Real (estate) disruption

Last week I visited an old watering hole with a former real estate client. He’d been one of the first to give our fledgling online business a go back in our first year (1999/2000), when it was far from certain that we had a valuable service, or that we’d even survive.

[Our early clients gave us a ‘fair go ‘in that wonderful, open Aussie way. There’s something refreshing about this positive quality of Australian culture. It’s deep rooted. It explains why voters turn on governments that go early to the polls (Carpenter 2008) and why they backed the same sex marriage even though most would not get direct, personal benefit. It just seemed fair.]

Over a cool pint of Squires we reminisced over what has become of the real estate industry over the ensuing 17 years, and how it has adapted to digital disruption.

In many ways, the day to day job of the agent has not changed much. The essential ‘list and sell’ activities are much the same as they were in 1999. But a few things have changed forever.

We used to drive buyers around properties”, my agent friend recalled, “We’d have to arrange to get the keys of the various properties and then pick up the buyer and visit them all. We don’t do that anymore as these days everyone has the information to hand on their phones. Who’d have thought that back in the late 90s?

Another major change is more obvious – the shift from print advertising to online.

Back in 1999, the real estate lift out of the Saturday paper used to be 120 pages thick with row upon row of property ads. Last week’s lift out (if you call it that, as it took little effort to “lift”) was 20 pages thin, and most of this was taken up by one page display ad fillers. There were barely 4 pages of classified (lineage) ads. Back in the late 1990s, this lift out was the real estate bible. If it was not advertised in there, the listing was invisible. Agents would crawl over hot coals to get mentioned in the editorial section.

My real estate remembered a story of that time.

The newspaper salesman visited our offices every year to “negotiate” the annual price increases with us,” he told me, “One day he was acting so arrogant, it really got on my nerves. He knew he had me over a barrel. What choice did I have? I got so annoyed I almost kicked him out of my office, to which he said ‘But I can get you tickets to the footy!’

“‘I don’t want to go to the footy with you!’ was my reply.”

How the power has shifted since.

A quick back of an envelope calculation suggests that the local Saturday paper used to rake in $1million a week in classified real estate ads at the turn of the millennium. $50M a year. And they would have done similar numbers in car, boat and job ads.

Nearly all of that revenue has gone online since, lost forever. It’s a salutary lesson for anyone thinking they are impermeable to change.

If the mega-profitable price-making monopolist newspaper business sitting pretty in a secure, isolated market can be taken down like that, then who is safe?

Back in 2000, the relatively small real estate website business, realestate.com.au (now called the REA Group) was worth barely $6M, was running out of cash and close to folding. It had had 3 CEOS in 4 years. In WA, less than 30 (of the 1000 or so) real estate agency offices listed properties on its website. The business did not put sales boots on the ground until 2002. In 2000/2001, the same newspapers REA would later disrupt were publishing articles crowing over its imminent demise post dotcom crash.

Yet slowly and surely realestate.com.au took hold, and today, 17 years on, is worth $10Billion. Yes, ten billion. That means its value has risen 1,600 times over the ensuing years, and is far more valuable than the various print media empires it disrupted. Imagine betting a lazy $10K on that – it would be worth over $16M today.

REA’s growth in value was not some fast unsustainable bubble; it was a slow, inexorable growth borne from the strong underlying shift of real estate marketing dollars from print to online. It’s the kind of growth in value that sticks.

Fundamentally, online platforms offered better value than print (for advertisers and users), 24 hours a day service, and agents could update the ads themselves whenever they liked (rather than phone them in by Thursday lunchtime as they used to do). The web offered agents the ability to build their own virtual shopfront (website) and have databases emailing out new listings to potential buyers automatically (alerts). The web offered ease of comparison, mapping, calculators, access anywhere anytime, and the ink did not come off on your fingers either.

It was fairly obvious that the web would replace print over time, and the leading website would make the lion’s share of the money. Instead of dominating one local market, the #1  website would dominate an entire country, and that’s what REA Group did and why they are worth $10B.

The irony, not lost on my real estate mate, is that the internet did not save agents from paying exorbitant advertising fees, it just shifted them from print to online.

We went from the frying pan into the fire!” said my mate.

But here’s what I want to know,” asked my former agent friend, “When will we be disrupted? Will we be ultimately be replaced by AI or some new technology?

Now that’s a good question,” I replied, “You have to think it will happen in the next 5, 10 or 20 years. My guess is it will happen slowly, over time. While it’s happening, it will be easy to ignore. Many will scoff at the suggestion that real estate agents will be replaced by new technology like AI or an app. There  will be disbelief, laughter and scorn, just as the rug is being pulled out from under them. It’s exactly how print behaved just as they were losing the battle unknowingly.

“But what happened to print media, Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia and the postal service… will happen to you someday. It might arrive with little fanfare. It might take years to take hold. But you can bet some well backed tech business will reinvent how property is bought, sold and rented. If they make the experience far better than an agent, and their system becomes trusted and feels secure while saving loads of money, you can be sure people will give it a go.”

That’s digital disruption, in a nutshell.

Advertisements

Change is slow, and that’s good thing

Methuselah is a 4,849-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine tree growing high in the White Mountains of Inyo County in eastern California.

An oft-heard refrain these days is a lament “Everything’s changing so fast!” and it would be easy to sign up to this notion.

Look how we totally rely on our smartphones these days, turning to them an average of 150 times a day. It makes one wonder what we did for entertainment, news and chat pre-2007. And yet, we’ve only had them for 10 years. It’s gone in a blink of an eye.

See how Uber and Airbnb have blasted into our market, totally disrupting and changing the way we move around the city, or stay in other cities (or have total strangers to stay with us). Uber only got going in Perth in 2014, and has over 20% of the market. Airbnb launched into Australia a couple of years earlier and has upwards of 30% across Australia these days.

And yet, even these stories prove that the best changes – the ones that stick – take time.

There had been smartphones well before 2017, and phones with access to the internet had been around for a while. The best marketing the iPhone did was to announce itself as the game changer, yet even the iPhone took a while to take off. Early versions’ battery life was poor, and not everyone liked using a finger to tap on a virtual keyboard through glass. The Blackberry ruled supreme, and had a built in keyboard. This was much closer to peoples’ existing experience, which was why it was named “the crackberry”. Its devotees were obsessed by it.

The iPhone 3 was the version that took off, launched as it was with the app store in 2009. It was this moment that saw the inexorable shift to the smartphone (which  really should have been termed the ‘app phone’, as phones had been smart before – it was the apps that made them different now). The creation of the cottage industry of app makers was the true revolution, and this underpinned the smart (sorry, app) phone’s rise. Soon Samsung and Google jumped on board.

Looking deeper into the Uber and Airbnb cases you can see that they did not exactly take off as over night successes either. Launched in 2007, it took til 2011 before Airbnb would launch in multiple cities and gain traction, on the back of some serious capital raises in 2010. Likewise, Uber, founded in 2009, took a couple of years and then a major seed round in 2011 before it could launch in various jurisdictions with UberX in 2012. Indeed, Uber was not the first ride-sharing service, and they held back looking at the rulings coming out regarding the legality or otherwise of this new form of transportation. (Others could argue that ride sharing had actually been created in the early 1900s, or even the 16th century, but that’s another story.)

The history of even these wildly successful game-changing disruptors started with relatively quiet 2 or 3 years where things were far from certain. They were learning, pivoting and inching their way to the best formula. When I meet tech founders who think they’ll take off immediately with hockey stick growth I tell them the real stories of hardship, years and years of struggle, before even the best break out. Are you up for that? Founding a startup may seem glamorous when you see the gazillionares adorn magazine covers, blaze around at Burning Man or stomp across tech conference floors delivering well honed keynotes in their black t-shirts, dark blue jeans and high end trainers. But they all had hard starts, and there were many failures, mistakes, missteps and sleepless nights. It’s not all glamour, believe me.

So I would argue that change is slow. Indeed, the best ideas always grow slowly, and that’s a good thing, because things that grow slowly tend to last a long time.

Just talk to a turtle (average age 100 years) or Methuselah, a Californian bristlecone pine tree that was seeded in 2,833 BC. She ain’t pretty, but she’s still here.

Slow is good. Slow and steady wins the race. It’s hard work. It’s not very glamorous. It’s a million small things you do, day after day after day, that get you there. There is no silver bullet. And that’s a good thing.

Jobs jobs jobs?

Panelists discussing the future of the job (left to right): myself as moderator, Colleen Yates, Nate Sturcke, Colin Barnett, Phebe Cho, Julian Coyne, Pia Turcinov.

Australia has notched up a world record – 26 years without a recession. That’s the longest time between recessions for any developed country, since records began.

During  that time Australia has withstood the Asian economic crisis of 1997, the tech crash of 2000, 9/11, the global financial crisis of 2008 and a mining construction slowdown post 2012.

The last time Australia had a recession, in mid 1991, Bill Hayden was Governor General, Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, Carmen Lawrence was Premier of WA, and we had the first Gulf War. Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do for you was number 1 forever, other hits of the year were I’m too Sexy, Things that make you go Hmmmm and Ice Ice Baby…. agh they don’t make ‘em like that these days do they?

Back in ‘the recession we had to have‘ (as then Federal Treasurer, soon to be PM, Paul Keating termed it) Federal opposition leader John Hewson affirmed the GST as a major policy platform (which later became electoral suicide). The Simpsons debuted on Network Ten, Hawthorn beat the Eagles in the grand final and Mitchell Marsh was born. The population of WA was 1.6m, 1 million less than today.

There’s no doubt the Australian economy has been resilient, and been fairly fortunate. A whole generation has grown up with almost full employment, low interest rates, more and more jobs, rising standards of living and lots of opportunity.

The current Aussie economy is dynamic, with over a million Aussies changing jobs annually, with businesses constantly entering and exiting various marketplaces.
While agricultural and manufacturing jobs have declined in total numbers, the expanding service sector has taken on more.

12 million people have jobs in Australia – 6.5M men and 5.6M women. Healthcare and social assistance is now the single largest industry, accounting for over 12% of the workforce. Unemployment has held steady around 5.5%.

And yet… there is an impending sense of unease out there.

When some people hear politicians and even a Prime Minister spruik ‘Innovation’ all they hear ‘redundancy’ and ‘unemployment’.

Change, although the only constant, is threatening and scary. It makes people look for the easy scape goat solution, be it Brexit or Trumpism.

The answers are not so straightforward.

A few months ago my teenage daughter bemoaned to me that she does not know what she wants to do when she is older. I told her not to worry.

“The jobs of 5 and 10 years’ time have not been invented yet, isn’t that amazing?!” I say.
“Well, that doesn’t help!” comes the reply. “Take it from a former CEO like me,” say I, “the employers of tomorrow will want your creativity, your leadership skills, that you can work in a team, or independently with initiative on your own, your problem solving, your empathy with customers… THAT’s what they’ll hire. Learn & demonstrate those skills and you’ll be fine.”

But what kind of jobs will be there for our kids and grandkids in the near future? What industries will fall, and what new ones will rise? Will we even have a thing call a “job” or a “career”? Does it even matter? Will more of us have more free time? Will robots be waiting on us hand and foot, or by robotic arm and robotic wheel?

This was the topic of an Innovation Summit I moderated recently, a 4-minute chat with the panellists from West TV can be viewed here.

Some of the discussion:

  • while a robot might replace 5 manual workers, every new tech job creates 5 more.
  • some jobs will disappear, others will be required.
  • many of us may will enjoy a ‘portfolio career’, where we take on several titles – we’ll be part social media consultant, part MC, part web developer, part teacher.
  • A (Cognizant) report declared recently that the following jobs will be created within the next five years: data detective; bring your own IT facilitator; ethical sourcing manager; AI business development manager; master of Edge Computing; walker/talker; fitness commitment counsellor; AI-assisted healthcare technician; cyber city analyst; genomic portfolio director; man-machine teaming manager; financial wellness coach; digital tailor; chief trust officer; and quantum machine learning analyst.
  • Within the next 10 years we’ll have: virtual store Sherpa; personal data broker; personal memory curator; augmented reality journey builder; highway controller; and genetic diversity officer.
  • It will be important to spread our risks as an economy – the mining industry is super wonderful when booming, and awful at other times (which is the majority)

The “death of the job” has been predicted before. Although the disruptive changes we are seeing seem to be changing more things more rapidly, there is time to adjust, and new opportunities will always be thrown up. The winners will probably be those (countries, states, organisations and people) that can adapt, and the losers will be those that are stuck in their ways.

Selling to all kinds of people

BOLT-animals

Anyone can buy things, but selling doesn’t come naturally to everyone. That’s perhaps why 97% of home owners in Western Australia use a real estate agent to sell their home. No doubt it’s also because the agents have the experience and expertise to sell houses. It’s what they do, after all. The average person only gets to sell their house (usually via an agent) every 7 years or so.

After 13 years in teaching, I ended up running my own business and was immediately thrust into the nip and tuck of direct selling. To real estate agents! It did not come naturally to me, but I found it easier if I just acted as natural as I could. I found I could actually make sales. Some days I was better than others. But at least I could do it. I learnt new things every time I tried it.

Wind on almost 20 years and I came to work with the expert sales trainer Mark Wilensky (High Mark Systems), who is based in Maryland, USA. He taught me and my team the importance of understanding who you are selling to using something called the “BOLT” personality types.

It’s gold. And it works.

There are four main personality types, says the theory, defined by how open or closed the person is, or how direct or indirect they are. Each personality needs to be approached in a different manner, if you want the best outcome. (see Diagram above.)

BOLT stands for Bulls, Owls, Lambs and Tigers, each of the four main personality types. Everyone can be a mix of a couple of these, but tend to be more dominant in one of them, and this gives us clues as to how to interact with them…

BULLS … are DIRECT/CLOSED. Typical examples: CEOs, GMs & BDMs.

They are the classic ‘Alpha Males’ (used in the non sexist generalist sense, I have experienced females who are also very alpha). There’s not a lot of subtlety here. Bulls are direct, and closed. So they don’t give away much (closed), but if they don’t like you or what you’re saying, they’ll say it to your face (direct)!

They like the bottom line, and hate time wasters. They will ask direct questions, and want straight answers with no waffle. They hate long winded answers, so give short answers and say “would you like more detail?

They like you saying “let me cut to the chase” and “here’s the big picture”. They see things in black and white, have courage and confidence, so express these qualities when you walk in. I came across a lot of Bulls in real estate, I can tell you.

OWLS … are INDIRECT/CLOSED; typical jobs include CIOs & CFOs.

Like Bulls, they are closed (so you have to do the work), but unlike bulls, are not direct with you.

They are probably thinking “how can you prove it?”. Owls want data, proof, information. They hate “most of our clients do this” (too woolly, salesy), “probably”, “most likely” and fakery. They are risk avoiders.

They like you saying “let’s walk before we can run” or “My job is to provide you with enough information so you can make an informed decision.” If you don’t know the answer, admit it. If you’re usually enthusiastic, tone it down, slow it down. Most decision-makers within the organisation will be Owls. They have direct control over the purse strings.

LAMBS … are OPEN/INDIRECT; typical jobs include librarians, nurses, social work.

Lambs avoid conflict, so they find it hard to say no. They will drag you along for ages (indirect), so you need to cut them loose early. They will do your head in with delays, and it’ll be hard to shut them up (open).

Say things like “Let me know if you’re not convinced that we are a perfect fit.” (allows them to say no). Speak slowly, as they can get intimidated easily. You need to show them how the majority will benefit – this they like.

TIGERS … are OPEN/DIRECT; and can usually be found in sales, mid managerial roles.

They have a short attention span. Meetings are fun (open), but they’ll be quickly onto the next thing (direct). Don’t throw in too much detail, or be boring. Keep it moving, entertain them.

They like “we’ll take care of the detail, so you won’t have to.” They like dreams and big wins. “What will you do with your wins?” (they’ll tell everyone).

As a general rule, people who are strongly in one personality quadrant find it difficult selling to those in a diagonally opposite quadrant; so Bulls find Lambs very frustrating, and Tigers similarly find it hard dealing with Owls, and vice versa.

How do you spot a Bull from an Owl from a Lamb or Tiger? Listen to them.

Say your person is running late to a meeting, and you’re there at their office on time waiting. You get them on the phone. Here’s what each might say…

  • BULL (Loudly) TRAFFIC’S C$#P!! BE THERE IN 5!!! … YEAH, SAME TO YOU FELLA!
  • OWL I’ve been stuck here for 17 minutes, I’ll be with you in 6 minutes, maybe 8 or so.
  • LAMB I’m sooo sorry… I feel awwwful, how terrible of me to be late, are you OK? … etc etc
  • TIGER It’s crazy bud! Heh, sorry mate, I’ll be there as soon as I can! I’ll make it up to you.

The secret is to turn off your auto-pilot (selling to everyone in the same way) and pay attention to who you are selling to. Adjust your delivery, script and manner according to the personality. Stop the patter and listen.

Oh, and know thyself. I’m a classic Owl (analytical), with a few Tiger (stage performer) tendencies.

For more on BOLT personality types:

Raising funds? Ask for no and then 3 more

Reverse psychology can be powerful. Be kind when friends stuff up and they’ll be  shamed into doing better next time. Tell a family member “I’m fine!” through gritted teeth when clearing up and they’ll be honour bound to help.

And so it goes with early stage (seed) capital raisings for startups.  The best advice I was given when pitching my fledgling tech business to potential angel investors was “try to get them to say no.”

This works beautifully on so many levels.

Firstly, if they absolutely can’t say no, then they’re probably going to be a yes. If they’re vascillating, telling them a no is fine will let them off the hook.

Counter intuitively, if you tell a potential investor they don’t have to invest, they may be more interested in doing so. (‘I don’t want to miss out..’). It’s a classic closing move. It’s also a bit like putting someone on silence. They have a sudden urge to speak.

But you don’t want someone investing who is not that keen on investing. They will become a millstone around your neck.

What you want to do is to cut off the time wasters as quickly and diplomatically as you can. The “maybes” will suck the lifeblood out of you. They’ll say they need to talk to their partner, or think about it more, or … any number of reasons.

Ring me next week and we’ll chat” is not a “maybe”. It’s someone who is too weak or shy to say ‘no’ to your face and will give you the run around. What’s another week got to do with the price of fish in Denmark? Nothing.

Stop all this upfront. “It’s OK to say ‘no’, really. In fact I am happy with a clear cut no.”

When you get the no, do one more critical thing.

Say something like: “Thanks for your time today listening to my idea. Now you know what we’re doing, can you please give me 2 or 3 other people who you think might be interested in hearing about this opportunity?

You see, a “no” is totally fine. In fact, it eases the tension, and the angel investor will be almost honour bound to help introduce you to more people. It’s their quid pro quo for saying no.

While this no shuts one door, it should lead you to 3 more. The ‘no’ is just a paving stone along the road to funding your business. The more the merrier. It’s fine. 1 pitch becomes 3, 3 becomes 9, 9 becomes 27 and so on…. you’ll find your money along that road.

Back in 1999, I remember showing our idea to one high net worth individual down town. He listened respectfully to our 10-minute pitch. We then closed our laptop, looked at him and he simply said “No, this is not for me, but thank you for showing me your idea.”  I have seen him at various events these past 18 or so years and he is always smiling. He is as respectful, positive and friendly as ever. He passed me on the street the other day, stopped to chat and said how he knew I would do good things in my new role. This was someone who utterly rejected the investment opportunity I showed him and it is totally fine. A relationship (and perhaps mutual respect) was formed.

No’s are not to be taken personally. Encourage them. Use them. Don’t waste time with maybes. Get through the no’s and the yeses will be not far away. Because the yeses are always connected, somehow, to the no’s.

Picture Source: http://silicon-valley.wikia.com/wiki/Optimal_Tip-to-Tip_Efficiency

Get them on the drip

When we were contemplating the best revenue model for aussiehome.com, the online real estate portal we established in 1999, we considered the following main alternatives:

  1. Subscriptions – real estates agents pay regular fees to list their properties
  2. Advertising – advertisers pay for display ads on the website
  3. eCommerce – home seekers can buy/rent directly off the website

Any other revenue model you can think of is just a variation of the 3 above. Note that for each option you have a different paying customer. And knowing who your customer is, and what problem you are solving for them, as I have discussed in these pages, is critically important.

In subscriptions, your client is the real estate agent, and the users of the site (home seekers) get to use it for free. What would agents want in return? Enough enquiries (and as we learned over time, a listing edge) to justify these fees.

Advertising income means your paying customers are your advertisers. In return for the promotional investment on your site they expect to see lots of views of their ads, and click throughs. Likely advertisers would be banks, mortgage brokers, home builders and any other home-related businesses.

The final one is pure ecommerce – taking on the whole industry, competing against real estate agents, and selling/renting properties directly off the site. Back in 1999, barely 3% of all properties in WA were sold privately (ie by the owner, not through an agent).  Fortunately, we discounted this 3rd option. We did not believe the world was ready for home owners to take a punt on a new website, chancing their arm with their largest financial asset (their house). 18 years later, this is still the case. Nearly everyone selling their property in 2017 does so through a licensed real estate agent, and REIWA member. ‘For sale by owner’ sites have floundered.

Selling ads, we thought, would be tough as we’d be up against Yahoo! and others and we’d need huge traffic to pull any decent ad dollars. This would mean raising a King’s ransom in funding, and blowing most of it on our own promotions. This seemed too risky. Another good decision this, as Google and Facebook would come along and scoop up nearly all of the digital ad money in Australia.

So, almost by a process of elimination, we plumped for subscriptions. Subscriptions is no easy solution though. Real estate agents, and most small business owners, resist paying ongoing fees. It adds to their costs, and makes their business riskier. They would be far happier paying for something large in one bulky purchase (as we found out, on such things as banner ads and websites).

Subscriptions is also a long, slow row to hoe. In order to get properties on the site, you need enough agents to be paying to load them up. Only then will visitors have enough content to peruse, find your site useful and return.

This is the major problem with brand new two-sided market places. You have to build supply and demand simultaneously, and this is extremely difficult.

When you’re building a 2-sided marketplace from scratch, how can you get demand when you have little supply, and how can you get supply when you have little demand?

Uber solved this curly one by paying the first drivers to sign up in a city some income, irrespective of whether they had passengers. They realised that the minute the first passengers used the service, there had to be Uber drivers nearby. Uber knew this first experience had to work well, so their early adopters would rave about the service. They grew from there.

We did something similar. We gave away 3-month free trials to our early real estate agents, so they could plop all their listings on the site, for free, in order to get some supply up there. As soon as the first people looked on the site, there had to be hundreds of properties for sale and rent. Once a few agencies were supporting us, it became easier to get others to give us a go. Obviously, this does not produce any income, so we could not do this forever. After our first year, we stopped giving away  free trials.

Slowly, but surely, we started to earn monthly income. As agencies came off their free trials, they started to pay a fee. Not huge bikkies, but something. Once you get customers paying for your service, you are in business. They take it more seriously than a free offer. They update their listings, and then, something wonderful happens – they start to get enquiries. We could see the email enquiries coming directly off the site. (We could not see phone calls of course, but these were happening, so we were told.)

On top of this base of subscriptions income, we added some ecommerce (users could buy Landgate sales evidence online) and advertising (banner ads for agents, and display ads for mortgage brokers and the like). We then moved into web site design for our agencies (building their sites off our system), magazines and in time feed income so that our clients could be on up to a dozen sites through us. But it was the bedrock subs income that built the strong foundation.

As Seth Godin wrote recently, the ‘drip drip drip‘ of subscriptions is the most sustainable business model.

Newspapers have had to learn this. The NY Times put on 800,000 new paying subscribers since Trump was elected. Their shares are soaring, built off a base of 2.2 million subscribers, up more than 60% in the past year. Failing NY Times fake news indeed. Quite the reverse Mr President!

One thing that took me to Business News in 2013 was that their readers had been paying for subscriptions since 2002. By 2017, these subscribers were renewing at record levels, and subscriptions income was the largest single income source. A great local story of a media company taking a brave route, and prevailing.

Netflix entered Australia 2 years ago, and now 1 in 3 Australian households have a subscription. Quickflix, its Aussie competitor, started more than 10 years ago, never passed more than a few hundred thousand subscribers. Although prevailing against all other local competitors, they could not compete with the US-backed giant and shut down within months of Netflix’s entry.

Realestate.com.au’s valuation today is north of A$9 billion. I remember when it was worth $6 million, after the throes of the dotcom crash in Easter 2000. But it built itself up, and the ‘network effect’ of having pretty much every agency on board meant every agency had to be on board, and everyone went there to view properties. A complete 2-sided market of immense power, they could pretty much charge what they like. It now costs more than $1,500 a property to list on the site.

As my cofounder Nick used to say to me, “Charlie, get them on the drip.” How right he was.

Left to their own devices


I could leave you, say good-bye. I could love you if I try, and I could, and left to my own devices I probably would,” sang The Pet Shop Boys in 1988.

It’s not one of the best songs ever written, but the ‘left to my own devices’ stuck in my mind, and, these days we are often left to our devices, of a different kind. We all have various (mobile) devices, and we reach for them with increasing alacrity these days. That’s fine, I assume, as long as we are performing our main functions, such as conversing with our fellow human beings, giving attention to our friends and family, doing some meaningful work and getting out and about in the sunshine every now and again.

The question is, how much is the next generation on their devices, and is that good, or bad? As parents, it can be easy to plonk the iPad in front of the children to entertain them at the restaurant, or when we want some peace. But what message does this send? That, when eating out, we don’t want them to converse across the table? That their needs and questions are of no import? What kind of parenting is that?

A few years ago, Taiwan introduced a law restricting the amount of time children should have on screens and devices. Apart from the obvious issue of how on earth do you police such a thing, was Taiwan correct in doing so, and if so, why? Juveniles, so said the new law, “may not constantly use electronic products for a period of time that is not reasonable,”  which begs the question, how much time is “not reasonable“? Parents and guardians could be fined up to A$2,000 or so if found in breach of the law.

I expect the answer is somehow in a happy medium. 6 to 9 hours a day glued to a screen, I think we all can agree, is not healthy. Kids need to get out and run about, climb trees, play sport, ride bikes, interact, and get up to all kinds of nuisance. Is it that we (helicopter) parents are buzzing around too much these days, not allowing kids to be kids? Local comedian Griff Longley certainly thinks so, and he has set up a not for profit organisation Nature Play that encourages parents and their kids to get out doors and do stuff. Like make cubbies. Whatever, just get out there and do things. Together. Unstructured. Like we used to. “It’s OK to stuff up and have stuffups”, says Longley. Dang right. It builds resilience, it’s how we learn.

I wonder if the screens are just an easy babysitter option, or actually serve some positive purpose for the children? Simply taking them away is not the answer. The devices are out there, everyone has them, and to deprive children of them is to hold them back compared to their peers. Certainly, there needs to be some happy balance between active play and iPad consumption. Certain hours of ‘screen time’ can be negotiated, depending if it’s a school night, weekend or holiday. Screen time can include all screens, TV, play stations, Wii and mobile devices.

For younger kids, I’m a fan of the Family Zone service, which can be set up on every device, and provides screening of everything the child does online, limiting access to questionable sites, and allowing the parent to set times when devices can be used, and when they can’t, anywhere. I’ve found children are fine with rules, as long as they are clearly explained, and consistently enforced.

In this digital age, we shouldn’t ban our kids from being online, or becoming confident with technology. It is going to be a huge part of their living and working lives. They should certainly understand there is a place for devices, and certain times when they are put away. The precise rules, I reckon, like everything, are up to the parent and child themselves to negotiate and enact.

Leaving them to their own devices, I certainly would not.

7 Perth podcasts worth listening to …

7-Perth-Podcasts

In an era of self-publishing, you might expect to find some local West Australians broadcasting their views via the channel of podcasting.

I’ve been listening to, and in some cases have been a guest on, some of these pods. Some of the magnificent 7 highlighted here have been podcasting for years, some are relatively new to the game, but all are professionally put together and are (in the main) a joy to listen to. In each case, I can tell you that I have met and know the people involved. They are all producing them (for free) for the right reasons – to educate, interest and in some cases probe the listener.

No doubt there are many more people podcasting away in WA. In a search for others, I found a plethora of church podcasts (over a dozen) and quite a few that had been seemingly abandoned. The ones I highlight are all podcasting away frequently, once a week in most cases.

Before I get to them, here’s a brief history of podcasting…

The term was first coined by a British journalist back in 2004, a year after the iPod came out – so it’s a blend of ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcasting’. In fact, ‘audioblogging’ as it was known before, started 15 or more years earlier in the mid 1980s, with the humble beginnings of the world wide web. It was a quiet, slow burn for the most devoted during the 1990s, until the new millennium dawned and the advent of easy to use audio web players.

As an activity, podcasting took off in the mid 2000s with the iPod revolution (‘1000 tunes in your pocket‘), but then fell away as we all jumped onto video sharing (with the rise of Youtube) and the distractions of social media. The fact that pods were only audio saw them lose out in the popularity stakes to the wilder, visual treats of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest.

Ten years on, and podcasting is now making a come back. Between 2013 and 2015, the amount of podcasts on iTunes doubled. By 2015, there were a billion podcasts subscriptions – the average person subscribes to 6. One in three US citizens listen to podcasts, 67 million of them monthly. 52% of podcasts are listened to at home, 18% in the car. 85% of all podcasts are listened to through to the end, or mostly the end.

I find podcasts fill that otherwise dead time commuting to work, driving in the car or doing the gardening. Yes, as I’ve written about before, it’s good to let the brain declutter, but listening to a podcast is also a great way to learn and engage the brain. I subscribe to a whole host of different pods from around the world, on such varied subjects as philosophy, biographies, sport, satire, business, design, technology, history and politics. It’s radio on demand, and you can consume a tremendous amount of free and interesting content on almost any subject under the sun. Perhaps, I will share some my world wide favourites in another post. For now, let me describe, and humbly invite you to subscribe, to these 7 local podcasts, which I think you will find are well made, and great to listen to…

 

‘The Road to CEO’, and ‘The Key to Authority‘ from Jenish Pandya

If there is someone in Perth who has most inspired me to become interested in podcasting, it is Jenish Pandya. One of the nicest guys you’re ever going to meet, Jenish has already concluded his fantastic ‘Key to Authority‘ podcast series (57 episodes over 2015 and 2016) interviewing thought leaders on various topics, and now has started a new series, ‘The Road to CEO‘, where he interviews CEOs all about the job of becoming a CEO and what it’s like ‘in the hot seat’ so to speak.

I was interviewed on both, and was impressed with Jenish’s passion and energy for the podcasting format. He’s become a bit of  a local expert, and can often be seen speaking on the topic of podcasting. Not bad for a Water Corp engineer, who does all this in his spare time.

 

‘Mark my words’ from Business News.

Mark Pownall and Mark Beyer, are CEO and Editor respectively of WA’s only dedicated business media organisation. The 2 Marks are the most respected business journalists in Perth, and their 18 minute weekly show is a must listen to those who want to keep abreast of what is happening in the world of business in WA.

They’ve been podcasting now for more than three years and have a nice, natural style together. They obviously respect each other greatly and are firm friends and colleagues. Mark P asks most of the questions while Mr B provides most of the detailed analysis, although Mr P also chips in with his perspectives as well. It makes for a really interesting combination, and for those of you who may have missed what’s happened in WA during the past week, it’s a great catch up. I like hearing each other’s perspectives plus a welcome sprinkling of humour. More than you might get in the paper or online, you get to hear why these major stories are the main stories of the week.

As a nice extra, Mark Pownall also records his regular ‘CEO Lunches’ with WA business leaders and puts these out on the same podcast channel. Subscribe to Mark my words on iTunes or Soundcloud or listen to past episodes through the BN website.

 

‘Ask Alyka’, from Alyka

The Subi-based digital marketing agency has recently begun its own podcast, with Alyka cofounder Zion Ong and digital strategist Beth Caniglia talking about a different digital topic, often with a guest in the studio.

These guys go to town, as you might expect, with 3 microphones and 3 cameras recording the action, turning the podcast into a fast-paced lively show available through all the normal podcasting and video channels. Topics mainly centre on digital marketing, naturally, as that is their area of expertise. I was interviewed in a recent one, on the topic of digital disruption, and I was impressed by the laid back style of the pod, and the professional production standards.

If you want to know what’s going on in the digital marketing space, then Ask Alyka is the pod for you. Subscribe on iTunes.

 

‘WA Real’, by Bryn Edwards

Based on the London version (London Real), WA Real looks to interview real people and get into the real stories behind their life.

A fairly recent podcast, having started last month, UK immigrant Bryn has already posted 7 interviews of between 30 minutes and more than an hour duration, so this one really gets under the skin of the guests, and a deeply personal discussion usually ensues. I particularly enjoyed listening to local comedian Griff Longley, who is the founder of Nature Play, a local not for profit which aims to get kids outdoors with their families. “Kids have to learn how to stuff up! It’s OK to fail and have a go.” As a parent of two, I loved this discussion and found myself saying ‘Yes!’ – which greatly amused my fellow commuters that morning.

Subscribe on iTunes.

 

‘Music on the Move’, from the PSO

OK, a disclaimer upfront here – I am a huge fan of PSO founder Bourby Webster, having known her since uni days, and I’m chair of a PSO technology advisory board.

I also encouraged her to start a blog, and bless her, she did, and it’s great listening. She interviews local or visiting musicians who might be performing in an upcoming PSO concert, and we get to hear what happens behind the scenes, and the motivations and passions of the people who put such a complex live performance together. Listening to Bourby chat with Matt Allen (WAAPA Gospel Choir) 5 days prior to the world premier of ‘George Michael: Faith and Freedom concert’ brought the whole experience back to me, one, I am not ashamed to say, brought me to tears.

Subscribe on iTunes for some classical music food for your brain. Go on, it’s good for you.

 

‘Brand Newsroom’, from Lush Digital Media

When you have a former BBC and ABC radio host James Lush managing proceedings, you know you’re going to get something polished and professional. That’s not to decry co hosts Nic Hayes (Media Stable) and Sarah Mitchell (Director, Lush Digital Media) who make the perfect team to discuss the main content marketing themes of the day. Their collective experience and wisdom absolutely nail every topic, and they usually have a guest in their studio or online, including one I absolutely loved with Nenad Senic arguing that print was not dead, and could do way more things than digital can, in some cases. 160+ episodes in, there is a tremendous amount of great content in their back catalogue to listen to.

Subscribe on iTunes.

 

‘Business Marketing Show’, from Ed Keay-Smith & Brendan Tully

I’ve got to know Ed over the past years as we are both eGroup members, an association of internet entrepreneurs and managers which meet first Tuesday of every month to discuss all things digital. He interviewed me on this podcast back in March 2017, when I was CEO of Business News, and he has a lovely way with his guests, laid back and chatty. Ed keeps the whole thing real, without worrying too much about fancy production tricks. It’s a raw interview, plain and simple, and some great content. He has built up quite an impressive audience with around 5,000 listeners per show, with more than 70 podcasts over the past 3 years.

If you want to know more about SEO, SEM, remarketing, online video, … for small and medium sized businesses, this is the one to subscribe to.

 

So, I hope that inspires you to subscribe to these local WA podcasters, and give them a bit of love and support. More importantly, listen and learn. And if you like a particular podcast, don’t forget to go in and give them a positive review. It really makes a difference in their pods being discovered by others.


UPDATED – the original post neglected to list Jenish Pandya – a terrible omission, now corrected!

The Rise of the Bots

Everywhere you turn these days there seems to be another potential tech disruptor raising its head above the parapet. The topic for today is the bot.

The rather cutesy name – bot – conjures up a sci-fi future of robotic machines doing everything for us lazy humans, who might be otherwise left to sojourn on our flying chairs a la the folks in Wall-E. Set a few hundred years from now, having abandoned a wrecked Earth, people are overweight, can barely walk on their short stubbly evolved legs and bark orders for everything they want. Robots zip around everywhere doing all the work.

I wonder if we’re really a hundred or so years away from this now. I reckon it’s almost upon us. And, as for obesity, well that is certainly among us – just look at the evidence.

But let’s get back to modern day bots. A bot, or ‘internet bot’, is simply “a piece of software that runs automated scripts over the internet” (Wikipedia).

Some are malicious (such as spambots roaming the internet for email addresses they can pester or mailboxes they can take over), and some are there to do good (answering your questions or suggesting a great blouse to go with that new dress).

Whatever they are up to, they account for almost half of all internet traffic. On smaller websites, it could be 80% or more. We know that Google sends robots to check websites out, index their content, and help rank them in their search engine. This cannot be done by humans, there is just too much stuff to read.

If, like me, you have an iPhone, then you may already be used to conversing with Siri, who is (of course) a bot. Have no hands free to tap an SMS, look up a contact’s phone number or check your appointments for tomorrow? Simply hold down the screen button and Siri is there to help.

With the release of Google Home, you can now have a Siri-like service sitting on your side table to answer your beck and call – what time is it in India? what’s the traffic like on the commute today? and what are the answers to your kid’s tricky homework questions?

A short journey from here are the bots already installed on Facebook, who can answer your typed questions. It’s like talking to a real, live person, except there’s no one there. It’s a bot. Also, have you noticed how Uber has quietly slipped inside Google Maps and Facebook Messenger to be able to offer you a ride without leaving their service?

That pop up window offering you answers to your questions on that website you’re on? Increasingly likely, there’s no one there. It’s a chatbot.

Based on what you say or type, the bot can quickly provide you with answers or suggestions to your queries, and can do this 24/7. They don’t get tired, have coffee breaks or moods. They can understand context, nuance and even sarcasm. Try fooling Siri, and she’ll quickly catch on you’re playing silly buggers.

Some people feel more comfortable talking with a chatbot than a real person, especially if it concerns personal issues such as health or emotional problems.

Over on Slack, the explodingly successful messaging app used by many organisations to better coordinate internal communications, chatbots are inbuilt. They’re called Slackbots (of course), and you can program them to message someone when, say, a certain task is complete, or when some other condition was met, as well as answer questions about a project.

Slack has expanded rapidly from its 2014 start. With a mission to replace internal email, Slack rose to a million users within 18 months with 300,000 of them are paying. Its valuation hit US$ 9 billion in June.

11 million Aussies are already using messaging apps, and 4.5 million use it as their primary communication tool. There is a whole generation of youngsters and others growing up who rarely, if ever, send emails. Perhaps they never will.

It’s not just the young though – the peak age for messenging apps is the 25-34 age group and more than half the 35-54 age group do likewise.

In Australia, Facebook messenger dominates, then it’s Whatsapp and Snapchat.

As a general rule, chatbots work well inside messaging, and more ‘menu driven’ info (such as ordering a meal, with bots suggesting what goes well and selling upgrades), anywhere where there is a fairly simple user experience, such as a check list. Decision tree formats work best. If this, then this, if that, then the other. So, tailored gift recommendations work well.

Bots don’t go all that well (yet) on free flow chat, but tomorrow we could see general chat, voice, avatars or some other abstract versions offering a more conversational approach. Where we end up will probably depend on what customers want and are comfortable with.

The bot battleground will probably be fought between Apple, Google and Facebook, who each want to own that bot search and interaction experience.

Fancy designing your own bot?  Well, you can with Chatfuel, which does bots for Facebook or Motion.ai.

It might be an idea to think how bots could impact your market – how you might use them (start with Slack), or incorporate them into customer service, lead generation and the like? As artificial intelligence (AI) will only get sharper from here, you can bet the bots will be a big part of our future…

Go jump off a ledge!

A few weeks ago, I gave the address at the UWA graduation, 18 years after I had graduated there in the same hall. Here’s my speech… and here’s a link to watch (from the 16 minute mark of the night)

Well, what an occasion.

For those of you graduating tonight, smile, take selfies in your gown and finetune your snapchat stories.

You deserve it, it’s your night. Well done.

Parents and friends, you should feel justifiably proud of your charges spread out in their finery before us.

For UWA is a top university, already firmly placed in the top 100 globally, and as if that is not enough, has set out its stall to break into the top 50.

No one will be able to take away this degree they have earned, and strived for, and shed frustrating tears for.

It’s there, letters after their name, forever. Well done.

And for those of you robed professors behind me, I haven’t forgotten about you either.
I know you’ve sat through these interminable things for more years than you dare to count.
You deserve a self-satisfied Cheshire cat smile, and so please, in your amazing extravagant felt & silly hats borne of a different era, sit back, kick off and relax, because I will only be 7 minutes.

If there’s a theme for my brief talk this evening, it’s go jump off a ledge.

Every now and again I implore you to look about, smell the air, nod knowingly to the safe well-trodden path and simply go jump off a ledge.

Not in actuality, just figuratively. I have only once (actually) jumped off a ledge.

It was many years ago. 1981.

I was painting the roof on my parent’s 2-storey house back in the west of England where I grew up.
I was 18, between school and university, what I laughingly referred to as my gap year.

The Ashes was on the radio, Ian Botham was singlehandedly toying with the Australian cricket team, and I was somewhat distracted.

Balancing on the moss-covered tiles, I felt myself slowly slipping downwards and had but a few seconds to examine my predicament.

As my feet came to the edge of the building, I leapt and somehow made it onto the driveway without injury.

So NO, dear parents and friends, I am not urging your newly bestowed to throw themselves off the nearest actual ledge they can find, but I am asking them to have a think about doing so, when, metaphorically, they have a choice.

Leap at certain times in your life, and often when you feel most comfortable. In fact, especially when you feel most comfortable.

It’s perhaps the best advice I can give you.

For it’s when you push yourself that you perform at your best, discover what’s new, achieve the most and have more fun.

In Easter 1999 I was sitting where you are today, a freshly minted graduate, top of my class indeed, with an MBA from this very university.

I’d never topped anything in my life, as my Dad seemed amused enough to remind me on countless occasions.

A few weeks later I was walking down a beach in Esperance with my wife Lisa. I had been quiet for a few days, something you may gather is rare for me, so Lisa knew something was up.
I’d been thinking.

I stopped in the pristine white sand, turned to her and said: “I know I have to use this MBA. I have to use this and do something else, but the trouble is, I have no idea what I should do. I’m a school teacher, I’ve never been in business…”

Before I had barely said any of that, Lisa said “Go for it.”

You know you’ve married the right person when you get a response like that. Well of course I knew that many years before, but you know what I mean.

I was Head of Commerce at Hale School, and had an MBA.

Now I was arguing to throw that all away, and for what? To do what?

I had no clue. Should I leap out in management consulting as so many MBA grads do? How could I do that, without any business experience? Should I start up a company? How is that possible? Get a job – if so what? What jobs are there for ex school teachers?

All these things ran around my troubled mind for many weeks after.

Then, the idea that became aussiehome.com appeared. The world’s first map-based real estate website, launched here in Nedlands, a stone’s throw from this very hall, by 2 UWA grads.

It was very tough convincing real estate agents to post properties on our website back in 1999, let alone keep them updated and then pay for the privilege.

I know you don’t remember 1999, most of you were not even 5 years old, but stay with me.

Over time, our little internet business grew. Real estate agents were getting enquiries, and after a few years, we were profitable, paying dividends to our plucky shareholders and then after 10 years, we sold the business, lock stock and barrel, to REIWA.

REIWA took on all our staff as employees, and shareholders received a cash exit.

None of this would have happened without me jumping off that comfortable ledge I had at Hale School.

After 3 years at REIWA, I jumped again, this time into Business News to help them with their digital transformation. A few years later I was made CEO.

After 4 more years and just a few WEEKS ago, I jumped yet again, and finally I did get to set up my own consulting business.

I simply don’t know this will go, I’m only in week two, but have already secured my first paying customer, which has me flying to Cambodia next week, and a second client as of this morning.
So, you get the picture.

Your 20s are for experimentation – with your career I mean – you may move a few times and that’s fine. You have bucket loads of time on your side.

Even if a few moves don’t work out, you have plenty of time to recover. You may be embarking on a 50-year career.

So don’t settle, keep moving forward.

And when a ledge presents itself, take a leap.

If it does not appear, create one, and jump anyway.

Because that’s how WA built its sizeable resources industry, through a pioneering spirit, and that’s how we will build our future economy, in health, tourism, education, agriculture, technology and all the rest.

In fact, with the rapid rate of change these days, we don’t even have an option. UWA should be handing out parachutes with those fancy gowns you’re all wearing, or maybe they really are a parachute after all?

When I was a kid, a favourite west country insult was: “Go take a long walk off a short pier”.

In other words, UWA graduates, go jump off a ledge!