My Sherpa story

I am not an insurance person.

Winter of 2016, I was on the hunt for the next big project, travelling to Europe’s top startup hubs and being exposed to some very interesting concepts. However, I wanted something that was different in terms of its human impact where the problem was so real, it just had to be solved. And that is when I met Chris.

Over coffee, we spoke about the problem in insurance, with Chris breaking it down in a way that for the first time, made it comprehensible. I was not in the insurance industry and always thought it was that necessary evil type product. And when I saw insurance startups, I always found them to be simply the digitisation of the same problem, hardly solving it.

“The problem with insurance is the insurance product itself”. And “We need to insure people not buckets of risks they call products.” The conversation sparked curiosity and I started researching both the products on the market as well as customer reactions to them.

It was clear that the problem was real. Insurance products suffer from feature soup, with risks (think of them as features) being thrown in to the mix making it seem more valuable. The more features an insurance product has, the more complex it becomes, with the value added not necessarily needed. The result is the customer buying something they don’t understand, paying for features they may not need, resulting in the most painful experience possible. What about the post purchase experience? Well, if customer’s don’t know what they are being sold, the post purchase experience is bound to be terrible.

What Sherpa has set out to do is to transform the industry by creating protection a customer needs, supporting the customer throughout the process, and constantly being on the customers’ side. Sherpa is about moving from feature soup to giving customers only the protection they need; from an unfair commission based business model relying on hard-sales to a flat subscription service, from complexity that only the risk geek understands to democratised versions of protection.

The future of everything is exciting as long as it evolves and insurance will be positively impacted to benefit customers the world over. We have started with one of the most under-served customers in the U.K., the self-employed, and will continue to make Sherpa protection easier, simpler and relevant for more people after that.

I am still not an insurance person, but a person making insurance simple.

[As featured in meetsherpa.com]

Malta’s biggest digital business conference

The MCA, TakeOff and myself have been working together to develop Malta’s biggest digital business conference called ZEST.  An event looking to attract 500 people, over two days, with two stages (one focused on startups and the other on the established companies) and a super liner of speakers.

 

The event’s theme is Breaking Borders. What this refers to is the blurring of lines between industries, professions and countries or regions. The reason why it is so relevant is that the way disruptions are happening in every industry, and the speed at which rules are changing, is causing massive impacts on our definitions. What is a taxi company in 2016? Uber has changed the rules. What is a marketing professional? It is no longer just a creative, but more of a numbers guy, or a highly technical coder. What is Estonia doing with there digital residencies?

With all of this happening in the world, what we wanted to do is bring thought leaders together to discuss the subject in terms of both opportunity and impact. We also wanted to get companies that are actually pushing for this disruption.

That is why we have the CEO of Funderbeam, a company that is looking to merge crowd funding with stock exchange models. Jobbatical that are mixing up where we live and work, Leaf Music that took marketing/lead generation to a new level getting customer acquisition down to just a few cents. We then have thought leaders from Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Gartner, Forbes, Leo Burnett and TechStars. And if that isn’t enough, we even have up and coming local disrupters like HotJar who are the fastest growing analytics company in the world at the moment, having merged multiple tools into one, and slashed prices drastically.

Lastly, we are also bringing in regional perspectives. Yes, we have several European views of the business world, but what about North Africa and the Middle East? We invited Flat6Labs, the regions largest seed fund to share there views.

We also have Jack Cator. Jack is the founder of HideMyAss, which he recently exited to AVG for a (very) healthy sum. Jack founded the business at 16, experienced massive growth and did it using remote teams and outsourcing. A great story and a true inspiration from a very down to earth guy.

What about format, the event is not your typical suit and tie conference either. We wanted it to be as informal as possible. We are setting up a coworking space to allow our freelancers, digital nomads and entrepreneurs to catch up on work while at the event. We are organising a party on the Monday night (27th June) with an open bar, right on the beach. We are making sure that the vibe of the event is as open as possible. We don’t just want business cards to be exchanged but relationships to be built. We of course have a few surprises that should also make this event ‘memorable’!

Price? Well, this event is probably the cheapest conference of the year in Europe. Prices start at EUR 29 for students and EUR 79 for everyone else. This is for a two day event with awesome speakers and a liquid party! :)

All in all, a great event that looks to get many different views together on the island of Malta for two days. A great opportunity to see what the island has to offer, meet a few global movers and shakers, have a drink in the sun, and listen to great speakers talk about the future of business.

After 2 months at NOW Digital Academy

NOW Digital Academy has launched, the founders got excited, then the work began. Reality set in and boy were we surprised.

When we launched NOW, we didn’t know what to expect. We are offering free education, without lecturers or lectures, based on a new mode of teaching. We needed to create digital businesses that students can run and scale, and we had to make it all sustainable. We knew it was possible but it all depended on the quality of our students. We were also put to the test. If the students didn’t learn, and therefore add value to the business, than we wouldn’t make money! Quality of our coaching was everything.

We started off by creating a lot of structures based on assumptions, and frankly most were very wrong!

The reality is that the quality of our students surpassed our expectations. They were hungry. True, on day one, they were shy. They took notes. They spoke quietly between them. Five days later they challenged the business models we presented and fought for leadership roles of key functions within the business.

Two months later, and where are we? In the first few days, we gave our students a business model in one single line – “a fashion marketplace that promotes international micro fashion designers”. We know there are many of them, we said, so let us differentiate.

The students worked on this for a few weeks, speaking to micro designers, trying to go deeper in understanding the designers stories and ambitions. What were their challenges? What do they need? They discovered how designers are misunderstood, how they want to focus on the creative, how many want to help and be part of something greater than just there brand. They discovered how micro-designers and tech startups are very similar in that they both needed a community to support and engage with them. They learnt that the fashion world is tough and though many designers have egos (like any other industry I guess), a lot of them were fantastic human beings.

This is when rock and olive was born. They started working on the marketplace to support micro fashion designers that embraced the community concept and believed in collaboration beats competition. They added gamification concepts, challenged how the community communicates, discussed community evangelisation, and how to make ecommerce easy for the new designer to take on. They worked on revenue generations, fair commissions, affiliate and other models. They discussed go-to-market and developed startegic and tactical plans. They sweated, often till late at night.

More importantly, the students fought for work that needed to be done. They understood that the more they took on, the more they are exposed to. They proved that hunger is the most critical attribute a person needs to grow into a career. And they were super hungry.

What next? Well, we are now focusing on getting rock and olive some traction. This means working on the #stopsocksandsandals campaign, creating great content, understanding long tail keywords and analytics and both listening and engaging via social media. We are also working on new businesses, one in the travel space and the other in recruitment SaaS. Both interesting and we are very excited to get more of this great quality.

Lastly, we recently started working with Universities in the U.K. and offering NOW Academy as an extension to there Master’s courses. Interest in this has been phenomenal as it gives students real access and exposure to digital business experience, for free, in Malta!

All in all, we are and will continue to be very excited with NOW Digital. As it evolves with every new student and suggestion, we hope to give opportunities to tomorrow’s digital professions, and let them discover better versions of themselves.

DSCN5755 (1)

Why I believe in NOW Digital Academy

I work in digital startups and I see super ideas and technologies being created on a regular basis. It is exciting to see business models being challenged, and people becoming entrepreneurs over a few months. However, something that continuously surprises me is the lack of knowledge within the digital marketing space.

This post may be a bit of a rant but I highly think it is relevant in a 2016 business context. Why are marketeers coming out of courses at educational establishments unaware of how to leverage SEO, social media and content? How on earth do they not understand the king of digital businesses across the globe – THE FUNNEL? Any how can it be that there analytic skills are so basic, if at all. And although the book does have some value is Kotler still the be all and end all of marketing?

Marketing, as a discipline is changing at a very fast pace. Today we are creating fantastic Instagram content, tomorrow we are broadcasting on Periscope. The thing is, with such a dynamic and fast moving discipline, it is impossible for educational establishments to create an always current course. It takes months to create the content. Months to find qualified teachers to teach the stuff. And then months to sell the courses!

Now is a digital business academy and it is very different. It is looking to teach marketing or digital business, in a real and relevant context. Now does not have teachers, it has coaches. It does not have course material, it has real digital businesses. It does not have exams, it has KPIs. It does not give certificates, but rather gives a report on how you have hit your metrics.

It is as real as it gets.

So, clearly, I believe in the concept. But its not just the relevance of business. I also believe in the approach. It is FREE and ACCESSIBLE!

Having an average mark of A while at University or school does not mean you will succeed more within a digital business. In fact, your background and education has very little effect on your ability. Because of this, NOW is a free school, open to anyone from any background, from any school with any grades. Now is also open to anyone in terms of age, sex and race. We only have one entry requirement – HUNGER. How hungry are you, as a person, to make things happen. How much do you want it.

Yes, I believe in NOW…

 

Failure Misunderstood

[As featured in MONEY magazine] MONEY MAG COVER

Failure is tough. Emotionally, financially and socially. It is often seen as an embarrassment, as though a failed business venture defines your future and your capabilities. In the startup world, we should see things differently. Simon Azzopardi talks about why startup failures are seen in a very different light.

Nine out of ten startups will fail. This is a fact that every entrepreneur in the startup world needs to be fully aware of and comfortable with. This means that not only failure being very likely for an entrepreneur, but also that one should have the emotional and psychological readiness for failure. A lot of this readiness has to do with culture.

First of all though, one must keep in mind that technology based startups have a very different approach to creating businesses than what traditional business school teaches. The eco system of startup founders push for a lean approach of selling before building, and typically the building part involves very little money. Startups try to mitigate the multitude of risks though still the odds of failure are not in the favour of the startup.

With all this said, the cultural differences in how we approach failure is significantly different depending on which ecosystem you are involved in. If one had to compare the US to Europe, failure is treated astronomically differently.

Failure in the US is seen to be celebrated, like a badge of honour of sorts, worn proudly by entrepreneurs. Conferences such as FailCon even exist where entrepreneurs talk about their failures and the lessons learnt from it. Truth is, such conference have gone a long way in pushing the culture of accepting failure even though it is, in my opinion, oversold.

In Europe, failure is seen as the end of the road. Reputation is tarnished and labelling happens. In fact, we see that entrepreneurs that fail in Europe are less likely to try again, or receive the funding required from investors. Comparing this to the US and we see massive cultural differences where several angel investors and venture capital firms look for a previous failure to ensure that lessons have been learnt, and mistakes will not be repeated.

In my opinion, the concept of failure is misunderstood on both sides. The Americans go too far in celebrating failure, overplaying failure as some form of milestone reached. The celebration should be the lessons learnt, and not the failure in itself. And quite frankly, a lesson learnt is only defined or realised to have had a positive effect once success is achieved. Therefore, failure should only be celebrated in hindsight of success.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have us, the conservative Europeans. Europe does not see any positive whatsoever in failure, yet if you look at the mantra of startup thinking, including the mantra “fail fast, fail often”, there is a clear mismatch in how we think versus how tech entrepreneurs should approach such a high risk industry.

The ideal is a culture whereby failure is understood for what it is, nothing more and nothing less. Failure should simply be seen as a path taken that didn’t work, where life lessons are rich and difficulties associated with it need to be overcome as quickly as possible.

So what next? What can Europe do to be better entrepreneurs? The first thing we need to do is talk about failure. Failure is not some taboo though simply a step many entrepreneurs face before success. I am not talking about the celebration of failure, but rather the promotion of its discussion without prejudice.

Secondly, the startup world needs a reality check. Startups and particularly tech entrepreneurs are celebrated today, almost seen as the rock stars of society. Only a few years ago, young people spoke about John Lennon, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Today we talk about Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Thankfully, such profiles are better celebrated than the Kardashians.

The result of this tech rock star phenomena is that many people want to be like them, yet without being primed of what being an entrepreneur really is about. We talk about the successful entrepreneur but very few talk about the challenging milestones along the way or the failed nine out of ten that never made it on Forbes. We talk about growing a business, but very few understand the legal implications of bankruptcy.

Like with most things in this world, solutions to challenges lies in educated conversations. Failure is not the end of the world, and could be the last failure before success. Lessons should be celebrated when they take a positive impact on how you do things, and if a person talks about his failure, accept it for what it is, a wrong path taken that does not define that person’s abilities, personalities, or future potential.  Lastly, we should strive to fail better, in terms of being more educated about both the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, without overselling the startup path, and falling part of an ecosystem that understands the risks entrepreneurs take and can support better decision making.

 

Startup Weekend: Ideas become high growth startups in under 54 hours

StartupWeekend Malta_Logo4

[As featured in TimesofMalta and several other online news portals]

The hardest part of creating a new company is knowing whether the idea is any good and creating a business model for it. Knowing whether you are creating a solution to an actual problem, and whether your solution can earn you money is not easy. Getting to real answers needs support and processes. Malta has Startup Weekend to deliver just that.

For the fourth time, Malta will be hosting the international event, Startup Weekend, in collaboration with the Malta Communications Authority. “Startup Weekend is a Google powered programme where ideas become high growth startups in under 54 hours,” the organisers said.

“Every year, the event attracts individuals of different ages with a wide range of backgrounds. Developers, designers, marketing, sales, you name it. This blend of people, together with ideas creates a perfect ambiance for startups to become a reality,” according to Startup Weekend organiser Simon Azzopardi.

Simon continued, “this year’s event however, is looking to be even bigger and bolder. Every year we involve mentors and judges who add a lot of support to the startups over the weekend. This year, startup teams will be mentored by leading angel investors from Berlin and Silicon Valley, accelerators, pitch doctors, and successful entrepreneurs. Names such as Amazon, AOL and Seedcamp, are flying in for the occasion from as far as Singapore.”

“The MCA is very excited about this event as it is a model that has been applied with great success, both abroad and in Malta. Moreover, we strongly support what is happening in the startup space. Events such as these fully reflect the MCA’s vision and activities that are aimed at spurring entrepreneurial flair and a change in mindset towards economic growth,” said an MCA spokesperson.

Anton Bartolo, director for Corporate Research and Knowledge Transfer at the University of Malta, Gold sponsor and host of the events said, “TAKEOFF seeks to help Maltese Startup Community grow. It is very important to have international startup events organised in Malta, which bring foreign talent in terms of teams as well as mentors to enrich local entrepreneurial culture. TAKEOFF is proud to host this exciting event, and we augur that it will generate new high-growth start-ups that may seek our support to improve their growth prospects.”

David Vella, CEO of Altaro and sponsor of Startup Weekend commented, “Altaro used to be a startup. We know that early days are tough, but we also know that it was worth it. We continue to support Startup Weekend as we believe that creating a vibrant startup community is essential for Malta to have more success stories.”

It all gets underway at 6pm on Friday, when participants can pitch an idea or simply listen to others pitch theirs. Once all that is done, voting takes place on which ideas to work with. This is followed by formation of teams to work on these ideas.

Then at 10pm everything kicks off. The high profile mentors coach and collaborate with team members. The aim here is to present one’s startup to investors and judges on Sunday.

“It is super interesting when you see lawyers, accountants, doctors with sometimes great ideas, knowing nothing about software, pitching their solutions to problems. Moreover, it’s great seeing future entrepreneurs, even if no ideas are pitched, take these ideas and make them great,” said Simon.

“In past events, we had entrants travel from Germany, Italy, Spain and India. Results have shown that this mix of background and cultures adds another layer of excitement and energy into the room,” he said.

“The beauty of startup weekend is that the idea, though it has value, is not everything. Uber is a taxi service. Groupon is a deals site. The trick is how it’s done, and startup weekend shows you the ropes.”

The event, happening from the 17th – 19 July is being hosted by TakeOff Incubation Centre at the University or Malta, in partnership with the MCA and sponsored by Altaro.

Hacking the Retail Industry

[As seen on Money Magazine Issue 30]

Simon Azzopardi meets two start ups in Malta that are looking to change the retail industry in their own way.

Retail has seen drastic changes over the last few years with the emergence of ecommerce and mobile commerce, with giant companies creating new industries previously unimaginable. New technologies such as 3D printing will further increase the pace of change of the industry.

Technology undoubtedly brings new opportunities, and just by being around local start ups that embrace such possibilities, sheds light on what is possible. I sat down with two start ups residing at TAKEOFF Incubation Centre at the University of Malta to understand their views and impact they want to have on the industry.

The first start up I met is Riccardo Lora, CEO of a company called CalypseLab. They have developed a software solution that uses in-store video analytics (amongst other technologies) to track, record and process human behaviours in a retail outlet.

Their highly effective pitch is that they “are the in-store Google Analytics.” Riccardo explains, “the traditional approach involves the construction of strategies on the basis of sales data and the sensitivity or impulses of the staff. How do we measure store performance other than sales?”

“What we want to do is give stores the ability to apply key performance indicators (KPIs) in real time to affect strategies in retail stores,” Riccardo explains. “We can measure the performance of a shop window for example. Using security cameras to capture images, we process data to give you a conversion rate of walk-ins.”

The impact that this has on how a store is managed is significant. If one had to look at ecommerce by comparison, it is entirely a numbers game based on conversions and ratios. Applying the same philosophy of data driven decision making to the retail space is certainly a game changer.

I ask Riccardo how sees this product impact the retail space. “Imagine you make a change in a shop, of a display for example, you can measure the performance improvement, apply the change to all the chain and all the outlets within the chain are more profitable, in only a few days. We measured a shop’s performance where we have installed our product, and saw an increase of 0.5% of walk-ins coupled with a 2% increase in engagement can generate a rise of 29.6% of sales.”

This is ecommerce speak in a retail environment. How will this affect the management skills within the industry?

“We are seeing that managers need new skill sets and are working with change management partners to assist our clients. However, we are also seeing data driven decisions meaning that managers are a lot more confident when deciding upon change.”

Riccardo ends the meeting with this: “Big retail giants have already made the shift in focus from product to customer, measuring and analysing their behaviour. Our tool simply gives you more data to measure and analyse more accurately, delivering less risk and more opportunity.”

Analytics in a retail environment using existing infrastructure and the cloud is certainly an exciting proposition. My next start up mixed retail with an industry well engrained in Malta’s economy.

Lewis Holland is the CEO of DiscountIF, another start up stemming from the local scene. “We are offering consumers cashback on everyday items, based on the outcome of a sporting event. We call it ‘The Power of IF’”.

“The concept is simple. Buy this Samsung TV and get 100% cash back if Chelsea win the league.”

What they are doing therefore is mixing retail (ecommerce) with a game of chance. How has the market reacted?

“We have reached 6 million people on twitter with our offers trending, many using hashtag #NoBrainer. For an early stage company, that is pretty significant. We have backing from major global brands and entrepreneurs further spurring growth.”

Lewis explains how the concept has been tried before with companies like Toshiba selling 10,000 televisions under cash back promises if England wins the World Cup. “The model clearly works, and we are continuously getting requests to add on more products. Our experience in hedging and gaming allows us to offer such a service profitably.”

Is DiscountIF a gaming or retail company? “We are most definitely retail. We offer products for a reasonable price, irrespective of outcome, within a new, gamification-type of customer experience.”

DiscountIF and CalypseLab have not changed the retail space but rather looking to offer their own take on what it could be. Both start ups are being incubated in Malta, currently going through investment rounds, backed by teams with high aspirations.

The retail industry is continuing to change, and great start ups will accelerate the pace at which it evolves. New skill sets will emerge and customer experiences will become the focus of the industry. Retailers need to decide whether they are ready for new customer expectations.

Country of Angels [As featured in Money Magazine March 2015]

What is a business angel and how do you become one, asks Simon Azzopardi. 

Highly ambitious start up companies with a global perspective, are naturally interesting. Irrespective of background, we all feel and understand what they are trying to achieve. Hopes, dreams, aspirations, innovations, and a lot of sweat seems to come together in order to build an aspiring game-changing product.

Start ups need great people to make them work, but also money in varying amounts. Some need a few tens of thousands of Euro, while others may need seven figures. Where do start ups go for such investments? Angels are internationally a popular choice.

What is a business angel and what do you need to become one? MONEY Magazine catches up with Simon Azzopardi to discuss Angel Investing.

What is a business angel?

A business angel is typically a successful entrepreneur that is willing to invest his or her own money into a new venture due to a belief in a product’s potential and a team’s ability to execute. An angel is typically not a one-time investor but plays an active role with both existing investments and seeking future investments. Therefore, an Angel investor is typically an individual with a certain volume of liquid assets and a high risk appetite.

So, people who have say € 100,000 that they would like to invest, should consider being an angel investor?

Let’s be clear, angel investing is very risky. Typically, 50% of the start ups you invest in will shut down in under two years, 30% will survive, delivering little to no returns, and 20% will thrive, covering the returns for your entire portfolio. Now, keeping this into consideration, it is clear that the number of investments or deals you make need to be sufficient to cover or spread the above risks. With a typical investment of between € 20,000 and € 50,000, in isolation a € 100,000 budget is difficult to justify in order to make a decent return.

So what is that number when angel investing makes sense?

Truth is, there isn’t. You could argue that mathematically, you need in excess of € X per annum of ready to invest cash for it to be worthwhile. However, there are other factors that may influence an angel investor. What motivates an angel investor varies from making substantial returns to social or status reasons. Maybe, it’s simply to remain active in an industry that the individual understands.  What is clear is that Angel investing is not necessarily only about return on investment.

So should someone be interested in angel investments, what would you recommend? How would they go about meeting start ups?

Firstly, let us look at how entrepreneurs in the start up world operate. Start ups, particularly early stage entities, tend to form communities. Start ups tend to be active within start up events, such as Start up Weekend, as well as other meet ups. They do this because they want to be around like minded individuals. They understand that by being around energetic individuals with varying experiences, they would learn from each other, benefitting tremendously.

Angel investors, similar to entrepreneurs also have a propensity to form groups or communities, albeit with a different scope.

Such groups or communities give Angel investors the opportunity to discuss different opportunities as well as compare different start up models. They may also want to group investments between them in order to distribute risk or simply reduce the overheads of managing their investments.

Therefore, my advice for individuals or entities interested in similar investments would be to participate or register an interest at a start up event. This will first and foremost give you an idea as to what start ups are around, as well as a taste of the start up culture in Malta.

Moreover, such events are ideal to start meeting or getting closer to start ups.

What stands out in Malta? Why should I invest in start ups in Malta?

Malta is ideal for start ups. It is a great place to live with access to quality talent and a lower burn rates of capital. Most importantly, there are decent young entrepreneurs.

To give a few examples, there is currently a group of first year University student having, between them, already published several mobile apps, with a few cofounding software and design companies seeing very early success. There are teams of start ups looking to challenge recruitment processes, education, supply chain management and customer support experiences, at a global level. There are start ups based here that are looking to blend industries such as igaming with ecommerce or gamification of class room education.

True, Malta is still very new to this game, however both the quality and momentum at which the space is developing should certainly attract interest from Angels and corporate investments.

Lastly, what about culture? Anything that needs to change here?

One can make excellent returns through Angel investing. However for long term presence in the start up world, a good angel investor needs to be a good person. Angel investing is not a business model where you make money at someone else’s expense. Start ups create wealth, and not in a zero sum game. The beauty of it is that no one has to lose for you to win. If you mistreat the founders you invest in, the company will do worse. Plus your referrals and deal flow will dry up.

This doing good, and giving back without keeping score, is an important mind set for angel investors and to induce such, a community of like-minded active individuals needs to be formed.

[Full magazine can be seen here]