Digital currencies are the new portals

Once described as “The Internet of Money”, Bitcoin is much, much more: it’s software, it’s a store of value, and increasingly it’s being recognised as a legal form of payment. In its wake have come a multitude of other crypto-currencies, alt. coins, digital tokens and programmable assets. Each of them built on one or other blockchain protocol or using distributed ledger technology (DLT), and each of them seeking to serve a specific use case or to drive disruption in traditional markets and business models.

Based on my work with Brave New Coin (a market data vendor for these new asset classes)*, I was recently asked my opinion on all these “Initial Coin Offerings” (ICOs – although I prefer to call them Token Issuance Programs). My response was that digital currencies are becoming the new portals.

How?

First, they are building dedicated communities of interest. Many of them are designed for a specific audience or for a particular purpose. They are leveraging network effects to drive engagement and participation, such as MobileGo, for the online games community.

Second, they are becoming “destinations” in their own right, such as Steem for publishing, or CalcFlow, a market place for mathematical models. They are acting as repositories and resources for specialist content. They are also curating this content, and enabling users to contribute to the community, and get rewarded for doing so.

Third, they are building platforms that support e-commerce and other online transactions, such as SPHRE’s Air solution, and its XID token. In Air’s case, they are creating a paradigm shift in digital ID management: in contrast to most social media and old-school portals that monetize our personal data, our content and our search behaviour through the sale of advertising, Air is giving individuals more power over the use of their own data.

Finally, token issuance programs are creating new registries and alternative distribution networks for a range of tangible and intangible assets, such as MyBit for energy, and bitNatura, for natural capital.

So, as well as supporting P2P payments, facilitating cross-border remittances and enabling the purchase of electrical goods in Japan, Bitcoin and the like are becoming key tools in the new digital economy, just as AOL, CompuServe, Lycos, Yahoo!, Google and MSN were once the main public gateways to the internet.

*Note: the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent the views of Brave New Coin or their clients.

Next week: #Blockchain heralds a new railway age?

Law and Technology – when AI meets Smart Contracts…

Among the various ‘X’-Tech start-up themes (e.g., FinTech, EdTech, MedTech, InsurTech) one of the really interesting areas is LegTech (aka LawTech), and its close cousin, RegTech. While it’s probably some time before we see a fully automated justice system, where cases are decided by AI and judgments are delivered by robots, there are signs that legal technology is finally coming into its own. Here’s a very personal perspective on law and technology:

Photo by Lonpicman via Wikimedia Commons

1. Why are lawyers often seen as technophobes or laggards, yet in the 1980s and 1990s, they were at the vanguard of new technology adoption?

In the 1970s, law firms invested in Telex and document exchange (remember DX?) to communicate and to share information peer-to-peer. Then came the first online legal research databases (Lexis and Westlaw) which later gave rise to “public access” platforms such as AustLII and its international counterparts.

Lawyers were also among the first professional service firms to invest in Word Processing (for managing and drafting precedents) and e-mail (for productivity). Digitization meant that huge print libraries of reference materials (statutes and case-law) could be reduced to a single CD-ROM. Law firms were early adopters of case, practise, document and knowledge management tools – e.g., virtual document discovery rooms, precedent banks, drafting tools.

2. But, conversely, why did the legal profession seem to adopt less-optimal technology?

The trouble with being early adopters can mean you don’t make the right choices. For example, law firms in the 80s and 90s seemed to demonstrate a preference for Lotus Notes (not Outlook), Wang Computers and WordStar (not IBM machines or MS Office Word), and DOS-based interfaces (rather than GUIs).

Some of the first CD-ROM publications for lawyers were hampered by the need to render bound volumes as exact facsimiles of the printed texts (partly so lawyers and judges could refer to the same page/paragraph in open court). There was a missed opportunity to use the technology to its full potential.

3. On the plus side, legal technology is having a significant a role to play…

…in law creation (e.g., parliamentary drafting and statute consolidation), the administration of law (delivery of justice, court room evidence platforms, live transcripts, etc.), legal practice (practice management tools) and legal education (research, teaching, assessment, accreditation). Plus, decision support systems combining rules-based logic, precedent and machine learning, especially in the application of alternative dispute resolution.

4. Where next?

In recent years, we have seen a growing number of “virtual” law firms, that use low-cost operating models to deliver custom legal advice through a mix of freelance, part-time and remote lawyers who mainly engage with their clients online.

Blockchain solutions are being designed to register and track assets for the purposes of wills and trusts, linked to crypto-currency tokens and ID management for streamlining the transfer of title. Governments and local authorities are exploring the use of distributed ledger technology to manage land title registration, vehicle and driver registration, fishing permits and the notion of “digital citizenship”.

We are seeing the use of smart contracts powered by oracles on the Ethereum blockchain to run a range of decision-making, transactional, financial, and micro-payment applications. (Although as one of my colleagues likes to quip, “smart contracts are neither smart nor legal”.)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being explored to “test” legal cases before they come to trial, and more knowledge management and collaboration tools will continue to lower the cost of legal advice (although I doubt we will see lawyers being totally disintermediated by robots, but their role will certainly change).

There is further opportunity to take some of the friction and costs out of the legal system to improve access to justice.

Finally, and this feels both exciting and scary, is the notion of “crowd-sourcing policy“; some governments are already experimenting with hackathons to develop policy-making models, and even the policies themselves. But this does sound like we would be moving closer and closer to government by mini-plebiscites, rather than by parliamentary democracy.

Next week: Digital currencies are the new portals

 

StartupVic’s E-commerce #Pitch Night

A new venue, and a new theme – last week’s Pitch Night organised by Startup Victoria was hosted at Kensington Collective, and featured four contestants each working in different areas of e-commerce.

With some high-profile judges (including Ahmed Fahour, outgoing CEO of Australia Post, and Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic), and an audience warmed by hot soup and mulled wine on a very cold and wet Melbourne night, it was not surprising that the event was packed out, despite the weather.

In addition to hearing the competing pitches, attendees were also able to meet with a number of other e-commerce startups exhibiting in “silicon alley”, including: VolStreet (a new market place for consumer goods), Liven (a loyalty program for restaurants), Buying Intelligence (data on retail trends from the fashion industry) and Straight From Farmers (a D2C platform for agricultural produce).

As per the usual practice of this blog, the startups appear in the order in which they pitched (and click on the startup names for their website links):

 Passel

Passel’s business model is built on a crowdsourced solution for same day deliveries, so that shoppers can get their purchases quicker from omnichannel retailers. According to the founders, a high percentage of online cart abandonment is due to freight costs, and delivery times.

Using something akin to the Uber model, retailers will book a delivery that could be fulfilled by one of their own staff on the way home, or by another shopper if they are in the vicinity. Same day delivery is apparently more secure, and with a registration process for delivery “agents” and no charge to the retailer until proof of delivery, Passel is also designed to de-risk the delivery service. But, not quite delivery drones across suburbia!

Currently running a limited trial at Bayside Mall in Frankston, Passel is putting most of its efforts in to training staff at the stores they work with, to make sure the process is bedded down.

The judges had a range of questions and observations about the business proposition and assumptions behind the pitch, such as: Retailing can be quite a separate function to distribution and fulfillment, and for larger retailers stock management may cover several stores, or be handled by core distribution centres – so how will shops retailers be able to match orders and deliveries on a same day basis? Within large outlets, the time taken for delivery staff to actually locate an item may become burdensome, so has Passel considered geo-coding within stores? What is the opportunity outside Australia?

My own observations about this pitch included: what are the issues with insurance, what is the fit with click’n’collect services, and is there a bigger opportunity in solving current problems with the use of contract couriers on demand?

Vesta Central

Describing itself as “a marketplace for destination partners“, Vesta Central is also one of a growing number of Product Data Distribution Platforms (PDDP), between suppliers and retailers. Essentially, it offers an API to allow manufacturers to upload their inventories to support downstream distribution and sales.

Citing technological, time and cost barriers for product suppliers and retailers to upload and distribute product data, Vesta Central’s main proposition is to help move from physical to digital, via a centralised master data platform. From here, retailers can pull product data in real-time.

I’ve seen similar startups and businesses that also provide product manuals, technical specifications and even product training to sales staff, so the judges also felt that the founders need to gain a better knowledge and understanding of the competitor landscape. Another word of advice they had for the pitch was, “Let go of the PowerPoint…”

To Me Love Me

With a tag line of “Fashion Tech – Made To Measure“, this startup is trying to address the issue of incorrectly fitting clothes which is creating retail dissatisfaction.

Using key measurements and six data points, the service develops personal profiling
based on a proprietary algorithm according to body shape and style preferences. In return, it can offer curated, personalised, and even some custom-made suggestions and recommendations – but mostly ready-to-wear brands.

Aiming to help brands bond with their customers, the service also introduces social elements via peer/customer feedback. The service provides a seamless experience and offers a level of control to customers – but essentially, it’s a data play: collecting, aggregating and distributing customer statistics and profiles to the industry.

Although the pitch mentioned a SaaS model (with three tiers of service and pricing), the economic model was not fully outlined. However, the judges were clearly impressed by the founders’ international contacts in the US, UK & Europe, and their global ambitions.

CableGeek

With one simple sales proposition (“selling trusted mobile accessories at low prices“), CableGeek aims to address three common problems in this retail product category: Inconsistent product quality, high retail mark-ups, and difficulties in buying online (especially the shipping costs on lower-price items).

The CableGeek solution includes: free shipping from Australian suppliers, offering global brands, a focus on mobile (ApplePay), and key partnerships (instant pickup via Blueshift’s IBP, and fulfillment via eStore Logistics).

With a Google customer review rating of 4.8, CableGeek must be doing something right. Asked about what sets it apart from the competition, and how it will fend off competition, the founders cited the end-to-end automation plus their own full stack development – so any challenge is more likely to come from large retailers (who don’t necessarily have the focus or the in-house technical capabilities?).

However, given that the business was started by Ryan Zhou, who is also a co-founder of CoinJar, the judges wondered whether he would be over-stretched, or unable to commit 100% to this new business – especially as in this type of retail business, the only way to succeed is by dominating market share, which requires full-time commitment.

The judges were obviously won over by To Me Love Me‘s approach, as it took out first place on the night. There was also a sense that it was the only pitch that clearly had a real eye on international opportunities, and had demonstrated some serious industry credentials.

It was also interesting that a couple of the pitches referred to issues with delivery costs in Australia, especially for smaller, lower value items – something that the incoming CEO at Australia Post might want to address?

Finally, it was disappointing that there was no opportunity for questions or input from the audience – with one of the largest turnouts ever for a regular pitch night, Startup Victoria needs to think about how to incorporate more audience participation – these events should not just be a spectator sport.

Next week: Law & Technology – when AI meets Smart Contracts…

 

Spaceship launches the future of superannuation

Backed by some stellar names in the tech and startup worlds, Spaceship describes itself as a superannuation fund designed to “invest where the world is going, not where it’s been”. Squarely aimed at 18-35 year-olds (and savvy people in their 40s and 50s….), it is the brainchild of Paul Bennetts (a Partner at AirTree Ventures), Andrew Sellen (ex-Marketing Manager at Australian Ethical Investments) and two tech co-founders, Dave Kuhn and Kaushik Sen. Their central thesis is that global tech stocks are the future, and that these assets should form a greater part of a fully diversified portfolio, with a 10-year plus investment horizon.

spaceship-logo-03I first connected with Paul a couple of years ago, when I was working with a legal technology startup that was an early graduate of the Melbourne Accelerator Program. He was interested in what we were doing at Ebla, but the company was at too early a stage for him to invest in. But I’ve kept an eye on what Paul has been doing since, and have followed the Spaceship story quite closely. We last caught up very briefly during a recent roadshow event in Melbourne, as part of the Spaceship beta launch.

Any new superannuation brand, especially if it is neither an industry fund nor a retail fund backed by a major financial institution, is going to struggle to attract members: the industry and public sector funds have the benefit of workplace incumbency (sometimes backed by industrial awards), and the big retail funds have extensive distribution channels via advisor platforms, dealer groups and financial planners. As for corporate superannuation funds, in my experience, many of these employer-run funds are often a re-badged or customised version of an existing retail fund, or a highly outsourced business that retains the company name for brand recognition among employees.

Spaceship is challenging the market by using technology (and very targeted marketing) to streamline the recruitment and on-boarding process. As evidence of its marketing success, Spaceship claims to have built a waiting list of 12,000 prospective members in just 30 days, mostly through social media and word-of-mouth. And as evidence of its success in attracting “smart” money, witness some of the big names who have backed the venture as investors, or joined as members themselves.*

Not surprisingly, Spaceship is also developing some interesting content marketing and social media tactics to drive member engagement. This includes thought leadership on portfolio diversification, understanding investment horizons, accessing investments in early-stage tech companies, and investing in tech brands that its members love and use.

But while much of the media coverage for Spaceship has been positive, it has already drawn detractors (almost in the same breath…). Some of the latter reckon that it won’t achieve necessary scale to be sustainable (in light of APRA moves to drive consolidation among smaller funds), it will be highly concentrated in its exposure to tech stocks (which have a tendency to be more volatile), and without face-to-face contact with members, it will be harder to drive customer engagement.

Given that, following some delays, Spaceship does not launch to the general public until the end of this month (it is still running a waitlist), it’s probably a bit churlish to say it is doomed to failure before it has even really begun. Equally, having worked in financial market research myself, I have met with a number of industry, public sector, retail and corporate superannuation funds who cite member engagement and retention as one of their biggest challenges. The main issue is this: how do you interest an 18-year old in something from which they won’t derive any benefit for at least 40 years?  And once you have got their attention, how do you sustain that interest over the lifetime of their membership and into retirement?

Now technology is having a larger part to play in disrupting the superannuation industry, and changing the way members interact with their fund. As the COO of a major industry fund said recently at a FinTech Victoria event, “consolidating your super balances is only three clicks away” (to which Spaceship, replied “it’s now only one click!”). But it’s not enough to have a smart phone app to check your balances, switch investment options or make voluntary contributions. Members are looking for other services, such as financial education, estate planning, insurance, loans and mortgages, and tailored advice. Plus, they expect much more streamlined processes and pro-active member support.

I suspect that a key factor that will likely contribute to Spaceship’s potential success is the growth of the gig economy:

First, with more people working as freelancers, contractors or becoming self-employed, they will have no ties to a fixed workplace or a single employer – so they will be drawn to a fund product that appeals to their independence and flexibility.

Second, much of the gig economy lies in the tech and startup sectors, so again, prospective members might well be looking for a fund that invests in what they are interested and involved in themselves.

Third, if we are all expected to live and work longer, and if we are going to have to rely more on our own accumulated retirement assets, a fund that fully aligns with this long-term investment philosophy is hopefully going to be better placed to help us meet our financial goals.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that the Australian superannuation industry is both large ($2.1tn in assets as at September 2016, and the 3rd largest pool of pension funds in the world), and highly regulated (for very good reason). Equally, it has been slow to adapt to a changing economy and to different market factors, and is increasingly dominated by just a few big funds. Among some large industry funds, there is almost a cosy, symbiotic relationship between their members (who work in say, construction, energy, mining) and some of the assets the funds invest in (infrastructure, buildings, utilities). (But that may prove to be Spaceship’s USP – representing members who work in the tech sector?)

Although the Australian superannuation and managed funds sectors have established strong capabilities in administration, trustee, custody and asset management services, many of these back-office operations run on legacy IT systems which are potentially ripe for disruption. Plus, while government initiatives look for ways to attract more offshore institutions to place their assets with Australian fund managers, under various financial passport arrangements Australian institutions can invest in offshore funds domiciled and managed in key investment centres such as Luxembourg and Singapore.

Finally, new entrants to the superannuation industry are less likely to be reliant on incumbent and legacy service providers, and more able to take advantage of emerging technologies such as blockchain solutions (distributed ledger platforms), and fully integrated end-to-end CX (mobile apps and tools).

* Declaration of interest and disclaimer: I was successful in signing up to Spaceship in beta/waitlist, and have allocated a small portion of my own super to the fund. I do not have any other commercial connection with Spaceship or its founders. I have not been paid to write this article, nor should it be construed or interpreted as financial advice – it has been provided for general information only. BE SURE TO SEEK YOUR OWN INDEPENDENT FINANCIAL ADVICE BEFORE MAKING ANY FINANCIAL INVESTMENT.

Next week: Gaming/VR/AR pitch night at Startup Victoria