10 Top Tips for a Career Change Fuelled by Crowdfunding

Image source: simplybusiness.co.uk

Covid-19 vaccinations have started and perhaps provide a route back to some normality within a few months. Though many businesses haven’t had the luxury of being able to simply batten down the hatches and wait that long, and many people who used to work for them face a turbulent 2021 full of change.

The ranks of the self-employed and small businesses are going to grow. Crowdfunding provides solo entrepreneurs and startup businesses with many benefits, including product testing and raising awareness alongside raising finance without melting down credit cards, re-mortgaging the family home or taking on other forms of a loan guaranteed against personal assets.

Business experience is valuable

Those who had reached the autumn of their career may feel particularly uncomfortable about going it alone in a fast changing world where digital natives appear to be increasingly calling the shots. Yet as The  Blockheads’ band leader Ian Dury might have said, there are reasons to be cheerful.

A study conducted by the US Census Bureau and two MIT professors found:

  • A 50-year-old tech startup founder is 2.2 times more likely to be successful than a 30-year-old.
  • A 50-year-old startup founder is 2.8 times more likely to be successful than a 25-year-old.
  • A 60-year-old tech startup founder is 3 times more likely to be successful than a 30-year-old.  

Not everyone works in tech, though I find it reassuring to know that founding a successful startup isn’t the exclusive preserve of the young, and that the younger business founders aren’t always the best. In my role as an independent crowdfunding adviser I have met many startup founders of all ages. It is always dangerous to make sweeping generalisations, though the high value of transferrable skills and just general understanding of how businesses run is much stronger among older founders. They appreciate far better how solidly things have to done, how robustly claims and plans have to be validated, and that hope isn’t a strategy.

10 top tips for a career change

I’ve been made redundant twice, and worked for a company that folded and left us all high and dry. I know how former salaried employees in their 50s feel, and I offer my ten top tips on setting out in business alone.

  1. Doing new things, outside of a comfort zone previously full of support, is scary. You’ll get through it.
  2. Most of your previous contacts have become useless because they were part of that former comfort zone, your former life.
  3. Reconsider the people who you know, and build connections among a new group of people who are going to be able to help you.
  4. Think equally about how you can help them, relationships will not be built just on how they could help you.
  5. It’s difficult to achieve a target daily pay rate, so do what comes up that looks like it would be good to be involved with.
  6. But don’t forget that time is your most precious asset, particularly when starting a new enterprise later in life.
  7. What you knew before is not going to be enough. You should remain curious and love learning. This is now easier than it ever was with the range of material available online.
  8. Add practice to your knowledge, by simply getting out there to start providing others with the benefits of your knowledge and skills. Even work free for a local charity or community group rather than keep them to yourself. This will help teach you how to best present that knowledge in a way that builds confidence.
  9. Confidence is what your new customers, and maybe later on partners or investors, will recognise and buy in to.
  10. Work with people you like, who respect you, and pay you on time. Life’s too short to do otherwise.

Considering crowdfunding?

If you want to know more about crowdfunding, either as a means to check consumer demand for a new product, or to raise finance for a business to grow, you could start by following me on Twitter. I also regularly write articles about crowdfunding for Crowdsourcing Week. When you’re ready for a conversation, please first email me at [email protected]. I am an independent crowdfunding adviser, providing objective and impartial advice with no ties to any particular crowdfunding platforms.

International Lessons on Achieving Crowdfunding Success

My work with Crowdsourcing Week as a content marketing creator and as an independent crowdfunding advisor has brought me in to contact with crowdfunding experts and thought leaders from around the world. We have talked about reward crowdfunding, equity crowdfunding, and crowdfunding being used by major corporates. I’d like to share some recent insights.

Lessons from 10 years of Crowdfunding in Europe

Christin Friedrich, CEO of the Innovestment platform in Berlin, is also Chair of the European Crowdfunding Network.

Top Insights to Successful Equity Crowdfunding

Key lessons learned at the ECN include the realisation that at whatever stage of a company’s growth, in addition to raising money, successful crowdfunding involves, builds and strengthens communities. Though in an increasingly competitive environment this requires expert communication skills.

An equity crowdfunding project should make it clear what it is asking for; what the organisation raising the money hopes to achieve; and who will benefit. Any funder can go on to become a customer, an advocate, or a supplier. So keep communicating after the crowdfunding closes, share news about your progress through achieving milestones or report on KPIs.

As well as improved professionalisation of all aspects of the process, regulations are adapting to crowdfunding being a global practice. Funds need to flow freely to encourage cross-border financing, though authorities have to be aware of laundering. European harmonisation through the ECN will ease cross-border payments from outside the EU – including the UK.

Evolving best practices in Reward Crowdfunding

New Zealander Nathan Rose is a crowdfunding strategist and author, his latest book is about reward crowdfunding. Across several years he has been able to track changes to what used to be, and what are now, the key factors for rewards crowdfunding success.

Crowd-building and effective communication strategies have definitely changed over the years. For example, these days, many more successful projects have used paid-for social media advertising.

Though project owners should not rely on purely virtual contact – he recommends getting out to events and meet influential people in person. Though beware of trade shows where more people are likely to be like yourself, looking for investment, rather than be potential backers.

PR efforts to crowdsource media coverage remain a valid activity, though not for the reasons you might expect. A published article is unlikely to generate much traffic to a crowdfunding project, though a collection of media logos is a strong endorsement of the viability of a project once site visitors see them.

Nathan also warned of a classic error. He still comes across project owners who calculate the production cost of the rewards they will supply, and set a donation value without checking  the fulfilment costs to deliver the items. Seemingly successful projects can then sometimes incur a loss for the project owner, or are simply abandoned leaving many disappointed backers.

Tips for startup founders on running Equity Crowdfunding

Cheryl Campos, Director of Growth and Partnerships at the US equity crowdfunding platform Republic. Cheryl provided the article’s main image on a general timing plan for an equity crowdfunding project.

Before accepting an investment opportunity to put to its network of half a million investors, Republic uses four important criteria to evaluate startups: “The 4 Ts.”

Team
A startup funder has to have prior career and industry experience that adds up to a set of skills and expertise that can give investors confidence. But few investors will back a one-man (or woman)-band, and want to see a credible management team already in place, a team that has bought in to the founder’s vision of the startup business and have the ability to make a solid contribution.

Traction
Evidence of traction includes a passionate and engaged user base. Perhaps this has been achieved by an earlier round of rewards crowdfunding?

Technology
Is the startup’s product range superior to competitors? Or maybe their technology to make their products is superior, delivering a cost advantage. Are they following the sector’s traditional business model, or have they developed breakthrough innovations to shake up the established incumbents?

Terms
The terms a startup offers investors can vary, based on different methods of estimating a company valuation and with different classes of preference or voting shares, for example. It could make it harder to reach a financial target if crowdfunding backers receive poorer terms than other investors.

Corporate use of Crowdfunding

Esben Bistrup Halvorsen, Co-founder and CEO of Danish platform Lendino, gave a Crowdsourcing Week webinar some examples of major corporations using reward crowdfunding.

Sony has a co-creation and crowdfunding platform called First Flight, which operates within Japan only. It encourages entrepreneurial “Challengers” to propose ideas and suggestions for new products and services and allows them to canvass for input and support among a community of Sony fans and early adopters.

Fleshed-out ideas that have withstood this crowd’s scrutiny can then go on to a reward crowdfunding stage to check for demand to actually acquire the product or use the service. Where response from Sony’s First Flight crowd is strong enough to warrant investment, Sony makes the products and services available. Who knows, someone may come up with the best idea since the Sony Walkman!

Thinking about your own Crowdfunding?

In this most recent stage of my marketing career I’ve immersed myself in crowdfunding for the past six years. The crowdfunding projects you see hosted on any of the crowdfunding platforms are like looking at the 10% of an iceberg that’s visible above the water level. If you want to know the full extent of what has to be prepared to achieve success, let’s have a call. In the first instance please send an email to [email protected]

How Civic Crowdfunding Helps Build Support For Cycle Routes

The Tour de France in East London, 2014

Governments the world over are encouraging more people to use bicycles, and various forms of crowdsourcing are used to support their efforts. This article looks at co-creation to map popular cycle routes in a city; automated sensors and data collection to monitor traffic levels in smart cities and control the flow; and the use of civic crowdfunding to steer local authority decision-making and influence local residents and other stakeholders.

At a macro level the benefits appear to be evident. Reduced traffic levels reduce congestion and air pollution. The built environment needs less space used for parking. A fitter and healthier population puts less pressure on the health services.

At a personal level, cyclists feel empowered by measures they are taking to protect the environment and improve their physical fitness. And right now, cycling is being promoted to reduce the number of people using public transport to help maintain social distancing.

The GB Bicycle Association reported that in the first full month of lockdown, April 2020, sales of bikes priced at between £400 and £1000 more than doubled compared to April 2019 (rising by 112% in number, 99% in value). A UK Government scheme offering online vouchers for use as payment towards repairing old bicycles to a state of roadworthiness crashed under the weight of overwhelming demand.

Co-creating route maps

Road safety remains the paramount issue, more so among female cyclists. A crowdsourcing project in the Indian city of Bengaluru, run by the Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT), has asked the city’s cyclists for details of their favoured routes through the city, and where they would like dedicated cycle lanes installed. DULT’s aim is to team up with the city civic body and create an initial 34 km network of routes in the outer parts of the city before working into the centre, eventually making the whole city more cycling friendly.

It follows a similar exercise carried out in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Car ownership stands at 93% of households, the third highest level of any city in the world, and much of the city centre is a cycle no-go zone. The bold efforts of Jeffrey Lim, a keen cyclist and vintage cycle restorer, saw city authorities earmark a $765,000 budget to create the city’s first cycle lanes.

Smart city traffic management

Many major cities have bike-sharing schemes. In 2015, Barcelona launched its “Bicycle Strategy for Barcelona” government measure, which encouraged increased bicycle use as a habitual mode of urban transport. Its ‘Bicing’ bike share scheme was suspended when emergency measures were first introduced to tackle Covid-19 in April 2020, though from the start of June the network was re-opened with 97 new hire stations planned, and more than 1,000 additional new cycles available.

Beyond bike-sharing, Copenhagen has installed intelligent traffic signals that prioritise bikes and buses over cars. This system can potentially reduce bus travel time by 5–20% and cycle travel time by 10%. Copenhagen has also built a citywide network of protected bike lanes, as laid out in its strategic plans published in 2011. Local authorities across the country collect as much data as possible, both quantitative and qualitative, to inform their decisions on anything related to cycling.

Transport for London similarly uses video sensors with artificial intelligence capability at 20 locations across London to detect the volume of different modes of transport, especially cyclists and pedestrians. This data will be used to assess demand for new cycling routes in the city.

Civic crowdfunding for cycle routes

Crowdfunding has been a successful way for several cycling related startups to sell products and launch a business through selling equity. I’ve seen projects for cycle wear that lights up at night time, bicycles made of bamboo, even a cycle repair business based on a barge travelling up and down English canals. Though there does remain an element of hostility from a minority of motorists – and pedestrians, understandably, when confronted by a cyclist using the pavement.

Hostility, or at least deserved wariness, runs both ways. I‘m a regular cyclist, and I’ve had two shoulder operations due to accidents caused by a car drivers and a passenger. I also know what it’s like to be abused by drivers for things like not being able to go as fast as they’d like me to, or for being annoyed when they turn across me without indicating. So I do have a personal interest in dedicated cycle routes. 

Critics of such routes complain they restrict road widths for vehicles, actually increasing congestion and journey times, and pushing higher traffic levels on to roads that were previously less busy.

Civic crowdfunding can not only raise some of the cost of cycle routes to influence local authority decision-makers (more usually design and feasibility studies than actual construction costs), but can also operate as a marketing initiative to influence residents and other stakeholders in a community.

This strategy worked well in Denver (fantastic place, 360 days a year with sunshine!), when Colorado’s biggest city built its Arapahoe Street protected bike lane. Community organisations engaged residents and business owners early in the design process, and this made a huge difference. The Downtown Denver Partnership, a local business group, initiated the project based on what it had heard from business leaders. To build on this public support, it launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover $35,000 of the design costs.

civic crowdfunding project for a dedicated cycle route in Arapahoe Street, Denver, Colorado, earned the early support of the local office of the Gates Family Foundation. Good crowdfunding is good marketing.

“Letting communities vote with their dollars isn’t just about budgets. It is much more about letting local residents and businesses know early on about the project and allowing them to participate in a meaningful way,” said Kate Gasparro, Graduate Research Fellow of Sustainable Design and Construction, Stanford University.

Three ways crowdsourcing is boosting cycling

Whether it’s research among cyclists drawing their favoured routes on paper maps, sophisticated traffic management technology in smart cities, or civic crowdfunding to let all elements of a community input ideas as well as raise money, the effects are boosting the takeup of cycling the world over.

I originally wrote this article for Crowdsourcing Week. Please contact me if there’s anything you’d like to ask or discuss about running a crowdfunding project. Email me at [email protected]

Crowdfunding Benefits More Than Just Startup Businesses

Various forms of crowdfunding enable startup businesses to inexpensively test market new products, and for private companies to trade equity in exchange for an investment from new shareholders. However, perhaps it’s my time spent sailing at Greenwich Yacht Club, as well as my work as an independent crowdfunding advisor, that recently drew my attention to two very well established businesses that are currently using crowdfunding to pursue a range of objectives.

Rewards Crowdfunding

Rancourt is a US family-owned and run business that has been making handmade moccasin-style shoes, popular with “yachties,” since 1967. They subsequently expanded their range to include boots, dress shoes and leather sneakers. Today, like many other businesses the world over, and despite its good reputation, Rancourt is suffering under Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

Crowdfunding isn’t just for startup businesses

Through their own website, they have started offering shoes in a limited number of styles on a rewards crowdfunding basis at wholesale prices. They will collect orders to a threshold of around 150 pairs per style, then make shoes in batches of 300. This will ensure they don’t produce an over-supply of stock that will tie up their stretched cash resources and then simply gather dust.

There are several benefits to trying to generate business even if it will not make them much immediate profit.

  • It will keep their artisan workforce employed
  • It will generate business for their supply chain
  • It gives new customers an opportunity to experience their premium products at an advantageous price
  • The cash income will contribute to central overheads
  • They will avoid producing unwanted stock

In crowdfunding terms this is known as the “All or Nothing” model. A crowdfunding project can ask people to pre-order, while also setting a minimum total order figure. That figure will be calculated to cover the raw materials, ‘tooling up’ and all other costs of a first production run, plus delivery of the finished goods.

If the stated minimum target is reached, production goes ahead on a de-risked basis. If it isn’t reached, any pre-payments are returned to customers and the product creators can have a rethink without having incurred costs of producing unwanted goods, hiring storage space or servicing a debt.

In the UK, crowdfunding operates outside the Sale of Goods Act. Due to the time it could take to reach the minimum order total, and produce and deliver the goods, some of the earliest ‘purchasers’ may have to expect to wait longer than 28 days to receive their orders.

Equity Crowdfunding

The second sailing-related project I noticed is being run by a Swedish engineering company, GreenStar Marine International. They have been in business almost 20 years and make a range of inboard and outboard electric motors for all types of recreational boats.

They have no protected intellectual property in their motors, and now that sustainability and safeguarding waterways is a higher priority for many boat owners and users, GreenStar want to expand their silent-running and fume-free product range and dealer network faster than they would be able to through organic growth.

They are offering equity in the business to investors who will become shareholders, and thus share the risks and rewards of company ownership. Crowdfunding has democratised the business fundraising process, that was previously available mainly to people with access to “old boy networks” of VC investors or high net worth individuals.

At the time of writing GreenStar Marine International had raised 131% of their target with 69 days still to run.

With almost two decades’ experience of running their business, they are confident of a high rate of return for investors when they go ahead with an IPO planned for late 2021. Though capital is always at risk, and nothing can be guaranteed.

To learn more about Crowdfunding, registration is now open for free tickets to an all-day webinar on August 27 featuring a range of international speakers. The link gives further information.

In the meantime, feel free to contact me if you are considering crowdfunding to test a new product, to launch a new business or expand an existing one. I am an independent crowdfunding advisor, uninfluenced by formal ties to any specific crowdfunding platforms. Email me at [email protected]

Why Do Many Startups Still Fail After Reaching A Crowdfunding Target?

I have looked at this topic because I help small businesses and startups raise money through crowdfunding. There are plenty of times when an influx of investment allows them to scale up, which can often mean introducing new procedures and “control levers” to steer colleagues/employees, and maybe suppliers and customers, in new directions. It doesn’t always run smoothly.

Unfortunately for these plans, most people are naturally and inherently change resistant. It’s in our DNA to want to keep things around us they way they are. It’s a fundamental part of our defence mechanism as it helps us to spot anything out of the ordinary or unexpected that could be a threat. “Human beings are programmed to fear the unknown,” says a recruitment tv commercial for the Royal Marines.

Many change initiatives fail because they are decided by a management minority and then foisted on to the majority, employees or other stakeholders, who are suddenly supposed to adopt new ways of working that are unknown to them. Without adequate pre-selling or involvement in a process to bring them on-side from an early stage, a change initiative can be sunk by a majority of people simply sticking to doing what they previously did in the ways they previously did it.

This can even be the cause of friction between business founders if they didn’t all agree on the scaleup measures to begin with. In a business’s early days, it might all be about taking risks. As a business develops and goes through successive funding rounds, whether it’s money from a crowd or institutional investors, or even sales, the emphasis – and perhaps pressure from new shareholders – can change to “let’s not start to muck it up now that we’re nearly there.”

Perhaps high risk-taking mavericks that were the company’s early spearhead are still in the team, but may be less disposed to a more cautious approach – and the new people who will now help implement it. This is one example of how friction can develop, distracting effort away from building the business before it’s even standing on its own two feet.

This is what’s meant by “company culture eats strategy.” Company culture is an emotional element that binds colleagues together with shared expectations of each other, and it has to be tackled alongside procedural ones to initiate change. A startup team will have often developed a strong culture, meddling with it can be tricky.

For more on the topic, take a look at this article (which is nothing to do with me, I just liked the look of it from the ones I found in a Google search): Culture eats strategy for breakfast – The Management Centre. It also has a five point plan to initiate change successfully.

Tips on Making an Effective Crowdfunding Video

In my role as an independent crowdfunding adviser I’m often involved in matters to do with making videos as part of a pitch to investors, backers or donors. And where a client wants me to work on the basis of payment based on results of a successful project, it would be irresponsible of me not to ask for involvement with such a crucial aspect of a pitch. So I’ve built up a list of some tips that I thought I’d share.

Video production companies don’t have all the answers

The first tip is do not assume that a video production company knows what should be in your crowdfunding video. Some do, though not all of them. Even if they say they do, they might not.

This week the founder of a video production company asked to connect with me via LinkedIn. I confirmed with him he had worked making crowdfunding videos, and he sent me a link to one he had shot for an equity crowdfunding project.

Throughout the five minutes of the video I was waiting for the company founder to tell me why he was raising money, how much was needed, what it would be used for, the current company valuation, what the new value could be when the latest investment had been secured and the developments implemented, what their potential exit strategy might be, and a possible Return On Investment. None of it was ever mentioned. The video might encourage a few new customers to make a purchase, but there was nothing in it to convince anyone to invest in a share of the business.

It turned out that the video team had simply followed the client’s brief, didn’t offer any ideas on the content, and made their usual sort of company video in their usual sort of way.

How to start thinking about your crowdfunding video

Whether your project is to sell equity in your business or generate donations, maybe for rewards, there are common aspects of a good video. These tips from rewards platform Indiegogo are well worth a look, they’ve certainly had enough videos to look at to spot the common ingredients of what works: https://learn.indiegogo.com/making-your-video-great-campaign-video-creation-guide/. This link takes you to some tips gathered from four sources by the equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs: https://www.seedrs.com/academy/how-to-perfect-your-crowdfunding-video-pitch/

Also, spend time watching the videos of successful projects yourself to identify what they have in common, and to spot anything different that makes any of them stand out to you in a positive way.

Spontaneity or a well-rehearsed script?

As much as you should not rely on spontaneous inspiration of what to say, writing a tight script and saying it word-for-word can sometimes lose too much spontaneity and make you sound flat, unengaging and uninspiring. On the other hand, don’t employ a video company and only start thinking about what to say when they turn up, or you arrive at their studio.

I once saw a good video that had been expensive to make because the video team had been with the project leaders all day and they hadn’t been able to shoot the right content to put together an effective three minute film. At the end of the day, almost in exasperation, the three founders sat round a table to talk it through once again, and the camera stayed rolling. This footage is what was finally edited to produce a very naturally flowing video in which they said all the right things to convince enough backers.

So do some concentrated brain storming and throw some ideas around with people who know inside out what you’re doing with your business or new product idea, film yourselves on your smartphones to get comfortable with talking to camera, and reach a point where you pretty much know what’s going to be in your video. Then get a video team with a decent camera and sound equipment to film it and use a good editing suite to pull it together.

Prepare storyboards

Do you know about preparing storyboards? Storyboards will keep you on track while shooting and give the video team a good idea of the intended end result before they start doing anything.

Maybe share the storyboards with them at a pre-production meeting so they can think about how to stage and light some of the shots you want. It gives them an opportunity for technical input (rather than asking them for creative input) and thus plays to their strengths.

Overall, the more you do, the more the video team can just get on with it and it will be more affordable for you. It will make the process less open-ended, and you’ll be more certain they’ve shot the right content.

Get the most value from the video team

After shooting the main video content, record some other short pieces to use later while the crowdfunding is running, messages like: “Hey, we’ve reached 30% or 40%,” or “we’re half way there” or “we’ve reached the first £50,000 – thank you all so much. But there’s still a way to go. Please let your friends know about us…..”

Have these clips ready to use via your social media before they are actually needed, so anyone can just lift them down from the proverbial shelf.

Consider changing some clothes for these other mesages as they will go out at different times during your crowdfunding project.

Other crowdfunding video tips

There are more crowdsourced tips from various other people here: https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-most-important-points-to-remember-while-making-a-crowdfunding-pitch-video

Like anything else, perfect preparation prevents pathetic performance.

Equity Crowdfunding Works for B2B Businesses

There is a common misconception that crowdfunding is only applicabe to B2C businesses. On recently seeing a question posed on Quora, asking if anyone had got some examples of B2B startups that had used crowdfunding, there were three that immediately came to mind.

Energytech
A crowdfunded B2B business I have invested in is Pavegen. They generate sustainable electricity from people walking on their floor tiles which are installed in high-traffic places like shopping malls and sports stadia.

Their customers include transport system operators, and owners of shopping centres and sports and entertainment venues: Pavegen – Global leader in harvesting energy and data from footfall.

Transport infrastructure

Another B2B company that has used equity crowdfunding in the UK is MacRebur. They reinforce asphalt with recycled plastic to create a more resilient road surface, and help reduce the amount of plastic waste.

They have also resurfaced some airport runways, and recently announced a pothole repair material that will be available in 20kg bags: macrebur.com. Their customers include airport owners, local councils and highway authorities.

Agritech

To give a third example, I made an equity crowdfunding investment not long ago in an agritech business called Hectare. Traditional farmers’ markets in the UK are closing down at a rapid rate, meaning more and more farmers have to make long and arduous journeys to take livestock to market. And sometimes it means driving their fit and healthy animals through areas where there is a higher risk of disease.

Hectare provides online marketplaces for farmers to check current prices and sell animals at SellMyLivestock and crops at Grainindex. Their B2B customers are farmers and agricultural produce buyers: Hectare Agritech | Reinventing Farm Trading

Online shopping is hurting the high street, but new tech can also help bricks-and-mortar retailers

Many well-known retail brands have shut down in the past few years. We’re no longer dropping in to Maplins, Toys R Us, Oddbins, LK Bennet, Karen Millen, British Home Stores or Mothercare. And that’s just a fraction of the list.

Many others have already re-negotiated their rent costs, or are planning to do so, through CVAs (Company Voluntary Arrangements) to buy time to develop a new business plan that will cope with current pressures of reduced customer footfall, sales figures and profits that are largely held to be attributable to online shopping.

CVAs spread retailers’ challenges – ok, risks – to a wider community of corporate owners of retail space and their shareholders, such as British Land, Hammerson and the Intu Group. Those shareholders, indirectly, include millions of us through pension schemes and government investments. So when media headlines declare “the high street is dying” we ought to take note.

Though is it really dying, or is it a case of transforming to the new reality of a business landscape that now has to include a share of online shopping? Latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show 19% of all UK retailing is done online, and the figure is still growing.

Online shopping is hurting the high street, but new tech can help bricks-and-mortar retailers

It’s not the only factor that bricks-and-mortar retailers are having to deal with. The level of business being lost to online retailers is enough to tip many shop owners in to a danger zone, and other factors are under scrutiny. Many local council traffic and parking policies, for example, are based on deterring people from going to their local shops and high street, rather than encouraging them to make a visit.

Changes to the way independent retailers do business are clearly needed, though many people are instinctively resistant to change. Even those that do grasp the nettle, who are willing to change and face up to the costs of doing so, may not be able to work out the best options to choose. But they are on borrowed time if they just sit still.

At a recent “Future of the High Street” meeting organised by the non-profit Smiley Movement, Lucy Stainton of the Local Data Company confirmed a very healthy 64% of UK retail outlets are independently owned. When asked which types of retailer are most commonly going out of business she replied “The boring ones!”

Online shopping is hurting the high street, but new tech can help bricks-and-mortar retailers
L to R: Lucy Stainton, Local Data Company; Enedina Columbano, TRAID; Neil Duffy, Retail TRUST; Andrew Goodacre, British Independent Retailers Association; Robin Osterley, Charity Retail Association

Despite the fact that it’s new technology that has created the new challenges, there are many enterprising tech startups that can help physical retailers. Here are five of them.

Launched in 2014 by a husband and wife team who began their retail careers with a market stall, Down Your High Street enables local independent retailers to have an online presence in a digital marketplace. Shoppers can source out-of-the-ordinary products from 530 independent shops based all over the country, and also opt for a deferred payment plan if they wish through collaboration with the fintech payment platform Clearpay.

Dotty Directory provides advertising for small and medium size retailers on a number of websites that have a local focus on areas around the UK. In return, their details are passed on to service providers such as insurance companies who will try to sell to them.

MaybeTech offers courses on using social media for local retailers to raise their profile and attract more customers. Their platform uses AI (Artificial Intelligence) to help larger organisations listen and engage with their customers through social media, benchmark their results, and optimise the ROI of their activity.

LoLo (short for Local Loyalty) has started rolling out a mobile app that enables shoppers to benefit from using tokens that represent cash price reductions in local stores. It aims to increase customer loyalty to local independent shops.

The retailers can in turn use the tokens they accept to enjoy savings on goods and services they require for their business, and receive customer data feedback in order to improve future decision-making. The scheme is networked so that wherever tokens are earned they can be used with any other retailer or service provider that is signed up to LoLo.

Near Street is a search engine that shows the availability of items in nearby physical stores alongside the regular online options. Any stores that maintain online records of stock levels can participate. The system also helps product manufacturers and brand owners check where their goods are after they have been delivered to distribution centres.

To close, I should declare an interest, as I manage social media for LoLo.


Despite Extinction Rebellion’s Efforts, Will Weaponized Robots Give Us Enough Time To Tackle Climate Change?

In October 2019, the activist movement Extinction Rebellion disrupted daily routines in major cities around the world to highlight the dangers from man-made climate change, and that time is running out to do anything meaningful about it. In London, demonstrators glued themselves to office building doors, the pavement, trains and cars – even to the top of an aircraft about to take off!

They also ran a UK crowdfunding project with a target of £1 million to fund their activities, maybe even to pay some of the fines their members picked up – just a guess. As at October 29 the crowdfunding is still running and they’ve reached nearly £965,000, they’re almost there.

Though within the 30-50 year time frame we are usually told is going to be decisive, some people believe there are other threats that ought to be taken just as seriously, if not more, from artificial intelligence and robotics.

Robot threat to jobs

Many of us have become accustomed to doom-mongers’ comments about the threats to livelihoods from robots doing repetitive and menial work. Inevitable consequences usually list mass unemployment, with non-working people subsidized by far higher taxes levied on those still in work. How would norms of social inclusion and the rule of law cope with an ever more divisive and polarized world of haves and have nots? And that includes having a sense of purpose as much as anything else.

Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at Berkeley, California, and one of the world’s leading experts in AI, has weighed in with his own opinions in a new book published this month titled “Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control.”

He asks readers to imagine a scenario in which a comparable risk is external, one in which advanced aliens from another world email the United Nations and say “we’re coming, we’ll be with you in 30 to 50 years.” Would our planet’s best minds be mobilized to prepare for this extra-terrestrial incursion more than we are preparing for the creation of our own super-humanly intelligent machines? 

Pace of technology leaves controls behind

Technology continues to develop at a faster and faster pace. Machine learning-powered artificial intelligence is increasingly likely to enable automation to take on more complex tasks thought were once thought to be ‘machine-proof.’

Flying aircraft, as an example, is a highly skilled profession, not one of the highly repetitive jobs that are supposedly under most threat from robots. Airline pilots can earn substantial incomes and generally receive public admiration. How close are we to that changing, with their role totally automated?

The Probability of Job Automation By Occupation

Source: Office of National Statistics

Lockheed Martin, the US global aerospace corporation, is currently sponsoring an open innovation challenge to combine AI, machine learning and fully autonomous flight. The goal is to create an AI framework that could pilot racing drones through high-speed aerial courses without any GPS, data relay or human intervention. 

420 teams from 81 countries have been whittled down to nine finalists who will compete in four races in the coming months. The winning team will win $1 million plus an extra $250,000 if their AI drone can beat a human-piloted drone: the challenge-winning drone will race the fastest 2019 DRL Allianz World Champion pilot at the end of the season. 

However, there are often unintended consequences. In a less sporting context, weaponization of drone technology has already been achieved. In 2016, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carried out its first successful drone attack, killing two ‘opponents’ in northern Iraq. Terrorist groups are increasingly using drones and elementary artificial intelligence in attacks. Improved AI could prove a formidable threat, allowing non-state actors to automate killing on a massive scale, creating incidents of mass destruction.

A former Google software engineer and member of the International Committee for Robot Arms ControlLaura Nolan, has warned that autonomous killer robots could accidentally start a war in the future. She has called for automated weaponry to be outlawed by international treaties. Which ones? What treaties do terrorist organizations sign up to? 

Terrorist groups aren’t the only parties involved. Stuart Russell’s book  points out Israel has developed an autonomous “loitering munition” called Harop, which can hunt and destroy objects it classes as hostile. Anti-personnel microdrones equipped with facial-recognition systems and explosive weaponry might already exist. Slaughterbots, they are called.

At the time when Extinction Rebellion were disrupting major cities around the world, and targeting hubs of finance, media and transport, Russell put forward the notion that the leading tech firms in Silicon Valley and China must learn to accept regulation in the area of weaponry. “Let’s hope it doesn’t require a Chernobyl-sized disaster (or worse),” he warns, “to overcome the industry’s resistance.” 

But whilst authors and activists can point and warn of the dangers, I have to ask the question again about “who can introduce enforceable regulation, and act with whose authority?” Any suggestions or comments out there?

Maximising the Impact of B2B Social Media

Maximising the Impact of B2B Social Media
Responsibility for executing an organisation’s Marketing has changed drastically. Back when digital multi-channel television and colour photographs in newspapers were becoming the new normal, I was planning where and when international clients and household brand names should run their media advertising campaigns, and convincing their heads of marketing to sign off eight-figure annual budgets.

Today, just as importantly for the businesses involved, I handle social media accounts and write articles for B2B clients to post on their websites and elsewhere as part of a Content Marketing strategy.  In terms I learned at school in GCSE Economics classes, Marketing for many organisations, particularly smaller ones, has transitioned from a capital intensive activity (needs a lot of money) to a more labour intensive one (less cash outlay, though needs more time spent on it). Whose time should it be?

Old School Marketing

Maximising the Impact of B2B Social MediaImagine standing at a podium in front of a large crowd of people, telling them things about your business. Some of them are your customers, some of them are people you’d like to be your customers, and some of them are people who could be asked for advice on whether they think you’re any good. You have the only microphone, you are standing on an elevated stage. You know where your audience is to face them, though you can’t see them very well through the stage lights.

This is how much of marketing communications used to be done – broadcasting. Whilst there is some element of audience interaction – you can hear if you make them laugh, or when they didn’t at a point you hoped they would – it is fundamentally a one-way experience to deliver a controlled, scripted message to an audience switched on to politely sit and ‘receive.’

To ensure the advertising and PR message(s) being put out were the correct ones, and that they were delivered professionally and effectively, you would have hired an advertising agency and a PR company. The messages would be relayed through media owners – the press, radio and tv companies – that controlled the gateways to reach their readers, listeners and viewers. Or you could use direct mail, or some leaflets delivered door-to-door.

Whatever a business chose to do, it was almost totally handled externally, and managed by an internal Marketing team or person. By far the majority of any organisations’ employees had nothing at all to do with it.

Today’s Reality

Now think about sitting at a table with a group of eight or ten people from that theatre audience, who have been selected to discuss your business and its ‘brand values’ – the reputational values and core skills you want your business to be associated with. You can all see each other on the same level, there are no microphones, no stage lights. The process of communicating is very different, and the biggest difference is now that you will have to spend a lot of time listening.

Maximising the Impact of B2B Social MediaAs you begin to talk there will be interruptions, of agreement and disagreement, it will be a true iterative process. The people round the table will start talking to each other, maybe some to defend you, others to pile on the pressure of what they think your business lacks or is failing to do (or say) properly, or even chip in with personal poor experiences. You will be debating, advocating, persuading and interacting. You might find it can be a bit like this when you’re networking at events.

Then add to the table a couple of your employees. The other people at the table are likely to make judgements based on what they say as much as what you say. Do they support or deviate from your own core messages; how enthusiastic are they; do they project a ‘united front’ of consistent values, knowledge and skills? Or maybe they sit there absent-mindedly gazing out of the window while ignoring the conversation, your customers, influencers and other stakeholders who are present.

This is more what Marketing has become in the interactive two-way street of social media, with direct and immediate person-to-person (C2C) contact without permission or approval required from gatekeepers, and with every person creating and delivering their own messages in their own style. It’s a powerful process that can easily use images and video clips. It’s also chaotic, noisy, cluttered and taking place 24/7. And it’s a process that at best you can hope to influence though never actually control. So wouldn’t it be better if there were a few more people helping out?

Marketing Is Not A Person

Inside your own business, think about the numerous people responsible for direct contact with your clients, with key decision-makers: are they all saying the right things, the same things, about the business? And with what degree of enthusiasm or lacklustre detachment?

You also have other ‘back room’ employees in contact with your clients’ counterparts, and occasionally perhaps local authorities, licensing bodies, suppliers, professional trade bodies, the taxman, local and specialist professional media – don’t think this is unimportant. Every contact point at every level influences external perception of your business and what it’s like to do business with you: how the phones are answered; how emails are worded; accuracy and timing of the response to questions; timely and accurate billing; how problems are handled – do people take responsibility or play the blame game? As a start point, it’s why you’re (usually) all smartly dressed and presentable for business meetings – to project a good image. Everything else is simply an extension of this.

Marketing’s ‘New Normal’

These days, a wider appreciation of Marketing should be part of a successful company’s DNA, woven in to its very fabric. In the new “always on” digital-era business environment, it’s more a state of mind, a company culture, not restricted to people who have the word in their job title.

Supporting the company’s digital and social media marketing doesn’t require anyone to spend large amounts of time on it, start writing their own engaging content or become a social media influencer with a multitude of followers. A fuller commitment to the company’s business aims can start with as little as a Click now and again on a LinkedIn Update ‘Share’ or ‘Like’ buttons, or a Twitter re-tweet or a ‘Like.’ To do nothing is to gaze out of the window.