A bank’s payment strategy in 3 words: Convenience, Convenience, Convenience

The Bankwatch had an interesting post titled Payments – the impossible dream for Banks? this week outlining the importance of payments for banks and the challenges they face in bringing about innovative and user-friendly payment solutions. Colin’s line of thought is that:

  1. Banking has moved to self service
  2. Self-service allows two types of financial activity … view balances, or move money.
  3. Moving money is payments.
  4. Payments, as currently offered by banks, are mostly hell and they cry out for innovation
  5. Payments innovation is not about technology or standards (SEPA), but about customer experience

I cannot but connect this “hell” experience with one of the most interesting questions raised during the Mobile Web Wars conference last week:

Why  people are willing to pay for apps on the iPhone, but not on Facebook?
Why people are willing to pay $3 for ringtones, but not $1 for music files?

A participant was arguing that the reason was the “mobile effect” i.e. the fact the mobile is a relatively new communications channel that is so personal that people value it more than the PC channel. But at the same time, Bart Decrem, CEO of Tapulous, a social app company for the iPhone, was saying in the background: “Ease-of-use, Ease-of-use, Ease-of-use”, in other words: convenience drives customer value and their willingness to pay.

Something pretty obvious some would say, but this idea was made to me much clearer in the last few days while trying out two new services: expensure.com, a London-based bill sharing online application, and TipJoy, an online tipping (“micropayment”) service. Both services address different user problems, but they both address it very well with an extreme focus on convenience.

TipJoy for instance, does not require what you would normally call “payees” to register: you can simply donate to any URL on the Web you want. As Web site owners register and add the TipJoy button on their Web site, they essentially claim by the same token URLs and collect tips. From the payer / tipper perspective, a single click on the TipJob button is required, nothing more: the button is already configured by the payee with a pre-defined amount (in the order of 5 to 50 cents). This is convenience at its best.

Expensure solves the problem traditionally solved by complex spreadsheet. I used it to share bills between an upcoming WE trip with my friends and I was extremely satisfied with the application. It’s all in the details. For instance, I was able to set a ledger and experiment adding expenses to it without having to invite my friends to the service, something that would have refrained me from starting to use it, b/c my friends are too busy to receive unwanted invites from applications I found not worth using after a trial. In this case, I did, and ultimately send the invite to 5 friends.

Both applications touch on the problem of payments, but with an extreme focus on a relatively highly context-specific problem and a very well designed solution to the problem. Yes, I could have used my bank’s transfer service, or checks, plus a shared Google Spreadsheet, as I did in the past, but I will certainly not do so now that my social network is almost set up with Expensure. Same thing with TipJoy: while I could have used a PayPal button on my blog, I can see the value of simply providing a pre-defined amount to users willing to tip me, and will most likely go with them in the end if I ever want to be tipped for writing these articles (I’m not really and I’m doing this on the side of my day job).

What was the most interesting to me, what the following FAQ excerpt from Expensure:

Can I pay somebody back using Expensure? Soon. Right now we are focusing on making Expensure the best shared expense tracking app out there.

and from TipJoy:

Why can’t I withdraw cash from my Tipjoy account? There are legal implications to allowing this transaction which we are currently working through. We expect that you will be able to withdraw cash very soon. In the meantime, if you have a minimum of $5 in your account after removal of applicable fees, then you can do the following with your earnings: 1. Donate to any official charity you’d like 2. Purchase an Amazon gift

Both of these companies are clearly focused on providing the best customer experience first, then only will they figure a way to monetize it. They probably have listened very well to this presentation from Paul Graham on how being benevolent and focusing on solving problems is more important than thinking about making money when starting a business.

The only thing that these companies are missing is that they are not a bank or Credit Union, but as good entrepreneurs, starting a new CU or bank is probably not an option they will choose. Just like PayPal partnered with Wells Fargo, I would not be surprised to see an innovative bank or CU partnering with them to handle the back-end aspect of their solution, in particular legal compliance in each legal framework/geography they do business in.

So, when real-estate agents are asked about RE investments strategy, it’s: “Location, Location, Location”. When asked about early-stage investments, VCs talk about “People, People, People”. Perhaps, when banks are asked about their payment strategy, or their general banking strategy for that matter, bank should say: “Convenience, Convenience, Convenience”.

Fostering innovations through prizes

I’m not a big fan of Senator McCain but I do think that his proposal announced today for “a $300 million government prize to whoever can develop an automobile battery that far surpasses existing technology” is an excellent tool to foster energy innovation.

The winner-takes-all big prize strategy has proven successful in the past (DARPA Grand Challenge, X Prizes). And $300 million ($1 per American citizen) is much more motivating than the $10M Progressive Automotive X Prize.

I haven’t read the details of his proposal, but I hope that the technology that wins this prize will end up being open sourced for anyone to use. I don’t know how unrealistic these open sourcing terms would be though.

Business method patents: good or bad for the U.S. financial services?

PaymentNews pointed to a research paper title “Business Method Patents and U.S. Financial Services” authored by Robert M. Hunt of the Philadelphia Fed.

As any researcher in knowledge economics would know, maximizing the value of knowledge for society is a difficult problem:  on one hand, you need to provide the proper incentives for innovators to invent (typically a patent system that provides a time-limited monopole), and on the other hand you want this knowledge to be used as fast as possible by as many people. Finding the right balance is not easy. This is a subject I’m really interested in, and business method patentability is a very interesting on its own, so I went through the paper. Here are my notes.

Here is the most important part IMO from the conclusion:

There is at present very little evidence to argue that business method patents have had a significant effect on the R&D investments of financial institutions. It is possible that the availability of business method patents has encouraged more entry and R&D by start-up firms or more efficient trading of technologies. At present, however, these represent intriguing possibilities and not outcomes that have actually been measured. In short, we still cannot determine whether financial patents are creating value for the U.S. economy.
The combination of significant technological overlap among firms, elastic patent boundaries, inadequate enforcement of disclosure requirements, and weak patentability standards raises at least the theoretical possibility of perverse outcomes (Hunt 2006). In such environments, firms may obtain more patents but perform less R&D, since the fruits of such efforts would be subject to an innovation tax imposed by rival firms.

My thoughts:
I think this area of patents is still evolving and regulators are still learning how to best optimize the value of the U.S. economy of patent issuance. There is a risk that startups be issued business method patents that other FIs license only to see themselves fought to death by large FIs in court. I don’t think it will be a big problem for niche markets, but it would be interesting to see what a court would decide if consulted on the non-obviousness of a business method patent issued to a small firm and which possibly has a huge impact/potential to many large FI players.

More excerpts:

A decade after the State Street decision, more than 1,000 business method patents are granted each year. Yet only one in ten are obtained by a financial institution. Most business method patents are also software patents.

That’s 10 business methods per year coming from a FI. Wow! The remainder of the article is basically trying to explain why these numbers are so low. Probably most of banking related business method patents come from startups (ex. SmartyPig has a patent on their business method).

Financial exchanges and the central bank are more research intensive than credit intermediaries (banks and thrifts).

I don’t think that will come as a surprise to anyone. I wrote earlier about the innovation problem at banks (I should have precised credit intermediaries as I’m well-aware that innovation is thriving in the investment side of banks).

Number of financial industries rely heavily on standard setting arrangements esp. payments networks and financial exchanges.

The article seems to imply here, if my understanding is correct, that business method innovation requires multiple parties to implement it, which means it’s hard for any one party to patent it at the same time that it seeks others to use (license if it’s a patent). That’s as if you had to pay to use a standard…

Lerner (2006) finds that business method patents are litigated at a rate 27 times
higher than for patents as a whole.

The reason for this is that the legal aspects of business methods patentability is still evolving. This might be another reason why business patents are few. It’s easier to keep them as good old trade secrets when possible, than try to patent them only to have to pay an army of lawyers to litigate them.

The article also talks about the legitimacy of licensing a patent and fighting in court in validity at the same time.

The problem with banking innovation and how to fix it.

Allen Weinberg has a great report on the first day at Payments 2008 that confirms some of the thoughts I’ve had in the past few weeks: that non-banks are becoming the primary source of banking innovation, threatening to relegate banks to mere accountants.

Allen cites the difficulty for banks to hire innovative employees because their lack of coolness, and I partly agree, but I think that is a bit too imprecise. It’s a bit like saying “We failed b/c we are were not lucky”. I think smart innovative employees go to companies that have an innovative management environment and culture, and there are very practical ways to create such an environment and culture, if the top management wants to.

To me such a culture starts by embracing the facts that:

  • Committee planning does not work for innovation because most innovations fail and slight differences between similar projects can be huge key factors of success, and as a result it is impossible to predict from which team innovation will come from.
  • People with innovative ideas (ex. new online service, new investment theory) as well as execution capabilities (ex. coding, sales skills) are a company’s greatest human asset and should be given opportunities before they leave and join a company that does.

Such an innovation culture consists then in implementing a management policy where such people can submit their plans, get a green light to allocate part of their time (whatever their direct manager says) and get a bootstrap budget as necessary. Then, just like a good option portfolio manager, define progress/success metrics, and allocate more resources to those with the most traction. And finally, reward success. All of this is something Google seems to be doing very well.

Banks are now at a most critical time and their ability to innovate in sustainable business models will be key to their survival. Nouriel Roubini noted this morning that banks’ unsustainable “originate & distribute” business model of the last few years is crumbling with the broken “securitization food chain”.

Banks are social intermediaries, and as a result, social services that focus on social lending or social saving pose a major threat to them, but could also turn out to be a major opportunity if they manage to re-intermediate these relationships and combine it with their unique competitive advantage: creating money from thin air.

Think for instance about the idea of a “college car” savings account solely dedicated to buying a car and that grand-parents could contribute too knowing where the money would end. Think of the negotiating power the bank could have by aggregating all the buying power behind these savings account and exchanging secured rebate from car manufacturers with secured future sales. This is what SmartyPig does, but environment/culture aside, it seems to me much easier to do it from the inside of a bank than from the outside. John Gaskell, SmartyPig co-founder was quick to comment that they have a patent pending on this process, so banks may actually not have this option.

Think also how a bank could leverage the fact that 50% of your student loan on a peer-to-peer lending site comes from your mum and dad, and grand-parents, and how little risk it would be for a bank to lend the remaining 50%, especially if the bank gets preferred re-payment rights.

Banks have some of this social data, in a way that is most likely much more authentic than a Facebook (think about all the documents you need to provide to open a checking or brokerage account compare to what you need to provide to open a Facebook account). It is just a matter for them to put in place the right environment and culture in place to attract people.

If they cannot change their culture, their next best bet might be to do what Apple or Facebook do: expose some of this information via easy-to-use APIs in a way that is more secure than their startup competitors. Then, allocate a VC fund to fund startups using this API (which is equivalent to buy an option to invest more/buy out the most promising ventures later).