When you work in the Twilight Zone, where new technology or new uses for old technology are being contemplated by banks’ decision makers, you find yourself saying the same things over and over again, patiently and calmly, substituting key nouns but never wavering from core themes. The conversation largely entails said decision maker saying something along the lines of:
I don’t like this new thing you speak of, I have no box that shape, make it go away or the regulator will.
This thing I don’t like is still here, the regulator seems to like it, how can I make it as small as possible?
Often, things can’t and won’t stay small, and the transition from “no no no” to large-scale adoption eventually occurs. Those of you who remember talking stakeholders around to accepting that open source will not mark the end of known civilisation, realise that it’s a long and lonely journey and the gear-change happens just after you have given up in your own head. And the triumph feels hollow, because you’re spent, and so much opportunity was missed while arguing irrelevant points. Plus, in the process of arguing – and this is important – you saw the organisational unwillingness to learn in its full majesty, and you cannot un-see that.
The fintech scene is exactly this, but on steroids. Only now, it’s even more perverse. On the one hand, banks have the same reactions, even though the world around them is demonstrating that everything is changing and banking will change because of it, not because of a lone voice in a back-office meeting room. On the other hand, startups demonstrate how quick a company has to get used to its own status quo. Where banking giants resist the idea that the intricate ways in which they have historically made money are now rejected by the more progressive regulator with a sea change on the horizon across the board, startups resist the idea that the era of endless glitzy stages and showcases, little (but adequate) drips of investment and paid-up POCs will ever end. Or that if it does, it will cede its place to a situation as full of admiring audiences and globetrotting, but more money and clients.
Meanwhile, regulation is doing its thing, equally preserving and radically altering. For startups, this is mostly good news. Yet, although VC money is still plentiful, customers are not, and the endless merry-go-round of events yields the same faces in different countries. The strain is beginning to show, but in all the wrong places. There are noises of rightful indignation from this side of the camp: articles on ‘how big corporates need to learn how to partner better’, panels bashing the corporates on their lack of vision or courage, more recently voices raised against PSD2 for not proving to be the fintech Valhalla it had momentarily seemed to be.
Nobody owes you a living
Hold up there guys. Nobody owes you a living – not the banks, nor the startups. So let’s go back to basics (the three Rs I have written about before) because this isn’t two sets of rules to fit companies of different sizes. Some things apply to all, so here they are:
1R. Is it real? This doesn’t mean does your tech work, it means does it meaningfully do anything useful. I know banks paid for smart bond experiments, and tiny real-time data analytics pilots to see how it all worked, but this was never going to last and there’s no excuse for not realising that, no matter how small your startup or how big your Twitter following. The name of the game is proof of value, not proof of concept. So a startup turning up for a corporate meeting painting a picture of a future where the person they’re pitching to loses half their revenues, but hey it could be worse if you don’t partner with us, is missing the mark. As is the banking executive thinking that the N26 partnership with Raisin is nothing spectacular, it’s just a country-agnostic platform right?, missing the point that the tech can work but do nothing for me, or the tech can be non-disruptive in itself and still transform the business.
Tech that’s real and really valuable will transform your business with you or without you, whether you like it or not, no matter how uncomfortable following suit may be to you, given your focus and existing infrastructure.
2R. Is it relevant? Banks historically answer that question in terms of themselves. It’s not relevant to how I make money, or how I measure success. Great. Only nobody cares apart from you. The real question is, is it relevant to your customer? That’s different to asking, is it relevant to what your customer wants right now, but it denotes a state of engaged dialogue so that you can say I know my customer and where their life or business is heading, therefore I can make an educated guess (no guarantees, boys and girls) about whether this new thing that I don’t like will be useful to them. You nod. You know banks are bad at this, so let’s pause; startups seeking to sell to banks are bad at this, because if the bank is your client, and all you do from your glitzy stage is lament the state of the bank and its irrelevance, you get full marks for punditry and close to nil points for customer-centricity.
Nobody said you should sell to banks, but if that’s your audience, bashing them and selling to them don’t go well together. It’s bad business practice to make it all about you, no matter how big you are. It remains bad business, no matter how small you are. And even if the VC arm of the bank itself is enjoying your cheeky, disruptive ways, it’s still teaching you bad business habits for the future. If these are your customers, make it all about them. Stay relevant to them. Take them on a journey. Make them central to your thinking, however big or small you are. Start your good habits early, or before it’s too late.
3R. What is your right to relevance? Because the hardest question is always the last, and as such neither the big boys nor the newcomers get to it (most of the time). If this new thing I don’t like is real, from a value generation perspective, and relevant to my customer base, no matter how uncomfortable for me, that means it will happen. It will come to market. Someone will build it, someone will ask for it so it will be built. Me resisting because it’s uncomfortable won’t change the course of this evolution, though it may delay it. This isn’t mine to make happen or kill, which means it’s not mine to have either. Even if that thing I don’t like is looking to play right in the backyard of my core business and I’m supremely well positioned for it, I’m not axiomatically entitled to success if I choose to pursue it. What is my right to success?
When it comes to future bets, the big boys talk about choice: choice to engage or refrain. What about your right to succeed, should you engage? This is the biggest question of them all, and one nobody is asking. Sure, we talk about competitive landscapes and go-to-market advantages, but I’m talking about something deeper and simpler: What is your right to future relevance?
Do you know how big I am?, I used to be awesome, these are my clients, I have a rich uncle (sorry, I mean investor), I got here first, I have cool friends, I am super popular are the answers we get to substantiate business cases, and even when you substitute the words for numbers and case studies, the narrative remains vapid because the question remains unanswered: As a customer I want to know what about you, your organisation, your tech, your vision, your leadership, your products, your aspirations, makes you worthy of survival, gives you a right to remain relevant in a changing world.
Banks tend to answer that by essentially saying because this can’t happen without me, which is both untrue and irrelevant. Startups tend to get hung up on driving that fact home: this can and will happen without you. Sure thing. I actually agree. But it still doesn’t guarantee it won’t happen without you little upstart. You’re not exempt from having to stake a right to relevance.
In human history, from the evolution or literature genres to the maturation of sociopolitical systems, the law of unintended consequences always has a stronger hand than the best laid plans of men, bankers and 23-year-old CEOs alike. It’s good to think of the bigger picture, but don’t let your market valuation or your success with raising a series A go to your head. The world doesn’t owe you a living, and the world doesn’t owe you a continuation of what happened hitherto. If you have worked out your strengths and what the future holds, prove it by staking your right to relevance. Not in rhetoric, but in sales. The world doesn’t owe you a living, but your customers may choose to grant it anyway. How about focusing on them?
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