A Tale of Two #FinTech Cities – Part 2

It feels like the inter-city #FinTech and startup rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney is starting to get personal. The blow-up between Victorian Small Business Minister, Philip Dalidakis and Freelancer CEO, Matt Barrie over StartCon is perhaps the most strident example, but other discontent is bubbling underneath the service.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-10-51-49-amLet’s take a look at what’s actually been happening around #FinTech in Melbourne, and try to understand what might be the cause of this apparent disquiet:

First, the recently announced LaunchVic grants have been met with a mix of gratitude, bewilderment and some sour grapes, based on the people I have talked to in the start-up community. There was a sense of “jobs for the boys”, “usual suspects”, “who?”, and “yeah, good on ya”. Nothing new there, then, when public money is being handed out. High-profile beneficiaries of the initial A$6.5m of grants include FinTech Australia (as part of a major FinTech Conference to be held in Melbourne), FinTech Melbourne (which is now the largest group of its kind outside the US and UK), inspire9, Startup Victoria and Collective Campus.

Second, Stripe‘s CEO, John Collison was in town to celebrate their 2nd birthday in Melbourne. (This is the 3rd time in 2 years Collison has been in Australia – he must love what we are doing here? Or maybe it’s the Victorian government incentives that attracted Stripe to set up in Melbourne: see below.) This time around, there were some major announcements among the celebrations, including:

  • 25% of Australians have paid for something online using Stripe
  • Stripe is launching “Connect” in Australia – making it easier for local businesses to roll out payment solutions in multiple markets overseas
  • Stripe continues to keep its APIs as simple and streamlined as possible – they even support Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition system

There was also a panel discussion with some of Stripe’s local clients, and a Q&A with Collison himself:

  • Andre Eikmeier from Vinomofo commented that payment solutions (like all technology) should be invisible, and just work in the background
  • Ben Styles from Xero explained that integration with Xero’s own APIs is critical, and that they have co-developed some products
  • Nicole Brolan from SEEK said that thanks to Stripe, her business is finally allowing clients to pay invoices on-line

Asked about innovation, Collison argued that mobile phone technology was the spur for services like Uber. However, he’s not especially engaged with Blockchain, as he does not see the use case. He thinks the next major innovation will be in medtech (telemetrics & wearables), and machine learning (speech and image recognition). As he said, “driverless cars are not just about the sensors but what the data is telling you. We know more about the health of your car than your own body.” He also had some words of advice to aspiring local entrepreneurs and startup founders:

  • Having a global or international perspective is determined by your markets, your competition, and access to specific talent pools.
  • It’s probably wrong to aspire to be like Atlassian – you need to understand WHY Atlassian has been successful, not WHAT it did or HOW it did it – which means getting back to core values and core purpose.

Third, as the Stripe celebrations started to kick off, across town FinTech Melbourne hosted an event starring Alex Scandurra, from Sydney’s Stone & Chalk FinTech hub. This was billed as a “pre-launch” for Stone & Chalk’s planned foray into Melbourne, and was part information session, part FinTech love fest, and part fan-boy hangout. Scandurra’s presentation was quick to point out that the “plan is not to bring Stone & Chalk to Melbourne, but to create Melbourne’s own Stone & Chalk”. (Spot the subtle difference?)

To its credit, Stone & Chalk is home to 300 people and 75 startups, has helped start 21 companies and create 150 jobs, and participants have collectively raised $100m in funding, although Stone & Chalk does not take equity. Scandurra also commented that FinTech is not an industry in itself – it is a horizontal that serves all industries.

There seems to be a lot of local clamouring for a FinTech hub in Melbourne. However, unlike the NSW government which has directly partnered with Stone & Chalk, I understand that the Victorian government is not prepared or able to “invest” in such a project – and certainly not before there is some private sector funding on the table.

Meanwhile, the founder of a rival payment system expressed his frustration that the Victorian government “sponsored” Stripe to come to Australia, but won’t offer similar support to local startups. Another FinTech CEO I spoke to was irked that Stone & Chalk would appear to be breaching its own mandate if it set up shop outside NSW.

In fact, could be argued that Stone & Chalk was established in Sydney to directly compete with Melbourne’s startup ecosystem. In large part, this is thanks to the huge success that the Victorian government continues to have in luring major tech companies and global startups to come to Melbourne. Names such as Zendesk, Eventbrite, Slack, Square, Stripe and now Cognizant.

If the debate over Stone & Chalk coming to Melbourne is about creating a local FinTech hub (whether or not the Victorian government tips in some money), we have to examine the need for such a hub. For example, is it simply a question of real estate, so that all the FinTech startups can be co-located in one place? If so, I would have thought that was easy to resolve: there’s a lot of empty office space, and Melbourne rents are cheaper than Sydney; also, a growing number of office landlords recognise the mutual benefits and knock-on effects of hosting co-working venues in their buildings.

We also have to consider if Melbourne’s existing FinTech startup eco-system/infrastructure is willing to come together to underpin such a hub. If so, what is the hub going to do? What is its purpose? What is the missing piece that the hub is designed to fill? And who/what/where is best placed to fill that need/gap?

Looking back, Melbourne has been the home of a number of FinTech businesses, that are now global public enterprises – IRESS, Computershare, Touchcorp, Novatti, for example – so there is obviously something in the local water (or coffee). For me, however, a key barrier for FinTech specifically, and startups more generally, is the inability to connect to institutional funds and investors (Clover being a notable exception?). Other obstacles include the stodgy procurement processes used by the public sector and many large corporations, which make it more difficult for startups to compete for work, and the reluctance by enterprise clients to try a local product or service unless it has been tested and proven elsewhere.

Finally, on a more positive note, it was very interesting to see that founders from Atlassian and Vinomofo are backing Spaceship, a new superannuation fund appealing to a younger, tech-savvy audience.

Next week: Bridging the Digital Divide

Another #pitch night in Melbourne…

If there is one basic theme emerging from Startup Victoria‘s monthly pitch nights, it is this: whatever market you are in, regardless of your business model, and however disruptive you are trying to be, if you don’t know how to engage or reach your customers your idea is far less likely to succeed. This message came across loud and clear during last week’s event where four startup hopefuls pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges in front of a packed audience.

Picture sourced from Startup Victoria Meetup page

Picture sourced from Startup Victoria Meetup page

So let’s look at this specific issue in respect to each of the pitches:

First came JobPokes, an online recruitment service designed to help candidates match job opportunities to their career preferences. Because it claims to be addressing the hidden job market, candidates aren’t applying for specific roles – instead, it’s a form of reverse enquiry, where recruiters target potential applicants via their registered profiles. I applaud the focus on the non-advertised job market, but while it may well offer an additional channel for recruiters, I’m not sure there was a clear strategy to reach job candidates who need to create a user account, and who are probably already using platforms like LinkedIn and Seek.

Next was Airly, which is sort of “Uber for private aircraft”. The business model involves signing up a minimum number of customers (who pay a monthly subscription fee, entitling them to unlimited flights), and securing sufficient seat capacity via scheduled charter contracts. There is no doubt that the idea of flight flexibility, and an element of passenger exclusivity met with audience approval (Airly took out the people’s choice vote on the night). Also, the PR around Airly has generated in-bound enquiries, suggesting there is demand. But how does this market interest convert to individual customers, when many corporate travel policies rely on wholesale and bulk-purchase models (i.e., aggregation, consolidation, vendor discounts, agency rebates, preferred airlines) rather than catering for individual travel needs or preferences? Unless the target customers are business travelers that manage and pay for their own tickets?

If Airly was about the Uberisation of air travel, RagRaider revealed another aspect of the shared economy model. Squarely aimed at fashion- and budget-conscious women, RagRaider offers a peer-to-peer service whereby customers can hire clothes for one-time use. No doubt there is a market (high school formal, spring carnival, wedding reception…) but the question is how to connect with actual lenders and hirers? We know that the per customer cost of acquisition for 2-sided markets is a key metric, and it wasn’t clear how the founders were addressing this, other than a pre-launch website and some social media. As one observer has commented, the “model is focusing on the ‘product’ part first which is the reverse of how it should be”, and another commented that despite a defined market, the barriers to entry are considerable. The judges also questioned some of the proposed pricing, commission rates and logistics.

Finally, Rounded is another FinTech startup looking to service the SME sector, specifically sole traders, freelancers, sub-contractors and tradies. Another spin on the invoice solution when suppliers need to get paid efficiently, Rounded does not claim to be a full-service accounting software – but, as one attendee commented, key to success will be reaching and educating the end-user market.  Also, they are entering a competitive space, where a new entrant like Xero has already disrupted incumbents like QuickBooks, Reckon and MYOB. I wasn’t able to stay for the pitch, but I did have the opportunity to speak with the founders beforehand. Clearly driven by their own experience and needs, there is a solid but simple idea here – but as Xero and others are increasingly able to serve similar customers, Rounded will find it really difficult to compete.

If anything, these latest pitches showed how hard it is to compare apples with oranges, although the voting criteria (market traction, product viability, team composition, pitch presentation, and responses to judges’ questions) are designed to deliver a consistent evaluation. It was also apparent that these pitches divided audience opinion more so than previous contestants – which is probably a good thing as variety is the spice of life….

Acknowledgments: thanks to Graphican, Marlene M., Cornell and Dale G. for their input.

Next week: Re-Imagining Human-led #Innovation


Oxygen Ventures brings some fresh air to Australia’s #Startup Community

Last week, Larry Kestelman’s new investment vehicle, Oxygen Ventures gave 5 local startups the opportunity to bid for a share of A$5 million in funding at the inaugural Big Pitch night in Melbourne (#thebigpitchAUS).


The Judges at the Big Pitch


The #Startup Contenders

Drawn from over 300 applicants, the hopeful candidates (in alphabetical order) were:

Bluesky  Shopping portal for leading fashion and lifestyle brands.

ECAL On-line event and brand marketing calendar launched by E-DIARY.

etaskr Enterprise productivity solution that allows employees to ‘bid’ for in-house projects based on their expertise.

KartSim New go-kart game for PCs, from developer Black Delta.

WeTeachMe Booking platform for short-courses and special interest classes.

After each contestant made a short presentation, they were questioned by a panel of judges, comprising CEOs, entrepreneurs, corporate advisers and business development experts from a range of well-known organizations. Most of the questions related to the startups’ revenue projections, funding requirements and growth opportunities – but some were grilled in more detail about their business models and financial performance to date.

How did the participants fare on the night?

The Joint Winners were ECAL and WeTeachMe – with the People’s Choice Award (based on audience votes) going to KartSim.

My sense is that ECAL came out on top (with A$2.5m of funding) on account of their early success in signing up a number of high-profile sporting franchises in the USA and Australia, demonstrating their growth potential – otherwise with 1 million users, but only $440,000 in revenues, you’d have to think the business model would struggle.

WeTeachMe was successful in attracting A$2m in funding because the business model is simple, it falls into the growth category of lifelong learning, and the platform had already achieved significant productivity gains for its commercial clients. Plus it has the potential to scale up and go international.

With KartSim, I admit I have no interest in computer games, but it would seem to me that with a headful of (virtual) Steam behind it, the developers might be better off tapping into crowdfunding opportunities, as the early interest suggests ready and eager buyers out there, enabling a successful commercial launch without giving up any of the equity.

Feedback from the panel on Bluesky suggested that despite offering a ‘one-stop-shop’ for consumers, the margins generated from the sales commission model would be insufficient to cover fulfilment costs (so it would only ever be a transactional purchasing platform); nor would the retailer aggregation model ever be allowed to encroach on brand or retailer loyalty schemes, thereby limiting the options to develop added-value services for customers.

As for etaskr (which I have featured before), it is still one of the few B2B startups that I have seen, which may make it appear less attractive to potential investors, since there seems to be some wariness around anything that is not consumer-focussed, or that does not play in a 2-sided market. Personally, I think this type of productivity tool is just the sort of tech startup that we need as it taps into the technological, organisational and demographic changes facing the modern workplace, and current attitudes towards job structures, collaboration and employee engagement and retention.

Footnote: What is ‘Disruptive’?

Interestingly, one of the Big Pitch sponsors was Uber (current darling of the startup community – if not of taxi drivers) which has been making presentations around town on what it takes to market a disruptive startup.

For me, there are three key attributes to a #disruptive startup:

  • Technology
  • Business model
  • Market engagement

A business like Uber ticks all three boxes – its proprietary technology comes in the form of the algorithms that track things like customer usage and vehicle capacity (not so much the apps which are similar to other peer-to-peer and #sharedeconomy solutions); the business model is rather like a network of city franchises (a common global platform with local autonomy); and the disruptive market entry strategy is designed to by-pass highly regulated industry structures – although Uber also likes to stress that it is working with taxi regulators.

Of the five startups that competed at the Big Pitch, only etaskr brings an element of disruption, because it is using a technology solution to challenge traditional notions of what a job is, and allows companies to tap into in-house resources that they might not otherwise be aware of. KartSim has some proprietary programming, but at the end of the day is just another computer game. WeTeachMe and Bluesky are trying to bring operational efficiencies to disparate markets, but they are both broker-aggregators, and don’t appear to have proprietary technology or unique business models. And ECAL is a neat content management solution to a problem that companies have been aiming to solve in other sectors – such as travel, education and health services – although it is not trying to break the existing market nexus between suppliers and customers.

But full marks to Oxygen Ventures, its partners, sponsors and the participants themselves for bringing a fresh perspective to the startup pitch night experience.