Sean Park Portrait
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I say profound things

Articles tagged 'innovation'

Read this book.

Hugh MacLeod - Evil Plans

Change is not death. Fear of change is death.

I woke up reasonably early this morning with a long list of things to do today.  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.  So I picked up Hugh MacLeod’s “Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination”.   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.”  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.  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.  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.  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.  Buy it. Read it. And keep it close to your desk to lean on in those moments of doubt.

Hugh MacLeod - Market in Something to Believe In

And start working on that evil plan!

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Looking Forward to TISEE 2011

TISEE 2011

Very excited to be making my first trip to Bulgaria later this week for TISEE 2011 which we have generously been invited to co-host by Pavel and Deven of Neveq who are the brains and the driving force behind what I’m sure will be a fascinating day:

The Technology Innovation Summit: Eastern Europe (TISEE) is an annual gathering of leading technology visionaries, executives, investors, and entrepreneurs. The event is focused on bringing exposure to the Eastern European technology landscape and connecting innovative companies in the region with global leaders in these fields.

There will be a broad set of events including keynotes, interactive panels, networking sessions, and a startup competition focused on emerging technologies, with a particular focus on Financial Technology, Mobile Technology, and Online Services (social media, personalization, etc.).

There is a great line-up of speakers, panelists and attendees both local and international. If you don’t have plans for Thursday, you can still book your place and jump on a plane to Sofia Wednesday evening. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. If not, follow @TISEE2011 and/or the #TISEE hashtag on the day to follow along from home.

I’m a scorpion; it’s my nature.

McKinsey surveyed a bunch of executives and found that:

84 percent of executives say innovation is extremely or very important to their companies’ growth strategy. The results also show that the approach companies use to generate good ideas and turn them into products and services has changed little since before the crisis, and not because executives thought what they were doing worked perfectly. Further, many of the challenges—finding the right talent, encouraging collaboration and risk taking, organizing the innovation process from beginning to end—are remarkably consistent. Indeed, surveys over the past few years suggest that the core barriers to successful innovation haven’t changed, and companies have made little progress in surmounting them.

As I’ve written many times before, I think they are barking up the wrong tree.  They are trying to have their cake and eat it too which in the context of a traditionally organized (read 20th century business school optimal model) large company is like trying to pee in the corner of a round room.  ie Pursuing ‘non-linear’ innovation is not only difficult for these kinds of organisations, it actually requires a framework that is often diametrically opposed to the framework that governs the rest of their business, the business that actually pays the (current) bills.  And so it is entirely unsurprising that companies find it hard / impossible to assimilate this within their structures, culture and reward systems.  Perhaps paradoxically, one could argue that the better managed a large company is for its current/core business, the worse this disconnect;  in poorly managed large companies there is probably more room to roam “off the reservation” so to speak…  But I don’t think anyone – including me – would suggest that it would create overall value to manage poorly just in order to pick up a bit of innovation juice around the edges.

So what’s a big company to do?  Well I think they should look to invest some of their capital outside their walls.  Not corporate venture per se – the corporate antibodies end up killing / ensuring failure of dedicated corporate venture initiatives 9 times out of 10.  (A notable exception to this rule – the one of ten (hundred?) – is Intel Capital.  If you think your company can do this then go for it.  I personally suspect that one of the reasons Intel Capital managed to avoid institutional purgatory is that Intel has a very strong entrepreneurial culture and leadership (deep into the firm not just at the top) that had first hand memories of building businesses from the ground up.  Google Ventures may enjoy similar success for the same reasons…)  For the rest, I would suggest setting aside a certain amount of capital to make passive minority investments either directly or via specialist sector-specific early stage investors (like us if you are a financial institution, yes I’m talking my book) in companies innovating – especially in those using ‘non-linear’/disruptive approaches – in their markets.

Passive – meaning no board seats, no control – because the alternative would result in adverse selection bias or mission dilution/suffocation or both.  Adverse selection, because the best, brightest and most ambitious start-ups in your sector will not take your money if you ask for control and mission dilution / suffocation because if they do take your money and give you some control, your corporate antibodies will do everything they can to assimilate and/or crush what they will correctly see as a threat to the companies core business.

So why bother at all?  Why not just wait to see who emerges as winners and then buy them once the risk is gone?  Principally for two reasons (in order of importance):

  1. Because you have to have a “position” to really harvest the informational value:  this is the trader in me speaking – anyone who has ever traded any asset knows instinctively that the difference between an ‘opinion’ and actually having a ‘position’ is huge.  Indeed any good trader who needs to follow any particular market closely – even if this market isn’t their first order concern and/or they don’t (yet) have any strong conviction – will take a small/nominal position in said market in order to ‘be in the flow’ and truly feel the rhythm of that market.  Put another way, picture the impact of an internal board presentation on top 10 new industry trends and 20 new companies ‘to watch’ vs a presentation of ‘this is how the 20 companies we have invested in are doing’ and tell me honestly that both will have the same impact…
  2. Because you just might not get the chance to buy the winners – either at all (think Google, Facebook, etc.) or it will cost you very very dearly and worse you probably won’t have enough information to truely know / understand what you are buying (the most toxic manifestation of this is what I call the ‘panic buy’ – eg NewsCorp/MySpace.) In other words, the buy later strategy has it’s own set of very real risks.  And even when/if you do ‘buy later’ a company that you haven’t invested in, as a result of (1) above you will almost certainly be able to better mitigate some of these ‘buy later’ risks.

So why don’t more big companies do this?  I’m not sure.  Would be interesting if McKinsey would ask this question (they are more likely to get answers than The Park Paradigm, not sure I have a lot of Fortune500 C-suite readers!)  I suspect it is because the time horizons needed to be successful in such a strategy (5-10 years) far exceed the time horizons of most senior executives.  And related to this, that they are afraid – quite possibly correctly – that “Wall Street”/”the City” will chastise them for spending any money on ‘speculative’ investments,  that it is “not their job” and that they should “focus on their core”.  Funny however how the most successful executives and companies however manage to ignore the peanut gallery and pursue their plans with conviction and diligence.  Perhaps these are the companies who may listen and find value in my suggested approach…

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What would Teddy (Roosevelt) do?

I have long been concerned by the rise and rise of the global mega-bank, first due to my conviction of the impossibility of managing such complex behemoths (with the dangers as we all now know having repercussions far beyond any individual bank’s shareholders or creditors) and also due to the increasing rents such a de facto oligopoly could (and so logically does) extract from the rest of the global economy. I’ve started and then stopped writing this post at least half a dozen times in the past year; partly due to a sense of ‘what’s the point’, partly due to the problem being covered by many with much (much) more influence than I, and partly (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit) due to a small underlying element of self-censorship. As some of you know, we have ambitions to raise capital to allow us to catalyze the re-invention of financial services by investing in companies with disruptive new business models in this sector, and well the big banks are not only potential sources of capital in their own right, but also have significant influence with many of the people and institutions who are potential sources of capital for us. As regular readers know, I try always to tell it like I see it but if I’m objective, I probably have had a tendency to pull my punches a bit when discussing the banking industry. But as the debate on reforming global banking takes centre stage, and at the risk of annoying some of our potential future investors with a dissident opinion, I thought it would be worthwhile to lay out my key thoughts on the subject.

Commenting on an interview with Christine Lagarde (French Finance Minister), the FT editorial page identified the issue clearly:

Weak competition is obvious to customers: financial companies demand high fees that are often calculated according to illogical tariffs. Fund managers’ charges, for example, are usually large and are often not linked to the quality, or the real costs of their services.

The lack of competition shows up to economists in the sector’s staggering profitability. In the second quarter of 2009, 29 per cent of US domestic profits came from finance. The profit-generating power of financial companies across the developed world has stubbornly remained higher than that of other companies.

There is, in addition, good reason to suppose that competitive pressures will weaken further. The recent wave of bank failures and mergers, born of the crisis, have left the sector more concentrated. With fewer players on the field – many enjoying implicit state guarantees – competition will be further enfeebled.

The followed on from a great column earlier this month by one of my favorite economists, John Kay:

But in more advanced economies, rent-seeking takes more sophisticated forms. Instead of 10 per cent on arms sales, we have 7 per cent on new issues. Rents are often extracted indirectly from consumers rather than directly from government: as in protection from competition from foreign goods and new entrants, and the clamour for the extension of intellectual property rights. Rents can also be secured through overpaid employment in overmanned government activities.

Rent-seeking is found whenever economic power is concentrated – in the state, in large private business, in groups of co-operating and colluding firms. Private concentrations of economic power tend to be self-reinforcing. This problem was widely recognised in America’s gilded age. The well-founded fear was that the new mega-rich – the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts – would use their wealth to enhance their political influence and grow their economic power, subverting both the market and democracy. Today it is Russia that exemplifies this problem.

But America has a new generation of rent-seekers. The modern equivalents of castles on the Rhine are first-class lounges and corporate jets. Their occupants are investment bankers and corporate executives.

So much of the conversation seems to revolve around this question of how do we deal with financial institutions which are “too big to fail”, with the turkeys running the world’s mega-banks almost unanimously (and somewhat breathlessly) insisting that breaking banks up would achieve nothing except to hurt customers.

Back in June, I set down my thoughts on what the key issues were in terms of (fixing) banking regulation, highlighting that size (of assets or business) was not the only variable to consider when assessing systemic risk, but that ‘connectedness’ was probably even more important. Certainly the combination of both is something that should ring alarm bells.

Wouldn’t it make much more sense to build a set of rules that explicitly addresses the vulnerabilities of a scale free network and as such focuses disproportion attention and resources on protecting the hubs from attack or failure. The beauty is that the digital global financial system of the 21st century and advances in the science of networks actually now allows us to do this: we can empirically and quantitatively observe, measure and manage the ‘connectedness’ of institutions. Forget the rating agencies, companies like Bonabeau’s IcoSystems and others could help the regulators create, maintain and monitor network ‘maps’ and score each market participant in terms of their connectivity. This should be the defining core metric of financial regulation and mirroring the power law distribution of the underlying network, financial regulation should focus its attention and resources in geometrically increasing fashion.

However it’s pretty frustrating to continue to read much of the ‘financial establishment’ – people who have the luxury and the privilege of being able to speak from the pages of the FT – continue to miss the point entirely and cling to a (slighty) new and improved version of the regulatory status quo. I have enormous respect for Jamie Dimon, and while I agree with him that the system must be re-engineered so as to allow any bank of any size to fail without jeopardizing the system, I disagree that breaking up the biggest banks would be damaging and serve no purpose. The rules need to be reset (to build-in automatic and steeply increasing impediments to growth in size and connectedness), but at the same time the biggest global and domestic mega-banks need to be pruned back to a size that is commensurate with this new paradigm.

The parallels between the rise and rise of Standard Oil in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its subsequent government mandated break-up and the rise and rise of giant global banks in the late 20th and early 21st centuries are real. John D. Rockefeller sounded every bit as sincere and paternalistic in calling for an ever bigger, ever more dominant Standard Oil – a company that would bring ‘order’ and ‘stability’ to the market making customers’ lives and choices ‘easier.’ Well of course we know that the market for oil products didn’t suffer as a result of the break-up of Standard Oil, nor did anarchy descend on the US telecommunications markets following the break-up of AT&T. I think you’ll actually find that there is a decent case to be made that things got better in both cases, with more robust and innovative markets and better value for customers. (I highly recommend that legislators everywhere take a moment to read Chernow’s great Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. before reaching their conclusions as to the merits (or not) of breaking up the biggest banks.)

But the most important long-term reason to consider government intervention in the size and power of the world’s largest financial institutions is that failing to do so will inevitably starve one of the key sectors of the economy of innovation and progress with increasingly damaging results. Indeed, in the conclusion to his column Mr. Kay hits the nail on the head:

Because innovation is dependent on new entry it is essential to resist concentration of economic power. A stance which is pro-business must be distinguished from a stance which is pro-market. In the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that distinction has not been appreciated well enough.

It’s time for a change. It’s time to shake things up a bit. No?

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Seeing the future of finance.

I first wrote here about Ken Banks and FrontlineSMS a little over a year ago, after having seen him speak at Supernova in San Francisco where he made a tremendous impression. I remember immediately being excited by the obvious possibility of leveraging the Frontline:SMS platform to provide financial services, not only in developing countries but also in more mature markets. I put ‘try to set up meeting with Ken to discuss’ on my to do list, but it never quite made it to the top as the myriad challenges of setting up our business (and moving house) in the midst of generalized global financial calamity conspired to keep it from becoming an urgent priority. Of course (and thank goodness) the world does not wait for me and an enterprising young man, Ben Lyons, spotted the same opportunity and (much) more importantly has moved to action, teaming up with Ken and FrontlineSMS to create FrontlineSMS:credit:

FrontlineSMS:Credit aims to make every formal financial service available to the entrepreneurial poor in 160 characters or less. By meshing the functionality of FrontlineSMS with local mobile payment systems, implementing institutions will be able to provide a full range of customizable services, from savings and credit to insurance and payroll.


Launching FrontlineSMS:credit a few weeks ago, Ben wrote:

Our mission is simple: leverage the mobile space to extend access to affordable financial services to rural, disconnected and impoverished communities. To achieve this end, we are constructing a series of free and open source financial modules that will allow FrontlineSMS to communicate with mobile payment systems in real time, turning FrontlineSMS in to a microfinance management information system, a payroll center for small & medium enterprises (SMEs), a collection and distribution center for micro-insurance premiums and payouts, and a detailed center for individual credit histories and scores.

Now if this isn’t a massive opportunity, well I don’t know what is. At the risk of sounding churlish, it’s an order of magnitude more substantial and important (socially, financially, economically…) than half the me-too start-ups chasing funding and customers amongst the western digerati. Take another look at Ben’s mission statement:

… leverage the mobile space to extend access to affordable financial services to rural, disconnected and impoverished communities.

I suspect the first time you read that you thought “in Africa”, or perhaps India, or developing countries more generally. But these same under-served communities (alas) exist in every country in the world, and one could even make a case for saying that for those living in a developed economy, the relative disadvantage of not having access to basic financial services is even more damaging. It seems inevitable that the approach taken by FrontlineSMS:credit will become the primary channel through which universal access to basic financial services is delivered in any country or economy. Which leaves the politicians of many European states very little time to figure out what the hell to do with all the postal employees currently cashing cheques and taking payments for utility bills, who will soon need to find more productive work. And I’m not sure how complacent I would be as a shareholder in an incumbent retail banking operation (the top executives I doubt will lose much sleep as the timeline for this kind of transition is probably 10-15 years or so, much longer than their expected tenure…) as this bottom up, platform approach to delivering financial services has the very real potential of blowing a giant hole right in the middle of their business and revenue model.

To further whet your appetite here is an excellent 10 minute introduction to FrontlineSMS:credit by Ben at Africa Gathering in London a couple weeks ago:

Ben Lyon from Africa Gathering on Vimeo.

And on my list to “meet Ken Banks”, I’ve now added “meet Ben Lyons” and hopefully this time I’ll actually make it happen…

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“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter; “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

Mad Hatter

I’m sure it wasn’t his intent, nevertheless I had to smile when I read Umair‘s latest post on “Re-inventing Wall Street from the Bottom Up”, as it is a wonderful endorsement for what we are trying to build here at Nauiokas Park. He writes:

Instead, Wall Street needs to be reinvented from the bottom-up: by a new generation of radical innovators, to create thick value, for an authentically shared prosperity.

Building a disruptively better global financial system is the central challenge —and the largest, richest opportunity — for today’s economic revolutionaries. It’s time for Finance 2.0.

Investors, entrepreneurs, and radical innovators of all stripes: it’s time to It’s time to go big, or go home. You’re happy that social gaming is worth billions. That’s nice. But it’s also chump change. Because the gains that can flow from better capital markets are worth trillions.

Finance — not video games, advertising, cleantech, or social nets — is where 10x+ returns lie for today’s venture investors, and life-changing fortunes lie for entrepreneurs.

Hallelujah. Anyone who knows us knows that this is right out of our pitch book. And yet. It’s not easy. And I’ve been wondering why that might be. How much of it is a ‘turkeys not voting for Christmas’ problem? Or is it a question of ‘Lord, make me chaste. But not yet…’? I don’t know, hard to tell. Anyhow I’m sure we’ll get there in the end, but there is so many exciting opportunities and so much potential sometimes I struggle to understand why we aren’t reduced to beating back hungry investors with a stick. 😉 I guess the real answer is that we need to spend more time seeking capital and less time investing it. But I tell you that just doesn’t seem right. It should be the other way round, no?

A wise man (not being sarcastic – he really is wise) once told me of a very large private equity firm where he used to work at one time. He said they had a lot of smart and ambitious people. And a few well, Forrest Gumps. The latter took care of investing, while the former focused on the much more important job of raising more and bigger funds. I thought he was joking. I’m now pretty sure he wasn’t. (Note to self: area no. 697 of financial services ripe for disruption: allocation of capital to private equity managers…)

There has been much recent angst in the venture capital world about funds that are too big, and indeed the same debate flares up from time to time in the hedge fund world where many strategies (although not all) have analogous scaling problems (over-crowded trades, positions too big for the market, opportunities too small to ‘move the needle’ of a big fund.) But investors time and time again prefer to take the safe route and ‘buy IBM’. The classic fail-conventionally-versus-succeed-alone trade. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing big funds – where as an investor you get to eat your cake and have it too: ie great returns and the ‘safety’ of a tried and trusted organization – but there are also many many mediocre funds who have grown out of their edge and had their business objectives perverted into raising and keeping ever larger amounts of AUM, rather than having the objective of generating the best possible risk adjusted returns. I guess the fund-of-fund structure was one answer to solving the dilemma of how do you scale allocation of funds into many small and/or new managers, unfortunately more often than not, many of these funds find it easier and safer (reputationally not financially) to slide back into allocating to the same old, same old. (And a few bad apples discredited the whole concept by just putting all their money into a ponzi scheme and taking fees for their trouble!) I’ve thought about this a bit, and I must admit I have yet to come up with a clever mechanism that would solve the problem of efficiently (and safely) getting investment capital out into the ‘long tail’. But I’m sure it exists. Especially with the tools and access to information available today.

We also need to fix the supply-side by taking away the naked incentive for asset managers to blindly pursue AUM growth as a priority. This is easy. It was the first thing I said I’d do differently – three years ago – if i ever managed outside capital. It seemed so bloody obvious: management fees pay the cost of running the business, carry or performance fees are the juice. So set management fees at the level of the operating budget. Simple. You would think investors would love this as it reflects the true cost of managing the investments and aligns interests. Sure, it is a bit more complicated than just multiplying the capital by a fixed percentage, but only a bit: the cost structure of an asset manager is not exactly complex – people, an office, some travel, IT (more or less depending on the strategy) and some professional fees (legal, accounting, etc.) Further if there are economies of scale to be had in the strategy in question, these would be naturally passed on to the investors as the costs as a percentage of assets would naturally decline as assets grow, but the managers would be indifferent to this and so aim for an amount of assets that allowed them to create the best returns net of management fees. Indeed this is exactly what Paul Kedrosky suggested the other day. (Once again perhaps we were too early!) We thought potential investors would love this. The reality (so far) is that most have been at best indifferent and in a few cases outright skeptical – “That sounds too clever, why don’t you just stick to 2% like everyone else…” (I’m not making that up!) ie Don’t rock the boat. And that’s a problem, because we’re all about rocking the boat! And I can’t see how we can be otherwise and remain credible when our value proposition is to identify and invest in disruptive business models… (Sigh.)

Anyhow, Umair don’t lose faith, we’re working on it!

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Cloud computing = on-demand business innovation

While in the technology and venture capital world, a mention of cloud computing these days is more likely to elicit yawns than excitement, in 99% of the rest of the business world it is all too often looked upon as ‘just another new technology’, something for IT to think and or worry about. Whenever I’m in this other world I try to make the case that ‘the Cloud’ is as transformational a technology as electrification or the invention of the microchip. In fact, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it will be the technology that lies at the core of the sixth techno-economic paradigm of the modern era:

Just as Intel’s 4004 microprocessor was the catalyst for a wave of creative destruction in the 70s and 80s, will AWS prove the same for the 00s and 10s? Probably. We’re seeing it already. And it’s going to disrupt the hell out of the mastodons of industry across most sectors of the economy. Why? Because their cultures and leaders are entirely ill-equipped to face such a fundamental paradigm shift. They know how to play by the old rules. The strategic competitive advantages they built up over decades risk suddenly – poof! – to become obsolete.

And yet all too often, I’m met not with disbelief but with apathy, indifference. You can see the thoughts forming in their heads: “I’m a CEO, a business man, a producer! Why is Sean boring me with this technology stuff? Why doesn’t he just talk to the CIO?” Worse, too often when I talk to senior technology managers in big corporations, they also are disdainful, thinking: “Yeah, yeah, that’s all fine for your start-ups and Web2.whatever companies, but this is a real business. Serious. Not some website for teenagers to swap gossip.” Ok I’m exaggerating but a lot less than you think. Sometimes I figure I must not be saying it right. So I’m always on the lookout for good articulations of the potential and importance of cloud computing and its incredible relevance to anyone who is pretending to run a business. Especially a big one.

Peter Fingar has written a great one, a summary of the new book Dot Cloud: The 21st Century Business Platform. He sums it up nicely:

In short, Enterprise IT must extend out to Consumer IT, otherwise those companies simply won’t be able to compete. As we’ll explore, Web 2.0 has changed the landscape with social networks, and companies can ill afford to ignore the shift…

…Cloud computing isn’t just about on-demand IT; it’s about on-demand business innovation…

…Cloud computing isn’t just for small- and medium-sized companies and garage startups. Cloud computing makes it possible to create new business platforms that will allow companies to change their business models and collaborate in powerful new ways that weren’t practical before. What’s important for companies to consider is that cloud computing isn’t about technology, it’s about technology-enabled business models.

So if you know a CEO, or any senior managers (in any business) pass them this article. It will only take 10 minutes to read. And maybe it just might make them reconsider. And maybe they’ll invite me to lunch! 😉

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One (more) reason big finance is broken.

Every executive committee member of a large bank, exchange or insurance company should read Kirk Wylie’s latest post to understand why their cultures are broken and why they so regularly find their organisations blithely running off the edge of a cliff, comfortable in the knowledge that, “well, hey at least we’re all doing it so it must be ok” and safe in the knowledge that their is a big taxpayer airbag (or trampoline?) at the bottom protecting them from any nasty consequences. Of course they are unlikely to – except in the unlikely event that it gets published in one of the traditional echo chamber publications like the FT or the WSJ.*

I’ll resist the temptation to copy/paste the whole post here but please go read it as this excerpt doesn’t give it justice:

Independent, entrepreneurial techies can actually make the biggest impact in the organizations that fight against them the most: they’re the ones that need them the most. Use them as agents for change, challenging assumptions, challenging entrenched attitudes, challenging technical group-think. Otherwise, your worst employees (the ones who can’t really get a better job elsewhere) win, and you as an organization fail.

Kirk is speaking of technologists, but the same thing applies across the organization. But big organizations kill entrepreneurship, actually it’s in their DNA. It’s not news, tall poppies and all that. As I was leaving 16 years of working – mostly happily – in big organizations I spent a lot of time thinking about why this was (and also why I hadn’t noticed it earlier in my career.) The answer to the second question was really because of luck. For 90% of my investment banking career I had the good fortune to be right in the heart of building three new and transformational markets: first the Ecu/Euro market, then the European credit markets and finally the move to ‘electronic’ capital markets. Throughout this part of my career, innovation, entrepreneuralism and independence actually helped me succeed because there was no pre-existing status quo to upset. This only became apparent to me in hindsight.

The answer to the first question is now obvious to me, but it wasn’t always so and really only revealed itself when I left and was able to step back and look at the machine from the outside. The expression ‘well-oiled’ machine says it all. This is the ultimate compliment used to describe a successfully managed organization. So where does non-linear innovation, disruption, questioning fit in a well-oiled machine? It doesn’t. In fact the more ‘well-oiled’ the machine, the less tolerant it is of exceptions. (Which also explains why I operated happily for so long at DrKW!) Switching metaphors, entrepreneurship is seen as a virus in these companies and they produce potent ‘corporate antibodies’ to seek out and subdue any such viral outbreak and they do everything (pace Kirk) to innoculate themselves against them in the first place.

But what is a CEO to do? The ‘well-oiled’ bit is equally important. I am sympathetic to this. (I mean if I was in charge I wouldn’t want too many of me’s running around, that would be chaos.) It’s not an easy question to answer and is made even harder (especially if you are running a public company) by the fact that the visible benefits of the entrepreneurial genes are only realized over time – I’d guess at least 4-5 years at a minimum and sometimes it might take as long as a full business cycle. And yet the average leadership tenure in these organizations is at best at the short end of that, and the compensation and stock market cycles are much shorter. I’ll be frank and say up front, I don’t have an answer but I’ve got a couple ideas I think are worth trying.

The first is to set – from the top – a deliberate human resource policy of seeking to “doping” the organization with a limited and controlled number of people like Kirk. (Doping is the process of adding controlled impurities to a material – for instance a semiconductor, or metallic alloy – to improve it’s useful properties.) This needs to be managed very deliberately, like a program – put a senior HR person in charge of this and manage it: these people will likely have a higher turnover, complain more often, get into trouble, want to change projects and/or departments and so need their own career track. I’m not sure what the correct ratio is, but I would guess it’s on the order of 1-2% of total staff, not necessarily evenly distributed throughout the company. (I knew my Materials Science degree would come in handy one day!)

The second is to create – and then protect institutionally, not personally – a specific department dedicated to exploring ‘white space’. When I say protect institutionally, I mean frame it like a trust so it cannot be undone or hacked by successive waves of management and is insulated from the quarter on quarter, year on year vagaries of the economy and/or the companies results. If you don’t do this, you will inevitably fall victim to the problems Azeem enumerates in his great post on why corporate venture capital (almost always) doesn’t work. Before all the serious, “pragmatic” people out there roll your eyes all at once (if indeed any such types would consider wasting time reading a blog) this doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be a big ask. Again probably on the order of 1-2% (even less for the biggest companies), of resources. The best example in practice I can think of is Xerox PARC, although the irony there is that Xerox didn’t really figure out how to plug PARC’s non-linear thinking and brilliant innovation back into the company (or at least not very well.) But perhaps that is not a bad thing (in proving my point) because I would posit that all other things being equal, Xerox’s share price has been higher (than it otherwise would have been) because they owned this asset. This cheap, deep out-of-the-money call option on the future. As far I as can tell, this is also what BT is trying to do with BT Design led by my friend JP and it is heartening to see that – at least so far – he is being allowed to continue to pursue this vision despite (and hopefully even because of?) the very poor results of the past couple years. I don’t know of any truly analogous initiatives in big finance.

And indeed that is (one of the reasons) we decided to set up Nauiokas Park. Clearly we’re not the whole solution, but we think we can play a key role for big financial institutions: a way to have (some of) their cake and eat it too: by entrusting a relatively small amount of financial capital to us, we think we can create just such a verdant ‘garden of innovation’, allowing them to harvest the fruits of some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs active in their industry, while protecting and nuturing them, away from the noxious antibodies of the corporate organism. Indeed, taking a page out of John Seely Brown, I guess you could describe our mission as seeking to create a vibrant knowledge ecology for finance and markets, and help our stakeholders profit from it:

There’s a fundamental change from finding ways to innovate inside a corporation to leveraging the knowledge ecologies of many little companies in places like Silicon Valley. You find that the shift turns much of the classical R&D into A&D – that is, acquisition and development. Larger companies can buy the research they need and instantly acquire a diverse portfolio of research groups.

I’ll be honest though, it’s not an easy sell. Even for the corporate leaders who ‘get it’ the reflex instinct is to think (sometimes aloud) “makes sense, but we can do that ourselves”. Well, you can’t prove a negative, but we’ve spent a long time inside these same big financial institutions, and our many years of experience led us to conclude that it is bloody hard to do (for all the reasons above and more.) On the bright side, being challenged makes you think harder and forces you to refine and adapt your ideas, ultimately making them better. Hearts and minds. Hearts and minds. Wish us luck.

* Just to be clear, I have nothing against the FT or the WSJ per se, I read them regularly (well WSJ not so much) and think they are solid publications. I’m not suggesting they aren’t important sources of information and opinion – you’d be stupid not to read them if you are in finance – just that, and this is the wonderful thing about the world in 2009 – I think you need to read much more widely and in particular embrace at least a diversity of viewpoints, if not views.

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Smarter finance.

I finally got the chance this weekend to take a closer look at IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative and I was impressed.

We can make our world smarter.
Intelligence can be infused into how we manufacture and sell… move goods, people and money…
The world is ready for a smarter planet.
Find out how to build it together.

If you would rather avoid wading through the inevitable corporate speak on IBM’s website, a good place to find out about what they are doing and how they are thinking is this recent article “IBM’s Grand Plan to Save the Planet” from Fortune:

In the parlance of the information technology industry, these situations all represent “dumb network” problems. The term sounds pejorative, but it simply means that we don’t truly understand commuter traffic or electricity flow or the inner workings of the cacao genome, and as a result our highways, utility grids, and cash crops are not managed as effectively as they could be.

The good news is that we now have the technology to convert these analog distribution systems into multidirectional “smart” networks. Readily available sensor technologies like RFID chips and digital video can track movements in granular detail. Cheap data storage, powerful analytics software, and abundant computing capacity give us the ability to warehouse and make sense of all that information. With the knowledge we’re gaining, we can remake our world in a more efficient way…

…So Palmisano is encouraging his employees to think even bigger, to scout out any dumb network that can be made smarter. Because, as any self-respecting capitalist knows, in great pain lies dormant profit. “We are looking at huge problems that couldn’t be solved before. We can solve congestion and pollution. We can make the grids more efficient,” he says. “And quite honestly, it creates a big business opportunity.”

IBM Smarter MoneyBy now, you probably understand why this resonated with me; there is significant congruence with the themes explored here and that underpin the foundations of out investment thesis at Nauiokas Park. In particular applying the amazingly powerful computing technologies that exist today to make sense of highly complex systems and networks, and of course to analyze and extract meaning from enormous and growing data sets. (Of course it’s also nice that they seem to have been inspired by our logo when designing their icon for ‘Smarter Money’!) On their website, IBM describes the opportunity they see for Smarter Money for a Smarter Planet:

Money, in other words, has been reduced to zeros and ones. It’s intangible, invisible. It’s information. Which is central both to the problem we face and to its solution.

Without question, the replacement of physical money with electronic money — and the spectrum of financial innovations that have accompanied it — have helped the world’s economy grow and prosper. But our technical and management systems haven’t kept pace. They couldn’t provide warning signals of risk concentrations, over-leveraging or underpricing. Banks could repackage risk and sell it, but they couldn’t value an individual loan in order to unwind the debt when needed. However, the same digitisation that has helped create this challenge is starting to provide the means to solve it. Intelligence is being infused into the way the world works, including our financial systems.
We’re all aware of advances like online banking, but the transformation happening underneath is far more profound.

Unprecedented computing power and advanced analytics can turn oceans of ones and zeros into insights, in realtime. Which means we could potentially have a more transparent, predictable and intelligent financial system for a smarter planet.

While it is very exciting to see a giant like IBM get behind such an intelligent and forward thinking strategy, I must admit I was a little disappointed not to find more substance on the Smarter Planet websites. It’s not that I suspect this is just a nice marketing campaign, rather that the communications department needs to work a bit harder to plug in to the projects and ideas IBM is working on in the trenches so to speak to make this vision a reality. And I think they could do more to engage a wider community through their Smarter Planet Blog and/or other social communication tools. Again as it is now it seems a bit sterile and very much a one-way broadcast, as opposed to a two-way dialog. Indeed one of the things I’ve tried to do – both through this blog and with our company – is to help to build a community of people interested in debating and shaping the future of financial services and markets. I think we have had some success, however I have nothing like the reach or resources of a giant like IBM and so it would be fantastic if they were to join the conversation and amplify it far beyond our modest community.

The Fortune article concludes:

Leadership positions, as the company knows all too well, come and go. But with luck, the tone of “Smarter planet” will remain. The message – that technology can be deployed to greater ends than creating the next fetishized cellphone – is bigger than any single company. And so, too, is Palmisano’s epiphany. He deftly led IBM out of the dotcom doldrums. Perhaps more important, he has revealed a model for monetizing scientific research in a way that benefits humanity.

Sure, not everyone can afford $6 billion a year for R&D. But real innovation rarely comes from big, rich companies. With luck, IBM’s ad campaign, coupled with its blowout 2008, will call scientists and entrepreneurs to arms. They’ll see our archaic global shipping infrastructure, a dilapidated educational system, disappearing honeybees, the fraud on Wall Street, and think, I know how to fix that. And I can make a killing doing it.


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Digital Divide.

GigaOm writes today on the growing divide between the leading and lagging companies on the web:

The web is entering a period of intense creativity. Companies like Google and Apple are positioned to ride, if not generate, the momentum driving that creativity. The laggards are at risk of being stuck in perpetual catch-up mode. If that happens, the bluebirds will have flown for good — and the landscape of Internet companies will soon look dramatically different.

And yet this is nothing compared to the ‘creativity gulf’ that is emerging between leaders and laggards in other sectors of the economy, including in banking, insurance and finance generally. Only here, the leaders are still small and just starting to emerge. Further, GigaOm points out that even once this creativity divide is created and continues to grow, the deleterious effects of being on the wrong side of this divide can take many years to really start to bite:

Other Internet names seem mired even further in the past. Yahoo’s interest in a deal with Microsoft for “boatloads of money” is a headline that belongs in 2008. eBay keeps trying to recapture the magic it had five years ago. And MySpace is still trying to renew its lifeline to Google.

None of these laggards will see a quick end. They’ll be able to endure for years serving the people who haven’t taken to Facebook or maybe tried and then abandoned Twitter, people who are comfortable with a simpler, more familiar experience on the web. But it’s an ever-shrinking crowd. A decade ago, AOL chose a complacent path by maintaining its gated online community, shunning the migration of content and services to the web itself. And look where AOL is today.

Substitute ‘financial’ for ‘internet’ in the analysis above and the parallels are obvious. The big difference of course is that the analogs for Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter in finance are not yet obvious and indeed probably don’t yet exist (or are at the very early stages of their development.) However, the environment supporting the emergence of new digital leaders in finance has never been more fertile. This is one of the main reasons I created Nauiokas Park with Amy: in order to discover, support and develop the next generation of leading companies delivering financial services and products from the right side of the digital divide. The next several years promise to be exceptional vintages in our opinion.

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