Banks aren’t generally the place to look for innovation
Around the world, when faced with new products in the payments space, banks naturally crank up their innovation departments and produce super new products and services to wow customers back. I’m joking, of course. What they actually do in many countries is to going whining to the regulator and force competitors to use the banks’ legacy infrastructure. This is what just happened in India, which really ought to be a huge and dynamic market for e-, m- and new payments of many kinds.
Consequently, from 1 March, the eBay unit says merchants in India cannot receive payments from abroad of over $500 per transaction. In addition, merchants will no longer be able to use any balance in their PayPal accounts to buy goods or services. Instead all payments must be transferred into Indian bank accounts first.
Now, I’m not saying that banks are the only people who react to innovation in this way: that is, by trying to stop it. This goes on all the time.
For the last fifty years, hard disks have been increasingly super-charged gramophone records: at their heart, there is still a real disk rotating very fast on a real spindle. That’s not the only way to store data, as the memory stick revolution shows, but until now, solid state drives (which have no moving parts) have been too small and expensive to replace traditional hard disks as the main storage device for a computer. Now that’s changing, with real advantages for users as a result… Seagate’s response is to threaten to sue all the new entrants for patent infringement, while insisting that their existing market is not threatened.
At the dawn of the industrial revolution, the steam engine delivered the fundamental business school case study in this topic, something that I wrote about when I was invited to speak at the European Patent Forum back in 2009.
In his keynote address, the Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said that we had to find a balance in the intellectual property system, that it was right to let Stevenson patent his steam engine but not the screwdriver he used to build it (he didn’t explain why..).
In fact, as I discussed in this post, history teaches the opposite lesson because the patent system held back the evolution of the steam engine for a generation! But back to our business. What kind of innovation is relevant to the payments industry? This is not clear to me. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to say that…
What would be refreshing is if the focus of innovation could be pegged to the value that it delivers to the entire ecosystem, not just the engineers who get a kick out of building cool new toys.
But is this true? When Apple put together the iPod, it didn’t benefit the “entire ecosystem”. The disruptive innovations in fact devastate parts of the ecosystem, like forest fires that allow new shoots to grow. I hate to harp on about the M-PESA example, but I think it illustrates this point well. The banks complained about M-PESA and tried to stop it but fortunately failed. Now that M-PESA has 13m customers and 20,000 agents, the banks are able to deliver new services to new customers using the platform. Were they devastated by the forest fire? No: it gave them space for new shoots as well.
Where do we look for the next new shoots then? Not in banks, generally speaking, but elsewhere in the ecosystem. The payment innovations to come will be technology-enabled, which is why it’s important for businesses throughout that ecosystem to understand the new technologies relevant to payments and, just as importantly, understand the business model ramifications of seemingly dreary technology architecture decisions being made by nerds right now. While they will be technology-enabled, though, it’s the sustainable new business model that is the key. A good example of this is Square.
..if Square can provide just enough added-value with their app to get traction in the small business sector (they are already processing a million dollars a day), then when new payment technologies come along (eg, NFC phones that can accept payments from contactless cards) the merchants will just expect Square to handle them for them. We have long been advising clients that the key disruptive role of mobile phones in the payments world is the ability to take payments, not to make them.
And we still do, in fact. I think Square is an interesting innovation case study. It does not compete with existing acquirers, but opens up the market so that more people can accept card payments.
So where is Square seeing the most traction? Without a doubt, small businesses, independent workers and merchants comprise most of Square’s rapidly growing user base. The technology only requires its tiny credit card scanner that fits into your audio jack and Square’s app. The device and the software are free, but Square takes a small percentage of each transaction (2.75% plus 15 cents for swiped transactions).
In a way, this is a real-world PSP and an fascinating niche play in a large volume-driven acquiring market, one that can be seen to adumbrate mobile disruption and our projection that the mobile-phone-as-POS meme will be more revolutionary than the mobile-phone-as-card meme. But there’s something else to it as well. Conventional acquirers use conventional methods to assess applications.
Square’s qualification rules are more relaxed than those of standard credit card processors, There are no initiation fees, monthly minimums, and when merchants apply for a reader, Square doesn’t just focus on a credit check, but also takes into account the influence a company holds on Yelp, Twitter or Facebook.
That, it seems to me, is more of a window into the coming economy based on the reputation interweb (or web 3.1, as I propose to call it, to avoid clashing with web 3.0). Can you imagine Barclays Business or Streamline giving you a merchant acquiring account according to the number of twitter followers you have rather than your trading history or bank references?
By the way, I can’t remember if I’ve blogged this before but one of my favourite stories about accepting merchants for acquiring accounts goes back more than a decade to the hazy days before the LastMinute flotation. I was doing some work over at what was then NatWest Capital Markets, who had invested millions in Lastminute, when they went beserk because NatWest Streamline wouldn’t give LastMinute a credit card acquiring account because it didn’t have two years’ trading history!
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