Disruptive change typically goes through three waves:
Wave 1: Everybody says that this is revolutionary. This is the initial hype wave. The basic ideas are right, but the timing is way off.
Wave 2: Everybody agrees that this is evolutionary. This is when realists point out that change takes a lot longer than the original promoters of change led us to believe and this leads to the Wave 1 ideas being discredited.
Wave 3: Everything changes. Some incumbents fail, some transform and thrive and a new power structure emerges with some new players.
The Internet went through these 3 Waves
Wave 1: This is revolutionary. From about 1994 to the peak of the bubble in late 1999.
Wave 2: This is evolutionary. From mid 2000 to around 2004. After the dot com bubble burst, everything digital was declared dead and the only tech was enterprise tech and that needed to be incremental and very low-risk. Remember Intranets and brochureware websites?
Wave 3: Everything changes. From 2004 to today, when the search and social era of GAFA and BAT emerged. The change envisaged in Wave 1 took longer than forecast, but the eventual impact was far bigger than even the most wild-eyed visionaries had forecast.
The 3 Waves look like this in Fintech:
Wave 1: This is revolutionary. After the Global Financial Crisis in late 2008 to the Lending Club IPO in December 2014 and an acceleration in VC funding in 2015.
Wave 2: This is evolutionary. This is what we saw in 2016, when Bitcoin became totally discredited and the bellwether Fintech stock, Lending Club, blew up. The key belief in this wave is that incumbents control the pace of change. Nobody debates that change is needed and change is good, but entrepreneurs are told to knock politely on the doors of the incumbents and sell technology to them.
Wave 3: Everything changes. From 2017 onwards. This post explains why.
Why Fintech is a big deal and will meet a lot of resistance
Financial Services is a big % of GDP, of employment and of corporate profits. Many big companies, that are not labelled as Financial Services, make a lot of their profit from Financial Services. By some estimates, Financial Services accounts for as much as 40% of corporate profits in the Fortune 500.
This article on Bloomberg does a good job describing how finance came to dominate-the US economy and you could write a similar story about the UK and Switzerland.
Almost all of this can be digitized and is therefore susceptible to disruption.
In short, there is a lot of money at stake.
That also means that a lot of money is spent to persuade people that nothing will change and the status quo will remain. Perception does impact reality (aka mindshare leads to marketshare).
However, this is PR. The reality is that incumbents can no longer dictate the pace of change. They can benefit from change or be hurt by change, but what they cannot do any longer is dictate the pace of change.
Why incumbents can no longer dictate the pace of change
Imagine Blockbuster saying “we will decide when and how streaming video will roll out”. Or Kodak saying that about digital photography or Borders saying that about book retailing. Disruption does not happen like that, particularly if it is Big Bang Disruption.
Straws in the wind indicating change
You can wait until the change is obvious, or you can try to get ahead of the herd. To do the latter, you need to get comfortable with incomplete data that I call “straws in the wind”. It takes guts to see a few straws blowing about and bet that this is caused by an invisible wind, but that is what the best early stage investors do. The signs of change are far from obvious, but “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind”. We see 5 of these straws in the Fintech wind today:
- Wells Fargo fake accounts scandal. This was what happens when organic growth slows because of a secular wave of change and managers pile on the pressure to maintain the illusion of growth.
- Bitcoin price going over $1,000. This could be simply be explained by speculation and money laundering. These are both big factors (and the recent predictable blow off of the speculative froth was highly predictable), but it is also possible that the death of Bitcoin was declared prematurely and that Bitcoin may become mainstream as both a currency and an asset class and that view is supporting the price. Bitcoin is not something banks can control. Banks can add value and provide services related to Bitcoin, but on a level playing field with startups. For a discussion on Bitcoin going mainstream, please go to this thread on the Fintech Genome.
- Funding Circle raising $100m. This indicates that P2P Lending is alive and well. P2P Lending is a disruptive model where banks don’t dictate the pace of change.
- Lending Club stock recovering. Since the ouster of the CEO in May 2016, the stock has recovered from a low of 3.51 to around 5.50 which is an annualized return of over 100% (which makes it one of the best performing stocks of 2016). Of course you can also measure from the peak (bad) or from the pre IPO early stage days (very good). The key point is that the P2P Lending bellwether is alive and well. Disclosure, I was fortunate to buy some shares at 3.51 after writing this post. You can get insights like this in your inbox every day – its free and all we need is your email.
- Defections from the R3CEV blockchain consortium. This indicates that a bank-led consortium may not dictate the pace of change in blockchain deployment. An analogy would a consortium of camera makers doing something with digital photography. Looking at past waves of disruption it is much more likely that a startup harnesses the pace of change that consumers want and that individual banks figure out how to transform themselves for this new reality.
Expect a lot of PR that it is business as usual
During the evolutionary wave, the incumbents see an opportunity to slow things down and control the pace of change. They do this through both acquisitions (buying and closing down a competitor or changing how they operate) and PR.
The PR works, because people have an instinctive reaction to believe that the status quo will remain. Banks have not fundamentally changed for hundreds of years, so it is really hard to imagine a world where Banks are not at the center of Financial Services.
I don’t mean to pick on Goldman Sachs, but I think this is PR and not reflective of reality. Some incumbents will make the transition after Big Bang Disruption and I think Goldman Sachs will be one of them. From personal experience of selling technology to them, I know that they were Fintech before it was called that and that they fully understand the level of disruption that is coming.
Partnerships between Banks and Tech Startups are real and a key feature in how Fintech evolves, but what is different this time is how the world has changed from Traditional Fintech when Banks controlled the pace of change.
Today , both Banks and Tech Startups need a reality check before a real partnership can be negotiated.
Partnerships require a reality check by both parties
When Banks and Fintechs first date, it is a Venus and Mars story. If the relationship continues, it goes through three levels of maturity:
- Level 1: Incomprehension. The other party just looks strange and it is hard to imagine a productive conversation. Whether the emotion is fear or disdain, the reaction is the same – inertia. Banks seek to overcome the incomprehension problem by funding Accelerators and Hackathons.
- Level 2: Funding. Banks take minority equity stakes in Fintech ventures through their Corporate Venture Capital (CVC) unit. This is the level that most relationships have reached. Funding while still in Incomprehension mode is clearly dangerous.
- Level 3: Strategic. This is where the relationship drives needle-moving revenues and profits for both parties. This may or may not include an equity relationship; the strategic relationship comes first.
As Fintech entrepreneurs and Banks seek strategic win/win relationships, they will move beyond Level 2. The Corporate VC wave of funding into late stage Fintech that we saw in 2015 was a classic sign of an overheated market. The real win/win deals will be at Level 3 and equity will not be a primary feature of those deals; they will be straightforward revenue share deals. Big Banks will have to gain the trust of entrepreneurs who might worry that Big Banks want to learn from them and then build in house or buy a struggling competitor. In other words, Big Banks could be competitors or partners. Smaller Banks don’t have an option to be competitors; they are partners that entrepreneurs can feel comfortable with.
A real partnership only happens when both parties have a clear answer to one strategic question:
- The one question that banks need to answer is where in the stack do you want to excel? Do you want to be a platform for consumer-facing businesses? Or do you want own the customer experience? Both are great strategies, but it is a choice – it’s very, very hard to be both.
- The one question startups need to answer is do you want to market direct (B2C) or via channels (B2B2C)? The answer can be “both”, but only if the startup is getting real traction in B2C. Without that, startups are really doing B2B, meaning they are selling technology to Banks (aka Traditional Fintech).
The difference between inevitable and imminent
During wave 2, realists point out the difference between inevitable and imminent. This has killed many startups. They understood what change was coming and how to position for it, but underestimated how long it would take – and that means running out of cash and that is the end for a startup. That is one reason startups are so hard. However, that is no consolation for incumbents. They face a relay race where the runners who give up exhausted can pass the baton (IP & team) to a new runner. Investors lose money on one runner and invest in the next one.
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