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

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

 

More on Purpose

Regular readers may be familiar with the name Carolyn Tate from my previous blogs on purpose, and the Slow School of Business. Last week, Carolyn launched her latest book, The Purpose Project, a distillation of the past seven years of her work, and quite possibly a road map for anyone wanting to take control of their own destiny at work.

I would describe The Purpose Project as a cross between a first aid kit for a disillusioned workforce and a survival guide for the modern workplace. But as with defining your own “purpose”, the value is in the mind of the reader, rather than in any prescriptive solution or outcome.

Having spent the past few years working with Carolyn at Slow School, I know that her views on this topic have subtly changed. Slow School itself initially appealed to, and was designed for, independent consultants (“solopreneurs”) and aspiring consultants (“corporate escapees”). But as the concept of finding purpose in our work has started to take hold, Carolyn now encourages her readers to find their own purpose where they are, rather than rushing headlong into a new job, a new company, a new career or even into entrepreneurship (which as we know, isn’t for everyone).

I first connected with Carolyn at the Slow School, when I was exploring my own purpose as an independent consultant (and sometime corporate escapee….). Slow School provides a community of like-minded souls with a “safe” space to test new ideas, a playground to kick around new concepts, and an environment to challenge our own assumptions. Unsurprisingly, a key part of The Purpose Project is a list of 50 questions designed to help readers dig deeper into their own purpose, modeled on the Japanese concept of ikigai”. There are also some tools and practices to bring purpose to life in our current work.

In my own case, I still think my purpose is a work in progress, and is never settled – much of my career has been driven by a need for new ideas and experiences, work that is intellectually stimulating, and a willingness to engage in continuous learning (while feeding an enduring curiosity and maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism). These factors, even more than formal qualifications or faddish management theories, have helped me to build resilience and navigate a rapidly changing work environment.

One point where I may disagree with Carolyn is this notion about finding purpose through staying in your current role or workplace – that it’s not necessary to leave. While I agree that it may be possible to reshape your current job to suit your personal needs and preferences, staying in an unrewarding job or remaining with an organisation that does not value you is like persevering with an unhealthy relationship.

In short, I’m quite pessimistic about the ability for large corporations and large institutions (as they are currently framed and constituted) to help us connect with our individual purpose, or even to provide the space to do so. And of course, rapid changes in the very nature of work, the way we work, the economic structures and business models that have traditionally underpinned employment and the value exchange of labour require us to take more control over where, how and with whom we choose to spend our working time.

Next week: Agtech Pitch Night at SproutX

 

 

Investor #pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

For the most recent pitch night I attended, I had a welcome change of scenery: I was invited to join fellows from the London chapter of the Startup Leadership Program (and a few from Paris) as they pitched to an audience of investors, mentors and well-wishers at Deloitte’s HQ.

In no particular order, the pitches were as follows (the names link to the startup websites):

Selified

This FinTech business is making customer identity management as easy as taking a selfie and photos of relevant documents, combined with multifactor verification. They claim to be able to “verify people anywhere in the world in less than a minute”.

Selified certainly seems capable of streamlining and automating new account on-boarding, and reducing the time it takes banks and card companies to collect customer data for loan and credit applications. However, there are many similar solutions out there, and some, like Proviso, are already installed at major banks. So, the challenges for Selified include: demonstrating a valid USP (or maybe the combination of what it does?); working out a SasS plus transaction pricing model; and new client installations versus displacement sales.

Re-Imagi

Declaration of interest: I have been working with, and sometimes mentoring the team at Re-Imagi for the past year or so. (Hence my ticket to tonight’s event). So, I’ll try to be objective!

Re-Imagi describes itself as “enabling decision makers to unlock human capital inside their organisation through collaboration”. By harnessing in-house innovation, creativity and collaboration among employees (through the use of design thinking, employee engagement, and unique data capture and analysis) Re-Imagi was able to change the behaviour of 42% of participants at a global bank, within the course of a two-week programme.

From experience, one challenge for the team is describing the essence of the business – since it cuts across innovation, enterprise platforms, people analytics and design thinking. At its core, it acts as a prism through which to view a range of social movements that all companies are struggling with: e.g., the Future of Work, the Future of Ageing, the Future of Money etc. But key to success will be connecting with corporate champions who “get” what the benefits are, and are willing to embrace change and welcome some external input and perspective to their current processes.

0tentic8

A very topical subject, namely a blockchain-based solution enabling agricultural producers to access financial services, and provide more transparency on supply chains.

According to the founders, there are around 500 million farmers in the developing world who do not have bank accounts. The platform will verify each stage in the supply chain – from providing a digital ID for each farmer through to tracking end customer purchases.

Part of the goal is to give farmers a verifiable financial profile that can enable financial inclusion and access to bank services, as well as supporting “field to table” provenance.

Unfortunately, on the night, the presentation was a little unclear as to strategy and execution. It’s certainly a great idea, and one of a number of AgriTech startups looking to deploy blockchain technology along the food production, manufacturing and distribution supply chains.

Secret Sessions

Here’s a business that is aiming to turn the music industry on its head. In some ways, it’s an A&R agency for the digital age; in others, it’s a curated service linking artists, fans and consumer brands, that can potentially generate more revenue for bands (from sponsorship, content creation and licensing) than traditional record label deals or license fees from streaming services.

With backgrounds in video production, digital media and music distribution, the founders are well-placed to execute on their strategy. Secret Sessions is already working with some major consumer brands who want to connect with new artists who have established a core fan base via social media, a dedicated YouTube channel, and special live events.

As a part-time musician (and one-time recording artist myself), I recognise the changing economics of the music industry. The model has been totally disrupted by digital, and the days of multi-album deals with multi-million dollar advances are long behind us. However, I can’t help thinking that if the only way people can discover and connect with new music is via a branded advertising campaign, does it in any way compromise or impoverish the artistic merit of the content? In the 1980’s and 90’s, when household brands started sponsoring world tours by major artists, it generated a bit of a fan backlash – but maybe I’m just old-fashioned, and no doubt I’m not the target demographic.

Owlmaps

Owlmaps is targeting the enterprise SaaS market, offering their take on a knowledge management platform. Organisations need a way to identify and access “hidden” skills that lie within their existing workforce, and Owlmaps does this using a talent-mapping and skill-matrix tool.

It aims to provide a dashboard solution so that users can identify skills distribution, and skills in demand, as well maintain an audit of current staff. Owlmaps places itself at the intersection of enterprise content management, learning management and collaboration solutions, and has launched several pilots with startup accelerators, academic programmes and member-based organisations. The business model is based on tiered SaaS subscriptions.

There are a plethora of software solutions that address, in some way the problem of “in-sourcing” the right skills and experience, especially for new projects or ahead of planned restructures. These platforms are either part of “traditional” HR tools (what I sometimes refer to as “human accounting software”), project management tools, or ERP applications. No doubt, some organisations are also using their recruitment tools to maintain “current” (at the time of hiring) profiles of their employees. But they are often laborious to use and update, and the tools themselves become the process…

Owlmaps may need to demonstrate it can integrate with legacy tools, but it may also need to help end users (employees) understand what’s in it for them – maybe it can serve as a prompt to take some further professional development or skills training? I also wonder if Owlmaps needs to identify a specific industry sector, rather than trying to appeal too broadly?

imby.bio

I have to say that I really like the intent behind this startup – helping a new generation of urban gardeners connect with their back yards. It’s essentially a gardening app with some built-in smarts, that also acts as a channel to market for the retail horticultural sector, by enabling users to connect with and buy from suppliers direct.

A few of the app features seem so obvious when you think about them: take a photo of an unknown plant and get it identified; use your location data to get tips and recommendations on which plants to grow, and how to care for them; get reminders to water/weed/feed your plants. But why haven’t any of the existing gardening brands taken this market by storm? Apparently, this retail sector is very fragmented, with a large number of independent nurseries and garden centers, who rely on loyal, local customers. And many gardeners still like to use traditional printed seed catalogues from their regular suppliers.

The path to market is also slightly complex, since imby.bio is planning to work with local, offline communities to begin with, and offer the app for free (initially, at least). There are other market segments that could present opportunities (such as education, botanical gardens and parks, gardening clubs, even gardening magazines and TV shows), although the synergies between them are not entirely obvious. Plus there may be an opportunity to sell or license data captured via the app, although this is not a priority. But I applaud the vision, and an app that can help us to plant the right flowers to support our bee populations has to be encouraged.

Eligent

This is a solution born out of the founder’s personal need and experience – a multi platform task management tool for virtual collaboration within creative, digital and advertising agencies. The solution is designed to streamline the production process at each stage of a project, help co-ordinate better communication between teams (especially those working remotely), and track costs.

Also using a freemium and tiered pricing model, this cloud-based application already claims to have 100 active users across 20 teams. And with strong industry experience, the founders are pretty confident of their solution design. (There was also mention of a re-seller programme, although no details were provided.)

However, it does seem a crowded space, with the range of collaboration and project management tools seemingly growing by the month. And while I’m sure there are some unique aspects as to how the creative industries work, are they so really different? I myself have seen at least two other similar tools pitched before – Coin-Craft (architects), and Studio Ninja (photographers) – and in each case, the founders were adamant that their fields had specific needs that justified dedicated platforms just for their professions.

Capium

Capium is a suite of cloud-based productivity, client management and practice management tools for the tax and accounting profession. As part of the UK’s digital tax regime, everyone will need to have their own Personal Tax Account, and annual tax returns will be increasingly submitted online. So, Capium’s mantra is “making tax digital”.

In their two years of trading, Capium has secured 380 paid-for accounts with professional firms, representing 38,000 businesses profiles, plus around 4,000 freemium accounts (SMEs) being serviced direct.

So, rather like the successful Xero business model, Capium is recruiting accounting firms as their re-sellers and advocates. The founders also recognise that there are a range of new and existing competitors (with high, mid and low-tier solutions), but Capium is showing some impressive growth rates.

I’m not so familiar with the UK tax and accounting market, but my significant other is an Australian CPA and BAS agent, so I know what she likes (and dislikes) about each of the accounting platforms she has to use – meaning that no system is perfect, and each has one or more feature or function that is better than their competitors! Finally, even leading platforms like Xero, Quickbooks and MYOB have to build and maintain different versions for each market they serve, which can be an expensive operating model.

Taste Of Kenya

There was no doubting the founder’s passion and personal investment in this business – a project connecting coffee growers direct to retailers. Designed to offer growers a better deal and ensure they are paid in a more timely fashion, Taste Of Kenya is attempting to disrupt the existing supply chain by buying direct from Kenyan growers, and removing 5 levels of intermediaries to supply coffee retailers in the UK. Taste of Kenya pays at source at the time of purchase, and manages the processing, shipping and logistics.

Because of the competition, and due to their current limited capacity, Taste of Kenya has decided to target coffee retailers who want to source more ethically and more directly from growers. From four container shipments in the first year, volumes are designed to grow to 15 containers (240,000 kg) in year 3.

With around 30 farmers on their shortlist, and a target market of 200+ coffee retailers in London, I suspect that this may never be a business that can scale. But that’s OK (after all, weren’t we once told that “small is beautiful”?) as the business model and the social objectives are clear. Maybe the real opportunity will be in showing others how they can do the same?

Clikd

Clikd is a dating app with a couple of key features – first, it is photo-based; second, it allows users to set their own questions for prospective dates if they don’t want to use the built-in content. The founders describe it as “photo-social”. The pitch included a working demonstration, and it certainly looks like a lot of fun to use.

I’m somewhat wary of dating apps. I’m not the target audience, I’ve never used one, and I know that some investors dislike the business model – there’s the reputation risk, plus if the app is really good at its job, customers won’t be subscribers for very long, so there is considerable churn.

But, maybe it appeals to the social media generation, who are more comfortable using these tools, or who have different social attitudes. Certainly for people who have just moved to a new city where they don’t know anyone, such an app could help them meet new friends.

User adoption is key to success, and the founders have scoped an in-depth marketing and launch campaign. They have also formed a significant partnership with an outdoor media brand.

Adalys

This MedTech business is enabling smart medical data through patients’ profiles and unpublished clinical trial data, by structuring, analyzing and aggregating the growing volumes of medical data and delivering it to doctors, clinicians, pharmacies, hospitals, Big Pharma and health care groups.

Part of the goal is to make clinical trials more effective (by providing structure to the data, and making greater use of data analytics), and by allowing new data to build on existing and real-time data more easily, it should help take some of the data costs of current practices. The business model is based on SaaS subscription revenues.

With a number of trials and installations at hospitals, plus 700 individual patients on the platform, Adalys is connecting “clinical trials with real world data”. E-health solutions for managing patient records, resource planning and tracking prescription drug costs are high on most governments’ public health agendas. However, issues of patient privacy, low take-up among GPs and a lack of “incentives” makes traction challenging.

Or Du Monde

This was probably a first for me – a jewellery startup. Not only that, Or Du Monde claims to be the leading green jewellery business in France, by only using ethically sourced diamonds, recycling gold, and as far as possible using local craftspeople, to support its sustainable goals. Gold mining generates huge amounts of ore waste, and most people will be aware of the issues associated with “blood diamonds”.

The gems used by Or Du Monde are sourced direct from mines that have established appropriate working conditions, also enabling country of origin certification.

With a strong family presence in the industry, the founders probably knew their business better than anyone else in the room. But one thing that wasn’t quite explained was the B2C click and mortar retail model. From my limited knowledge, the diamond market is closely controlled by just a handful of companies, so I’m not sure how direct sourcing works. Also, on the retail side, there are obviously high-end luxury brands, and mass-market high street chains.

I’m guessing that Or Du Monde aims to sit in between, as a niche or boutique brand, appealing to a certain customer profile. The pitch made reference to the “branded jewellery” sector (representing 20% of the market, and growing), but I assume this involves intensive brand marketing and strong distribution networks – again, not much explanation, although the business plans to have 9 stores around the world by 2020.

Finally, because much of the business is made-to-order, they company does not have to hold large inventories, and more than half of the revenues come from online sales.

Checkit-Out

Quoting some research that 90% of buyers use online customer reviews, Checkit-Out is aiming to update this now well-established model. In fact, the founders believe that there has been “no evolution in 15 years”, and there is some suggestion that customer reviews are now a less trusted source. (I suppose search result rankings and paid-for SEO have distorted the market?)

Incorporating gamification and aiming for an “influent” audience base, Checkit-Out allows users to upload 1 minute videos of their restaurant visits, from the restaurants themselves. (This is the first market segment the founders are targeting.)

I wasn’t sure what the revenue model was – restaurants pay a commission on bookings or referrals made via the app? – and it wasn’t clear how or how often the video content gets updated. I’m also sure that some restaurants may not be too happy about diners filming their experiences and posting them online, while they are still dining – managers and waiters probably have enough to do coping with diners taking photos of every dish for their social media pages….

Finally, as with most user-defined and user-contributed content platforms, we tend to gravitate to the reviewers whose views and tastes appear to align with our own – understanding how that model works would be incredibly valuable.

 

Note: I’m extremely grateful to Steven Hess, Program Leader, and the team at Re-Imagi for inviting me to participate in the dress rehearsals, and to attend the pitch night itself. It was a very interesting and worthwhile experience, and noticeable that the program fellows had taken on board much of the feedback that myself and other mentors had provided at the rehearsals.

Next week: Tribute