It’s not enough to be #disruptive – you also have to #collaborate

For most tech #startups, especially in #fintech, it’s no longer just about being #disruptive – there’s a growing realization that entrepreneurs also have to be #collaborative.

One year on from his last visit to Melbourne, Stripe co-founder John Collison was back in conversation with Paul Bassat from Square Peg Capital, courtesy of Startup Victoria and sponsors Envato, LIFX, BlueChilli, Bank of Melbourne and PwC. Previously, John spoke about the need to be “disruptive rather than incumbent”, yet it seems that Stripe’s growing success can be attributed to relationships with other providers in the payments industry, such as AliPay and VISA, plus deals with retail sites such as Catch Of The Day and RedBalloon. Oh, and it probably helps that most U.S. presidential candidates are using Stripe for campaign donations….

Stripe has already launched an SDK platform for developers, and is planning to launch StripeConnect, a market place platform. The point being, the more users (upstream and downstream) you can plug into your platform, the greater the traction, but also the deeper the collaboration. Why would you want to annoy your potential partners, vendors and suppliers?

Meanwhile, Australia is now Stripe’s 4th largest market, and close to being its 3rd largest.

Going forward, despite some criticism (e.g., it’s still not rolled out in Australia), ApplePay has huge potential. It has an estimated 800m credit cards registered with iTunes (making it 5x bigger than PayPal), and with people currently paying as little as $1.69 per song download, ApplePay could crack the market for broader micropayments (e.g., the $2 on-line daily newspaper?).

However, Stripe stills sees that there are disconnects between traditional credit card application processes, account registration forms, payment solutions, merchant set-up and downstream payments for low-value (but high volume) transactions.

Looking ahead, Collison is talking up opportunities in same-day delivery for e-commerce (hard to see this happening outside of Australia’s main metro areas – unless the infrastructure is there…), and better video-conferencing services (again, in Australia this is hampered by poor broadband services).

A few days later, and Adrian Stone from AngelCube was in conversation with StartUpGrind‘s Melbourne convener, Chris Joannou. Adrian restated the sentiment that angel investors tend to back founders rather than ideas, which can seen by some of the ventures AngelCube has backed so far, including Tablo, LIFX and CoinJar. Each venture has been successful in raising early-stage funding (despite some teething problems and much pivoting), although AngelCube itself has not yet completed an exit.

Rather like his associate Dave McClure from 500 Startups, Adrian recognizes that for various reasons, VCs are having to make smaller, multiple bets, rather than betting the farm on single or a few ideas.

Perhaps this gives further credibility to the proposition that every portfolio (including individual members in retail and industry superannuation funds?) should have a discretionary 1-2% allocation to startups, but you still need an investment vehicle or platform to screen and manage opportunities. Sadly, we see that there is still a disconnect between institutional investors and startup founders. The former are having to get bigger to reduce operating costs, yet this means they have what one friend of mine has defined as the “Allocation Gap”. And of course, founders far outnumber the available sources of VC funding. Time for a rethink on how investors can collaborate to access startup opportunities?

Next week: Cultural Overload

 

 

Will streaming kill the music industry?

The resurgence in vinyl sales is certainly not enough to save the music business. But will streaming finally cook the goose that once laid Gold Discs?

statistic_id273308_music-album-sales-in-the-us-2007-2014

US album sales (in all formats) are in decline. (Source:  Statista)

What can we learn from the music industry based on the apparent rebound of vinyl sales in recent years? Is streaming doing enough to halt the decline in total music revenue? Will CD’s soon disappear altogether? What future for LPs in a world of “Album Equivalent Sales”, “Track Equivalent Albums” and “Streaming Equivalent Albums”?

Are there parallels here with other content, publishing or entertainment sectors?

Back to Black

Last month the 8th annual Record Store Day was launched with a fanfare of upbeat data for vinyl sales. It was a good news story in an otherwise depressing saga of declining album sales, stagnating revenues, and mixed messages about the impact of digital downloads and streaming services on the music industry.

Coming off a very low base (like, near-extinction levels), the extraordinary sales growth of vinyl (especially in Australia) can be attributed to a combination of factors, although it is difficult to see how any single trend is responsible for this growth:

  • The growing popularity of Record Store Day itself (although it’s not without its problems – see below)
  • Baby boomers buying their record collections all over again
  • Hipster interest in analogue technology
  • Record labels mining their back catalogues
  • Niche market interest among audiophiles, collectors and the cool kids
  • New approaches to packaging vinyl with downloads and other bonus content
  • DJ culture
  • Secondary markets via E-bay and Discogs
  • Retailing switching from megastores to specialist shops

Infographic: Vinyl Comes Back From Near-Extinction (Source: Statista)

Where Is The Money Coming From?

Latest industry data suggests that digital sales (downloads and streaming) are now on a par with physical sales (CD, vinyl and the rest). Overall revenue has stabilised, having fallen from a peak in 1999. And streaming services are enjoying huge growth.

But the true picture is harder to establish:

First, while the IFPI provides global aggregated data, each local industry body (RIAA, BPI, ARIA etc.) likes to tell a different story from its national perspective. So it’s difficult to compare like with like. (For example, while Taylor Swift is supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon, she does not figure at all in the BPI data for 2014…..) One brave soul has tried to compile data for the past 20 years.

Second, because of the changes in distribution and consumption, music sales have to be counted in different ways:

  • Wholesale revenue vs retail sales
  • Physical sales vs digital sales
  • Per unit download sales vs streaming equivalents
  • Product revenues (e.g., album sales) vs licensing revenues (e.g., soundtracks)
  • Subscription fees (e.g., Spotify) vs per download revenue (e.g., iTunes)
  • Advertising income from video streaming vs royalties from broadcasting and soundtracks

Third, when more and more music is accessed via video platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, and Vevo, streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora and Omny, or apps such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and Shazam, “sales” data starts to become less and less relevant. (And some people are still hanging on to the ailing MySpace platform….).

The bottom line is that despite the growth in streaming services, digital sales (in whatever format or media) are not yet enough to compensate for the continued decline in album sales in particular, and music overall:

The peak era of CD sales is over. (Source: Talking New Media)

Record Store Day Woes

The success of Record Store Day has divided opinion as to whether it is actually a “good thing” for the industry. It started as a campaign by independent record labels, distributors and retailers to revive the habit of buying records in-store. Labels produce limited edition and often highly collectible items for the occasion, and there are rules as to how, when and where these releases can be made available to the public.

At first, it really was driven by the independent labels, many of whom brought out interesting product that otherwise wasn’t available, such as label samplers, unreleased material and one-off artist collaborations.

Now, the major labels have jumped on board, meaning the market is flooded with unnecessary re-releases (do we really need Bruce Springsteen‘s ’70s and ’80s albums reissued on vinyl?) drawn from their extensive back catalogues (no need to pay for recording costs or new artwork!).

This means that smaller labels who release new vinyl records on a regular basis (not just once a year) get bumped from the production line, as the major labels exert their purchasing power over the pressing plants.

In addition, some Record Store Day releases are so badly distributed that stores are unlikely to take delivery of the items in time for the event. Or bad decisions lead to over-supply of certain items, which end up in the bargain bins (major labels again especially guilty of this offence).

Some store owners appear reluctant to participate because they feel embarrassed about the prices they may have to charge for many of the limited releases, which get bought by speculative customers, rather than collectors, fans and enthusiasts – a fact borne out by the immediate listings and inflated prices on E-Bay and Discogs….

As one store owner I talked to commented: “Every day should be record store day…”

What Else Does The Data Reveal?

For all the new young pop stars that the industry keeps churning out, there’s nothing like longevity and back catalogue to prop up the sales numbers. For example, Barbara Streisand was in the Top 10 for US album sales (and with new material!), and the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Oasis feature in the top-selling vinyl records. Will Record Store Day 2025 herald the vinyl release of Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent “demos”?

The decline of album sales has been particularly steep in the genres of Hip-Hop and R&B, while rock and pop continue to dominate the market. Some industry commentators have suggested that music sales are merely “in transition” as consumers switch from buying CD’s and downloading music to subscribing to streaming services. Meanwhile, in the US, country music’s #4 position by overall consumption reflects substantial album sales, as streaming is still a small component for the genre.

And those vinyl sales numbers? They’re simply a blip on the chart and largely driven by avid fans willing to shell out for deluxe editions….

The future is streaming?

Apple and others certainly believe (or hope) that streaming will save the music industry. Having demolished the market for CDs, iTunes is in a battle for its own survival among competing streaming services, where Apple itself is about to lead the charge having acquired the Beats platform.

But others are not so sure, predicting that streaming is already in decline, along with download sales:

First, the streaming platforms are yet to make a profit. Part of this is due to the cost of content that has to be licensed from the record labels and artists. Part is also due to the cost of acquiring customers, even if this can be done via social media, because the decline in music buying has been so abrupt, so the industry may be permanently damaged that streaming cannot bring back paying customers.

Second, even though streaming may overtake downloads by next year, there’s still nothing certain that teen pop fans (the target audience) will pay $7.99 – $9.99 per month to listen to music via so-called “freemium” services. Evidence suggests that consumers are happy with the free services, even if they have to put up with ads.

Third, while I agree that the freemium model is a fixture in the digital economy, the problem with Spotify et al is that they are not growing the market for music, but simply cannibalising it by displacing existing platforms (commercial radio, digital downloads, physical sales), while being tied to third-party distribution channels (the internet) and devices (smart phones, tablets and computers).

Anyway, subscription-based music streaming is nothing new, and was first launched over 100 years ago (and thanks to Mark Brend’s “The Sound of Tomorrow”, I learned that Mark Twain was the first subscriber).

If the “old” record companies are charging streaming services too much to license their content, then the streaming services should just find other sources – there’s plenty out there – but then, just like the major record labels, they are not really interested in music, only in shifting product and promoting “artists” (even if they are still figuring out how to make digital pay). The record labels don’t help themselves with their reliance on back catalogue, and their archaic territorial licensing practices either – forcing customers to circumvent geo-blocking barriers (legally or otherwise…).

Unfortunately, file sharing, illegal downloads and “free” streaming have meant customers don’t feel compelled to pay for digital music content. Personally, I prefer to curate my own listening, and not let someone else dictate what I hear, even if the service “knows” my preferences…

And the moral of the story is…?

More distribution platforms, more formats and more content may not be enough to save ailing industries, whether it’s music or television, newspapers or movies. These businesses will have to learn to live with lower margins and/or smaller market shares. The quality of a home-made movie uploaded onto YouTube may not be anywhere near that of a Hollywood blockbuster, but if cat videos are what grab punters’ attention (and by default, pull in the advertisers), the studios may have to find alternative strategies. And if music fans prefer to use free streaming services, the industry has to do a better job of producing content that consumers may be willing to pay for.

Ironically, in publishing, one sector that has been written off ever since the arrival of CD-ROM’s and the internet, teen consumers are still happily buying and reading print editions, alongside e-books. More so than other content industries, publishing has rapidly adapted to the new user-defined model: aspiring authors find it easier to self-publish (e.g., via Tablo and dedicated crowdfunding platforms such as Pubslush and Unbound); they can easily connect with an audience (especially in the realm of fan fiction); and a platform like Wattpad allows writers to test material before they commit to formal publication, and lets readers vote for what they’d like to read more of.

Next week: Making connections between founders and investors

 

 

 

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…

Are Start-Ups a young persons’ game?

Last week’s Lean StartUp Melbourne meeting was devoted to the AngelCube accelerator program. Given some of the high-profile start-ups that have come through this process, it was hardly surprising that nearly 400 people turned up to hear various AngelCube alumni share their personal experience (as well as to enjoy some free beer and pizza, courtesy of the evening’s sponsors: inspire9, BlueChilli, Kussowski Brothers and PwC).

First up, there were lightning talks by 3 successful program graduates: the team behind fantasy sports app developer C8 Apps, Ash Davies from self-publishing platform Tablo, and Phil Bosua, the technical genius at LIFX who designed the WiFi-controlled LED bulb. All of them vouched for the benefits of the AngelCube program, and offered key learnings – such as “fail hard, fail fast, fail forward”, and the value of having a disciplined weekly cycle of iterative product builds. Access to quality mentors was also a key factor.

Then Indi from OutTrippin joined the guys for a Q&A panel session, facilitated by AngelCube co-founder Nathan Sampimon.

Some of the accelerator program insights on the night were quite revealing –

  • it’s all about product-market fit
  • a solo founder will usually struggle on their own
  • be prepared to either pitch or pivot at the weekly program reviews
  • the $20,000 seed funding (for 10% of your business) doesn’t go far…
  • a B2B concept is less likely to be accepted to the program (due to longer sales cycles)
  • the model is founded on lean methodologies, frequent iteration and getting to an MVP
  • people with at least one start-up project behind them tend to do better
  • the AngelCube angels are investing in the team as much as the idea

But are start-ups really only for young(er) people? This question has been posed by Dan Mumby, from Melbourne’s StartUp Foundation, which offers a different sort of program aimed at would-be entrepreneurs who may have all the trappings of middle age: family, job, mortgage…. which means they have different personal and financial risks to consider.

On the other hand, as at least one AngelCube participant said, if you are serious about founding a start-up, “your first job is to quit your job”.

Another, broader challenge facing the local start-up community is a lack of serious investor interest. According to one panel member, “In Australia, getting funding is a joke unless you are literally digging for gold”. This may change with the launch of VentureCrowd an early-stage equity funding platform. (But it looks like it will be a struggle – at the time of writing, none of the 20 or so deals publicly showing up on VentureCrowd’s website have attracted any funding.)

An alternative funding model, based on the sweat equity principle, is a venture bank, like New Enterprise Services that essentially matches ideas with expertise through a risk-sharing process.

I always recall the advice I was given by one serial entrepreneur when I asked him whether start-ups are for everyone (regardless of age). He replied: “Unless you can afford to invest at least $20,000 in your idea, and support yourself for at least 6 months while you develop it, then maybe it’s not for you.”