Spellchecker tells me that wirearchy is not a real word, but the phenomenon of individuals being empowered by networks and platforms is surely a real one.
Peter Drucker, the greatest management thinker of all time, pointed out that the “firm” is a relatively recent innovation, designed to do the things that individuals cannot easily do on their own. Ronald Coase in his great 1937 work, The Nature of the Firm, created a theoretical model to describe why firms exist, based on the difference between internal and external transaction costs. If the transaction cost was lower internally, then it made sense to organize that work internally. If the transaction cost was lower externally, then it made sense to organize that work externally.
Coase’s Theorem underlies countless management books on reengineering, outsourcing, core competency, spinoffs, spinouts and so on. For decades, Coase’s Theorem was purely theoretical. Now the Internet reduces external transaction costs and people can ask the very practical question – why do big Banks exist?
After September 2008, many bankers made the switch because they had to. We called them Lehman refugees or Bear Stearns refugees. Out of that implosion emerged the Fintech startups that are now getting their prime time slot.
Today it is a different type of talent exodus that is voluntary rather than forced:
- Senior Bankers moving to Silicon Valley VC or big acquirers such as Google. These are the high profile stories of brand name executives.
- Proprietary traders going to quant shops and HFT firms. This is partly driven by Dodd Frank regulations and partly just the fact that digital networks and platforms make it so much easier to set up shop on your own.
- Middle Management Bankers moving to niche management consulting firms or startups. This has not had so much media attention (they are not brand name newsworthy executives) and I can only attest to it anecdotally. It has certainly happened before. The simple reality is that it often a win/win for a highly experienced executive to sell back what they used to do internally as external consulting services. The new option is to be a mentor to startups and in some cases join startups to bring the experience to the “devil in the details” stage of execution when you really need to know how the financial services industry really operates. Investors in Fintech like to see these veterans along side the millennial disrupters.
When you speak to those who have left banks to strike out on their own or join startups or small niche firms, these are the stories that resonate:
- Positive surprise that one has so many productive hours in the day once you strip out all the bureaucratic work of big companies. Coase could give you a mathematical formula for this.
- Pleasure at leaving the politics behind, but then the realization of how fiercely meritocratic the world of tech startups really is. Having to answer the question – “what have you made happen today?” – is hard.
- Amazement at how much one can do via free or dirt cheap tech platforms that used to cost fortunes in the Bank.
- Frustration that their ex colleagues cannot move at the pace of change that they all see is necessary.
- Pleasant surprise of finding that networks of independent consultants will happily collaborate and share to get stuff done, because this is so different from how it works in large companies.
We are witnessing a fundamental shift in the nature of work that thinkers like Drucker and Coase told us to expect. The disruption that Fintech brings to Banks is a manifestation of this mega trend. When you look at something as simple as the cost to process a loan at Lending Club vs at a Bank, you can see this trend continuing.