Sean Park Portrait
Quote of The Day Title
As industries become digital industries they become free.
- Chris Anderson, Editor, Wired Magazine

A Kodak Moment

Over the years he watched digital projects lose battles for research dollars. Even though film’s market share was declining, the profit margins were still high and digital seemed an expensive, risky bet.

He recalls efforts in the 1980s to drive innovation by setting up smaller spin-off companies within Kodak, but “it just didn’t work.” Venture companies in Silicon Valley are “pretty wild”, “in Rochester, people come to work at 8 and go home at 5.”

When disruptive technologies appear, there is a lot of uncertainty in the transition from old to new. “The challenge is not so much in developing new technology, but rather shifting the business model in terms of the way firms create and capture value.

These are just a few excerpts from a great piece “What’s Wrong with This Picture: Kodak’s 30-year Slide into Bankruptcy” from Knowledge @ Wharton that (inadvertently) does a terrific job explaining the context and gigantic opportunity that drove Uday and I to create Anthemis and it’s networked ecosystem approach to re-inventing financial services for the digital century. Let’s take each of these in turn:

< < Over the years he watched digital projects lose battles for research dollars. Even though film's market share was declining, the profit margins were still high and digital seemed an expensive, risky bet. >>

I lived this directly and in full Kodachrome color my last few years working for Dresdner Kleinwort, culminating in the creation and subsequent dismantlement following my departure (in 2006) of a new business unit in Capital Markets called Digital Markets. This was the brainchild of then CIO (of the year!) JP Rangaswami and myself, built on the basic premise that exponential technological progress was going to drive an entirely new optimal business model for capital markets activities (as opposed to simply enabling accelerating growth of the existing traditional business models which it had done so well for the previous two decades or so.) That technology, rather than simply being an (important) enabler of the business, was set to become the central driver and that accordingly we had an exceptional opportunity to get out in front of this disruptive change – embracing not resisting – affording us the once-in-a-paradigm-shift chance to fundamentally change (for the better) our competitive position. Further, we felt that Dresdner Kleinwort was ideally positioned in its mediocrity to seize this opportunity: we had much less to lose than the market leaders. (And as history shows, in fact the firm had pretty much nothing to lose…RIP.) But the problem was – and almost always is with large, established, publicly-listed companies – that the vast majority of decision-makers had significant vested interests in maintaining the status quo, and insufficient sensitivity to the downside. Classic agent/principal conflict. Turkeys just don’t vote for Christmas. It’s not rational for them to do so. This is a fact of life, not something really worth bemoaning.

< < He recalls efforts in the 1980s to drive innovation by setting up smaller spin-off companies within Kodak, but "it just didn't work." Venture companies in Silicon Valley are "pretty wild", "in Rochester, people come to work at 8 and go home at 5." >>

My experiences as a senior manager at Dresdner Kleinwort / Allianz led me to increasingly understand that there was a fundamental incompatibility between successfully managing a large incumbent organization and successfully nurturing dynamic, entrepreneurial, disruptive new ventures. I like to think of it as the corporate equivalent of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: just as one cannot simultaneously know the position and momentum of a particle, neither can one reap the advantages of a large-scale, established corporation and simultaneously drive and manage emerging, innovative new business models. (Call it Park’s Corporate Paradox?) And in the past 5 or so years since leaving the traditional corporate world, my empirical experience of working closely with start-ups (including starting one!) has only increased my conviction in what I now believe is a fundamental truth. Dresdner Kleinwort (and Paribas before that) – as old hands in the markets world will I hope attest – had positive reputations in the industry for their (relative) ability to innovate, to be at the forefront of new markets and ideas. I believe a key reason they were able to do this was actually because they were well, let’s just say “loosely” managed. They were anything but well-oiled machines. Which, frankly, if you are going to take best advantage of the benefits of being a large, established corporation, is what you need to be. The innovation that emerged in these organizations was a by-product of their relatively weak organizational structures. Put another way, if disruptive innovations are akin to viruses (which I think is not a bad metaphor) then these companies had relatively weaker immune systems (than their market leading counterparts like Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan for example.) However, that is not to say that they had no immune response, and ultimately the incumbent prerogative to maintain the status quo and protect the vital organs won out (in Paribas’ case accelerated by its acquisition by the more tightly managed BNP.)

The important truth to grasp is not that one (the incumbent) is better or worse than the other (the start-up), rather that they are incompatible – structurally, culturally, strategically – in the same host. Yet they are Yin and Yang, and need each other, “complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system.” The optimal state occurs when they exist in symbiosis – this is in fact the central tenant of Anthemis – our vision, our mission is to act as a substrate that catalyzes, nurtures and enhances this symbiotic relationship. We exist to “improve the health of other companies who grow near us.”

< < When disruptive technologies appear, there is a lot of uncertainty in the transition from old to new. "The challenge is not so much in developing new technology, but rather shifting the business model in terms of the way firms create and capture value. >>

It’s not really about the technology per se, it’s about what technology allows you to do. Often I hear people describe us as “financial technology” investors, but at the risk of being pedantic, this is not really the case. We invest in people and companies that use technology to enable better, often disruptive, new business models. Businesses that seek to address the fundamental needs of their customers in new and better ways that were previously either impossible or sometimes even unthinkable without the enabling power of fast evolving information and communication technologies. It’s not the same thing. And although we invest in these new companies, we are not investors – at least not in the mainstream sense. We aren’t a venture capital or private equity fund. We are ourselves leveraging technology to create a new type of organization, one that we believe is highly additive to the existing ecosystem of large incumbents, start-ups and traditional venture and growth investors. Complementary rather than competitive.

Too often, the conversation around innovation is framed as big v. small, good v. evil and works against the grain of what we believe is the objective reality. We want to re-frame the conversation, work with the grain of the history and the market to help the various different participants in the (financial services) ecosystem leverage their innate advantages (and mitigate their inherent weaknesses.) And if we succeed in this mission, we are certain that we will create enormous value for our own shareholders along the way.

Networks not hierarchies

We believe that the most successful companies of the future – both large and small – will be the ones who embrace a network-driven philosophy and operating ethos. The vertically-integrated Sloan-ian corporation of the 20th century, so ideally adapted to the economy of the Industrial Age, will increasingly struggle to remain relevant in the environment of accelerating cultural and technological change the characterizes the economy of the 21st century Information Age. Large, sector-leading incumbents will need to become more self-aware of both their defensible strengths and core competencies and of their inherent weaknesses and blind spots, which includes the ability to manage disruptive change. They will need to purge all vestiges of not-invented-here mentalities and pro-actively support (both financially and commercially) wider, outside innovation networks while developing optimized methodologies for bringing these outside innovations into their organizations as they mature. And continuously remain aware of the always changing ferment on the edges of their competitive space. Small, cutting-edge start-ups will need to become increasingly good at leveraging existing infrastructures – not just compute and storage infrastructure – but distribution and industry specific infrastructures, or as John Borthwick of Betaworks points out, the best new disruptive innovators “do what (they) do best and outsource the rest.”

This new paradigm creates a significant opportunity for a new type of company to emerge. Companies that are natively optimized to act as a connective layer between the old and the new. Companies that are deliberately tuned to operate within the new network-centric economy. Companies that are explicitly built to nurture ecosystems of talent, technologies and products and services. Anthemis is one of these new companies – a “third place” so to speak – positioned between the established industry leaders and the emerging new innovators, acting as a sort of “translation layer” helping the former to understand and adapt to the changing environment and the latter to identify and focus on the biggest market opportunities while leveraging the core strengths of the existing industry infrastructure. While our focus is on financial services and marketplaces, I am certain this same opportunity exists across any number of industries or markets. Indeed, Betaworks – “A New Medium Company” is a good example of a successful emerging company with a similar positioning and philosophy but focused on the media space. If they don’t exist already, I am sure similar constructs would work well in other industries.

Rusting away

Often when I give presentations on our vision of the future of finance, I am challenged with the question: “But do you really think [insert favorite giant financial services company] will disappear?”, I am at pains to make clear that (a) I don’t know (b) it’s possible, though not necessarily likely, or will take a very (very) long time and (c) that it kind of misses the point in that one would hope that their aspiration is to thrive and not simply survive.

There are a number of different failure modes for established market leaders, most of which are relatively unspectacular and many that don’t actually result in the company disappearing. We remember the Lehmans, the Enrons and the WorldComs but thankfully these are actually the exception. The greatest risk for these companies is not catastrophic overnight disaster but a slow inexorable decline into irrelevancy or even bankruptcy. Big companies typically don’t blow up, they mostly just rust away. The actual speed of this decline often depends on the nature of the sector, it’s “installed” base and particularly it’s regulatory “relevance” in particular. Leaders in highly regulated and deeply embedded (in our economies) industries like finance and telecoms can survive for years and even decades by deploying their considerable resources to protect their position and slow (but not stop) their decline. But how much better off would their shareholders, employees and customers be if they instead marshaled these same resources in a more constructive direction, embracing their real strengths and acknowledging their structural weaknesses in order to evolve and succeed in our changing world, rather that just settling for survival? (Side note: this strikes to the heart of the principal/agent problem that plagues many big, listed companies – for the middle and senior management of these firms, simply ensuring their company survives is often a more than good enough outcome, requiring significantly less energy and psychological commitment while delivering sufficient financial rewards and positional prestige to meet or exceed their personal aspirations. I am not criticizing so much as acknowledging that human nature being what it is, that it is damn hard to resist such a path, even for those with the best intentions.)

Say Cheese

The experts at Wharton note that “adapting to technological change can be especially challenging for established companies like Kodak because entrenched leadership often finds it difficult to break old patterns that once spelled success. Kodak’s history shows that innovation alone isn’t enough; companies must also have a clear business strategy that can adapt to changing times. Without one, disruptive innovations can sink a company’s fortunes — even when the innovations are its own.”

The world is changing. Financial services are no longer immune to these forces of fundamental change. Changing technology, demography and culture are unstoppable forces that if ignored will slowly but surely rust away the competitive advantages of traditional business models. Resist it or embrace it. But you can’t change it. It’s a bit scary sure but also incredibly exciting. Jump in. If you are in financial services, we can probably help.

It’s a better choice than waiting for your Kodak moment.

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  • My personal opinion is that [insert favorite giant financial services company] will disappear much sooner than most people think.

    At the senior level each of those organizations is a band of ambitious, self-interested people who currently think their best option is to stay within the machine that has made them so prosperous. It won't take many more examples of refugees-made-good for most of those corporate warriors to realise they can make more money outside the garden.

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