14
Aug
2016
0

Differential Diagnostics, Venture Capital & Zebras

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Yesterday evening I had dinner with a good friend of mine who is a world renowned cardiothoracic surgeon. I asked him if he followed a framework when dealing with each patient and he brought up the subject of differential diagnosis. At its core, differential diagnosis is a method used to identify a disease when alternatives are possible while utilizing a process of elimination. A doctor will assess a patient in context (symptoms, patient’s history) and taking into account medical knowledge, go through a decision tree, starting from most likely diagnosis, eliminating each alternative until the right diagnosis is reached.

There are two approaches to differential diagnosis. The specialist and the generalist approach. The specialist approach – used by a surgeon for example – utilizes a sharp shooter technique, selecting from the most likely to the least alternative, one alternative at a time. The specialist approach is narrow and deep. The generalist approach – used by a family doctor for example – utilizes a broad brush technique, also selecting from the most likely to least likely alternative yet considering a group of alternatives together. The generalist approach is broad and shallow (and I do not mean this in a negative way).

Medical doctors have to learn an incredible amount of historical knowledge and then have to practice extensively in live conditions, in hospitals, before becoming experts in their fields. The body of knowledge at their disposal does not change markedly – it is not like we are inventing new diseases, ailments, different ways of breaking a bone on a regular basis. The medical tools, medical drugs at their disposal, and the medical techniques do change. So there is a constant “on the job” training occurring.

The framework I use in venture capital strikes me as eerily similar to differential diagnostics. First, I  am a specialist venture investor as I only invest in fintech. It goes without saying that I need to develop a very deep understanding of the financial services world in order to be effective at my job. Without explicitly knowing – it until now – I have developed a sharp shooter approach, akin to the one used by my surgeon friend, that allows me to very quickly assess the merits of a payments startup for example. For each of the five sectors that comprise fintech – lending, capital markets, insurance, asset management and payments – I have a top 10 of “things” I look for for which the presence or the absence are a deal killer. I rarely need to go past thing 3 or 4.

I use the sharp shooter differential diagnostic approach when I first encounter a startup. it is a way for me to eliminate the noise and get to the signs fastl. If I am still interested and impressed past this first stage, I will switch to a generalist differential diagnostic approach where I bunch groups of “things” and attempt to figure out, holistically adds systemically, patterns I like/do not like or that make sense/do not make sense, repeating the process until I eliminate the startup as a potential investment or I confirm my initial positive signal.

Much like my surgeon friend who has to go through thousands of cases per year to hone his skills, I go through approximately 1,000 business models per year. This is the material I need, along with historical knowledge base I built over the years – a mix of theoretical knowledge and many years of practice as both an operator and investor – to keep current. The number of business models does not change at the margin that much, the number of ways a team should be built, how a startup should be scaled, a board should be architected – all the business aspects of building a business –  do not vary that much. What changes are the the technologies and how they are applied to specific business models. So I need to constantly learn that aspect to stay ahead.How AI, quantum computing, AR will be applied to fintech are my learning curves.

I continue to apply both differential diagnostics frameworks during the lifetime of an investment, constantly toggling from one to another.

I believe the best VCs are good at differential diagnostics. Not only because they master the framework and have built their own heuristics in their particular domains, but because they also know when to switch from sharp shooter to generalist differential diagnostics. That is a crucial skill. I also believe top VCs are more adept at applying differential diagnostics in context. By that I mean that – taking a fintech example – a US payments company may need a different sharp shooting approach than a EU payments company, while one may need the same generalist approach for both. It all depends on nuances relating to culture, jurisdiction, consumer/user behaviors, market structure. I tend to call these nuances “terroir”. Yes, I like wine. Knowledge of terroir will help you choose the right differential diagnostics approach at the right time, and load the right decision trees.

I also believe specialist VCs have an edge over generalist VCs. To be clear, both need to master the two differential diagnostic techniques. The specialist VC will always have an edge with the sharp shooter technique given the required deep knowledge she needs to operate in only one field. This is especially important considering the changing VC landscape is currently experiencing: the rise of crowdfunding and angel investing on one end of the spectrum and that of corporate VCs, sovereign wealth funds, mutual funds and large PE funds on the other end of the spectrum may force traditional VC funds to specialize in order to retain an edge. Specialized VCs may be the way of the future.

I am also well aware that medical doctors have an edge over venture capital investors when it comes to track records. On the evidence, declining mortality rates and improved longevity beat hands down VC-backed startup survival rates. This means that even with the best differential diagnostics tools and the most astute and timely ways to apply said tools and make a decision, venture investing is an extraordinarily difficult business to succeed in. There is much literature attesting to this fact. VC investing and startups building are ruled by power laws.

I do not pretend to disprove nor fight this fact. What I do is try to refine the odds ever so slightly. For me this means to always have Zebras in mind.

Theodore Woodward, a 1940s professor of medicine coined the aphorism “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras.” He meant that if you diagnose something “normal” applying your diagnostic tools, there is a great chance it is indeed a “normal” thing and not something else, something “exotic”.

This works well in the medical field. Not so well in venture capital.

Hence, if there is one thing that keeps me up at night, it is Zebras. Due to the unfathomable emerging properties of large systems, venture investing breeds many more Zebras than horses, even though you may have correctly diagnosed a horse from the beginning. By that I mean that you may start with a horse, but due to unforeseen circumstances, you end up with something else, a Zebra. Very few Zebras end up with positive outcomes. The great majority of Zebras experience neutral to negative outcomes.

Thusly it is imperative to be paranoid about Zebras. I endeavor to excel at differential diagnostics which is a necessary requirement but not a sufficient one. Additionally I try to take risks I can measure in ways that attempt to mitigate negative Zebra effects. I shy away from entrepreneurs and startups that open themselves to fragility. I favor entrepreneurs and startups that strive to capture optionality and build antifragility. This means favoring entrepreneurs and startups that exhibit the right mix of technology, business and talent (the necessary requirements) AND that will thrive during volatile business conditions OR that do not include business variables whose rate of change increases negatively as business conditions fluctuate. Examples of fragility would be a cost of acquisition that increases as the startup increases traction, churn that increases the more clients are acquired, a loan default rate that increases as interest rates increase, a technology build that increases in complexity even as the startup matures. I picked up fragility and antifragility concepts from Nassem Taleb, and encourage anyone involved in investing and startups to read his work. Much more could be written about how one can apply antifragility thinking to startup investing; for another post maybe.

In as much as I apply differential diagnostics techniques to scrutinize the form and substance of a startup, my Zebra heuristics helps me understand the likelihood such form and substance will behave positively in dynamic situations. Not a perfect approach for sure.

The best VCs excel at diagnosing the right horses then shunning the patently negative Zebras. This still leaves the field wide open for a variety of surprises.

7
Aug
2016
1

Fintech Food for Thought

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Statement: It is cheaper to create a fintech startup today than 15 years ago, yet very few fintech startups reach escape velocity and have been able to build a sustainable business yet. There are plenty of fintech unicorns but there is only one PayPal to date.

Question(s): Does the fintech startup scene obey an even more severe power law of success or is it too early to tell?

 

Statement: Financial Services incumbents continue to be hurt by a low interest rate environment that hurts their profitability and severely constrains them in the marketplace.

Question(s): Would a high interest rate environment limit financial services innovation to systematic progress, to the detriment of systemic progress? Would interest rates increases limit the ability disruptive fintech startups have at competing against financial services incumbents?

 

Statement: Incumbents notoriously do poorly with innovation. They are beset by agency issues, inflexibility, bureaucracy. They are also the first to retrench when failures arise.

Question(s): Will incumbents exhibit the same tendencies at such a pivotal point of transition to the new digital age? Or will they exhibit more resiliency as a matter of survival.

 

Statement: New technologies, new behaviors, new business models are giving rise to the omnipresence and the power of networks and platforms in an industry where very complex processes are the norm and where mastering these processes require depth and breadth of knowledge.

Question(s): Which is more likely, a) disruption coming from fintech startups alone, b) fintech startups failing to dislodge financial services incumbents, or c) collaboration between startups and incumbents?

 

Statement: Many fintech startups are building businesses in either fragile activities (lending) or “race to the bottom” activities (remittances, p2p payments)

Question(s): How difficult will it be for these startups to build resilient businesses long term? Will financial services incumbents be negatively impacted?

 

Statement: Most if not all financial services operations are eminently complex, standards and regulatory rules add to the cost of doing business, even more so when cross border processes are taken into account.

Question(s): Does this mean the capital requirements to build a sustainable fintech startup at scale – and the current size of financing rounds – is too high or too low? How will financing rounds size trend going forward?

 

Statement: Financial services incumbents boards are light on technology gravitas and knowledge. Fintech startup boards are light on deep financial services knowledge and understanding.

Question(s): Which will close the knowledge and experience gap first? Can the gap be closed?

 

Statement: Innovation is about taking risk. Running a financial services business is about managing risk.

Question(s): Can these two activities be reconciled? Under what circumstances?

 

Statement: The financial services industry is undergoing profound change and is also under tremendous stress. Banks, Insurance, Asset Managers are faced with existential threats – real or perceived. Every participant in the industry is responding to change, even forward thinking regulators in certain jurisdictions – UK, Singapore.

Question(s): Can financial services regulators avoid further change to their own business models? Can they get away with systematic change or will they have to contemplate systemic change? Are the equipped to innovate within their midst? What will be the consequences if they do not change and adapt?

 

Statement: Financial services participants such as PayPal in the US, Starbucks – and others – “hold” sometimes more money on behalf of their customers than certain banks do. These actors do not hold bank licenses nor are they subjected to the same level of scrutiny as banks.

Question(s): Will this trend increase, both in terms of quantity of money held and number of participants? If so, will regulators pay a closer look at these participants and will regulation take into account the weight these participants hold within the overall market structure?

 

Statement: Bank or Insurer owned Venture Capital firms invest with a strategic mandate. Independent Venture Capital firms are not encumbered but such constraints.

Question(s): Which yields the best outcomes? For investors, for the incumbent parent? Is it sufficient for a bank or insurer to own its own venture fund? Should it be better for a bank or insurer to invest in an independent venture fund? Would both owning a venture fund and investing in an independent fund be optimal?

 

Statement: Financial services incumbent IT/IS staff are usually convinced they are better at building new products, services, platforms. Fintech Startups are usually convinced they are better at going to market first.

Question(s): Which is the most value destructive behavior? Which behavior is the easiest to correct?

 

Statement: Fundamental and economically productive product or service or business model innovation in the financial services industry has been scarce- e.g. mortgages, ATM, securitization. Most innovation has benefited the speculating activities prevalent in asset management, trading, capital markets.

Question(s): Will new technologies and their application via fintech further this trend or invert it?

 

Statement: Many seasoned and reputable venture capital investors have gone on record stating corporate venture firms do not know how to invest and incumbents have a poor record with innovation. Most corporate venture capital investors are convinced fintech startups know little about the financial services industry.

Question(s): Which belief is the most erroneous? If true, which is easiest to upgrade?

 

Statement: In part due to local legislative and regulatory DNA, in part due to entrepreneurial genius, in part due to the size of their market, Chinese fintech firms (pure plays or children of Chinese tech giants) are ahead compared to their Western brethren. Further, based on recent evidence, cracking the Chinese market is a non trivial endeavor for a US or a European startup. US and European fintech actors do not enjoy the same advantages Chinese fintech actors do.

Question(s): Will Chinese fintech actors expand to Europe and the US? If so, how will Western regulators and legislators react? Will Chinese financial services markets mature to the point of being opened and interoperable with the outside world?

 

Statement: To date, the vectors of financial services industry disruption and innovation have been technology, a change in consumer and enterprise habits, the Great Recession, strengthened regulatory oversight, entrepreneurial spirit and a low interest rates environment. These have, to a large extent been forced upon the industry and its incumbents. Notably absent has been the political sphere – executive or legislative.

Question(s): Will the political sphere engage with fintech and the financial services industry transformation? What will be the likely effects?

 

Statement: Fintech innovation needs both talent and capital.

Question(s): Which of talent or capital is more constrained? Are we faced with a demand or a supply issue? How will this change in the future?

 

Statement: Transitioning from the industrial age to the digital age induces profound implications. The way we organize ourselves, transact with one another, interact with one another are and will be drastically different. So will the skills, business architectures, mustering of resources and capital to sustain new models. Particularly so in the financial services industry. Incumbents have the advantage of political clout, access to high level spheres of power and decision making. Startups and entrepreneurs master the art of creation – sometimes successfully. Be that as it may both need to see the future differently than they experienced the past.

Question(s):  Is that transformation purely technology and business dependent? If not can either startups or incumbents transform the industry for the digital age without political leaders that understand what the digital age needs? Have political leaders emerged in any country or continent that understands the new age we are entering and its implications to the financial services industry and fintech as its enabler?

 

Statement: We are witnessing many changes within the financial services industry. Yet, Money, the concept of money has not changed for may generations.

Question(s): Should the concept of Money change? If not, why? If so, which is the most likely vector to effect a change; technology, politics?

 

You are welcome to come up with your own statements and associated question(s). Please comment and share.

30
Jul
2016
0

Individual Identity Rights

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I wrote about new business opportunities for financial services incumbents, specifically banks, in my previous post. More notably, I posited that 1) because banks were in the Trust Business 2) they have an opportunity to expand their offerings by 3) protecting their customers’ IDENTITY and DATA much like they protect customer’s money today.

Soon after I published that post, I came across a short video by Tyler Cowen (see here) in which he discusses the importance of trust in the banking relationship. He points out that trust is made possible by a shared understanding that individual property rights exist and will be enforced by the state.  A bank that takes customer money can’t just keep it, and has legal obligations to protect it. Tyler’s video reminded me the multifaceted aspects of trust and that I had only touched on the trust between a bank and its customers.

Given that I believe in how technology is and will enable individuals to utilize their identities contextually and enable them to monetize their own data, that video spurred me to think about data and identity ownership. To be clear, this post is not about exploring new business models, rather it is about understanding what data means legally to us and the implications of ownership and rights associated with data.

Our lives are increasingly defined by the electronic data stored in third party databases that is generated by day to day activities, for which limited records existed even a decade ago.  Drive your car, by groceries, visit a web-site, pay a toll electronically – data is harvested, data is stored. When aggregated, these prosaic electronic breadcrumbs have massive economic value. Indeed, considering that our economies are undergoing a massive realignment and restructuring, moving away from the industrial age towards the digital age, it is easy to realize that the data and metadata we generate (about ourselves, our behaviors, our habits, our consumptions) or that of our own physical assets generate will be increasingly valuable.

And the amount of data we generate is increasing, not decreasing. If our data and our identities are already valuable today, they will be more so tomorrow. At this particular historical moment, the commercial value of consumer data is a one-way street. Once a business has your data, they may have legal obligations to you, depending on the state or country where you live (HIPPA and Graham Leach Bliley are two U.S. examples). But you don’t have a financial stake in the data.  Say, (for example) that an advertiser makes money by sending an ad targeted to you because of knowledge about your purchasing preference. You’re not going to receive a commission for the use of or reliance on your data. Where does personal data fit into the framework of traditional property law?  This is an admittedly broad question, but we can make some general observations. Why does this matter?  Most economists – or so I hope – agree that a strong protection of property is one of the most important vectors driving economic activity and wealth creation. Western industrial capitalism is premised on the understanding that individuals have the right to enjoy their private property without fearing it being stolen or misappropriated by a third party, let alone a government.

Generally speaking, there are two types of property. Tangible property, refers to physical things, (a house, a plot of land, a car, physical cash, gold…). Intangible Property, refers to incorporeal assets (intellectual property (“IP”, copyrights, patents, trademarks), corporate good will, securities, security interests,  and dematerialized investments, money, …).

So – what is “personal data”, the stuff that makes up our identities. It’s definitely intangible, but it is certainly not a dematerialized investment or money. Could it and should it be considered and individual’s IP? The answer is most probably not. Could it be a corporation’s IP? Maybe so. The lack of clarity on data and its ownership is indeed tricky.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines IP as “something (such as an idea, invention or process) that comes from a person’s mind”. Modern IP laws arose out of the need to protect personal creation. The printing press, mass media, the internet are technology vectors that increased the value of one’s creation. Commercial interests required strong protection and licensing laws. As such, traditional IP comes out of active creation.

Can we say the same of all the data and metadata associated with our health our payments history, our interactions with our social media/networks, our apps, our smartphones and IoT? Or are we faced with passive creation. Would these types of data and metadata be treated as IP or are they in a class of their own? My non-legal-expert view is that we are dealing with a new class of property borne out of new ways to create it, enabled by new technologies and ultimately supporting new economic activity which demands new legal constructs.

The same questions and comments apply to our Identities – physical, digital, private, health, financial.

Clarity on what personal data is leads to clarity on what types of rights can be associated with it, and to the extent there are gaps, what types of rights should be developed.

Ownership is equally important. Who owns our data? In some instances we do, in others we cede control as part of a Term of Service we barely read, and in yet others we probably wade in a grey area where those that use and monetize our data are more than content to keep the status quo and not explicitly spell out ownership.

I strongly believe data ownership frameworks need to be brought up to the level of sophistication of data privacy laws. How our data can be used, how it should be protected data is a national and international discourse our governments, the corporations we interact with and ourselves are engaged in continuously and for many good reasons. No one can use or misuse private information without prior consent, no one can handle our private information carelessly. We already have the right to digital seclusion (i can restrict access to my Facebook or Twitter identity to a handful of trusted friends, or altogether shut it completely) and are slowly gaining the right to be forgotten digitally.

Rights associated with having, owning and securing a personal identity are intertwined with self-determination, basic human rights and freedom of speech.

Up to now the sum total of rights associated with data, which I label Individual Identity Rights have not coalesced into a systemic societal issue. Too many interested parties want their hands on our data with as little friction as possible. Enterprises because of monetization potential, Governments because of their thirst for transparency and control. The early stage of the digital age have mirrored the industrial age from a centralization point of view. Large intermediators such as Ebay, Facebook, Amazon or Google have dominated – and will continue to do so for many years to come. Be that as it may, the potential of blockchain technology is enabling decentralized business models to emerge. Soon we may have the choice to conduct our private business (sharing with friends, buying, selling, creating) with a decentralized marketplace, a decentralized social network, a decentralized search engine – the list goes on. The data we generate on these platforms will be our own, and we better have ownership rights that reflect such an unequivocal fact.

Up to now the ways and frequency we have needed to produce a form of identity to gain access to a service, a product or a place has been limited. Both will increase and with them the complexity of provisioning and managing our identities. The multiple identities we will create and inhabit better have the same ownership rights that reflect how central identity will be in our post-industrial world.

Up to now we have not paid much attention to our data and have been more than content to cede its monetization to third parties in exchange for convenience or entertainment. As data will rise as one of the central vectors of our economic and social engines we will want to control and share in the wealth creation, we will demand more transparency with regards to who will use our data, for how long and in what capacity, and we better have ownership rights that reflect these value chains.

Individual property rights have been essential to wealth creation in the industrial age. Individual identity rights will be essential to wealth creation in the digital age.

 

I would like to thank Stephen Palley for helping me think through my arguments, providing invaluable feedback and editorial support.

23
Jul
2016
0

That Banking Moment

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Today there are more bankers convinced of the need to transform their businesses than those that are not. This is no small matter as realizing the need to change is half the battle. The other half of the battle is to find the right solutions and implement accordingly.

In order to find the right solution one has to ask the right questions. I have struggled to find the right framework for these questions until I came upon this article by Scott Anthony.

Scott outlines three main questions:

- What business are we in today?

- What new opportunities does the disruption open up?

- What capabilities do we need to realize these opportunities?

Here is my attempt at answering these questions for a Bank.

- What business is a Bank in today?
Taking my cue from Scott, I will avoid the obfuscating and basic answers such as “offer accounts”, “lends”, “makes payments” which are either technology based or category based. More abstractly, a bank acts as an intermediary by linking depositors and borrowers. In comes deposits, safely tucked in accounts, out comes loans safely underwritten to borrowers – or so we hope. This intermediation role creates various benefits: a) spurs economic activity and supports the community in which the bank operates, b) safeguards and protects money entrusted by customers, c) provides access and convenience to money and how it is transacted, d) builds wealth directly (lending activity needs to be profitable) and indirectly (savings, investments). Abstracting further, a bank is in the business of providing trusted services around a customer’s money. Abstracting even further, a bank is in the “TRUST” business. Do note there is a major difference between being in the money business and being in the trust business. Thinking of being in the money business forces you to think in terms of products and services around how money is stored (checking account), transferred (payments), invested (assets) or lent (loans). The outcome of such a paradigm is to sell products. Such outcome may not have been explicit when banks operated in small environments, serving defined geographies where the relationship a banker had with his community was the vector that enabled all. This outcome is explicit in modern banking however. Therein lies the conundrum and the creative/destructive tension. Banks have ended up engaging in the business of selling products that serve a function around money whereas their existential function is to extend and project TRUST. Many pundits have recently declared banks need to be less product centric and more customer centric as a result of this tension. I agree and will unequivocally and irrevocably state that a Bank needs to reclaim and redeploy TRUST. Without trust, there are no bankers. Without trust there is no bank.

- What new opportunities does the disruption open up for a Bank?
In an era where new ways to invest, underwrite risk, lend, transfer money are being rolled out, all of which necessitating less knowledge centralized in an individual’s brain (a banker) or an organization (a bank),  where the way we spend our time and our money occurs less within the constraints of the physical world and more via digital means; a Bank is rapidly finding itself threatened and ultimately disintermediated as an agent handling our money. We also live a paradox where we do not “like” our Bank – we spend less and less time in contact with its employees or its branches and we profoundly dislike the excesses of some bankers and the opacity, applicability or utility of many banking products – while we “like” our new sacred cows – we spend more and more time on our beloved social media apps, marketplaces, social messaging apps, social gaming apps, business apps – yet we TRUST our Bank more than we trust our new sacred cows. Lonely is the pundit advocating we store our money with Facebook or the customer ready to do so. Banks have so far treated this phenomenon as an existential threat. I posit this phenomenon is actually an opportunity. A major opportunity.

As a result of our digital engagement we have experienced an explosion in the amount of data we generate. We are drowning in data and metadata. Our identities have multiplied to the point where our confusion about their management is only surpassed by the threats we face every day from hackers. Whereas software and hardware are the vessels, arteries and vital organs of any functioning business, data has become its lifeblood. The second coming of artificial intelligence will only further the point I want to make: Data has become an asset class and will become more and more valuable, unlocking a multitude of values we cannot begin to imagine today, for us and those we engage with.

Tying TRUST and DATA together, I come to the inevitable conclusion that today’s opportunity for a Bank is to provide TRUST services around its customers data. Data is what you do, who you are and how you evolve today. It will be what you monetize tomorrow. So far, we, the real owners of data, have been cut off from its monetization, with consent – engaging in a quid pro quo with a social network – without consent – with little control over how one’s data is used to price a loan for example.

Let’s imagine a Bank offering its clients a master account, part checking account where a client will entrust money, part data account where a client will entrust data. Let’s further imagine this Bank will monetize the data residing in the data account and – much like with different flavors of traditional bank accounts – will offer a cut off the revenue generated. Little to nothing if the customer consents to narrow use cases, narrow data sets or anonymized data. Much more if the customer consents to wide use cases, wider data sets or personalized data. Let’s further imagine this Bank will also provide services around a customer’s identity: verifying one’s identity based on the requirements of third party services, individuals or entities. Imagine that and you have imagined a Bank reinventing its core tenet, TRUST in the age of DATA and IDENTITY. In a subtle way, this reinvention is akin to a Bank finding back its original roots. Indeed, an old school banker was entrusted with his customers data when interacting with them in the community. The data resided in the banker’s head, shared only because of the trust factor. Tomorrow, the data will reside in the cloud, protected by one’s Bank, with a trust factor.

To convince you further of the validity of such a thesis, consider what the likes of Google, Amazon or Facebook are interested in? Are they rushing to obtain a bank license to handle money or are they focusing on harnessing the power of data? I will leave you to answer this question on your own and ponder the competitive pressures banks are and will face whether they choose to own and manage trusted data or not.

The other major opportunity I see for a Bank resides with the ability to orchestrate a value chain – instead of the old paradigm of owning the entire value chain. I analyzed this opportunity in previous post. The concept of Bank as a Service, Bank as a Platform, the Platformification of Banking is slowing taking hold in the ecosystem. A few startups have capitalized on this trend already, a few Tier 1 Banks have made preliminary moves. I do not pretend there will be only one new Banking reality of course and some banks will not chose the “value orchestration” path. What I am convinced of is that “value orchestration” is a major opportunity. The shear amount of data and transactions we are and will continue to generate within the context of heterogenous and diverse technology ecosystems we elect to engage with requires a new breed of Banks adept at organizing, servicing, facilitating and sharing work flows and processes across a financial services value chain.

So far we see several trends unfolding: a) the buildup of an ecosystem of fintech startups, b) the strong gravitational pull of social networks + messaging apps (soon to be joined by the full force of AI powered chatbots) exercised over our daily attention, c) a secular trend towards peer to peer relations or horizontal networks (sharing/renting economy, blockchain, cryptocurrencies…) d) the resulting arms race all banks have undertaken to digitize their customer touch points.

This arms race is the result of the mistaken assumption that retaining customer attention by owning it fully is the main way to continue delivering value creation. I am not convinced and even if I were, competing for attention against nimble upstarts, savvy tech giants or the secular horizontal network trend is a strategy I do not like the odds of – few banks will survive doing so. Rather, refocusing one’s strategy on value orchestration to facilitate and enable the seamless inclusion of financial services conversations where we spend most of our time, the new nature of the transactions occurring during these conversations and their seamless operational orchestration and provisioning seems to be a much more fertile ground to mine.

We have yet to see a Bank owning the “value orchestration” mantle. I believe that will change soon. How soon? Within less than 5 years is my bet. I am convinced this will happen because the Internet has fundamentally altered the way we can do business. Achieving near zero marginal cost of delivering any product or service will occur in every industry. I am convinced this has not happened yet because the financial services industry is unique, complex and heavily regulated.

If you think that only large banks can and will capitalize on the “value orchestration” opportunity you are wrong. In my view, although there will be few “value orchestration” or platform owners, there will be many smaller banks that federate and participate as platform partners. Further, if you think this platformification may lead to what I refer to the “dumb pipes” syndrome, you are wrong again. The age of dumb pipes is long gone, smart pipes is what you need to think through and digest – the variety of services at both end of the pipes and within the pipes themselves is underestimated by many.

A more appropriate concern is how will disruption and the resulting opportunity of “value orchestration” impact the direct relationship a Bank has with its customers? Will that relationship be maintained, shared or broken and to what extent? Could we see “Intel Inside” models emerging, capitalizing on implicit trust and technology prowess augmented by value orchestration without the necessary immediacy of a direct to consumer experience?

- What capabilities does a Bank need to realize these opportunities?
I will limit myself to a high level analysis.

First, let’s rifle through some important existing capabilities.

a) Regulated and Licensed: Although viewed as a constraint by some, I view these as assets. The trick will be to educate regulators as to the need for innovation. Different licenses will be needed, changes to existing licenses too. Different regulatory frameworks will need to be adopted.

b) Security, Cybersecurity, Authentication, Authorization, Identification: Banks invest heavily in these area. Again they shall need to add new technologies to the mix, which they are already in the process of doing. I would not be surprised to see a Bank acquiring a cybersecurity firm for example. Core competencies need to be brought in.

As for some of the new capabilities.

a) UX/UI: We are now used to sleek experiences and interfaces in our digital & data worlds. Nothing short of closing the gap and excelling is acceptable for a Bank going forward. I view this capability as core actually. I would advocate acquiring best of breed UX/UI practices, hiring leading designers. That capability, that talent needs to be acquired and treated well as it will be too time consuming to grow it internally.

b) Data Analytics: If your business is TRUST + DATA, you better be good at analyzing the latter to back up the former. Certain banks already have data science talent in house and are uniquely positioned to understand their own as well as their customers’ data. Still more needs to be done. I can see home-growing talent into specialized units, even spinning off these units to better grow them – at least one bank has done so I believe – or acquiring best of breed startups.

c) Artificial Intelligence: Arguably a wide field. There is an arms race going on. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple are snapping up talent in the US and I am sure European companies are doing the same in their respective countries. In a way AI and Data Analytics are intertwined, thusly AI is as important when one is dealing with data. Again, acquire!

d) Cutting edge Technology: One need not acquire all cutting edge technology capabilities (cloud, blockchain, quantum computing, AR, VR, IoT, API…), partnering will do for most, understanding, mastering and managing is a must though. To be fair, many banks have started learning and closing the gap here.

e) HR Skills: Hire, hire, hire from outside banking to acquire mindsets that live and breathe either data or complex networks… technologists, executives familiar with platform strategies, data experts, software entrepreneurs, p2p and/or network specialists, experts that understand and study the emerging properties of large systems (biologists, behavioral scientists…) . Basically, hire less bankers, more non-bankers.

If the above spurs your imagination, please share other opportunities you may find attractive, as well as capabilities I have not thought of.

3
Jul
2016
2

The next Banking (R)evolution

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The introduction of new technologies has facilitated new consumer and customer behaviors. These new behaviors have facilitated the adoption of new technologies. The resulting virtuous circle has ushered a period of rapid change which has profoundly change one industry after another. Industry incumbents have had to face a new reality where vertical integration, a fancy word for “owning the entire value chain” has turned into a liability. Indeed, the virtuous circle I mention has allowed new competitors to deliver value at one point of the value chain, without owning the entire value chain. Take the media and entertainment industries as an example. It used to be that “content was king” and “pipes were dumb”. Based on these heuristics Hollywood studios ruled over an entire value chain and were comfortable living in a world where the only thing they needed to do was to deliver their content to movie theaters. This is no longer true. Even though original content still rules, pipes are not dumb anymore. Pipes are actually smart, and that are built on top of platform strategies. Content is important, but so is how you create content, how you deliver it, with what and to whom, how you measure how it is delivered, plus the balkanization of communities of users make it eminently more difficult for a vertically integrated entertainment business to remain at the top of the food chain without profound changes. Witness the rise of Netflix, Amazon with their different value propositions around entertainment content and compare to how the main Hollywood studios are armed for the future.

The financial services industry in general, and the banking industry in particular are now faced with the same tectonic changes other industries have faced. For banks, this is an even more perilous exercise as most of them have never faced a breakdown of their value chain in the past and have enjoyed “near” monopoly in their geographies thanks to accommodating regulatory frameworks.

For simplicity’s sake, I break down a bank’s business into four layers (borrowing from a Boston Consulting Group framework):

  • Infrastructure: comprised of IT hardware (mainframes, cloud, hosted) and software (core banking system, CRM, client reporting, transaction/payment processing, analytics)
  • Products: comprised of three parts which are accounts, lending and the rest (payments, savings, investments, brokerage, advisory)
  • Interface: comprised of branches, web apps, mobile apps, customer service centers
  • Clients ecosystems: comprised of retail, SME and enterprise.

Yesterday’s bank owned each layer. Clients dutifully visited their branches or relationship managers to consume products created by their bank which were delivered by the infrastructure owned by the same bank.

To the extent that banks faced competition it was from another bank which also owned its entire vertical stack end to end, which was operating in the same geography. Oligarch banks ruled.

Today’s bank is under threat at each layer of its stack instead which makes for a much more complex competitive landscape.

First, clients spend more time somewhere else than with a bank. We all know the relative decline of branches. Not only are retail consumers not visiting their branches as much as they used to, but they are also increasingly spending time in completely different ecosystems than in the past; communities where a local bank relationship manager has little leverage if any. These ecosystems are called Facebook, Google, Amazon, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest. (Even though such change is not as pronounced with SME and enterprise clients, there is also change with these segments.) Second clients are used to a different customer experience based on the service they are getting from these digital communities, thereby making bank web apps and mobile apps always play catch up. In other words, clients are moving banks, and bank customer interfaces are under threat. Third, products are under threat although we have to nuance this statement and look at lending separate from the rest. Let’s look at the rest first. Accounts are being loosened from the tight grip of Mr Banker – PSD2 in Europe, the open bank initiative in the UK will take care of that – allowing, under consent, third party access to account data and meta data. Payments is experiencing the highest level of competition given it has the lowest barrier to entry, either from fintech startups endogenous to the industry, new entrants exogenous to the industry (Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook) or grown up startups (PayPal). Brokerage and Investments are prone to the same opening to multi-competition. This leaves us with lending which I believe should be analyzed completely differently than the rest because no one will ever be able to come up with a “zero marginal cost” lending product. Indeed, the cost of borrowing is comprised of the bank’s cost of borrowing and a margin to compensate for risk and provide adequate profit. That cost will never scale to zero or near zero. This, in my view is the main reason why lending will never experience an “Uber” moment where banks will be completely disintermediated – further, think of the unintended negative consequences of a massively large lender for example – whereas the main cost of the “rest” is that of delivery and marginal cost of delivery can and should be driven down to near zero. Fourth, infrastructure is where there has been to date the least disruption and competition, notably around core banking systems and CRM, even though blockchain technology holds the promise of much change in asset servicing.

To date the overwhelming number of competitors attacking the above layers have not been successful. Fintech startups focused on investments (robo advisory), brokerage, lending have not reached escape velocity and acquired meaningful market share to the detriment of banks. Some pundits believe it is because banks have much more defensible business models (regulation, licenses…). Although I do agree most startups have failed so far, I also know not to discount the entrepreneur/startup threat over the long run on the basis of a failed first wave. I am actually paranoid for banks as the overwhelming types of strategies banks have put in place to deal with change are in my opinion either inadequate or short term focused.

Indeed, banks have focused on revenue optimization strategies (pricing, cross selling, upselling, margins) or cost reduction strategies (layoffs, better hardware, better software) by applying concepts (digital banking, API banking, mobile banking, cognitive banking) on existing business models. To the exception of a few banks who recently started working on a platform strategy – which forces them to address the competition they are will face at each of the four layers – all other banks are still in a “vertical integration” paradigm. This will change – the market will force that change, some banks will adapt, other competitors will rise to the challenge.

I view all these bank moves as incremental evolutionary steps, good enough to compete another day, not good enough to reinvent banking drastically.  A digital bank – and there are many startup digital banks in the UK for example – is still vertically integrated, even though it holds the promise of being a “better” bank.

Incumbents will have to choose how they want to compete going forward. Below are some of the potential options available:

  • The “Better” Vertically Integrated Bank: Essentially more of the same, that is a bank that still owns the entire stack, will compete against a multitude of competitors, but will do so better armed marginally – digitally so, less siloed, better hardware, better software, less employees. Although I believe some will be successful at this strategy, I am afraid it will be a very risky one. No network effects to speak of, no ability to drive to meaningful zero marginal cost of delivery for all products such a bank would offer
  • The “Platform” & Vertically Integrated Bank: Same as above but with some type of platform strategy that will allow a bank to partner with third parties and share the value created by delivering better product and service to consumers. Probably less risky than the above and one many banks will want to deliver. Still a difficult proposition in a world where modularity will be more and more important.
  • The partially Vertically Integrated Bank: Whether traditional or platform driven, this Bank will drop a few non core activities, not enough to not be vertically integrated but enough to reach another level of rationalization. I expect tier 2 and tier 3 banks with limited resources to be the best candidates to follow this model and some shrewd tier 1 banks to make a hard turn towards this model. Very interesting as a platform.
  • The “Interface” Bank: No more vertical integration for this type of bank. To date we have only seen Interface examples (Simple is but one of the examples). The Interface specialists have suffered from a disconnect with the ecosystems where users gravitate and have not been successful to date. They key to success will lie with how an Interface bank partners with these digital ecosystems. My gut tells me AI powered virtual assistants may have a shot at being very successful Interface Banks. Strong potential for network effects and driving to zero marginal cost of delivery
  • The “Product” Bank: By far the most intriguing layer strategy. Product banks focused on innovating only on one particular product or a family of products (when was the last time the financial services industry came up with an innovative lending product tailored to someone’s cash flow patterns for example). A Product bank would partner with Interface providers and/or ecosystems of users for example. Not network effect to be expected for lending products – definitely for other products – but the benefits of innovation and differentiation can be powerful. I would even expand the horizon of what a product could be by including “data”. Data being the new hot asset class and data management as well as identity management being crucial in our digital age, why not see the emergence of data banks.
  • The ”Infrastructure” Bank: I see three separate models. First, the generalist “Bank as a Service” (BaaS) model that will deliver services to Product Banks, Interface Banks, startups, partially vertically integrated banks, fintech startups, enterprises. BaaS is the most promising bank model of the future as the focus is on the provisioning of products as a service, or of services. We are not dealing with lending here, we are dealing with delivering the building blocks to enable lending – the same applies to all other activities. As such there is a very high probability for this model to drive to near zero marginal cost of delivery. In this context, we can apply the “Uber” label. Second, the differentiated specialist BaaS. This model is particularly relevant for high value add services such as advanced data analytics, underwriting analytics, risk analytics. Remember one of the points I made at the beginning of this post: there are no dumb pipes anymore, only smart pipes. To date banks are arming themselves with the services startups specialized in data analytics can offer (CRM, fraud…) but it is conceivable the specialization will be so important going forward and the pipes so strategic that a “Bank” will provide this as a service going forward instead of a non-licensed startup. Third, the commoditized specialist BaaS. I expect some infrastructure services to become commoditized faster than others. Think hardware fine tuned for banking use cases or core banking systems. Think about an AWS offering but for banking. Much like there are core processors for specific activities (video, gaming, AI tomorrow), there may very well be core infrastructure providers for banks.

I have to make several additional comments to tie loose ends.

If the above vision comes to fruition and we do see a segmentation of banking, I fully expect the regulatory and licensing landscape to change. In other words, we will see a new regulatory approach where different types of banking licenses will be issued based on the business model and its implicit and explicit risks to the market and to clients/consumers. Just to give one example, an Interface Bank as an AI powered Virtual Assistant may have to meet certain licensing requirements around providing financial advice to its clients but may not need to comply with lending requirements. To be clear, some fintech startups competing or providing services at each layer level may not require the same type of banking licensing as the Banks that will operate at each layer level.

Further, competition at each layer level forces one to think platform strategy which results in either developing and implementing one’s own platform strategy or becoming one of the building blocks of someone else’s platform strategy. There is no escaping platform strategies.

Additionally, layer specialization, other than with Lending, and I repeat myself here, can deliver very strong network effects enabled buy near zero marginal cost of delivery. This I believe will be in and of itself a revolutionary paradigm for banking.

Finally, the bank that will successfully partner and integrate with ecosystems of users, regardless of the approach taken, will stand a higher chance of success than trying to create their own new communities or continue with existing ones. Like it or not, social networks are here to stay and will take on a greater importance in our lives going forward.

Trying to craft a roadmap for the above vision is tricky. We are in the early innings of platform strategies or API/marketplace strategies for banks and much remains to be done – no one has declared a BaaS for example. I venture that we shall see increased activity along these vectors in the next 5 years – the actions of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Alibaba (and Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, WeChat….) will make that absolutely inevitable. Incumbents may also naturally gravitate towards a few of the six options I laid out above – either as a result of further divestitures, acquisitions or mergers – leaving space for new entrants (large tech companies, fintech startups). In other words, the industry is large enough to see various participants succeed and avoid a banks lose, new entrants wine scenario, or vice versa.

Last parting thought. I strongly believe the above also applies to the insurance industry – with the appropriate tweaks.

25
Jun
2016
4

Fintech Brexistentialism

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With the dust barely settled, it is time to take a deeper look at the potential consequences of the UK leaving the EU for good.

Licensing: The strategy of acquiring a license from the FCA then passporting to operate across the EU is dead. New strategies will have to be implemented. Some firms will move their operations to the EU, others will have to acquire an additional EU license. The higher the level of dependence a firm’s model has on pan European, the higher the probability a firm will chose to relocate for licensing purposes. Some firms may even have to rethink their entire business models due to the loss of passporting – in situation where it neither makes sense to relocate and the additional cost of compliance and licensing in the EU will render their models uneconomical.

Payments Businesses: The entire value chain is going to be impacted to the extent business is conducted across the EU. The problem is going to be exacerbated as many payment businesses operate with thin margins. If you are a UK merchant acquirer of small to medium size doing business in various EU countries, you are going to hurt going forward. Brexit might force some M&A activity down the road. The problem will not stop with merchant acquirers, think gateway providers, speciality providers around mobile payments, fraud, any type of service that requires some type of licensing. Size is going to be a major differentiator as admin and licensing costs will increase.

Remittance Businesses: Those firms that do extensive business with the EU are faced with an existential decision. I will not be surprised to see some startups pack up and leave for an EU city that offers the best of all worlds (workforce skills, tech hub, infrastructure, local regulator reputation). Even incumbents will be impacted – maybe not to the point of fully relocating, but certainly to the point of rebalancing their operations.

Fintech startups building a digital experience: Other than remittances businesses we have startup banks, PFM like aggregators of data, lead generators, digital insurance wallets, roboadvisors, payment wallets, digital brokers. For those EU startups, the UK may not be as high of a priority. Might it be farfetched to see EU startups looking at the US before eyeing the UK? UK startups eyeing Asia or the US before Europe?

US Fintech Startups: Will these startups be attracted to Dublin, Frankfurt, Luxemburg or Paris ahead of London?

Payment Networks: Quid of Visa and MasterCard? Visa Europe is headquartered in the UK while MC is located in Belgium. Will Visa rebalance its operations towards continental Europe? If so London will suffer. Beyond location, these two behemoths rule over network rules and regulations for the acquirers and issuers that participate in their respective networks. We may expect change to some of these rules over time. How much divergence will that create to interchange fee schedules for example?

Regulators: How will the FCA approach current and future European Directives for the financial services industry. Will the FCA try to keep gaps in interpretation and implementation as minimal as possible to facilitate UK based startups and incumbents competing in the EU? Will the FCA be proactive and collaborate with Brussels? Will Brussels be receptive to collaboration? These questions are very difficult to answer. What is guaranteed is the bigger the gaps going forward the more difficult it will be for UK based companies. The leadership of the FCA’s sandbox approach also has to be in doubt. Paris, Frankfurt, Dublin, Luxemburg or Brussels will want to raise their hands to welcome a EU regulatory sandbox and that sandbox will attract more activity, more innovation, more attention than its FCA counterpart. Mark my words what happens in the arena of regulatory sandbox is going to have a major impact on fintech, none of which will be positive for the UK.

Future Initiatives: Has anyone forgotten about the Tobin tax? I am forecasting or advocating such an initiative. My point is that with the UK not being able to influence or block certain initiatives, it is probable we may see high level initiatives revisited or drafted within the EU, favoring EU members or favoring a tighter integration with non-EU members to the advantage of the EU. Fintech startups based in the EU would benefit from such trends.

Capital Markets fintech: Supply will follow demand, inevitably. Several i-banks have already announced their plans to relocate to continental Europe. I would not be surprised if other participants in the ecosystem were to follow suit – buy side firms, service providers. Fintech startups will want to be close to their clients. Relatively speaking this means less emphasis on London.

Fintech Lending: Probably not much change in SME lending which tends to be more local than multi country. With consumer lending any EU based lending platform will hold a clear advantage due to potential economies of scale. UK based lenders with operations in EU will be faced with higher operating costs.

Cities: Dublin, Frankfurt, Paris, Luxemburg… will grow in stature with more activity leading to more innovation, more investments. I will even venture to state that Geneva & Zurich will emerge as winners to. Switzerland may integrate further with the EU to take advantage of Brexit which will lead to fintech and finserv firms having an easier time choosing Geneva or Zurich as a base. Expect a surge of p.r. and special deals aimed at attracting business from a variety of european cities. Further, these cities will reinforce, explicitly and implicitly, their ties with one another, as a network operating off the same EU framework. London may become a lonely place disconnected from that grid.

Data: How data is treated will have untold consequences given the array of activities involved – data processing, data storage, data sharing, data privacy. If you process data as your first order of business or as a derivative, where will you want to locate if you are a newcomer or relocate if you are established in the UK. Payment processors, sell and buy side firms in capital markets and asset management deal, fintech startups building digital front ends to acquire customers (roboadvisors, PFM, insurance…), startup banks… everyone deals with data. Where will they want to locate themselves, operate their back office, acquire customers. Will it be more efficient to cover the EU from the UK or the UK from the EU, or split. The EU has more stringent approach to data privacy and security – a more consumer centric one – which may be a material deciding factor for commercial purposes.

Venture Investing: You invest where you see the biggest opportunities. If opportunities shift towards the EU based on access to a wider market, as an investor you will shift your investments away from the UK, relatively speaking. Of course some investors have strict mandates. Funds that raised to only invest in the UK will not adjust their investments. Those whose mandate is to invest in Europe will adjust. Those whose mandate is to invest in the EU will adjust drastically. To a certain extent venture investors, through their preferences may favor certain business models against others.

Fintech M&A activity: With the value of an FCA license impaired and doubts about business models soundness, it is not unreasonable to state that more than a few acquisitions of UK based startups will either be put on hold or cancelled altogether. On the other hand a UK based startup acquiring or reverse merging in the EU to mitigate Brexit may be an interesting strategy.

Fintech Talent: How many young, educated fintech engineers, growth hackers, compliance officers, business development executives will leave London? Even more appropriate to ask, how many will leavers will it take for a marked reduction in the rate of innovation?

Scotland: Given that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, will the Scottish National Party plan to organize another referendum on independence? If independence wins the day and Scotland elects to join the EU – I know this is a long shot and not an immediate move – Edinburgh could rise as a global fintech center and in the process cripple London’s standing. Edinburgh is the second largest financial center in the UK just after London and is home to Royal Bank of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland, Sainsbury Bank, Tesco Bank, Virgin Money, TSB Bank, Scottish Widows, Standard Life and many other top asset managers, insurance companies and global tier 1 asset servicing firms.

The EU: The more accommodating the EU will be to the UK when negotiating new trade deals, the better Fintech will fare. The more accommodating the EU will be, the more it may embolden political parties from other countries to stage their own exit.

 

General Comments:

To me “fintech” is all about reorganizing the financial services industry away from a vertical, closed and siloed framework and towards a networked, collaborative, opened and sharing framework. In a certain way this reorganization mirrors the societal and cultural reorganizations we are witnessing and experiencing with how countries interact with one another and how we interact within countries. Nation-states are dying because they are vertical, siloed and closed.

The Brexit vote, as far as I interpret it, is a reaction against some of the consequences of a realignment away from the vertical organization of our lives. The consequences of the excesses of globalization have been ill-understood or underestimated. Increased wealth disparities, increased unemployment or under-employment and exclusion from value creation have left many seething. This helps explain why only those who benefited from globalization and change voted to remain: the young, the educated, urban centers. I bet an overwhelming majority of individuals employed in fintech specifically and the financial services industry in general voted to remain.

Those that voted for Brexit had the reflex of yearning for the past, for the UK as an independent nation state, better off on its own. “Britain for British people” may be there motto. This vision is fundamentally flawed and may be the main “meta” explanation for why UK fintech will suffer going forward.

Granted it is an understatement to state there is much to criticize about the EU. The path towards a supra nation state is as flawed as the one towards reinforcing a single nation state. Still, the EU has created a large and peaceful open market and cutting oneself from such a market comes at a cost, especially without a clear plan to do so.

We need to consider two paths for the EU. Either the EU will reform itself and optimize along a more open and integrated framework, or it will go about its business as usual. Even if going about its business as usual is not tenable – other countries will be faced with similar Brexit moments and capitalism needs a reformation moment – considering it as an option still leaves the UK facing the above changes, choices and negative consequences I outlined above. Reformation of the EU is the most probable path and that will make Brexit even more of a suboptimal decision.

The UK could adopt two strategies after Brexit. One can be loosely translated as “To Hell with the EU, let’s look somewhere else.” Fintech and Finserv would be royally fu&*%d if that were to be the case unless and only unless the EU crumbles which I view as extremely unlikely although not impossible – again successful reformation is much more likely. The level of integration the UK economy at large enjoys with continental Europe both explains why this would be a poor strategy as well as the very low probability of such a strategy to occur. The other strategy can be labelled as “Let’s figure out how to keep on integrating with the EU.” which will inevitably mean more free circulation of people, goods and capital rather than less. This is the most likely strategy in my opinion and the best outcome for Fintech. Needless to say that such a path would disappoint many who voted for Brexit.

Whatever the rollercoaster of Bremotions, Branger for some, Bregret for others, Brisapointment, Bronliness, Brictory, Bredemption – i am pushing corniness to its limit here I realize –  Fintech Brexistentialism tells me it is easier to influence an integrative movement from the inside than the outside.

18
Jun
2016
1

Fintech Life after Brexit

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Let’s assume Brexit will happen. How will the the UK FinTech community react? We already know that more than a few financial services firms – mostly banks I believe – have drawn plans to relocate some of their staff away from London and scale back operations in the UK. Will FinTech firms follow suit? Have some started planning for Brexit? Are Brexit responses being hatched as we speak? Will moves out of the UK be sudden and immediate or gradual? All are questions worthy of an answer.

With the demise of its offshore business, London needed to reinvent itself to retain financial services relevance. Fintech, while maybe not being THE answer, was one of the answers. In the past years we have seen the City of London, the Bank of England, the Financial Conduct Authority and Government signaling they were all opened for FinTech business, launching initiatives and making it altogether easier, relatively speaking, for FinTech entrepreneurs to choose London as their home base.

The attractiveness of the UK as a homogenous market (think South East England with a concentration of tech savvy and affluent individuals in one time zone), a skilled workforce, the lure of a flexible UK economy and labor laws all helped. The relative strength of venture capital funding (both in terms of quantity and quality) compared to Europe should not be discounted.

There has also been a fair bit of regulatory arbitrage going on. There is no question many entrepreneurs will chose a country where the regulator is more sophisticated, enjoys a positive reputation globally, is “open for business” and easier to deal with than in one’s home country; especially when this choice will result in a FCA approved license that is recognized across the European Union, thereby providing optionality around a bigger addressable market. In other words, resisting the allure of London as a FinTech hub while noting all what you build can and will be applicable all over the EU is very difficult to do.

What happens if the EU link is altered? I doubt an FCA license would be recognized across Europe then, which means increased licensing and compliance costs, presumably.  Further, as mentioned above, some financial services firms will reduce their operations in the UK and relocate – to continental Europe, to the US… Plus there is the rising uncertainty of how life will be after Brexit – financial services life, business life, how removed the UK will be from EU, the types of barriers that will exist.

If you are a Fintech startup thinking of moving to the UK you are going to think twice. The decision will not be as easy as it was.

If you are a Fintech startup already in the UK, in the early stages of of building your operations you will start thinking whether a move is the right decision.

If you are a d2c Fintech startup with aspirations for European roll out you may decide to relocate some of your operations to continental Europe sooner than you had planned or more than you had planned.

If you are a b2b Fintech startup you will tend to follow your clients and their operations wherever they go.

Additionally, if Brexit results in a less opened environment for foreign workers, the tech community might see a net outward flux of engineers out of the UK which may sway Fintech startups to follow talent.

All in all, these trends are not net positives for UK Fintech dominance.

Where would Fintech startups move? There is no obvious FinTech hub that can immediately challenge London. None of the potential contenders are ideal candidates.

Berlin has a strong pool of tech talent and a vibrant startup scene and Frankfurt is the financial services center of Germany. Fintech startups relocating to either would deal with Bafin, the German regulator which is a strong and very well regarded regulator. Yet, language is an issue and the German market is not that easy to crack for a non German entity. Bafin would also have to show a tad more forward looking intent a la FCA.

Paris enjoys great infrastructure and a deep pool of tech talent, but the language is also an issue and the local regulator is not well known for its international and forward looking bent.

Stockholm, Amsterdam, Zurich/Geneva are also interesting candidates.

New York might even be a candidate – same language, much larger market, strong financial services hub.

I tend to think there will not be one clear winner among the above mentioned candidates. Most if not all will benefit. Although this might not be a good thing from a geopolitical point if view for Europe – as London’s Fintech star wanes relatively speaking compared to its global competitors and as no clear European city emerges as the clear leader – there may be a silver lining. Indeed, sensing an opportunity to gain market share, Euro regulators may become more open and forward minded – sandboxes, friendliness and collaboration with startups – thereby creating a healthy competitive environment across the continent towards tech innovation; Euro legislators in Brussels and Strasbourg may help with that process; City Councils may jockey for position with local laws and initiatives to attract startups. Further, UK Fintech VCs may allocate more funds to continental Europe. I can think of many intended and unintended positive consequences and far from putting a damper on Fintech in Europe we may see a revitalization of Fintech across Europe.

If you are a UK based Fintech, I am curious what your current thinking is. Or maybe Brexit will not happen.

5
Jun
2016
0

How Fintech Startups should engage Finserv Incumbents

 

shutterstock_327573749If my thesis on the growing importance of Corporate Venture Capital, b2b business models and finserv (banking or insurance) Incumbents as strategic partners for fintech startups – in lending, capital markets, payments, asset management and insurance – then it is of the utmost importance for said startups to know how to engage with their future investors/customers/partners. To be clear, for the purposes of this exercise I will assume there is a business/technology rationale and intent to partner.

The most optimal way to know how to engage with someone is to learn how they engage with you.

A finserv Incumbent will engage you along three vectors: a) the venture investing vector, b) the innovation vector, and c) the business vector.

Answering questions around what, how, who and where along these three vectors is paramount to your future success. Answers to many of the questions I am mapping out below will help you gauge not only the mechanics of engagement but the culture of the strategic partner you are dealing with and if that culture fits with your vision.

Your goal is to figure out how difficult the road ahead is and what to do to maximize success. Remember that dealing with a finserv Incumbent is eminently more difficult that dealing with an independent venture investor.

As a rule of thumb the more abstracted, specialized and sophisticated each of these vectors are, the easier it will be to achieve your goals, assuming business alignment and intent are present. Picture a finserv Incumbent where there is no venture or innovation team per se and where all decision will be made on balance sheet by business leaders with little understanding of early stage technology or business models and you will readily understand that your path will be rather arduous.

Here are a few pointers I recommend fintech entrepreneurs pay heed to when interacting with a bank or an insurance company. Answering these questions will lead you to better understand what beast you are dealing with.

1) How does an Incumbent invest in startups: Does the group you are dealing with have a dedicated team specialized in venture investing or a generalist team that takes care of any type of investment? Is the venture team investing on balance sheet or are they organized as a separate entity? How much capital is dedicated to venture investing? Who sits on the Investment Committee, only the venture team, only executives, a mix? What can they invest in and what cannot they invest in? What makes them consider making an investment? Can they invest without a commercial or strategic rationale?

2) How mature is an Incumbent’s venture investing practice: How many investments have they made? What is their due diligence and investment process? How long does it take? How deep is the due diligence process? How much capital is left to make investments in the next 3 years? What is their reputation? Are they specialized enough to know venture investing is as much of an art as it is a science, if not more?

3) How does an Incumbent approach innovation: Do they have an innovation group? Is it centralized or decentralized – especially important if you are dealing with a global incumbent? In case there is a central innovation group and decentralized teams, who is the decision maker when considering innovation projects? Is the innovation group divided into specialized teams?

4) How mature is an Incumbent’s innovation group: How long has the group been in existence? How many projects has the group worked on? How many projects can the group work on simultaneously? Does the group work on projects with early stage startups as well as established service providers? How savvy are they with your technology? What is their reputation in the marketplace? Are they leaders, “me too” players?

5) What is the role of the business group involved: Do they have decision making powers when contemplating an investment, when contemplating a commercial agreement? When do they get involved – early in the process, late? Can they contemplate a commercial agreement without making an investment?

6) How mature are the Incumbent’s business groups when dealing with startups: How many startups have they dealt with? How many commercial agreements have they completed? Where they front line or did they rely on Venture and Innovation? What is their reputation? What is the average time for them to go to market with new projects? How is their incentive, top line or cost wise, with your particular business? Are they urgently in need of your business solution?

7) Interaction between Venture, Innovation and the Business groups: Who leads, who follows, who reports to whom? Is the interest in interacting with your startup initiated by Innovation, by Venture, by the Business group and what are the implications? How will Venture or Innovation help you navigating potential commercial agreements with Business groups? Who has “skin in the game” compared to the others? Who has more “skin in the game” than others?

8) How is the decision making process influenced: Who are the decision makers, the gatekeepers and the champions? Where do they sit in the org chart and among the Venture, Innovation and Business groups.

9) Motivations of each of Venture, Innovation and Business groups: Are the motivations aligned? What are the goals? Pay special attention to how aligned the Business group is with Venture and Innovation. Do commercial imperatives trump innovation imperatives? Do long term strategic imperatives trump short term commercial ones? How do these motivations and imperatives apply to you and your startup?

10) Reporting Structure: Who do Venture and Innovation report to? Directly to the CEO, the CFO, the Board? If not who do they report to? Does Venture report to Innovation? Are both Venture and Innovation hidden within the bowels of an Incumbent or do they have the necessary and required exposure and support from C-level executives?

11) Explore the role of legal, compliance and regulatory: How convoluted will be the legal and compliance process? Will you be dealing directly with legal and compliance or will you be shielded by Venture, Innovation of the Business group? When will legal and compliance be involved? Are they well versed in the legal arts of early stage investing? Will they bring a bazooka to a knife fight? How much of a burden will they impose on you? Will there be a regulatory approval hurdle to clear?

12) Explore the role of procurement: Assuming there is a vendor management or procurement group, will you need to clear that hurdle too? What will it mean to you, how many resources will you have to engage immediately and over time? What type of data will you need to provide? Are they gatekeepers or decision makers too?

13) Explore who will be in charge of a commercial project implementation and integration: Will the Business group be responsible? Will they have the skills and understanding required to fully digest your technology and business model? Will they rely on a separate IT or operations group? If so, how does the IT/Ops group interact with new vendors when implementing and integrating? How mature and sophisticated is the IT/Ops team? Have they engaged startups in the past or are they more of a “we build our own stuff” outfit?

14) Explore how your future finserv Incumbent partner interacts with the broad ecosystem: Are they aligned with independent hackathons, independent accelerators? Who are their natural peer partners – other banks or insurers they have invested with in the future or entered in JV or commercial agreements with? Who are their natural competitors – those they will not want to deal with or invest with or JV with? Which traditional VC investors have they invested with in the past? Which non-bank companies do they partner with? Does partnering accelerate your chances of additional partnerships?

15) Gauge how you will need to adapt: Inevitably, you will need to adapt based on answers and observations you glean along the way. I do not mean adapting in fundamental ways such as radically changing your business model or your technology, and if that is a requirement then you should think twice about the costs and benefits before engaging fully. Rather I mean marginal adaptation to clear certain understandable hurdles around technology delivery for example. How much professional services will you need to incorporate? Will you need to localize to a certain geography? Will your partner’s compliance thresholds lead you to tweak your technology? The sooner you get clarity on the need to adapt and how you will need to adapt, the sooner you will be able to quantify and qualify the associated costs.

16) Explore post integration life as a startup partner: Are the rules of engagement well defined? Will there be periodic reviews? How will you be reviewed? Will the relationship be balanced? Who will participate? Will the champions, gatekeepers and decision makers that you identified during the pre commercial phase be the same?

I realize I have mapped many questions. My purpose is not to scare a fintech entrepreneur. Do realize the end goal is a potential prize of investment, referenceable client, commercial agreement and cash flow generation. In other words, the rewards are overwhelmingly worth the pain of discovery and engagement strategy building.

Additionally, even if there is a demonstrable strategic/commercial rationale, answer to the above may lead you to realize you are not ready for that particular finserv Incumbent as a partner, or that they are not ready for you. That type of epiphany may save you form serious heartburns down the road.

More specifically, dealing with a finserv Incumbent is unique from the point of view of regulatory, compliance and legal complexities as well as the type of individuals you will encounter (business leaders may not know how to engage with a startup, IT/Ops may not be up to par knowledge wise). Knowledge will allow you to mitigate more effectively.

Finally, remember that the mature service providers and vendors that sell to banks or insurers are very sophisticated and know how to sell, to whom to sell, how complex it is to sell. As a fintech entrepreneur you are competing with these mature service providers with limited resources. You need the smarts and the framework to close that gap and become a sophisticated “enterprise” focused fintech startup in your own right.

30
May
2016
0

Augmenting Me

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I have spent time lately exploring Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Assistants (VA) & Chatbots and how these can be used within a bank – after all I invest in fintech so this revelation should not shock anyone. The purpose of this post is not share my findings on these discoveries, what works, what does not, what a bank should do, what hot trends I believe in and which startups I am interested in backing. Rather, my purpose is to share my personal views on how I would like “technology” to augment me. Note that I refrain from writing “how I would like AI to augment me” as I am unsure if AI is the right term for what I am seeking.

I do not differ from the majority of my fellow human beings in as much as I want to be better. A better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better co-worker, a better investor and a better expert at what I do daily. I meditate, I exercise empathy, I exercise physically, i exercise humility AND I exercise my brain. I think and I think about becoming a smarter and sharper thinker.

So far I have seen AI applications and startups focused on:

– Automating repetitive tasks

– Automating simple tasks

– Helping with making expert decisions

– Removing human biases

– Navigating through mountains of data

The benefits, actual or promised are obvious. AI will free us from mundane tasks so we can focus on higher value thinking, will eliminate our human weaknesses, will point us to the right decisions, will shorten the time to right actions. Cheaper, faster, to the point. Why am I not completely satisfied? Maybe because I sense a “dehumanizing” threat lurking behind the promise of AI. After all, I could end up ceding some of the tasks I currently perform to an automaton, stop thinking about certain tasks and analytical processes because another automaton will give me the answer faster and end up relying on various algorithms without exercising any critical thinking – and critical thinking is my most precious asset!

I spend most of my time reading and listening what others write and say and scrutinizing what they do. I thrive on induction and deduction, cross referencing, linking, making inferences, aggregating, sorting and ultimately decisioning. The more data I digest the better. The faster and more accurate I am at linking various data points intelligently and decisioning thereafter the better. Freeing 20% of my time from my daily schedule via the use of a VA or another 20% of my time with the use of an expert system is not going to move the needle materially. Actually I view these as potential linear changes. I will be able to do more of the same during the week. Big deal, so what.

To date I have evolved several techniques to manage and push myself. I take breaks when I feel fatigue lurking. I play games or perform mental gymnastics when I want my brain to work in different ways (mostly chess, educational & training apps), i alternate between reading blog posts, tweets, lengthy articles, books (e-books and real books), i alternate between subject matters, i alternate between writing on a piece of paper and typing on my computer, i doodle (i wish i knew how to draw), I label and save data for future reading or re-use, I consume media during downtime (music, movies), I continuously doubt and double check myself… All of these I have developed over time. Still I believe I have scratched the surface and that my “tools” are far from perfect – I make mistakes, I forget, I contradict myself.

What I am looking for is technology that a) trains my mind to process data faster over longer periods of time while minimizing productivity losses due to fatigue, b) helps identify my blind spots and allows me to mitigate them over time, c) identifies the best way for me to digest data in the right way at the right time, d) helps me recognize my biases, and e) helps me become more creative and innovative in my thinking. I believe the technology or set of technologies that will help me achieve these goals will accelerate my thinking more than linearly.

Rather than interpreting AI and robotics as a Man vs Machine contest – and by that I mean where a machine or algorithm abstracts certain tasks and alienates them from me – or as a Man fusing with Machine end goal – man as cyborg frightens me and i do not believe in singularity –  I am much more interested in a Man and Machine narrative where I get augmented by a “cognitive” machine.

Would it not be amazing if my personal VA would alert me to the bias I just exercised when analyzing a data set, would present me data in different formats to stave off brain fatigue or optimize my learning based on what it knows about how my brain works and my current physiological state, would present me with potential inferences and linkages from the past and the present so that I could more easily make further linkages and inferences on top of previous ones, would exercise my brain to better recognize conscious and subconscious signals, present me with the right data in the right context for major ha-ha moments – as opposed to triggering a consumerist stimuli or a mere call to action – would learn with me and adapt to my progress, would provide me insights on how I arrived at past insights and innovative moments or decisions and finally would be designed in a way that I would trust it and therefore allow myself to collaborate with it and learn from it – i think both form and function are important here.

Absent a deep knowledge of the current state of cognitive computing and AI, I assume the above is a science fiction wish list. I realize my yearnings are a far cry from the explicit state of AI I see embodied in the various tech platforms startups are bringing to market. My view is that most of the approaches I have been exposed to are very mechanistic – a natural state due to the limits of technology and knowledge of the human brain I gather. I wonder if the technology behind Viv is a step towards this wish list.

I remember dreaming in 1997 about a device that would allow me to do everything a computer, a cell phone, an encyclopedia, a notebook, a canvas & paintbrush, a camera, a tv and a movie theater could do. Clearly, I was not impressed by the Palm Pilot then. It took 10 years for me to see this dream materialize with the introduction of the first iPhone in 2007 and another 9 years to see it refined til now. I wonder how long it will take for us to graduate from the elementary AI platforms of today to ones that will truly augment us. Even though the rate of technology advance is accelerating I wonder if the next exponential leaps will occur at a relatively slow pace due to the infinite complexity of the brain.