Blockchain isn’t the solution to old problems

I like the story of CLS (Continuous Linked Settlement), one of the most boring and important institutions in global finance. CLS is the world leader in FX settlement. It was launched in 2002, and just like with many other important things in the world, very few people have heard about it. That’s what I like about it. Also, the story of CLS is the perfect argument for one of my favorite quotes: “the older the problem, the older the solution”.

Now let’s talk about blockchain. When you give a little kid a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Blockchain is still a hammer looking for nails. Over 2016 it has been hailed as the future of insurance, identity, exchange and property tracking– mostly by people without skin in the game (media, banks, governments and consultants). Meanwhile, founders & VC’s with skin in the game, who tackle big problems in finance, are usually not talking about blockchain and not using it. Here are some of them: m-Pesa, LTSELemonade, YueBao, LendingClub, Wealthfront. Isn’t it strange?

Technology serves us best when it solves a real problem. The financial system has huge problems: financial inclusion, friction in payments, low access to asset management, system risk from off-balance sheet derivatives… we can go on and on. Is blockchain, a database that someone invented in 2008, the solution to these problems that have existed for dozens/hundreds of years?

Let’s take an example. Can you use a blockchain to simplify and improve the settlement process in the FX market, as some articles suggest? Yes, you can. Blockchain is a database, and you can build anything with it. But would you?

In order to settle FX (example: EURUSD) on a public blockchain, the following needs to happen:

  1. Someone needs to invent a new multi-asset blockchain with EUR and USD ledgers
  2. The new blockchain needs to be perfectly interoperable with the existing financial system, which (as of today) stores nearly 100% of the USD and EUR in the world
  3. Financial institutions need to understand this blockchain and agree to store real EUR/USD value on it, because it solves a problem for them
  4. Financial institutions need to discuss the use of such blockchain with regulators and perhaps get their approval
  5. Existing trading venues or post-trade services may need to integrate with this blockchain (or disappear?)
  6. Financial institutions need to join the blockchain in large numbers and put large amounts of money on it
  7. Public blockchains need to pass the test of time

This list is amateur work by me. For blockchain to transform any area in finance, other big things need to happen. Arguably, I think we’re looking at 5-10 years.

Now back at CLS. Luckily, it was devised and launched before blockchain existed, to solve old problems in FX settlement. Here are some facts on CLS:

  • It was started as a private initiative by a group of banks in 2002 (pre blockchainian era). It has 74 shareholders as of today
  • It’s headquartered in NY, with main operations in London
  • It’s designed to solve a real world problem, i.e. settlement risk in the FX market. It does it by being a central, trusted clearing house, and employing special settlement rules. In theory, it also aims to solve a liquidity problem
  • It’s considered a market standard in FX settlements, being the largest of 8 global multi-currency settlement venues. In 2014, it settled 2.3 trillion USD per day. The single-day record as of today is over 10 trillion USD
  • It currently settles 18 currencies, 64 members and over 9000 third party participants who operate under the members
  • It played a central role in reducing risk during the 2008 financial crisis
  • It’s one of 8 bodies that the FSOC (US regulatory body) labeled a “Systemically Important Financial Market Utility

CLS is an impressive pillar of the financial system. A useful, beautiful and boring invention. What can we take away from its creation in 2002? That there are big problems in the financial system, and they can be solved by brainpower & cooperation– now.

blockchain
Based on a true story

Blockchain isn’t the (only) solution to old problems, and most problems are old. They arise from old technologies, processes, business models and power games. Companies that are changing finance big time know it, and they know blockchain isn’t the solution. They’re solving the root problems.

So- if you identify a big enough problem in the world today, show some mercy. Don’t throw a blockchain at it.


Note: as usual, there’s a bigger blockchain story that everyone is missing. While the institutions flirt slowly with blockchain, the geeks are moving fast and breaking things. Tens of millions have been raised in ICO’s recently. Hackers are playing with really awesome and subversive ideas such as SingularDTV (a funding & distribution platform for content makers, a la Netflix), Makercoin (FX contracts between crypto assets), ZCash (100% anonymous digital cash) and Golem (marketplace for idle computer time). These can be groundbreaking innovations that blockchain brings about- and they don’t happen within the financial system. They probably can’t.

Blockchain isn’t the solution to old problems

Minimum Viable Localization (MVL) and 4 steps to product localization in any new market

“Never venture, never win!” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It’s about time to bring some science into localization. In this post I’ll present 4 steps you need to follow when bringing your tech product into any new market. It’s based on an interview I gave at China Business Cast, and it does reference China a lot, but it’s true to any tech company going into any new market (from B2C in Brazil to B2B in England).

I spend the last 3 years as Asia Pacific CEO for my company Leverate, taking it into several markets in the region, with focus on China. This is written with the benefit of hindsight. I’d be lying if I said that we were organized about going global. In fact, we made every possible mistake in the book- including most of those I will warn against. But in time, we learned to be more systematic. Over the last 3 years I became obsessed with the concept of taking your company global. I saw first-hand that it can create game-changing revenue streams, and how subtle it can be. I took every opportunity to speak with founders who were involved in similar journeys.

This post can be helpful for all your management, but especially to The Champion of your geo-expansion. Who is The Champion? The person who leads the expansion. In some companies it’s a regional CEO (me), in some companies it’s the founder/CEO, in some companies it’s the VP Sales who needs to crack a market before the company sets foot there. But there should always be a Champion.

Here are the steps of taking your company to a new market (say, China):

Step 0: make sure the market is right for you

There’s a good amount of homework to do before you expand into a new market, but I won’t cover it in this post. Why this is step 0 should be obvious: new regions are hard to enter and there is a big opportunity cost in choosing your next frontier. If (like us) you’re less rich than Uber, and live in a complex industry, you can only be serious about expanding to 1-2 markets in a given moment. So choose your frontiers wisely.

Continue reading “Minimum Viable Localization (MVL) and 4 steps to product localization in any new market”

Minimum Viable Localization (MVL) and 4 steps to product localization in any new market

Partners won’t save your startup from failure (but clients will)

From the startup in 2008 to date, we announced at least 10 unique partnerships between Leverate and other companies. They cost tons and, at times, took all the brainpower and sweat we had. Every single one of these partnerships has failed (channel partners aside).

When I listen to startup founders, I sometimes notice the abuse of the word “partner”, and it reminds me just how unclear we were around the partnerships we took. I’ve heard this word from startup founders to describe what I would otherwise call “client”, “vendor”, “distribution channel”, “an opportunity to get some PR”, “another company that we want to have an integration with because it’s cool” or in the worst case “an established company in the industry who thinks we’re neat but we’re not sure what’s in it for us or them”.

Undefined partnerships are dangerous. And they often come with the promise of some PR, especially in fintech, where banks and consulting companies enjoy setting up accelerators and hanging out with the cool kids (startups). This has been funnily described as the fintech zoo. An executive at a bank or established company may talk to a startup about partnership opportunities that can generate a mention or two in the press, but…

startupculture
Pictured: the beginning of an epic failure

Continue reading “Partners won’t save your startup from failure (but clients will)”

Partners won’t save your startup from failure (but clients will)

The Tech Founder’s Guide to Cracking China: The Customer Service Meltdown

Our first customer service (CS) person in Asia shocked me with a resignation just one week after I landed in Hong Kong. He said it was health related. Damn. We had about 9 clients in China at the time, and he was the only customer service person in the company who could actually speak their language. I promised him that I’ll work on a new recruit the next morning. I tried to paint him a less hectic future, and I truly believed in it. In a short-sighted whim I even offered him a title and a much, much higher pay. He said no thanks. He was so burned out I could smell the smoke. I ended up hiring 2 people to replace him, taking into account our near term growth.

The second CS person quit 5 months later. She said it was family related. Tough luck, I thought- and set out to find the next person. At least I was encouraged by a strong delivery on sales. Hell, Sales Cure All.

When the third CS person quit, I hardly bothered to ask why. I knew it couldn’t be a coincidence- something was wrong with how we built the team. But also I knew that the guy would give me a million Hong Kong Dollars before he tells me why he hated his job. It’s common for people in HK and China to avoid confrontation and try to save their boss from “losing face”. They didn’t seem to notice that I was much closer to losing my mind. All I wanted was for someone to gimme some truth, but I knew I had to search for the reasons elsewhere.

OK, I wasn’t that clueless. I’d been running both Hong Kong and Shanghai for over a year year at that point. Things are always harder away from the HQ, and customer service is a thankless job almost by definition. But I couldn’t explain what was causing such a strong and continuous implosion, while sales and marketing kept growing and delivering.

crying bar

Nearly desperate, I switched to recruiting mode again. And then I finally started noticing a pattern: many of the people I interviewed in HK & China left other foreign companies under the same circumstances: the company was new to Asia, and the person struggled for a year or less before quitting. When speaking to candidates, they told me everything that our staff who resigned wouldn’t tell me. I listened carefully as they described The China Customer Service Meltdown happening in their previous company and leading them to quit. And I realized that as much as these people seem driven and talented, I run a risk of losing them for the exact same reasons again. I also learned from other friends who run businesses in HK, and especially China, that constant bleeding on customer service is very, very common (in local and foreign companies).

Here’s the dynamic that leads to the China CS Meltdown:

Continue reading “The Tech Founder’s Guide to Cracking China: The Customer Service Meltdown”

The Tech Founder’s Guide to Cracking China: The Customer Service Meltdown

Five types of communication in tech companies- and what tools you should use for them

In the previous post, I shared a few notes on internal communication in tech companies. In this post, I’ll take a step back to discuss what types of communication exist in a tech company, highlighting cross-department communication. For each type of communication, I will discuss the tools that can serve you best… and worst.

Here are the kinds of communication that I noticed along the years at Leverate:

#1 Boards

Boards = lists that departments maintain so that everyone in the company can check them out. Boards will usually reflect recent work, so their contents will change with time. Examples:

  • Next releases board– maintained by the product team
  • Latest sales board– maintained by the sales team
  • This month’s lead numbers board– maintained by the marketing department
  • This month’s birthdays board– maintained by the HR team
  • This year’s holidays in our offices worldwide– maintained by the HR team

Boards can come in different flavors:

  • Crucial for day-to-day work OR a nice-to-have transparency tool
  • Designed for internal communication in the department OR designed for communicating to other departments

If you ever worked in a sales team, you’ve most likely seen a board that sales leaders love: the monthly leader board. Nothing invites more motivation and focus than these cold hard numbers on the wall.

depulse
Example: board in daPulse

When shared cross-department, boards are perhaps the most simple and to-the-point transparency tool that I’ve seen. People love them (when they’re up-to-date, of course), and they create a feeling of accountability among critical departments. I highly encourage founders to introduce a board for product, sales and marketing to reflect releases, sales data and marketing data respectively.

What do we need in a board tool?

  • Public– anyone can easily check out boards
  • Collaborative– anyone can create boards, then quickly edit / comment / like items
  • Good lookin’– it’s nice to add some colors or communicate planning vs. execution with a ‘dashboardy’ feeling
  • Topics & subscriptions– would be nice if people can subscribe for specific boards (e.g. next releases) and get notified on updates
  • Interactive– it would be nice to click an item (e.g. a specific planned release) to get more information (the release notes)

Recommended tools for boards:

  • The board feature in daPulse
  • A public Google Spreadsheet
  • Trello
  • Build your own– home-made boards are always an option: in some offices I’ve seen TV screens projecting retention, sales and even revenues data to all employees
  • The wrong tool: emails

 

#2 Shouts

Shouts = casual cross-department announcements. Usually to the entire company. Usually happy. You don’t know exactly when they will come. They’ll stick around for a couple of days and then they will get washed away. Examples for shouts in a tech company are:

  • An introduction of a new key employee that everybody needs to know, including a picture of them with their dog
  • An announcement from the CEO about last week’s acquisition
  • Pictures from the crazy team building night that the marketing department had last week, including that video of the VP Marketing dancing on a bar table that will haunt her forever
  • An announcement from the VP sales on the epic performance of the sales team during Jan & Feb, including a chart

What do we need in a shout tool?

slack
Example: shout in Slack
  • Notifies everyone, but minimizes spam– shouts are cool, and sometimes you want to announce something to all, but people don’t like getting 12 random emails per week. Better find a tool that minimizes announcements to all, aggregates notifications and lets people choose their topic(s) of interest
  • Social– anyone should be able shout on any topic, because everyone has something interesting to celebrate every now and then. A good tool will let other people quickly like / comment on the shouts. It’s also nice to see who in the company read the shout
  • Allows attachments– it’s nice and engaging when shouts come with an inline chart, picture or video

Recommended tools for shouts:

  • Posts in Facebook at Work, daPulse or Yammer
  • Slack
  • Emails (not ideal)
  • The wrong tools: your company wiki, Trello

 

#3 Knowledge bases

Knowledge base = an evolving collection of articles and media items. Think about a company-wide wiki. Knowledge bases are naturally different from boards and shouts because they contain information that you want to evolve and stay long term.

Examples for knowledge bases in a tech company are:

Continue reading “Five types of communication in tech companies- and what tools you should use for them”

Five types of communication in tech companies- and what tools you should use for them

On internal communication tools for startups

Six months ago, a friend of mine who worked at a growing 30-people startup approached me to ask what tool we use to communicate between departments at Leverate.

Smart guy, I thought. I will never forget the colorful chaos that broke loose when we scaled from 30 to 140 employees in just two years. A headcount of 30 is an ideal tipping point for internal communication to take new forms.

Communication inside Leverate has evolved quite a bit along the years. We’ve been using a good number of tools to manage departments and share stuff cross-department. These tools include email, phone, boards, Slack, ConfluenceWiki, Yammer, daPulse, Google Docs, TFSSharePoint, Trello, Facebook at Work and more. Some of these tools were so beautifully designed, that they downright fueled me with insights on leadership and communication. Others stormed into the company for a one-week-stand that everybody hated.

trello
Left: Trello. Right: reality

Here are some lessons I learned on internal communication in startups: Continue reading “On internal communication tools for startups”

On internal communication tools for startups

Can Hong Kong really become a fintech hub?

Jeffrey Broer has recently published a blog post called Fintech, the polarizing industry for Hong Kong. Through a bunch of interviews he shared the pros and cons for starting a fintech company in HK. Fintech is indeed a loaded topic in HK- the scene is small and people have strong opinions on its good, bad and ugly corners.

It’s no secret that HK lags behind London, NY and Singapore in fintech. Since HK has made it clear that it wants to be a fintech hub, let me ask more specifically: what’s standing in its way to become one? What’s going to really move the needle?

Continue reading “Can Hong Kong really become a fintech hub?”

Can Hong Kong really become a fintech hub?