Truth or Consequences: Finding Signal in the Age of Covid

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Driving South from Albuquerque toward El Paso on Interstate 25, lies a place called Truth or Consequences. Nestled in the singular beauty of the New Mexico desert, the name elicits visions of a mystical place where valiant people fight to forge the truth, or face the mortal consequences. In reality, Truth or Consequences named itself after a 1950’s Radio Show. It is like many nondescript towns that most people drive through and immediately forget, but my fuel gauge demanded I pause here, ensuring I ponder its meaning a few minutes longer than most. In T or C (as it is affectionately known) natural thermal springs bubble to the surface, as if the earth is demonstrating those promised consequences. While I am grateful for the real-world petroleum-fueled sustenance that T or C provided, I prefer to cling to the symbolism the name evokes.The transformation our planet is going through at this moment feels tectonic. This is our moment of Truth or Consequences. Shifts and movements are providing dramatic consequences. For some of us in financial services and technology, we may have the illusion of being insulated. But we are not inoculated from the investment and growth paralysis faced by other industries.

This is the time that will define the thinkers, movers, and shakers who will shape the rest of this century. While some investors are doubling down, there are some tech entrepreneurs giving up all hope, behaving as though they are running a hair salon or tattoo parlor in a Hospital.

I am in no way making light of businesses that are facing extinction in the face of this pandemic, the outlook is dire and the entire business community must work hard to include the hard-working people serving and served by legacy businesses.

For those of us in fintech, take a quick moment to embrace gratitude and, quickly pay heed to the voices in our heads calling us to do better and do it quickly.

I am here to posit that this upheaval is a call to demand NEW of everyone in the ecosystem: entrepreneurs, investors, and legacy players. The old model was already rickety and barely surviving — legacy players have played it safe: applying piecemeal digital band-aids at the boundaries of antique legacy infrastructure, rather than building new architecture from the ground up.

Between the vaporware decks, the innovation theatre, bloated valuations, and rapidly failing business models, and vendors chosen by a cost vs. value driven procurement department, the consumers we portend to serve are left out in the cold.

You all know exactly what I am talking about.

Any of us that have spent even one quarter working in or with a bank or insurer understand well the ghostly specters of badly-chosen vendors. Bright innovative minds wasting their youths on patching up old core systems, and the unavoidable fines and scandals when process or security are breached.  As I said, it is rickety and we need more than a fresh paint job on the Winchester Mystery House.

In a storm, rickety becomes dangerous, and this is one hell of a storm.

So, now for the 50,000-foot view, I promised.

Here are eight ideas for exploration and debate as we weather this (seemingly unending) storm:

  • Shut down the performative innovation. This is something that so many corporates are guilty of promulgating. All of the CVCs, accelerators, pitching competitions or hackathons on the planet will not cure what ails you. It’s not helping.
  • Accept that getting out of technological debt requires investing. And the best time to invest is in a downturn. It’s going to cost time, money, and political will to make real change.  Get your check book out.
  • Repeat after me: “The future is further out than one quarter.” We have a real short-term perception issue. It may take years to see the benefits of what you are building.  Focus on future value and don’t be fooled by short term KPIs. Lead.
  • Manage the hell out of your stakeholders. You’re going to need them. Find wins for everyone involved and don’t forget the greatest beneficiaries should be (in this order, because, get real): your current customers, your future customers and your investors.  Challenge yourself and pick your friends wisely.
  • When you work with startups — and you should continue to do this come hell or high water — go deeper.  Work closely with their investors to make sure that they’re built for the long-haul, especially if you want them to be close to your core technology.  Get under the hood and stay there.
  • Align yourself with savvy investors. I don’t mean doing exactly what the Silicon Valley “set” is doing, I mean working with investors that understand your industry deeply and have already survived their technology curve. Learn the intrinsic differences between VC and PE, equity or debt, and, when in doubt, learn the lessons taught to us by complex later-stage financing.  Do the maths.
  • Cling closely to the experts. This is a time for expertise across the board. The financial services industry is laden with danger. Traditional “disruption” does not work when you’re playing at this level, and that’s a good thing.  Love your nerds.
  • Think infrastructure and architecture, not single-feature products. Creating Fintech products and services is fiendishly complex with multi-dimensional challenges, and each product or service should not have to build out the entire stack from scratch. We need standardized building blocks and infrastructure and less recreation of wheels. The legacy players should shift to provide the infrastructure upon which the nimble new players innovate.  Get your “lego” blocks ready.

A brilliant former colleague of mine adapted the often-used adage of “eating your own dog food” to something more palatable: “drinking your own champagne”. At Vacuumlabs we’ve been drinking our own champagne by shaping our consortia as we approach existing and new clients.  The other firms I work with have similarly hunkered down, made tough decisions, and are choosing their friends and vendors very carefully.

Storms have a way of exposing a reality we may have preferred not to look at. We are in the midst of a storm and for the fintech space, the truth, and it’s consequences are no longer avoidable.  Reach out to help sort through the noise any time, together we can keep our eyes and hearts on that signal.

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