How to spend $60m on #Innovation and #Entrepreneurship for #Startups

In the recent Victorian State Budget, the government allocated $60m over 4 years to supporting startups, via innovation and entrepreneurship. While not an insignificant sum, it’s still not a huge amount in the overall scheme of things. Having made the announcement, the government hurriedly undertook some rapid community and stakeholder consultation, to figure out how to spend the money. I was fortunate enough to be invited to one of the consultation exercises, a half-day lightning conference organised by Dandalo Partners, facilitated by Collabforge, and hosted by Teamsquare co-working space.

LightningConference

The theme of the Lightning Conference was #StartUpFuture

At the outset, there was an assumption that whatever recommendations came out of the consultation process, a new quango would be formed to oversee the implementation of the program and distribution of the funding. I don’t think I was alone when I expressed my concern that this was rather like putting the cart before the horse – the implication being, “Why seek our opinion, views and recommendations if you’ve already decided the solution?”

To their credit, the organisers took this on board – for example, rather than creating yet another entity, maybe the funding could be facilitated by an existing body such as Startup Victoria – but it felt that the consultation exercise was at risk of “going through the motions”.

Across the various topics that were discussed in the self-forming and self-directed breakout sessions, there were probably 5 key themes:

  1. Community
  2. Infrastructure
  3. Funding
  4. Sustainability and 
  5. “Picking Winners”. 

Here are the main points from each of those themes:

1. Community

There was general agreement that the local startup and entrepreneurial community is well-established, reasonably well-connected (I myself knew about 10% of the participants from various networks) and growing fast.

However, there was also a common view that more could be done to bring entrepreneurs and like-minded people together. For example, how do people know what ideas or projects everyone is working on, how can people find help or make offers of help in terms of matching skills, experience, knowledge, resources? How do we connect suppliers and investors to startups?

Sure, there are numerous meetups and regular startup events, but is there a better way to leverage this potential?  And there are various matching services linking entrepreneurs to mentors, but they are rather ad hoc, and in the case of connecting startups and investors, there are probably more challenges than there are opportunities (see Funding, below).

In short, how can the community come together in a more collaborative way?

2. Infrastructure

It’s quite easy to see that Victoria (mainly Melbourne) has a vibrant startup ecosystem, simply based on the number and frequency of meetup events, founder workshops and hackathons. But there still appear to be numerous obstacles to getting started – from establishment costs and bureaucratic red tape, to tax impediments and access to funding.

Some of these challenges are being addressed at Federal level (e.g., streamlining the company registration process, tax cuts for SMEs, and changes to both equity crowdfunding and employee share schemes). But that’s part of the challenge in itself – at the individual State level, there is relatively little that can be done on fiscal policy (apart from payroll tax and land tax), and all reforms relating to securities financing need Federal legislation and the involvement of market regulators.

The State government has more autonomy around local industry policy settings and planning, as well as making funding available via grants. This means, though, that government is forced to prioritize one sector over another (see “Picking Winners”, below), and a system of grants often results in a mini-industry that is created around grant applications, awards and distribution.

At a practical level, some participants took the view that more could be done to facilitate early stage startups and product prototyping – such as a continuous education and open-enrollment program for entrepreneurs, and co-working spaces for small-scale manufacturing, materials-testing, and engineering. (I am aware of at least a couple of local projects in this space – a biotech co-working lab and an “Internet of Things” open access workshop).

If the State government is looking to plug a gap, investing in R&D facilities might be one option.

3. Funding

This remains the biggie – and a topic previously covered both in this blog, and via numerous commentators and advisers. Even though there are many local pitch competitions, incubators and accelerator programs (plus Shark Tank and That Startup Show make for interesting/amusing viewing…) the elephant in the room is that there are too many startups chasing too few investors.

Competition for resources is positive, as long as it’s an efficient, transparent and accessible market, where the laws of supply and demand are equitable and the rules of engagement are clearly understood.

One industry veteran noted that the local investor community can normally provide small-scale startup funding up to $5m (via “family, friends and fools” and angel backers), and even larger, early-stage equity funding over $50m (via Venture Capital, Private Equity and Family Offices). But in the $5m-$50m range there are far fewer options.

Leaving aside the pros and cons of traditional secured and unsecured bank lending and emerging P2P lending platforms, there is a funding gap that could be filled via Australia’s superannuation scheme:

  • First, we need to find ways to get large retail and industry super funds along with other institutional investors to invest directly in local startups. At present, thanks to the Silicon Valley effect, these instos are more comfortable handing their money to US-based fund managers who then charge a premium to invest the assets in local startups. (I call this a very expensive boomerang….)
  • Second, in the absence of suitable investments for retail investors who may want to allocate part of their portfolio to startup opportunities, part of their superannuation assets could be used to invest in early-stage startups via a form of savings products or fixed income bonds. The retail bond market (such as it is) is heavily skewed towards sovereign debt (treasury bonds) and bonds issued by financial institutions (often in the form of hybrid securities, which are essentially a form of deferred equity). There have been attempts (and even regulatory reforms) to encourage the development of a deeper retail bond market in Australia, but these efforts appear to have stalled.

An enlightened approach to asset allocation could direct even a very small part of the $1.8tn superannation savings into startups that could have significant outcomes. If SMEs are seen as the backbone of future economic activity and jobs (as well as innovation and entrepreneurship), helping to accelerate startup growth will deliver multiple long-term dividends.

4. Sustainability

This wasn’t a huge topic of discussion, but it deserves an honourable mention because it surfaced in several ways:

  • Economic (e.g., making better use of available resources, not funding startups that go nowhere etc.)
  • Social impact (e.g., the growth of social enterprises)
  • Environmental (e.g., the conscious capitalism movement and the importance of “for purpose” enterprises such as B-Corps that want to minimize their environmental footprint)
  • Government (e.g., how to foster startups that want to help deliver better public services, and how to change public sector procurement policies that give startups more of a look-in)

There is also a need to reflect the changing demographics of the workplace, so that sustainable employment opportunities (in whatever form they exist) are made available to both mature-age workers and new school leavers.

So perhaps part of the $60m could be put towards (re)training initiatives.

5. “Picking Winners”

First up, let me say I always get nervous when we put our elected representatives in charge of deciding the fate of specific industries, especially when it’s taxpayers’ money at risk. Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure that picking winners is the government’s forte. I understand the need to support certain sectors that contribute to GDP growth, create employment opportunities, generate taxable revenue, instil industry innovation and develop cutting-edge technology – but the example of the domestic automotive industry is one where political ideology probably got the better of sound economics, as public subsidies eventually came to look like throwing good money after bad.

If nothing else, picking or backing winners is fraught with problems of favouritism, lobbying, murky back room deals and “jobs for the boys”. Better to create the foundations upon which broader innovation and entrepreneurship can thrive, and let the market decide. That way, the government can still claim the credit, and frame the conversation around its role as an enabler.

On the day, the discussion was more about the long lead time before anyone would know whether the program had been successful (assuming we can agree on what success should look like). In reality, re-tooling innovation and entrepreneurship is a 10-year initiative (which is difficult to manage in the face of short-term policy settings linked to 3 and 4-year election cycles).

  • Should we teach entrepreneurship and innovation in schools (alongside coding and STEM subjects)?
  • Should government use local plebiscites to determine where/when/how the funding should be allocated?
  • Should we use the money to directly fund startup founders (rather like the UK’s enterprise allowance scheme in the 1980s)?

There was also a suggestion that the money could be used to promote local startup success stories, in order to foster an understanding of truly viable startups, to identify and fast-track high-potential entrepreneurs, as well as define what is takes (time, money, resources, networking and connections) to build scalable and sustainable startup businesses (i.e., companies generating $250m+ in revenue, not lifestyle ventures or small family owned concerns).

If we do need to pick winners, perhaps we can easily agree which ones they are based on current trends, future needs and demographic demands:

  • Health, biotech and medtech
  • Fintech and big data analytics
  • Education and lifelong learning
  • Renewables and green technologies
  • High-tech engineering and manufacturing

In which case, we should simply help the State government prepare an investor profile, set an optimum portfolio performance target (based on financial returns, innovation scores and a mix of social and environmental outcomes) and give the $60m to a skilled fund manager.

FOOTNOTE:

For further ideas, please see 10 Random Ideas…

POSTSCRIPT:

A couple of further contributions to the innovation debate from AVCAL around tax reform, and from OneVentures around superannuation allocation.

 

Next week: Medtech’s Got Talent

AngelCube15 – has your #startup got what it takes?

Startup Victoria‘s first Lean Startup meeting of the year heralded the launch of AngelCube‘s 2015 accelerator program (#AC15), for which applications are now open. A good opportunity to check in with previous successful applicants, and find out if your startup is made of the right stuff.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 10.03.58 amThe info evening was hosted by inspire9, and supported by PwC, and Nathan from AngelCube kicked off proceedings by giving a run down on the accelerator program, the application process, and the type of startups that are more likely to be accepted.

What does the program offer?

  • A 3-month intensive learning and development experience
  • $20k in funding (in return for 10% of the business)
  • Co-working facilities
  • Working with Lean methodology (focus on Product-Market fit)
  • Access to great mentors and advisers, and early-stage investors
  • Participation in a fundraising roadshow (including time in the US)

There is an application form via AngelList, and the closing date is May 10 (but the sooner you can submit the better). From the hundreds of applications, AngelCube puts together a shortlist of 20, of which no more than 10 will likely be accepted.

What is AngelCube looking for?

  • Globally scalable tech startups (think beyond Australia!)
  • In-house tech skills/resources (it’s not really a matching service)
  • Great teams (more than the ideas themselves)
  • Customer traction (ideally revenue-generating)
  • Consumer-oriented solutions (rather than B2B)

What has the experience been like for successful graduates?

Three alumni of previous AngelCube programs offered some personal insights, and then participated in a Q&A with the audience of 400:

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 10.02.34 amFirst up was Peter from Ediply, a service that matches students to the course or university of their choice. Given the growth in education and lifelong learning, and the increasing numbers of students (especially from Asia) looking to study overseas, the business seemed like a natural fit for AngelCube. However, it was still a relatively new or unknown sector in terms of end-user or independent services (rather than in-house marketing and enrollment efforts) – which sort of broke one of AngelCube’s rules for acceptance: no established market. Peter stressed that the main reasons for applying were the need to overcome some development barriers, and to get out of a “Melbourne mindset”.

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 10.03.01 amAsh from Tablo (“YouTube for books”) probably broke another AngelCube rule, in that he was a sole applicant (not part of a team) and he had limited tech resources. AngelCube made him work harder, think big, and keep going – and helped him to become a disruptive force in publishing, with customers in 130 countries collectively publishing 1 million words a day. He’s also closed a C-round of funding, and has some impressive investors on his share register.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 10.03.28 amLastly, David from etaskr (“a private label elance”) had to quit a full-time job with one week’s notice once he got accepted into AngelCube. He even had to Google how to pitch. Plus he came into the program with a totally different idea, got slammed, failed to get customer traction, and ended up pivoting to an enterprise software solution (and broke another AngelCube rule in the process – no B2B, because of the longer sales cycle). Despite having to live on very little money for 6 months (less than $200 pw) the team persevered, and are now starting to get traction, including overseas markets like Holland. His final words were “risk is not something to fear, but to overcome”.

Q&A with the audience

Most of the questions were about the application process for AngelCube, and how it helped the successful startups, particularly with going global. In large part, this due to some great networks, access to high-profile connections (“we got to meet the first employees at Yammer!”) and links to some influential investors. There was also some discussion about how to secure your first customers (mainly via social marketing techniques), and the challenge of enterprise sales (“it sucks, because you need 100 different minds to all say ‘Yes!'”).

Finally, for more insights, please visit these links to previous posts about AngelCube and some of the successful applicants.)

Next week: Help! I need to get some perspective…

#Startup Victoria finds the human connection

The team behind Startup Victoria held the inaugural Above All Human conference in Melbourne last week, co-directed by Susan Wu and Bronwen Clune, and MC’d by futurist Mark Pesce. If there was a single, overarching theme to the day, I would sum it up as: don’t overlook the human component in what you do.

Whether you are a startup founder or investor, defining your purpose is not enough; it also takes considerable self-awareness to build an innovative, successful, and sustainable business. It also requires curiosity, risk-taking, resourcefulness, empathy, creativity, resilience, perception, drive, reflection, vision, perseverance, passion, luck and critical thinking….

Featuring an interesting mix of established, experienced and emerging startup entrepreneurs and experts, we were treated to a broad range of themes including:

  • bringing financial services to the “unbanked” world;
  • the importance of design;
  • building startup platforms and ecosystems;
  • the power of storytelling;
  • challenging gender bias in the tech sector;
  • the potential of mass customisation;
  • understanding the value of an accelerator program;
  • the ethics of driverless cars;
  • changing minds with technology; and
  • the wisdom of knowing when to give up the dream and move on to the next opportunity.

Aside from the plenary, Q&A and panel sessions, there were product demos and startup pitches, and the whole event offered a valuable learning opportunity for anyone interested in engaging with the local startup community, or those curious about making connections between technology and the human condition.

Finally, it should be said that without Melbourne’s growing status as a global startup venue, the organisers would have been unable to attract such an impressive cohort of international speakers. This also reinforces Melbourne’s reputation as one of the world’s most livable cities (#1 or #11 depending on which list you are reading…).

 

What the *%@#? Dave McClure vents his spleen…

The final Lean Start Melbourne event of 2014 was a Q&A with Dave McClure, tech entrepreneur, early-stage investor and founder of 500 Startups. It was certainly an ear-opening experience, as Dave laced his comments with enough expletives to fund a small start-up (if only the organisers had thought to provide a swear jar…).

But while he was vociferous in his refusal to answer questions like “what’s hot?”, or “where’s the next big thing?”, he did provide some refreshing insights on how founders and investors need to adjust their expectations on funding and returns.

The event was hosted by inspire9, with sponsorship from BlueChilli, General Assembly, and Loud & Clear. Adrian Stone from Investors’ Organisation was acknowledged for helping to bring Dave to Australia, and Amanda Gome was the MC for the evening.

Dave’s investing model is basically a numbers game – identify a large enough pool of startup opportunities, place smaller “bets” on each one, in the expectation that only 10% will succeed, and of those, only 10% will be really successful, and very, very few will reach an IPO – but the spread of successful bets should each return between 5x and 20x. Whereas, some investors still try to “bet on unicorns”, in the expectation of a 20x-25x exit every time. Such opportunities will be increasingly unlikely, as the technology costs of production continue to decrease, therefore startups don’t require the same level or type of funding.

Based on current trends, Dave sees huge potential in video commerce, mobile video, and anything that monetizes search – e.g., influencing followers via social media, and converting this traction to sales driven by personalised recommendations. He’s also big on Spanish- and Arabic-speaking markets, and “anything that arbitrages sexism and racism” – hence his interest in women and minority entrepreneurs.

Dave’s advice is pretty simple: get the product, market and revenue model right, and then build scale into the business as quickly as possible. As such, he hates people asking him his opinion on their startup ideas (“what do I know?”); instead, he emphasises the need to get paying (and profitable) end users plus building scale through marketing as the true proof of concept.

Throughout the evening, Dave talked a lot about unit economics – not just production costs, but the real cost of customer acquisition, and time to convert leads to sales. It was also interesting that unlike some speakers at previous Lean Startup events, he was not particularly negative towards startups developing enterprise solutions – rather, he prefers to segment clients based upon their decision-making and purchasing limits. So, he looks at revenues based on the respective number of end users, SME customers and enterprise clients, because of their different price points and procurement methods, as well as the different customer acquisition costs.

Finally, he encouraged potential startups to think of the “most boring and mindless” business activities or processes, and figure out ways to make them more interesting via apps that use gamification and social media tools.