Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night

Due to my personal travel commitments in recent months, it’s been a while since I attended one of Startup Vic‘s regular pitch nights – so I was pleasantly surprised to see that these monthly events continue to draw a solid crowd. As with last year’s impact investing pitch night,  this event was co-sponsored by Giant Leap VC (part of the Impact Investing Group), with support from LaunchVic, who played hosts at the Victorian Innovation Hub.

As usual, the startups pitching appear in the order they presented:

Vollie

This is an on-line platform or market place for helping charities to find skilled volunteers for project-based assignments, mostly involving digital, marketing, technical, professional and advisory services that can be delivered remotely (rather than on-site or in-field).

The founders described the benefits to corporate clients in meeting their CSR goals. These companies either “sponsor” their employees’ time and/or donate money – to be honest, it was not entirely clear how this part worked. And of course, being a two-sided market place, Vollie also charges charities on a per project basis.

According to the presenters, there are 56,000 charities in Australia, and so far the platform has generated $360,000 in “value”.

However, Vollie only assists the charities with project on-boarding, whereas the NFPs themselves are responsible for actual project delivery.

While acknowledging the appeal to Gen Y/Z volunteers, the judges were interested to know how much personalisation the platform offers, and how QA/QC issues were handled. Having served on the board of a NFP myself, I appreciate how much more complicated it is to manage volunteers – from police checks to insurance, from training to risk management.

Cyber Clinic

Claiming to provide easier access (and a better user experience) to therapeutic clinic services, Cyber Clinic enables people to find a professional therapeutic counsellor or psychologist that matches their needs. Essentially an on-line directory for mental health care (part of the growing number of telehealth providers), the service matches clients and counsellors, connects them for sessions that can be delivered remotely and at times that suit the recipient, and measures the results.

Partly developed in response to the high incidents of mental health issues presenting to GPs, delivery of counselling services is via secure video conferencing and consultation, backed up by a dedicated app. The service is designed to run on even low-bandwidth connectivity, making it accessible to regional and country users.

The guiding principles are cost, access and trust (service providers are vetted before being admitted to the platform).

The judges were interested to understand the founder’s patient acquisition strategy, which involves connecting with government agencies, healthcare providers and corporates (e.g., as part of their EAP services) – so it’s clearly designed as a B2B model, plus a direct to market, public-facing website. The judges also wondered about customer retention when measured against outcomes.

STEMSparX

With the declining levels of STEM participation in high schools, STEMSparX is designed to engage younger students by bringing STEM education direct to their doorstep.

The service combines an AI-assisted on-line learning interface with practical DIY kits. Designed around the Arduino Open Source Ecosystem, the business model is based on a B2C subscription service. The founder is a participant in Melbourne University’s MAP programme, and has been running pilot project workshops and developing an engineering curriculum.

The judges wondered how STEMSparX would compete with the likes of Code Academy, and how effective a direct-to-consumer model is, unless it was combined with a channel strategy involving communication with parents, schools and public libraries? Plus, how does a service like this compete with other distractions such as online games, video streaming and social media?

Amber Electric

This alternative electricity seller is offering retail customers access to real-time wholesale prices. By only charging customers a $10 monthly service fee, Amber claims it can pass on the true wholesale price, based on 30-minute price resets (reflecting actual market supply and demand), rather than the fixed rates and price bands that traditional electricity retailers charge.

A key aspect of Amber’s business is the availability of renewable inputs (Australia has the largest % of renewables in the national grid – excluding WA which is not part of the grid…). For example, the increase of solar-generated energy from domestic sources (household rooftop panels) that can be fed into the grid can have an impact on the average unit cost of electricity from non-solar sources, and some resulting market distortion.

The judges were keen to know if Amber applies price loading to take account of passive consumption, and whether their revenue model allows for feedback funding into additional renewables? Another question was whether Amber customers will experience considerable price spikes during the summer spikes?

Currently, Amber is only available to people living in the Sydney metropolitan area, and who do NOT have solar panels (due to the issues of feed-in tariffs?). So, very limited access at present – but clearly a disruptive model that threatens to undermine the highly regulated retail market.

It’s fair to say that Amber ticked the box for most people in the audience, as it won both the Judges’ prize, and the people’s choice.

Next week: Startup Vic’s FinTech Pitch Night

The Ongoing Productivity Debate

In my previous blog, I mentioned that productivity in Australia remains sluggish. There are various ideas as to why, and what we could do to improve performance. There are suggestions that traditional productivity analysis may track the wrong thing(s) – for example, output should not simply be measured against input hours, especially in light of technology advances such as cloud computing, AI, machine learning and AR/VR. There are even suggestions that rather than working a 5-day week (or longer), a four-day working week may actually result in better productivity outcomes – a situation we may be forced to embrace with increased automation.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a number of years since I worked for a large organisation, but I get the sense that employees are still largely monitored by the number of hours they are “present” – i.e., on site, in the office, or logged in to the network. But I think we worked out some time ago that merely “turning up” is not a reliable measure of individual contribution, output or efficiency.

No doubt, the rhythm of the working day has changed – the “clock on/clock off” pattern is not what it was even when I first joined the workforce, where we still had strict core minimum hours (albeit with flexi-time and overtime).  So although many employees may feel like they are working longer hours (especially in the “always on” environment of e-mail, smart phones and remote working), I’m not sure how many of them would say they are working at optimum capacity or maximum efficiency.

For example, the amount of time employees spend on social media (the new smoko?) should not be ignored as a contributory factor in the lack of productivity gains. Yes, I know there are arguments for saying that giving employees access to Facebook et al can be beneficial in terms of research, training and development, networking, connecting with prospective customers and suppliers, and informally advocating for the companies they work for; plus, personal time spent on social media and the internet (e.g., booking a holiday) while at work may mean taking less actual time out of the office.

But let’s try to put this into perspective. With the amount of workplace technology employees have access to (plus the lowering costs of that technology), why are we still not experiencing corresponding productivity gains?

The first problem is poor deployment of that technology. How many times have you spoken to a call centre, only to be told “the system is slow today”, or worse, “the system won’t let me do that”? The second problem is poor training on the technology – if employees don’t have enough of a core understanding of the software and applications they are expected to use (I don’t even mean we all need to be coders or programmers – although they are core skills everyone will need to have in future), how will they be able to make best use of that technology? The third problem is poor alignment of technology – whether caused by legacy systems, so-called tech debt, or simply systems that do not talk to one another. I recently spent over 2 hours at my local bank trying to open a new term deposit – even though I have been a customer of the bank for more than 15 years, and have multiple products and accounts with this bank, I was told this particular product still runs on a standalone DOS platform, and the back-end is not integrated into the other customer information and account management platforms.

Finally, don’t get me started about the NBN, possibly one of the main hurdles to increased productivity for SMEs, freelancers and remote workers. In my inner-city area of Melbourne, I’ve now been told that I won’t be able to access NBN for at least another 15-18 months – much, much, much later than the original announcements. Meanwhile, since NBN launched, my neighbourhood has experienced higher density dwellings, more people working from home, more streaming and on-demand services, and more tech companies moving into the area. So legacy ADSL is being choked, and there is no improvement to existing infrastructure pending the NBN. It feels like I am in a Catch 22, and that the NBN has been over-sold, based on the feedback I read on social media and elsewhere. I’ve just come back from 2 weeks’ holiday in the South Island of New Zealand, and despite staying in some fairly remote areas, I generally enjoyed much faster internet than I get at home in Melbourne.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night

 

 

 

 

 

Why don’t we feel well off?

The past month has seen a number of reports on the current state of the Australian economy and global financial systems, 10 years after the GFC. The main thesis appears to be: if another crash is coming, can local markets cope, as an extended period of cheap credit and low inflation inevitably comes to an end. Combined with US-Sino trade wars, a softening housing market, and a sense of economic inertia, there is a feeling that Australians see themselves as worse off, despite some very strong economic data in recent weeks.*

Picture Source: Max Pixel

First, the positive news:

The unemployment rate continues to remain comparatively low, and overall job participation is high. This is reflected in higher tax receipts from both corporate profits and personal income. The RBA has kept interest rates low, and inflation remains relatively benign.

Recent data from Roy Morgan Research suggests that personal assets are growing faster than personal debt. Significantly, “average per capita net wealth, adjusted for inflation, is 30.5% higher than it was before the onset of the global financial crisis”.

So, if more people are in work, credit is still cheap, our assets have grown, and prices are stable, we should feel well off compared to the GFC, when interest rates and unemployment rates initially both went up.

Even higher energy bills (a major bone of contention with consumers) need to be assessed against lower costs of clothing, communications and many grocery items.

Second, the less positive news:

A combination of higher US interest rates, more expensive wholesale credit, and more stringent lending rules means that Australian borrowers are already being squeezed by higher mortgage rates and tougher loan to value thresholds. This could only get worse if there is a full-scale credit crunch.

Wage growth has stagnated, despite lower unemployment and higher participation rates. There is also a sense that we are working longer hours, although this is not as clear cut as there is also evidence we are also working fewer hours.

Regardless, Australian productivity output is considered to be sluggish, adding to the overall downward pressure on wages. (More on the productivity debate next week.)

More significantly, Roy Morgan Research has identified a growing wealth disparity based on asset distribution – but this may be a combination of changing earning, saving, investing and spending patterns. For example, if younger, would-be first-time home buyers feel priced out of the housing market, they may choose to invest in other assets, which may take longer to appreciate in value, but may not require as much upfront borrowing.

Third, preparing for a fall….

If a new market crash or a credit crunch comes along, how resilient is the economy, and how will people cope? Worryingly, fewer people are able to cope with unexpected expenses due to lower saving rates and maxed out credit cards. Over-leveraged companies and individuals will be hard pressed to meet their repayments or refinance their loans if interest rates rise steeply or lending standards tighten further.

Then there is the ageing population transitioning into retirement – baby-boomers who are “asset rich, but cash poor”. If they expected the equity in their homes and/or the balance in their superannuation accounts to fund their old age, they may be in for a shock if the housing bubble bursts and stock markets decline, especially if they are expected to live longer.

Finally, the RBA may have few options left in terms of interest rate settings, and a future government may be less wiling to spend its way out of a crisis (more Pink Batts and LCD TVs, anyone?). And while Australian companies may have strengthened their balance sheets since the GFC, overall levels of debt (here and overseas) could trigger increased rates of default.

*Postscript: if there was any further evidence required of the disconnect between the value of household assets (net worth) and a lack of feeling wealthy, this recently published Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2018 makes for some interesting analysis.

Next week: The Ongoing Productivity Debate

 

 

 

Culture Washing

Banks, Parliament, Cricket Australia, Political Parties, religious bodies, the ABC – the list of national institutions that have come under fire for failed governance and even worse behaviour continues to grow. Commentators are blaming a lack of “culture” within these organisations.

Some Boards end up washing their dirty laundry in public….. Image Source: Max Pixel

Already we are seeing a “culture” movement, which will inevitably lead to “culture washing”, akin to “green washing”, and other examples of lip service being paid to stakeholder issues.

Just this past week, the interim report of the Banking Royal Commission prompted the Federal Treasurer to say that banks need a “culture of enforcement and a culture of compliance”. I can already imagine the “culture checklists” and the “culture assessment” surveys and feedback forms….

There are consulting firms building “culture risk” assessment tools. There may even be some empirical evidence to suggest that companies with better employee engagement and “culture” can generate better share price performance. Even the AICD is getting in on the act with its upcoming directors’ update on how boards can gain “insights on culture”, and how to set the “tone from the top”.

(Actually, all any director needs to do to monitor the “culture” of their organisations is to track social media and sites such as Glassdoor, Whirlpool, Product Review, etc..)

But corporate and organisational “culture” is organic, and cannot be built by design. It is a combination of strong leadership and core values that everyone in the organisation is willing to commit to and adhere to. It also means ensuring that everyone knows what is expected of them, and the consequences of failing to meet those standards are clear.

As for employee engagement surveys, one of my colleagues likes to say, “The only question to ask is: ‘Would you recommend this organisation as a place to work, and if not, why not?’” Another colleague regularly says to his own teams, “If this is no longer a fun place to work, then let me know”.

Next week: Why don’t we feel well off?