You start. You struggle against initial inertia to gain velocity. You succeed. You grow. Your success breeds more success. Momentum is now your friend. But the world changes: technology, markets, society… And your hard won momentum keeps hurtling your (now large and profitable) company down the same trajectory. And momentum is now your enemy. Ah, the joys of…inertia.
Microsoftâ€™s huge profits â€” $6.7 billion for the past quarter â€” come almost entirely from Windows and Office programs first developed decades ago. Like G.M. with its trucks and S.U.V.â€™s, Microsoft canâ€™t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever. Perhaps worst of all, Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.
What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.
Innovation is a new way of doing something or “new stuff that is made useful”
I’ve of course added my two cents to this discussion, with my thoughts on the subject drawing on my personal experiences (and those of friends and colleagues) of having tried (very hard) to sponsor a pro-active approach to disruptive innovation in a very large company. For those of you not familiar with my hypothesis on the question, I’ll save you the trouble of digging through my blog, it boils down to the complex weave of organizational and personal dynamics that unavoidably emerge when you assemble large groups of people in one organization:
Loss aversion dominates: most people (and sub-groups) fear loss much more than they enjoy gain. This is why the status quo is so closely guarded (at any level of resolution, from the individual through to the overall company.)
Dancing with the one that brought you: at any level of seniority, it is likely that the person in charge got to be that person in charge by being particularly skillful or adept at navigating the existing business and/or organizational model. It’s like the America’s Cup: the winner sets the rules (and has no incentive to adopt “new rules” for which they are probably less well adapted.
In fact, Machievelli eloquently summed it up 500 years ago:
It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders of those who would gain by the new ones.
These principles form the core of the corporate immune system which considers any disruptive innovation as a threatening virus. So what is a big company to do? Should they accept the inevitability of decline (hopefully slow, profitable and graceful) or can they postpone or avoid this fate?
In some (most?) cases, I would suggest that they accept decline but this does not mean giving up. On the contrary it means aggresively (and even creatively managing the exisiting assets to create as much value as possible as the business model and or product ‘runs off’. This indeed was my prescription for Microsoft when I wrote two years ago that they should break-up the company and re-jig the capital structure, running the Windows/Office businesses for cash (with a debt financed balance sheet) and let a thousand new baby Microsofts bloom. A conventional view would see this as a failure of management and/or ambition. Obviously I think this attitude is ass backward: running the core products for cash while releasing enormous amounts of human and financial capital, which in turn could be used to create hundreds of new companies could – using any metric you like – only be considered a triumphant success. But convention, inertia and ego means that this path to success is rarely if ever taken by the leaders of market giants. Just in the last couple weeks the idea that Google might becoming the ‘next Microsoft’ has gained currency (at least in the valley.) I asked this same question (in May 2008:)
I know it has been asked a million times before but is Google the next Microsoft? (At least from a financial point of viewâ€¦) At the start of 1996, MSFT traded at c. $6/share. Four years later they peaked at almost $60/share. GOOG IPOâ€™ed at c. $85/share in 2004, and just over three years later peaked at over $700/share. Both moves of approximately 10x. Since 2000, MSFT has been more or less range bound at around $30/share, despite continuing to grow itâ€™s top and bottom lines and produce prodigious amounts of cash. Iâ€™m not suggesting history will repeat itself exactly â€“ perhaps we have not yet seen the peak in GOOGâ€™s share price (sell at $850?), and Iâ€™m certain they will continue to grow their top and bottom lines and produce prodigious amounts of cast in the next 5-10 years. Butâ€¦will the stock eventually settle at around $500 â€“ 600/shareâ€¦? Is it conceivable that Google, like Microsoft before it, will become the place where good companies are bought only to disappear?
However, like with human life, I think there are probably a number of recipes to extend the natural corporate life (and the quality of those extra years) and to leave a more valuable legacy when and if the company ultimately disappears. Starting with investing some of their excess capital in the innovation ecosystem that surrounds them. As I have found however, this idea is anathema to most large companies. And with some reason. The history of ‘corporate venturing’ is indeed (as Azeem Ahzar eloquently writes) riddled with failure. My view is that this is because it is exceeding hard to do this in house: the corporate antibodies as described above will almost always do their job and sabotage any in-house venture program. And yet just investing as an LP in an outside venture fund – even if one that happens to focus on markets relevant to the company – is an understandably unsatisfactory and probably equally ineffective alternative.
But we think there is a third way: a focused, strategic innovation program run independently from, but in close collaboration with the company. Maybe we can help your company. You know where to find us: where innovation grows. 😉
Anyone who has ever used an Apple product understands that a key part of the value flows from the design aesthetic that covets simplicity, intuition and beauty; harnessing these attributes to provide solutions and services that users find a joy to use right out of the box. The complexity of their products is hidden from view, Steve Jobs having understood that the extra effort needed to transform complexity into simplicity was something that created tremendous value both for his customers and his shareholders.
Creating simplicity is hard. Much harder than creating complexity. Entropy and all that. But it is very often worth the effort. Helpfully, John Maeda wrote a great guidebook “The Laws of Simplicity” where he articulates 10 basic laws:
Reduce: The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
Organize: Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
Time: Savings in time feel like simplicity.
Learn: Knowledge makes everything simpler.
Differences: Simplicity and complexity need each other.
Context: What lies in the periphery of simplicity is deï¬nitely not peripheral.
Emotions: More emotions are better than less.
Trust: In simplicity we trust.
Failure: Some things can never be made simple.
The One: Simplicity is about substracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful
Finance and financial markets are often complex. This complexity can arise within products (exotic derivatives), infrastructure (clearing, settlements and payment platforms) or regulation. And most financial services firms (and professionals) revel in this complexity. Not only do they not seek to hide it away, but they often compete vigorously to show it off in all its glory (and of course by association they seek to validate their virility and cleverness by navigating all this complexity on behalf of their hapless customers.) Of course – sticking with the computing metaphor – this ‘look how clever I am’ approach is very Microsoft-ian (and no, that isn’t a compliment) and very rarely does it provide the most utility or best value for the customer. So one of our key investment themes is to find and nurture companies who are to finance as Apple is to computing (and media!) The complexity of modern finance and markets is the ideal substrate for simple products and services, to quote John:
Simplicity and complexity need each other. The more complexity there is in the market, the more that something simpler stands out. And because technology will only continue to grow in complexity, there is a clear economic beneï¬t to adopting a strategy of simplicity that will help set your product apart. That said, establishing a feeling of simplicity in design requires making complexity consciously available in some explicit form. This relationship can be manifest in either the same object or experience, or in contrast with other offerings in the same categoryâ€”like the simplicity of the iPod in comparison to its more complex competitors in the MP3 player market.
One of our portfolio companies does exactly this. They take a simple service, using technology and their market knowledge to engineer a solution that keeps the complexity away from the customer and behind the scenes. (Where it should be.) A solution that embraces simplicity and transparency in a market heretofor characterized by complexity and obfuscation. It’s not a new music site or social network. It’s probably not something anyone would get too excited about. It’s boring. But it’s big. Billions big. And important. And for many individuals and corporates, unavoidable.
The service is foreign exchange (aka FX) and international payments. And the company, as you might now have guessed, is FX Capital Group. (See also my FX 2.0 post from this spring.) And the reason I am writing about them today is that they have just launched their new website and online trading platform and it is by far the best FX user experience I have seen. Simple. Transparent. Complete. Easy-to-use. From the initial client take-on, all the way through to the onward payment to the account of your choosing, every last detail of the process has been engineered to make the customer’s life simple. The “iTunes of foreign exchange”. After all selling one currency to buy another should not be that hard.
And now, it isn’t.
FX Capital Group’s vision is to combine technology and traditional phone base services with competitive and transparent pricing to deliver on the promise of simple, cost effective, and customer friendly foreign exchange and international payments services for clients.
Leveraging experienced individuals, the best technology and a deep understanding of both international foreign exchange and payments markets, FX Capital Group brings transparency, simplicity and automation to meet the foreign exchange needs of clients in a robust, easy and effective manner.
Buy, Sell and Hedge Currencies: A full range of phone based and online services to buy/sell currencies and hedge currency risk. Competitive, consistent and transparent pricing for all customers.
Manage Currency Risks: Guidance on strategies to hedge currency risk within your business. A great service for firms who contract in multiple currencies or import / export goods and services.
Sell on Your Website in Multiple Currencies: Expand your online customer base by selling to customers in multiple currencies using our real-time FX API’s at rates that are better than those “bundled” with merchant service providers.
Invoice in Multiple Currencies: Invoice your international clients in local currency. Embedded hedging of any currency movements and no need to maintain bank accounts in multiple currencies.
Make International Payments: Our international payments service (online and phone) will save you money over you bank for making international payments and may be free if you transact your FX with us.
And other brokers and financial intermediaries are also welcome to partner with FX Capital Group, either via API or white label agreements. Indeed, first and foremost this is very much a platform company, FXaaS really. The customer facing website is in fact just an implementation of the underlying platform, and shortly the company will be launching the second implementation – RabbitFX – which will be tailored specifically to private and retail clients. Going forward we hope that many other partners choose to build innovative and customized services on top of the core FXCG platform. We also are excited by the ability for partners to integrate FX into their products and workflows simply and powerfully. Imagine for example an ERP provider, or online accounting services, or an ad network, etc. etc. …the list of potential partners is almost endless.
One area that is particularly close to my heart is the ability to allow even the smallest start-up to offer their customers payment in any currency – easily, cost effectively and transparently. Or helping start-ups with geographically dispersed operations pay employees, contractors and suppliers in any currency without having their eyes ripped out by their bank or payments provider. I’m sure most of the seedcamp finalists from the last few years have foreign exchange payments to make from time to time, many on a regular basis. In the spirit of helping to get the ball rolling on this front, I’ve convinced them to sweeten the bargain for all the companies that have applied to seedcamp (or mini-seedcamp) over the past three years.
If you have been a seedcamp applicant, finalist or winner, if you open a corporate account and do a trade before December 25th, FX Capital Group will send you a Â£25 iTunes or Amazon gift card and also contribute Â£25 to the charity of your choosing. Just let them know when you register for which seedcamp event you applied or attended. They’ll do the rest. And then sit back and save time, money and energy and never worry about managing FX payments again.
Like all good start-ups a big part of the excitement and frustration is knowing what is ‘in the pipeline’ and wanting it all to be released to users ‘yesterday’. However we also know that the best ideas and certainly the best prioritization algorithms emerge from getting a product into the wild and so after 9 months of development and private alpha, I can’t wait to hear ways in which customers and developers will want to use the platform. So for all you early adopters out there, know that the platform is probably not perfect (although we’ve stress-tested it up to 250,000 trades a day without any problems, which gives us a bit of headroom to grow into! lol) but (we think) it’s damn good and would rather challenge you to help us make it even better than pretend we’ve got it all figured out.
In case you were wondering, the team is indeed working on putting a screencast/video demo of the trading platform online and but in the mean time they are more to happy to walk you through a short online demo if you are interested. Alternatively you can go yourself to https://demo.fxcapitalgroup.co.uk/ and use the following credentials:
pet’s name: splashy
favorite animal: whale
favorite city: atlantis
Have a go and be sure to let the team know what you think. Best channel is probably twitter where you can find them at @FXCapitalGroup or on Facebook.
Finally it’s important to make clear that I’m not just writing this post as an investor, commentator or director but first and foremost as a customer. My entire adult life I have had to deal with managing FX risk and struggle with the pain and cost of doing international transfers. When the founder Nigel Verdon came to me with his vision, I thought ‘Hallelujah!’ – at last. It may not be the sexiest business in the world but there is real pain and real profits to be made in using technology to disrupt the old way of doing business and give customers a better deal. And so I did a ‘Victor Kiam’. So next time you have to make a foreign payment, whether its for yourself or your company, give FXCG/RabbitFX a chance, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
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 â€” 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. Yahooâ€™s interest in a deal with Microsoft for â€œboatloads of moneyâ€ 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. Theyâ€™ll be able to endure for years serving the people who havenâ€™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 itâ€™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.
If I had a billion dollars. (If I had a billion dollars.)
Well I would buy you a Skype. (I would buy you a Skype.)
I would buy a Twitter for your Skype (so you could tweet and chat and call all your friends.)
The news has left many in the industry wondering if eBay will put Skype, which it paid a hefty $2.6 billion to buy in 2005, on the auction block. Donahoe had said last year that eBay would consider selling the business unit if it couldn’t be integrated with its auction or PayPal payment system.
And according to statements made during the conference call, it looks like Donahoe doesn’t think there is much the Skype technology can do to help eBay’s other businesses. When asked what eBay was doing to add shareholder value to Skype, Donahoe admitted that “the synergies between Skype and the other parts of our portfolio are minimal,” the paper said.
Well if it were up to me, I’d sell eBay – maybe Ken Lewis at BoA might be interested, would look innovative and might distract the federales from the Afghanistan that is the Merrill acquisition – and keep Skype. eBay could have been the Betfair of consumer goods, instead it became the Microsoft of marketplaces…
Anyhow, I’d buy Skype. Maybe not for $2 billion, but I think it is potentially a very valuable asset and I’m convinced that it is not even scratching the surface of its potential. The problem is that they seem to be trapped in linear thinking with respect to their business model. Selling minutes and add-value telco services. A telco. An alternative and innovative telco. But a telco. Nothing wrong (well you know what I mean…) with telcos but if you want to buy a telco, buy BT – its a lot cheaper. And its not just management (that can’t think out of the box) – it’s the press, analysts etc:
So an acquirer would likely be buying Skype for its 370 million registered users, which is nothing to sneeze at. But the big question is how much money can be made from these users? Sure, people love using Skype’s free services, but most of its revenue is made from a small portion of its users. Skype generates most of its revenue from its SkypeOut service, which charges users to make calls from the Skype service to regular landline phones and cell phones.
The SkypeOut revenue stream is sufficient to sustain Skype’s business model today, but as IP networks are deployed throughout the world and all communications becomes IP-enabled, there will be fewer opportunities to make money from connecting Skype calls to the regular phone network. What’s more, as Skype adds more subscribers, those users are more likely to talk to one another over the free Skype-to-Skype network rather than paying to call these friends and family on regular phones. Of course, it will likely take years for this scenario to play out, but this fact could color a potential acquirer’s willingness to pay a premium for the service.
“As more people adopt Skype, there’s potential for the asset to peak in value,” Friedland said. “It won’t likely happen for another five to eight years. And unless Skype comes up with a new meaningful revenue driver, it could start to decline.”
370 million registered users. Three hundred and freakin’ seventy million. And growing. Fast. And more people joining is a bad thing?!?
Let’s just pause here for a moment. So Mr. Friedland, if Skype ended up having say one or two billion – BILLION – registered users and so like became the de facto communications substrate for the vast majority of the connected citizens of the planet, that would be…ummmm…bad?
There are a hundred and one ways to bootstrap amazing, profitable, cash generative businesses off of Skype’s brilliant platform and installed base, and they are all in my new book: Managing Skype for Dummies. Actually, I didn’t write it. And it’s usual title is the Cluetrain Manifesto but still…
1. Markets are conversations.
I don’t know what Meg was thinking (those of you who listened to the eBay analyst webcast and pored over the accompanying presentation the day eBay announced it was buying Skype will surely remember that at the end of both you were even more confused than at the beginning…) But even if it was by accident, she was on to something (admittedly she did get a bit punchy with the pricing, although if she had paid in paper instead of cash…) It’s just that that something wasn’t being able to call EvilRabbit467 and haggle over the price of an iPod nano to ‘close the deal’…
Seriously if I was the captain of some vast private investment capital pool, I would be sitting around with my partners and a handful of clever young associates and putting together a plan for Skype. But if I were Donahoe, I’d spin Skype out to my shareholders as a separate listing, this would create value and possibly more importantly, especially in these interesting times, give Skype an explicit valuation and an acquisition currency. Then it gets interesting.
There is strong demand for technologies that do the same for less money, rather than more for the same price.
The focus of the article is on computing and software – obvious and direct beneficiaries of Moore’s Law:
The â€œgood enoughâ€ approach also works with software. Supplying â€œsoftware as a serviceâ€, via the web, as done by Salesforce.com, NetSuite and Google, among others, usually means sacrificing the bells and whistles that are offered by conventional software. Google Docs lacks the fancy features of Microsoft Word, for example. But hardly anyone uses all those features anyway, and Google Docs is free. Once again, many users are happy to eschew higher performance in order to save money.
But this is one of the key foundation pillars we look for in the business models of companies we look at in the financial services space as well; ie can you give the same (or better) service at a paradigm-shifting price point. A (successful) mainstream example of this would be ING Direct. However – even in a recession – price is rarely the only, sometimes not even the main driver in a purchase decision. This is especially true when it comes to (many) financial services; often the key driver is trust. And “trust” provided a significant barrier to entry, protecting incumbents irrespective of how anachronistic their business model may have been. How ironic then that it would seem that most large financial institutions played loose and fast with what ultimately was their one true differentiating asset, and largely trashed the trust they had built up (often over decades or even centuries) potentially opening the door for much better adapted new competitors to compete in their markets for their customers.