Recent conversations have led me to think that some of the zeitgeist of fintech is changing.
I think the focus on the hype and funding levels is shifting as both startups and mid-stage firms are pivoting from aspirational, even naive plans, to more strategic conversations.
For me, the decision of FutureAdvisor and its investors to fold its cards is but one data point. It’s arguably been both a case of capitulation on both sides, recognizing the challenges to achieve scale, and the difficulty of innovation at incumbents.
More than ever, it’s a card game, and playing your cards right can mean holding them close to your vest. The CEO of Honest Dollar, for example, spoke candidly on the gap between what people think they’re building versus what they’re actually building.
There’s smart and right out of Steve Jobs playbook. There’s a time and place for putting it all on the table – and it’s best not to do so too early.
I wasn’t able to attend the recent Finovate event in New York due to a last-minute conflict, but was able to see themes from afar and through conversations with those in New York.
Mobile continues to be the key driver of the conversation. As Karen Webster, one of the most compelling voices on payments today, says: “More than any other, mobile is the ecosystem that has given rise to the sea change taking place in payments today.”
As she wrote on the @PYMNTS blog: “You can’t talk FinTech without talking payments, and you can’t talk payments without talking FinTech. They’re an inseparable marriage.”
I thought it was interesting that we both had seen Sprint Money’s partnership with Urban FT was one piece of news from the event.
As mobile gurus like Benedict Evans point out, although we in the US don’t often grok it, outside the US, telco companies operate more like banks or have a closer relationship with them.
In developing markets, phones can serve as the de facto means of payment. It will be interesting to see if the model will come to the US.
I think it will be a challenge given the Sprint brand and other options in the US, but demographic changes and aversion to banks might make it work in certain segments.
Outside the marketplace lending space, other big news was the huge growth in payments processed by PayPal‘s Braintree unit. Just two years after its acquisition by PayPay this week it announced its authorized payment volume will be $50B this year.
Impressive, but with that growth factored in, the stock is still trading broadly flat to down from its IPO in July. The open question is whether the Dan Schulman can get PayPal to a place where it can compete with Stripe.
It’s interesting that Dan’s professional career includes little time in financial services (with time at AT&T, Sprint and Virgin Mobile vastly exceeding his time at American Express). I wonder what Dan thinks of Sprint Money? I suspect his attention is elsewhere.
Only about 1.6% of retail purchases are made online, though a majority research prices online or with our phones before making a purchase decision. That behavior may be changing….
Recently Stripe announced Stripe Relay, which reduces friction for in-app purchases. It’s big news, and could usher in more online and in-app purchases over time.
The New Zeitgeist
Today’s zeitgeist is shifting from how big the opportunities are to being smart and strategic. (For that reason, there was a wariness about many startups at Finovate this week.)
Honest Dollar’s whurley going beyond what many think are its modest plans is one example. Being ambitious and holding your cards close is the mark of a company you want to work for – and a startup that the best venture firms want to back.
I like the story he tells of an employee at Honest Dollar being asked what he’d done to achieve a big win for the startup, replying: “My job,” and walking away.
So here’s my advice to startups: don’t get caught up in the hype; focus on the job; and don’t show your hand too early.
It’s a smart strategy that will work better than raising too much, too soon and tilting at windmills. Remember, it’s business – you’ll need to think a few moves ahead.