness the subtle change in relationships between the main characters – especially the ebb and flow of their individual circumstances as they fall out of favour and lose contact with one another for years at a time. The reflective and considered format of the novel allows us to see that as in real life, there are periods when the friends positively dislike each other and are frequently disappointed by their personal shortcomings and irritated by their annoying habits.

Powell’s epic work of fiction reminds us that even among our strongest and most enduring friendships, there can be episodes of absolute dislike, as well as times of empathy, loyalty and support; and of course, being only human, our opinions and views of our friends can change over time. Powell’s perspective also confirms that most of the people we encounter in social and professional situations are mere acquaintances. We must surely recognize that our personal friendships are each valued on their own merits, and we enjoy different friendships for different reasons – we do not simply have a homogenous group of “connections” that are all exactly the same. There is nothing wrong with being part of well-connected and inter-related networks, but we must guard against reducing all these relationships to a single dimension.

Unfortunately, most social networking platforms operate on a binary structure where we are forced to make simplistic choices of either “friend” or “unfriend”, “like” or “unlike”, “follow” or “unfollow”. And there is something rather materialistic and incredibly narcissistic in the way that the number of “likes”, “follows” and “shares” we collect on-line is not only representative of our popularity, but it is somehow an indication of how fabulous a friend we really are.

Unlike the real world, these on-line platforms do not recognize the subtle dynamics of our true friendships, nor do they acknowledge that we value each of our friendships for the different experiences that we draw from them. We also have different friends with whom we enjoy doing different things, and we probably don’t introduce all our friends to one another (and certainly not at the same time).

Of course, younger generations who have grown up with social media may have no qualms about the reductionist nature of social networking, and the inherent opportunity it affords them to “connect” with as many different people as they can. But for someone like myself who is quite happy to count fewer than a score of people as my true friends, I relish the quality of my friendships, not the quantity.

Apologies to Phil Ochs for (mis-)appropriating his song title.

In Praise Of Analogue…

Let me start by saying that I am not a technophobe, and I certainly do not consider myself a Luddite. But in this digital age, I do have a certain fondness for all things analogue.

Cassette Culture is alive and well in the analogue world...

Cassette Culture is alive and well in the analogue world…

There are growing analogue trends in:

  • photographyLomography and Polaroid
  • music – vinyl and cassette
  • publishing – zines and artists’ books
  • filmSuper 8
  • graphics – letterpress
  • arts & craftsEtsy and Craftsy

More and more of us are drawn to the charms and quirks of the analogue world, and not out of some perverse counter-culture posturing – we actually like this stuff for its own sake, and for the qualities that it represents:

  • slowness
  • tactile
  • considered
  • basic
  • hand-made
  • imperfect
  • uncomplicated
  • finite
  • flawed
  • serendipitous
  • warm
  • personal
  • custom-made
  • limited
  • simplicity

In fact, these key characteristics of analogue are antonyms of most things digital….

For many people who are using analogue production processes, the medium really is the message; and what you see really is what you get, because the products are usually a true representation of the work and effort that go in to making them.

However, the appeal of analogue is not just about the format or the technology; the inherent limitations of analogue production processes lead to natural constraints which inform the content and determine the final outcome of the finished object. For example, the number of photographs an analogue camera can take at any one time is limited by the length of the roll of film; a vinyl album can carry about 22-23 minutes of music on each side; a plate used in a hand-made printing process can usually generate editions of no more than 30 before it starts to deteriorate.

There are some traditional analogue domains where the digital format does enhance the user experience e.g., digital radio (although I sometimes miss the hum and crackle of AM broadcasts); or where digital technology introduces a whole new dimension e.g., 3-D printing; or where digital can resurrect/replicate a virtual experience of analogue e.g., iOS apps that mimic classic analogue synthesizers.

On the other hand, on-line communities are moving to “analogue” events via meet-ups because being there in person offers a deeper connection. I recently attended an afternoon salon conducted by a digital media agency, because they recognize the need to interact face-to-face with customers.

I anticipate that in response to a growing sense of digital disintermediation, more of us will start to engage with and interact through analogue media. This should not be seen as an out and out rejection of digital, but more as a means to establish balance and to find a deeper level of engagement beyond the often superficial shimmer of digital gloss.

Declaration of interest: the author, under an assumed nom de musique, recently released a limited edition cassette version of his last album, available on-line and from select record stores in Melbourne