Goya – allegories and reportage for the modern age

Just prior to the latest COVID-related lock down in Melbourne, I managed to visit the exhibition of drawings and prints by Goya at the NGV. Although these works were produced 200 years ago, they are still relevant today.

Goya: Two People Looking into a Luminous Room – Image sourced from NGV

Working at the time of the Enlightenment, and despite his status and reputation as a court painter, Goya still had to navigate the political oppression of both Spanish and French rulers, and the religious persecution in the form of the Inquisition.

His series of drawings and etchings reveal a very personal side to Goya’s work, combining allegory, satire, reportage, surrealism and the sub-conscience. The images provide a commentary on the horrors of war and its aftermath, while his domestic scenes on courtship, gold diggers and hapless suitors would not be out of place on Married at First Sight or The Bachelor… There’s a lot that’s familiar about these images.

The exhibition provide some insights into Goya’s working methods – from his use and development of preparatory drawings, to the different etching techniques he deployed to create the finished prints.

One drawing in particular caught my attention – a red crayon sketch entitled “Two People Looking into a Luminous Room”. It’s a remarkable image on a number of levels. The room of the title does not look like a typical building or structure. It almost resembles the bellows of a giant camera, except that photography had not yet been invented. Perhaps it refers to a type of camera obscura or similar device that Goya had seen? On the other hand, it could be a metaphor for Hell, a glimpse into the white heat of the Inferno. For me, it even suggests Goya’s prescience for the work of James Turrell. It’s a remarkable piece in an absorbing exhibition.

Next week: The Fall – always different, always the same

Startup Vic FinTech Pitch Night

The Australian tech sector, especially at the startup end of the industry, is having to grapple with what is fast becoming a major structural and operational challenge: how to hire, remunerate and retain staff. With closed international borders cutting off the supply of overseas students and graduates, and a lack of sufficient home-grown skills, it’s a problem that established businesses and startup ventures alike are having to address. Just last week, the AFR reported that some wages in the tech sector have gone up 30% in the past 12 months. Perhaps this issue was on the minds of the four founders who presented at the recent Startup Victoria FinTech Pitch Night.

The judges for this on-line event, sponsored by LaunchVic, were: Nicole Small, Investment Director at Rampersand; Kim Hansen, Co-founder and CEO of Cake Equity; Caitlin Zotti, Operations Manager at Pin Payments; and “the people’s judge,” Eike Zeller, Community Lead at Stone & Chalk Melbourne. Compered by Josh Sharma, Head of Labs & Startups at LUNA, the evening also featured a virtual fireside chat between Rebecca Schot-Guppy, CEO of FinTech Australia, Dom Pym, Co-Founder of Up, and Julia Bearzatto, Head of Technology for Financial Services at MYOB.

The four startups in order of presentation were (links in the names):

Elbaite

Claiming to be the “first non-custodial cryptocurrency exchange“, part of Elbaite’s mission is to prevent theft or misappropriation of crypto assets held in exchange wallets. What makes Elbaite different from other decentralized exchanges (DEXs) and peer-to-peer platforms is that they escrow the fiat involved in any transaction. While they may not be charging the fees of centralized exchanges (CEXs), they are charging a 1% on crypto purchases (although there is 0% commission on sales). Elbaite is hoping to target institutional clients who may not be as comfortable trading on “traditional” crypto exchanges – although in my experience, many institutional clients actually need third-party custody services as part of their governance and compliance obligations. The judges felt that this is a crowded space (there are more than 250 crypto exchanges globally, plus numerous fiat on/off ramps, brokers, OTC desks and P2P platforms).

Sequrr

Speaking of custody and escrow, who would have guessed that stolen house purchase deposits are such a major issue, unless the team at Sequrr had told us? Despite the use of Real Estate Trust Accounts within the industry, apparently there is not much to stop the account holders from walking off with the deposits. Which rather begs the question why the industry does not already use something like multi-signature digital wallets, which mean that the funds can only be moved once all parties to the transaction agree. Even though this is a tech solution using a 3-way verification model (innovation patent pending), the different real estate laws in each State means that it’s not that simple to roll out nationally. However, the team also see opportunities for other professional and commercial sectors: solicitors, builders, aged care. (Note to the founders: I know that invented brand names were once flavour of the month for tech startups, but I question the wisdom of adopting a word that reads like a spelling error, and sounds like someone coughing up phlegm – especially if you want to be taken seriously by banks and solicitors. Just a thought.)

Nextround

Another issue of trust exists between employers and employees when it comes to reward and recognition schemes. There’s always a risk that whatever structure and incentives companies use, someone will try to game the system (or collude with colleagues) especially if the stakes are high; or, if the rewards are simply handed out for turning up and doing your job, their currency becomes debased. Then there’s the (ill-advised) link between rewards and recognition on the one hand, and performance reviews (plus bonuses and salary adjustments) on the other. It’s a balancing act which Nextround are addressing by making it easier (and less expensive) to reward and recognise all of your staff, not just the usual top 5-15%. They do this by offering managers and team leaders access to rewards of a smaller (yet still meaningful) value, which can be easily redeemed by the recipients, for hospitality rewards, events and experiences. The commercial model relies on an annual corporate subscription fee, and taking a cut of the reward vouchers. Nextround consults with employers on their preferred merchants and suppliers, who don’t necessarily see the vouchers as eroding their margins – rather, it’s another sales channel. This is not a hospitality app (e.g., loyalty program), more of a procurement app. And although there are numerous competitors for reward and recognition schemes, the “smarts” are in the way managers and HR teams can budget and allocate accordingly, without the need for onerous expense form claims because the transactions can all be tracked from the point of redemption back to the point of issuance. The resulting data will also generate a further revenue stream from the valuable analytics, although would I want my employer to know how I used my vouchers (assuming they are not tied to a specific reward)? My other reservation is that if the rewards really are as small as a cup of coffee, or even a round of drinks at the pub, isn’t it a bit like tipping?

SpendAble

Letting people make their own financial decisions is also a form of trust. Most of us would feel we can be trusted to spend our own money how we like. But this assumption may be challenged when it comes to people with a disability. SpendAble is developing payment, saving and investment solutions for people who face physical, societal and intellectual barriers to managing the financial affairs. Starting with a budget-based spending app, SpendAble helps users to allocate, identify and track their purchases more easily, and with much of the payment friction removed. The team will also develop specific applications such as voice-controlled functions for the visually impaired. Largely reliant upon the NDIS for funding and end users to cover transaction costs, SpendAble will plug into existing banking platforms – which might be a better way to underwrite the app? However, some of the online chat on the night suggested that SpendAble could provide well-needed general financial education to school kids as part of its offering, as well as helping to address financial inclusion.

Such was the enthusiasm for SpendAble that they took out the Peoples’ Choice as well as the Judges’ Award.

Next week: Accounting for Crypto

Here We Go Again…

At the time of writing, Melbourne is once again under a COVID19-related lock down. Currently, we are three-quarters of the way through a 14-day “snap” lock down or “circuit breaker”. Variously known as #lockdown4, v4.0 (now v4.1 with the added week), or simply “The South Australian One”. Along with a prevailing sense of déja vu, much of the political, media and social coverage has a very familiar ring to it – like, here we go again!

Overall, I would much rather be in Australia at the moment, compared to many other places in the world that are still struggling to cope with the pandemic. But there is no doubt that this latest lock down is once again revealing some political and structural weaknesses in the Australian Federal and State system – and the people of Victoria (and especially Melbourne) are paying a heavy price for these combined failings.

The blame game between Federal and State politicians is becoming a farce – most of us would rather see some effective leadership and practical solutions, as well as a bit more owning up and taking responsibility for where and when things have gone wrong. After all, the first known case of COVID19 was reported in Australia in late January 2020, so our elected representatives at levels and of all persuasions have had nearly 18 months to sort this out. It doesn’t help that our Prime Minister is generally regarded as being absent whenever there is a crisis – on the other hand, does it help to have him turn up in hi-vis and hard hat for another photo opportunity? And sometimes when he does bother to make it, he’s often made to feel unwelcome.

Here are just a few of the disconnects between Federal and State roles and responsibilities when it comes to managing COVID19:

First, the Federal government is responsible for external border control (i.e., immigration and quarantine). It’s generally argued that the Feds have failed to deliver a workable quarantine solution for anyone coming to or returning to Australia. For whatever reason (and we’ll probably have to wait 20 years before the relevant papers are released), National Cabinet in March 2020 agreed to delegate the management of hotel quarantine (HQ) to the individual States and Territories. The big question is: why did the States agree? Where there incentives on offer, or did they do so because they could see no solution coming from the Federal government? At the same time, the States have applied inconsistent border controls as between each other, and at times, Victoria has been able to suspend in-bound international flights, putting more demand on the other States’ HQ programmes.

On the other hand, Melbourne still managed to host an international Grand Slam tennis event in the summer (notwithstanding some COVID scares and cases), and our nation’s softball players have already been vaccinated prior to heading off to Japan for the Tokyo Olympic Games (which many locals want to cancel for obvious reasons). Plus, AFL teams were somehow able to travel interstate from Melbourne immediately prior to the lock down (did they get a tip-off?). Yet, at least one AFL club has breached COVID regulations, when travelling on a domestic passenger flight. I’m so glad we have got our priorities right when it comes to professional sport!

Second, health services (along with education, aged care and social services) are a strange mix of Federal and State responsibilities, services and delivery. As a result, there is bound to be some overlap and double handling, as well as some obvious gaps. The Federal government is being blamed for failing to secure and distribute adequate vaccine supplies when and where they are needed, and for failing to meet their own aspirational targets in terms of vaccine roll-out. Yet, as with so many public services, there is a (confusing) dual delivery system. Victoria set up a number of vaccination hubs – only it still hasn’t deployed an online booking system: only phone bookings (or walk-ins) are available. But the Federal delivery is via health clinics and GPs, with each service provider offering different booking systems.

Third, the vaccination roll-out (by age and priority categories) has seen the criteria move around, somewhat arbitrarily. There is anecdotal evidence that due to low take-up rates in March and April, some people within one of the priority age categories (initially 60, it was suddenly moved to 50 in May) could access a jab at a clinic or hub at short notice, as otherwise those stocks were going to waste. It doesn’t help that there was/is confusion over the vaccine requirement for certain front line workers (e.g., in aged care) and who is responsible for administering those vaccinations. Of course, since the latest lock down in Victoria, demand is outstripping supply, and it is difficult to verify data on whether anyone who was in a priority category was initially unable to access a vaccine (or was denied access) at the time they became eligible and wanted a jab.

Fourth, hotel quarantine continues to be the key weak point in the transmission chain. I’m not going to dwell on the systemic failure that led to Victoria’s second (and lengthy) lock down last winter/spring – from which we were only just starting to recover when #lockdown4 was imposed. The fact that the latest lock down was triggered by an apparent breach in South Austalia’s HQ is of some significance, as it re-introduced the Kappa “Variant of Interest” into Victoria. More worrying is the presence of the Delta “Variant of Concern”, whose precise source in Victoria is still unknown, but likely to have come from our own troubled HQ system.

Fifth, the calls for the Federal government to pay for dedicated and purpose-built quarantine facilities in each State are understandable – but I’m not sure why Victoria in particular didn’t just go ahead and build their own (and then later stick the Feds with the bill). It’s not as if there is a shortage of construction work going on at the moment in Victoria (much of it State-funded), so it would have been quite easy to pull that project together without waiting for the Feds to come to the party. After all, construction was one of the few industries to continue relatively unscathed during last winter’s lock down – and with the Federal job keeper and job maker subsidies available at the time, Victoria could easily have completed the task by now, especially with the support of a key developer such as the union-backed Cbus.

Sixth, Victoria has only just mandated a universal QR code system for checking visitors in at all business, commercial, retail and hospitality premises. Why it took so long, and why it allowed a mish-mash of third party apps and pen and paper systems is yet another example of poor IT implementation by government. (The Feds appear to be no better with their own COVID tracing app.)

Seventh, the Federal Government, via last week’s National Cabinet, appears to have established a common definition for a COVID19 “hot spot”. Again, it’s only taken the best part of 18 months, and we still don’t have consistent and national terms for defining “red zone”, “complex case”, “cluster”, “mystery case”, “complex case”, “unknown case”, “fleeting transmission”, “stranger to stranger transmission”, “primary contact”, “close contact” or “exposure site” tiers. Nor do we have a consistent framework for responding to a “hot spot”, especially when comparing Victoria to other States.

Finally, the latest lock down again reveals weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Australia’s manufacturing capabilities and supply chains (in terms of producing and distributing sufficient vaccines). It’s also shown up economic fragility with many people living pay cheque to pay cheque, and many small businesses, especially in retail, tourism and hospitality, will not manage to bounce back from a fourth shut down.

Next week: How about that AAA rating?

Intersekt FinTech Pitch Night

The opening event of the Intersekt 2021 Australian FinTech Conference was a startup pitch night, organised by FinTech Australia, hosted by YBF Ventures, and sponsored by Seed Money. The esteemed judging panel was drawn from a range of VC funds: Todd Forest (NAB Ventures), Nicole Small (Rampersand), Rohen Sood (Reinventure), Lynda Coker (SpeedSpace) and Lucinda Hankin (Grok Ventures).

The pitches in order of presentation (links are in the names):

Boulevard

A cloud-based share registry management platform for startups, founders and their employees. Designed to to be an exchange for unlisted securities, the platform also offers Investor Relations support and automated compliance solutions. Using Distributed Ledger Technology (which underpins Blockchain), the team are working with ASX DLT Solutions (responsible for the CHESS replacement) and deploying DAML, the programming language for modelling digital assets. They have also developed ASICLink, to automate company filings with the corporate regulator, plan to support corporate actions (including the verification of company financials), and are working with equity crowdfunding platforms. Boulevard has already on-boarded 30 companies, comprising 4,000 shareholders.

COGSflow

Describing itself as “Performance based finance”, this is essentially a merchant service offering cash-flow funding solutions for physical goods. This involves purchasing client inventory, and getting repaid on the sales performance. Using a funding ratio calculation as the basis of its credit risk model, the COGSflow will track sales data from the likes of eBay and Amazon (although both of these platforms, like PayPal, Alibaba etc. already offer SME financing of various forms). COGSflow will also analyze variable marketing and customer acquisition costs as inputs to its lending model, and plans to become a member of the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR), as well as seeking B Corp certification.

Archa

Archa is solving the challenges many SMEs face when trying to access corporate credit cards – banks generally demand personal guarantees from owners or directors before they issue cards, and when they do the “product is awful”. As the pitch described it, many bank-issued corporate cards are really designed as “a line of credit to acquire air miles”. With a mobile app already in the market, Archa incorporates an administration and expense management solution. A major bug bear for many companies is managing corporate subscriptions – all those SaaS apps that are tied to individual employee cards; consolidating, renewing and cancelling those services can be time-consuming and painful. The account administrator can also manage each card’s credit limit. Archa itself has principal issuer membership with MasterCard. In addition to an equity raise, the team is seeking debt funding to offer lines of credit. Channels to market will include SME lenders, accountants and lawyers.

Sherlok

According to the founders, most people paying too much on their mortgages – based on their home loan rate. Because mortgage brokers have 60% of the market, and rely on trailing commissions, there is little incentive for brokers to help their clients find a better rate or provider. However, 15% of brokers’ clients are leaving each year. Sherlok is an SaaS platform that uses AI to help brokers reprice and refinance their existing mortgage book. Using a broker subscription model, Sherlok is aiming to offer “single click refinancing”, although there was some equivocation about becoming a virtual brokerage itself. The founders feel that mortgage broking is still a relationship based business, and requires a human touch.

Axichain

Axichain is building a blockchain-based agricultural supply chain – a digital trading solution for cross-border commodities trading, with an initial focus on red meat. The founders are addressing three main supply chain pain points – market access, paperwork and payment.
Axichain combines smart contracts, an escrow solution and traceability linked to legal processes. Overall, the platform envisages multiple products and revenue streams. The team are seeking both equity and debt funding, the latter to provide lines of credit lines.

Parpera

The meaning of “Parpera” is “fair wallet”. By that, the founders mean they want to offer a range of banking and related services aimed at SME owners, sole traders and freelances. This could include business registration and set-up, better financial insights, and access to smarter banking products etc. It will include card services, payments and invoicing. The plan is to target customers who are about to set up a business, and to promote the service at the start/end of the financial year, hence the intention to use accountants as a channel to market.

Next week: Monash University Virtual Demo Day