Startup Vic’s Professional Services Pitch Night

For the first of Startup Vic’s monthly pitch nights for 2018, professional services were put under the spotlight. There is a public dialogue on the types and numbers of roles that will disappear due to automation (the professions are no different) and here were four startups seeking to engage in that conversation. Assuming that every industry and every occupation is vulnerable to disruption (and should be alert to the potential opportunities that presents), why should accountants and lawyers feel left out?

Image sourced from Startup Vic Meetup page

Myaccountant

With the promise of enabling users to lodge their BAS return from a smart phone, this app is aimed at micro businesses that struggle with bookkeeping and accounting tasks. Since accounting software packages do not support direct BAS lodgement (although expect this to change…), the app charges $39 per BAS, with no bookkeeping or accounting fees, and shares the fee with the accountants who do the lodgement.

The app is able to extract data from vendor APIs such as Expert360, Airtasker, Uber, etc., and connect to users’ bank accounts. Since launching in January, the app has generated 200 sign ups, with very little direct marketing or paid acquisition so far. The app is also aiming to achieve ISO 27000 (information security).

The panel of judges would have liked to have heard more about the acquisition strategy, and how the app deals with income and expense categorisation, different tax rates, zero rated items, and export sales etc. They also wondered about the competition, and overseas markets

Contractprobe

Developed by Neural Contract, this product uses machine learning to review contracts in 60 seconds. Using a scoring model, it rates documents according to established best practice and bench-marking, suggest sample text for missing clauses, and identifies problems found.

The service is available for ad hoc use, under a monthly subscription, or as custom packages.

According to the founders, the service can save 40% of the time usually spent on contract reviews. It offers a high level of privacy – the uploaded contract, report and transaction ID is deleted upon completion (although it wasn’t clear what records are retained for the purposes of clause analysis, data and analytics – including client profiling and user context.)

To reassure any lawyers in the audience, the product stills relies on human input to apply judgment to the choice of clauses, for example. However, a clear value of the review process is ensuring that phrases and key words are properly defined in the contract.

The judges wondered where this product fits in with open source documentation and pre-drafted documents, whether there are specific verticals more suited to this service, and what trust and liability issues might arise. Is it more of a “clause-spotter” rather than an expert system? How does it address statutory clauses, and the question of whether clauses are actually enforceable?

The service has about 40 clients, including law firms, and is now moving into corporate clients.

Businest

This product is designed to help with cashflow management, which the founders describe as an “iceberg” issue. They point to data that suggests 87% of SMEs have issues with cashflow.

Claiming to use AI to coach SMEs and accountants, the goal is to allow business owners to focus on what they do best, and move accountants from “compliance to advisory”. Applying its own algorithm to cashflow analysis, the service also provides training content to advisors.

Offering both SME and advisor pricing models, the founders have launched a pilot with MYOB. They also point to market research and commentary (CEDR, AFR, CPA, CA…) that indicates the market wants it.

The judges felt that the banks won’t rush to endorse the service (although under the open banking data protocol, they won’t be able to prevent customers linking their accounts) because they are used to the interest they charge on overdraft facilities and credit cards.

Brandollo

This is a marketing tech start-up, aimed at SMEs that struggle to access tailored advice. Targeting B2B clients, in the professional services sector,  with less than 80 staff.

Briefly referring to the use of AI and ML, the service claims to reduce marketing costs by 80%. It offers a brand gap analysis and makes recommendations, that can be implemented without external help. The process looks at execution issues, content requirements, and actual solutions.

Aiming for 200,000 clients in 5 years (currently standing at 200+), the main competitor is Benchmarketing. Brandello offers a freemium model, with a 3-tier paid-for service. They can connect clients to experts, provide a quote to execute and then take a commission on the resulting solution.

 

Based on the judges’ verdict, the winner was Myaccountant. While the people’s choice was a tie between Myaccountant and Contractprobe.

Next week: The General Taxonomy for Cryptographic Assets

Token Summit II San Francisco

While in the US this month, I attended Token Summit II in San Francisco, courtesy of Techemy, the parent company of Brave New Coin.

Apart from Bitcoin’s latest all-time highs (and of course, CryptoKitties), the main topics on Blockchain solutions, cryptocurrency trading, token issuance programs and digital asset management were:

Governance – bringing transparency, oversight and standards
Scalability – how to grow the technology in a sustainable way
Interoperability – compatibility and connectivity between chains
Regulation – especially of securities as tokens, and vice versa
Decentralized exchanges – making P2P trading truly viable
Metronome – the “first cross-blockchain cryptocurrency”
Messari – “EDGAR for cryptocurrencies”
Transaction computation vs verification – getting the balance/distinction right
Custody – what the institutional markets are looking for in this new asset class

Demonstrating the demand for access to industry thought leaders and information about the best and brightest projects, Token Summit could have filled a venue twice the size – a growth trajectory befitting the asset class.

Next week: MoMA vs SFMOMA

 

Digital Richmond

How significant is one suburb’s contribution to the startup ecosystem in Melbourne, if not Victoria or even Australia? Well, if the recent panel on Digital Richmond (plus the Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade) are to be believed, VIC 3121 is the epicentre of all things startup.

According to the event description, Richmond (and the adjoining area of Cremorne) is “the stomping ground of choice for Melbourne’s established tech companies and aspiring start-ups alike”.

Hosted in the offices of 99Designs (celebrating bringing their HQ back to Richmond), a panel representing some of the biggest names among Australia’s tech companies (and all local heroes) explored what makes “Digital Richmond” tick – but also identified some of the challenges of growing and sustaining scale-up ventures beyond the confines of a few co-working spaces in converted warehouses and textile factories….

Facilitated by Rachel Neumann former MD of Eventbrite Australia (whose Australian HQ is in Melbourne), and briefly head of 500 Melbourne, the panel comprised some key Richmond/Cremorne tenants: Patrick Llewellyn, CEO at 99designs; Jodie Auster, General Manager for UberEATS in Melbourne; Cameron McIntyre, CEO of Carsales; Nigel Dalton, Chief Inventor at REA Group; and Eloise Watson, Investment Manager at VC fund Rampersand.

To set the scene, mention was made of other established Australian tech-based companies also HQ’d in Melbourne (MYOB and SEEK, the latter of which is also relocating its offices to Richmond), recent local successes such as Rome2Rio and CultureAmp (both born in Richmond), and the steady stream of global tech brands that have come to call 3121 their regional/national home, such as Stripe, Slack, Square and Etsy.

It was evident that each of the panel have previous business connections with one or more of their fellow panelists – so maybe there is simply value in being in close proximity to each other. Success begets success, especially when people are more willing to share connections and introduce new contacts into their networks. (Although, what might this say about diversity? And does it reinforce the notion that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”?)

Despite the number of co-working spaces and tech companies based locally, there are very few substantial, modern office buildings in the area, and only one business park of note. Local startups that need more space will likely have to relocate elsewhere.

Property aside, the panel considered other local infrastructure is generally conducive to success – access to public transport (although Richmond and East Richmond stations are both in serious need of an upgrade), a solid talent base, great coffee shops and proximity to the CBD.

On the downside, there was criticism at the lack of NBN access in such a concentrated pocket of tech companies and startups (with the associated numbers of contractors, freelancers and other members of the gig economy who live in the area and work from home). Car parking was also an issue, although with Richmond being a major public transport hub, I was surprised that this came up. A lack of child care facilities was also mentioned.

Being an inner city suburb, with strict planning laws and designated “heritage overlay” regulations, there are limits to the amount of development that can take place, especially as Richmond and Cremorne are also established residential areas, with medium to high population density. Getting the balance right between economic growth, urban renewal, modernisation and local community preservation is tricky – pity that the organisers had not thought to invite anyone from the local council.

The panel also bemoaned the absence of any tertiary education facilities in the area (by implication, does that mean the Kangan Institute campus in Cremorne doesn’t meet local requirements?). But maybe there are other ways to connect with academia?

The panel discussion then moved on to topics that are beyond the control of the local council or even the State government, yet each has an impact on the startup economy: corporate tax rates; employment visas; the schooling system; vocational education and training; and the need for inter-disciplinary and inter-generational hiring. (They may as well have added industrial relations laws, the productivity debate and smart cities – oh, and the National Innovation and Science Agenda.)

I was also surprised at one of the reasons given for 99Designs bringing their global HQ back to Australia – the appeal of an ASX listing. I know that Australia has one of the largest pools of pension funds in the world, and nearly every person in Australia has direct or indirect investments in Australian equities within their superannuation portfolio. But despite being ranked 15th by market capitalisation, the ASX represents less than 2% of the global market, and even after 25 years without a recession, Australia’s capital markets risk being left behind. If we are to grow the local tech sector, there needs to be much more alignment between where (and what type of) capital is needed, and where the pension funds and other institutional investors like to put their money.

Finally, I always get worried when the likes of Carsales, REA Group, MYOB and SEEK are held up as poster children for the local tech and startup sectors – great businesses, sure, but all about to be totally disrupted by the next wave of startups, and not quite the high-tech sectors that the Victorian government wants to champion (FinTech, MedTech, BioTech, NanoTech, AgriTech, Cyber Security, Smart Manufacturing, EduTech….).

Next week: The NAB SME Hackathon

 

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