Anyone who is at all interested in innovation and disruption in banking and financial services will have noticed that the world is seeing a Cambrian explosion of startups targeting this industry. It’s an exciting time for us at Anthemis Group, as we have been working to position ourselves for this wave of change for many years. “Skating to where the puck will be” as they say…
The explosive growth of new entrants in financial services – both of individual companies and the universe of such companies – is of course exciting for us, but does pose some challenges, most of which arise from resource constraints, notably time/bandwidth and capital. We are working hard to address and overcome these challenges as we grow our unique “meta-company” model, however it continues to puzzle me how much new capital continues to be ploughed into “industrial age” business models, particularly in banking. Two (unrelated) articles that surfaced in my news stream this weekend inspired me to ask the question out loud.
While I think that Metro Bank has a (much) better approach to traditional branch banking than most incumbents, and I can believe that it is plausible that the Rainbow branches could be better managed as a “clean”, independent entity, I fail to see how either of these strategies will lead to long-term, sustainable success and strong investment returns for their backers. Neither is natively adapted to transition to the business models that will emerge as Information Age leaders. Their economics are fundamentally flawed; being more efficient/better managed will give them an advantage over the incumbents, perhaps sufficient for some short term (2-5 year) wins. But in the longer term, they are just as exposed to disruptive new models as today’s incumbents (perhaps moreso given their lack of TBTF inertia.) (On the other hand, if they are able to take advantage of their challenger status, access to capital and more nimble management to partner with or acquire some of the new Banking 3.0 leaders, perhaps they can emerge as winners in the longer term…)
The economics of truly new entrants like Fidor Bank, Simple, Moven and dozens of others are not just marginally better, but in some cases an order of magnitude (or more) better. Clearly as new entrants they face many (often different) risks in gaining adoption and scaling. And while the success of any individual company amongst these “digitally native” new entrants is not assured, I would suggest that the big winners of 21st century banking will almost certainly be found amongst these types of businesses (and not from the ranks of traditional, branch-centric models.) As such I find it ironic that much more investment capital (seemingly an order of magnitude or more) is chasing these old models.
Having worked in capital markets and the investment world for a couple decades now, I actually do understand the dynamic at work – people (especially those working for large institutions) typically feel more comfortable investing in “more of the same”: better, faster, smarter versions, sure but… Of course it is easier to make linear projections of the past into the future. Investing in new models requires people to acknowledge discontinuities and exponentials, which is admittedly hard. The thing is, if you are in the middle of an epochal change in economic and societal frameworks (which I believe to be the case), this is the only rational choice.
For anyone thinking of investing in the future of banking, I’d invite them to compare the metrics (customers, assets, volumes, unit economics, etc.) of these digital newcomers with companies like Metro or Rainbow per dollar or pound of invested capital. Now think of what any of these companies could do with Â£100mn, let alone a Â£1bn… The puck may be in the corner for now, but I’d rather be in front of the net.
And one can only wonder why this same ambition, this same energy, this same sense of purpose seems all too often to be completely absent today. Why our leaders – in politics as in business – seem far too often to set the bar so remarkably low, rationalizing this lack of ambition as pragmatism. Just being “realistic”. Yes, there is a place in this world for pragmatism, for realism. But this does not excuse the apathy – or worse cynicism – of our society’s most fortunate and powerful in the face of great opportunity and risk (for these two are just different faces of the same coin.)
Preserve my job. My power. My capital. Nothing truly worthwhile in any domain of human achievement has ever been accomplished by people or societies that were ruled by this mindset. And yet it is pervasive.
As our global society and economy transitions from the industrial to the information age, the size and scope of the challenges we face are even bigger than those involved in putting a man on the moon. Every facet of our institutions (government, business, education, culture) will need to be re-configured over the next few decades if we are to survive and ultimately thrive in this new world. We need ambitious, passionate, energetic people to stand up and embrace this opportunity for re-invention. Leaders. Doers.
At Anthemis, I am tremendously fortunate to be able to work with dozens of such people who bring their talents and energy to bear each and every day working towards our big, important goal of re-inventing finance. Â They do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Not because success is assured, but because it is important for them to succeed. Sure, it’s easier to be cynical. To say it can’t be done.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. Â – John F. Kennedy
We do have choices. The future is ours to invent. Join us.
Last week I was away with my family for a few days. In a location where there was no working internet connection and a very sketchy 3G signal. As a start-up founder with a never-ending to do list, this was quite disconcerting (especially as it was unexpected.) So aside from freaking out for a couple days, I had no choice but to catch up on both sleep (I hadn’t quite realized how big my sleep deficit had become!) and reading. Which ended up reminding me that disconnecting from time to time can pay dividends.
The Undercover Economist is a terrific account of how economics drives behaviors and his view on how a change in our underlying economic drivers is fundamentally undermining our existing (traditional) organizational and institutional frameworks particularly resonated with me:
…economists believe there’s an important difference between being in favor of markets and being in favor of business, especially particular businesses. A politician who is in favor of markets believes in the importance of competition and wants to prevent businesses from getting too much scarcity power. A politician who’s too influenced by corporate lobbyists will do exactly the reverse.
At the end of the book, he includes the introduction to a later book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. He tells the story of a young Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky who challenged the top-down, hierarchical thinking of first Tsarist and then communist Russia over a hundred years ago:
What Palchinsky realized was that most real-world problems are more complex than we think…His method for dealing with this could be summarized as three “Palchinsky Principles”:
first, seek out new ideas and try new things;
second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable;
third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along
…Most organizations and most forms of politics have the same difficulty in carrying out the simple process of variation and selection…if we are to accept variation, we must also accept that some of these new approaches will not work well. That is not a tempting proposition for a politician or chief executive to try to sell…
…There is a limit to how much honest feedback most leaders really want to hear; and because we know this, most of us sugar-coat our opinions whenever we speak to a powerful person. In a deep hierarchy, that process is repeated many times, until the truth is utterly concealed inside a thick layer of sweet-talk…Traditional organizations are badly equipped to benefit from a decentralized process of trial and error…(yet) the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes, relative to the alternatives. Yet it is an approach that runs counter to our instincts, and to the way in which traditional organizations work.
Building on these principles, he suggests the recipe for successfully adapting is comprise of three essential steps:
Try new things, in the expectation some will fail;
Make failure survivable, because it will be common;
Make sure you know when you’ve failed.
What you want to do as a company is maximize the number of experiments you can do per unit of time. -Jeff Bezos
Much as I enjoyed Tim’s book, I was blown away by The Connected Company. Simply stated, I suspect it will go down as one of the most important management books of the early 21st century. It is a remarkable treatise on the new optimal organizational framework for businesses of the Information Age. I’ll admit to some bias as I don’t think I could have written a more articulate or complete account of the philosophy and theory underlying our approach to building Anthemis.
We are reaching a complexity tipping point, beyond which organizations will not be able to succeed without a change in structure.
…And if the world is constantly changing, the only sustainable competitive advantage is to be the one most responsive to change. That means that the speed at which you can learn is the only thing that can give you a long-term sustainable advantage. The problem is that while today’s companies are very good at processing information and producing outputs, they don’t know how to learn.
Indeed the fractal (Dave uses the term “podular”) nature of how we are building Anthemis is a direct attempt to create a more adaptable – and ultimately more resilient – company fit for the challenges of the 21st century. By explicitly embracing a networked rather than hierarchical structure we have built in the ability to experiment and fail while at the same time giving us many more chances to succeed. Dave also highlights that this new type of organization is in essence a complex adaptive system and some of you might recall from previous posts and presentations that the work of Herbert Simon on this subject has had a profound impact on our thinking.
To design connected companies we must think of the company as a complex set of connections and potential connections, a distributed organism with brains, eyes and ears everywhere, whether they are employees, partners, customers or suppliers. Most importantly, a connected company must be able to respond dynamically to change, to learn and adapt in an uncertain, ambiguous and constantly evolving environment.
A connected company is a learning company.
We see Anthemis as a network, an ecosystem where our main responsibilities are (1) to articulate and evangelize a robust vision – re-inventing finance for the Information Age – and (2) to create a fertile environment where passionate, talented individuals, teams and companies pursuing various components of this vision are provided with the tools – capital, talent, connections – that materially improve their chances of succeeding. Anthemis as a city (as opposed to a traditional company) is another interesting metaphor for our approach that Dave also explores:
Taken together, agile teams, service contracts, composability and loose coupling allow the creation of complex service clusters and networks that operate in a peer-to-peer, citylike way. In fact, these kinds of “service cities” can sometimes be so complex that the only way to manage them is not to manage them. Instead, the company focuses on creating an environment within which they can thrive.
The key to creating a successful organization in an era of unrelenting (and often accelerating) change is to build for agility. However the traditional organizational structures that were so successful in the Industrial Age are fundamentally unable to respond to this challenge:
Many business systems are tightly coupled, like trains on a track, in order to maximize control and efficiency. But what the business environment requires today is not efficiency but flexibility. So we have these tightly coupled systems and the rails are not pointing in the right direction. And changing the rails, although we feel it is necessary, is complex and expensive to do. So we sit in these business meetings, setting goals and making our strategic plans, arguing about which way the rails should be pointing, when what we really need is to get off the train altogether and embrace a completely different system and approach.
Dave highlights Amazon.com as one of today’s leading companies that has already adopted many of the tenets of the connected company. He describes their approach as breaking big problems down into small ones; distributing authority, design, creativity and decision-making to the smallest possible units and setting them free to innovate. At Anthemis, we take this one step further as most of the teams focused on each of these “smaller” problems are actually companies in their own right with their initial connection into the Anthemis ecosystem being forged via a financial investment. Aside from our legal structure however, the important distinction between ourselves and a venture capital fund is our clear long-term vision of creating a new leader in financial services: the vision is the glue.
The way we think about it is, on those big things, we want to be stubborn on the vision and flexible about the details. -Jeff Bezos
Essentially our job (at the Anthemis Group node) in this context boils down to designing and building the structure and system that supports the people and businesses in our network and then operating that system. Further we have a key role in creating and supporting a broad and diverse portfolio of experiments in order to maximize our chances of discovering and building the best and most sustainable financial services businesses in a context of rapid technological change and an evolving competitive landscape.
And perhaps in a future updated edition of his book, Dave will be able to point to us as a great example of a successful “connected company”!
Power in networks comes from awareness and influence, not control. -Dave Gray
Update: In this video, Gary Hamel talks about many similar themes, highlighting that our existing management and organizational paradigms are 100 years old and increasingly anachronistic in a world of accelerating change.
Though your towers were tall
and your powers were grand
you could not understand
how you fell from great heights
and you burrowed with speed
a kingdom you did lead
from heaven to hell
– A Fistful of Swoon, Vandaveer
Excuse me if I seem a bit sarcastic but I can’t help but smile. Slowly but surely the masters of the universe seem to finally be waking up to the inevitability of the eventual obsolescence of the archetypal business model of 20th century banking. I’ve been talking about this for a decade and the fact that it only took, let’s seeâ€¦a gigantic global financial crisis and several years of messy aftershocks for these great and good to even start thinking about switching horses? Well, you just have to laugh because the alternative is simply too depressing.
I happened to be traveling a fair bit this past week, which for me means I actually have a few minutes of downtime to read the Financial Times (thanks to British Airways and the rules forcing everyone to turn off all electronic devices upon take-off and landingâ€¦) and stumbled upon three articles that caught my attention. First up on Tuesday was Hugo Banzinger – Deutsche Bank’s Chief Risk Officer – highlighting the fact that “Banks must regain investors’ trust” on the op-ed pages. Really??You think?
Banks have also remained remarkably silent on how they plan to adjust their business models. Lenders will have to demonstrate that their future business models are beneficial to society, that they can be run safely and that they are able to restore profitability to make them attractive investments again.
Many investors shy from investing in bank equity. Business models and future profitability are too uncertain. Restoring bank profitability is of utmost importance, requiring drastic actions. The standardisation of products and automation of process has to replace the tailor-made approach of many trading desks. IT investment costing billions will be necessary. The number of people on trading floors will have to drop to levels seen at exchanges. Salaries will have to normalise to levels comparable to other services industries. Capital intensive inventory for securitisation will have to return to its originators. Market making will have to be networked and back offices will have to adopt lean production methods as seen in modern manufacturing.
These changes will eventually lead to a process revolution of the kind we experienced in retail banking in the early 1990s.
The industrial revolution in investment banking is all about creating a new paradigm for the execution of capital markets business. It is about reinventing the organisational mindset, replacing the traditional front, mid- dle and back office with a highly flexible and efficient product factory attached to a profes- sional cadre of relationship managers and solution providers who work with customers and clients to tailor products and solutions to be produced and executed by the factory. It is about viewing the services we provide as two distinct value propositions, one resting on the creativity and knowledge base of the bank and its bankers, and the other resting on the efficiency and accuracy of production and execution.
Much is promised by banks in terms of â€˜putting the customer firstâ€™ and â€˜delivering solutions not productsâ€™ however the reality is that, even if this is the good faith intent, the current structure of the banks is still aligned to the delivery of financial products as a holistic package with all the ancillary bits (settlement, research, payments, etc.) thrown in to a greater or lesser extent. An essentially analogue model for an emerging digital world. The â€˜digitalâ€™ model breaks down all aspects of the business into dis- crete component parts and allows for each to be optimised (either in-house or out- sourced) and then packaged and delivered to the client according to their needs.
Through this industrialization of the process, the skills and functions of the bankers must equally realign, with expert designers, engineers and manufacturers on the production side, and state of the art customer service representatives on the other.
I guess I just must have been saying’ it wrongâ€¦
Next, a bit later in the week, the infamous Sallie Krawcheck – yes the former Citigroup CFO & Head of Strategy, former CEO Citigroup Wealth Management, former President of the Bank of America Global Wealth & Investment Management division – was also given a slot by the Financial Times editors to explain to us that “JPMorgan shows fighting complexity is futile”. Gee, is this complexity stuff a recent development??
But despite coming a bit late to the game, she nails it:
It is complexity that in good part defines Wall Street and forms some of financeâ€™s highest barriers to entryâ€¦In the main, the response from regulators to the perceived causes of the downturn has been to fight complexity with complexity.
Iâ€™m not suggesting that no economies of scale make sense in banking or financial services more generally, only that they are subsumed by complexity within these â€˜integratedâ€™ financial behemoths. I even have some sympathy for the seductive logic underlying integrated business models, however in my view the theoretical benefits of an integrated model â€“ while possibly intellectually robust on paper â€“ are impossible to exploit in reality. It ignores what I describe as corporate entropy: ie in any corporate process there exists an inherent tendency towards the dissipation of useful energy.
Indeed â€“ sticking with the chemical analogy and without writing a book about it â€“ it would be fair to say that giant bank mergers are at best an (intrinsically unstable) intermediate product in the reaction coordinate and to make any sense need to be followed by a subsequent division into multiple new end products (which individually release the benefits of economies of scale and synergy without the instability engendered by excessive complexity.) So Citigroup (or UBS or HSBC or RBS/ABN Amro, etcâ€¦) should naturally â€œdecayâ€ to form multiple specialist firms that are more focused and efficient than the multiple firms that had been combined first to form these giants.
Of course more regulations hurt the large financial institutions, but they hurt new entrants more. And competition is a whole lot scarier than regulation to incumbents. If you want to get a sense of this, you could do worse than reading Aaron Greenspanâ€™s take on US payment regulations http://www.moneyscience.com/pg/bookmarks/Admin/read/77403/held-hostage-how-the-banking-sector-has-distorted-financial-regulation-and-destroyed-technological-progress-pdf. And similar examples exist across the spectrum of financial services and across the globe.
The irony is that most financial regulations are born through the desire to protect the little guy from losses, and to some extent they achieve this on one (direct) level but following the law of unintended consequences, the result to often is to create an environment where far larger risks (and losses) are incurred at a systemic level. And who pays for that? Well as we all know now, increasingly itâ€™s all of us (including of course, the little guy.) Via government subsidies, interventions, increasing costs to maintain ever larger and more complex regulatory regimes, all of which need to be paid for with higher taxes and more importantly slower economic growth. Here the bankers are right, all these new regulations make our current system less able to produce growth which of course hits the 99% hardest. But then the bankers stop before asking for a level regulatory playing field that would pour fuel on the smouldering fire of new, innovative, disruptive entrants. Please Lord deregulate me, but not just yet.
But of course if you are reading this, you already know we’re working hard and investing big to help change this. And despite my slight snarkiness above, I am actually excited to see views I’ve held dearly for many years starting to be adopted by (some of) the leaders and personalities of the financial services establishment. (Indeed, Sallie if you’re reading this, I’d love to have the opportunity to tell you about Anthemis and compare notes on the future of finance. And good to see you on twitter. Welcome to the (financial) reformation!)
The third article was about Senator Sherrod Brown trying to revive new legislation is the US which would mandate a break-up of the megabanks. He states:
â€œI am confident that we will see the government over time requiring some divesting of assets because if [big banks] keep getting an advantage in the marketplace, and they keep growing and having a higher percentage of assets, itâ€™s basically a government-endowed advantage. Thank you, US taxpayers.â€
I wonder if we might eventually see something along the lines of the break-up of AT&T, a process that was initiated in 1974 but took ten years and lots of litigation before taking effect in 1984. However ultimately, the problem with banking is not just about size. In this respect, I have some sympathy for the banking lobby: creating 5 or 10 mini-JPMorgans or BoAs is not really the solution (although it could be an intermediate step.) Sheila Bair has also been making the case for smaller, less complex banks:
Yet instead of waiting for the government or shareholders to act, the leadership of these megabanks should take the lead in downsizing. The best way for Dimon to provide a better return to his investors is to recognize that his bank is worth more in smaller, easier-to-manage pieces. Let’s face it, making a competitive return on equity is going to become even harder for megabanks as their capital requirements go up, their trading and derivatives activities are reined in, and their cost of borrowing rises as bond investors recognize that too-big-too-fail is over. If, by downsizing, Dimon can achieve valuations comparable to the regional banks’, he will potentially release tens of billions of value to his shareholders.
More importantly, I think we will inextricably move towards a fundamental reconfiguration of the industry: away from vertically-integrated monoliths and towards an ecosystem or “stack” of firms focused on different components of the industry. The stack metaphor I think is particularly apt, not only because it is a useful conceit to describe the financial system but also because finance is essentially an information technology business and much useful inspiration can be taken from observing the evolution of the ICT industry as it moved from the mainframe to the internet to the cloud era. And it’s not entirely coincidental that I first presented these ideas at a telecommunications conference in 2009.
In such a world, it would not be inconsistent to have several megabanks with enormous balance sheets, but these would likely be very simple constructs – highly regulated and limited utilities, providing a basic deposit taking and liquidity providing function to the system. As I suggested in my AmazonBay video in 2005, the ultimate destiny of (the core) of the global megabanks might to simply become “giant regulated pools of capital.” Such banks would have relatively few employees, extremely robust but relatively limited infrastructure, and would make consistent but modest returns on their capital. They would sit towards the bottom of the financial stack, the financial equivalent of the massive (but usually faceless) data centers that run the internetâ€¦
As you might suspect, we have a number of ideas of how this reconfiguration might play out, and this thesis deeply informs our investment process and some aspects of it are already reflected in our portfolio, other aspects not yet but soon we hope. I was thinking of writing an article that would map out how we see banking services being organized in say 2022 but rather than give too many of our secrets away here and now, I think I’ll keep some of these in reserve for the moment. Especially since the industry seems finally to be starting to pay attention and I don’t want to lose our 10 year head-start on designing the future of finance as it makes my job so much easier! As William Gibson said, “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.
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 loseâ€¦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.)
< < 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.
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.)
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.
Financial institutions are already highly regulated and one could argue that at best, this has not achieved the desired outcomes and at worst has actually contributed to some of the most egregious behaviors as the clever folks in financial institutions lost sight of the end game (ie the products and services and customers that lie at the heart of their raison d’etre) and focused increasing amount of energy and talent to working the system.
And not unlike Br’er Rabbit fighting with the Tar Baby, getting stuck and then pleading with Mr. Fox not to be thrown into the Briar Patch, the large incumbent banks pleading with the regulators not to write more rules may just be a brilliant case of misdirection.
but do please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch
Of course more regulations hurt the large financial institutions, but they hurt new entrants more. And competition is a whole lot scarier than regulation to incumbents. If you want to get a sense of this, you could do worse than reading Aaron Greenspan’s take on US payment regulations. And similar examples exist across the spectrum of financial services and across the globe.
The irony is that most financial regulations are born through the desire to protect the little guy from losses, and to some extent they achieve this on one (direct) level but following the law of unintended consequences, the result to often is to create an environment where far larger risks (and losses) are incurred at a systemic level. And who pays for that? Well as we all know now, increasingly it’s all of us (including of course, the little guy.) Via government subsidies, interventions, increasing costs to maintain ever larger and more complex regulatory regimes, all of which need to be paid for with higher taxes and more importantly slower economic growth. Here the bankers are right, all these new regulations make our current system less able to produce growth which of course hits the 99% hardest. But then the bankers stop before asking for a level regulatory playing field that would pour fuel on the smouldering fire of new, innovative, disruptive entrants. Please Lord deregulate me, but not just yet.
Security theater is a term that describes security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security…Security theater gains importance both by satisfying and exploiting the gap between perceived risk and actual risk.
Regulators (and politicians) sensing the need to be seen to be doing something about the risk, fall into a trap of creating more and more regulations hoping to protect all of us from ourselves, only to create new (almost always) more dangerous and costly risks higher up in the system. Rinse and repeat. Until these risks reach the top of the pyramid and can no longer be shuffled and redistributed. At which time, they come tumbling down on all. This regulatory theater can be comforting in the short term but actually takes us further and further away from a sustainable solution to managing financial risks in our economies.
These risks exist and cannot be regulated away. Call it the 1st law of Financial Dynamics: the of conservation of risk. And I would postulate that pushed down to the base of our economic system, these risks would be easier and less costly to manage. With a more competitive and open system, with continuous renewal through many new entrants, the end users of financial services would get better (higher quality, lower cost) products and services with much lower risk of catastrophic systemic failures. Certainly – statistically – some of these new entrants would be managed incompently. Some would be frauds. People, customers would lose money. But the costs of dealing with these failures would pale in comparison to the multi-trillion dollar, economy-crushing losses that the existing system has allowed, nay encouraged to build up.
I’ll finish with an example, take UK retail banking. Concentrated, uncompetitive, legacy. No new entrants, no competition. Metro Bank, NBNK, Virgin/Northern Rock in my opinion are just shuffling deck chairs; better than nothing I would grant but essentially no real innovation, run in the same way with (mostly) the same assets, same people and same business models that previously existed. A token nod for the industry and the government to be able to say their is new competition (much as a dictator allows a hapless opponent to run in an election…) – window dressing. And even here, look at the hoops Metro Bank (who claim to be the “first new UK bank in 100 years”, QED…) had to go through to get a new banking license… If I were Cameron/Osbourne/Cable, the first thing I would do to start fixing the problem would be to create a new “entry” banking charter. Light touch. Basically just vet the founders and investors for fitness. Perhaps make them put up a certain minimum amount of the equity and/or guarantees as a percentage of their net worth. 90 days from application to charter. Nothing more. But restrict these new banks to say Â£50mn of assets until they have a 2 year track record (at which point they could apply for an increase in permissible assets and/or a full license.) Then oblige the large banks to open up their core banking infrastructure via APIs – analogous to obliging BT to make available their core telecom network to other operators.
I wouldn’t be surprised if within a year or two you had 30 or 40 new banks competing in various different ways, with many different (and differentiated) value propositions. And some would go bust. And some would be frauds. But even making the (ridiculous in my opinion) assumption that they all lost all of their customer’s money, and all of this money was insured by the government, we are talking about Â£2bn. Compare that to the direct losses of c. Â£23bn on RBS and Lloyd’s alone, not even considering the contingent losses and indirect costs born by the UK economy as a result of their predicament. Of course, I believe that many of these new banks would succeed and grow and any losses would be substantially smaller than Â£2bn. But none of these new banks would be too big to fail for a very long time (hopefully never) and although failure of even just one of them would attract headlines and aggrieved customers giving interviews on BBC1, especially if the cause of failure were to be fraud – it would behove us to put this into perspective. To not forget the difference between perceived and actual risk. To remember that huge failure even if diffuse and “no one individual could credibly be blamed” even if more psychologically comfortable, is actually much much more damaging than smaller point failures where cause and effect are more brutally obvious.
The world’s incumbent financial institutions are deeply mired in Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, protected by regulatory barriers to entry that while not fundamentally altering the long-term calculus, have pushed back the day of reckoning only to make that day seem ever scarier. It might seem counter-intuitive, but I think we should be calling not for more regulation but for de-regulation of financial services (the real, robust, playing-field-leveling type and not the let-us-do-what-we-want-but-keep-out-any-competitors type). Competition is a far more robust route to salvation than regulation. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
To meaningfully differentiate yourself from everyone else in the same space, you have to define the situation in the industry, segment, or category that you want to challenge. Hereâ€™s what a list of what you want to challenge might look like:
This is an area in which everyone seems to be stuck in the same predicament and nothing has changed in a very long time.
This is an area where profit performance is averageâ€”it really should be more successful than it is.
This is a category where growth is slow and everything seems the same.
Once you have a situation to focus on, describe it in one sentence: â€œHow can we disrupt the competitive landscape in [insert your situation] by delivering an unexpected solution?â€
I guess if you had to boil our mission statement at Anthemis Group down to one question,
How can we disrupt the competitive landscape in financial services by delivering an unexpected solution?â€
would probably do the trick quite nicely.
Of course, our approach to answering this question is perhaps not to answer it directly but rather to seek out and support a constellation of passionate, brilliant, “what if?” thinking entrepreneurs who are asking this question with respect to specific sectors, products and geographies in financial services (banking, payments, risk management, identity, investing, etc.) and contribute our intellectual and financial capital towards amplifying their vision and improving their chances of success. For all you capital markets geeks out there, we think this approach generates (as close as you can get to) pure “alpha” in that our returns are pretty much divorced from general market movements as the impact on valuation of success (or failure) in building these new businesses far exceeds the second or third order impacts on valuation of prevailing overall public (or even) private market conditions. Clearly, our success is not guaranteed – not by any stretch of the imagination – but at least the input parameters, the choices we make, are the key drivers and within our control. (And not subject to the vagaries of a co-hosted blade pumped up with algos in New Jersey…cf my last post.)
This in our opinion is a much better set of reference terms. Even more so because it doesn’t rely on our unique genius, but rather structurally taps in to a deep and expanding pool of talented people, pursuing their own visions and goals, loosely-coupled through the ecosystem and networks we strive to nurture and grow. We don’t have to make all the decisions. We don’t have to have all the brilliant ideas. We don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. Which is certainly a relief to us and I suspect to our investors as well. If you want to take the ecosystem metaphor a bit further, I guess it would be fair to say that our position is akin to dirt in forest. Or swamp water in a wetland. ie Trying to provide a fertile and supporting substrate upon which the wonders of evolution and life can flourish and grow. Perhaps not a very sexy image, but ask any farmer and she’ll tell you there is nothing as wonderful as a field of deep, dark, steaming dirt.
And coming back to Luke’s three foundational criteria, I think it is clear to all that you can take pretty much any sector of financial services and it would emphatically tick each box. It’s an incredibly fertile environment for disruption. So you know, we’ve got that going for us. We just need to make sure we plant the right seeds.
I woke up reasonably early this morning with a long list of things to do today. Â But given that it’s Saturday, I thought it’d be ok to start slowly with a cup of green tea and a few minutes with one of the many as yet unread books beckoning from the coffee table. Â So I picked up Hugh MacLeod’s“Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination”. Â I first met Hugh about 6 or so years ago via my friend JP, and was immediately charmed by his great cartoons and unique and brutally insightful characterisation of the “corporate world.” Â Sort of a grown-up’s Scott Adams…
About 5 years ago I read Po Bronson‘s “What Should I Do with My Life?” and it made an impact. Â Not too long after I ended up leaving a long and pretty successful career in investment banking to take a new path – one that has led to the creation of Anthemis Group and to moving our family to Geneva. Â If you aren’t sure you are living your life the way you’d like to, as a first step I’d say read this book. Â If nothing else Po is an entertaining and engaging writer and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the stories he tells.
As long as you feel inspired, your life is being well spent.
Hugh’s book took only an hour to read, but it brought back into laser focus the real reasons for which I chose the path I am now on. As he states – and all entrepreneurs know – there are a lot of times when it just seems overwhelming. But he also reminds us that that is where passion and purpose come to our rescue. Without these, we are doomed to fail. With them, we succeed even in failure. Â Buy it. Read it. And keep it close to your desk to lean on in those moments of doubt.
I often, ok sometimes, get asked what I look for in an entrepreneur / company founder / ceo and despite having a very clear vision of the ideal profile in my mind, I used to struggle to articulate it clearly and concisely. Then last fall I read The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life and found that the legendary Mr. Buffett (albeit in a very different context – can you guess??) – had done the work for me. With some paraphrasing and adaptation, here is what he said and what I’ve adopted as my “elevator” founders test:
When I invest in an entrepreneur, I’m going into a foxhole with this guy and he has to be the right choice. The question is, who has all the qualities that will provide leadership to the company, cause me not to worry for a second about whether anything was going on that would subsequently embarrass the company, or cause it to fail through lack of ambition or effort. When I talk to entrepreneurs what goes through my mind is essentially the same questions that would go through your mind if you were deciding who you wanted to be a trustee under your will, or who you wanted to have marry your daughter. I look for the kind of person who is going to be able to make decisions as to what should get to me and what could get solved below the line. A person who will tell me all the bad news, because good news always takes care of itself in business.
And when I look across the founders of our portfolio companies, I would definitely be comfortable with any of them being trustees of my will. As for my daughter, well they’re all too old for her anyway and besides they wouldn’t stand a chance…
I haven’t had much time to write in the last few months, part of the unavoidable occupational hazards of building a business and a company, but I felt almost obliged to comment on the latest round of major financial exchange consolidation as the author of the 2005 “Amazonbay” video…
So what was my initial reaction? Completely underwhelmed. The question that immediately popped into my head was: “Is that it???” Is that the most exciting, most optimal path to future growth that these management teams and their armies of advisors could come up with? And if so, what next? Even theoretically, only one more iteration of the global consolidation game exists and I’m not sure anyone would really advocate for a monolithic NYSEEuronextDBCMESGXetc… So the question that still will haunt the new, bigger boardrooms is not answered but only postponed: whither future growth in an increasingly commoditized business??
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hard question. I don’t have an answer either. But you won’t be surprised if I suggest that it is probably to be found in thinking about post-consolidation de-consolidation aimed at creating new companies focused on various horizontal layers in the stack. Indeed, if the only path possible to get to a very small handful of global core exchange platforms was this flurry of mergers, then perhaps it was not all in vain. I would accept that in this layer of the “exchange stack” there is truly economies of scale, much as for instance with core communication infrastructure.
But then I would suggest that management of these platforms then needs to focus intensely on dis-investing themselves of other layers of the stack where economies of scale are less in evidence or absent completely. I don’t want to be cynical but giving the combination of normal 20th century management dynamics (bigger is better) and the particular emotio-political aspects of the exchange business, I would be very surprised to see anything like this happen. If I were a shareholder of any of these companies my fear would be that any of the advantages that arise from these combinations are ultimately subsumed by the disadvantages engendered by complexity (in every dimension.)
Giant financial exchanges – like the giant banks – aren’t going to disappear overnight. Possibly never. But to frame the debate in this “new” vs “old” / “mammal” vs “dinosaur” context is to miss the point. There are dozens of good (and some less good) reasons why these incumbents will be very hard to dislodge, and to focus on this – while potentially entertaining – skirts around the really interesting question which is to ask: where (and by whom) will value be created in digital transaction execution and management over the the next decade or two?
I don’t envy the management teams that lead these exchanges – they are forced to operate in a highly constrained political and cultural space and having fairly recently lived through the golden age for their traditional business model would seem – at least in the short term – to have huge asymmetrical downside in terms of the world’s expectations for them. Not fun.
There are some very interesting opportunities for these giant trading platforms in the years ahead. I just think that things will have to get a lot worse first before the management of these firms are in a position to act on these opportunities and think laterally. Or should I say horizontally!