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. 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. - 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.
optimally support our core mission to build the leading “digitally native” diversified financial services group of the 21st century
fundamentally and structurally align our key stakeholders: investors, management, employees and our portfolio companies and their founders
create transparent economics that are clearly driven by long term wealth creation through capital growth
be as simple as possible while remaining operationally and tax efficient
We wanted a structure that would avoid:
misaligned economics – in particular any structure which would incent management to raise capital without regard to cost; we want to be in the business of investing and growing capital not collecting it
misaligned horizons- in particular having our investment decisions driven by tactical (time-driven) rather than fundamental considerations; the tail should not wag the dog
undue complexity – in particular where it might lead to reduced transparency or fundamentally drive management or investment decisions; as simple as possible but no simpler
And so we very deliberately – against the grain of many (smart) people’s advice1 – decided to set Anthemis up as a company, or more specifically as a group of companies with a simple holding company at the top of the group structure. In order to give you some insight into why we made this choice, I’ve tried to distill what we believe to be the key advantages of this structure in the context of our business model, vision and goals:
We have one clear, measurable and transparent objective: grow the value of Anthemis shares over the medium to long term. All of our management decisions – which can essentially be distilled into allocations of human and financial capital and assessing the opportunity costs of both – are guided by our best judgement as to how these choices will affect the long term value of our shares. We get this right and everyone is happy. We win (or lose) together with our people, our shareholders and ultimately our portfolio companies and their founders.2
All investors are invested in the group’s parent company: Anthemis Group SA, a Luxembourg Societe Anonyme. We have only three classes of shares: preferred (with a simple 1x liquidation preference), common (essentially arising from the exercise of employee performance options) and founder shares (which are economically identical to common shares but carry certain limited governance rights and more onerous vesting and transfer provisions.) Investors and employees don’t need an advanced degree in financial modeling in order to understand the value or performance of their holdings. Beneath the parent company we have a small number of both operating and holding entities all of which are 100% owned by the Group, the corporate form and domicile of these entities has been chosen to ensure a tax efficient and compliant structure that is also cost effective to run. It is exceedingly simple to understand which we believe has its own value.
We have an enormous opportunity in front of us, one which requires our full attention and all our energies. Opacity is a tax on efficiency and productivity. It drains your mental energy. It increases entropy. Transparency sets you free. If nothing else it means that you never have to remember what you said to whom when. More importantly it builds trust which is the currency that fuels networks and ecosystems. Of course it is much easier to be transparent when your structure is simple and aligned across stakeholders. Paraphrasing Warren Buffett, “our guideline is to tell our stakeholders the business facts that we would want to know if our positions were reversed…and we believe candor benefits us as managers: the CEO who misleads others in public may eventually mislead himself in private.”
Building great businesses takes time. Typically at least 7-10 years in our opinion, sometimes longer. And having invested in and built a great business, why would you want to sell it? Or more precisely it would seem crazy to have to sell it. And yet that is exactly the constraints faced by traditional GP/LP venture funds. Sure a GP can ask for an extension, but that doesn’t change the fundamental truth that irrespective of circumstances, they have an obligation to exit their investments. Aside from the misalignment of fund terms with optimal venture capital investment horizons (which, to be fair, could to a largely be remedied if fund lives were 15 or 20 years rather than 10), the other disadvantage of being structurally forced into shorter, time-limited investment processes is that one inevitably risks being seduced by the siren call of high IRRs to the detriment of building real, tangible long term wealth which ultimately arises from actual cash on cash returns.
An evergreen – ie equity – capital structure is the simplest, most elegant solution. We also believe in robust and conservative balance sheet management: to use the trader’s vernacular, we believe in running a matched book. Equity financed with equity. If we do our job successfully, the last thing investors should want is to be given their capital back before they want or need it. If we are successful, there will be any number of ways to create liquidity event(s) as and when required by our investors. If on the other hand we are unsuccessful, quite frankly the structure won’t make a damn bit of difference to our investors’ outcomes. In fact they may well be better off holding corporate equity rather than distressed fund units, but almost certainly they would be no worse off.
There are more than simply structural differences between Anthemis and a venture capital or private equity fund; the most important of these is our ambition to build a coherent yet diversified group of companies that is perennial. This means that our investments (and eventual disposals) are framed in the context of optimizing our business portfolio and overall return on invested capital and are considered through a lens of corporate development rather than simply as individual financial investments. The fact that our current investments (we currently have 20 companies in our portfolio) have been entirely concentrated on “venture” stage companies reflects quite simply our thesis that the global financial services sector is at the early stages of what we believe will be a secular transformation of the industry as “industrial age” business models are disrupted and ultimately replaced by “information age” or as we like to call them “digitally native” business models.
Over the next 10-20 years, our plan is to initiate, grow and consolidate our positions in the companies that emerge as leaders in this new economy. At the same time we plan to continue to make investments in disruptive startups emerging on the “innovation frontier” in order to maintain a vibrant pipeline of emergent technologies and business models in order to retain our immunization to the innovator’s dilemma. We believe that the optimal organizational paradigm of the information age will be predicated on networks, not hierarchies and have crafted our approach to building the leading financial services group of the 21st century to be inherently aligned with this hypothesis. Our vision is to build Anthemis into a strong but loosely-coupled network of complementary businesses focused on financial services and marketplaces; not to build a monolithic, hierarchical conglomerate. We never want to become too big to fail, our clear aim is to become too resilient to fail.
Although our investment thesis is fundamentally different, from a structural or even philosophical point of view our approach is very much inspired by Berkshire Hathaway. (Spookily, upon founding Anthemis, Uday and I happened to be very close to the same ages respectively as Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger when they “founded” Berkshire Hathaway in 1965. Here’s hoping history repeats!) As an aside, Henry Kravis once called Berkshire Hathaway “the perfect private equity model”, though why KKR didn’t or hasn’t adopted a similar structure is interesting. (One wonders if it isn’t as a result of the relative risk/reward (fee-driven) profile for the GP in a traditional private equity structure vs. the (equity-driven profile) of a founder/manager in corporate holding structure…) Other examples of thematically or industry focused groups from whom we draw inspiration are companies like LVMH or Richemont (luxury and branded goods) or Naspers and DST (media and internet) but ultimately we have the sense that what we are seeking to build is somewhat unique, something new. An evolution in corporate organizational structure which is adapted to the emerging social and economic landscape of the global information economy.
(excerpt from LVMH Group Mission:) The Group’s organizational structure is decentralized, which fosters efficiency, productivity, and creativity. This type of organization is highly motivating and dynamic. It encourages individual initiative and offers real responsibilities – sometimes early on in one’s career. It requires highly entrepreneurial executive teams in each company.
For both Anthemis investors and for the companies in which we invest, our focus and approach provides an interesting and complementary alternative to traditional venture capital funds. Although it would be naive to pretend there is no competitive overlap, our conviction (confirmed by our experience to date) is that we are in fact a positive new entrant in the venture ecosystem that complements rather than competes against more traditional venture investors. Not “either/or” but “and”. For the startups in which we invest, we know that building an investor syndicate of diverse and complementary talents which includes the networks and company building skills that the best VC partnerships bring to the table is the best way to ensure their chances of success. Our portfolio companies are much stronger for being able to combine our (sector-focused) talents and resources with those of leading VC firms such as Atlas Venture, Bessemer Venture Partners, IA Ventures and others too numerous to mention. And it is equally clear to us that Anthemis is strengthened by the continuous learning and exchanging of ideas that comes with having the privilege of working alongside so many smart and seasoned partners and associates of these VC firms.
For our investors, we offer a unique and efficient way to gain intelligent exposure to the future of financial services. And while clearly there are some similarities in our risk/return profile with that of a traditional venture fund (given that a very significant proportion of our balance sheet is invested in early and venture stage companies), we are nonetheless not strictly speaking substitutable (in the way say traditional “bluechip” generalist VCs might be.) And as we grow – just as for the startups in which we invest – our risk profile will naturally evolve. Indeed one could think of Anthemis as a financial services “meta-startup”. That said, when considering Anthemis I suspect that many of our existing and potential future investors would characterize Anthemis as a direct venture-stage investment, with any allocation coming from within their venture capital (or private equity) bucket. As such, I thought it would be interesting to examine how Anthemis might stack up in the eyes of an investor in the context of the five recommendations of the Kauffman report.
(1) Abolish VC mandates
Not sure if this is directly relevant to Anthemis. However we would agree that anything that encourages a return to substance over form in the context of LP asset allocation is a good thing. A private equity investment process that focuses more on the “what” rather than the “how” strikes us as being more sensible given the heterogeneity and illiquidity of these types of assets.
(2) Reject the Assumption of a J-curve
Traditional venture capital theory (useful it seems when justifying reporting opaqueness!) states that investments in startups (and thus portfolios of startups in a particular vintage fund) go through a cycle by which their valuations initially decline before later increasing in the goodness of time as the big winners in the portfolio emerge (and are fed more capital) and the losers fall away (with relatively limited capital having been invested.) Kauffman however found that this theory while it sounds good, isn’t borne out by reality; rather most funds experience an “n-curve” whereby valuations increase substantially in the first 2-3 years (driven by follow-on venture financings at higher and higher – but generally unrealizable and almost always unrealized – valuations), only then to deteriorate over the remaining life of the fund. (ie Big winners often don’t emerge…) Unsurprisingly, they also found that these increases in (paper) value topped out at almost exactly the same time that GPs sought to raise their next fund, producing a flattering backdrop upon which their LPs could tick the track record/historical returns box. The reader can draw their own conclusions, but Kauffman concludes that “too many fund managers focus on the front end of a fund’s performance period because that performance drives a successful fundraising outcome in subsequent funds.”
Investors in Anthemis don’t have to worry as to whether there is a J-curve, an n-curve or an “any-other-letter”-curve…as they are owners of preferred equity in Anthemis. We don’t raise subsequent funds. The Anthemis founders and management are significant shareholders whose performance compensation is largely equity-driven. Any time Anthemis raises new equity capital (our analog to raising a new fund), both our focus and the new investor’s focus is on future expected returns on this capital. Full stop. If we go to raise new capital and investors think the share price on offer is too high (or at least too high to offer them the risk-adjusted returns they expect), they won’t invest. If the Anthemis Board thinks the share price offered is unattractively low (insofar as the cost of capital exceeds the company’s expectations as to it’s projected risk-adjusted returns and/or those available from new investments), it won’t issue.
Every smart entrepreneur and venture capitalist understands the intrinsic tension between capital and dilution which acts as a powerful aligner of interests. We simply embrace this dynamic, aligning our returns to those of our investors and removing path dependency and our ability to arbitrage the structure at the expense of our investors.
(3) Eliminate the Black Box of VC Firm Economics
I must admit that before reading the Kauffman report, I didn’t realize how little information VCs provide to their LPs. It’s pretty ironic given that most VCs spend more time negotiating (and are more dogmatic about) the nuances of control and information rights in the companies in which they invest than pretty much anything else, including valuation. The report highlights that “LPs seem to lack the conviction to require the information from GPs in the same way the GPs themselves require it” and apparently don’t use the leverage that they potentially have to force the issue, according to one GP quoted in the report “LPs never walk away.” Sure. Um, that sounds like a robust and healthy investment process. Yikes. But the boxes are ticked and the forms all filled in nicely…and so everyone’s happy.
Another perceived top-tier GP agreed with our view about the importance of transparent partnership economics and he admitted “no good answer” as to why LPs couldn’t receive the same information about his fund, except that the information is “never shared.”
Ok so you can get away with it, fine, but why? Why not be transparent? It sounds like a bunch of derivatives bankers that won’t share the model because they’re afraid the client will find out just how big their margin is and “won’t understand” all the costs (systems, people, capital – immediate and contingent) that this gross margin needs to support. (Irony alert: of course these same bankers usually hold up this gross margin to their managers as profit, blithely ignoring these same items in the pursuit of a “fair bonus”…) Imagine Joe Entrepreneur saying to Jim VC: “Just write the check and trust me. It’s complicated, I don’t want to cause you any unnecessary anxiety or have you misunderstand the numbers. That would be distracting. I’ll let you know when I need more. Thanks.” Come to think of it Jack Dorsey could probably get folks signed up on those terms…
So Anthemis is not a black box. We treat our investors like any startup would treat their VC investors. We have certain information and governance rights written into our articles and in general we respect and are open with our investors, doing our best to keep them informed and making ourselves available when they have ideas or questions they would like to discuss. We have audited financial accounts, a clear remuneration policy (overseen and approved by the Board including at least one Investor director) and quite frankly a pretty transparent and straightforward approach to investor relations. We can’t imagine having a conflictual, non-trusting relationship with our investors. What we are trying to build is hard enough as it is, we need our investors to be on board: not just financially, but intellectually and emotionally.
And so I hope Warren doesn’t mind if we adopt Berkshire Hathaway’s first Owner’s Manual principle as our own:
Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership. Udayan, Nadeem and I think of our shareholders as owner-partners, and of ourselves as managing partners. (Because of the size of our shareholdings we are also, for the moment and for better or worse, controlling partners.) We do not view the company itself as the ultimate owner of our business assets but instead view the company as a conduit through which our shareholders own the assets.
(4) Pay for Performance
Our first hand understanding of how this principle was being misapplied in much of mainstream finance and asset management was yet another proof point for our thesis that financial services business models were ripe for disruption. It is the shield the industry wraps itself in: “we may be paid well, but we are a meritocracy and our pay is justified by our performance.” This may have been true once – and in some firms in some activities it probably remains true today – but these are too often the exceptions not the rule. It’s a whole other essay as to how and why this is and how it came to be so, but I’ll spare you the details and jump straight to the punch line: too many compensation models are structurally biased to favor human over financial capital and worse, compound this bias with path-dependent outcomes that reinforce the skew, sometimes dramatically so.
The standard 2 and 20 fund compensation paradigm is one of these. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the principal behind it – you get a management fee to cover your overheads and a performance kicker if you generate returns (even better if there is a hurdle rate which should be based on the risk-free return plus possibly some margin for the extra risk or illiquidity depending on the strategy.) And frankly, this model can and does work, especially when the managers have a substantial stake in the fund (both in absolute terms and in terms of a % of their net worth) and when the fund has performance high-water marks and/or hurdle rates. Good examples of this model working are often found in the hedge fund world, where principals often own much or even most of the fund and their holdings represent a very substantial proportion of their total net worth.
In cases where these conditions aren’t met it often doesn’t work out so well. The fixed percentage management fee acts as an opiate, driving managers over time to focus their energies on asset gathering (not management.) The temptation to increase AUM to the largest (credible) size is strong as doing so essentially gives the managers a free upside performance option as the management fee alone becomes enough to pay themselves handsomely. Heads I win, tails you lose.3 This pathology is bad in any asset management context, but is particularly toxic with respect to venture capital given that it is an strategy that involves investing in a limited number of essentially illiquid securities.
If you are a macro hedge fund investing in FX and interest rates, the fact that you are managing $100mn or $100bn possibly doesn’t matter (especially if a big chunk of the capital is your own.) If you are investing in venture – or for that matter small cap public equities – a strategy that is highly successful with $100mn of capital can be a struggle to execute when you have $1bn or more to play with…) Unsurprisingly you often see some of the best VCs (who have easy access to capital) drift towards growth/private equity strategies where they can intelligently deploy larger sums. Done well this can be a good strategy (for all) but still we wonder why LPs aren’t more flexible and proactive in negotiating more tailored fee structures, either on a per fund and/or per firm basis.
In this context, our relatively simple, transparent “corporate” approach to compensation is an interesting alternative – it aligns management (who are also significant investors) with outside investors under all circumstances. First, not only is there no incentive for management to raise capital (grow assets) for the sake of it, there is actually a strong disincentive to do so: more capital means dilution. It has a cost. Raising capital is only interesting at a price that allows Anthemis to improve the risk adjusted returns of its existing and potential future portfolio of businesses. If the cost of raising equity is too high (ie the price of our shares is too low), it is financially more attractive for Anthemis (and our existing shareholders) not to raise more funds and to simply manage our existing portfolio of assets. To be clear – especially given the nature of our assets – I’m not suggesting that it is possible to create a spreadsheet that will spit out a definitive share price at which we should issue or not – there are too many subjective and uncertain inputs and pricing the opportunity cost of capital (which is essentially what I’m talking about) is as much art as science, especially at this stage of our development.
But what is clear – and structurally friendly to shareholders – is that there is symmetric risk and reward for management when raising capital. Just as there is for the founders of companies that VCs invest in everyday. You don’t see Jane Entrepreneur raising $100mn on a $1mn pre-money because she could then afford (to pay herself) a big salary; rather she is going to look first at what is the minimum amount (including a margin of safety) of capital needed to achieve her key value-creating milestones (while paying herself a reasonable salary.) If the price offered is unattractive, she’ll probably err on the side of raising less capital; if the price offered is generous, she’ll probably err on the side of raising a bit more. Simple. Valuation matters. Dilution matters. And most importantly, what is good for Jane in this context is (almost) always good for her existing investors. Alignment.
So how do the management and employees at Anthemis get paid? Basically there are three components, all of which are easy to understand and ultimately transparent to our investors:
Baseline: We pay our people competitive salaries and annual bonuses based on their experience and market value; this gives us some flexibility and resilience with respect to managing operating cash-flow while allowing us to attract excellent people who don’t have to be independently wealthy to finance their employment with us. Note that a very significant part of our overhead costs including salaries and bonuses are actually financed by our successful advisory businesses which are profitable on a stand-alone basis. These businesses then give a decent return on capital to the group while more importantly enabling significant operating leverage vis-a-vis our investing activities. Under a traditional GP/LP structure, given the size of our balance sheet, we would currently only be able to align a small fraction of our professional resources to support our principal investment activities. (And we would not be able to leverage the extremely valuable strategic and informational advantage arising.)
Performance bonuses (cash): With respect to our advisory businesses, insofar as our operating revenues permit, we accrue a performance bonus pool. The size of this pool depends on achieving a certain net operating margin target as set and is agreed by the board.
Long term incentive plan (equity): Each time we raise new equity capital, we create an option pool equivalent to 20% of the amount raised; these are options on common shares and have an exercise price equal to the price paid by investors in that round and are subject to standard vesting provisions. The options are then allocated to staff over the expected deployment period of the capital raised, based on a number of criteria (skewed towards their respective contributions to the development and performance of our portfolio participations) – again all agreed by the board. Some are also held back in reserve for new hires and exceptional performance rewards. In our opinion, this option structure offers a competitive performance incentive to Anthemis management and employees with a payout profile that does a much better job (than traditional GP carry structures) of aligning the interests of management and investors. Unless we increase their value and create liquidity in our shares, we don’t get paid.
(5) Measure VC Fund Performance Using a Public Market Equivalent (PME)
Earlier I mentioned that we were inspired by Berkshire Hathaway; one of the elements of their approach that we most admire is their very simple but obviously relevant approach to creating value4:
Our long-term economic goal is to maximize Berkshire’s average annual rate of gain in intrinsic business value on a per-share basis. We do not measure the economic significance or performance of Berkshire by its size; we measure by per-share progress.
Intrinsic value is formed by three components: the value of investments, the value and growth of operating earnings and a third, more subjective element Buffett calls the “what-will-they-do-with-the-money” factor. In other words the efficiency with which management deploys cash (from retained earnings and new capital raised) in the future. This last factor unfortunately for those who love algorithms is extremely important to the determination of intrinsic value and yet unmeasurable, it’s a judgement call. As an imperfect proxy to intrinsic value, Berkshire Hathaway tracks the per share book value and it’s performance vs both the S&P500 and the S&P Property & Casualty Insurance indices, believing that over the long term this measure at least gives a reasonable indication (although understates) the change in intrinsic value of the business.
Obviously we are not Berkshire Hathaway and so it would not (yet) be meaningful for us to simply take an identical approach to reporting, but we are adopting the same intrinsic value-based approach to evaluating and analyzing our performance and valuation. And once we have enough data to be meaningful, we will certainly look to track and publish (at least to our investors) a similar proxy metric that will allow our investors to compare our performance to the relevant benchmark(s).
The Kauffman Foundation in their report suggests that the Russell 2000 is an appropriate benchmark against which to measure generic US venture capital returns. Given that we invest globally and predominately in financial services and related businesses, I suspect we will need to look at other potential benchmarks and/or perhaps a mix of 3 or 4 different indices. In the past two years since creating Anthemis, the S&P500 is up c. 11% and the MSCI World Financials index is down c. 10%, I’m happy to report that so far we’re doing better than both… As an aside, if there are any index geeks out there reading this who have suggestions as to which index or indices would be the most appropriate benchmark for Anthemis, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.
For most of my career I worked in capital markets and investment banking and mostly found it to be an incredibly stimulating environment and felt privileged to work every day alongside so many smart and ambitious people. I was particularly fortunate to have worked in fixed income at Paribas for most of the 90′s where I serendipitously found myself at the heart of the birth of the Euro bond markets, with the opportunity to participate directly in building new markets, products and businesses. And once the Euro came in to being, I naturally looked for the next big thing to build, the next big innovation, only to realize (slowly, over the course of several years) that the Euro project truly was exceptional in every sense of the word and that – like most big successful industries – there was actually very little interest in change or disruptive innovation. That “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was the overriding philosophy. (Actually it turns out to be worse, “even if it is broke, don’t fix it”…)
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. – Upton Sinclair
And so I left. And when I immersed myself in the world of startups and venture capital, I was very excited to be leaving this mentality behind – after all venture was all about the new new thing, right? And although I found this to be true of the founders and companies financed by venture capital, and just as in investment banking was thrilled to find myself amongst another group of incredibly smart, ambitious and (new!) passionate people, I was surprised to find this didn’t extend to how VC partners thought about their own business and business models. In this respect, they were collectively just like the bankers I had left behind. (And given the context, this was even more cognitively unsettling…)
Uday and I (and our newest partner Nadeem) set up Anthemis because we were convinced that a very big opportunity exists to do things differently in finance. And while it wasn’t at the core of our mission, if you think about it venture capital itself is part of the financial services pantheon and without having set out deliberately to do so, perhaps we will play a small role in catalyzing disruptive change here as well if our model proves to be successful. Meta-disruption anyone?
Thinking about it, I suspect our model could work for other industries and sectors – especially for those where there are strong network effects and where companies and businesses form an interdependent ecosystem and/or value chain. For example an Anthemis for retailing? health? energy? As an investor, I would certainly be interested in building a portfolio of these. Think of it as the the equivalent of sector-focused ETFs but for disruptive, emerging growth companies. Until/unless they were listed, it would be hard to short these companies so it would be impossible to run a balanced long/short strategy in both directions. But a more adventurous or aggressive investor could at least express an even more aggressive view on industry disruption by shorting an index of the incumbents in each sector (against a long position in the innovation holdcos.)5
What is clear is that change is coming to the world of private capital markets, whether it is sector-focused holding companies like Anthemis, platforms like AngelList, CapLinked or even Kickstarter and others, private company exchanges like Second Market and SharesPost, new approaches to the VC model like A16Z, Y Combinator, 500 Startups and many other ideas I’m sure that will emerge. Given our nature, I guess it’s not too surprising to find ourselves disrupting on this dimension too! Interesting times indeed. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
1The consensus advice was not to “rock the boat” by doing anything that might be perceived by potential investors as innovative or different. It’s not that we didn’t believe the advice – indeed we were certain that in the case of the vast majority of traditional private equity LPs, this was going to be true. (And has been confirmed by the Kauffman report who note that “GPs indicated that they and their partners had discussed offering alternative structures and received very negative reactions.”) So are we stupid? Well I hope not. Our decision to ignore the advice to pursue a traditional venture capital LP/GP structure was based essentially on four points, in order of importance:
conviction: a fund structure fundamentally did not correspond to our vision, objectives and business model and would have forced us to make material comprises in all three which we were unwilling to do
ethics: having worked in investment banking and capital markets for many years, we had a clear and deep understanding of the traditional incentive models in the asset allocation and management value chain and we believed that in many cases these were fundamentally broken, causing (mostly avoidable) misalignments of interests with often toxic outcomes; we did not want to be a party to this – we wanted Anthemis to have a fully transparent and aligned structure
strategic: we wanted our shareholders to deeply understand and endorse our vision, to become truly our partners for the long term and be able to weather the good and the bad and intelligently hold us to account because they get what we are building and believe in the opportunity; it may sound crazy (for someone who wants to raise capital) but by making it harder for investors with a “box-ticking” or “herd-following” mentality to invest, we felt this would help us ensure that those that did were both smart and aligned with us as founders
pragmatism (or cynicism!): we believed that even with a plain-vanilla, consensus structure, we would struggle to tick all the boxes of a traditional LP who would rather invest in the 4th fund of a serially underperforming VC fund or even the first fund of a GP with years of junior experience at an established VC, than in a team of seasoned operating professionals with a clear vision, who’s track record of success wouldn’t however fit neatly into their approval grid; we weren’t IBM and we figured they probably weren’t going to risk getting fired by investing in us
2There are two main ways in which our performance can have a positive effect on our (minority-held) portfolio companies:
if our performance is good and our share price is strong, this gives Anthemis (greater) access to (relatively) cheaper capital which will allow us greater scope to support the growth ambitions of our portfolio companies as opportunities arise; their success drives our success which in turn helps us be an even better, stronger strategic shareholder to them
if our shares perform strongly, this creates an interesting currency that we can offer to the founders and executives of our portfolio companies, allowing them a mutually attractive third alternative to hold or sell if and when the day comes when they would like or need to reduce their holding in their company; we hope and expect that this will create a unique and powerful incentive that allows us to retain talented people within our ecosystem over the long term, which we consider to be the single most important driver of sustainable long term success
3To be fair, as Kauffman points out in their report, LPs are enablers of this and if a manager can charge 2% (or more) of AUM and their customers (the LPs) are willing to pay this, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this if it is justified by performance. I would however suggest a modification that would both allow great managers to charge whatever the market will bear and better align outcomes. For all management fees above the operating costs of the firm, the GPs could “re-invest” this surplus in the fund. Note this throws up some complications in a fund structure (in an equity structure such as ours, this would simply mean paying out surplus “management fees” as restricted equity) but I don’t think it would be impossible to come up with a decent solution. Even if not perfect, it would clearly drive a better GP/LP alignment. Indeed this is effectively what (most) of the best hedge fund managers do, essentially re-investing their surplus income back into their fund(s). Clearly this is easier with a hedge fund that will often have daily or at least monthly NAVs but again I don’t think it would be impossible to come up with a reasonable methodology to enable something similar for venture GPs.
“Intrinsic value is an all-important concept that offers the only logical approach to evaluating the relative attractiveness of investments and businesses. Intrinsic value can be defined simply: It is the discounted value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life. The calculation of intrinsic value, though, is not so simple. As our definition suggests, intrinsic value is an estimate rather than a precise figure, and it is additionally an estimate that must be changed if interest rates move or forecasts of future cash flows are revised. Two people looking at the same set of facts, moreover – and this would apply even to Charlie and me – will almost inevitably come up with at least slightly different intrinsic value figures. That is one reason we never give you our estimates of intrinsic value. What our annual reports do supply, though, are the facts that we ourselves use to calculate this value…
…Inadequate though they are in telling the story, we give you Berkshire’s book-value figures because they today serve as a rough, albeit significantly understated, tracking measure for Berkshire’s intrinsic value. In other words, the percentage change in book value in any given year is likely to be reasonably close to that year’s change in intrinsic value. You can gain some insight into the differences between book value and intrinsic value by looking at one form of investment, a college education. Think of the education’s cost as its “book value.” If this cost is to be accurate, it should include the earnings that were foregone by the student because he chose college rather than a job. For this exercise, we will ignore the important non-economic benefits of an education and focus strictly on its economic value. First, we must estimate the earnings that the graduate will receive over his lifetime and subtract from that figure an estimate of what he would have earned had he lacked his education. That gives us an excess earnings figure, which must then be discounted, at an appropriate interest rate, back to graduation day. The dollar result equals the intrinsic economic value of the education. Some graduates will find that the book value of their education exceeds its intrinsic value, which means that whoever paid for the education didn’t get his money’s worth. In other cases, the intrinsic value of an education will far exceed its book value, a result that proves capital was wisely deployed. In all cases, what is clear is that book value is meaningless as an indicator of intrinsic value.”
5Indeed, I kind of regret not having done so with Anthemis by shorting one or two of the broad public financial sector indices at the same time as going long Anthemis. Although having been very long financials in 2006 (structurally as a result of my 16 years in banking), I can’t complain too much having sold down as quickly as possible my direct holdings and implicitly – by leaving my job – my ongoing embedded exposure… As an example, Weatherbill (now Climate Corporation) where I led the angel round in 2006 is now worth upwards of 9x where I invested, whereas Allianz (where I worked via DrKW) is down c. 40%! If you use Commerzbank as a proxy for Dresdner (RIP) it’s down by c. 95%!! And yet investors still consider public stocks like these less risky than venture stage companies…go figure.
Last Thursday I had the great privilege of having been invited by the remarkable Laurent Haug to present a snapshot of our vision of the new emerging universe of “digitally native finance” at the wonderful Lift12 conference in Geneva. Twenty minutes is not a long time (and thank goodness Laurent indulged me with a couple minutes more) to convey both the context and the substance of what we believe to be a fundamental shift in the paradigm of the financial services industry, but I hope I was able to give at least a good high-level overview. Most importantly, I hope I was able to convey the excitement we feel at the vastness of the opportunity and the win/win/win (for the customers/companies/economies) available to those who embrace the opportunity for technology-enabled disruption in financial services by introducing them – however superficially I’ll admit – to just a handful of companies who are at the vanguard of this wave of change.
For those that are interested, my presentation and video (updated!) is below:
For those that are interested, here are links to all the companies mentioned in the presentation, those in which Anthemis is invested are marked with an asterisk. Clearly this is just the tip of the iceberg and there are many, many more companies and entrepreneurs and venture stage companies now focusing on creating the future of financial services – a veritable Cambrian explosion of innovation: (note: this selection is somewhat random and driven by a desire to show an interesting / representative cross-section rather than trying to pick out the most important or most successful companies in the space)
As I said in my presentation at Lift12, it is an incredibly exciting time in this space, and it is tremendously satisfying to see all the work we’ve done to position Anthemis at the heart of this opportunity space starting to bear fruit. Working with the amazing entrepreneurs and companies in our portfolio is a privilege and we are constantly impressed by their vision, focus and energy which is infectious. And beyond our existing portfolio, we have an incredibly strong and varied pipeline of new companies we hope to bring into our ecosystem over the next year or so.
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. – Buckminster Fuller
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. Here’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 average—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: “How can we disrupt the competitive landscape in [insert your situation] by delivering an unexpected solution?”
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?”
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.
Anthemis (Án-the-mis) is a genus of about 100 species of aromatic herbs in the Asteraceae… Nicknamed “the plants’ physician”, it seems to improve the health of other plants grown near it. (source: Wikipedia)
I was reminded the other day that I’ve never introduced Anthemis Group to the world. And our website, although not bad, definitely needs updating (we’ll get to it…) But in the mean time, I thought it might make sense to have a go at starting to explain who we are, our world-changing ambitions and our unique plan for achieving same.
As many of you know, I’ve spent much of the last decade thinking hard about how advances in information and communications technologies can enable a fundamental re-invention of business models in the financial services sector, and over the past four years I have focused my energies on figuring out the best way to go about catalysing the creation of new businesses that will drive and profit from this amazing opportunity. It hasn’t always been easy – advocating change never is – but ironically, the global financial crisis of 2008 was actually very helpful as it opened many eyes to the manifest weaknesses and diminishing returns of a financial system and actors that were finely tuned to operate in the “industrial economy” of the 20th century but poorly adapted to address the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century’s “information economy.” Anthemis has emerged out of this work and we are convinced that our approach is ideally suited to profit from the vast opportunity for disruptive innovation in financial services.
Our ambition is to build the world’s first “digitally native” financial services group: a group of companies and businesses uniquely adapted to profit from the emerging competitive landscape of the Information Age.
that an enormous opportunity exists to harness technology to fundamentally rethink how financial services are designed, consumed and delivered.
that a healthy, resilient and relevant financial sector is absolutely critical to the well-functioning of our economies and societies
that loosely-coupled networks and ecosystems (not hierarchies) are the optimal organisational forms in the information economy
that assembling and retaining teams of talented and passionate people is the key to building great businesses.
We’re not a venture capital or private equity fund, although clearly in some respects we share characteristics and often work closely with both; think of us as a fractal start-up – a company that deliberately seeks to connect and grow an ecosystem of complementary and vibrant new businesses by marrying patient long-term growth capital with expert operational and strategic advice.
In future posts over the course of the next several months, I will explore in more detail the themes outlined above and also dig deeper into both our operating model (we have three key operating pillars: principal strategic investments (anthemis | holdings), corporate advisory (ft advisors) and an innovative specialised expert consulting network (anthemis | edge)) and our investment framework (see if you can reverse engineer it by looking at our existing portfolio!) But today, I want to finish by highlighting a great post by Stowe Boyd (which inspired the timing of this post) titled “More Like A City Than An Army.”
In recent appearances, I have used a certain example to make a case about the openness in businesses of the future, contrasting today’s organizations with cities. ‘You don’t have to ask if you want to move to NYC’ I say. ‘You just show up, and start doing your thing, interacting with people, renting a storefront, buying things.’
‘Imagine a business where you can just show up and say, I want to work here. And you’d be engaged in the workings of the business by making connections with people.’
When I read this, it was immediately familiar: it resonated strongly with some of our thinking on how to best manifest the fourth principle above and indeed our business model in many ways adopts a somewhat analogous approach.
Cities exhibit superlinear performance, unlike businesses which are sublinear. As new employees are added to a business, performance decreases per employee. Cities are the only human artifact that break this trendline: they increase in productivity as more people move in.
So, business should aspire to take on the characteristics of cities — to the degree feasible — to break past sublinear performance.
Think of Anthemis as a city. Of our portfolio companies as neighbourhoods. And of our anthemis | edge business as municipal services and resources. The metaphor isn’t perfect of course but our structure and approach is indeed designed to achieve the superlinear performance Stowe alludes to. Before you get too excited, we’re not (yet?) in a position to let people “just show up and say, I want to work here”; I think reputation and trust filters – albeit not necessarily (just) the traditional ones – are relevant, but in terms of our starting bias, I’d say our philosophy is more in tune with this approach than the traditional talent paradigm. After all, why wouldn’t we want to embrace talented, energetic, self-selecting people. To be fair, Stowe acknowledges this potential problem and offers a potential solution:
Of course, the company would have to be organized in a vastly different way. People could ‘work’ at such a future Apple by just showing up, but they might have to convince others to let them participate on projects, or get an idea funded, or change a product’s features. (my emphasis) We’d have to have a wildly different notion of ‘management’: one that would be fully distributed in some way.
This theme is an aspect of what I call messiness-at-scale: for companies to go superlinear, they have to drop all plans to keep things tidy, and accept a state of near chaos, out at the far edge, where the power curve of innovation, creativity, and resilience is at its strongest.
Indeed, the biggest issue I see with a completely open-door policy is one of protecting the reputation and integrity of the firm – (which is really just the community of people associated with it.) Basically, the NAA (no assholes allowed) rule. But the fabulous thing is that in today’s world, it has never been easier to run this filter. Globally. Using both traditional social (old boys’) networks sure but also and much more excitingly (and more scaleable) by using the vast array of digital tools (Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, Namesake, blogs, etc…ergo PeerIndex, an Anthemis company!) to build up a picture of a person’s authenticity (who they are, what they believe in, what they know and how passionate they are… (Which of course highlights how crucial it is to nurture and maintain a robust digital identity, something that is anathema to most of the corporate leaders of today…)
And if we can solve the reputation / authenticity issue, this just leaves the issue of how can you afford to pay people who “just show up.” We don’t have a fully-formed answer to this yet, but a starting point for thinking about this is: you don’t. Or framed less controversially, you provide them a substrate upon which they can ultimately earn their own way and in parallel you provide a framework by which the firm and its people can invest risk capital (time and money) into the new joiner to buy them the runway they need to become “cash flow positive”.
If this sounds similar to the general approach to financing entrepreneurs and start-ups it is not by accident. Investing in people or investing in groups of people working together on a project are fractals of the same problem set. A cynic would argue that this is just semantics and that what I have proposed aboveis effectively what any company does when it hires a new employee – essentially committing risk capital on the future expected productivity of that person. Sure, perhaps. But by making this social contract explicit – by devolving the process – making it bottom-up, emergent; not top-down – I am convinced that the resulting relationship is very different (and more robust, honest and mutually beneficial.)
So we’re working hard on putting the substrate and framework in place that will ultimately allow Anthemis to welcome all the talented, passionate, self-motivated people out there that share our vision and want to direct their energy towards building a digitally native financial system fit for the 21st century. We’d love to hear from you if you think you can help (but just remember we’re a start-up too, so please indulge us if we’re a bit uneven in our ability to engage, we know we have room for improvement in this department.)
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller
Markets in compute power, much talked about by me and others are now it seems finally here (from The Economist:)
Fundamentally, SpotCloud works like other spot markets. Firms with excess computing capacity—operators of data centres, cloud providers, hosting firms—put it up for sale. Others, who have a short-term need for some number-crunching, can bid for it. Enomaly takes a cut of between 10% and 30% depending on the size of the deal. But there is an important difference: SpotCloud is what Enomaly calls an “opaque market”, meaning that the firms offering capacity do not have to reveal their identity. Thus selling computing services for cheap on SpotCloud does not cannibalise regular offerings.
Until very recently, financial services have been relatively immune to the technology-enabled disruptive innovation that has swept through other industries over the past decade or so. This is now changing for a number of reasons, both technological, economic and societal:
continuing advances in communications and information technology – in particular ubiquitous cloud computing and smart devices – is enabling economically viable new approaches to delivering all types of financial services (payments, risk management, investing, banking, insurance…)
demographic change is creating a large addressable population of financial services consumers who have a different expectations (in terms of transparency, control, etc.)
the financial crisis of 2008 has broken many of the bonds of trust that contributed to significant customer inertia wrt financial services providers.
This is opening up one of the most important sectors of our economy to new entrants with new ideas, new approaches and new technologies.
I’m going to give a short presentation, hopefully setting the scene and getting some creative juices flowing before the more interesting part of the workshop where my partner Uday and I will be working with those attending to ideastorm potential new approaches, business models and services that are natively adapted to the technologies and economies of the 21st century. Attendance will be limited to 30 people so if this is something that excites you and you’d like to contribute, don’t wait too long to sign up. The workshop is at 9am on Friday, February 4th and of course you need to be signed up for the conference – if you haven’t already you can do that here.
And if you have any ideas for what you’d like to see or hear or discuss at the workshop, please don’t hesitate to comment below. Hope to see you there!
Workshop went well I think and I was really lucky to have such an engaged and interesting group. Would have loved to have had another hour to explore the ideas that emerged…here’s the presentation I gave as an intro:
Betterment ticks the box on so many of our investment themes and fits so well into our vision of digitally native 21st century financial services that they had us at ‘hello’…but the clincher was the amazing team and impressive execution to date.
When asked, I often tell people that we invest in the “emerging Apple’s of financial services”, ie that we look for companies who use technology to create powerful, intuitive, user-friendly customer experiences by essentially abstracting complexity away from the user (not ignoring it, but managing it – with skill and dexterity – behind the scenes) rather than exposing it in all its glory to customers with the implicit goal of profiting from then managing (exploiting?) their confusion and disengagement. Of course the Apple analogy is not perfect but probably can’t be beat in terms of a pithy soundbite summary of our approach.
So with this in mind, think of Betterment as having a Jobsian approach to savings and investment: combining a intuitive and powerful user interface with a robust back-end execution platform, Betterment allows anyone to quickly, easily and without mystery manage asset allocation and risk budgeting using a simple, multi-asset class portfolio. No hassle, no time wasted, no blizzard of trade confirmations. The first time I saw it, I immediately wanted to be able to manage all my cash balances using their platform. (Unfortunately they are currently only operating in the US so not super-practical for me personally but you can bet we’re keen to help them expand their horizons…) Say goodbye to the money market account. Indeed, if you are based in the US and have a bunch of your savings tied up in money market accounts or CDs, you should definitely take a very serious look at replacing these with a Betterment account. Have a look at their product tour:
But the most exciting thing about Betterment is that they have only just got started and it’s scary (good) to think what Jon, Eli, Kiran and Anthony, can and will do over the next couple years. And it’s a great fit with our nascent but growing ecosystem and we look forward to helping them work with other great digitally native financial firms like BankSimple, Blueleaf, FX Capital Group and others as they grow their business in the months and years to come. And the icing on the cake is getting the opportunity to invest alongside guys like Rob and Eric at BVP who bring a lot more to the table than just capital. Congratulations guys and thanks for inviting us along for the ride.
And was just thinking this might be the right track for their inaugural global marketing campaign…
Last week I spent the week in Amsterdam at Sibos 2010 where I had kindly been invited by Peter Van der Auwera to participate in the Innovation stream, and in particular in the Cloud Computing and Long Now streams within Innotribe. On Monday, I gave a short “scene-setting” talk on cloud computing and app stores in finance called The New Financial Stack (more on this / link hopefully later this week) and also I agreed to produce a video aimed at provoking and/or inspiring some original and non-linear thinking about the future of finance. Called “The Financial Reformation”, it sets the scene for two decades of fundamental change in the financial services industry based on the amazing democratising power of information technologies. I hope you like the result:
But as you might suspect if you have watched the video, this is just a start… Indeed, this initial video could be considered as simply the trailer for a longer form video which will look at the period from 2008 to 2028 in more detail; similar in some ways to the AmazonBay video of several years ago. The first draft of the script for this story is already written but I am very keen to build on and enrich it, not only with the fascinating concepts and insights that I absorbed in the Innotribe sessions at Sibos last week, but also – insofar as anyone is interested – with comments and ideas from the wise crowd of Park Paradigm readers. I’ve got a few ideas as to how best to go about this, and plan to post these later this week or next, but in the mean time if you would like to share your thoughts, please feel free to comment below.
ps I’d like to give a special thanks to the amazing team at Motherlode who were instrumental in turning my ideas into reality and who worked tirelessly to deliver the video in time for the world premier at Sibos; I’d also like to thank and congratulate Peter, Kosta and the rest of the Swift Innotribe team for what was simply an incredible four days. I hope Swift gives you the recognition you deserve!