Gaming/VR/AR pitch night at Startup Victoria

Building on the successful format that has been the mainstay of Startup Vic‘s regular meetups for the past few years, February’s pitch night kicked off a scheduled programme of thematic events for 2017. First up was Gaming, VR and AR.

Photo by Daniel C, sourced from the Startup Victoria Meetup page

Hosted as usual by inspire9, the event drew a packed crowd, no doubt helped by the impressive panel of judges assembled by the organisers:

Dr Anna Newberry, responsible for driver-assistance technologies at Ford Australia; Stefani Adams, Innovation Partner at the Australia Post Accelerator; Tim Ruse, CEO of Zero Latency; Rupert Deans, Founder and CEO of Plattar; Samantha Hurley, Co-Founder and Director of Marketing Entourage; Gerry Sakkas, CEO of PlaySide Studios; and Joe Barber, a Commercialisation Advisor to the Department of Industry and Science, a Mentor at the Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP), and angel investor.

Maintaining the tradition of this blog, I will comment on each startup pitch in the order in which they presented.

Metavents

This niche business offers an event planning app for festivals. At its heart is a tool that allows users to build a 3-D simulation of proposed events, combined with an AI capability to simulate risk management, logistics and team communications, plus a digital time capsule where event attendees can upload photos and other content.

Once licensed to event planners and organisers, the platform charges clients $1 per ticket sale, plus a 2.5% fee on donations and fees for other content and services such as the digital time capsule. In addition, Metavents is building strategic partnerships, and announced a relationship with the Vihara Foundation and its Rock Against Poverty programme from 2018.

All good so far. Then, things got a bit confusing. For example, in addition to festival and event logistics, Metavents claims to offer humanitarian support services in response to natural disasters, and emergency management capabilities for smart cities. There was also talk of a global network (linked to the UN?), and an impact investment fund.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that the pitch was a bit disjointed and suffered from a lack of focus. But the pitch did reveal something of the founders’ core passion, and incorporated some impressive graphics – it just felt like a case of form over substance.

Second Sight

Second Sight is a game analytics service that “unlocks the secrets in player data”, by enriching existing big data sources with social media interactions. It does this by profiling players based on their behaviours, and providing this feedback and insights to game developers and product managers. Focusing on the mobile game market, Second Sight is initially targeting independent developers, and will then move on to corporate game businesses.

Second Sight’s own development path is to build automation tools first, then create a library of tasks and insights. With an estimated 1 million users (based on game statistics), 3 paying clients and another 27 beta clients, this startup is showing some promising market traction. However, there are a number of established competitors, including Omniata (which is more of a general user analytics engine, like Mixpanel or Flurry), GameAnalytics, deltaDNA and Xsolla, some of which offer free user services.

In response to the “ask”, ($500k in seed funding in return for 20% equity), the judges suggested that Second Sight might want to address the needs of a specific game sector.

Dark Shadow Studio

This presentation featured an application called Drone Legion, that merges drone experience with VR. Part simulation game, part training software, it was nice to see a demo of the app running in the background, without detracting from the pitch itself.

A key point made by the presentation is that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which is responsible for regulating drones in Australia, is in danger of falling behind other countries. For example, Drone Legion could be adapted to provide user training, testing and licensing before a customer buys a physical drone.

Although there are drone simulators available via Steam, they are not aimed at the general public. Drone Legion is also compatible with a range of gaming consoles.

The judges suggested that this pitch was more an individual game, rather than a business, so it was suggested that the founders should try to get funding from HTC or Oculus to build their first game. And given that one of the judges works for Australia Post (ostensibly a logistics company with a growing interest in drone technology….), there was the offer of a personal introduction.

Phoria

Phoria describes itself as an “immersive media business”, offering rapid 3-D visualisation (especially for the property development sector and the built environment),  and other services such as digital preservation.

But tonight, the pitch was about a plan to use “VR for social good”. Under the moniker “Dreamed”, Phoria is developing a niche health care solution, designing “patient experiences” to help them get out of their current care or treatment environment.

Predicated on an immersive therapy platform, Dreamed will offer a distribution service for cloud-based content, designed to be used alongside other, related assisted therapies that feature Animals, Nature and Music as stimulants for patient engagement and therapeutic outcomes. While not exactly a MedTech solution, Phoria’s “IP special sauce” is the use of VR as a constant dynamic feedback loop, which presumably learns from and adapts to user interaction and monitoring of appropriate patient diagnostics.

So, who pays for the service? Hopefully, hospitals will, especially if they can demonstrate reduced therapy costs and patient treatment times. (Maybe there will also be a consumer market alongside existing meditation apps?) But with some early-stage and potentially high-profile research underway via the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Phoria and Dreamed look to be making steady progress, notwithstanding the normally slow pace of medical research. Key to the research outcomes will be user acceptance and ease of service and content delivery, although a large number of unknowns remain in the context of the medical benefits. Meanwhile, Phoria continues to serve its core property market.

Finally, something which I found somewhat surprising, according to the presentation, there is no VR content licensing model currently available. Sounds like a job for a decentralized digital asset management and licensing registry (such as MyBit?).

On the night, and based on the judges’ votes, Phoria took out first place honours.

Next week: The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

 

Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy

In a recent and very informative fireside chat, Linda Kozlowski, COO of Etsy was in conversation with Sarah Moran, CEO of Girl Geek Academy. Key themes of the discussion included the challenges in building a “global/local” platform, making sure you are addressing the right audience needs, and in a two-sided market place, knowing how to balance the interests of sellers and buyers.

etsyOrganised by StartupVic and hosted by inspire9, it was yet another example of how fortunate Melbourne is to attract and host so many leading global figures in the startup world, willing to share their insights (as well as learn more about the local startup scene – which probably does not get as big a rap as it should, especially in mainstream media).

With previous operational roles at both Alibaba and Evernote, Linda brings a strong combination of experience in tech and market places, and describes her current position as covering “CX and revenue from end-to-end”. Her primary focus is on product development, global expansion and addressing sellers’ problems.

At Etsy, the aim is to develop a global product platform that is culturally diverse. There is a natural tension between fully localised customisation (which can be costly to maintain – translation, version control, managing updates), and a “best of breed” model that can serve most users (which can lead to too many compromises). So instead, Etsy pursues a strategy of locally originated products and features, combined with open APIs.

Etsy has also identified sellers as their core audience. This means that so much of the CX is actually determined by sellers’ needs, to whom Etsy then serves up customers to the platform via social media, content marketing and SOE. Etsy sees this as a point of differentiation when considering traditional retailers who often end up squeezing their suppliers on pricing and margins.

In balancing the needs of two-sided markets, again Etsy focuses on the seller first – because buyers want to see depth of inventory and a range of quality products, so get sellers on-board and the buyers will come.

Asked how Etsy avoids buyers going direct to suppliers, Ms Kozlowski commented that it all really depends on where transactions happen: make the CX is so sticky that sellers want to stay on the platform, offer great seller features, and bring in quality buyers. On the other hand, it’s a healthy market place, so there is no mandating or exclusivity – because of course, successful sellers will sell in multiple places.

Etsy believes in investing in the right technology and the right marketing at the same time. For example, although the business was started in 2004, Etsy only began brand marketing in 2016. The types of marketing deployed include storytelling, identifying key differentiators, understanding customer influences, extensive content strategy, plus performance marketing (site traffic, SEO) to see what else customers may be looking for. According to Ms Kozlowski, a retail site should spend about 20-30% of revenue on marketing, otherwise you are buying traffic and customers (red flag to investors!) Alternatively, establish some ROI goals for marketing costs, especially performance marketing, and during the startup phase (up to 1 year) begin with 15-20% of revenue.

At the heart of Etsy’s business model is an evolving technology and e-commerce platform that allows micro-businesses to run at scale. The USP is a community of network effects: 1.7m sellers, 27m buyers, 40m products, 12,000 “teams”, whose “captains” recruit other sellers. (Australia is actually in Etsy’s Top 5 markets.) In addition, Etsy aims to act with integrity in respect to dispute resolution and addressing fraud – they use machine learning to detect rogue sellers (although often, buyer disputes are a reflection of seller inexperience, rather than fraudulent behaviour). Etsy also offers training and support to resolve disputes, and the community is very good at policing itself.

What are some of the unexpected challenges of market places? When it comes to distinguishing between commodity items and unique creative products, technology will under-price and displace commodity goods that are easily made. It’s also important to build human-to-human connections, and to have a global perspective – for reasons of quality and diversity, and not self-limiting your business, especially when it comes to managing different market and economic cycles. Remember to “follow the data”, and anticipate demand and trends. Among some of the technology challenges, dealing with different devices in different countries can be an issue.

In conclusion, Ms Kozlowski offered some advice for anyone thinking of launching a market place:

First, consider why there are very few local e-commerce markets in Australia (from my personal perspective it’s a complex mix of retailers getting burned in the dotcom boom/bust, cosy market duopolies, and perpetual geo-blocking…). But let’s not forget that Alibaba has just opened its Australian & New Zealand HQ in Melbourne, likely to ruffle a few feathers in the retail sector.

Second, embrace a local/global mix (for the reasons mentioned above)

Third, don’t price too low (although Australia is notorious for being a “price-sensitive” market…).

Finally, the conversation ended with a tantalising glimpse of “the future consumer” (Gen Z) where makers connect directly with buyers.

Next week: Spaceship launches the future of superannuation

Gigster is coming to town….

Melbourne’s Work Club recently hosted Gigster Senior Project Engineer, Catherine Waggoner, in conversation with Venture-Store’s George Tomeski. Part of Startup Victoria‘s Fireside Chats, it likely herald’s Gigster opening an office in Melbourne, to service local clients and to tap into the local developer community.

gigsterFor the uninitiated, Gigster describes itself as the “world’s engineering firm”, that helps clients scope, design and build software, apps and digital products. Using an established product development methodology, and drawing on the resources of a 1,000 strong network of freelance designers, developers and product managers, Gigster is taking much of the pain out of the costing and requirements process for new projects, as well as building a growing client base of enterprise customers.

Not mincing her words, Ms Waggoner opened her remarks by commenting, “The software development industry model is f*#$ed”, because:

  • Requirements are poorly defined
  • Scoping is laborious
  • Development costs blow out, and
  • The whole process is not very transparent and not very accessible.

As a case in point, she mentioned the significant cost disparity between what some digital design agencies or app studios might quote for building an iOS product compared to what Gigster would estimate. By: breaking projects down into the distinct stages of scoping, design and pre- and post-MVP; only engaging the “best of the best talent”; using proprietary tools both to estimate fixed rate costs (rather than billable hours) and to define and source solutions; and re-using content from a library of “Community Software” resources, Gigster is able to deliver quality projects in shorter time, and on more modest budgets. For example, based on the large number of projects that they have fulfilled, their “Gigulator” estimating tool incorporates 5,000 possible features.

From an investor perspective, Mr Tomeski mentioned that the “VC inflexion point is getting much earlier” in tech startups. Meaning, with lower development costs (and potentially, reduced valuation multiples), investors are looking to get in sooner, with lower exposure, but still generate reasonable returns on exit, thanks to cheaper establishment costs.

Of course, Gigster sits at the heart of the gig economy, a huge issue when it comes to discussing the Future of Work. Interestingly, many of Gigster’s contractors are themselves startup founders, who freelance while building their own businesses. But such is the strength of the network, something like 35%40% of their contractors work full-time for Gigster – they like the flexibility combined with the continuity. Many of the contractors are referrals from existing team members, and a number of teams (known at Gigster as “houses” – presumably a frat thing?) have bonded to such an extent that they get allocated specific projects to work on together, even though they themselves may be working in different locations, based on previous projects.

Working for Gigster is probably a career choice for some contractors, because there is a variety of projects to work on, and the opportunity to be involved from start to finish. Which may be the opposite if working in a more corporate or enterprise environment, where work may be routine, repetitive and reasonably narrow in scope.

If Gigster does decide to set up shop in Melbourne (with encouragement from
InvestVictoria) they will be joining the likes of Slack, Stripe and Square, tempted by financial and other incentives. Such a move may challenge a number of local digital agencies, who will face even more competition for talent and customers.

According to Ms Waggoner, enterprise clients represent 40% of the business, and should comprise 60%-80% very soon. Not only that, but the average deal was initially $15k, now it’s more like $100k. However, enterprise clients have a much longer sales cycle. Plus, many innovation teams within enterprises are more like loosely formed groups of niche experts, so they need training on how to think like a startup. When you consider the greater dependency on legacy software by corporate clients (where it may make financial sense to retire some assets and build afresh, but the emotional disruption can be huge…), combined with the greater emphasis placed on after-sales service, Gigster has had to adapt its business model accordingly.

But Gigster must be doing something right. They’ve stopped outbound marketing and prospecting, relying on in-bound leads, repeat business and client referrals. There has been a shift from a sales focus to a customer focus, complete with a dedicated customer success team.

A number of audience questions related to getting VCs interested in your idea: What do they look for? How do they assess opportunities? How far should you go in building a product before you can attract funding? What’s the best way to validate an idea? etc. Much of this is about product/market fit, building the right team, getting customer traction, and executing on your strategy (aka Product Development 101.) As part of her closing comments, Ms Waggoner noted that unlike some of the high-profile VC funds (e.g, Y-Combinator, Techstars and 500 Startups) many VCs are becoming more sector specific, because they prefer to invest in what they know and understand.

Next week: Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy

Life Lessons from the Techstars founders

Melbourne’s startup community is very fortunate to host some of the leading names in the startup world, who are more than willing to share their experiences and insights in front of packed, eager (even adulatory) audiences. The most recent visitors were Brad Feld and David Cohen, renowned entrepreneurs, and co-founders of the global Techstars accelerator and startup programmes. By the sounds of David’s recent blog, they really liked Melbourne (may have something to do with tennis…). But aside from talking about startups and the local eco-system, they had plenty to say about “startup life” as well.

techstarslogoDuring a fireside chat and Q&A facilitated by Leni Mayo, hosted at inspire9, with the support of Innovation in the Wild in conjunction with Startup Victoria, we learned a lot about what it takes to build a startup community, the role of government, limitations of current VC funding models, plus lots of personal tips on work/life balance etc.

First, based on the so-called “Boulder thesis”, there are four key elements to building a successful startup community:

  1. Entrepreneurs must act like leaders
  2. There has to be a long-term perspective (20 year horizon)
  3. The community has to be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate, and
  4. The leaders have to create activities for everyone to engage

There was also a discussion on why they chose Boulder as their base – which was slightly harder to explain. There was mention of the size of the population, the critical mass of wealthy investors and successful entrepreneurs, the liberal attitudes and culture, and the proximity to Denver (but at the same time, it’s not Denver?). Perhaps it’s something in the water?

Second, the community must rely on network effects, and not attempt to impose structure. That can be particularly hard when trying to co-ordinate scarce resources, attract potential investors, and win the ear of government. But I understand that a community should be capable of being a self-organising entity, as long as there is a clear and shared purpose?

Third, the role of government should be to get engaged (but stay out of the way?). The best thing our elected representatives and their bureaucrats can do is “shine a light on success”. This was particularly pertinent when our guests talked about some of the startups based in the same building where we were meeting: despite being very familiar with these companies in the USA, they had little idea that they were based in Melbourne.

Fourth, the community members have to “act what you want to be” (sort of, “be the change you want to see”?). I take this to be about being authentic, acting with integrity, giving back, and affording people due respect and recognition. Part of this is about having the right settings on culture, and taking responsibility for setting the tone of the community.

Fifth, given that some aspects of the current VC funding model are broken (fewer unicorns, fewer simple but big ideas emerging, too many short-term investment horizons, over-ambitious expectations on returns?), and if we want investors to behave in a certain way (especially if we need them to take a longer-term perspective), we have to educate them, engage them, bring them on the journey.

Finally, it was with remarkable candour that both guests spoke about achieving work/life balance, maintaining healthy relationships with their spouses, families and friends, and learning how/when to switch off. Mostly, they make specific time to take breaks, schedule date nights, compensate for the quality family time when they will be on the road, reflect on what is and isn’t working in all aspects of their lives, and continue to question/challenge themselves. The use of personal coaches and business mentors was also discussed, and it was refreshing to hear that such successful people acknowledge that sometimes they need help, and they certainly don’t have all the answers themselves.

Next week: Talking Innovation with Dr Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic