Debunking Innovation Myths (#26)

Debunking Innovation Myths,
w/ Gary PISANO

We discuss with Gary Pisano, professor at Harvard Business School and author of “Creative Construction: The DNA of Sustained Innovation” — a book about how large companies can construct a strategy, system, and a culture of innovation that creates sustained growth. We discuss how organizations learn, innovate, and compete — and these are fundamental questions that Gary has been exploring throughout his career. Today, you will learn the four archetypes of innovation, Gary’s definition of a business model, who in the company should own a business model innovation and more.

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Gary recommends:

  1. One book: An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, by Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter
  2. One influencer: Jon Gertner
  3. Best article: “Strategic Planning — Forward in Reverse” by Robert Hayes in 1985
  4. Favourite brand: Ferragamo®
  5. Productivity hack: no traveling!!

Full podcast transcript:

 

Creative construction is, really, the art, if you will, of balancing the need to maintain the existing business, but then explore and create completely new innovation opportunities. It’s different than a startup because a startup gets to start from scratch, but larger, more established enterprises can’t.— Gary PISANO

[00:01:23.25] Ben: So, Gary, thank you so much for coming on the podcast! As I was saying to you before, I absolutely loved the book! I think what’s kind of special about it is it’s obviously very instructive about how to do innovation in the face of uncertainty, and imperfect information, and everything else. But it also challenges and debunks a lot of our received wisdom about innovation, including the central idea of constructive or creative construction. How do you define creative construction?

Gary: For a company, it’s like rebuilding the house as you’re living in it. So, for established companies, the knock on established companies is that they are so consumed with their existing businesses, they can’t do true innovation. So, this book tries to debunk that myth and provide some ways in which bigger companies can do that. But they face challenges, obviously, because they have existing capabilities, existing businesses. So, creative construction is, really, the art, if you will, of balancing the need to maintain the existing business, but then explore and create completely new innovation opportunities. It’s different than a startup because a startup gets to start from scratch, but larger, more established enterprises can’t. So I guess that’s how I would define creative construction: is that act or that art of searching for transformative innovation opportunities, all the while maintaining your existing business.

[00:02:56.12] Ben: Even though it’s harder for large companies to innovate and they have this treadmill effect of a bar that’s being constantly raised, they nonetheless do have many advantages when it comes to innovation, right? So, as you say in the book, they’ve got resources that startups can only dream of, and they can actually have a portfolio of different innovation projects they can work on at once. What other advantages would you say that large companies have when it comes to innovation?

I always say that strategy is where you spend your money and an innovation strategy specifies very clearly, “Here are the top priorities we have for how we’re going to innovate, the kind of innovations we’re going to do, and this is where we’re going to place our chips.” At a very simple level, that’s what an innovation strategy is. — Gary PISANO

Gary: I mean, they have a lot of skills and capabilities that often get overlooked, just things that are in some ways written off as blocking and tackling, but they’re incredibly important. So, logistics and distribution, salesforce that can cover the world, and knowledge about regulations, and experts in the company — the expertise in larger enterprises is actually quite deep. I mean, I’ve been involved in a lot of smaller companies and you get great people, but you’re smaller so you don’t always have the world expert in a particular market or a particular technology, so you’re always trying to reach out. But in a larger company, you actually do have a pretty deep bench. And so, there’s people to draw from that can be extraordinarily helpful in all facets of innovation, whether it’s the technology or the commercialization, the supply chain, the marketing. And I think that’s often overlooked as well, in thinking about their advantages.

[00:04:24.19] Ben: Do you think one of the most dangerous tendencies with strategy is to apply inductive logic? You know, this idea that just because a company over here did something in a certain way, and it worked for them, therefore, it must work for our company. Because, as you say in the book, there is no magic formula for strategy, and there are no universal sets of best practices for innovation. So, would you say that’s a really dangerous road to go down, that idea of ‘because it worked here, it must work there’?

Gary: Yeah, absolutely! I mean, you have to be thoughtful. You can use analogies — and people have written about that, and we all use analogies to reason in all aspects of our life, including business and including strategy — but you have to be thoughtful about how those analogies apply and what is applying, and most importantly, what is different. A lot of times, we focus on what’s the same, but we don’t focus on what’s different. I tell this funny little story to my students about it, because they often get the analogy, and I’ll say, Well, I play a game — my daughter is now four — I played this game with her called, “Are you a bear?” And I’d say to her, “Are you a bear?” And she’d say “No.” And I’d say, “Well, do you like honey?” She goes, “Yes.” “Well, bears like honey. Do you like to swim in the water?” She says, “Yes!” “Well, bears like to swim in the water. Do you like tuna fish?” She said “Yes.” I said, “Well, bears like tuna fish. I mean, you like to play outside — you like to do all the same things bears do so you must be a bear.” That’s the analogy of focusing on what’s the same. And we laugh about it, but that’s what companies do all the time. They look at what is the same and say, “Well, this is the same, this is the same, this is the same, therefore we must be the same.” It’s like, “No, you have to look at what’s different!” It’s a logical flaw that is so commonly made in strategy-making. And so, yes, you do want to use analogies, but you want to be really thoughtful and then understand what’s different here? And then, how do you adapt your strategy to what’s different about this situation?

[00:06:27.13] Ben: How would you describe an innovation strategy?

Gary: At a very simple level, it’s a commitment to how you’re going to spend your resources or focus your resources on the kinds of innovation you’re going to go after. I always say that strategy is where you spend your money and an innovation strategy specifies very clearly, “Here are the top priorities we have for how we’re going to innovate, the kind of innovations we’re going to do, and this is where we’re going to place our chips.” At a very simple level, that’s what an innovation strategy is.

Gary: At a more nuanced level, it’s also the kinds of values you’re trying to create, the similarities or the pattern of how you’re going to address the market. So, for instance, Apple has historically focused on ease of use. That’s been part of their whole business strategy. They have historically tried to innovate, to make things easier to use. Some companies have focused on safety and that’s been a pattern over time. It’s tying the innovation strategy to the business strategy. But it creates a clear set of priorities in everyone’s mind about what’s important and what’s not important.

a lot of innovation is not about the technology, it’s about the change in the business model. — Gary PISANO

[00:07:34.04] Ben: In your book, one of the quotes I liked was you said, “Without an innovation strategy, innovation improvement efforts easily become a grab bag of much-touted best practices.” What exactly do you mean by that? Just that they’re sort of completely unconnected?

Gary: Yeah. I mean, think about today. You know, you go into a lot of companies and you say, “How are you approaching innovation?” And they say, “Well, we’re doing open innovation, we’re doing crowdsourcing, we’re doing design thinking, we’re doing empowered teams” — and these are all perfectly reasonable practices but it’s like building a car by taking a bunch of components, really good components, and just throwing them down and say, “Well, but that’s not a car, that’s just a bunch of components.” You’re connecting those practices to the kinds of innovation you’re going after. So, for example, design thinking is great, but it doesn’t work for all kinds of innovation. And so, if your strategy is about a different kind of innovation, don’t do design thinking. Open innovation is terrific for certain kinds of innovation, but not for others. So, you have to ask yourself, “Is that the right tool to solve the strategic problem we’re going after?”

[00:08:36.06] Ben: Why do you think that happens, though? Do you think it’s just because there’s external pressure maybe from shareholders or the board to be doing something? And so, it’s very easy to self-demonstrate that you’ve opened up an innovation lab or whatever. And so, that almost supplicate some of those external parties, and it’s, in reality, much harder to come up with this integrated innovation strategy?

business models are, in a sense, promises to others. So, they’re kind of a promise to your customer about what’s the value we’re going to create for you. It’s a promise to your shareholders about the value you’re going to distribute, it’s a promise to your employees about the value you’re going to distribute to them. In a sense, a business model is really a set of contracts— Gary PISANO

Gary: Well, I think it’s partly that, but I think it’s partly because we all want simple solutions to complex problems. I probably fall into this trap myself when I think about my workout regime and what I’m reading and I want the perfect training program to get me ready for a marathon with as little effort as possible. Is there the once-a-month training program that will have me ready to run the marathon or something? I think we all, at complex problems, we want simpler solutions. And I understand that executives are busy, there’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot going on. So, that kind of magic bullet, that universal solution is very appealing. And then, what ends up happening is you have people who sell these to you. Not to be cynical here, but there are consulting firms who make their money selling you a particular tool. And so, they’ll say, “This is design thinking.” And it all seems so easy: “If you just adopt this, your problems will be solved.” And I think what I tried to do in the book is get folks to realize it’s a lot harder than that. And, as I mentioned in the book, innovation is hard. That’s the value of it. If it were easy, everybody could do it and if everybody could do it, every company would be innovative, and it wouldn’t be a source of advantage. You know, there’s a reason companies like Google and Apple have market caps, I don’t know what they are these days because the market’s all over, but, you know, close to a trillion dollars — because they’re innovative and other companies have been less innovative. And so, it’s never going to be easy but I hope to make it a little easier, or maybe not quite as hard. And so, I think we have to dispel that. I think if you go into the innovation journey with that sense of, “This is actually not easy at all, and we’re not going to sell it as easy, and it’s going to take a lot of concerted effort, and we’re going to have a lot of stumbles along the way, but it’s our strategy to get there, and we’re going to keep focusing on it”, then I think you stand a reasonable chance.

[00:10:55.17] Ben: In the book, you include an Innovation Landscape Map, which I found to be really, really useful. Can you quickly just talk us through that Innovation Landscape Map?

Gary: Sure! Yeah. It’s based on not just my research, but many, many people have worked on trying to characterize innovation in the field, for decades now. So this was really a synthesis of both my thinking and many other people’s thinking. We often think about innovation in terms of the technology and the technical dimension: how big of a leap is this, technologically, for us? Are we a hardware company that’s now forced to do software? Etc. But there’s this other dimension, which I think we’ve learned about in the last 20 years, which is, there’s also a business model dimension. So a lot of innovation is not about the technology, it’s about the change in the business model. And so, you kind of put those together and that’s how you get the two by two of, is this a big change from a technology point of view or not? Is it a big change from a business model point of view?

Gary: And I think where that gets helpful is you get these four archetypes of innovation: routine, radical, disruptive, and architectural. You can, at least, start to understand or have discussions about, what is it the lever that we’re going to push on? Are we pushing on the technology dimension because we think our business model is actually quite strong, but we need better technology or new technologies to reinforce it? Or the problem is that our business model is obsolete, and we need to radically change our business model and do more disruptive things? Or is it a combination? And I actually think the combination gets interesting, as I think many times we fail to realize how technological change has implications for our business model. We put a graft on the technology, on our existing business model, when in fact, technology changes what we can do from our business model point of view.

[00:12:50.07] Ben: One of the things that I really liked about that map is it sort of gives almost equal importance to business model and tech, which is not something that normally happens, right? And, I suppose, one of the questions is, if a company should be constantly assessing its business model in the same way it constantly assesses the adequacy of its technology, whose job is it, within an organization, to be looking constantly at the business model? Because it seems a bit like that’s a blind spot.

Gary: You have hit it right on the head! I mean, if you ask in any company who’s in charge of technological innovation, they can literally point to a person; they could say, “So and so is the Head of R&D. So and so is the Executive Vice President of R&D, they ultimately have responsibility.” Then, if you ask the same question around, well, who’s responsible for business model innovation — you’ll either get no one or everyone, which actually means the same thing. And so, you’re right. So, no organization really has that. I think that’s why Senior Executives, Senior Leaders, General Managers really need to own business model innovation. So, just like the way you think about the Vice President of R&D or the Head of R&D owning technological innovation or being responsible for it, I think the business unit leader — the General Manager, the CEO — they own business model innovation. I think that’s the only solution. I think you can have groups that help you do it but I wouldn’t want to set up a separate group called ‘business model innovation’ because it’s really so part and parcel of everything the company does that I think it just belongs in the hands of the General Manager. That’s just an opinion. People haven’t really done a lot of research on it. But I think organizations that are good at evolving their business models, it’s really, they do come from the general management, the CEO or the business unit leaders.

[00:14:40.28] Ben: It is considered best practice to spend, I don’t know, like 80% of your R&D budget on routine bets versus 20% that should go on more radical bets or whatever; that there’s some sort of pre-determined formula for deciding which of these boxes to concentrate on. But, in reality, what you say in the book is that you need to be very careful in making the allocation because allocation looks different for every company. What’s the counsel that you give to companies about where to invest across this map?

Gary: Yeah. While there’s no universal formula, there are some things you can think about, there are some factors. I mean, certainly one is, you have to look at your core technologies and really understand their headroom for improvement. So, some technologies have been around a while, they’re running out of steam, you’re running into diminishing returns, and improving them in ways that would create value for customers, that’s got to worry, right? I mean, once you start to see that — and you can map some of these, actually quantitatively, if you have certain performance dimensions, and you can look at incremental improvement, and ask yourself, how much more can we improve this? You start to see this happening in semiconductors as you reach the incremental line with reductions and Moore’s law, and you say, how much more power can we get out of this, with the given technology we have? You could start to see these things somewhat in advance.

Gary: The second part, though, is really on more of the market side: what do customers want? And what are they willing to pay for? So, sometimes technology can improve, but the customer is not willing to pay for any more functionality there. They’re saying, “I’ve got enough!” I use the example in the book about the Gillette razor and how much closer do we want to shave. And, you know, I won’t pay that much more for a closer shave because, at some point, I can only shave so close before it’s scary. But I will pay for convenience. I will pay for other things. So, you have to look at that dimension as well: where are you in the market cycle?

Gary: And then, you know, you have to look at competitive dynamics. What are competitors doing? And how are competitors changing? So, several of those things kind of come together to help you plot out where you may want to lay your chips and say, look, the opportunity for us to create an advantage and create value is maybe more in business model innovation and technological innovation. Or maybe it’s the opposite; maybe, really, our business model is pretty rich and it has got a long way to go, but our technology is not able to deliver it. Or maybe you discover in this analysis, look, it’s both — if we push the technology in a certain way, the only way we’re really going to create value is by changing our business model. And that would then get you to start to do experiments with your business model, as well.

[00:17:37.06] Ben: Do you think is harder for a company to change its business model than to change its tech?

Gary: Yeah, absolutely! Because I think the business model really gets to a lot of the core DNA, the financial DNA of the company. And business models are, in a sense, promises to others. So, they’re kind of a promise to your customer about what’s the value we’re going to create for you. It’s a promise to your shareholders about the value you’re going to distribute, it’s a promise to your employees about the value you’re going to distribute to them. In a sense, a business model is really a set of contracts. I don’t think it’s ever been formally posed that way. My economics training is in a branch of economics, it’s actually in Contract Theory — Oliver Williamson, the Nobel Prize who I heard just died this past week, who started Transaction Cost Economics. That’s essentially what I was trained on. I was a student of one of his students. So, I always tend to think about things contractually and a business model, really, is a set of contracts, implicit, if you will, promises about the value you’re going to create and capture and distribute. And a business model change means changing those promises and there can be costs to changing those promises. Your shareholders may say, “Well, we don’t like that. That’s not what we signed up for.” Or employees may say, “That’s not what we signed up for.” You may have unhappy employees and that can get costly if you have to make changes there. And sometimes customers don’t like it. We’re living this now, in education, as we, in the last few months had to shift a lot of things online because of COVID. Our customers, our students were like, “But we did sign up for online. That’s not what we paid for.” I think you’re hearing this around the world, students saying, “We signed up for a different experience. That’s a different value proposition.”

[00:19:20.23] Ben: And, in some senses, is it also harder to spot when your business model is becoming obsolete? Because, in a way, if you spot that there’s a big technology chain coming, like, you know, cars are being electrified or whatever — that you have some time to react, and you can map out how that might impact your business? But, in some ways, it’s like, it’s more difficult to get the early-warning signs that your business model is not optimized, right? So, how does a company check-in and routinely test whether its business model is optimized?

Investing in flexibility when uncertainty is high is a really good idea. — Gary PISANO

Gary: Yeah. I agree. I think it can be more challenging, and I think the work of my late colleague, Clay Christensen, really bore upon this. He highlighted this issue around why companies were vulnerable. Disruption, was really, as he described it, was business model disruption. That’s why I call that ‘the business model disruption’. He was really the one who identified that phenomenon where it’s the business model change that companies can’t react to. And I think he had some things to say about that, which I think are still very relevant. For example, when you’re missing certain segments of the market, or certain segments of your customer base are defecting and don’t seem profitable, and you say, “Well, we don’t need them anyway.” That’s always a little warning sign that he mentions that when you’ve got customers that, I think he would describe it as you ‘fire those customers’, you say, “Well, we don’t need you. We have more profitable customers.” That can be the beginning of a vicious circle. I think you’re seeing some of this in some areas today. Again, the example I use in the book is with shaving, and I mentioned Gillette competing against players like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club. I mean, they’re offering a different value proposition and I think, initially, the folks like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s, they were viewed as “Yeah, they’re just taking the customers who are less profitable for us anyway, so who cares?” But then, it starts to grow and then it starts to become a bigger segment of the market. It’s not that it happens really fast. It’s actually the opposite. It happens really slow. Until it doesn’t. So, it’s like the boiling frog, which is, we start losing a few customers, we’re like, “Oh, I don’t even notice that.” So, I think you do need to track fairly carefully what’s happening with customers, but also, who are the customers you’re not addressing? And are there segments of the market that you’ve never thought about addressing, that might actually be quite attractive to others, serving them in a very, very different way.

[00:21:55.13] Ben: When you see that you’re kind of suffering from that kind of Clayton Christensen’s type disruptive innovation, you know, where somebody’s come from underneath, almost in your blind spot and then starts to take market share, then the natural conclusion is, you eat your own lunch or you cannibalize your own business just before the new competitor can? But, another section of the book I really, really liked was the one where you challenged that notion that is always best to eat your own lunch. And I found myself when I was reading, thinking, okay, I’ve also been guilty of this many times, and lazily thought that, okay, it’s always best to cannibalize your own business. Why is it not always a good idea to do that?

Gary: So, one of the problems with cliches like that is they grossly oversimplify in ways that can really blind us. And so, there’s really two reasons why I think that advice doesn’t always hold up. So, one is, these things, these disruptions — whether they’re business model disruptions or radical changes in a technology base that make your technology obsolete — they tend to look a lot more obvious in retrospect than they did in prospect. So, the advice of ‘eat your own lunch before anyone else’ assumes you have some foresight that most of us don’t have. And so, there’s lots of examples where companies have abandoned technologies that had a lot of room to grow and they committed the opposite error. IBM was being told in the ’80s, “Get out of mainframe computers.” Well, mainframe computers today process 90% of the world’s transaction, and they are the workhorse now if we’re talking about big data and AI. It’s all mainframes. You need a lot of big iron to do that. IBM has that. So, it’s a good thing they didn’t get out of that market. The market isn’t what it was relative to the ’60s, it isn’t what it was, then to now. I mean, relatively speaking, it’s smaller, but it’s still a good market. I mean, it’s still a very big market, and it may get bigger. In fact, it’s very likely to get bigger. So, a trouble I have with that is it gets you out of thinking about hedging your technology risk.

Gary: But then, the second thing — and it’s more troubling — is that even if you do that perfect foresight and something’s happening, there are often profound implications for profitability. There’s this assumption in the ‘eat your own lunch’ argument that the new thing that comes along is somehow got to be more profitable or as profitable. And there’s no law of economics that said that, there’s no theory in economics that said that, there’s no empirical evidence. That’s not necessarily true. So, an example I gave in the book is when digital photography came along. Digital photography hasn’t been profitable for anybody. I mean, it’s just been a bloodbath because the components are commodities, they’re out there, anybody can get them, they’re modular technologies — and it’s a bloodbath. And so, if you were Kodak and you had perfect foresight, it’s still not clear to me what you would have done to say, “Let’s get out of our really lucrative film business, to dive into this market, which is going to be a bloodbath.” So, sometimes you really are stuck between a rock and a hard place. And what I try to offer in the book is just some ways to think through those contingencies. So, you know, there are some times where the technology’s changing, or the business model is changing, but it’s going to be good for you anyway, so you might as well embrace it. Sometimes, that’s eating your own lunch to get an even better dinner, right? I mean, that’s just a better future. But sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes the technology is changing, or the business model is changing in ways that are just not going to be profitable for anybody. It’s a lot more complex than just, “Let’s just dive right into the new thing and eat our own lunch.”

[00:25:42.20] Ben: Do you think it’s really dangerous when CEOs kind of consult futurists? I don’t know what the record of futurists is, in terms of being able to successfully predict the future, but I guess it’s small, and yet nonetheless, you see a proliferation of these people. And so, is that one of the things you advise, to just avoid futurists?

Gary: Yeah. I mean I think I sort of say that in the book, I take a real shot at futurists because they tend to look back to all the time. And the bias of somebody who’s a futurist is to tell you how the world’s going to be different. You’re not going to hire a futurist to tell you the world is going to be the same. So, in some sense, you’re getting a biased view. By bringing in a futurist, you’re basically pretty sure going to be told the world’s going to change. The world always changes. So, I think that’s true. I mean, we know that. The world will be different tomorrow than it is today and it’ll be a lot more different further out in the future than it will be just tomorrow.

startup life is consumed with the fear that you’re going out of business because you’re generally running on fumes, in terms of resources and cash. And so, you are focused on one goal — surviving. And the people you attract to the enterprise are extremely comfortable with the ambiguity that they may not be in business the next year. So, you select people who are very comfortable with that calculus. If you’re in a major corporation, if you’re in Microsoft, with 20 plus billion dollars of cash on the balance sheet, you’re not going anywhere next year. That, I think, changes some of the tension and pressure. And you cannot replicate that in a large company. — Gary PISANO

Gary: I think you should listen to people who have interesting and provocative things to say about the future. Absolutely. Because they may stimulate your thinking in ways that you hadn’t before. So, actually, let me walk that back a bit before every futurist sends me nasty emails. There are so many folks that I’ve interacted with, that are very, very, very smart. And they do have provocative things to say. I don’t necessarily think they’re right. And I don’t think the value of what they have to say is in the prediction. So, if they say something’s going to be the case with electric vehicles, I don’t bet on what their vision of the future is. But listen to what they have to say, as a way just to challenge your own thinking about what the future might hold. And I do think it’s a helpful exercise for organizations and people to constantly be thinking about that and disciplining yourself, because you’re trying to prepare and it’s not that you can predict correctly — most of the time we get things wrong — but we can start to prepare ourselves and understand where the contingencies are, and what we might do today to prepare ourselves.

Gary: For example, right now, all businesses and universities and schools are going through this. We don’t know it’s a short-term thing, but what’s the COVID situation going to be like in the fall? Should we be online? We don’t know. So, the best thing you can do if you have the resources is, prepare, create options, build flexibility, because it’s going to have a high payoff. Choosing one or the other now, when there’s uncertainty, is not a good investment. Investing in flexibility when uncertainty is high is a really good idea. So, that’s where I think it’s helpful to be listening to futurists and others, and challenging yourself and listening to scientists. And I guess, I’d have to say my bias is more to listen to people who are content experts rather than futurists. Talk to customers. Farmers could probably tell you a lot about what’s going on in the farming world. They live it. And so, go talk to them, go watch them, go watch how people live. And again, it doesn’t hurt to start to imagine some futures as a way to stimulate your thinking, but just be careful to not confuse that with a prediction or a scenario.

[00:28:56.23] Ben: Up until now, we’ve talked mostly about putting in place an innovation strategy. What you say is there’s three parts to innovation, right? The first one is the innovation strategy and then the second part is the innovation system. What is an innovation system? And how does that support an innovation strategy?

Gary: Yeah. The system is really the way you start to execute. That is really, at a very simple level, your innovation system is how you search for ideas, how you combine ideas — what I call ‘synthesize’ — and how you select. So, it’s really, how do you go from ideas, find the ideas, digest the ideas, and pick the ideas to go forward with. So, it’s really internal because sometimes you’re involving lots of external people in it, but the system provides the capabilities to execute that strategy.

[00:29:43.19] Ben: Is the key to finding great ideas this, what you call in the book, ‘intellectual arbitrage’, or surrounding yourself and maximizing the number of inputs to every decision?

Gary: What I meant by intellectual arbitrage is just exposing yourself to ideas and people who you don’t normally get exposed to. We tend to talk to people and the experts in our particular business without thinking about what others from very different fields might have to say. And they have different ways to look at the problem and that can stimulate really interesting ideas. And sometimes they’re technology ideas. So, we see things move across fields all the time in terms of technology, but sometimes it’s business model ideas. An interesting one I just came across most recently in some new research I’m doing is, during World War Two, during wartime production in the US, car companies, which knew how to do things with mass production, but did not know much about making airplanes, were actually asked to make airplanes — B-29 bombers. Aircraft companies who knew quite a bit about making planes but didn’t know anything about mass production actually learned a ton from the auto companies about mass production. So, in the 1930s, airplanes were not produced with mass production techniques, at all. I mean, some of them didn’t even have interchangeable parts.

Gary: And so, it’s a great example of learning across sectors. They were kind of forced into it, in this sort of artificial setting, but, in that case, the aircraft companies learned from automobile companies a lot about production techniques. I think those examples are out there in all sorts of settings. We see today in healthcare, for a while, there were healthcare companies trying to learn from manufacturing companies; hospitals trying to learn about quality procedures from companies who manufacture cars. And, again, one has to be careful because analogies break down, sometimes. They’re not always perfect. But there is learning. And so, the idea is, can you expose yourself and expose your organization to a broader and richer mix of people?

Gary: Now, you mentioned lots of input into the decisions. The only thing there to be careful about is you don’t want to paralyze yourself either. So, I’m a big fan of having lots of input into decisions, but you need a decision-maker to make the call and move forward. But I think, in terms of exposing yourself and getting ideas on the palate of the organization or on the radar screen, I think most organizations need to broaden where they look and who they talk to. I’ll take a good example from my own world, in education. I think we have a lot to learn from companies in the entertainment business who produce fantastic multimedia content. We need to learn more about that. We don’t talk enough to people in Hollywood or the movie industry about that — how to tell a story. Maybe cases become more like that, they may become what we write down. We don’t normally think about that as a party we would talk to. But I certainly know that in my own experience as an academic, just the interactions I have with people outside — I’m trained as an economist and I work in a business school — but interactions with physicists interactions with people who do artificial intelligence, scientists or biologists. That’s where I suddenly get interesting ideas that connect back to my own field. So, it can be very, very stimulating.

[00:33:20.29] Ben: What you’re saying is that, if not maximize the number of inputs, at least you want to be exposed to different fields and different disciplines? And, at the same time, you make the point in the book that innovation is very infrequently linear, right? It goes perfectly from problem identification to solution. How does one build a system when the process is a bit random?

Gary: Yeah. So, the outcome is randomness, but the approach itself has to be very disciplined. And I use the analogy of evolution in life forms. Evolution, as a process, produces a massive variety of outcomes. It’s very innovative. We get everything from the smallest Amoeba to the largest Sequoia trees, to humans — complex forms of life. And yet, if you think about evolution, it’s a very rigorous process. It just works the same way all the time. There’s a few sets of letters in the genetic alphabet and there’s some rules for how things combine and replicate. And there’s not actually a lot of variance in the process, but there’s a huge variance in the outcome. And I use that analogy to think about, in organizations and in innovation, we want variance in the outcome, we want the breakthroughs. But to do that, we need to have a very disciplined and rigorous and repeatable process of design — test — iterate — design — test — iterate — design — test — iterate over and over and over again. And you need organizations that have not just that mindset, but you actually need processes to do that. So I think that sometimes gets forgotten. People feel like that’s bureaucratic, but it’s actually not. And when you look at how really great scientists work, they work with very strict discipline and rules. And it’s the same with artists, they work with really strict discipline and rules that they follow. The outcomes vary, and there’s creativity in the outcomes, but they’re often exceedingly rigorous and exceedingly disciplined and regimented in their approach.

[00:35:27.10] Ben: I’m not suggesting there’s an inconsistency, but on the one hand, you suggest in the book that you can’t just take a large bureaucratic organization, break it into smaller parts, and then to quote you, “it becomes magically endowed with entrepreneurial spirit.” That’s a fallacy, right? But, at the same time, you say, to do innovation, you need self-structures, you need temporary teams, you need project teams. So, what’s the difference between decomposing an organization into small parts and running project teams or small teams?

Gary: Yeah. Again, nothing wrong with small teams. I like small teams and you can do them in big companies. But I think the point I was trying to make in the book was that many times, companies confuse what is a cultural problem for a structural issue. So, they say, “We’re bureaucratic, and we’re slow, so let’s break this down. Let’s attack it structurally. Let’s make these smaller units. And now, suddenly, we’re going to be like a startup.” And the answer is, no, you’re not. You’re just going to be smaller versions of your old bureaucratic self. It’s actually hard to recognize what you can’t replicate about a startup. So, startup life — and I’ve been involved with startups, I’ve been a co-founder of a company, I’ve served on the boards of startups — startup life is consumed with the fear that you’re going out of business because you’re generally running on fumes, in terms of resources and cash. And so, you are focused on one goal — surviving. And the people you attract to the enterprise are extremely comfortable with the ambiguity that they may not be in business the next year. So, you select people who are very comfortable with that calculus. If you’re in a major corporation, if you’re in Microsoft, with 20 plus billion dollars of cash on the balance sheet, you’re not going anywhere next year. That, I think, changes some of the tension and pressure. And you cannot replicate that in a large company.

everybody loves the discipline until that discipline is applied to them — Gary PISANO

Gary: If you’re a large company, let’s think about what it is you really think make startups innovative — those are the things you can borrow. Create a sense of urgency. We’ve seen that in large companies. Today it’s fascinating what’s going on there. Big companies are being forced to be very urgent, because their worlds got changed dramatically. Look, I come from an academic institution that’s… Well, it’s a University — Harvard University is 350 years old or something and Harvard Business School is 100 years old — and we had to go online in a two-week period. Our students were on spring break and when the University president said because of COVID we could not have classes in-person, it would be risky and irresponsible. And so, in two weeks we had to figure out how to deliver education online. I think, if you had said to me last year, could that happen in a two-week period? I would have said no. But it had to happen. So, we made it happen. That’s the sense of urgency you can get. So, in a big company, you can do it. And we’ve been seeing this happen. So that’s what I encourage companies to do is, forget the whole startup thing; focus on the key attributes of innovative cultures — and those are some of them.

[00:38:23.12] Ben: When you talk about culture in the book, you talk about the paradoxes of innovative culture. One of the quotes you say is, “When it comes to innovation, the candid organization will outperform the nice one every time.” I suppose the question here is, how do you stop candor becoming aggression?

Gary: Yeah, great question! And absolutely you have to do. I mean, you have to watch for it. If you’re the senior leader, this is where you have to just be really attuned and you have to watch the visual cues — it’s a little harder these days if you’re remote — you’ve got to be able to, if you’re in the room, watch the body language of how people are reacting and be prepared to step in. And you have to model it yourself, that delicate balance of treating people with incredible respect and dignity but being very clear about what you think is a good idea, what’s working, what’s not working, how things can be improved. It is a delicate balance, and in an organization where people are passionate — which is what we want them to be — emotions get involved. And we know that emotion can get the best of us, at times, in a negative way. So, I think, as a leader, you have to be really comfortable with stepping in and being able to pull somebody aside and say, “Look, Ben, you were a little rough in that meeting. I get your point, but you might have ventured into, you were just brutal, not brutally candid, which is different. We’ve had the good argument, we’ve thrashed this problem out 100 different ways, and now we’re going to move forward and we’re still connected.” I think you have to build good personal relations between people in the company.

[00:40:14.07] Ben: So you need obviously candor with respect but if you don’t have the candor, then you’re just going to move too slow, because you’re going to be too nice and you’re not going to get to the point, and the whole pace of change will be too slow. Is that it?

Gary: Absolutely! And problem-solving requires candor. It’s, how do we make this better? You have to tell me what’s wrong with my idea. If I give you a book of mine, to read my next book, I give you the manuscript and you say, “Great job! Great job!” Yeah, you just don’t want to hurt my feelings. But that’s not going to help me. But if you say, “Look, I’ve got to be frank with you. Here’s three points in the book that don’t make sense at all” or “I don’t understand” or “They’re badly written” or, “They don’t add anything”, whatever. And you are clear about it. I might not want to hear that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to hear that. But the only chance I’d stand to make the book better is actually hearing that. That’s why candor is so critical to innovation. For any creative process, and particularly for innovation, it’s extraordinarily important!

[00:41:14.07] Ben: There’s another great quote I loved from the book, where you say, “An organization chart gives you a pretty good idea of the structural flatness of a company, but reveals little of its cultural flatness.”

Gary: Yeah.

[00:41:24.25] Ben: How do you lever this culturally flat organization?

Gary: That’s where the leader’s behavior is everything. What are their expectations of you and others and their role and how much autonomy they really give you? So, in some organizations, leaders make it clear that they want to be involved in every decision. So, I don’t care what the org chart looks like, it’s not flat. And they’re going to get involved with every detail, and people are going to learn and be conditioned over time that ‘you’d better ask the boss before you do anything’. In other organizations, the leaders say, “Look, here’s the direction I want to go on. I think I’ve made it pretty clear the general direction or the principle or the strategy. It’s really up to you how you do that. And it’s really, within broad latitude, I just want you to go forward. And if you need my counsel, I’m absolutely willing to provide you that counsel and help you, but don’t feel you have to ask my permission.” So there’s clear boundaries about where you have to ask permission and not. “I trust you.” It’s trusting people to make decisions, and then giving them feedback on those decisions, later.

[00:42:27.22] Ben: Two other paradoxes I wanted to pick up on. One is this idea of, you call it ‘tolerance for failure, but no tolerance for incompetence’. If you’re going to do experiments, you have to be allowing competent people to do them, right?

Gary: Organizations that are innovative have really high standards of people. So they draw a distinction between, something failed because biology got the best of us or physics got the best of us or the market. We tried something new. They draw a distinction between that and just, we were sloppy. We did a bad design. We did bad engineering. I didn’t motivate my team well. I didn’t listen to people who were giving me an impact. That’s incompetence. We’re not going to tolerate that. Innovation is hard enough. And that’s a harder edge. Everybody loves tolerance for failure but when organizations start talking about, look, we’re also not going to tolerate incompetence, that’s a scarier environment to be in, for a lot of people.

[00:43:28.13] Ben: You also talk about how there’s a given that experimentation is good, but you argue very strongly that, if you’re going to experiment, those experiments need to be bounded by a sense of what they’re going to teach you and how much you can afford to lose through those experiments, right?

Gary: So, it’s, what are we experimenting? Why are we doing this? And then, we’re going to generate data. We have to treat the data as sacred. We can’t just run an experiment, look at the data, and say, “Well, that’s not what we wanted. Let’s do this. Let’s keep doing it.” You have to ask yourself, if you’re getting results that you didn’t expect or that are less than optimal, why is that? What’s going on? And learn from it. And that’s the discipline. And I think there’s got to be a real discipline to experimentation. And everybody, again, loves the discipline until that discipline is applied to them.

[00:44:19.11] Ben: One of the things you said in the book is, as a leader, you have to be great at strategy, execution, and culture. And what I wanted to ask you was, how many people does that apply to? And then, do you think that kind of leadership only really comes in waves? I don’t know if you have ever read that Steve Blank article where he sort of says, you get one wave where somebody is great at innovation, and they surround themselves by people who are great at execution, and then when that person retires, or leaves, then you have a period where the company kind of sweats the asset or milks the existing innovations. And then, there’s not until the next generation of leaders that you then become innovative again. So, sorry to ask such a long question, but do you think it’s really difficult to have those qualities in a leader? And do you think they come in waves?

Gary: I agree with that observation. I do think they come in cycles. I think what happens is you do get the visionary leader, the innovative leader, who then surrounds themselves with people who are execution-oriented to kind of counterbalance them, which is probably a reasonable thing to do. But then, the problem is those people become the heads of the company, and there’s less innovation. And then, the company gets in some trouble and an innovative leader comes back. I think Microsoft’s a great example. I mean, I think they’ve gone through that cycle. How many leaders are good at strategy, systems, and innovation? It’s a great question! Probably very few. I think, as a leader, your task is three-fold: you’ve got to master strategy, you’ve got to be a good architect of the system, and you’ve got to be a good architect of the culture. But if they had to choose, I’d say, focus on strategy and focus on culture. Systems — there’s enough other people who can probably help you get that right. So, focus on strategy and focus on culture.

[00:46:06.16] Ben: We’re in a world now, where, the pace of change is constantly accelerating, we’re on a treadmill. And sustaining innovation is kind of like the new source of sustainable competitive advantage. Do you think that’s fair? I.e., this is really what makes or breaks companies today, and therefore, the leaders that are good at this kind of almost deserve to be paid whatever they’re paid, because this is just so critical?

Gary: Well, I want to be clear, because in terms of sustaining innovation means — and Clay Christensen used that term, ‘disruptive versus sustaining’. I’m not talking about sustaining innovation the way he did it. Sustaining your capacity for innovation is critical. I mean, that is what is really, I think, the skill that is in scarce supply. So, it’s not just being good at innovation. It’s building an organization that is capable of innovation. I think that’s the fundamental difference. The leaders should worry about building the organization that’s going to outlast them.

[00:46:57.09] Ben: So, the way you finish the book is you talk about innovation as agency, right? So, we all have a role to play in innovation. Is there a way for us to become, as individuals, in a practical sense, for us to become better at innovation and also to make our businesses more innovative?

Gary: Yeah, absolutely! Look, innovation starts with yourself and organizations want us to be innovative. I’m not innovative, but I want other people to be so. So, you kind of have to open it yourself, for sure. But I think, how do you do it individually, and in all walks of life? I go back to some of the things I talked about in the book: expose yourself to a wide range of people and ideas. So, get out of your comfort zone, get yourself in contact with people you’re not normally talking to. I think that’s probably the most important thing. The second thing is, get comfortable yourself with experimenting. And I think we’re all trying things and learning from them as an individual skill — getting comfortable with that I think it’s a prerequisite for having your organization be comfortable with that.

Gary: There’s lots of these things individually, you can practice. I mean, you can practice candor and learn how to do that, and challenge yourself to start to follow some of those cultural attributes. Get yourself comfortable with receiving candid feedback and not taking it too personally when your ideas are criticized. Learn how to do that. And again, I think some of it is, get yourself in situations where, if you’re outside your comfort zone in something you’re doing individually, that you’re not going to be very good at, and that you’re going to fail at it, and you’re going to learn that humility that comes from it — I took a drawing class two years ago. I’m a terrible artist, but my wife is an artist. So, she was taking me to a drawing class, and I took it, and I failed a lot at it, but that’s okay. I mean, I think it’s no fun to fail, but you have to realize that failing at things isn’t so bad — and innovating requires that. So, if you get comfortable with some of that yourself, you’ll become a more innovative person in everything you do. I think that, in an organization, you will be a better agent for innovation.

Ben: Fantastic! Gary, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing all of your insights from your book! Just to reiterate, Gary’s book is called Creative Construction: The DNA of Sustained Innovation — and we highly recommend it!

Mimetic Theory And The Future Of E-commerce (#25)

Mimetic Theory And The Future Of E-commerce, w/ Julian LEHR

Your host, Ben Robinson, is virtually sitting down with Julian Lehr, an ex-Googler, startup founder, and current startup partnerships lead at Stripe. Julian and Ben get into all sorts of interesting behavioral psychology related to buying and how digital companies can use physical elements to take advantage of signaling. You will also learn Julian’s tactics for staying productive, why advertising budgets are shifting from celebrities to micro-influencers, why the Berlin startup scene hasn’t quite lived up to the hype — and much more!

Podcast also available on:

Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsAnchor.fmSoundcloudStitcherPocket CastsTuneInOvercast

Julian recommends:

  1. One book: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse
  2. One influencer: Dan Romero
  3. Best recent article: The Arc of Collaboration, kwokchain.com, August 16th 2019
  4. Favourite brand: Kleid Stationery®
  5. Productivity hack: Treating your email inbox like a to-do list.

Full podcast transcript:

 

How do you stand out of the crowd? How do you make sure that other people see your content? And this is something that the most successful digital products have done as they monetized signal amplification. — Julian Lehr

[00:01:19.06] Ben: Thanks so much for coming on the podcast! I wanted to kick off by talking about Europe and the European startup scene. So, your job at Stripe gives you quite a lot of exposure to up-and-coming European startups, and I just wondered how excited, how bullish you are about the European startup scene?

Julian: I’d say I’m generally an optimist. So, I think things are moving in the right direction. Are we close to Silicon Valley, yet? Probably not. Will we ever be Silicon Valley? It’s like, in Paris or London or Berlin, is there going to be a new or next Silicon Valley? I don’t know. I guess I’m less bullish on that. But, on the other hand, I don’t think there has to be a Silicon Valley in Europe. So, that would be my answer, I guess.

I’d say Berlin, in general, has been a bit of a disappointment, in the sense that, I think 10 years ago, we looked at Berlin like, “This is going to be the next startup ecosystem. It’s very cheap, there’s a lot of talent, there’s a lot of international talent, and there’s a lot of crazy people. ” And we haven’t really been seeing that, at all. — Julian Lehr

[00:02:04.17] Ben: And what about Berlin — the city in which you live? What’s the startup scene like, there?

Julian: I shouldn’t be saying this, probably, being part of that ecosystem. But I’d say Berlin, in general, has been a bit of a disappointment, in the sense that, I think 10 years ago, we looked at Berlin like, “This is going to be the next startup ecosystem. It’s very cheap, there’s a lot of talent, there’s a lot of international talent, and there’s a lot of crazy people. And crazy people will work on crazy ideas, and the next big thing will look like a toy first, and we’ll see a lot of very interesting innovation from Berlin.” And we haven’t really been seeing that, at all. Like, in the sense that the most successful companies in Berlin have been sort of like rocket internet type copycats, which is interesting. So, this is a famous Peter Thiel quote: “We were promised flying cars and all we got was 140 characters.” And, in Berlin, it’s sort of like we were promised flying cars and all we got was the guy trying to copy 140 characters. So, I wonder, where’s that crazy innovation that we were promised? I don’t know if it ever will come. I think there’s a couple of reasons why we haven’t seen what we expected but I thought that was interesting.

[00:03:22.24] Ben: What are those reasons then? Because it sounds like you’ve got all the ingredients, right? You’ve got weirdos, you’ve got talent, is cheap enough for people to live inexpensively. So, it sounds like it should all be coming together.

Julian: Well, I wonder — and this is sort of my pet theory — I wonder if the low cost of living is actually more of a barrier. And if the high cost of living in San Francisco is more of a feature than a bug, and it’s like, a) there’s the high cost of living, so you have to be serious about the work that you do. And then, on the other hand, there is very little to do in San Francisco. The quality of life is pretty bad: there’s not much of a nightlife, there’s not great parks you would spend a lot of time in. So, in a lot of cases, the best place to be is literally your office, whereas, in Berlin, there are all these distractions: there’s great nightlife, there’s great bars, there’s great parks — there’s a lot of other things you can do. And so, you don’t need to work hard to enjoy all of the benefits because it’s so cheap.

I’ve seen a lot of people who have moved to Berlin with the intention to start a company, and then they get just sucked into the nightlife and they do some other job because life is pretty great. — Julian Lehr

[00:04:22.24] Ben: And, I guess what you’re saying is if it’s very cheap to live, that gives you a long runway and kind of takes away that pressure to getting things done every day.

Julian: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. You don’t need to raise venture capital from day one. You can just see what happens. I’ve seen a lot of people who have moved here with the intention to start a company, and then they get just sucked into the nightlife and they do some other job because life is pretty great. I think there’s another Peter Thiel quote: “People move to Berlin in their 20s to retire.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, right? It’s a good thing for a city to have a great quality of life. It’s just, the side effect of that is we probably won’t see as many companies as in other ecosystems.

There’s a trend in Eastern Europe, where entrepreneurs, because their home market is too small or too insignificant, they start selling to US consumers or businesses from day one. And they actually pretend to be a US entity. — Julian Lehr

[00:05:05.01] Ben: And then, why do you think Europe hasn’t produced more top-of-the-food-chain platform companies?

Julian: I don’t know if this is a question about platform companies. It’s more about larger companies, in general. And maybe the lack of funding might be one reason. There are other things, like, the average European might be more risk-averse than the average American. But I think the larger problem is that it’s just a very fragmented market. So, if you’re a German entrepreneur, you’ll probably start a product that works for the average German consumer. And that is a big market. It’s a big enough market to raise venture capital, but it’s not the same as the US. And it’s not just language barriers, but there’s different user behavior — like in-payments for example. This is really interesting and this is something we see at Stripe, of course. The average German uses very different payment methods than a person in France or in the Netherlands, for example. And there’s a lot of these tiny differences. So I think there’s an interesting trend in Eastern Europe, actually, where these entrepreneurs there, because their home market is too small or too insignificant, they start selling to US consumers or businesses from day one. And they actually pretend to be a US entity. So, they have US headquarters, which is one guy in San Francisco or New York, but then the entire team is somewhere in Romania or Belarus — cheap engineering talent that they just sell to the US market from day one.

[00:06:43.18] Ben: How confident are you that we can overcome that fragmentation? So, I’ve been noticing that over the last few weeks has been a number of initiatives coming out of the European Union to try to overcome these obstacles that startups face when they do business across borders. Do you think this is something that we can fix, we can make it a more homogeneous market?

Julian: Well, I think you can fix parts of it. And I do think that, on average, people’s English skills probably improved. And so, you can just release an English product that’s going to work for most markets. I think those things will get better over time, but I think it just takes time. I am optimistic in the long term. Probably not so much in the short term.

the idea is more to connect with businesses that you’ve purchased from before to increase lifetime value, which is one way to work against high user-acquisition costs from aggregators in the channel, which are Instagram, Pinterest, etc. — Julian Lehr

[00:07:28.21] Ben: Okay. So, your last two blogs, which I really enjoyed, both have been about Shopify or at least eCommerce. When you’ve analyzed Shopify, you sort of correctly identified that it’s a platform, it’s not an aggregator. But, in a way, you suggest that that might leave it open to an aggregator, to somebody who might sit on top of it, and kind of suck away its margins or gradually kind of move downstream and gobble up some of its market share. And then, you’ve also talked about ‘Shop’, the app it just launched. So, how do you see Shop? Do you see Shop as an attempt by Shopify to try to aggregate demand and therefore protect its business — so, go upstream to protect its business and its margins?

Julian: Yeah, Shop is interesting. So, I think people have misinterpreted what Shop is. So, Shop has been interpreted as sort of like a demand aggregation play, sort of like a discovery platform and you log in and you see different products, recommendations across different Shopify stores. I don’t think it is. So, the way I see it is, you can only really discover shops that you’ve bought from, previously. So it seems to me that the idea is more to connect with businesses that you’ve purchased from before to increase lifetime value, which is one way to work against high user-acquisition costs from aggregators in the channel, which are Instagram, Pinterest, etc. So this is how I see Shop. That being said, over time, I could see it becoming more of a discovery platform, perhaps. I think that is interesting. It’s definitely something that I would assume Shopify is interested in experimenting with. The question is, how successful will that be? Ben Thompson had a few good articles on this. He was like, they should focus on the supply side. There’s very few cases where the supply side aggregator has then successively become a demand-side aggregator — it’s just not what they’re good at. It’s more of a distraction. I don’t know. I don’t disagree with him, but I think it will be interesting to see Shopify trying things in that space because I do think that there’s room for innovation in the product discovery space.

I don’t think you have to become a demand aggregator to be successful as a platform that aggregates supply. — Julian Lehr

[00:09:50.24] Ben: I suppose the argument is, if they just remain a platform, then they can build massive economies of scale, right? But, as you know, in your article, those that aggregate demand always have a stronger position than those that aggregate supply. And I suppose the argument is, if you’re a platform, you kind of don’t exist to the end consumer. Nobody should theoretically know whose Shopify is. But, nonetheless, if its job is to serve those businesses as best as possible, then that might mean, over time, that they have to become a demand aggregator, otherwise, there’s no way out of paying the aggregator tax to acquire new customers?

Julian: Well, it depends. So, I don’t think you have to become a demand aggregator to be successful as a platform that aggregates supply. If you’re able to diversify the demand side, so if the demand was spread across hundreds or thousands of different channels, then it doesn’t matter. Yes, there will always be a tax that people have to pay, but that’s just normal. I don’t think there’s a way around that. There’s always going to be some user acquisition cost. You have to pay your distributors, in a sense. It becomes dangerous when there’s one or two very powerful aggregators — like Instagram — and they capture all of the value, I think that is a potential risk, not so much for Shopify itself, but for its individual shops and suppliers.

we look at someone that we admire, and we look at what are the things that they have or the things that they want, and then those are the things that we want, as well. — Julian Lehr

[00:11:28.08] Ben: It was a two-part blog, and the first-part blog was really talking about these dynamics, of how does Shopify coexists with Facebook, with Instagram. And then, in the second part, you were talking about Shopify in the context of Mimetic Theory. What is Mimetic Theory and how does that play out with influencers and helping curate better recommendations for us, as consumers?

Julian: So, Mimetic Theory is this theory from this French philosopher called René Girard. A few people might be familiar with him — he has gained quite a following in tech in recent years because he’s one of Peter Thiel’s mentors. And, basically, the theory is that what sets us humans apart from other species is that we observe others and we learn by observing and copying other people or people around us. And according to Girard, that also includes copying what other people desire, what they want. So, basically, what we do is we look at someone that we admire, and we look at what are the things that they have or the things that they want, and then those are the things that we want, as well. Which is not something that we are aware of. We think there’s a direct relationship between myself and an object that I want to have. So, what he argues is that it’s not a direct relationship, but it’s more a triangular relationship. So, there’s a so-called mediator that I look up to, and then I look at, “What does this person have? I want the same thing.” Because, in the end, I sort of want to become that person. So, the object that I buy is more of a means to an end. I’m just buying that thing to eventually become that person. If you take that theory, and you look at the way that eCommerce works, it’s not really set up that way, in the sense that if I look for a product on Amazon, I just get a list of products. I can rank them by relevance, I can rank them by price, I can’t really rank them by what I apparently am interested in, which is, who of my mediators is using which products?

[00:13:36.25] Ben: But that’s true on any platform, isn’t it? I mean, it’s particularly acute on Amazon, because you have to start with an idea that, you know, I want to buy a blender, for example, right? Whereas, it’s easier on Google or other platforms to search for a variety of things: what’s the best blender? And what you’re saying is there’s actually a third way, right? So, rather than just kind of know what I want and seek the cheapest option on Amazon or have an idea of what I want and seek recommendations from others via Google, you’re saying there’s the third way, which is “I want to see what blender Kanye West uses.”

Julian: Right! Or any other influencer, for that matter.

Ben: Yeah. Beyonce or whatever. I think you used Kanye West in your article, that’s why I mentioned Kanye West.

Julian: Right! So, yeah. A mediator could be a celebrity, it could also be a friend or someone else you look up to. But, if you think about Girard’s theory, basically perfectly describes what influencers are. The name is perfect, if you think about it. So, basically, the way I see it, a lot of shopping or eCommerce decisions are made by browsing an Instagram feed — I’m going through a feed of mediators and look at what they are interested in, and that’s what I want to buy as well — which is exactly why Instagram works so well as a user acquisition channel for Shopify products, especially because the products that are typically sold on Shopify are things that are visually appealing, they’re products that you didn’t necessarily know you wanted in the first place. So, I think that’s why it works really, really well. I think there’s a bunch of other products that aren’t necessarily discovered on Instagram, but they’re discovered on Twitter, for example, blogs, newsletters, podcasts, etc., that you would then go to Amazon trying to find it later, but I still feel that there’s potentially room for an aggregator that specifically just does product recommendations based on people that you follow.

[00:15:53.07] Ben: Yeah. And they would have lists of the products they’re using and all the products they recommend?

Julian: Yeah, exactly. So, I think if Shop app eventually does become a product recommendation engine, I think that’s what they should try to build — sort of like collections or lists of things that I might be interested in, based on people I follow on various social networks.

[00:16:19.04] Ben: Because, again, not only differentiates them from Amazon on the one hand — which is really about the cheapest and knowing ex-ante what you want — and Instagram — which is, you know, I don’t want to say cluttered, but it has many, many people sharing many things on it — with something which is dedicated to a curated list of recommendations from influencers?

Julian: Exactly! And I think there’s a few products that have tried to build something similar. None of them have really been successful. So, maybe there isn’t room for a product like that. Maybe that’s not something that people want to use, but I do wonder if there is room for a product in that space.

a lot of advertising budgets have shifted from very big influencers or celebrities, almost, to more of like micro or nano influencers that only have a couple thousand or a couple of hundred followers because that is perceived as being more authentic. — Julian Lehr

[00:17:00.24] Ben: And how do you square that with authenticity, because the big buzzword is authenticity, which is, people are becoming skeptical when they think that an influencer is paid to promote a product. So, how would this sit? You know, if I was an influencer, and I had a list of products I’d recommend, how would you, as the consumer be able to infer whether or not they were genuine recommendations or paid-for recommendations?

Julian: I think that explains some of the trends that we see in online advertising, where a lot of advertising budgets have shifted from very big influencers or celebrities, almost, to more of like micro or nano influencers that only have a couple thousand or a couple of hundred followers because that is perceived as being more authentic. But that could also work in a product recommendation engine. It doesn’t have to necessarily be someone like Kanye West that I follow. It could be, literally, the guy next door that I think is interesting.

[00:18:03.14] Ben: What about voice? So, you also wrote a blog about emerging platform opportunities. Why do you think we haven’t seen more breakout applications with voice?

Julian: I think the mistake that we have made is we’ve looked at voice as a new kind of interface that replaces a normal screen or other types of interface. And I just don’t think that that makes a lot of sense, in the sense that talking to an assistant just takes a lot more time and it’s less convenient than doing things on a screen. There’s no room for discovery. I have no idea which voice commands I could use. We might get there at some point if these voices systems get better, with time. I’m a bit bearish about voice as a primary interface.

Julian: What I do think is interesting is voice as a secondary interface. So, one of the most interesting applications that I’ve seen in the device space was at a Hackathon, where a team built a voice interface for Starcraft. So, the idea is that you’re so busy with your hands on your keyboard and your mouse, that you would use an additional interface to command your troops with a couple of voice commands. And I wonder if there’s room to replicate that for other applications. What if I could edit my Word document, as I’m writing it with voice commands? I think there could be something interesting in that space. So I think voice is interesting — just not as a primary interface.

[00:19:46.26] Ben: When you look at finance, where do you see the big platform opportunities there? Do you think, ultimately, finance is something that just gets embedded in other products and services? You know, i.e. do you think that we will always have an interface directly into finance? Or do you think that, for an SME, it’s easier to take a loan out through their accounting system or, if I wanted to pay you, it’s easier for me to do it through WhatsApp? Do you think, ultimately, finance becomes just a layer in the internet infrastructure, which is what a lot of people are predicting?

Julian: I think there’s a few interesting apps that do have a social component. Like, if you think about Venmo or PayPal, to a certain degree, they’re basically messaging, but based on money, to a certain degree. There are a few interesting investment apps in the US that have a social component to it. So, you have a feed and you see what your friends have invested in. So, I think there’s a few interesting ideas in this space. I think the question remains, is that a mainstream application or not? I don’t know.

At some point, your inbox will become crowded with too many newsletters and then content providers will look for the next best thing — Julian Lehr

[00:21:00.07] Ben: I want to talk to you about content, now. So, you also wrote an essay talking about the proliferation of newsletters and podcasts. It’s quite difficult to get access to the end consumer when you go via an intermediary like Facebook because it’s so crowded. And then, ultimately, an idea that I guess was a bit more popular last year, which is, we’re all retreating a bit from some of these mainstream platforms because there’s so much noise and trolling, etc. So, why do you think we have seen such a proliferation? Do you just think it’s a functional all-of-the-above or do you have a different theory?

Julian: Well, I think those are two different things, sort of like dark forest theory of people moving into private chat groups. There’s a different problem there than people wanting to reach an audience and not being able to because the platform is so crowded. So, I think those are two different things. The main trend that I see is people looking for a new platform because they want to reach their audience, which is difficult if you’re new to a platform. It’s very similar to that Shopify — Instagram problem that we discussed earlier, if you think about it. If you rely too much on one demand channel, then that can become difficult. And so, I think newsletters aren’t necessarily better than blogs. It’s just that they have distribution built-in and as long as people don’t have too many newsletter subscriptions, then that’s great for content producers. At some point, your inbox will become crowded with too many newsletters and then content providers will look for the next best thing, which might be Telegram, it might be some other platform we aren’t even aware of. It might be audio. But I think that’s just sort of like an ongoing thing where people just constantly look for an additional trade route, so to speak.

[00:23:00.23] Ben: Do you think, in this case, actually, because people will pay for newsletters, they kind of have more sustainability this time? Because I guess, what happened in the past was people weren’t prepared to pay for content, so it was really difficult for people to stick at these things for a long time. But I’m just wondering, since there is more willingness to pay for content, maybe this theory of the long tail could actually happen after all?

Julian: Yeah. I think there’s room for that. There’s 7 billion people on this planet, so even if you have a super tiny niche, you can probably make a living. But I do think that we will see bumbles over time in the newsletter space or content space, in general, because there are some power laws and there can only be so many Ben Thompson’s who actually made a decent living off of newsletters. I think that still remains to be seen how many people will actually be able to make enough money to make that a sustainable source of income.

[00:24:15.04] Ben: And if we, again, compare it with this Amazon versus Shopify kind of analogy, if Substack is Shopify, the Facebook of newsletters — is that Facebook itself? Or do you think there’s a gap?

Julian: That’s a good question! I guess, maybe, your inbox will be that. If you receive 100 newsletters, will there be a dedicated newsletter inbox in your Gmail account? And we’ll just rank those newsletters by date? Will those be ranked by relevance? Or will there be ads so that your newsletter shows up on top? And so, it’s like a separate newsletter. I wonder if Google is working on a product in that space. That’ll be interesting. And then, yeah, I guess the question is where do you discover newsletters in the first place? There’s a product called ‘Stump’, I believe. It’s trying to build a demand-side aggregator for newsletters. I’m pretty sure we’ll see someone trying to build that discovery engine. Maybe that will be Substack itself, trying to build that.

[00:25:29.05] Ben: You’ve written a lot about email. I suppose we think email is being a tool that’s kind of old-fashioned, right? Because it was the first use-case for the web in many ways, right? And everybody has email. And, in some ways, we’re dissatisfied with email, right? Because you have this constant struggle to keep up with emails. But you seem to think that emails could almost be like this meta-tool that sits above all these other productivity tools, which, in the work that we do, is a problem, right? Because, as you said, we’re using Trello, we’re using Slack, we’re using all these different tools — Teams, Zoom. How do you keep track of everything? And one of your ideas is that we don’t have to reinvent a new tool. In fact, email might very well be the right tool to do that, to perform that metafunction of aggregating all the tasks and information and conversations from all these other different applications. So how would that play out in your mind?

Julian: So, I think of email, and calendar, and To Do’s as sort of the same thing. Sort of like different sides of the same three-dimensional coin. And people have built great to-do apps, they’ve built great calendar apps, they’ve built great email apps, but nobody has really integrated them. I think Superhuman are in an interesting spot where they could build that product. So, basically, what they’ve done for those who are not familiar with Superhuman, is they have a command-line interface. So, instead of having 100 different buttons in the interface, you can basically trigger a command-line interface, and then just write whatever action you want to do, with a bunch of really clever keyboard shortcuts that just makes you very, very effective. And so, I wonder if we’ll move to a world where we can trigger certain actions directly from your inbox. So, something that we’ve seen in the last couple of years is we can now snooze emails, and they come back and so, the emails become to do’s. But if we want to interact with their actual content, we still have to switch to whatever application we’ve received the initial email notification from. I think what we’ll see next is, when you receive a GitHub notification, you can basically close an issue directly from your email. Or you could, maybe if you receive an invoice, you can trigger a payment action that pastes that invoice instantly, without you having to switch back to your bank account. I think there’s a lot of interesting room for innovation in that space.

I think email is, for me, at least, it’s sort of like an underrated tool. If designed right, I think it can be super powerful! — Julian Lehr

[00:28:17.24] Ben: All conversations just get aggregated up to email, and you just control everything from there?

Julian: It could be email, it could be something else. People thought that Slack might become that place, sort of that meta layer that sits across different apps. It hasn’t really. And Slack, to me, is mostly a distraction. Email is better. I’m in control to whom I answer, when. So, I think email is, for me, at least, it’s sort of like an underrated tool. If designed right, I think it can be super powerful!

[00:28:51.16] Ben: In a way, this problem of fragmented productivity applications is getting bigger, right? Because, as we try to coordinate the activities of workforces that are increasingly distributed and not in the office, then it becomes harder and harder to do this, and are more urgent, at the same time?

Julian: Yeah, 100%. This is what I think: Microsoft — and I get Spark there as well — given that they do have their own email client, and they have all these different productivity apps, they have started to build some of these things that I’m describing. But I do hope that there will be something like Superhuman that combines different products that aren’t necessarily from the same company.

[00:29:38.09] Ben: I’m amazed at how well Microsoft’s done. I suppose I’m not surprised they’ve done well, but I’m still surprised they’ve done as well as they have. And for me, Microsoft is like the case study for bundling, right?

Julian: 100%. Yeah.

[00:29:55.12] Ben: Because, I mean, none of those applications work very well in themselves. And I suppose, where I’m slightly surprised, is that we’re moving to this world where, since everything’s easier to integrate now, we’ve increased the mix of buying the best of everything, but still, the power of bundling should still never be underestimated, right?

Julian: Yeah! I guess the problem is that it’s risky for any business to open up their product to other apps. It’s very easy to become commoditized and then there’s like that one tool that just makes you redundant, but you’re still an input of that demand aggregator that captures all the value. So, as a startup, I’m just probably reluctant to open up my platform to others, and just trying to build it myself. And so, you end up with all these different walled gardens that don’t really interact with each other, which is a pity.

[00:30:52.17] Ben: And just while we’re still on the topic of productivity, you seem to be somebody that, based on reading everything that you’ve written, somebody who is extremely focused on productivity, and making sure that you waste as little time as possible and automating things. What kind of productivity tips do you have? And what would have been your major discoveries in the last few months?

Julian: So, I’ve been looking for a to-do app that works for me, for basically the last 10 years, and I’ve never found one that really works for me, that I found useful. And so, I’ve actually made my email inbox my to-do list. So for a to-do list, I just send an email to myself, and then I snooze it for the day that I think I want to get that task done. And that works pretty well for me. I mean, I already spend quite a lot of time in my email inbox, so that’s just a good place for me to keep my to-do’s as well. And then, I do work a lot in Google Calendar, as well. So, yes, I have my meetings in Google Calendar, but then I would also add specific to-dos to my calendar. So, at the beginning of each week, I would go through my to-do’s and my email inbox and then block out time in my calendar so that basically the whole day is blocked with different events so I know exactly when I need to get what tasks done.

[00:32:17.06] Ben: Do you have notifications set up to come into your email?

Julian: I don’t. I’ve turned almost all notifications off. So, Slack Direct Messages is turned on, but I would then sometimes just close Slack for an hour or two when I want to get deep work done. The other thing that works really well for me, it’s just using an actual pen and paper for my writing, for example. I do it on actual physical paper, with just no distractions.

[00:32:44.28] Ben: So you write in pen and paper and then copy it?

Julian: Yeah, mostly. Otherwise, it’s me writing two sentences and then it’s like, “Let’s see what’s on Twitter!” And then I waste 30 minutes on Twitter.

[00:32:57.08] Ben: Yeah. Okay. Because there’s this constant challenge of synchronous and asynchronous, right? And the problem with email is, is synchronous. So, basically, what you’re saying is you don’t just switch off all the apps because you don’t trust yourself. You actually take a pen and paper, write what you’re going to write — the blog, the essay — and then you type it up afterwards?

Julian: Yeah. It just makes me a lot more productive.

[00:33:18.15] Ben: Okay. And then music, again, is something that is conducive to productivity, right?

Julian: Yes. I haven’t actively looked for music that makes me more productive. It’s more that I noticed when I looked at music data — I log everything I listen to with Last FM — I saw this trend that there are certain genres of music that have just increased over the years, like classical music, ambient music. And so, it seems like that’s a good proxy for my productivity. I can look at which weeks or months I spent most of my time listening to music and then compare that with my notes of how productive did I feel on a given day — and, yearly, that correlates pretty well, which is interesting.

I have about 50 to 60 things that I track on a daily basis, things like mental well-being, physical well-being, media consumption, how fit I am — all sorts of things I’m just interested in. And people assume that that’s a lot of work. It actually isn’t.— Julian Lehr

[00:34:07.28] Ben: So, every month, you share data on what you’ve been reading, what you’ve been listening to. But you also sometimes go further, right? I can’t remember what you called it, but during the quarantine, you released data on all sorts of different things: your sleeping patterns, your commuting, what you’ve been eating. And I suppose one question is, how do you even track that data? And then, the second question is, why is it you choose to be just so open about sharing all this information? It’s almost like a mini Truman Show, where you just sort of lay yourself open for public consumption. So, how do you do it and why do you do it?

Julian: I use a pretty big air-table spreadsheet for most of the things that I track. So, I have about 50 to 60 things that I track on a daily basis, things like mental well-being, physical well-being, media consumption, how fit I am — all sorts of things I’m just interested in. And people assume that that’s a lot of work. It actually isn’t. So, when I started with this, initially, more than seven or eight years ago, I carried around a physical notebook with me and I would just take notes as things happened. And then, at some point, you just get into the habit of being more present and realizing what you do. So, at the end of the day, I know exactly how many cups of coffee I drank, or how many beers I had on an evening, just because I subconsciously counted those, and then, each morning, the first thing I do is just open the spreadsheet, put in all the data from the previous day, which takes me three to five minutes, tops. That’s it. And, yeah, I’ve decided to share some of the data. I found that people find that type of data interesting. There’s only certain things that I’ve shared publicly. There’s a lot of things that I track — personal data that I wouldn’t share publicly on the internet. How many books I’ve read or how many podcasts I’ve listened to, I’m very much willing to share that with other people and it doesn’t seem like giving up on a lot of privacy.

[00:36:18.29] Ben: Why do you track all that stuff, yourself? Is it, again, in pursuit of productivity and well-being?

Julian: No, not really. So, it started as more of an experiment to just find out how much you do in a year. So, when I started with this, I was just curious how many cups of coffee do you drink in a year? How many people do you talk to? How many buildings do you enter? How much time you spend in the shower, etc. So, I had this pretty big project, where I tried to quantify pretty much every single aspect of my life — and I did that for an entire year. And then, as I was doing it, I sort of figured out that the data is interesting — there’s all these interesting patterns that you can see — and it’s almost like keeping a diary, I would say. It just makes you a lot more present. So, off the last seven years since I’ve been doing this, it feels like I remember more day-to-day activities than I did previously.

[00:37:16.02] Ben: And you don’t feel like the act of recording it changes your patterns in themselves? A bit like there’s a lot of evidence that this happens in economics, right? The minute you start to record something, then people’s behavior changes, right? A bit like, if I were to record how many beers I drink, I might naturally reduce consumption, right?

Julian: 100%. So, initially, when I started with this project, the idea was for the data not to influence my behavior, but then, it definitely does, like, you realize that “Oh, actually, I do drink a lot of alcohol. I should probably reduce my alcohol intake”, etc. So over time, I’ve started to introduce yearly goals where, at the beginning of the year is like, “This is how much I want to swim this year. This is the maximum amount of alcohol that I want to drink, etc. And then, the data just becomes a good way to see if I actually achieved all of those different goals.

[00:38:11.28] Ben: So, this might seem like a random shift of gears, but since we have been in quarantine, I can’t remember what the exact figure was, but I think Zoom went from 10 million daily users to 300 million daily users or whatever, and probably, as we come out of quarantine — some places already have — likely we’ll see a reduction in the number of daily users. But it feels like we’ve accelerated that trend towards remote work. We’ve accelerated people’s comfort levels with video conferencing. I’m just wondering, do you think Zoom is a big platform opportunity? Do you think we’ll get all those yoga teachers that started doing yoga classes online and suddenly realize that they, thanks to the internet, could reach a much larger customer base or consumer base? And I suppose there are hundreds of hundreds of other professions that have realized that they can reach a bigger audience. So, do you think there’s a platform opportunity in Zoom, that maybe people have underappreciated?

Julian: I think there’s definitely a platform opportunity. I do wonder if Zoom will be the one who’s actually building that platform. I’m a little skeptical. They don’t strike me as a company who’s been thinking about that. I think they’re busy working on everything. But I do agree that there’s definitely a platform where you probably should have different interfaces for different use cases. You know, it’s not just meetings, but as you say, it could be yoga instructors, or whatever it is that would need a platform. And there’s all these things that you can build on top of Zoom. I think there’s a payment opportunity, sort of like in-app purchases for Zoom calls where you can upgrade to premium content or different things as you are on the call. I think that’s an opportunity. I haven’t actually seen anyone building something in that space, but I think there’s definitely an opportunity there.

[00:40:22.16] Ben: And what about audio in general? You said that you listened to the podcast with Brett Bivens, and one of the things that he talks about is that he thinks the ear is under-monetized versus the eye. Do you agree that there’s a lot of untapped opportunities in audio? Just because we can do it alongside, it’s kind of less all-consuming and therefore, we can do it alongside other activities that we do.

Julian: Yeah, I think there’s definitely an opportunity there. Like, all that time we spend not in front of a screen, we usually have Airpods or some other headphones plugged in. So, there’s definitely opportunity to just consume content, and then, also to monetize that content. I’d say audio is overall probably under-monetized. There’s probably room for more. I think Spotify is in an interesting position there, where it seems like they’re trying to become the Netflix of podcasts. I think there’s room for an AdSense-type ad network for audio ads. That isn’t really something you could build with podcasts being very decentralized. But, if you have one aggregator dominating the space, I think there’s some interesting monetization opportunities there for sure.

[00:41:45.18] Ben: Are you bullish on Spotify? Because Brett is super bullish on Spotify!

Julian: Definitely in the non-music space. For music, they’ve been in a tough spot, given that there’s only so many suppliers, and they basically control what you can do and what you can monetize. But everything that’s not music, I think there’s huge opportunity to monetize. And it’s not just podcasts, right? It could be meditation apps, some other things that we aren’t even thinking about. Maybe there’s room for stuff like audio-based social networks. There’s a few popping up these days. I think there’s still a lot of interesting ideas that haven’t been explored yet.

[00:42:34.05] Ben: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the things that I most like about your monthly update of what you’ve been listening to because Spotify it’s getting better, but that kind of stuff is not very salient on Spotify. It’s not easy to see what other people are listening to. But I suspect, as you said, there was almost this disincentive to get people to spend too much time on Spotify, because the more time they spend on Spotify, the more they have to pay the record labels. But when they have a more Netflix catalog of content that they own outright, then yeah, you basically want to drive people to the site and have them spend as long in there as possible because once it moves out of just listening to music they don’t own, then they can take up gross margins quite a bit, right?

Julian: Exactly! Yeah.

[00:43:17.14] Ben: When do you listen to podcasts? Because I noticed that during quarantine, thanks to all the data you shared, you hadn’t been listening to as many podcasts as you normally would. Is that because you weren’t commuting?

Julian: Yeah, exactly! So I usually listen to podcasts while I’m commuting — so, before and after work. I’ve now started to basically go for a walk before and after work to simulate a commute. And so, my podcast consumption has gone up, again, as well. So, it seems like we’re almost at pre-quarantine levels, at this point.

Everything that we do is sort of a signaling aspect. We’re just trying to let people know that it’s a hidden message in what we do, and that that’s why we actually do these things. — Julian Lehr

[00:43:50.08] Ben: I want to talk to you next about signaling as a service. You wrote another great essay talking about signaling and how signaling is mostly associated with physical products, and you were talking about how we can translate that into the online world, right?

Julian: I read a super interesting book called, “The Elephant In The Brain”, which talks about signaling and basically makes two arguments: everything that we do is sort of a signaling aspect. We’re just trying to let people know that it’s a hidden message in what we do and that that’s why we actually do these things. And then, the other argument is that we’re not actually aware of doing that. So, a classic example of this was conspicuous consumption, where you buy a Rolex watch, not because it’s a great watch, but because you want to signal something about your social status and your place in society. And what they claim is that is not just luxury goods, but pretty much everything that you do has a signaling component — whether it’s green products that you buy, whether you’re giving to charity — basically everything that you do, you just do it for the sake of signaling something about yourself.

Julian: And so, I wondered if that also applies to digital products, and if so, if that explains why digital products tend not to monetize it, as well as their physical counterparts. And the way I look at signaling is there’s basically three components to it. So, the first thing is what I call ‘a signal message’ — that’s whatever you want to convey by using or buying a product. So, if you think about a pair of sneakers, the signaling message is something along the lines of, “I live a healthy and active lifestyle.” Now, as a next step, you need some form of ‘signal distribution’ so that other people know about that message you’re trying to send. So again, with the turf sneakers, you just wear them in public where other people can see them. Great! It works pretty well. This is why people are willing to spend a lot of money on sneakers, but not on socks — nobody can see your socks so you’re not incentivized to spend a lot of money on them. And then, the third thing is, if everyone is wearing cool sneakers, how do you make sure that your sneakers stand out? So you need some sort of amplification to make sure that you stand out of the crowd. In the example of the sneakers, it might be a very unique design, it might be flashy colors, whatever.

Julian: So, physical products do really well having a signal message because they’re tangible, they’re physical, they just represent something. There’s certain limits to your signal distribution, in the sense that there’s only so many people who can see you wearing a pair of sneakers, for example. Just because it’s physical, there’s a certain limit to that. And then, signal amplification is also something that seems difficult in a physical world. For digital products, it’s sort of the other way around, where, because they’re intangible, you don’t really have a signal message, or at least it’s difficult to distribute that message to other people. So, if you think about a fitness app, which is also about living a healthy and active lifestyle, it just lives on your phone. Nobody can see the apps on your home screen. So, therefore, the willingness to pay is just a lot lower. You wouldn’t spend $150 on a fitness app, probably.

Julian: What digital products have done, though, is what you just mentioned: basically signal distribution at scale. So, what Instagram, and Facebook, and Twitter do is basically they allow you to share things about yourself. You can just take a picture of your sneakers, and now, a million people could potentially see that you own these sneakers. So, that works really well. The problem is, they can’t really monetize that signal distribution. The more people you reach, the more powerful the signal gets. So, if you were to monetize that signal distribution, then you wouldn’t reach as many people because you’re only willing to spend that much money on it.

Julian: Now, there’s a third thing, which is signal amplification, which means that what they monetize is standing out of the crowd, which just goes back to the discussion we had earlier around, if you have so many content producers, how do you stand out of the crowd? How do you make sure that other people see your content? And this is something that the most successful digital products have done: they monetized signal amplification. So, it’s a network that’s free to use, but if you want to make sure that you stand out, that’s when you have to pay. So, for example, Tinder is generally free to use, anyone can join. If you want to stand out with super likes and other in-app purchases, that’s when you have to pay — and that works really, really well for them. I would also argue that Fortnite is a similar example. So, again, it’s not really a game, it’s more of a social network. It’s free to use, it’s free to play. It’s not something that’s common in gaming, typically; it’s free to win — that’s also not common. The only thing that you have to pay for is signal amplification. So, if you want to have special skins that stand out or have these emote dancers that make your character special, that’s what you have to pay for.

what’s interesting is combining a digital product with a physical product. So, I think that’s something that Neo Banks such as N26, or Revolut have done really, really well, where, if you subscribe to a premium plan, you get a really nice-looking metal card. And that’s what people pay for.- Julian Lehr

[00:49:28.13] Ben: Did you ever read the article that was called, ‘Shared Value Transactions’?

Julian: I have not.

[00:49:34.29] Ben: It’s funny because this is what I thought when I read your article, which is like, it looked at this from a different vantage point, which is, actually, the Free to Play, and then when you charge, for add-ons is all about maximizing the number of users because you have network effects, and so on. And then, getting basically your most active users to subsidize the platform for everybody else — and you didn’t need that many active users. But actually, I think your take is more interesting. It’s almost one that I suspect a lot of people overlook when designing applications, which is, it’s almost like, if you had a whole bunch of things that you thought of when you were strategizing, the signaling effect of your product and the importance of that in its marketing and distribution is critical. And that’s one of those I was so fascinated by the essay because I suspect that this is something that most people under-appreciate.

Julian: Yeah, I agree. And it’s not a difficult problem to solve. I think what’s interesting is combining a digital product with a physical product. So, I think that’s something that Neo Banks such as N26, or Revolut have done really, really well, where, if you subscribe to a premium plan, you get a really nice-looking metal card. And that’s what people pay for. The premium benefits aren’t that great — you get a few more free ATM withdrawals, but they don’t really justify the 15–17 euro a month price hack. What people pay for is to be seen with a nice card. And so, I wonder if there’s room for other products to introduce an additional physical element to their digital subscription. If it’s a fitness app, maybe that’s t-shirts or some other fitness gear that they sell together with a subscription. I think there should be more experimentation in that space.

I think there’s going to be an interesting trend where you modularize eCommerce, where you don’t buy from a specific shop, but you buy directly from an influencer. — Julian Lehr

[00:51:32.01] Ben: Well, one of the podcasts we most recently recorded was on the whole craft movement, which is a really big thing — this whole move. We had a couple of companies on: one that does craft beer. And, we talked about this movement as being a function of growing affluence of the internet giving more information, and therefore, enabling people to make better choices, desire to have more sustainable products, and so on. But I suppose there’s a different take, which is craft is just really about signaling. It’s about signaling that I can afford better maybe, or I’m more worried about the provenance of what I eat and drink and where.

Julian: I think that’s part of it. And then, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot: how do you marry the signaling theory with mimetic theory? Because they also seem to be sort of the same thing, like, you use mimetic theory to learn what you can signal later, and becoming a mediator that other people follow is sort of a signaling play. I think that’s super interesting! I wonder if you look at other people coming up with their own brand for whatever it is, and so, I want to use it as well, sort of like a network effect, the mimetic network effect where, because my friend has started a craft beer brand, I want to have my own brand, perhaps. And this explains why we’ve seen all of these microbrands in general, not just for craft beer, but all sorts of things.

[00:53:19.27] Ben: And I’m convinced that that’s how you scale these craft products, right? Which is the end of the mass consumer, right? So, we don’t sort of mass produce, mass advertise, and mass sell relatively standardized goods. Instead, we sort of cater increasingly to smaller demographics, and so on. But actually, those demographics can be quite similar across many different locations. And, how do you reach those demographics at scale without paying a lot of money to Facebook and Google? And I think it comes back to your same point, which is, you find the influencers. So I really do agree that the signaling and mimetic theory, they could coalesce.

Julian: Yeah. I actually think that the products, in a lot of cases, remain the same. They just have a different packaging and a different brand. So, it’s the same product, but you buy it for a different reason because everyone is a little different. And so, you see a lot of these influencers becoming brands. And so, I think there’s going to be an interesting trend where you modularize eCommerce, where you don’t buy from a specific shop, but you buy directly from an influencer. And it’s the same product that you would buy from another influencer, but it’s branded in a slightly different way. So, we buy the same things, but we buy them for different reasons. It looks slightly different, even though they’re just kind of the same thing.

Ben: Which, again, comes back to your point that if everybody becomes an influencer, even if we only have very small followings, then we would just have this massive proliferation of influencers, which means we need an aggregator for influencers?

Julian: Right! Exactly, yeah!

Ben: Julian, thank you so much for coming on the podcast!

Julian: Thanks for having me. It was fun!

Aligning the Stock Market with the Planet (#24)

Aligning the Stock Market with the Planet,
w/ Luciano DIANA

Your host Ben Robinson, is speaking with , Senior Investment Manager at —one of the leading independent wealth and asset managers — where he is running the Pictet Global Environmental Opportunities Fund. In this episode we cover: should government stimulus packages be conditional on companies investing in energy efficiency? Why plant-based products are a space that you need to be paying attention to? Why we should be bullish about the ability for market forces to solve climate change? And more!

Podcast also available on:

Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsAnchor.fmSoundcloudStitcherPocket CastsTuneInOvercast

Luciano recommends:

  1. One book: 
  2. One influencer: 
  3. Best recent article: , NY Times, April 28th
  4. Favourite brand: Vacheron Constantin®
  5. Productivity hack: Never let your inbox rule you. Action, delete or file

Full podcast transcript:

 

What happened with COVID-19 was a stark example of what we don’t want, right? We don’t want to solve environmental problems by shutting down societies because the pain is too big. So, the only real practical way forward is to invest in technology. And this is what we’re doing. — Luciano Diana

Full transcript:

[00:01:29.02] Ben: So, Luciano, thanks very much for coming on the podcast! Maybe we could start by you telling us how you got into environmental investing?

Luciano: Sure! Hi, Ben. I got into cleantech renewables research when I was at Morgan Stanley, back in 2005, and that was because I was very interested in the wind sector, the solar sector, I was part of a mid-cap team. Nobody was really covering those talks, so I carved out a small list of companies to research. And then, a few years later, when I joined Pictet, I started managing the Clean Energy Fund for a few years.

[00:02:11.16] Ben: When did you say that you started to look at it at Morgan Stanley?

Luciano: In 2005.

Ben: Even as recently as 2005, there wasn’t really much kind of invested interest or coverage of cleantech?

Luciano: There were just a few mid-cap names — definitely no large caps that were involved in renewables. And yes, it was a bit of a cottage industry. At the time, I also covered things like biofuels in a lot of companies that actually don’t exist anymore; I did a big piece on the carbon trading market that started around that time — the European Emission Trading Scheme, the carbon offsets, all that stuff. And so, it was very interesting work. I spent most of my time as an analyst to educate investors on industries — in fact, as much as on individual stocks. So it was quite a lot of fun!

the definition of what is environmental has broadened a lot since my days in 2005. So, back then, the view was quite narrow: solar energy, wind energy — and those are part of the solution, but they’re just one of many types of technologies that you can adopt to make an impact — Luciano Diana

[00:03:06.29] Ben: Just looking at the investment perspectives, which I downloaded from the Pictet website, one of the things it says is, “With our Global Environmental Opportunity Strategy, investors can help safeguard the planet while retaining the prospects of long-term outperformance.” How much of a paradox is it, to think that you can get a sustained rate of return from economic growth at the same time as you can protect the environment?

Luciano: That is the key reason why this fund is having success. And generally, investments into ESG funds with an environmental tilt are growing because we are able to get both objectives of the financial return and also the environmental impact. And the key to that is that also, the definition of what is environmental has broadened a lot since my days in 2005. So, back then, the view was quite narrow: solar energy, wind energy — and those are part of the solution, but they’re just one of many types of technologies that you can adopt to make an impact. Today, the way that we define an environmental investment is anything that can improve the natural resource efficiency, or address pollution. And that, then, ranges from energy efficiency to water technologies, to waste management, to software companies that are addressing the digitalization of manufacturing. So, it’s a very broad investment theme. And so, this diversification is very important for performance. So that’s the magic formula for our investors because we have an objective to outperform global equities by 3–4% per year or over an economic cycle. So, we’re not aiming to get 10, 20% plus volatility for the fund that is roughly in line with that of global markets. And then, we also have a positive impact.

[00:05:14.10] Ben: You sort of alluded to it there, when you listed the kinds of investments that you could make, but how broad is our environmental products and services? Like, for example, could you invest in Tesla? Could you invest in Zoom? What are the boundaries, exactly, of environmental products and services?

anytime that you digitize a process, you have some kind of raw material efficiency there — Luciano Diana

Luciano: Yes. So, the definition is relatively broad. And there is one framework that we use for our investment universe. It’s a scientific framework that was developed in 2009 — in fact, it was published in Nature Magazine back then — by a group of scientists coordinated by the Stockholm Resilience Center. And that tells us that there’s nine environmental domains that really matter. Climate change is one of them, but also, biodiversity is there, the water cycle is there, chemical pollution is there, and others. And each one of these domains has a boundary. The scientists are telling us more or less where the boundary is, and the economy needs to stay within the boundaries to avoid a nonlinear and unpredictable change.

Luciano: So, we, first of all, look for businesses that stay within the boundaries, to begin with. That means they have a low environmental footprint, and that means that they’re not predicated on overconsumption of natural resources to exist. That’s the first step. The second step is we look for the solution providers among them. So, it’s not enough just to have a low environmental footprint — like, for example, maybe a healthcare company could have a low environmental footprint — but we also look for solution providers for the environment. So, any solution, again, that addresses resource efficiency or pollution control. And if we find a company, a business that satisfies both of these conditions, and that has a sufficiently high proportion of its revenues in this domain, then we consider that eligible for our universe. And we ended up with 400 companies, which doesn’t seem much, but 400 companies that have at least 20% of their sales in some kind of environmental solution, globally — and these are listed equities, by the way, so this is a clearly listed equities fund.

Luciano: And then, within that, you find many technologies. You mentioned Tesla — for sure, electric cars are there. Volkswagen is not, also BMW is not, because they don’t do, at least today, enough electric cars; they still have a big legacy in combustion engines. You mentioned Zoom; Zoom is part of the theoretical universe, like Citrix, for example — any solution for remote working because remote working has a positive impact, avoiding commuting and all that. And then, for example, I mentioned before: software. Software is important for us when it’s linked to an engineering application. We’ve invested in virtualization software for a number of years. We invested in building information management software, in companies like Ansys and Autodesk. They really bring digitalization into the manufacturing, into the construction sector. And anytime that you digitize a process, you have some kind of raw material efficiency there.

the challenges that we have in terms of the damage we’ve done to the environment, those are huge challenges, so we can never go fast enough — Luciano Diana

[00:08:46.21] Ben: Have you seen a change in the kinds of investors that invest in your fund? Back, when you started it, I can imagine investors largely consisted of either funds or individuals that were interested in ESG. Would you say it’s gone way more mainstream now?

Luciano: Absolutely! It is becoming more mainstream. So, the fund was repositioned in 2014 — that is the key date, September 2014. Today, we have roughly $3.5 billion under management; mostly it’s retail and wholesale clients. We have large distributors within Private Wealth Management organizations, fund selectors, and some institutional clients as well, such as family offices and pension funds. So, definitely, more mainstream and not necessarily clients that want to use this as a satellite approach to their equity allocation but more and more as just an approach to global equities.

[00:09:53.00] Ben: I can imagine that doing what you do marries your professional interests with your personal interests, in the sense that we’re all affected by climate change and I think you’re somebody who’s very interested in it, in a personal capacity as well. Would you say, generally, you think things are moving fast enough?

Luciano: They are not moving fast enough because the challenges that we have in terms of the damage we’ve done to the environment — things like the concentration of CO2, the amount of plastic that we throw into the oceans — those are huge challenges, so we can never go fast enough. But what has changed and is encouraging and it’s very important for our theme is that the awareness on these issues has stepped up dramatically over the years. So, when we started, we thought that this would happen, we thought that young people would start to also get angry and complain about the state of affairs and how the older generation is treating things — and Greta Thunberg happened, so for us, it’s not really a coincidence. It was bound to happen, at some point. That’s very encouraging. We’re seeing how consumer preferences are changing. We’re seeing how the private sector is investing. And all of this has to do with more information, more awareness, so that’s the keyword for us.

[00:11:13.25] Ben: We haven’t yet reached the inflection point where all these nascent trends growing consumer activism, growing corporate responsibility, start to compound. Would you argue we haven’t reached that point, yet?

we cannot expect to leave the planet alone by shutting down our current society — Luciano Diana

Luciano: They are converging. I’m not sure about the compounding, but they’re definitely converging. So, they’re getting aligned. In most regions of the world, we see a very good alignment. I would caveat that the United States is a special case because of the current president and his policy toward environmental protection. That’s the only situation where policy is going backward instead of forward. But even there, if we take a long-term view, we think that eventually, the direction will turn 180 degrees. And so, the alignment will be pretty consistent across the regions. That’s powerful! I think there’s a sense of urgency. I think you might have questions later about COVID and the pandemic. We have almost put the entire economies to hold for an emergency which had the probability of being very severe in the short term. The hope is that we can mobilize, also, to address climate change and to build more resilience in the system.

[00:12:36.08] Ben: One of the challenges with climate change is that it’s always there, is a threat, but it’s not present in the same way as, let’s say, the pandemic is, where it’s constantly in the headlines. It’s like, one day we hear about a fire, another day we hear about a drought, but it’s not kind of this all-consuming, headline-grabbing issue that stays permanently on our consciousness. So, do you think that’s one of the issues which is, on the one hand, you’ve got kind of fatigue because we hear about it so much, but conversely — or paradoxically — it doesn’t stay sufficiently in our consciousness that we’re always reminded of it and we’re always acting on it?

Luciano: It’s not there every day but I would argue that in the last year or two, we’ve seen enough shocking events around the world to remind us about how dire the situation could become if we don’t act: the Amazon fires, the bushfires in Australia, and the hurricanes, and so forth. What I would also add is that it’s becoming more clear that climate health, the state of the planet, and our health are interrelated. So, more and more studies are linking air pollution with deaths in different cities. Even with this pandemic, there is an element of linkage there, seeing that people that are weaker in their lungs tend to be affected more gravely by the pandemic. There’s also the argument about climate change potentially favoring the spread of diseases. So, all these linkages are emerging one by one and I think the picture is getting clearer in people’s minds.

I think there will be some structural changes. Not huge. So, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that office work is dead, that we’re all going to work from home. There’ll be more flexibility. — Luciano Diana

[00:14:20.24] Ben: You mentioned earlier, but in the sense that the pandemic has accelerated digitization, I guess it’s been helpful in accelerating the energy efficiency.

Luciano: Yeah. So, there’s a couple of dimensions there. One is the pandemic and the other one is the current oil price. Maybe I can address both of them separately. So, on the effect of COVID, indeed, we are accelerating some technology trends that we were already seeing and we were investing in, and we think that’s going to be good because, ultimately, the environmental footprint of society might improve if we go in that direction. That’s one thing. When it comes to energy efficiency, we think that is going to continue but then, we have to also factor in the price of oil, the price of electricity — and whether that’s going to slow down investments in certain parts of the world for capacity, in general, we know that renewables have taken share, for example, versus fossil fuels. But, we also know that due to the lower economic activity and the pandemic, the overall level of investments in the energy sector has gone down by 20%, I think — there was a study from the EIA that was just released a day or two ago. So, that has to do with a slower economy, and the oil price is just a symptom of a slower economy. So, in the short term, it might not be the case that we’re going to see an acceleration, but that, in our opinion, is just a temporary effect. Again, when we do thematic investing like we do within our fund, we tend to look at the long term. So, a one or two-year-time horizon is too short term; we look at three years and plus. And if we look at three years and plus, then for sure, energy efficiency will continue to remain very important.

the worst is over and the markets tend to really have a huge amount of relief when they know that the worst is behind. — Luciano Diana

[00:16:21.00] Ben: What you touched on there is one of the biggest paradoxes about the environmental movement, which is almost like we have to continue to consume in order to create the incentives to be efficient.

Luciano: Yes, that is a very deep and philosophical question about where is society naturally going toward. Human beings need to reach a better state, they strive for better economic conditions, and therefore, society moves in a certain way: more mobility, different types of consumption. What happened with COVID was a stark example of what we don’t want, right? We don’t want to solve environmental problems by shutting down societies because the pain is too big. So, the only real practical way forward is to invest in technology. And this is what we’re doing, is really to try and get technology to save the day, and realistically, not trying to look for moonshots that don’t have any economic chance of success. Potentially changing our habits a bit, but not to the point of, sometimes I say, going back to the caves, the genies out of the bottle. And so, we cannot expect to leave the planet alone by shutting down our current society.

Ben: It’s almost like we need to create the demand, to create the profit incentives for entrepreneurs to come in and develop the technology that will save us?

Luciano: Yes.

[00:18:05.03] Ben: While demand has been temporarily reduced because of COVID, is this the moment where you think the government should step in? Like, for example, should stimulus packages be conditional on companies investing in energy efficiency, for example?

Luciano: Yes! There’s definitely a great opportunity within any crisis, and also, in particular, when there’s huge amounts of money being thrown at the economy. Not to put any conditionality would be, really, a shame. We are encouraged by what we’re seeing in Europe for the moment — the $750 billion package where a quarter of that seems to have some ties attached to it. We will see what happens in the United States. There’s also the potential for a huge Green Deal at some point in the future. And, in China, definitely, we’re seeing the subsidies going in the right direction. What I would say, though, is that, as investors, we don’t want to overplay the role of governments, and we don’t want to over-rely on those. Going back to the beginning of this conversation when I was mentioning renewables back in 2005, they were not yet ready as a technology, they needed a significant amount of subsidies, and therefore, there was huge volatility, also, in their businesses, when the subsidies were changed by governments. So, that lesson, as investors, has to be always there in the background — and that’s why, when we talk about technologies such as software for resource efficiency, digitization, these technologies make economic sense, and ultimately, they are adopted because of cost-saving reasons. So, whether the economy is in a good state or in a bad state, the companies always need to save money.

[00:19:56.17] Ben: I know you didn’t want to talk about moonshots, but are there any technologies that are not broadly on people’s radars, that you think could be game-changing? Things like carbon capture and technologies like that. What’s emerging that we should kind of be excited about?

Luciano: So, the carbon capture is indeed the holy grail of solving climate change, but it’s still too far away for us to look at, as investors, in public equities. So, we’re looking at the different initiatives, but the cost per tonne would require a price of carbon that the governments are not ready to accept. What I find very interesting — and that could have an equally important contribution not just to climate change, but to biodiversity and many other dimensions — is the plant-based products. So, it’s an industry that pretty much didn’t exist five years ago or even four years ago, and now it’s out with some valid products for consumers. So, very small, but with a huge potential impact. So, at the moment, there’s only one company that attracts a lot of attention in the stock market, which is Beyond Meat, but there’s others that are going to come into the market. So, I think as investors, while it’s early stages, while it’s not really clear who’s going to emerge as a winner, this is a space that I would definitely pay a lot of attention to.

[00:21:36.03] Ben: And is there a geographical bias, in terms of where the best companies and the best technologies are emerging from? And if there is, is there any way to rationalize that? Is it because of government policies and because of either just these places have startup hubs? What does the geographical picture look like for these technologies and companies?

Luciano: It’s quite skewed towards North America. So, if we look at our portfolio, for example, it’s been maybe 60%, roughly, exposed to that region, on average, over the last five years, and then, potentially 30% Europe and the rest of the emerging markets. So, the reason for that is innovation. At the end of the day, American companies tend to invest more in R&D. They have products that are leading-edge, and they tend to be also fairly well-managed businesses. In Europe, we have technology, but not as much, so clearly, on a relative basis, less than North America. And, in a way, the personal disappointment at the moment is that we are not able to find enough opportunities in emerging markets. So, we know that there’s a disconnect between the environmental issues that are present there, and the solution providers that domestically are developing solutions. That’s a function of, again, on average, not having enough companies that innovate. In China, there’s some great internet businesses, but we haven’t seen great environmental businesses that are really doing technology. It’s mostly companies that are applying technology that comes from elsewhere in the West and then deploying it, for example, for water management or renewable energy. So, we’re still lacking a bit some champions there.

[00:23:40.08] Ben: Should we put a price on the sea?

Luciano: We should definitely think a lot more about the oceans than we did in the past. David Attenborough’s documentary has done wonders for the awareness on plastic, and we should look after our marine life much better. When it comes to awareness, ocean acidification is a big problem. I don’t think that most people in the audience would know about it. It’s also linked to the intensive agricultural practices that we adopted all over the world. Basically, there’s a link between how much we fertilize our fields and when we overfertilize them, the nitrogen that is contained in the fertilizer is not absorbed by the soil so it ends up in the rivers that end up in the oceans, and that creates what’s called dead zones — so, zones where algae bloom, algae grow, they decompose and they absorb oxygen in the process. So, the ocean, as we get more and more of these dead zones around the world, along the coasts, actually is losing oxygen — and that has consequences on the types of marine life and fish that can thrive. So, we get a lot of jellyfish in the Mediterranean, for example; that’s a very resistant type of fish, but maybe tuna is a species that needs more oxygen than others. So, when we talk about the ocean, absolutely, we need to make sure that we limit the amount of plastic that we throw in there, we need to limit the amount of nitrates that we throw in there with intensive agriculture, and also be a bit more responsible in the way we fish.

[00:25:40.25] Ben: I suppose what I was getting at was like, in the same way as we’re starting to put a price on carbon, which should then get absorbed into the cost of production and should somehow internalize externalities, is the answer to the problem of polluting in the ocean to put a price on the ocean? Or is that you kind of think these things are too simplistic?

Luciano: Realistically, it would be too hard to put in practice. It’s the ultimate common good for countries. So, I think it’d be nice to think about a solution there. What we need to figure out is a way to get a carbon price, first. I would be very happy if we did that. And we know that we had several challenges in Europe, and we haven’t even started to think about a North American solution.

[00:26:33.20] Ben: Do you think that the pandemic can have a lasting change in terms of business life? So, business travel, commuting. And then, I think you told me earlier, that you’ve been attending a virtual conference. How does a virtual conference work in the investor world? Do you still have one-on-one meetings with the corporates, for example?

Luciano: I think there will be some structural changes. Not huge. So, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that office work is dead, that we’re all going to work from home. There’ll be more flexibility. As you say, if I just look at my job, some type of travel might be avoided. This format of virtual conferences is absolutely a novelty in the investment management ward, but it’s working very well. I think the feedback from both companies and investors is very positive. Basically, yes, you can meet management on a one-on-one basis, on a small group basis on Zoom — these days, that’s what the default platform is, really — and get pretty much everything out of it as you would with a physical meeting. That could take away maybe a quarter of our yearly travel because then, we would still need to go and see clients, we would still need to go and see companies on-site because there’s lab visits or facilities visits, so obviously, you cannot do them online, but this type of corporate axis could change.

[00:28:07.00] Ben: So, do you think virtual conferences might be something that becomes a new habit or a new function of investing?

Luciano: I think so. Maybe not all of them. I don’t think every single conference out there will turn into a virtual event. But I wouldn’t be surprised if one out of three, for example, becomes just virtual. That’s going to be positive.

[00:28:33.17] Ben: I wanted to ask you about the stock market, in general. So, between the 19th of February and the 23rd of March, the S&P lost a third of its value, and since then, with no underlying improvement in the economy whatsoever, it’s recovered. What do you put that down to? Is that a bull trap? Is that just the market looking through the recession? How do you explain where the S&P is at right now?

Luciano: We had the perfect vision in the market — not in the economy, but in the market. And ex-post we’re all geniuses and we all sound very smart. When you’re in the thick of it, it is a different story. So, when the market started to correct, there were a huge number of question marks about the virus. And we don’t do that anymore, but we were talking about parallels for the Spanish flu, and so forth. So, the panic on the way down, in my opinion, was justified by simply a complete lack of information and the unprecedented nature of the lockdowns. March 23rd was exposed to the point of peak panic. Why has the market rebounded since then? Clearly, the response from Central Banks has been unprecedented. So, there was a technical factor there — there was literally money being pumped into the markets to buy assets, equities, bonds, pretty much across the board. So, I kind of could follow the psychology of the market until just maybe a couple of weeks ago and in the recent couple of weeks I’ve also been a little bit puzzled by how far we’ve gone because when we look at the state of the different economies, we’re definitely seeing an improvement. But, I would say that in the US, we still have a few question marks about where all the unemployed people are going to end up if they’re going to be all reabsorbed quickly or not. It’s been pretty brutal over there and the money hasn’t necessarily reached unemployed people’s pockets. Maybe it’s available on paper but not in their bank accounts. So, the effect on the consumer economy in the United States is still a bit of a question mark.

The rise of passive investing is going to continue and it’s a challenge for the industry. But, when it comes to thematic investing, what we see is, really, the active approach is still successful. So, thematic investing is about looking for secular growth themes, is looking for different types of innovation, so it requires a very dynamic approach to identifying opportunities and that’s what passive investing doesn’t have as much. So, an ETF tends to be more rigid, of course, you have a certain universe; maybe once a year, whoever manages that product does a refresh of that universe and then keeps those stocks and maybe rebalances them every quarter. As an active investor, there’s a lot more dynamism. — Luciano Diana

Luciano: So, you could say that maybe the market overreacted a little bit on the way down and now it’s overreacting a little bit on the way up. The fact is that now we know the virus is not the Spanish flu, that it has affected a certain part of the population. So, in its current form, it’s unlikely to affect children and adults in the same way as it affects elderly people. And I would argue that, also, if we have a second wave — which is not yet a base case scenario — it’s a risk, but it is not considered as a base case scenario — our toolbox and our preparedness for that will be much higher than we had at the beginning. So, even if we have a second wave — and this is what I’m getting my head around, as well, these days or I’m trying to get my head around — are we going to have a second lockdown phase? I doubt it’s going to be the case. The measures to address that will be much more targeted. We will have testing, we will have tracing, we will have, hopefully, some pharmaceutical solutions there. So, the worst is over and the markets tend to really have a huge amount of relief when they know that the worst is behind.

[00:32:25.02] Ben: And you don’t think that, as poor earnings are announced, that somehow we’ll have a couple of legs down in the market?

Luciano: At this point, no. I think that the second-quarter earnings are going to be awful, but the market will absolutely look through them. And again, I’m trying to second-guess what the average investor is thinking, but we’re looking at 2021. If anything, I’m not so worried about what the companies are going to report. I’m maybe a little bit worried about things that were not present in the list of risks two-three months ago that they are now. And one is the geopolitical tension between China and the US, which has gone in the wrong direction. So, if we had issues with the trade war in the past, and the stock market reacted to that, then we’ve reached a deal. If we were to go back on that agenda, if the deal fell off, that’s a risk that would worry me because that would be a left-field sort of situation. And then, the other thing that I find interesting, and, to a certain extent, a bit sad is that we’re seeing the markets back at all-time highs, but actually, this is a time when the virus is hitting the population at large, the worst. Actually, in the last week or 10 days, we’ve seen the highest number of new cases since the beginning. And the reason why the market doesn’t necessarily care so much about that is because it’s not really touching the developed markets — it’s not touching the US, is not touching Europe or China or Japan, and now it’s about Latin America, it’s about Africa — and the companies that are represented in the stock market don’t have huge exposure to that part. But, from a human perspective, this is peak suffering. So, to have the stock market in a euphoric state, when hundreds of thousands of people are getting hit for the first time by the virus is, in a way, a bit sad, but that’s what it is in the financial markets.

in order to tap into innovation — and environmental technology, for example, in our case — we don’t feel that we need to necessarily look at very small companies. We have some holdings in companies that are already very well established to maybe $20–30–40 billion on market capitalization, so pretty large. And they’re the ones who are actually driving the most innovation in their respective space. So, finding opportunities in small caps is definitely there, but it is not an absolute necessity if you want to capture innovation. You can also get that from slightly larger companies. — Luciano Diana

[00:34:56.15] Ben: And I suppose another factor is — I don’t know if this is the right terminology, but they call it decapitalization — this idea that companies have been buying back more and more of their stock, fewer and fewer companies actually tend to list — you know, that divorce between Main Street and Wall Street, and that divorce between the developed world markets and the developing world has never been bigger because the stock market is less and less representative of the average business?

Luciano: Absolutely! And I think that was part of the knee-jerk reaction of several investors at the beginning of the drawdown in the markets. When you read the news about restaurants and cruise lines and airlines are really feeling the brunt of the hit, that’s only 6–7% of the market capitalization. In terms of employment, it’s a much bigger sector, so it may be 20% or so if you put everything together — the travel industry and tourism. But in terms of stock market capitalization, it is much less represented.

[00:36:05.02] Ben: We’re starting to see data come out about how stock pickers did during that kind of wobble or correction. And, basically, stock pickers did no better than passive funds. And so, I suppose the question as a fund manager I wanted to ask you was, how much are you concerned about the rise and rise of the passive investing in ETFs and index funds? Does that worry you or do you think there will always be a role for the stock picker?

Luciano: The rise of passive investing is going to continue and it’s a challenge for the industry. From a personal level, looking at what I do and looking at what we do with thematic investing at Pictet, I’m not concerned because we don’t see ETFs have been really taking the majority of the floors in our space. So, when it comes to thematic investing, what we see is, really, the active approach is still successful. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I think ETFs don’t represent more than 15% of our space. So, thematic investing is about looking for secular growth themes, is looking for different types of innovation, so it requires a very dynamic approach to identifying opportunities and that’s what passive investing doesn’t have as much. So, an ETF tends to be more rigid, of course, you have a certain universe; maybe once a year, whoever manages that product does a refresh of that universe and then keeps those stocks and maybe rebalances them every quarter. As an active investor, there’s a lot more dynamism. And in times like the drawdown, the key is to be able to take advantage of these locations that these situations create. So, an active manager can say, in wanting to buy that stock for a long time, “Valuation was not attractive enough — I have the opportunity, and then I go for it too.” So, obviously, it’s always easier said than done, but that’s the attractiveness of the active approach: that you can take advantage of these situations.

it pays to focus on the innovators and the companies that typically don’t have huge capital requirements to grow. That’s also another thing: even if capital is very cheap these days, the strongest performers that we had, have had that characteristic — high returns on capital, but with not a huge amount of capital employed. — Luciano Diana

[00:38:29.20] Ben: Do you think the other big opportunity is in your old hunting ground of smaller mid-cap stocks? Because, if MiFID is increasing the cost of covering smaller mid-cap stocks, don’t you think, almost by definition, there’s more arbitrage, there’s fewer people looking in detail at those stocks and therefore, that’s the place where you can uncover real value as an active investor?

Luciano: Absolutely! So, that is definitely true. MiFID, too, has caused a big change in the industry. We are seeing the need for more internal research, so, we ourselves are beefing up our teams internally, and, of course, we rely less on the sell-side. So that’s true. What I would have to say, though, and if I look at also my fund, in particular, is that in order to tap into innovation — and environmental technology, for example, in our case — we don’t feel that we need to necessarily look at very small companies. In other words, we have some holdings in companies that are already very well established to maybe $20–30–40 billion on market capitalization, so pretty large. And they’re the ones who are actually driving the most innovation in their respective space. So, finding opportunities in small caps is definitely there. What I’m saying is that it is not an absolute necessity if you want to capture innovation. You can also get that from slightly larger companies.

[00:40:08.21] Ben: Last question: what you’re saying is sometimes big is better, right? And that’s particularly the case where you have Demand and Supply Side Economies of Scale. But, in general, do you think the market is good at pricing Demand Side Economies of Scale, or is this idea that a product can get better and better the more people use it? And is that a possible area for value arbitrage?

Luciano: It’s a possibility. We don’t have, in our universe, the big platforms, like you would have — so Google and Facebook are not part of our universe — so we don’t really have examples of that economic power. But, what we do see is definitely that the economic modes of certain companies that have technology, they tend to get stronger and stronger every year as these companies mop up smaller competitors, and they acquire them. Because then, you have the flywheel of good free cash flow generation, which allows M&A to happen — and so, we have quite a lot of those stories where yeah, indeed, large is better because you consolidate the industry around you. So, yes, I think the answer to your question is, in our opinion, it pays to focus on the innovators and the companies that typically don’t have huge capital requirements to grow. That’s also another thing: even if capital is very cheap these days, the strongest performers that we had, have had that characteristic — high returns on capital, but with not a huge amount of capital employed.

[00:41:50.09] Ben: Fantastic! Can you leave us with one reason why we should be bullish about the environment and bullish about the ability for market forces to solve climate change?

Luciano: We should be bullish about the environment because we all want a better planet and our children, they will demand us to do that for them, and their awareness is going to be at a different level to what we’ve experienced in our lives. That’s number one. Number two is that we have the technologies so we don’t need to look for moonshots. We have technologies that can improve things and that can lead to performance. So, as investors, we can expect to have portfolios that outperform the markets, have a positive impact, and don’t require us to take more volatility or can use as a core component of our long-term investments.

Ben: Perfect! Thank you so much for coming on the podcast!

Luciano: Thank you for having me, Ben!

The Craft Movement: Swiss Maker Edition (#23)

The Craft Movement: Swiss Maker Edition,
w/ Marc MAURER and Arthur VIAUD

This episode focuses on two Swiss companies rising in the maker movement. First we interview , COO, and co-owner of the sports shoemaker, . On is a brand preferred by Roger Federer which taking on Nike and Adidas with a high-end, high-tech trainer — also known as sneaker — that is so lightweight that ‘it feels like you are walking on clouds’. After Marc, you will hear from , co-founder and CEO of — a craft brewery that is taking on the giants in Switzerland, and it’s starting to expand internationally. This beer-maker prides itself on being part of an industry with a heart and a smile, brewing beer with love, passion, and Swiss quality standards.

Podcast also available on:

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If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, then you may have noticed an observation woven through some of our episodes, and that is the idea that a combination of access to more information, online distribution channels, and rising affluence have killed the idea of the mass consumer. Now, we all want better quality goods, specially crafted and tailor-made for us. In this episode, we delve into this topic.

Full podcast transcript:

 
 

A craft brewer is someone who focuses first and foremost on the quality of what they deliver. — Arthur VIAUD

The market hasn’t seen any innovation in the last 20 years. So, if you look at running shoes back in 2010, they all look the same, and they all feel the same. — Marc MAURER

[00:02:55.05] Ben: Marc, maybe let’s just start with you just telling us, for our listeners’ sake, what is On?

Marc: On is basically a sports company that started out with running shoes back in 2010 and it started with a cushioning technology. So, On has a very specific cushioning technology that allows you a soft landing and a firm push-off. And the way we do that is with holes in the sole, which we call ‘clouds’. So, it’s the only engineered cushioning solution and it comes with very innovative and sleek designs. So, it’s a very approachable and a very versatile product that you can not only use for running but also for casual wear. That’s how it started and it started with running-only and in the last 10 years we went into outdoor, we went into lifestyle, On went into apparel — so it’s become a full-fledged sports company.

[00:03:53.26] Ben: And when the three founders came up with the idea and they came up with the technology, why were they confident they could be successful? Because it’s a very big market — I think I read that it’s something like a $370 billion market for performance footwear, but it’s clearly one that’s dominated by 10-ton gorillas in the form of Nike and Adidas. So, how come those guys thought that they could take on the giants and be successful?

The mission comes to life when you step into or when you wear our products. — Marc MAURER

Marc: I think when you stepped into the first product, you felt something different. So, it was a completely differentiated product from everything else that was out there. And the market hasn’t seen any innovation in the last 20 years. So, if you look at running shoes back in 2010, they all look the same, and they all feel the same. So basically, we felt there’s an opportunity in this market — it hasn’t been any innovation and no strong direct-to-consumer brands. And the market is huge, you’re absolutely right, but that’s an advantage because it means if you only get a relatively small share in that big market, that’s already quite sizable. And it’s a growing market. So, this is why, back then, in 2010, the guys decided to start the company.

[00:05:03.23] Ben: And what’s the company’s mission?

Marc: The mission comes to life when you step into or when you wear our products. And, originally, we always said we want to put the funding to the run. So, the idea is that you have a very different running feeling or a very different feeling when you’re moving and that, eventually, allows you to move more and that eventually allows you to run more. So, you’re spending more time outside, you’re spending more time being healthy. And we really believe in what we call ‘the human spirit’, and that people can do amazing things when they’re given the opportunity to, and On’s products are allowing you to do so.

[00:05:41.19] Ben: The technology is really at the heart of the shoe and the lightweight running sensation you feel when you’re outside and it came out VTH in Zurich, it’s patented, but how difficult would it be for somebody to imitate it or get close to the technology?

Marc: I think it would be relatively difficult because when you look at running shoes, actually, the way you produce them, you need tooling, you need molds, there’s lots of 3D drawings going into it, you have the foam that needs to have a specific kind of cushioning level and so on. So, there’s quite a bit of engineering that goes into it to come up with the same running feeling. So, it’s quite difficult, but we always knew, at some point, eventually, someone will do it. So that’s why On always said, “Hey, we need to reach a certain scale within a certain time. When eventually someone comes up with it, then everyone knows who or what On is, so it’s very clear that this is an imitation.” And we’re very lucky that we made it so far and that we’re in a position right now where that feeling and that technology and On’s patented cloud tech is really associated with On and it would be very difficult for someone else, even the big players to accomplish such a thing to the market.

[00:07:04.19] Ben: So, I wanted to talk a little bit about the company’s history. And so, you joined the company in 2013, right?

Marc: Yes.

[Switzerland] is great to scale from because the access to talent is super good and I think Swiss people and Swiss values and the way we’ve been brought up really help in international relations. — Marc MAURER

Ben: I read, I think it was an interview with David — one of the founders — where he said, “2013 was a difficult year for On. We had a bit of a slump in sales. We had a few ‘teething up’ issues scaling the company.” How difficult has it been — or how challenging has it been — for you since you joined, to scale this company to meet the growing international demand for your footwear?

Marc: ‘Difficult’ is probably the wrong word. I think it’s more like, interestingly challenging, and you experience so many different episodes throughout the years. So, in the beginning, when I joined in early 2013, On was 20 people — so it was very small, and our loss was as big as our revenues. So, we were actually fighting for survival, which is a very different mode to what we’re in right now or were in kind of three years later. And then, you start growing and you experience lots of growing pains in production, obviously, in marketing, in scaling up customer service, in finding the right people. But we never experienced it — or I never experienced it — as difficult because it was always associated with positive emotions. We had so much and we still do have so much fun doing it. We’re so fortunate to be able to work with an amazing team, great people. But it’s full of challenges. I’m a person who tends to get bored pretty quickly, and in seven or eight years, I never got bored — not a single day — because the amount of challenges is just so vast, and I think that’s lots of fun.

The problem with Switzerland is it’s a very small home market. So, if you’re the number one player in Switzerland, you’re still subscale from a production perspective. So, that’s why On decided already back in 2012 that we had to go international super quickly and we had to make the US our biggest market as fast as we can. — Marc MAURER

[00:08:47.19] Ben: Is Switzerland a good country from which to scale an international business?

Marc: Yes and no. For us, the advantages clearly outweighed the disadvantages. So, it’s great to scale because the access to talent is super good and I think Swiss people and Swiss values and the way we’ve been brought up really help in international relations. So, Swiss people tend to be quite well-traveled internationally, they’re adapting to different cultures because we essentially have four cultures or three cultures in one country, and three languages/ four languages in one country. So, that has helped. The problem with Switzerland is it’s a very small home market. So, if you’re the number one player in Switzerland, you’re still subscale from a production perspective. So, that’s why On decided already back in 2012 that we had to go international super quickly and we had to make the US our biggest market as fast as we can. And then, Switzerland serving as a basis for international expansion has proven very successful and very helpful.

I think Swissness stands for quality. It stands for design. It stands for innovation. It stands for reliability. And these are values that are very core to On and that we are carrying out. — Marc MAURER

[00:09:58.09] Ben: Yeah, I suppose it’s sort of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Which is, having a small domestic market means that you need to look outside from the beginning. And so, it’s like, internationalization is higher up the agenda for a Swiss company than compared to a US company, for example?

Marc: Yeah. I mean, in the US, if you’re basically looking at Under Armour, they did $2 billion in revenues before they left the US. It would be completely impossible for us to do that. But, on the other hand, that means that you’re actually building an international company from scratch. So, already now we’re having several offices across the globe, in all regions: On is present in Brazil, in Japan, in the US, and so on. And it’s actually much easier to do that when you’re young versus when you’re already a $2 billion company, and then you’re building your first office abroad. So, I think looking at it from a 20–30-year perspective, hopefully, we’ll look back and say we were very fortunate that we scaled and went international so early on.

[00:10:55.13] Ben: Every single pair has a Swiss flag, right? So it’s almost like Swissness is at the very heart of On.

Marc: Yes. I think Swissness stands for a few things that are absolutely core to On — to On’s products, but also to On’s values and culture. So, it stands for quality, which is super important to us. It also stands for design. It stands for innovation. It stands for reliability. And these are values that are very core to On and that we are carrying out. And all our design work and all our development are happening in Switzerland. So, the product that you see is truly engineered in Switzerland. It’s not manufactured in Switzerland, but it’s engineered here. Swiss designers, lots of developers based in Zurich. So, it’s really at the heart of what we’re doing.

The way we started apparel is because we wanted to have apparel for ourselves. We never did an apparel business plan to eventually go to so many customers; we just said, “We need our own apparel.” — Marc MAURER

[00:11:46.24] Ben: It seems to be that you’re sort of riding a secular trend, which it’s almost like we’ve seen the death of the mass consumer, and we now live in a world where producers can produce things that are much more tailored to our individual needs. At the same time, we’ve become more affluent and we’re demanding better quality stuff; at the same time, we’ve become more conscious about the environmental impact of production. And it seems like you’re riding this big wave towards more locally-produced, more sustainable, better quality products?

Marc: Yes, definitely! I mean, what we see a lot and what is really core to On is authenticity. And that’s very important to today’s consumers. And it’s just come very natural to On because this is how it started. We always say On was started in the Swiss Alps or born in the Swiss Alps. So, we’re all runners, we love to run. The way we started apparel is because we wanted to have apparel for ourselves. We never did an apparel business plan to eventually go to so many customers; we just said, “We need our own apparel.” And we’re very, very fortunate that On has grown to such scale and that so many people are fans of our brand, but it’s all very authentic. Because it was never the goal, there was never a business plan to go where we are today. It basically just happened naturally by doing what we enjoyed doing, and by being true to our values, and true to what we believe in.

we’re holding ourselves accountable to be authentic — Marc MAURER

[00:13:17.16] Ben: How do you keep or stay authentic, the bigger you get? Because if your success so far has been built on this idea of you being really high-quality and a bit niche, what happens when you’re mainstream? I think I read that you already have a 10% market share in Germany. So, how do you keep authentic at scale?

Marc: I think we’re holding ourselves accountable to be authentic. So, On doesn’t have a CEO for example. We’re kind of like the Swiss government, but that means there’s lots of checks and balances and we know each other so well, because we’ve been working together for so many years, we’ve built a team together. So, everyone has an understanding of who we are. So, it’s very important to us that we’re staying true to ourselves. And we believe you can be a mass-market brand that is still authentic by doing the same thing. On hasn’t really changed in the last seven years in the sense of the products that we bring to the market. we’re still doing more or less the same thing and we’re still very price stable, we’re still very premium, we’re still super high-quality, we’re still very innovative. And then, basically, becoming mass market is almost like the consumer appreciating just the work that we’re doing, so why should we change? Because what we’re currently doing right now is appreciated by our customers.

[00:14:37.26] Ben: When I asked that question earlier about big consumer trends, I mean, one is the high-quality products — tick; and then I think the other big one is to more sustainably source products. And I know you guys have done a lot of work here to try to make your footwork greener, but I suppose the uncomfortable or the inconvenient truth is, shoes are largely made of petroleum. So, how do you make a green shoe? How do you make a green trainer?

Marc: Actually, building on what I said before in the last question, if we do it, we want to do it right. So, we see a lot of companies almost using it as a little bit as a marketing play and what we’re working on is kind of truly solving the problem — and you make it greener with the product. So, a lot it’s just what you said — kind of, if you look at CO2 or carbon emissions, or whatever, a lot of it is in the product and the material itself, and part of it is in the production process, but that’s the vast majority. So, what we’re working on is we’re working on materials that are basically, ideally, at least recyclable; even better if we can have a 360-reuse cycle, so to say, so we can reuse the residuals of the product in other products. And there’s lots of research happening in that space. There are solutions out there. What we don’t want to do is we don’t want to compromise on the product. So, basically, the shoe that has no oil component has to feel as good as the shoe that has an oil component. And this is what takes a little bit of time, but this is where a lot of people at On are invested in, and we’re putting a lot of money to come up, eventually, with a circular product, which is the ultimate goal.

[00:16:27.03] Ben: When we talk about authenticity, one of the things I read, when I was researching this podcast, is that you, guys, regularly have meetings out running. Is that true?

Marc: It’s absolutely true! So, for example, Caspar — one of the founders — and I, we do all our meetings biking, not even running. And it’s actually scientifically proven that when you walk or when you move your body, it stimulates your brain. So, you come up with better ideas rather than just sitting in a meeting room. And so, we do a lot of meetings running, biking, walking and just outside.

[00:16:57.25] Ben: Including client meetings, I heard, as well, right?

Marc: Including tons of client meetings. We had a t-shirt saying, “At the beginning, we don’t talk about our shoes.” Basically, what we meant is, “Just try it on, and then you’ll eventually experience it.” And this is how all the meetings started. We said, “We’re not going to talk about it. We’re going to go on a walk together or on a run together.” And that still holds true till today. A lot of our meetings and discussions are happening on the bike or on the run.

[00:17:27.20] Ben: I have six pairs of On shoes. And the reason I got into On is because a friend of mine just raved about them. He said, “You’ve got to try them! They’re amazing!” And since then, obviously, I’ve made many repeat purchases, I bought shoes for my friends and I can really see how this is a business that has grown organically, based on just having a wonderful product. And I think, when I read about your marketing strategy, you use terms like ‘grassroots’, ‘word of mouth’ — and I suppose, the question is, how big can you get on the back of grassroots, on the back of word of mouth? At some point, do you have to use other marketing strategies? Do you have to use above-the-line type advertising to get to a big-enough audience to really gain massive market share? Or, are you comfortable just to grow, I suppose, in a very Swiss manner, right? Which is, you just grow slowly, sustainably.

Marc: So, one of the Swiss values is also something that’s very important to understand: we’re building a sustainable business, in a sense of, obviously, sustainability, but also financial sustainability. So we always want to be able to kind of finance — or On should be able to finance itself — to a large extent. So, we had to come up with ways to make our product known, that doesn’t cost too much. So, that’s also why On it’s built around or on the basis of lots of retailers. So, when you walk into a store, you have your seven running brands and, eventually, the retailer will also pull the On — and once you’re in the On, the chance that you purchase it is pretty high. And then, hopefully, will remain a loyal customer. And we did a lot of grassroots activities and we still do, because this is really who we are. Then, at some point, to kind of take the next jump in brand awareness you need to start doing above the line. And this is what we already do. We do tons of digital. So, most of our advertising spend will go into digital. We are very lucky to have great ambassadors and athletes of the brand, we’re very lucky to have very loyal customers that are actually, as you said, promoting the brand to friends, and I think the more mature you get, eventually, the more you will start investing in above the line, but in a very different way than we would have done it 10 years ago. Today’s advertising environment is completely different. It has to be much faster. All our videos, all our creative is shot in-house, we’re not working with an agency. So, we have to be very fast in what we come up with.

[00:20:12.27] Ben: Yeah. And again, authentic seems to be the word because it doesn’t seem that you pay people to wear On. It seems that you just tell their stories.

Marc: Yes. So, in an ideal case, and in most cases, athletes or ambassadors come to us because they experience the product and they’re asking, “Hey, I wear On because I feel I can run faster, I can run longer runs, I need less time to recover.” So nearly all of our relationships really kind of emerge from, obviously, the product but then also friendship with all the people that are now part of On. I mean, with Roger who has joined a few months ago, it’s the exact same story. It started with the relationship first — the first discussion we had when we first met him was not targeted at whatever outcome. It was just getting to know each other. And we truly believe if interesting people come together, then something amazing might emerge. And this is how it started with Roger, as well.

[00:21:20.02] Ben: We’re going to come back to Roger later. But, how much do you envision doing something like what Nike does, for example, with Nike running and I suppose building the social context around the brand?

Marc: I think this is one of the next steps. I think there’s a very strong On community, and the community basically has a certain stickiness because of the experience this community is sharing. But there’s no orchestrated way from On on how to activate this community and how this community can really come to life. And there’s tons of grassroots activities, again, that we’re doing with that community. So, you might have heard of something called Tug-O-Run, which is like a squad race that we’re doing in different countries where we bring the community together, we’re doing arc runs in many different cities where we’re bringing the community together. But bringing the community together on social and really activating them potentially also with an app is definitely something that is one of the next steps.

[00:22:25.01] Ben: I wanted to ask you a question a little bit about the demographics of your customer base because I imagine you’ve got elite athletes, for sure, and I think they’re in many of the stories that you tell on your social channels. Then, you’ve got a lot of amateur athletes, people like myself who love the feel of the shoes and make repeat purchases. But I also read that the demographic is much, much broader than that. For example, I read that you guys have a really big following amongst nurses. Is that correct?

Marc: Nurses, and amongst chefs as well because basically, for people who are on their feet all day long, our product is really helpful because of the cushioning technology that it uses — so it’s less tiring, often it helps people that also have certain back problems and so on. So, there’s a huge followership amongst doctors, nurses, chefs, and so on. It’s a super broad customer base. It’s over 50% female, tons of elite runners, lots of outdoor athletes, as well. With the big outdoor push we are doing now, we see lots of walkers as well that are in our products. So, it’s a very big customer base. I think what they all share is obviously they’re all active people that love to be outside and they have an appreciation of quality and design.

On and Roger Federer had a dream and a vision on how we could create something that would eventually be there for a very, very long time and would be way longer-lived than Roger’s career. — Marc MAURER

[00:23:40.29] Ben: That brings us out on to the pandemic because you said these are people that love to be outside. How difficult has it been for you to sell footwear during the pandemic? Because I suppose you’ve got multiple challenges. One, I think, most of your sales go through physical retailers. I think you’re now stocked in 6500 stores in 50 countries, I think. So you’ve got the one challenge of, your distribution channels have been disrupted. And then, another one is that people have been asked — I suppose it’s easy now — but for a long period of time people were asked to stay at home and not exercise too much. So, how difficult has the pandemic been for On?

Marc: I think the pandemic actually triggered two big consumer trends. So, one is running or walking despite some people had to stay at home for quite some time. But it’s mutually searched. So, when you look at cycling case and running case or miles and how it has developed, it’s grown like crazy over the last weeks. And so, you have this huge running boom. So that means there’s a need for people to get access to their product. And now, with many stores closed, the second thing that has done, it has basically leapfrogged roughly three to four years in terms of digital adoption. So, what it meant for On is, immediately when the outbreak happened, we shifted a lot to digital because we cut marketing spend on the physical side because we knew stores were eventually going to be closed, we heavily invested in digital channels. And we also allowed retailers to have a digital channel to sell on. So, if you’re a store in the US, let’s say you’re called A Runner’s Mind, then we basically made an URL for you, which is on-running.com/runnersmind that you could share with your customer base and that would allow the customer base of that store to purchase On product and we will do the fulfillment. So, these two elements together have actually allowed us to overachieve our business plan in April and May. And so, we’ve grown stronger than we anticipated, due to the crisis — and that has been a very positive surprise. So, we didn’t think that impact will be so strong.

[00:25:59.28] Ben: What’s the relative split now of online versus physical sales?

Marc: Before the crisis, online being our own channel, we also do work with third-party online, but let’s take our own direct to consumer channel. So, you’re looking at roughly 25% D2C and 75% B2B. And that’s basically switched. So, April — May, is going to be close to 75–25. And so, it’s completely turned around. And, what we see now happening in the countries that have reopened is that actually, the B2B channel comes back to a large extent, so developments in Germany and in Switzerland, the first weeks have been very, very positive. But that e-com channel stays up. So it’s actually almost a market expansion that is happening, which is very positive to see.

[00:26:53.01] Ben: Let’s talk again about Roger Federer. So, I think he joined — if that’s the right term — On, I think it was November last year, was it?

Marc: Yes. Yes, exactly.

Ben: That garnered quite a few headlines, including, I saw there was a piece in The New York Times. And so, I suppose the first thing achieved was elevating the brand, which I guess you’d anticipated. But I think you alluded to this earlier on, it’s like, not just about Roger wearing the shoes. I think he’s actually becoming much more involved in helping design the shoes. So, what is Roger’s role at On and how significant is it beyond just the marketing impact?

growth has never been the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal has always been to give you, as a customer, an amazing experience — Marc MAURER

Marc: Yeah, I mean, it’s very significant. So, both, I think, On and Roger had a dream and a vision on how we could create something that would eventually be there for a very, very long time and would be way longer-lived than Roger’s career. And because the product is at the core of what we’re doing, it had to come through a product. So that’s why, at the beginning, we really started to work on a product, brainstorm on a product, and eventually coming up with ideas and first sketches and a first product. And that’s a big part of Roger’s role: helping us thinking through what that product range could look like going forward, and he’s very actively involved in that. At the same time, obviously, Roger is an extremely authentic person and he shares the exact same Swiss values that we do. And together, that allows us to also reach a broader community, kind of take a step in sports marketing. And it has been a very, very inspiring partnership so far.

[00:28:41.06] Ben: How long before there’s a tennis shoe? And how long after that before there’s a squash shoe?

Marc: Probably there’s never going to be a squash shoe. And I’m not sure if there’s going to be a tennis shoe. But I think everyone who is listening, should look forward to eventually something come out that is very authentic to Roger and to On.

[00:29:04.08] Ben: So, up until now you’ve built a business and you’ve grown market share on the back of product innovation. So you’ve had the Cloudrac, Cloudflyer, Cloudedge. Are you now starting to move beyond just product innovation to product development? So, I think one of the things I read — I don’t have a pair yet I’ll get a pair — is that you’ve now started to move into fashion sneakers or fashion trainers, beyond just performance shoes. So, is that now the shift you’re making? Or is it more just that all these different lines are getting blurred? So, what was a running shoe is now doubling up as a fashion shoe. How much is the category changing versus your strategy’s starting to change?

Marc: It’s more the second one. I mean, the thought behind this is basically, what if I could wear my running shoe every day, everywhere, anytime? In the past, you either had a running shoe, a comfortable, performance shoe, or you had a fashion shoe. But you would never have a comfortable or performant fashion shoe. So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to take our tech and bring it to the lifestyle industry so you actually can wear a very innovative product that is extremely versatile but that is made for a 24/7 active use, rather than just running. At the same time, the second thing is we’ve moved strongly into outdoor because, again, as I said, we were born in the Swiss Alps and trail running is something that we love doing, hiking is something that we love doing, so we invest a lot in outdoor as well. And outdoor, at the same time, has become a huge fashion trend. So, actually, if you go to the big cities now, if you go to some of the key tastemakers that we see in the retail landscape, then a lot of the silhouettes are now influenced by outdoor. So, we’re, again, taking that, and also bringing that trend to what we call, ‘performance all-day’.

[00:31:06.10] Ben: You’ve been, as you said, a couple of times, you were growing in a very Swiss way, which is very sustainable, very organic. How big do you think On could eventually be? I’m not asking for your projections, but much more your long-term ambition for the company.

Marc: We never dared to dream to be where we are today. We would never have imagined being where we are today. So, I don’t think we could give you a number or whatever. I think, in the end, we’re trying to have a great product, work with great distribution partners, have a great team. And if we do that right, and if we continue to execute on the highest level, eventually, our customers will appreciate that and that will allow On to grow much bigger than it is now. But growth has never been the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal has always been to give you, as a customer, an amazing experience — and the more customers we can target and reach to have that amazing experience, the better it is.


For me, an industrial guy is someone who is basically making a commodity. You can swap around industrial lagers and basically see no difference to them. They spend millions in marketing but it doesn’t necessarily mean a difference. Sometimes they don’t even have their own brewery, they contract brew all over. It’s not about the story. — Arthur VIAUD

[00:32:12.26] Ben: Arthur, before you started La Nebuleuse, you were a private banker. How does one go from private banking to craft beer?

Arthur: Well, I was working on the trading floor at the private bank in Geneva. So, of course, they’re very unrelated topics. I was brewing on the side, as a hobby — something I’ve been doing since I was a student.

Ben: Like in your bathtub?

Arthur: Kind of in my bathtub. Not literally in my bathtub, but in the bathroom, for sure! At some point, I felt like I wanted to find a really meaningful working life, and the entrepreneurial spirit always has been in me and then, I’m not going to say it was a very natural jump, because you need to consider a lot of things before jumping ahead, and of course, you go into a lot of uncertainty. But it was just about taking the jump. The passion was there, the interest was there, and it was about doing something with my brain but with my hands and with passion and moving ahead with a different set of values, etc. The previous professional experience was useful and proved to be useful in a lot of different aspects in the journey, so I never regretted having done what I’ve done, but of course, I would not go back to it now. I’m very, very happy, and proud that I’ve made this move. So I would say it came up naturally and the deep motivation was so early on in my career. I’m young, I don’t have any family to feed, it’s easier to take risks, as well. So, that’s how it came.

[00:34:00.21] Ben: And when you were weighing up that decision, did you literally weigh up the pros and cons? I mean, did you make a list of, a private banking offers me a steady career, it offers me a fixed wage, it offers me a bonus each year. On the negative side, I don’t want to wear a suit anymore, I want to do something I’m passionate about. Like, how did you make that decision?

if you share that passion and that interest and you’re passionate about your product and you want to get the best thing out, then I think that it’s not really volume question. It’s about your interests and how you’re aligned. We take decisions that are sometimes not efficient on an industrial basis, but we won’t compromise on them because we just think it’s the right thing to do. — Arthur VIAUD

Arthur: Well, first, it was not a single decision because I went into the game with two very old childhood friends of mine. So, we all took the decision at the same time and both of them also had corporate jobs. So, it made it both easier and harder. It made it easier because all of a sudden, if you’re three people convinced about something, it’s easier to say, “Okay, well, this must be something right about it.” But it may have been also harder because then you have on your shoulder the potential failure of the business but you also have on your shoulder the potential failure for your other partners who are also taking a lot of risk there. And so, of course, we discussed about it. So, in my head, I mentally went through pros and cons and I think I remember writing down a small list about things that I will lose by doing it, and sometimes writing them makes you realize, “Am I really willing to let go of that?” But it was easier because we were still fairly Junior in the positions. So it’s not like we left a huge paycheck on the table. It’s not like we left massive benefits, big stock option plans, whatever. It was way earlier in the curb. And I thought, “Okay, well, I might not miss much of the curb at this point in time.” So it was also easier to go ahead at this point in time.

[00:35:40.16] Ben: So, on the one hand, you had your personal desire to do something you’re passionate about, but presumably you also saw the gap in the market, the opportunity to launch something which would be successful. So, what is the gap that you saw, and how is La Nebuleuse addressing it?

Arthur: We’ve been following the craft beer markets in other countries just out of interest because we were just homebrewers and it was quite fun to do that. When we realized, “Well, actually, maybe we should do that.” Then I thought, “Okay, I had to go ahead and do a few trips abroad to really check what the scene was like, to see how is this different from the current market?” I just went to the US for about three weeks, in California, and just checked the craft beer scene there, and then I discovered that the level of development of the market there was way, way, way ahead of the Swiss market. And, looking at it, I saw no reason why this would not come here. The power of the population, the level of education, the center of interest, the psych — all the stars were aligned to see a real booming of the industry in Switzerland and it was just not there. There were a few players who were still around brewing but there was nothing spectacular. The connection with the customer was pretty low, to be honest, the quality of the products was not outstanding, we would not find the flavors and the kind of brand that we would look up to abroad. So then, it became apparent that something could be done. And then, I got further confirmation looking at what was happening in Scandinavian markets, in the UK. So, I was like, “Okay, it’s happening also in Europe; it’s not only a US thing. There’s absolutely no reason in the world why this would not happen in Switzerland.” And that’s what really triggered the, “Okay, this was just an idea and now we have to make it a business.”

Craft beer is an affordable luxury. It is a luxury because it comes at a premium and it comes at quite a premium if you look in percentage terms, but if you look in absolute terms, it’s actually quite cheap and affordable for most people. — Arthur VIAUD

[00:37:39.06] Ben: Basic question: what is the difference between an industrial and a craft beer?

Arthur: It’s not volume related. A lot of people think it’s volume related. I think it’s spirits related. For me, an industrial guy is someone who is basically making a commodity. You can swap around industrial lagers and basically see no difference to them. They spend millions in marketing but it doesn’t necessarily mean a difference. Sometimes they don’t even have their own brewery, they contract brew all over. It’s not about the story. It’s not about what you offer behind it. And you have small guys who actually have kind of an industrial mindset — will produce something that’s not so interesting, they don’t put much soul into it, and much interest to it. On the other hand, a craft brewer is someone who focuses first and foremost on the quality of what they deliver — and I value that a lot. It’s a bit like an industry with a heart and a smile, I like to say, so you’ve got to be passionate about what you do. You’ve got to be very interested in the people — it’s a people business, we do something that’s basically as old as the world and has been gathering people around beer forever. And so, if you share that passion and that interest and you’re passionate about your product and you want to get the best thing out, then I think that it’s not really volume question. It’s about your interests and how you’re aligned. We take decisions that are sometimes not efficient on an industrial basis, but we won’t compromise on them because we just think it’s the right thing to do. And a big guy would not do that.

[00:39:11.21] Ben: And the rise in craft, as a general term — which encompasses beer, but also chocolate and all sorts of different items — this is really riding, I guess, two waves, right? One is the growth in disposable income. And the other one is the death of mass marketing. Would you say that’s fair to say? Because it’s harder to get people to buy an undifferentiated product at scale — on the one hand; on the other hand, as people get wealthier, they’re demanding better quality products, and they’re more interested in where these products come from, and how they’re sourced and if they’re sustainable, and so on. Do you think these are the two trends you’re riding with craft beer?

Arthur: Yeah, totally! Over the last maybe 50–60 years, there’s been such a rise in consumer choices, and people got a bit obsessed with choice. And then also the price was a big trigger, because all of a sudden it became accessible to the majority, to have access to a wide range of goods, which if you go back in the early 20th century was not at all like that. And then, at the end of the 20th century it was already a very different game with goods coming from all over the world, and products that were once never available, were available to the masses. I think that’s the first part of the equation. Now, the second part of the equation is that people got used to diversity, they start to also look a bit deeper than just, “Okay, what do I have available?” They start to look for the story behind, they start to associate with the brands, they want to support maybe more values that they like, and I think the rise of the Internet in the way that it increased the speed of information and then people got just much more information about things. So, it’s much harder to fool consumers today than what it was 30 years ago. So, you can’t just go around and say something that’s completely wrong or that’s completely not in line with your values and expect to take people for fools and think they will just take it. So, I think that this is a big change. Of course, there’s wealth involved, but also, it’s just that people are more sensitive to what they consume. They think more. And I think if you’re just doing a good job, and you’re being honest about it, and you show it and you’re caring and professional, then eventually you’ll find a market as well — as long as you do something that’s quality-driven and that you actually mean it, then there’s a market out there for you.

We target people who are conscious about what they want to drink, who like to taste, who like to feel, who like the branding, and who feel like they can have some tie with us one way or another. So, naturally, we tend to go a bit local. But, of course, this can resonate with people abroad, it can resonate in a lot of different places. — Arthur VIAUD

[00:41:30.01] Ben: How big could that market be? Is there a tension between this constant fragmentation, this constant search for better quality? And then, on the other hand, producing a really good product at scale? Because, some of these “craft brewers” like, BrewDog, for example — I mean, these guys have gotten really, really quite big and they’re distributing internationally. So, does it come to a point at which you grow so big that you almost look like a mass-market brand?

Arthur: I think it’s a fair question. It’s the big question of, “Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?” And I think BrewDog, for example, has had a very aggressive growth. They’re fueling a lot of that. So, for those who don’t know, they’re a Scottish-based brewery, they brought a lot to the equation in terms of craft beer throughout Europe. They’ve been very disruptive. And they’ve been expanding internationally. This is a bit against the base idea of craft, which has some sort of local grounding to it. So, we’re not talking about historical beers and say you want a special beer from a Belgian Bay and you won’t find it anywhere else in the world, and that’s shipping all over the world. Craft beer is an industrial process and someone in Iceland can do an excellent beer, and someone in Vietnam could do an excellent beer, given that they have access to the raw materials that they of course have to source internationally, but they can produce and brew something really qualitative. So, I would say that the craft beer market tends to be a bit more local than the international beer market. And hence, some guys like BrewDog, have tried to associate a lot with local brewers when they go abroad, not to get too much of this image of an international global brand. Whether this is successful or not, it’s hard for me to say. But what’s for sure is that I think that our market, for example, is still very Swiss at the moment. Could evolve over time. But I think it’s hard to be a really global brand and have a really close relationship with the consumer. Or you can have a close relationship, but in a product that’s physical, I think there’s some limitation to that one way or another.

we go and have drinks in the same places that our consumers go have drinks and we just see people there, we know everyone from bartenders to waiters, to bar owners, restaurant owners, shop owners. And so, there’s a very special relationship — Arthur VIAUD

[00:43:39.18] Ben: But isn’t it about finding the right demographic for La Nebuleuse?

There’s a certain type of drinker and you identify with that drinker and maybe it’s about their lifestyle, maybe it’s about their age, and then you’ll find that same demographic in all the places where you have “hipsters”. So, do you know what I mean? Like, you have an audience in Lausanne, you have an audience in Geneva, you have an audience in Zurich, and then maybe the next natural audience is in Lyon, or it’s in Milan.

Arthur: I mean, it could be, of course. I think beer is an affordable luxury. Craft beer is an affordable luxury. It is a luxury because it comes at a premium and it comes at quite a premium if you look in percentage terms, but if you look in absolute terms, it’s actually quite cheap and affordable for most people. So, we do not see ourselves as a very exclusive good. We just target people who are conscious about what they want to drink, who like the taste, who like to feel, who like the branding, and who feel like they can have some tie with us one way or another. So, naturally, we tend to go a bit local. But, of course, this can resonate with people abroad, it can resonate in a lot of different places. But I think, then, in these places, it will tend to be a smaller size market than in our home market. It doesn’t mean that there’s no market, it just means that it will be a bit more niche. But again, a niche market in Shanghai might be as big as our local market here. But demographics are obviously very important. Because it is such a widespread good, because it is consumed by so many people, in terms of demographics, it might touch a lot of people anyways. But, of course, we have a core range of consumers who are much more likely to take the product than others, that’s for sure.

The only motto that we have, internally, is that we do not produce something that we don’t like ourselves. So, any single product that goes out is something that we would happily consume ourselves. And if not, it’s not making it. — Arthur VIAUD

[00:45:21.04] Ben: That just seems that’s the mistake of mass-market brands, which is, in order to appeal to every single demographic everywhere, they stand for nothing. Whereas I think you authentically stand for something and it would almost be better to target a small demographic across Europe than to try to get too deep in Switzerland.

Arthur: Well, I think that you can’t touch everything and you can’t touch everyone, that’s for sure. I think that we can also stand for something that can be seen as local pride because we think it’s how we want to be perceived, eventually, and it’s what we want to work towards. So we want to do things differently and we want to brew the best beers we can with an independent spirit and all of that. And I think you can reach the point where you’re seeing not just as an outstanding product but also as a symbol that can be seen and put forward. So in Lausanne already, in a lot of places, we’re seen as really THE beer of the place and there’s a sense of pride from people living there, just because they have a cool brand that’s the cool beer that’s being brewed very close by and it’s part of it. And of course, if they can see that brand elsewhere in Europe, they would also advocate it. So, it’s really, I think it’s two things. And at the same time, we also appeal to people who are very in line with the brand. So, as I said, our real core target group of people who will really fit with us, they will also be all over Europe, maybe, and they will associate with our products, our design, our spirit, all of that — and regardless of where they are, they might be a perfect match and if they can have their hands on our product, they will do that.

[00:46:58.13] Ben: Tell us, what’s so special about La Nebuleuse, in your opinion?

Arthur: I think we’ve seen the whole thing as not only brewing the best beer but as being part of something. So, we haven’t followed the typical, “Let’s try to make the best beer.” We talked about how are we going to activate with our customers, do events things like this? How are we going to do the best packaging we can? How can we be very, very active to support the local community? How can we interact with all the industries as well? So, we try to be part of an ecosystem instead of just being a player somewhere. And I think it makes quite a big difference between a lot of the players around. It’s us, the three founders being very, very involved and the team that grew around is very involved, and where it all takes place is Romandy, in general, and I would say mostly focused on Lac Leman in general. And there’s a story behind it and there’s the relationship we’ve got with the people and we go down to meet customers but not on the purpose of meeting customers. It’s just because we go have drinks in the same places that our consumers go have drinks and we just see people there, we know everyone from bartenders to waiters, to bar owners, restaurant owners, shop owners. And so, there’s a very special relationship in that perspective, which is very different from a lot of different brands.

[00:48:20.17] Ben: What is the best-selling beer that you have?

Arthur: Now, there’s a bit of a competition, but we have three brands that are really doing great. And that’s Stirling, Embuscade, and Zepp. Zepp, obviously, is taking a big hit because it’s a beer for bars and restaurants, and over the last two months plus it’s been closed pretty much. So, it took a hit but Stirling is getting stronger as well. Embuscade is still growing. So, I would say these three are really the three brands that are all the way at the top.

[00:48:54.02] Ben: You have an IPA, you have a Pilsner, you have a session IPA. So you have all these different types of beers. And is the idea to appeal to everybody’s different tastes? Or is the idea that you can not just take market share from traditional beers, but you can start to take market share from spirits and wine. What’s the idea behind having such a broad range of beers?

Arthur: Well, first of all, it would be very boring to have only one or two beers and that’s not in the spirit of what we do. I think it’s very hard to have a favorite among your children — you should not — so the thing is it’s part of our culture to have a range and to have diversity. And, of course, we try not to overlap too many styles together. We have a lager that can compete against bigger industrial breweries, but most of the time, it’s still priced at a premium. And so, it’s not necessarily really scavenging on the big guys market. And we’re not necessarily trying to scavenge on craft beer themselves. It’s just that the craft beer segment is growing. So by growing, we have more space for products. We try to have a portfolio of products that’s balanced that we like and we’ve built it with that in mind. Of course, we wanted a Pale Ale, we wanted an IPA, we added a Session because it’s something that was really missing in our range — we wanted something that was highly drinkable with lower alcohol. The only motto that we have, internally, is that we do not produce something that we don’t like ourselves. So, any single product that goes out is something that we would happily consume ourselves. And if not, it’s not making it.

[00:50:34.16] Ben: And I think you have very passionate customers, like me, right? Real brand advocates. What’s the plan to get your passionate customers and use that passion and channel it to make the product better, and I guess, more importantly, use that passion to help you to sell more?

Arthur: I think the best thing is to embark them on the journey one way or another. I think we are a great brewery, we’re going to pull back visits on the schedule, ideally from July going forward. We want to get as many people to come and visit, as possible. And you rarely speak about the beer that you had yesterday except if it was something truly outstanding, but you’re not going to pick up a discussion with that. But you might pick up a discussion on the visit that you’ve done and how great it was and how you discovered this and that about the process and all of this, and then you might get these other people to come and visit. You came, you tasted beer, you liked the place, you liked the atmosphere, you liked all that. The likeliness of you consuming more of that product next time you hit the bar or telling the bar manager, “Hey, why don’t you have this product in stock?” Or picking up that product the next time you go to the supermarket just shoots through the roof once you’ve seen that.

Arthur: And we’ve seen this with some of the bar managers, bartenders — after they came — because our place really sweats of passion. And so, once you really got into this and you saw it, it actually triggers something. You get more interested in the product, about the whole story behind. And it’s much cooler to speak about something that you’ve seen the back scene of it, then to talk about something that you don’t really know about. I think big brands have nothing to say. They have to spend millions to find a storyline that they can share with the consumers. And we have a lot to say. We just need to get the people in to see it. And after, I think, they will do the job themselves and they will advocate for what they like or they didn’t like. And if they don’t like, well, we’re actually small enough so that we take very seriously any comments that we have and we can actually act upon it quite fast or much faster than the big guys. So, that’s also a big differentiating point for us.

[00:52:53.22] Ben: Tell us about C’est ma tournée.

Arthur: Yes, sure. So, you know, of course, there is a multitude of campaigns that were launched by a lot of different actors throughout the pandemic and how to support your consumers, how to support clients, how to support the society as a whole, as well. We thought about a lot of different things. We thought about, of course, it was this huge talk about, should we do some hand disinfectant? But we realized, “Okay, we cannot. We can’t produce pharma-grade disinfectant. It’s not going to work. We’re a brewery, we’re not distilling and we can’t even bottle the product.” So, that was a no-go. But we really wanted to help with something because the whole company is not going to a dead stop. But it was very, very slow because more than 50% of our sales were in bars and restaurants. All of a sudden, you have zero sales with that. And we thought, “Well, we have to help these guys out, as well, because if they go down, we also go down. Oh, it’s terrible. We need to find something to do.”

Arthur: And we didn’t want to do something complicated because we know the guys, and they’re not very big into paperwork. So, we wanted to do something that’s quite easy that requires minimal effort from their side and that can bring what they need most — that is cash — just to survive. And we thought, “Well, we have a bit of a capacity because of course, it’s being unused. And we know how to make great beer because it’s our day-to-day job. And we don’t have a niche shop — because we didn’t then.” So we thought, “Well, what could we do that would be significant?” Well, that would be saying, well, we’re going to deliver ourselves the beers to a limited area — because we can’t deliver throughout Switzerland — and people can buy a pack of 24 and select which bar or restaurant they want to support. And the bar or restaurant needs to be in Lausanne or in Geneva — the two areas that we deliver — and if they don’t want to pick, they just say, “Okay, I split parts” and we give to all the different things. And we decided, “Well, we’ll give half of the sales” because it’s not very profitable, at all, for us, but that’s okay, we get the beer moving. And most importantly, we support bars and restaurants. So, for every franc that we get, we give back 50 cents.

Arthur: So, it’s that simple and people get to select which bar and restaurant they want to support. So, of course, people are stuck at home, they can’t do much so they might as well get a beer in the evening and they might as well help the bar that they used to go to, to have drinks because that bar will be in dire need at this point in time. And “C’est ma tournée” means “it’s my round” and what we thought is that very often when you go to a bar or a restaurant, the bar owner will give you a round at the end of an evening just to thank you for being there. And I thought, “Well, now it’s time for you, the consumer, to give a round to your bar or to your restaurant to help them out.” And you can do that by contributing no more than paying the normal price for your beers and we will go the extra mile and give 50% of that to the bar or restaurant of your choice. So, we made some posters that bars and restaurants could put on their windows and some banners they could put on their social media. So it was a very simple operation, at the end of the day. It was put in May, and it’s been running since then.

[00:56:18.26] Ben: The last question is, will you keep direct distribution to consumers post-pandemic?

Arthur: It was something we didn’t consider before. But we had surprisingly high traction on that — or I don’t know if it’s surprising, actually, but we had excellent traction on that. Now, the website is actually put up, so it is very possible that we keep this as a branch of business for us. Also, because some products that we sell are sometimes a bit more difficult to get out on standard channels because you might have distributors who don’t want to stock up small volumes. If you do some funky beers, then it’s always hard. You can find a lot of people who will be interested. We actually often have consumers who call us up at the brewery and say, “Well, I’ve seen that you’re releasing this beer and I can’t find it anywhere. How do I get it there?” And sometimes there’s only a few places that will actually pick it up, even though there’s demand because they can’t be bothered to buy just a few boxes, they can’t be bothered to change their menu, they can’t be bothered to make some space in the shelves. But still, there’s demand for it. So, I think for that simple reason, as well, it’s a very good channel that we’ve never really used. So, most likely we’ll keep it up and running, yeah.

[00:57:25.19] Ben: And can you ship internationally?

Arthur: It’s complicated today. We ship internationally on occasion for professionals. So, if we have some bars in France or in Belgium, or in Scandinavia, or in England, who want to buy the beer, sometimes some have just contacted the distributors, and it’s going through like that. So, it’s been, I would say, a non-systematic business, but it’s been happening ever since 2015. We’ve been selling beer internationally, but not to private consumers because it’s very difficult and you need to go through a guy, you need to go through a middleman. I don’t see how you’d do it without.

Ben: Perfect! Arthur, thank you so much for coming on the podcast!

Arthur: Thanks, man!

From Scalable Efficiency to Scalable Learning (#22)

From Scalable Efficiency to Scalable Learning,
w/ John HAGEL

We are speaking with John Hagel, who has been working with the most successful companies in Silicon Valley for 40 years (also a startup founder of his own). John is the author of several books — including The Power of Pull he co-chairs Deloitte Center for the Edge, which is a Silicon Valley research center. In this episode, John joins Ben Robinson for a very comprehensive discussion on the zoom in — zoom out approach to strategy; why the advertise-based business model is unsustainable and the alternative; how customers’ reluctance to accept mass-market products will drive the fragmentation of product and service-based businesses; why learning in the form of sharing existing knowledge is not where the greatest value is; why John is optimistic about the gig economy — and more.

Podcast also available on:

Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsAnchor.fmSoundcloudStitcherPocket CastsTuneInOvercast

Resources:

  1. The Power of Pull — John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Lang Davison
  2. Zoom In / Zoom Out — Deloitte Center for the Edge
  3. Never underestimate the immune system — John Hagel

Full podcast transcript:

 

One of the things I’m intrigued by is the degree to which the big shift is producing a return to the past, and I think one of the interesting trends that I anticipate in the gig economy is moving to what I call ‘the guild economy’. — John Hagel

[00:01:40.27] Ben: So, John, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. I guess most listeners will know who Deloitte are, but probably there are quite a few people that aren’t quite so familiar with the Center for the Edge. So what is the Deloitte Center for the Edge?

John: Broadly, it’s a research center that’s chartered with identifying emerging business opportunities that should be on the CEOs’ agenda, but are not, and do the research to persuade them to put it on the agenda. So, we try to stay a step ahead of everybody else.

[00:02:14.11] Ben: Your work is guided, I think, in large part, through this idea of the big shift. How do you define that big shift?

John: We don’t have a single definition. We just view it as the way in which the global economy is transforming as a result of long-term trends that have been playing out for actually several decades.

[00:02:37.15] Ben: So, you mean technological trends like Cloud, mobile — those kinds of things?

John: Certainly digital technology is a key driver of the changes. I’d say the whole movement towards the freer movement of people and goods and information across boundaries on a global scale is another factor; the increasing power of customers is another factor. So, there are many forces that are coming together to shape the big shift.

[00:03:09.13] Ben: And this big shift, you would argue this is as big a shift as the move from an agrarian to an industrial economy? It’s that kind of magnitude of shift?

John: It is. I mean, I think that often we hear the phrase or some framing of, “We’re in industry 4.0”

Ben: Yes. It’s the World Economics Terminology, I think.

There are two very different time horizons: 10 to 20 years, and 6 to 12 months. When you think about the way most companies talk about strategy, it’s the five-year plan, right? It’s year one, year two, year three, year four, year five — that’s their strategy. [While Big Shift] companies spend almost no time on one to five years. It’s all about 10 to 20 years or six to 12 months. And their belief is that if they get those right, everything else will take care of itself. — John Hagel

John: Yeah. And our perspective is, no, we’re beyond the industrial era. And the way we frame it is around this notion of a contextual era where it’s all about context — reading context, responding to context quickly and effectively — and that’s a very different way of organizing and acting on business issues.

[00:03:55.08] Ben: That’s good! I think we should now start to delve into what that really means — the big shift in the contextual era. So, maybe let’s start by talking about the role of strategy within an organization. Because, I guess, in response to faster change, a company needs to introduce more agile decision-making and you’ve written a lot about this. So, I was wondering if we could maybe start with your concept of zooming in and zooming out and how that helps to frame strategic planning horizons.

One of our concerns is everybody today talks about agility and flexibility. And certainly, that’s valuable in some contexts. But if all you’re doing is sensing and responding to whatever is happening at the moment, being flexible and agile, you’re going to spread yourself way too thin across way too many things, because there’s so much going on. If you’re just responding and reacting to anything and everything, good luck! Zoom out — zoom in helps you to focus to get a sense of what really matters. — John Hagel

John: Yes. It’s a very different approach to strategy — zoom out, zoom in. I’ve been in Silicon Valley now for 40 years, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most successful tech companies in the Valley and they have a very different approach to strategy and it inspired the zoom out — zoom in. They don’t use that term, but it’s one that I’ve used to basically describe a very different approach to strategy, which focuses on two time horizons in parallel. On one time horizon, it’s 10 to 20 years — and that’s the zoom-out horizon. And on that horizon, the questions are, “What will our relevant market or industry look like 10 to 20 years from now?” And then, “What are the implications for the kind of company or business we need to be, to be successful in that market or industry 10 to 20 years from now?” So, that’s zoom out.

John: Zoom in is a very different time horizon. It’s six to 12 months. And on that horizon, the questions are, “What are the two or three initiatives — no more; two or three — that we could pursue in the next six to 12 months, that would have the greatest impact in accelerating our movement towards that longer-term opportunity we’ve identified? And do we have a critical mass of resource against those two or three initiatives in the next six to 12 months? And how would we measure success? What are the metrics we would use to assess our progress towards that longer-term destination?” So, there are two very different time horizons: 10 to 20 years, six to 12 months. When you think about the way most companies talk about strategy, it’s the five-year plan, right? It’s year one, year two, year three, year four, year five — that’s our strategy. These companies spend almost no time on one to five years. It’s all about 10 to 20 years or six to 12 months. And their belief is that if they get those right, everything else will take care of itself.

John: And so, it’s a very different way of thinking about strategy and we believe in rapidly-changing times it’s necessary, essentially, as challenging as it is, to look ahead. You need to do that. One of our concerns is everybody today talks about agility and flexibility. And certainly, that’s valuable in some contexts. But if all you’re doing is sensing and responding to whatever is happening at the moment, being flexible and agile, you’re going to spread yourself way too thin across way too many things, because there’s so much going on. If you’re just responding and reacting to anything and everything, good luck! Zoom out — zoom in helps you to focus to get a sense of what really matters. Where are we headed? What’s the destination that we’re trying to achieve? Then, how can we accelerate our movement there? It’s a very powerful way to focus effort rather than just respond to whatever is happening at the moment.

One of the zoom-in initiatives — six to 12-month initiatives — should be focused on what we call ‘scaling the edge’. It’s finding an edge to the existing business that has the potential to scale to the point where it will become that business that we anticipate 10 to 20 years from now. — John Hagel

[00:07:30.28] Ben: And presumably, when you’re working on these different time horizons, you’re using different strategic tools to try to figure out what the world looks like in 20 years; and also, I guess, separate tools to optimize what you do in the next six to 12 months. Is it fair to say that when you’re looking 10 or 20 years out, you’re using scenario planning, kind of pulling yourself out of your comfort zone, and trying to think without constraints about what the future might be?

John: Absolutely! Scenario planning is a critical tool and very useful in terms of looking ahead and imagining all the possibilities, alternative futures. I think that the difference here is that in most scenario-planning efforts, you imagine very different futures, you may ultimately just agree on which future has the greatest probability, and then you leave; the meeting is over. In this approach, the meeting is not over until we have committed to the future that we believe is most likely — and committed to short-term initiatives based on that future. So, where this has implications for us — and it very much changes the whole discussion because a lot of scenario-planning efforts are viewed as theoretical, conceptual exercises, but they don’t really make a difference to the business today. Zoom out — zoom in has a profound difference in what you do in the short term.

[00:08:57.02] Ben: How concrete an idea or a future do you have to come up with? Because one of the things you talk about a lot in your writing is this idea of narratives versus stories. And I think the difference you draw is that a narrative is open-ended. So, can a future state be a little bit nebulous and just kind of help frame where you’re headed, kind of like the Northstar, without having to be too concrete?

John: Yeah, it’s a balancing act, ultimately. It has to be sufficiently tangible that it can help you make choices in the short term, but broad enough so that there’s room to explore and discover as you go. One example I use, most of the companies that pursue this approach don’t talk about it publicly: there was one company where it’s been written about, so I can share, and it was actually Microsoft in the early days when it was just a startup, back in the 1970s. Bill Gates pursued a zoom out — zoom in approach and the zoom out he had for his company could be summarized in two sentences: one is, “Computing is moving from centralized mainframes to the desktop”; the second, “If you want to be a leader in the computer industry, you need to be a leader on the desktop.” So it wasn’t a detailed blueprint of what the computer industry would look like 10 to 20 years from now, but it was enough specificity so that you could make really hard choices in the short-term and accelerate your movement towards the desktop.

I think the immune system, the people in the immune system are very well-intentioned people. They’re not evil, by any means; they’re wanting what’s best for the company. Their view is what’s best is to continue doing what we’ve always done. So, this notion of scaling the edge is a way to not draw out the immune system. — John Hagel

[00:10:29.13] Ben: You just said something that I want to touch on, which is, you said, you’ve got to be able to make hard choices in the short term. In this kind of strategy work that I’ve done, I think that’s one of the hardest things to get people to do, right? So let’s assume that you can galvanize an organization around the long-term vision, then getting them to make difficult choices to actually divest of some activities is super difficult. What’s the right way to approach making those short-term choices?

John: It helps if it’s short-term and it’s not massive resource requirement. So, a lot of the resistance is, if you’re talking about five-year programs and billions of dollars, that’s going to encounter a lot of resistance. We have kind of a filter that we use on the zoom inside, which is that one of the zoom-in initiatives — six to 12-month initiatives — should be focused on what we call ‘scaling the edge’. It’s finding an edge to the existing business that has the potential to scale to the point where it will become that business that we anticipate 10 to 20 years from now. So, it’s finding an edge and starting to scale the edge in the next six to 12 months.

John: The second zoom-in initiative is, “What’s the one thing we could do that would have the greatest impact in strengthening the performance of the existing core of our business? Because ultimately, that’s where the money is today and we want to prolong it as much as possible.” And then, the third one, which is the most challenging in my experience, the third zoom-in initiative is, what one major set of activities could we shut down in the next six to 12 months so that we can free up resources for scaling the edge and for strengthening the core? And that’s looking for something that is marginally profitable, has no real potential for growth. Why are we doing this? Let’s shut it down, so that we can, in fact, devote more attention and resource to the things that matter.

[00:12:41.10] Ben: And how successful are you at getting companies to do that third aspect?

John: As I said, it is certainly challenging. I think that, in my experience, having a sense of what’s that edge that we could scale and the really big opportunity we could be moving towards, and then also that there’s an imperative to strengthen the core — we can’t just continue on as we are — I think that helps to build a sense of need for shutting down. I mean, if you just say, “Let’s shut down things that aren’t very good or very profitable”, that’s going to encounter a lot of resistance. But it’s the notion that there’s actually something much bigger and better that needs and deserves the resources that we’re currently devoting to something that’s not producing great results.

[00:13:30.24] Ben: One of the articles that you wrote that we have cited the most — in fact, I’m pleased we don’t have to pay royalties to you because we’ve cited it so many times — is the one around the immune system. I think you consistently say, “Never ever underestimate the immune system!” How does one scale the edge under the radar of the immune system?

in most of my career, I’ve been a business strategist — it’s been all about strategy: that’s what’s going to win, and if you get the right strategy, everything else will solve itself. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that it’s much more about psychology than strategy. We need to understand the emotions that are shaping and driving our actions. — John Hagel

John: It’s a great question and certainly a major focus of our work is the notion of how do you avoid mobilizing, exciting the immune system. And a general counsel to companies around the drive to change, first of all, it’s scaling the edge versus trying to transform the core because even if you see the need to do everything fundamentally differently, if you go in from the top-down into the core, and define this massive change program that’s going to take many years and a lot of money, that guarantees that the immune system is going to come out full force against you. They want to hold on to what they have, they don’t want to take risks. And by the way, I think the immune system, the people in the immune system are very well-intentioned people. They’re not evil, by any means; they’re wanting what’s best for the company. Their view is what’s best is to continue doing what we’ve always done. So, this notion of scaling the edge is a way to not draw out the immune system. If you start with a small part of the business that today is relatively modest, doesn’t get a lot of attention and you focus on short-term action and impact, that helps to build more credibility for what you’re trying to achieve and over time, in our experience, it undermines the immune system because the immune system, a lot of it is about being risk-averse. But if you can show real impact in a short period of time, it starts to overcome that risk averseness and people start to ask, “Well, wow! That’s interesting! How can I be part of that?” So it’s a way to avoid direct confrontation with the immune system.

[00:15:41.16] Ben: You have an expression — in fact, it’s the subtitle of your book, The Power of the Pull — where you say, ‘it’s all about small moves smartly made’. I suppose that begs the question, if you’re making small moves, are we not in danger of incrementalizing ourselves to death, if we’re not careful?

John: That’s one of the biggest risks these days. The focus is on the term ‘smartly made’. I mean, yes, it is small moves, but it’s with a clear sense of direction and focus on what really matters, and being very aggressive in those small moves. It’s how quickly and how much can we achieve in a short period of time? The emphasis is on ‘smartly made’ and the way to avoid incrementalism, again, is to have a very clear sense of what’s the destination, and how would we measure our progress towards that destination? What are the metrics so we’re very clear what really matters here, and then focus on how quickly are we actually making progress on those metrics?

I think the fear is definitely dominating, in my view, the reaction to the pandemic versus viewing this as a catalyst for change — John Hagel

[00:16:50.03] Ben: And I suppose those small moves might actually be quite large moves but they’re small in the sense that they involve a limited number of people so they don’t consume too many resources or invoke the immune system, the antibodies of the immune system.

John: Yeah, it’s all relative, obviously. If you’re a large company, a small move can still be a fairly large initiative, but it’s lost in the rounding for the overall company because it’s not that big and doesn’t draw that much attention. So, I think that’s the focus is really not trying to excite that immune system.

[00:17:31.02] Ben: And it seems like, listening to you, there are two parts to not exciting the immune system. One part is doing something which is relatively small so it doesn’t consume too many resources or bump into too many people or too many budgets. But the other part is around fear, right? Because, as you said, it’s perfectly rational — at least it’s rational in the context of what we’ve been taught in the business school, etc. — to not cannibalize revenue streams, and to pursue things that can double-down on things that work. So, I suppose, is countering fear also done through narratives?

John: First of all, I think your point about fear is absolutely spot on. I say now that in most of my career, I’ve been a business strategist — it’s been all about strategy: that’s what’s going to win, and if you get the right strategy, everything else will solve itself. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that it’s much more about psychology than strategy. We need to understand the emotions that are shaping and driving our actions. And in the business world, again, the culture we have today is emotions are a distraction; focus on the numbers and do the analysis and everything else will solve itself. But I think in that context, this notion of narrative has become a key piece to our approach, which is… And again, I’m sorry if I go on a bit, but I make a big distinction between stories and narratives. Most people use the terms to mean the same thing. For me, a story is self-contained: it has a beginning, a middle and an end to it. It’s over the end. And the story is about me, the storyteller, or it’s about some other people. It’s not about you in the audience. You can use your imagination, figure out what you would have done, but it’s not about you. In contrast, for me, a narrative is open-ended — there is no resolution yet; there’s some kind of big threat or opportunity out in the future, not clear whether it’s going to be achieved or not, to be resolved, and the resolution hinges on you. It’s a call to action to the people who are hearing the narrative to say, “Your choices, your actions are going to help resolve this narrative. What’s it going to be?” And I think, in that context, if I focus on opportunity-based narratives, that helps to inspire people and excite them, and helps them to overcome their fear and act in spite of their fear.

John: One of the reasons we’re such strong proponents of the zoom out — zoom in approach is because if you think about it, at one level, it’s not framed this way in the strategy domain but you can think about the zoom out as framing that opportunity out in the future. What’s that really big opportunity that we could focus on and become over time? And then, it focuses people on short-term action and impact, which helps to inspire people — there’s a really big opportunity out there — but also overcome the skepticism that many are going to have who are afraid to say, “Well, wait a minute! That’s just fantasy. That’s never going to happen.” “No, we’re actually having an impact today, we’re making progress towards that opportunity. Come join us.” So I think it can be a powerful way to address and overcome the fear.

[00:21:11.24] Ben: The companies you’re working with at the moment, how good a job are they doing? Or how tough is it to translate this pandemic, into an opportunity and not into something to be fearful of?

It’s early days, still, but my counsel to companies is, find alternative approaches to advertising-based business models, if you really want to build trust and deeper relationships with your customers. — John Hagel

John: It’s hard to generalize, but, at least, in my experience with the companies that I’m dealing with, it’s still very much driven by fear and short-term focus, understandable at one level — I mean, many companies are struggling to make payroll for the month and continue to exist. And so, that definitely holds people back to a very short-term time horizon and just focusing on survival versus how can we learn from this? What are the things we could change that would help us to become even more effective and successful in the future?” So, I think the fear is definitely dominating, in my experience, the reaction to the pandemic versus viewing this as a catalyst for change.

[00:22:15.17] Ben: I want to slightly shift gears if that’s okay. So far we’ve talked about evolving strategy in response to the big shift. Now, let’s just focus a bit on how business models need to change in response to the big shift. I think you’ve written a lot, and I think you’re one of the earliest people to flag this, which is, in a lot of the platform business models we see today there’s this kind of inherent conflict between the consumer and the producer because in the middle you’ve inserted an advertisement, right? So, I think you’re one of the first people that I can quote, who was starting to question the sustainability of these “free models” that depend on that advertising revenue because they introduce that conflict of interest. But, I suppose, we haven’t yet seen. I mean, I think for a long time we’ve anticipated that maybe Facebook was about to move into negative network effects, but it hasn’t really happened. Do you still subscribe to the view that these advertising-based business models are inherently unsustainable? And when do you think we, as consumers, wake up to this? And when do you think these business models start to perform worse or not as well as they have done?

John: Yeah, there are a lot of challenges with the advertising-based business models. I think, certainly, one of them — and it was the whole focus of the book ‘The Power of Pole’ — was advertising intrinsically is a push-based model. It’s all about how to intercept people, get your message, push your message to them, push to get attention. Our belief is that model is increasingly challenged. The number of options that are trying to push to get our attention is significantly increasing and we, as customers, are becoming overwhelmed with all the attempts to reach us. So, I think that’s one piece to the puzzle. The other piece is that it goes to the notion of trust and perception of what interests are you serving when I interact with you? Is it my interest? Or is it somebody else’s? And, intrinsically, in an advertising-based business model it’s the advertiser paying the bill so the attention and focus are going to be on their needs and what do you need to serve them? It’s an interesting question.

John: I do see early signals. Again, I don’t think it’s a massive movement, yet. But, if you look at, for example, the adoption of advertising blocking software on the Internet, it’s skyrocketing. It’s significantly expanding. More and more people are using that to block the ads that are coming in. I think there’s also, again, early signals, but a lot of people who are active users of some of the social media platforms are pulling back and now saying, “Wait a minute! Do I really want to share this? Can I trust that it’s going to be used for my benefit versus somebody else’s?” And then, the other thing is the growing call — and again, I think it’s early days, but it’s enough evidence out there — that the mobilization of people for the regulation of online businesses and around data capture and around advertising and all the rest suggests that people are less and less open to having that model and having their data being used for that purpose. It’s early days, still, but my counsel to companies is, find alternative approaches to advertising-based business models, if you really want to build trust and deeper relationships with your customers.

[00:26:15.14] Ben: What you paint is this alternative or a better model is a model where you have alignment, right? So, I’m helping you to make better decisions to find products or services that are better suited to your needs. And so, it’s a model where I very clearly give you the consent to use my data in exchange for you doing something that will benefit me. So there’s total alignment, there’s trust, and also, an expression that you use, “In our attention-stuffed age, it’s about helping us to get a higher return on the attention that we afford to your platform.” So I can definitely see how that’s the next model to triumph. And I listened to everything you say about regulation and people turning on ad blockers, but we haven’t yet seen, as far as I’m aware, anybody who’s really profiting from this new idea of a trusted advisor or an intermediary. Have you seen examples in the marketplace that are really starting to work?

John: Not in any massive way. I mean, I think there are, again, early signals. I’m frankly, frustrated. I’ve been talking about these opportunities for quite a while. The challenge is it requires a massive cultural shift for a company to really address this opportunity. And the focus is, again, much more on the scalable efficiency and just doing things faster and cheaper and more incrementally. So, I think some of the early indicators — again, not perfect — there are companies in Asia that are being much more effective at mobilizing large networks of third parties to provide value to their customers, positioning themselves essentially as a trusted advisor. It’s more in the business to business space in those situations — things like the motorcycle industry, the clothing industry. So, there are some examples at that level.

the evidence is that customers are becoming more and more demanding and less and less willing to accept something that’s standardized, mass-market product or a bundle of things, some of which are good and others that are not that good. We want the best in whatever product or service category we have a need for and we want something that’s the best in the sense of addressing our individual needs, not just the mass market or even a large segment, but our specific needs — what would be the best product or service? In that context, we believe that that is a force that’s going to drive fragmentation of product and service businesses. — John Hagel

John: I think, one that’s intriguing to me, although, again, relatively early stage — not in terms of time, but in terms of real development — is what Johnson & Johnson has done with Baby Center website: they invite parents with small children, babies who are experiencing a very challenging life event and offering them a space to connect with each other and get help from each other, learn from each other about how to be more effective as a parent with small children. And so, I think it’s this notion of, again, being proactive in connecting the customers with people who can help them. And, at least in the US, that’s become a go-to place for millions of people. Parents with small babies are going there because the word is spread. And it’s the power of pull in that case because they’re not doing advertising for this website. The word is spreading — a parent with a baby has a friend who just had a baby and says, “You need to go to this website. It’s really helpful.” And so, it’s word of mouth and this draw because it’s so helpful to the person.

[00:29:43.27] Ben: Yeah, with that Johnson & Johnson example, I think you’ve more or less answered the question I was going to ask you, which is a kind of a paradox — and I know you like paradoxes — this idea that you could imagine I have your trust and in exchange for you sharing your data, I’m giving you useful information back. But without engagement, people won’t return enough to the site and won’t show enough data to make that site truly useful. But I think you’ve kind of answered it, which is, it has to be both, right? You have to achieve trust and engagement at the same time, otherwise, you won’t have a big-enough factor, and enough data to be able to be really useful to people’s lives. And I guess also, the social aspect helps with what you term as ‘scalable learning’ — which is, it’s only through many-to-many interactions that you can learn fast enough to really materially improve the learning curve, materially move up the learning curve.

John: It’s definitely complicated. I don’t suggest this is easy, at all, but another example that I use — and again, this is from quite a while ago, in the mid to late 1990s — a company here in Silicon Valley, Cisco, making networking equipment, created an online website called ‘Cisco Connection Online’. And what they were doing was they were inviting prospects — people who were interested in their equipment — to go to this website. And what they would do on the website is they would start by asking two or three questions — just “Tell me something about yourself.” And then, based on those questions, they would immediately provide tangible advice and value back to that prospect, to say, “Okay, based on that, here are the kinds of things you should be thinking about and why those could be valuable to you.” But then, they would ask another set of questions. And it was this notion of rapid staging to build trust, that you’re not presenting them with a five-page questionnaire or survey. It’s two or three questions; they’re providing real tangible value back to them, and then, based on that, asking for more information. And the experience was customers were more and more willing to share more detailed information about themselves because they were getting real value back in return.

John: And another piece to the Cisco platform, which was, I think, an important part is, based on the answers to the questions, Cisco would start to connect you with experts based on your needs. So, they might come back and say, “Well, based on your answers, you haven’t really clearly defined your need yet. You could benefit from having a consultant work with you to really frame the needs that you have. Here’s a consultant that you might consider.” And they make an introduction and connect the customer with a third party. Cisco had 40,000 specialists or experts within their network that they could connect customers with. So again, word spread among people who were interested in networking equipment that if you go to that Cisco site, it’s really helpful. It can help you figure out what you really need. And then, once you figure out what you need, another key piece to this platform was, once you bought the networking equipment you had needs like staging the site, the location for the networking equipment. So, Cisco would connect you with a specialist who could prepare the facility for the equipment, training people — people who could come in and help train your employees to get more value. So after the purchase, it was continuing that focus on how to help the customer get more and more value from the products that they had purchased.

while we see fragmentation in the product and service businesses, we also see concentration in a set of other businesses, starting with things like running data center operations, logistics — businesses where there are significant economies of scale, and network effects that can really drive scale over time. And, in fact, part of the reason we see fragmentation in the product businesses is because you have those concentrated resources you can tap into. — John Hagel

[00:33:40.01] Ben: I wanted to ask you about the fragmentation that is bundling. You envision a future state where we see massive fragmentation because if we move to a state where platforms are really connecting us with the optimal service of each individual, then we have much more self-heterogeneous suppliers. We actually move to a longtail-type concept where you could optimize just for a very small demographic of people in each case. Do you really think that that is going to be the end state? Or do you think you’ll always be able to bundle an inferior product with a great product, if you can bundle the pricing?

John: Yeah, again, this goes back to our view of the big shift, and the evidence is that customers are becoming more and more demanding and less and less willing to accept something that’s standardized, mass-market product or a bundle of things, some of which are good and others that are not that good. We want the best in whatever product or service category we have a need for and we want something that’s the best in the sense of addressing our individual needs, not just the mass market or even a large segment, but our specific needs — what would be the best product or service? In that context, we believe that that is a force that’s going to drive fragmentation of product and service businesses.

John: We’re starting to see it. I mean, the early-stage trend for this was actually in the digital space, where things like music, videos, software have seen exploding fragmentation, more and more options that are available for very specific customer interests or needs. And it’s starting to spread into the physical product space. My favorite example because I’m a chocoholic, is craft chocolate. Ten years ago, 20 years ago, there were three or four global brands of chocolate; that was what you had, and that’s all you could get. Increasingly, we’re saying, “No, that’s not enough. We want chocolate that’s tailored to our very specific tastes and interests”, and there are more and more craft companies — small, profitable companies. I mean, again, part of our view around fragmentation is, while these companies will be small, they will be quite profitable. It’s just that they’re not going to grow into massive, multinational companies in the way that the traditional mass-market companies did.

John: But also, I will say, too, that while we see fragmentation in the product and service businesses, we also see concentration in a set of other businesses, starting with things like running data center operations, logistics — businesses where there are significant economies of scale, and network effects that can really drive scale over time. And, in fact, part of the reason we see fragmentation in the product businesses is because you have those concentrated resources you can tap into. I don’t need a data center if I’m a small product company — I can just rent space in the data center. I don’t need to have my own trucking and logistics operations — I can contract that out. So, I can access the scale assets and resources that I need for my business without doing it myself. That allows me to stay small and profitable.

John: And then, on the other side, I think the big opportunity — which we briefly touched on, but I think is more speculative, but ultimately more interesting — is this notion of a trusted advisor. As you’re confronted with more and more choices as a customer, as you see the fragmentation of products and services and the rapid evolution of products and services, having somebody you trust, who can really help you connect to the products and services that are most relevant to you, is going to really be hugely valuable. And our view is, the trusted advisor has what we call economies of scope, in that the more I know about you as a customer, the more helpful I can be to you as a trusted advisor, versus if I just see a small slice of who you are. And the more other customers I am serving, the more helpful I can be to each individual customer because now I can say, “Well, customers like you have gotten huge value from this product or service you’ve never even asked for it.” By the way, a key role for the trusted advisor, in our view, is not just waiting for a customer to ask for something — it’s being actively challenging to the customer to say, “No, you asked for this. You really should be looking for this and here’s why.” Or “You haven’t asked for anything but here’s something that could be really valuable.” So, it’s challenging to get more value for the customer.

One of the key challenges in our view is most institutions today are run by a scalable efficiency model, versus a scalable learning model. In the scalable efficiency model, the one message that every employee hears is ‘failure is not an option’. You will deliver as predicted, as expected, reliably, and efficiently. But what’s required for learning, especially learning in the form of creating new knowledge? Failure! If you’re not failing, you’re not learning fast enough. — John Hagel

[00:38:51.12] Ben: I 100% agree with that. The way you depicted the future economic state where you have a small number of players that have a very large supply side economies of scale, and you have a few number of players who have a very large demand side economies of scale. And in the middle, you have this proliferation of producers, right? So, you can borrow the scale from those people that have supply side economies of scale so that you can produce at much lower unit costs and then you distribute through those people who command attention. I think I would totally agree with that end state. I think what we haven’t seen yet is a shift in who aggregates demand. Because I think what we’re seeing is — and I totally agree with you — it just hasn’t happened yet — which is the precondition, ‘to aggregate my demand is you have to have my trust.’ And I think at the moment, the precondition is ‘you’ve got to have engagement and then we’ll pay you 40% of our revenues so we can get access to your customer’. I think that’s the bit that will change, but just I’m not sure how quickly.

John: Yeah, it’s early stage. But again, if you look at the fundamental forces reshaping the economy, our view is that that’s going to unfold over time because there’s a growing unmet need for that kind of service. We’ll see how it plays out.

[00:40:06.14] Ben: I want to talk to you next about lifetime learning. So, clearly in the big shift — which is in many ways an acceleration of economic activity and an acceleration of change — the knowledge that we accumulate will depreciate faster, necessarily. And I think, as you said, it’s sort of almost Canute-like to just try to read more books and go to more courses. And so, what you’re saying is we have to put in place something that will achieve scalable learning. How do we do that?

John: I think most people, when they hear ‘learning’, especially executives, will say, “Well, yeah, we have training programs, we do learning.” Actually, in a world that’s rapidly changing, learning in the form of sharing existing knowledge, while it’s still helpful, is not where the greatest value is. It’s learning in the form of creating new knowledge and doing that through action in the workplace as you’re confronting new situations that have never been confronted before, and connecting with others so that you can learn faster — when you confront those situations, who can I connect with that is going to help me figure this out and come up with an approach that really would create value in this context? It’s got huge implications for how we do business. I mean, one of the key challenges in our view is most institutions today are run by a scalable efficiency model, versus a scalable learning model. In the scalable efficiency model, the one message that every employee hears — if not daily, it’s certainly very frequently — is ‘failure is not an option’. You will deliver as predicted, as expected, reliably, and efficiently. Well, okay, I got that message. What’s required for learning, especially learning in the form of creating new knowledge? Failure! If you’re not failing, you’re not learning fast enough. You’ve got to learn from the failures and figure out what the right approaches are. But again, there is that fundamental conflict between those two messages. And that’s why many companies try to just isolate the learning and innovation labs or incubation centers somewhere off on the side and focus everybody else just on staying true to the manual. So, I think that it is a massive cultural shift.

the people who are just doing work because they want to get a secure income or paycheck are the ones who are going to struggle with lifelong learning. — John Hagel

[00:42:34.01] Ben: John, what about as an individual? Because I suppose we have knowledge stocks that are also depreciating very fast. How do we learn faster?

John: I think it’s an interesting question! We increasingly are hearing in the world the need for lifelong learning because the world is changing so much, but nobody talks about why. What’s the motivation? I mean, why would somebody engage in this? It requires a huge amount of effort, it takes you out of your comfort zone. The unstated assumption, I think, is that most people do it out of fear. If you don’t pursue lifelong learning, you’re going to lose your job, you’re going to be out of work. And so, get to it. My belief is while fear can be a motivator to learn at some level, it’s not a very powerful motivator. The most powerful motivator is passion. And we have a very specific form of passion that we focused on in our research. We call it ‘the passion of the explorer’. Our belief is that people who cultivate this passion find out what they’re really passionate about and then find a way to pursue it as a profession, as a way to make a living. Those are the people who are going to learn the fastest because they’re excited by, driven by the need and opportunity to learn. They’re not doing it out of fear — they’re doing it because they’re excited about it and they’re constantly seeking it. So, our sense is that the people who are just doing work because they want to get a secure income or paycheck are the ones who are going to struggle with lifelong learning. The ones that are going to be most successful are those who are working out of passion.

[00:44:16.14] Ben: So early on, we talked about the whole move to craft, right? And you talked about chocolate and if you’d asked me to give an example, I would have talked about craft beer. But I suppose in a way, that’s a manifestation of people actually moving to do things that they’re passionate about. There’s this whole return to craft and therefore, becoming artisans and doing something they’re passionate about allows them to create this motivation for them to continue to learn.

John: Absolutely! I think a key driver of fragmentation in the economy overall is this quest for passion and many people are passionate about very creative kinds of activities and developing products that are tailored to very specific needs. But I think you can be passionate about virtually any activity. It just depends on looking inside, what really excites you, and then continuing to search for that, until you find it — and then finding a way to make a living from it. You’ll be quite successful in a world that requires lifelong learning.

Our view is that, as we move to the scalable learning model, there’s still value in connecting with people outside the organization but it’s with the objective of learning together so that we can actually rapidly improve our performance in whatever the work area is. And in that context, the notion is that the independent contractors are increasingly going to want to connect with each other because they’ll learn faster as a small group — John Hagel

[00:45:22.24] Ben: How does scaling the edge tally with, or how is it compatible with the organization, at large, learning faster? Because it’s almost something that you said earlier on, implied that you think some of these things like innovation centers and so on are a bit of a sideshow. They’re never going to achieve the large scale, systematic changes that are necessary for an organization to really learn at a much greater scale.

John: Again, it’s a challenge. I sense it’s unlikely that you’re going to get the entire core of your business to fully embrace all aspects of scalable learning because that does require massive transformation. On the other side, again, I go back to this notion of strengthening the core. We have a framework that we call ‘metrics that matter’ that can help you target elements in the core where you could start to drive some of these scalable learning principles and approaches. And the example I give for metrics that matter, is, start with the financial metrics of the company as a whole. And just as an example, revenue growth is a big challenge. Okay, let’s drill down one more level to operating metrics. What’s holding us back from revenue growth? And in this illustration, it could be, “Well, we’ve got a high rate of customer churn — customers are leaving at a rapid rate so we can’t grow revenue.” Okay. Drill down one more level to say, where in the front line is there a metric that could really make a difference in customer churn?” And in this illustration, again, it could be Call Center Operations, it could be, “Well, customers are calling us and they’re getting frustrated they’re not getting answers to their question.” Okay, now we have a very specific part of the company in the core, where there’s a big need, and it could influence the performance of the whole company. Let’s focus, again, with small moves targeted to this particular area, and say, “How could we help the customer call center operators learn at a more rapid rate in terms of addressing unmet customer needs?” The intent is to show real impact quickly and to build more credibility and support for doing this in other parts of the organization versus just customer call centers.

In a network, if you design the network and the relationships in the network so it’s not just transactions — buy low, sell high — but we’re all committed to learning faster and accelerating our performance improvement, that’s powerful as a motivation to participate in the supply network — John Hagel

[00:47:48.04] Ben: On the gig economy, again, you’re starting to craft a different narrative from the one we tend to read about every day, which is, most of the stuff you read about the gig economy is, it’s a race to the bottom, right? By not allowing people to act collectively and by putting them on different types of contracts, we just get people to work harder for less money. That’s one narrative. And I think you’re starting to reframe the narrative by saying, “That might be true today, but we’re going to see a different type of gig economy job, in time.” And then, the second thing is, we’ll start to see gig economy workers form collectives, right? Not collectives in the sense of trade unions or anything, but they’ll start to form groups where they can collaborate together in order to learn faster and achieve better quality at scale. And so, can we break that down? Can we start with why you think the gig economy will move upstream in terms of requiring different types of skills and, I suppose, creating jobs that are better paid?

John: Yeah, I think, again, it has to do with this broader focus on the big shift. In the scalable efficiency world — which is the world we’re largely in still today — the gig economy emerged largely as a result of a drive towards more efficiency: if we can take fixed labor cost and transform it into a variable labor cost, and potentially access the labor in lower-wage regions or countries, we’ll become more efficient. And that’s the gig economy. Our view is that, as we move to the scalable learning model, there’s still value in connecting with people outside the organization but it’s with the objective of learning together so that we can actually rapidly improve our performance in whatever the work area is. And in that context, the notion is that the independent contractors are increasingly going to want to connect with each other because they’ll learn faster as a small group than they will, just sitting in the isolation of their home or wherever they are. But connecting and now offering their services as a small group — five people maybe — they will learn faster, they’ll help their customers to learn faster in terms of whatever their needs are. And one of the things I’m intrigued by is the degree to which the big shift is producing a return to the past and I think one of the interesting trends that I anticipate in the gig economy is moving to what I call the guild economy, where, as you said, people with similar areas of interests are going to come together in guilds. And again, it’s not with the desire to just hold on to what they have, it’s to connect so that they can learn faster together and help each other learn faster. And that’s a very different kind of mindset or model.

In the big shift world, the winners are going to be those who learn faster. The ones who are going to learn faster are those who are more networked and connected with a broader range of more diverse expertise and resources. And so, if you’re just narrowing your connections, we believe you’re going to be increasingly disadvantaged relative to those who continue to expand their connections and harness the power of networking on a global scale. — John Hagel

[00:50:53.26] Ben: I think you’re right, and I think another reason why that might happen is because, at the moment, a lot of this gig economy is mediated based on ratings, right? So I won’t take an Uber driver, theoretically, if they’ve got a 4.2 rating versus a 4.8 rating, or whatever, or I won’t use a tradesperson if they’ve got a low rating. But if we think the gig economy is going to step up and do more and more complex work, then it’s going to be harder and harder to mediate that work just based on ratings because there’ll be much more complex deliverables, which will consist of many people contributing to that deliverable. And, at that point, I think is when it makes sense to create guilds or some sort of collective bodies because simply having a four-star rating is not going to be enough if I want you to build my home and plummet — whatever the example might be. I just think the deliverables become more complex, so it lends itself to some sort of intermediation. What do you think will happen to globalization in light of this pandemic? Because, I think one of the things that we realized was that our supply chains were much more fragile than we thought. So, do you think that will, to some extent, put the brakes on physical trade? Do you think we’ll end up reshoring a lot of manufacturing?

John: Clearly, at one level, there’s this desire to have things closer to me so that I can rely on them more. But, on another level, if you’re just taking the supply-chain mentality, and again, it’s a longer conversation, but broadly, the scalable efficiency model says, “You want a supply chain with as few participants as possible and tightly integrate and tightly specify every activity that’s done in that supply chain.” That makes for a very brittle and fragile supply chain in times of extreme events like the pandemic. And just bringing all those activities onshore, closer to where you are, is not going to solve the problem; it’s still going to be very brittle and fragile. Our belief is the real need is to expand our horizons from supply chains to what we call supply networks where you are working to orchestrate a very large number of participants and pulling them in, as needed — as specific situations arise — versus “No, I’ve just got this one supplier who depends on this other supplier that depends on that supplier.” No, it’s increasing the range of participants so you have more flexibility. And by the way, so that you can learn faster. In a network, if you design the network and the relationships in the network so it’s not just transactions — buy low, sell high — but we’re all committed to learning faster and accelerating our performance improvement, that’s powerful as a motivation to participate in the supply network.

[00:53:57.20] Ben: It’s almost self-evident, but just, as more and more activities move online, they become intrinsically more networked. And so, would you argue that what we’ve been seeing over the last few decades is supply is becoming more networked and therefore, what we might be seeing now is an immediate reaction where we’re trying to, again, put up barriers, but effectively, the secular trend towards more networks and more ecosystems will trump the immediate backlash to erect borders and become more nationalistic?

John: In the big shift world, the winners are going to be those who learn faster. The ones who are going to learn faster are those who are more networked and connected with a broader range of more diverse expertise and resources. And so, if you’re just narrowing your connections, we believe you’re going to be increasingly disadvantaged relative to those who continue to expand their connections and harness the power of networking on a global scale. So, in the short term, yes, because of fear, we may see borders come up and barriers to movement come up. But over time, our view is the countries and the areas that maintain openness and connection are going to be the ones that thrive. And over time, those who are putting up these barriers are going to realize that they’re being disadvantaged and start to reconnect again.

[00:55:30.08] Ben: I know that every one of your blogs finishes with ‘the bottom line’. So I wonder if I could end this podcast with the bottom line, which is a summary of what the big shift means — if we can summarize it. And then, the last thing is, reasons to be optimistic about how we overcome the fear and inject the optimism to make it happen.

John: Well, I’ll end with a paradox — it’s what I call ‘the paradox of the big shift.’ If you think about the big shift, at one level, it is creating exponentially expanding opportunity. We can produce much more value with far less resource, far more quickly than would have been imaginable a couple of decades ago. Huge opportunity! At the same time, the paradox is the big shift is also creating mounting performance pressure on all of us. As individuals and as institutions, we’re experiencing more and more pressure. It takes many forms: intensifying competition, accelerating pace of change, extreme events that come in out of nowhere and disrupt our best-laid plans — witness the pandemic. So, you’ve got the interesting thing that the big shift is, at one level, creating exponentially expanding opportunity; on the other side, mounting performance pressure. And the challenge and imperative, I believe, is how do we move from that mounting performance pressure to exponentially expanding opportunity?

John: And the overlay here is that mounting performance pressure induces fear, it creates an emotion of fear. I think it’s notable around the world the extent to which fear is becoming the dominant emotion. But, in that context, I think the way to move forward and move from that pressure to opportunity is around framing what I was describing as opportunity-based narratives that can really focus people and inspire people on the really big opportunity and help people to come together. I think, again, one of the key roles of narratives, the way I define them, is to bring people together saying we all need to address this opportunity. You can’t just do this individually. And that’s, to me, what gives me the optimism, is that framing that kind of opportunity-based narrative can help overcome the fear and help mobilize us to address that exponential opportunity. But it requires articulating that opportunity-based narrative.

Ben: John, thank you so much for coming on the podcast!

John: I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you! We’ve covered a lot of ground!

Hitting Internet Escape Velocity (#21)

Hitting Internet Escape Velocity,
w/ Brett BIVENS

Our guest today is Brett Bivens— a venture investor at TechNexus Venture Collaborative, an early-stage venture capital firm — and he is going to talk about why he is so optimistic about Spotify and how the future of audio will be a social experience with various network effects loops. One of the core investment areas for TechNexus is audio and media. And so, in this episode, you’ll hear Brett talking about that, with your host, Ben Robinson, as well as talk about the various concepts that Brett has coined, including ‘escape velocity’ and ‘clampetition’.

Resources:

Resources:

  1. Venture Desktop Newsletter — by Brett Bivens
  2. Brett’s Medium Essays
  3. Brett’ Telegram channel for high-cadence thoughts

Full podcast transcript:

 

I think that a lot of people might actually get their first onboarding into VR-like experiences through audio-first experiences — Brett Bivens

[00:01:51.12] Ben: So, you work in venture capital. The home of venture capital is the United States. You, yourself, are American. So, why practice the trade from Paris?

Brett: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think the first thing is that our investment model kind of dictates it, to a degree. So, we work with a number of large corporates across industries and these companies all have global businesses. And so, as they think about what the future of their company looks like, they need access to the global innovation ecosystem. And so, from day one, we’ve always had a very geographically-agnostic perspective on where we want to invest and the types of companies that we want to work with. And, on top of that, I think we really do buy into the idea that great companies are being built everywhere and have been being built everywhere. And so, that was a big part of it, trying to now, given that we’ve seen so much talent and so many great companies built in Europe, get a little bit more involved over here. And then, why Paris specifically: so, partially family. My wife is from France. I’ve spent a lot of time over here building relationships, following the ecosystem. I was getting just really excited about what was happening with the types of companies that were being built here. So, it was kind of just natural that it worked out that way. And it turns out, actually, that the first investment that we made through this model that we have at TechNexus, about three or four years ago, was a company founded by French founders, partially based in the US, partially based in France. And so, that gave us a perspective, as well, on this distributed nature of teams that were being built. So, yeah, that’s kind of why I ended up here. Our team is still based in the US and we invest in the US, North America, and Europe.

[00:03:28.16] Ben: We could argue that France, within Europe, is probably one of the hottest ecosystems, right? So I think I read that VC money going into French tech is up to something like 5x since 2014. So, I suppose, as you said, it was a bit because of family but it was also because you think that Paris is increasingly becoming the hottest or the hub for tech in Europe?

Brett: I think so. I think there’s great things that you could say about any of the ecosystems in Europe — Berlin obviously has some incredible companies that have come out of air, the cities and the countries in the Nordics just kind of incredible per capita output of innovation, and then, obviously, London being the centerpiece of the European tech ecosystem. But yeah, Paris, again, we were just really excited about the companies that we were seeing here, the attention that was being paid to the region and the ecosystem by investors. And, even apart from all of that kind of stuff, even at later stages, so, sort of beyond where we invest, we were seeing a tremendous amount of talent kind of flow into the ecosystem from all over the world to launch Europe for American companies and doing that from Paris or joining teams in Paris, leaving Silicon Valley companies to do that here. So we sort of saw this confluence of things, all of these different things — capital and talent and attention, and even governmental resources being poured in that just got us really excited about where the ecosystem was headed.

We’re getting new technologies coming to market […] that are expanding the addressable daily hours for audio content to be accessed, creating more social opportunities for audio, creating more contextual opportunities for audio — Brett Bivens

[00:04:57.21] Ben: I wanted to get you next on Spotify because for anybody who subscribes to your newsletter, is a company that you focus on, almost disproportionately, and it’s obvious you’re really excited about the prospects for Spotify. But, if you listen to most commentators on Spotify, most of them see it as a company that has quite difficult unit economics — low gross margins, high variable costs — and a company that’s up against really deep-pocketed competitors. And so, why is it that you rate Spotify so highly?

Brett: Yeah, so, I think there’s a few reasons. So, one, I see it as emblematic or as an embodiment of what’s kind of happening to European tech in this world where you have the American tech giants and the Chinese tech giants kind of squeezing it out and seeing where that lands. And so, I find that interesting. At the same time, at TechNexus, one of the core investment areas for us has always been audio and media and we have a large portfolio of companies there. And so, it’s just natural that we follow that space, try to understand the key players in that market. And I think Spotify is a very central company in the sense that they have to work with, and integrate with, and serve different stakeholders across all different parts of the audio ecosystem and value chain. And so, from that perspective, that kind of speaks to why I follow the company so closely.

Brett: In terms of my optimism about it, and how I see them fitting into the broader picture, I think you’re spot on. I mean, anytime a company puts a competitor slide up, or you build a competitor slide for a company — it includes Apple and Amazon and Google and Tencent and ByteDance with TikTok — it’s a little bit scary. I think that Spotify has done a very good job of delivering a differentiated user experience within the limitations that they have. I mean, it’s well-known at this point, that they have a tough supplier relationship with the record labels, and that’s kind of slowed down their ability to innovate. Like you said, that flows through to their margins and the way that the business functions. So, I would say I’m cautiously optimistic. I think they’ve done a lot of really great things. As a company, I think they have a lot of hills to climb. But that optimism and the upshot of what I think Spotify can be in the future is really just as much about my excitement about where audio is going, and what’s sort of evolving within the audio ecosystem.

Brett: I think, for a lot of the same reasons that a company like Spotify has been forced to innovate rather slowly, I think it’s just true of the broader ecosystem as well. So, I think we often underrate path dependency in the way that technology is adopted, and the audio ecosystem has had that play out in the spades with regards to, again, the record labels and the way that Apple has been an early mover on podcasts and not really done anything there but their scale and size has scared a lot of people away from doing anything interesting there. The same thing has happened in audiobooks with Amazon. People are kind of scared away from that, and so, it sort of slowed down innovation in the ecosystem. But we’re starting to see different things break through and different user experiences develop. We’re getting new technologies coming to market, like AirPods and voice interfaces that are, I would say, expanding the addressable daily hours for audio content to be accessed, creating more social opportunities for audio, creating more contextual opportunities for audio, and kind of having it always with us.

Brett: So, we’re on this path almost to an ambient audio experience where, in a very, I guess, optimistic reading of what the future looks like, we have these different audio experiences and scenes and technologies that can be applied to whatever activity we’re undertaking at the time to just improve our daily lives. And so, that’s kind of the upshot for Spotify and for the company in audio: the engagement surface area just kind of continues to expand, monetization catches up, and they continue to deliver good user experiences along the way and incrementally innovate. And so, yeah, that’s kind of how I view Spotify in the broader audio market, in general, I’d say.

[00:08:59.25] Ben: Yeah, I think there was one really spiffy statement in one of your essays. I think it was something like, “The ear is under-monetized vis-a-vis the eye.” And I think that’s a pretty good starting point, to start to look at the companies in this space.

Brett: Yeah. I think that came from Daniel Ek, the CEO of Spotify, but it’s something that a lot of other executives in the industry have sort of echoed. You have podcasts that really haven’t had internet-scale advertising applied to them. They have always been this hobbyist kind of enterprise where the host reads their own ads and it’s not particularly programmatic, not particularly scalable, which has kept a lot of large brands and companies that are going to spend millions and millions of dollars on advertising through some medium kind of out or just barely dipping their toes in the water. And so, yeah, I think we’re starting to see that all catch up. We’re starting to see social experiences catch up in a significant degree. I mean, not to dip too far into the tech Twitter topic du jour but a company like Clubhouse which recently raised money from Andreessen Horowitz at a pretty lofty valuation — or people think it’s a pretty lofty valuation — kind of gets at this as well, which is, audio as a social experience and the different network effects that can be driven through that.

[00:10:20.07] Ben: You talk a lot about patient investing, in the context of Spotify. And I think the term you use is something like, they have a different investment horizon, compared to some of their competitors. Is that through design, or is that because you almost have to patiently invest, you have to stealthily invest because your competitors are so powerful?

Brett: It seems like a little bit of both. I mean, as a total outsider to the company and not really knowing the inner workings so much, I do get a sense from hearing executives talk and people like Daniel, like the CEO, talk that there is just sort of this cultural patience to the way that the company thinks about building this business and the long-term opportunity that they’re going after. So, again, without knowing anything from the inside, that’s kind of how I perceive their culture a little bit to be. But yeah, I think that, because of the fact that they are squeezed in the middle of all of these different powerhouses, these different monopolies, basically, they have to tread lightly and carefully and sort of eke out what they can over time. They’ve maybe been forced to slow play their hand in social because of the friction that might create with record labels who think they’re trying to go around them; the same thing with Spotify going direct to artists and working directly with artists — they probably had to slow-play that a little bit; their relationship with platforms like Apple or like Google, where they’re reliant on those platforms for distribution to a degree through the app store, but they’re also directly competitive with them creates some challenges. So yeah, I think it’s a little bit of both and they probably feed off of each other. By design, it’s baked into the culture, but it’s also just inherent to the business model and how they have to operate.

I think that most people look to gaming as the first path for immersive social media. And they’re definitely not wrong about that. — Brett Bivens

[00:11:57.16] Ben: Do you think they need to win the podcasting war, in order to completely change the unit economics of their business?

Brett: I think so. I think that that’s one piece of it. I think that that’s only one piece of it. There’s so much more and I think that there’s an interesting comment that I heard once and I agree with, and that’s to say that, “A category isn’t really one until a social product emerges.” And I think that that is kind of the long-term play for a company like Spotify, is to have a more social component to their business. But to get there, I do think that they need to continue to innovate across these different categories and continue to expand beyond music to podcasts, to books, to health and wellness, to all of these different categories that help them build up that user demand and help them build up the leverage against all of the people that they’re working against in the industry, to then layer on additional social experiences.

[00:12:52.10] Ben: And is it the importance of social experiences what makes you think that a marriage between Spotify and Snap might be a good idea? Because you’re the only person I’ve ever seen to put those two names together as a potential merger, and I’m just quite curious about that.

Brett: Yeah. Well, it was sort of a throwaway comment at first, in response to what I just said, which was this idea that a category isn’t one until a social product emerges. And like I said, I agree with that. And I don’t think it’s likely at all that that would happen but it does get you to start thinking about, again, the evolution of audio and social media, how they come together, as well as immersive reality, virtual reality, and how all of these things converge at some point in the future. I mean, I think that most people look to gaming as the first path for immersive social media. And they’re definitely not wrong about that. I mean, we’re seeing that play out in real time with things like Fortnite and these massive games that have created virtual universes, but if we think about the things that create immersive, kind of these metaverse-like experiences, even on a partial basis, and you have things like persistent worlds and synchronous collaboration and communication and the ability for the platform to be populated by content that’s created by a wide range of contributors, and even interoperability across platforms — I think all of those things work well with audio. And so, I think that a lot of people might actually get their first onboarding into VR-like experiences through audio-first experiences — and that’s where Snap as this AR and VR company, they do some really interesting things there; Spotify as an audio company — I think there’s some interesting tie-ins there that just gets you thinking about what the future of the media market looks like. But no, I don’t think it’s likely.

There’s this balance between being a great product or a great platform for your core customers versus going broad and scaling and alienating that core customer set. And so, it’s a delicate balance, and I think ‘internet escape velocity’ is just a way of thinking about that. -Brett Bivens

[00:14:38.25] Ben: As I was saying to you earlier on, I read all of your newsletters in one go. I mean, I’ve read many of them before, but then I read them all in one go. And the thing that’s striking is just how many terms you seem to have coined. It’s like you have your own personal lexical set. And so, if you don’t mind, I’m just going to ask you about some of these terms — what they mean. So, I’ll do one now, and then I think later in the podcast, we’ll cover a couple of others. The first one I wanted to cover was ‘escape velocity’. What do you mean by escape velocity?

Brett: Yeah. So, a couple of weeks ago, or whenever it was, there’s an investor named Gavin Baker, who is a growth and public market technology investor, has really, really interesting thoughts about just the development of a lot of the things that I know you think about and that I think about, and he wrote a piece talking about the two things that he looks at when evaluating competitive advantage for consumer internet companies — and those things being scale and loyalty. And those are really the only two ways to get out of this rat race, where you’re paying Facebook and Google 40% of venture capital dollars that come in or some massive amount of money every year to just maintain your growth and your customers.

Brett: And so, for me, that brought up the next question of, what does the company have to do in order to achieve the level of loyalty that allows them to generate word-of-mouth acquisition, lower their customer acquisition costs, create long-term stickiness in a product, and then how do you translate that into scaling without losing the essence of what helped you get to that loyalty in the first place? Because that’s something that I think constantly happens is there’s this balance between being a great product or a great platform for your core customers versus going broad and scaling and alienating that core customer set. And so, it’s a delicate balance, and I think internet escape velocity is just a way of thinking about that. It’s not a thing that I necessarily have a prescription for. I think there’s a lot of elements that play into it. It depends heavily on the business model and the stage of the company but it is just a way to think about, “Okay, what are the factors that allow us to build community and build word of mouth and build that stickiness? What are the technical features for how we can serve customers if behavior changes? Or, as new competitors come into the market, what are the core features? What are the ways that we stay aligned with our customers from a product and technology perspective? And then, what are the areas of new business that we can go into that keep us aligned with those customers, but don’t sacrifice things like margins and profitability long term?” And so, it’s kind of a loaded analysis to try to do and again, it’s very different for every company, so it’s not necessarily a prescriptive thing. But I think it’s important for companies, for investors to think about if scale and loyalty are the two strongest drivers of competitive advantage for consumer internet companies, what are the core elements that underlie those things and allow you to reach those two points.

[00:17:37.19] Ben: And you said it’s not prescriptive, but you do set out three, almost preconditions, right?

The way that I think about ‘business model leverage’ is you build up your core business on what might be considered a low margin business that presents opportunities to then scale in a way that helps you expand the margin or sets you up to at least scale in a way that helps you maintain margin. And so, when I think of Spotify with […] by owning the consumer demand via the lower margin streaming business, they have the opportunity to expand into those areas. Lululemon, as I talked about, is a similar company — they have a high-margin business, to begin with, relative to peers, but because of the fact that they’ve invested in digital, they’ve invested in all of these community-level features, they also have additional areas to grow that help them maintain their high-margin status. — Brett Bivens

Brett: Yeah. I’m certainly happy to walk through those. I think the notion of responsive instrumentation gets to this idea of loyalty and there’s one company that I talk about in the piece — Lululemon — who I think demonstrates this extremely well. It’s this idea of, again, being able to quickly adjust from an operational perspective, from a product perspective, being able to make sure you meet your customers where you are, and stay aligned with your customers, and no matter what the situation is, deliver on your brand promise. And they’re an example of a company that, in this kind of crazy time that we’re in right now where their stores have closed and people aren’t going to yoga studios anymore, they need to figure out how do they continue to engage those customers, how do they continue to deliver on the brand promise that they’ve always offered. And one of the things that they’ve done early on, and again, this isn’t for every company, but it’s worked for them, is sort of this idea of vertical integration, owning the entire value chain that they use to deliver their product. So, they have a very direct and strict product focus, they don’t have this broad range trying to serve every type of customer; they manage and run and own their own stores. And so, they’ve been able to turn those retail locations into distribution outlets, and they’ve been early — maybe not early — they’ve been active in understanding digital content and how they can use that to further engage their customers. And so, I guess, a short way of saying, it’s adaptability. So, it’s the ability to adapt when situations change rapidly.

[00:19:20.13] Ben: Another one was ‘business model leverage’, I think. Right?

Brett: Yeah, exactly. And that, I guess, goes back to Spotify a little bit. I think that’s a company that has a pretty interesting business model leverage. And the way that I think about business model leverage is you build up your core business on what might be considered low margin, or whatever it may be, but a low margin business that presents opportunities for you to then scale in a way that helps you expand the margin or sets you up to at least scale in a way that helps you maintain margin. And so, when I think of Spotify with that, we talked a little about it earlier, but it’s this low gross margin streaming business where they’re paying a ton of money to the labels, but over time, as they expand and gain leverage, podcasts are a higher margin business, social products are a higher margin business, marketplace products are a higher margin business for them. And so, by owning the consumer demand via the lower margin streaming business, they have the opportunity to expand into those areas. Lululemon, as I talked about, is a similar company — they have a high-margin business, to begin with, relative to peers, but because of the fact that they’ve invested in digital, they’ve invested in all of these community-level features, they also have additional areas to grow that help them maintain their high-margin status. So, there’s probably a million other companies that do these types of things particularly well, but those are two that come to mind, there.

For us as early-stage investors, it really does come down to the founding team and the way that they set the vision for the company and the way that they think about culture; and so an interesting way to frame that is maybe ‘followability’ — Brett Bivens

[00:20:40.15] Ben: I’m going to quote you from one of your essays here. You wrote, “Company culture is the bridge between theory and action. It is the operationalization of a company’s values and it expresses itself as a set of frameworks that a company uses to make decisions under uncertainty.” I thought that was a really eloquent definition of culture. It’s clear that culture is really important for you when you assess companies you invest in, but how easy is it for you, and how practical is it for you, as an outsider, as an external investor, to get a really good gauge over a company’s culture, whether it’s private, or whether it’s public?

Brett: Good question! And it’s a challenging thing to assess, quite frankly, I think, especially in a world like venture capital, where at times, you don’t have full control necessarily over the timeline in which you get to invest. There are companies that raise funding rounds, and maybe the opportunity doesn’t exist for too long. And so, you have to figure out a way to build that conviction and build an understanding of that culture very quickly. I think that there’s a few ways — and this is not comprehensive by any means, and I think everybody has their own way of assessing these things. But when I think about it, from our perspective, as early-stage venture investors, we’re often trying to understand a few things. I mean, if there’s a team that’s already been built up around the core founders, it’s always helpful to understand why the next person, why that first engineer, first salesperson or whoever are some of the more recent people to the team, why they’ve joined the team? Why they’re excited about the mission? What that mission is, in their mind? Does that mission align with what you’re hearing from the founders that you’re talking to? And really, is there this true north that the whole company is pushing towards? I think that’s one interesting way that we try to test for that and solve for that.

Brett: And that gets back a little bit to this idea of alignment with customers and being very customer-centric. I think if companies are very clearly focused, first and foremost, on delivering the kind of value like that to customers, that can be a hint of a really strong culture and an aligned culture. And then, for us as early-stage investors, it really does come down to the founding team and the way that they set the vision for the company and the way that they think about culture and so, one of the things that we always talk about and I think is an interesting way to frame that maybe is, ‘followability’. It’s this idea of, are these people that are leading this company, that have founded this company, maybe key early executives, are they going to be able to attract and retain talent and capital and customers and tell a story and stay true to that story personally, that is going to help them compete over the long term? And so, these are a few different ways that we look at it and think about it. But, I think, regardless whether it’s an early-stage company that you have access to, whether it’s a growth-stage company, or a public company, it’s always a challenging thing to really assess out how that plays out.

The (venture capital) investment thesis […], surely becomes sort of a marketing vehicle, a way for you to tell the market who you are and what you stand for and how you think. The challenge comes when you start to overly believe your own view of the future and close your mind off to the ideas that founders are coming to the table with and some of the emergent opportunities that develop in the ecosystem. And that’s really where the friction comes in between bottom-up investing and being overly thematic. — Brett Bivens

[00:23:42.08] Ben: And how important is it, relative to everything else? So, for example, if you came across a company, and you love the business model, you’re really comfortable with the unit economics, it had responsive instrumentation, it had business model leverage, but you didn’t like the culture. Would that be a red flag that would lead you to potentially not invest?

Brett: Absolutely. I think that, for us, as early-stage investors, all of those things are important. You know, there’s always this, ‘is the product great? Is the market great? Is the team great? And how do you weight all of those?’ And the answer is, it kind of depends on the company and the market and everything like that. But yeah, for us, that’s the first checkpoint — is this a team with whom we have intellectual and emotional alignment on where they’re going as a business? Because all of those other things can fall apart very, very quickly if you don’t have the culture right, if you don’t have the leadership right, product decisions can go awry, new market development can certainly go awry, talents and how you keep that around, that’s so core to building the business can sort of go awry. And so, I always think that, yes, the culture and the leadership team at the early stage is so, so critical to making sure that the right market is captured and the right product is built and the right strategy is applied for the long term.

[00:24:59.28] Ben: Just another question on investing. So, one of the articles I really enjoyed reading at the time, and then I also really enjoyed rereading it in the weekend was the one about bottom-up versus top-down or thesis-driven investing. It sounds like you see the thesis is the marketing narrative, and then the bottom-up stuff is the hard work you need to do to actually arrive at the right solution. So, it’s almost like the thesis helps you to raise money, and the bottoms-up investing helps you to deploy the money, and you shouldn’t confuse the two, almost.

Brett: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think that even applying thematic investing at an operational level is totally fine. I mean, there’s a circle of competence element to it, where, if you’re truly just saying, “I’m going to invest in everything”, there’s challenges with that, as well. So, there’s a give and a take. I certainly hope that that’s the case, that there can be those two opposing forces at once, just because that’s, as you mentioned with Spotify and the way that we invest in our funds, this vertical focus that develops. But you’re right. The investment thesis and the way that you talk about where you invest in the venture capital world, surely becomes sort of a marketing vehicle, a way for you to tell the market who you are and what you stand for, and how you think, and all of these different things. The challenge comes when you start to overly believe your own view of the future and close your mind off to maybe the ideas that founders are coming to the table with and some of the emergent opportunities that develop in the ecosystem. And that’s really where the friction comes in between this bottoms-up investing and being overly thematic. I think that if you’re trying to predict the future and do all of that, I mean, that’s the job of the founder, in my opinion, and the team that’s kind of building the company. So, that’s definitely the way that I think about that.

A really interesting term that I learned about a couple of months ago, called ‘accumulated accidents’, […] and it basically prompts us to say about different societal behaviors or institutions, whether this is actually representative of an ideal expression of society, or whether is built upon a series of accidents that can actually be unwound in the right circumstances. And, really, for lack of a better term, it’s creative destruction. It’s how new innovation comes to market. And in a lot of cases, you can unwind some of these accidents via a better business model or via better technology but some of the really, really big things, some of the things that we’ve really screwed up in the past that have just accumulated on themselves and where incumbent interests have become extremely entrenched and difficult to pull away, I think that’s what this crisis is giving us — an opportunity to rethink and reset with. — Brett Bivens

[00:26:54.24] Ben: And it sounds like you shouldn’t shut yourself off from opportunistic opportunity, as well, by being too sticky and too rigidly to thesis. I just wonder, does that happen to you? So, as much as you do have sectors you prefer and business models you prefer, I guess you’ve had instances of where founders pitch to you and even though it wasn’t something that was on your radar, you were struck by the passion and the vision and the team. Would you argue that it’s almost unhealthy to deny yourself the chance of being opportunistic?

Brett: Oh, yeah, absolutely! And it’s something that I think about a lot, and our team thinks about a lot because we do have a handful of different verticals that we focus on, different funds that are completely divergent from one another. I mentioned audio quite a bit, we do a lot in travel and recreation, and public safety, and industrial markets. And so, we’re touching all these different areas and I think that’s exactly right. I mean, this idea of thinking about new technologies, new business models that founders are coming to you with, new angles for how to bring a product to market is benefited by this broader approach of understanding, “Okay, what did we see over here in this market that worked or didn’t work? And how can we apply it to this completely different area?” And if you do just get overly rigid, you kind of miss out on those opportunities for, I guess, transferred learning, in a way.

[00:28:23.19] Ben: I think we’ve done an amazing job because we’re at the halfway point and we haven’t talked about the pandemic yet. I am actually going to start to steer us in that direction now, by asking you about remote work. You wrote an essay on remote work, and if I were to summarize it — and badly, by the way — but if I were to try to summarize it, your view is that a lot of the “easy” solutions to remote work have been tackled but we’re only at the very early stages of starting to tackle some of the harder aspects of remote work. So, I suppose the question is, what are those harder aspects and those harder problems that we need to solve?

Brett: The thing about remote work and distributed work is it’s very challenging to crack, as a company that’s trying to do it well, and as a company that’s trying to build products and services for that market. And so, because it’s been so hard to do historically, as a company — and really many have shied away from actually even trying it until the pandemic sort of hit — maybe the addressable market hasn’t been big enough, or companies looked to build solutions that could be purchased and used by companies that were maybe trying remote, but also had people in an office. And so, you had that fact in play. You also had the fact that a lot of the easy things — we talked about video conferencing and all of these different tools that we’re using for remote work — every company and every use case is so idiosyncratic, that it’s easy to say, “Oh, well, this doesn’t work. This doesn’t work. So I’m going to build to scratch my own itch here”, which is great. I mean, it’s how a lot of great innovation occurs. So, that was kind of the reason that a lot of these easy solutions get a lot of attention and a lot of traction, that are maybe fun to play with and test out and are buzzy.

Brett: But yeah, you’re right about the hard solutions and I think that’s something that hasn’t been paid enough attention to until I would say before the pandemic; I think it was really becoming clear for a lot of companies who were trying this and a lot of onlookers who were starting to spend more time thinking about how distributed work would develop, that there were a lot of infrastructural things, whether that’s around how do you do a payroll across borders for a company without being this massive Fortune 500 company that has teams of lawyers and regulatory people who can handle that kind of stuff, or how do you manage insurance across countries, how do you handle security — cybersecurity — for people that are working from home now. One of the things that I think has really come ahead with this pandemic is just mental health and how you manage the psychology and wellness of all of the people that are working in this situation. And so, I think all of those challenges present new opportunities for companies that in the past, maybe it didn’t seem like it was worth it to go through all the legal and regulatory headache because you couldn’t really predict when we were going to hit that inflection point to really start seeing that curve go up super, super fast in terms of adoption of distributed work. But we’re kind of there now. I think, every day, there’s a news item that comes out about XYZ massive company is letting employees work from home forever. And so, the reality is that the market, so to speak, is big enough for people to go after now and I think we’ll see a massive amount of innovation happening there. And the good thing is there’s a lot of companies already that have been doing great stuff there for a while to kind of build out that infrastructure layer.

The pandemic has given a lot of companies this carte blanche to do innovative stuff that they may have not had the boldness to do before. The way that I think about this term, ‘clampetition’, it’s a word that just joins together competition and classiness, which is essentially companies using this totally disjointed economic situation to make moves that are classy in terms of helping their customers or helping their suppliers, but also double as these smart customer retention or acquisition tactics. — Brett Bivens

[00:31:50.10] Ben: It’s almost like what you’re saying is we’ve got very excited about the first-order effects. So, we need to work from home, therefore we need to communicate, therefore buy Zoom — we get excited about video conferencing. And what you’re saying is actually, the second and third-order effects, in terms of stuff that are potentially overlooked at first, like mental health. So, beyond just remote working, what do you think are some of the most interesting second-order, third-order effects of what’s happening with the pandemic?

Brett: I think if I’m going to answer this, honestly, I’ll kind of answer with a non-answer, and saying, I don’t think any of us know at this point. But I do think that you’re right, there are these really interesting second and third-order effects that are going to occur that, as investors, as analysts, as people watching this space, you almost just have to really keep your eyes open, keep an open mind towards how demand is trending in these different areas, how some of the things are changing. I think that a couple of areas that I think of that will be ripe for interesting things to happen: certainly cities is one — and that means both in terms of transportation and mobility, but also in terms of retail and physical locations; of course, offices and stores and things like that. There’s this interesting, potentially nonlinear jump that might occur as a lot of small businesses are going out of business and what happens when we need to start backfilling that and people are reopening restaurants or starting new restaurants or trying to start new gyms or what does that new experience look like? How does it now bridge digital and physical experiences in a different way than maybe before? So, I think there’s a lot of things to look out for, there, but I guess the short answer would be it’s tough to say.

[00:33:45.22] Ben: And are you excited as an investor? Because, as we know, it’s difficult to displace incumbent organizations, whether it’s Facebook or whether it’s a local restaurant. I suppose it’s even harder if it’s an online company. But what we’re seeing is there’s this one-off discordant event, this discontinuity, which must, therefore, create opportunities for companies to move in and do something different. And so, are you very excited? I mean, it seems almost paradoxical to ask if you’re excited in a time of pandemic. Are you very optimistic about the silver lining, the opportunities that will come out of this?

Brett: There’s a really interesting term that I learned about a couple of months ago, called ‘accumulated accidents’, which originated with an analyst and a writer named Clay Shirky, and it basically prompts us to say about different societal behaviors or institutions, whether this is actually representative of an ideal expression of society, or whether it’s sort of built upon a series of accidents that can actually be unwound in the right circumstances. And, really, for lack of a better term, it’s creative destruction. It’s how new innovation comes to market. And in a lot of cases, you can unwind some of these accidents via a better business model or via better technology but some of the really, really big things, some of the things that we’ve really screwed up in the past that have just accumulated on themselves and where incumbent interests have become extremely entrenched and difficult to sort of pull away, I think that’s what this crisis is giving us — an opportunity to rethink and reset with. I think about healthcare in the United States and just the layer upon layer upon layer of difficult things to unwind with that, that we hadn’t been able to do forever, that are now just becoming completely undone with consumer products playing the role of helping early-warning and telemedicine and regulations coming down there and things that could never have been done without this. And so, does that create an opportunity for a reset? I think it does in really interesting ways.

Brett: The same thing with higher education and doing a lot with being more precise in helping people learn at their own pace, on their own schedule in a way that aligns with what they want to accomplish throughout life — whether that’s an elementary level or adults that are needing to change careers and do things there. And so, I think that we’re at a unique opportunity where we have business model innovation that can come to market, technology innovation that can come to market, and this massive catalyzing force, which is in our face on a daily basis, that’s saying, “You need to change because the world as you knew it does not represent this ideal state.” And you may have known that, but now you have the opportunity to actually take action and move in the right direction.

[00:36:41.15] Ben: I thought one of the interesting points you made in one of your essays was, I think you called it, ‘daily active crisis’. So this is just providing air cover, if you like, for innovation in a way we haven’t seen, and then you draw the distinction from climate change, which is clearly a more pressing issue than the pandemic, but it can’t achieve the same headspace, the same focus with regulators and innovators and business people because it’s not a daily active crisis. It’s something that periodically we hear about, you know, a forest fire, we hear about a drought. But it’s not every day in our consciousness, in the way that this pandemic is.

Brett: It’s a bit of a damning statement on human psychology and our inability to plan for the long term and think about the future, I guess. But yeah, I think that’s just the reality of the situation. Without this kind of a crisis hitting us in the face, reminding us daily of the impact that’s having on our lives, there’s really less of an impetus for people, at large, to really try to change their behavior and push for behavioral change. And, who knows, I think that we are the way that we are for a good reason in a lot of ways. I don’t think we’re going to suddenly change overnight with this and start thinking at a societal level much more about the future. I mean, that could be the case, but at the very least, this can help us, again, reset, and at least at this point in time, do the right kind of planning for the future so that maybe we compound some happier accidents, I guess, in the future than what we’ve done in the past.

[00:38:15.27] Ben: Yeah. And out of previous daily active crises, we have achieved great things, right? The Second World War was a daily active crisis, where we built the welfare state. I wanted to actually just take you back for a second to the second-order, and third-order effects of the pandemic. It’s almost like I don’t want to let you off the hook, but I’m not asking you to necessarily make predictions, but I thought you had a really nice framework for thinking about the future, which is what you call ‘economic oceans’. And, actually, what we’re talking about, is we’re talking about clusters of attention. And so, what businesses do you build that leverage those clusters of attention?

Brett: Yeah, that’s maybe a good thing to focus on. Yeah, I’ve called them ‘economic oceans’. I like this oceans analogy to describe the way that attention is flowing in our world today because we can’t really think about the economy and everything that exists out there, as defined by verticals or just specific areas because there is so much overlap between the types of companies that are being built, the types of innovation that’s being brought to market. I mean, I think if we look at all the companies that have been built over the last decade, maybe just take a couple of companies like Square or Uber or even Zoom — they’re built at the intersection of these different pools of attention: the way that we think about work, the way that we think about cities, the way that media is evolving, the way that commerce is evolving. None of those are industries in and of themselves, but they’re, again, these areas where, at the intersection of those things, is where some really, really interesting innovation can kind of be created. And I think that more than anything, as we think about where value gets created in the future, it is less about predicting, and it’s more about staying close to where those areas are overlapping, and how, for example, to take one area, how does this new approach to wellness and well-being and managing our health and understanding our health in the wake of this, change the way that cities are constructed or change the way that we consume media, or change the way that we think about work and value work and prioritize work in our world. And so, I think that there’s going to be some really interesting bundling of these categories that is sort of not predictive, and it’s hard to say exactly how it’s going to play out, but to try to focus on those intersections is maybe the right approach.

[00:40:46.12] Ben: Yeah. And I think that’s very consistent with what you said earlier on, which is it’s very difficult to have a winning business model unless you’ve captured demand, right? Or, I think you said, what was the term? To introduce a business model without social aspect. Because it’s almost that. I mean, look, if we think about finance, for example, it doesn’t have that social aspect, therefore, it’s a service that almost increasingly lends itself to be bundled with other activities within an economic ocean, because in itself is obviously intrinsic to economic activity, but it’s not something where you have particularly strong social network effects, for example.

Brett: Yeah, it’s kind of the way that any company on the internet seems to trend. Those commoditized services get bundled into a company that owns significant demand in one area or another. It’s sort of like, you know, that you always hear the term every enterprise SAS company becomes a FinTech company at some point because you get deeply enough integrated with the workflows of your customers that then you can start offering them just different features, different financial products, etc. And I think the same thing is happening in the consumer internet world as well, as you see the proliferation of digital wallets across the board with every company trying to offer them, thinking about how to offer them. It’s sort of the same thing. So, yeah, if you can identify the companies, I think, that are owning that demand and generating that demand, and I guess going back to that idea of generating intense loyalty from a customer base and finding the right ways to scale that loyalty, then you can really figure out where the next steps lie for that company and where the next features and monetization paths are.

[00:42:25.28] Ben: I want to ask you about another term, which I think is yours. I think it’s another one of your idioms, which is ‘clampetition’. What is clampetition? And can you give us an example? Because, again, it’s quite specifically used at the moment, within the pandemic, I think.

Brett: You touched on it earlier, where the pandemic has given a lot of companies this cover to do different things or interesting things or this carte blanche to do innovative stuff that they may have not had the boldness to do before. The way that I think about this term, ‘clampetition’, it’s a word that just joins together competition and classiness, which is essentially companies using this totally disjointed economic situation to make moves that are classy in terms of helping their customers or helping their suppliers, but also double as these smart customer retention or acquisition tactics. And a lot of these moves are pretty minor. I mean, I’ve probably gotten a million emails from companies saying, “Our product is free for 30 days during the pandemic” or something like that, that are just really lightweight attempts to acquire new customers when they may not have otherwise had a channel. To assume upgrading its education users to a free plan is one example of that.

Brett: There’s others that run a lot deeper and I think the food delivery space provided an early interesting model of that. So, in the US, at least, there’s sort of these four companies that are vying for the leadership role in that world and it’s Grubhub and Uber Eats and Postmates and DoorDash — and Grubhub is the only one of those companies that’s actually profitable. Postmates and DoorDash are kind of these venture-backed companies that are burning a ton of cash, Uber Eats burns ton of cash as well. And DoorDash used this opportunity to do something that their competitors couldn’t, because they’re burning so much cash and have this existential runway threat where Grubhub suspended commission payments from restaurants and was able to do that, and it’s a classy move — it helps restaurants, in theory, not have to pay and save working capital and things like that — but at the same time, it’s pointed directly at their competitors and saying, “We can do a thing that you can’t, and hopefully that’ll allow us to serve our customers better, acquire more customers, pull them away from you and hurt your business long term.” So, I think it’s a type of thing that’s been happening quite often across the board and it’s just an interesting, unique thing that’s been birthed by the pandemic.

There’s a new paradigm — places where there’s a significant gap between engagement and monetization, where companies have been positively impacted by spatial economics, where there is network effect developing or positional scarcity developing. But, the market hasn’t quite caught up to that or understood that yet. — Brett Bivens

[00:44:53.05] Ben: Square is another company that you’ve consistently been really bullish on and a company where, a bit like Spotify — maybe that’s changing with Spotify, and it’s certainly changed with Square — but where, for a long time, you were almost contrarian in really rating the prospects for Spotify and for Square. Why is it you’re bullish on Square and what have they done in terms of clampetition? Because I think you used the example of Square a couple of times in the essay.

Brett: Yeah. So, Square is a really interesting company as well, just because they are one of those companies that have hit that internet escape velocity state. They’ve driven so much demand with this Cash App, and they’ve just understood culture to such a degree and have driven so much loyalty within that product that their biggest challenge or threat as a business right now is their SMB customers just going out of business. That’s a massive threat to them. They’re the type of company that has this sort of responsive instrumentation, this ability to adjust incentives, adjust operations in real time. And because of the fact that they’ve built up this two-sided business where they’ve got SMB customers on one side, massive demand with Cash App on the other side, they can actually drive significant relief to those SMB customers over time by doing things like offering rewards to their digital wallet customers for shopping at those places and recommending different Square SMB customers, so they can be the force that drives the recovery of a lot of their customers. And I think that’s a really, really interesting company to keep tabs on and follow and yeah, I’m very bullish about their prospects and where they’re going.

[00:46:36.12] Ben: They’re almost a good example, as well, of patient investing, right? Because they started with that card reader that a lot of people saw as just being almost like perpetuating the same because it ran on all the same networks. But from there, they’ve innovated and innovated, and I suppose they did it under the radar to some extent or patiently because, again, they’re formidable competitors, and they’ve run on other people’s networks. And so, they’re a little bit the same as Spotify, in the sense that they’re operating in a space where they’re surrounded by very, very powerful players. And then, would you also argue that they’ve got business model leverage, i.e, they’ve now established a really good unit of exchange, and a loyal customer base and scale, and are in a position where they can start to layer on new product offerings and expand within their economic ocean? I’ve tried to use as many of your terms as possible.

Brett: Yeah! I think that’s spot on and I think it’s true for both sides, if you think about their SMB customers, again, because they can potentially drive so much demand to those customers, because they’re so deeply embedded in their workflows. They have an opportunity to offer additional services over time that, again, they’ve got this captive audience, they don’t need to acquire them for a huge cost or anything. They’ve got them right there, so they can just continue to upsell. And that’s great. And then yes, on the customer side, this sort of digital wallet, the Cash App, the payments, the peer-to-peer stuff is a great starting point. But then, they get into areas like stock trading and other places like that where they can just keep serving out new services, new features, new products to these users over time. And that whole flywheel just kind of keeps spinning. Yeah, I mean, it sounds easy. It’s certainly not easy. I think, for any of these companies, there’s massive competition from all sides for a company like Square but they certainly do sit in a pretty advantaged position.

[00:48:36.02] Ben: So Brett, I want to ask you also, now, about the shifting economics of distance. So, I’m going to quote again to you from one of your essays. You said, “We are seeing, for the first time an economic shock create a discontinuous divergence in the spatial economics — the cost of distance between the physical and the digital worlds.” What did you mean by that? And also, if you don’t mind, can you also talk us through this matrix that you’ve got? It puts people in quadrants based on positional scarcity versus spatial economic impact of COVID-19. Because it’s a great diagram.

Brett: Yeah, absolutely. I think over the last few decades, we’ve seen a broad-based decline in the cost of distance across digital and physical worlds. It’s cheaper to ship things, it’s increasingly cheaper to travel all around the world. So, doing things in the physical world, at a long distance, is increasingly less expensive. So that cost has been coming down. The cost of doing that, from a digital perspective is coming down even faster. It really hasn’t been necessarily significant enough to break the status quo that’s kept many things functioning as they have — I mean, the cost of delivering education or the cost of doing a business meeting digitally has gotten less expensive for higher quality over time. But, because of the fact that the other pieces of the physical world side of it have also been declining in value and because of the fact that there is an element of positional scarcity to these things — there’s prestige tied into jumping on a flight and going to a business meeting or there’s prestige in being on location at a university, getting your degree there — they really haven’t decoupled and I think that this pandemic situation has totally decoupled those things from, again, health to education to the way that we do business, and it’s really broken down those things, and it’s having a pretty significant impact on capital and attention flows. I think you can see this play out. There’s a really good tweet from Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital, that talks about just the different terms that a company like Slack who has significantly benefited by this rapid decoupling in what they were able to get as they went out to the markets to raise debt versus a company like Airbnb, who has been really, really challenged and put in a tough position through all of this.

Brett: And so, the quadrant that you’re talking about, or the chart that you’re talking about, looks at four different areas. So, is a company negatively impacted by the spatial economic shifts of COVID-19? On the negative side, you get things like movie theaters or non-elite secondary education institutions. And then, on the positive side, you get things like digital wellness and telehealth and teleconferencing and distance education and things like that. And then, on the positional scarcity side, sort of high and low, it again kind of comes back to, is there prestige or legitimacy tied up in this activity? Is there a physical or regulatory monopoly around this activity? Are there network effects that will come back as we sort of start to ease away from this? So, the four categories, if we look at it, there’s a resilient recovery category, which is sort of this high-level…

Ben: It’s top left in the quadrant, right?

Brett: Exactly! Top left, and it’s sort of high positional scarcity, high signaling value, high degree of assets that will be valuable over time — and that’s things like Airbnb, or the NBA, or Harvard; those are things that will have a dip but should recover pretty resiliently.

[00:52:34.01] Ben: Yes. These fit in the bounce-back category, right?

Brett: Exactly, yeah. And then, there’s the side of that where an activity or a company has been negatively impacted, but does not have the benefit of prestige or legitimacy and has seen significant brand impairment or a massive shift in the value chain. And again, that’s what I talked about a second ago with movie theaters and non-elite institutions. There’s the obvious growth category, which is, these companies that have been positively impacted, but don’t really have that positional scarcity or any kind of real signaling value. And again, things like Zoom, things like distance medicine, etc, where it’s kind of obvious that those are going to grow — if you’re already invested in those categories, great; if you’re not already invested, it’s possible that the valuation gap has closed already on those things and it’s not really clear where the alpha is, so to speak, in there. And then there’s, I guess, a new paradigm, and this is maybe hard to judge or hard to understand exactly where it plays out. But places where there’s a significant gap between engagement and monetization, where companies have been positively impacted by spatial economics, where there is network effect developing or positional scarcity developing. But, the market hasn’t quite caught up to that or understood that yet. And, again, who knows what this category is going to be. If any of us knew that, we’d be in a pretty good situation, but potentially things like gaming and distance primary education fit into this category. But yeah, we’ll see how that plays out.

Ben: Fantastic! Brett, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. That’s been a fantastic conversation! And I think not only have you opened our eyes to lots of different opportunities that we maybe weren’t thinking about, but I think you’ve also given us a new vocabulary to talk about those opportunities. My last question to you, before we conclude is, where do people find your writing? How can they engage with you because I think you’ve also got a Telegram channel now, right?

Brett: Yeah. So, Twitter — I’m pretty active on there, @brettbivens. I have a weekly newsletter that I put out where I talk about a lot of this stuff, at venturedesktop.com, and then, like you said, I also have a Telegram channel where I have more high-cadence thoughts, rapid thoughts on different things, share different links that I’m reading, stuff like that. It’s been a fun experiment to try to connect with some new people and share more thoughts in real time. So, those are probably the three areas to connect with me.

Ben: Brett, thank you so much, indeed!

Brett: Thanks, Ben! I appreciate the time.

Post-pandemic Wealth Management (#20)

Post-pandemic Wealth Management,
w/ Anna ZAKRZEWSKI, Christine SCHMID, Laurence MANDRILE-AGUIRRE

Your host, Ben Robinson, sits down with Anna Zakrzewski who leads Wealth Management globally, for Boston Consulting GroupChristine Schmid who heads up Strategy at additiv, and Laurence Mandrile-Aguirre — who heads up Switzerland & Monaco for Citi Private Bank. We cover the opportunities around Digital Wealth Management and what that truly means, how ready are wealth managers to take advantage of the shift to Assets under Intelligence, where new entrants fit into the market and what the future of wealth management will be.

Resources mentioned in this podcast:

  1. For Wealth Managers, COVID-19 Is a Wake-up Call” — Boston Consulting Group
  2. Post-pandemic Wealth Management Opportunities” — additiv
  3. What society needs from the financial sector — now more than ever before” — additiv

Full podcast transcript:

 

There is no way that we’re going to go back to a less-digitized world post-COVID19. It will have a lasting impact in that respect, on the client experience, on the way relationship managers and investment advisors interact, but it will also have a lasting impact in terms of how you onboard, how you run KYC, what your future compliance model is going to look like — Anna Zakrzewski

[00:01:57.09] Ben: Anna, thank you very much for coming on the podcast! I want to start with the white paper that you recently issued, called “For Wealth Managers, COVID-19 is a Wake-Up Call”. It begins with the following line:

“Outsiders might think that wealth management, after a 10-year bull market should be in good shape to weather the storm. But this is not what we find.”

Anna, have wealth managers been complacent and failed to prepare for the future while times were good?

Anna: I would say a lot of the topics that we see that wealth managers have to focus on today, they should have already been doing the last two to three years — and I would say they haven’t really done too well in implementing them. Whether they fail to make the world shine, I would say they never really had the huge pressure on which they had to act because margins were still quite okay. On the other side, a lot of them had such a thin profit margin, that right now, with the crisis and with COVID-19, there will be not that much leftover.

[00:02:55.26] Ben: Do you think that they now realize the severity of the situation — i.e. that what we’re facing is a downturn, of course, which will affect assets, but the fact that it’s more than that, that it’s also going to catalyze some bigger structural changes?

Anna: Well, I think what they are realizing is two, three things. The first one that they are realizing is that the topics that they have to act on now, the actions that they have to take on now, are not all necessarily new — with very few exceptions — but they have to accelerate and they actually have to really implement them well. For example, structural cost changes; for example, rethinking how they deliver advice, and actually enabling and embracing the opportunity to work remotely, to work digitally — at the moment, it’s the only way for wealth managers to interact with their clients. And before that, it used to be a threat. So, I think that’s the one bucket.

Anna: The second one, in terms of major structural changes, in the past, most wealth managers have not really embraced and adapted their complete operating model. It’s always been relatively a good business — 10 years of a bull market, a high volume of transactions — which means basically, their long-term view on profits hasn’t really been distracted. So, that also means that they never really had to make more cuts than just little salami slices on their cost and on their operating model — so you have a lot of duplications, you have a lot of complexity, you have a lot of processes that are not necessarily scalable, and most of these structural topics haven’t really been implemented well so far.

the banks that have invested in digitization, they were within a few days able to completely shift 80% of their workforce to working from home, even in functions you wouldn’t have imagined before. They were able to contact, reach out, and provide advice in a digitized, faster way to their clients, far more personalized than anybody else — Anna Zakrzewski

Anna: I think the other catalyst that we see is that after COVID-19, there will be a lasting impact in terms of interactions and also servicing. There is no way that we’re going to go back to a less-digitized world post-COVID. It will have a very lasting impact in that respect, and it will have a lasting impact on the client experience, on the way relationship managers and investment advisors interact, but it will also have a lasting impact in terms of how you onboard, how you run KYC, what your future compliance model is going to look like. These are the three big blocks where we definitely see strong acceleration. And lastly, if you look at the smaller banks and the smaller players in the market, who on average have really high cost:income ratios, the question is, if they will not focus right now, how many of them will really survive? And we actually do expect, as an acceleration, also industry consolidation to start happening.

[00:05:38.20] Ben: What you lay out there is quite a clear blueprint in terms of how wealth managers should be responding. How do you see them responding so far, especially the speed with which they’re now tackling what they arguably should have done a while back?

Anna: What they have been doing quite well — not all of them, but most of them — is the short-term actions directly linked to the COVID crisis: ensuring working from home, ensuring some acceleration on digitization, upgrading a little bit some client experience piece, start to run some scenarios, managed liquidity. I would say those short-term actions — keeping their own people safe and engaged — all of that, I would say that that has been done quite well. The part where they have also, at least some of them, become quite creative, I would say — and some have definitely surprised us — was also how they onboard clients, how they now run KYC, how they now manage compliance and enable work from home, especially in an environment and in a business, where confidentiality and also regulatory elements are very strict. So far, they haven’t been able to even onboard a client remotely, and now, in COVID, some have really been creative. They optimized digital signatures, they were able to do client identification through video calls. Before COVID, nobody really thought video calls, especially around Europe, would be something the clients would want. At the moment, it’s actually one way of getting onboarded. So I think some of these reaction times have been surprisingly quick and surprisingly agile. The thing that hasn’t really gone so well, for some of them, was really the decline in communication. So, some of them where weaker content that was not necessarily personalized it was talking about the crisis, but partially not individualized enough or solution-based — and that is an angle which should have been an opportunity for wealth managers to do really well. And I would say, on average, that part hasn’t been the strongest.

[00:08:05.00] Ben: In your report, you definitely identify that — as you said — is one area where digitization should be able to deliver a much better experience at scale. Do you think now that we’ve had this acceleration and digitalization, that wealth managers appreciate that, and they’re starting to make those kinds of investments? And then, how difficult is it to make longer-term investments in an environment where there’s such a focus on guarding liquidity and managing communication — things that seem so much more pressing?

Anna: There is one major shift in terms of how investments are being done, and also how levers are being prioritized in terms of where the focus and the action of the wealth managers are moving towards. So, to give you one example, one bank actually had a quite broad and ambitious digital roadmap before the crisis — most of the topics and most of the angles were completely focused purely on the front experience, the client experience, and that part. And there was quite a big budget behind it. They have revisited it, not cutting on that client experience piece, but adding a component in the whole digital roadmap, which actually allows them to reduce costs, to unlock some flexibility in the processes, to help them partially in an end-to-end view become more scalable, and through that actually leading to an efficiency increase of up to 20%. And that actually funds the partial investment also into the front and into the client experience piece. So, you see a much stronger balancing of complexity reduction and front client impact. And before COVID, it was mostly focused purely on the front and just on the client — and I think that is just one of the examples that we see in terms of a mindset shift.

Anna: Another one that is very interesting is, how do you ensure that you have a stable and continuous revenue flow mid to long term. And it’s about really thinking how you make your clients more sticky, how you make your clients stay with you and invest more money with you by truly tailoring on the one-hand side, and on the other side, also making parts of the portfolios in a short term — and it’s not easy — a bit less volatile to potential upcoming future shake-ups. But that’s, I think, one of the big notions. And in terms of reassuring — and, I guess, it also goes in that way — is, in times of crisis or COVID right now, with everybody working from home, you also have quite a large part of your employees in marketing and events or in the client front-facing angle, not necessarily being able to do what they’ve been doing before. So, some players have actually done a creative approach in rethinking and re-skilling some of their employees to now help where you have the big bulk of the work happening, driven by COVID, and allow them a more flexible engagement across the organization, and it actually puts them in a nice position to now experiment what their future working models could look like.

if you actually look at wealth managers today, they are still very strongly vertically integrated and it will require quite a change of mindset to let go of what is not core, in terms of, you know, “We do our own products”, “We build our own app”, “We have our own reporting”, instead of actually leveraging some of the players that are out there in the market — Anna Zakrzewski

[00:11:33.29] Ben: Going into the pandemic, we’re already starting to see a growing differential in performance between those wealth managers that have made big investments in digitalization — I think you call them ‘digital leaders’ in your report — and on the other side, those that hadn’t yet made those type of big investments in digitization. Presumably, that differential in performance is getting magnified during the pandemic, do we already have any evidence that that’s happening, or is it too early to see that divergence in performance?

Anna: You already have seen that divergence in performance before the crisis — and that’s a fundamental difference in performance. So, we have looked at 150 wealth managers last year, across the globe, in all business models, in all shapes and sizes, and we have also looked at the top performers in terms of profitability. There are two major differences that really make the top performers, top performers. First of all, they absolutely excel in the revenue margin because they already, through digitization, are able to deliver better to the client, cross-sell better, they have the right tools, and they really focus their front to deliver. Plus, they have also redefined their pricing model. And the difference, globally, I mean, we’re talking about a delta of approximately — depending on the regions — 15 to 18 basis points. So, it’s really significant. And these top performers, they also invest double and have invested double the amounts in digitization over the course of the last two to three years. So, there is a direct correlation already, before the crisis.

Anna: And thirdly, what was a very insightful angle for us was, we also looked at the cost difference — is the cost over assets of those top performers significantly different than the one of the average? And the third proof point here is that, actually, the difference globally-seen is something like three or four basis points, so it’s not as significant as on the revenue side. But the reason for that is that these top performers have already started to invest: they have invested into the changes in operating model, they have invested into the new talent, into the new and accelerated ways of working and, like I said, double the amount in digitization, not just in the front, but across the value chain.

[00:13:59.29] Ben: Is it too early to have any data points from the pandemic?

Anna: I wouldn’t say it’s too early. One thing that you already see is that the banks that have invested in digitization, they were within a few days able to completely shift 80% of their workforce working from home, even in functions you wouldn’t have imagined before. They were able to contact, reach out, and provide advice in a digitized faster way to their clients, far more personalized than anybody else because they could just review the portfolios. So yes, they were clearly at an advantage when the pandemic hit the market.

[00:14:39.24] Ben: But we don’t yet have data points on financial performance, right?

Anna: No. On financial performance, we don’t have it yet. However, in terms of onboarding clients, in terms of winning new business, in terms of maintaining clients, and in terms of tailored communication, this is what we see, these were the players that have been able to do that better than the others.

Let’s not forget that the customer acquisition cost is quite high. So, I wouldn’t necessarily see the digital players being the consolidators in the market. I would see some of the bigger players trying to acquire the capabilities of the digital players or even more, a partnership model where some of the traditional players have great access to clients and they do have the client relationships, to actually tap into the digital capabilities of the other players, to have it as an integrated service model and as an integrated offering towards these clients — Anna Zakrzewski

[00:15:02.11] Ben: We talked a bit about what digital servicing looks like. What about analytics and the capabilities that wealth managers are using there, in order to build more tailored products for customers? How strong would you say the data analytical capabilities were of wealth managers? And do you think this might be one area where they’re at risk from some of the digitally-native new entrants?

Anna: So, it’s maybe a bold statement, but I don’t think wealth managers yet are really very advanced and reaping the full benefits of the power of analytics today. So, I think that’s where they are, compared to other financial services places. With a few that can already do it, a lot of the times it’s still a bit of analytics here and a bit of analytics there, but very few have a truly centralized data lake, which allows them to on one-hand side, fully personalize their client interface, fully personalize their offering and the value proposition to each one of the clients, and thirdly, also, leverage analytics to allow them to scale up their processes and operating model. So, what we hear more is that the analytics capabilities will significantly accelerate now, in terms of enabling cross-sell, enabling pricing, taking into account client price sensitivities when we’re thinking value proposition design, etc. It’s going to really be a big focus now, and before the pandemic, I would say it’s been there — it’s been a great buzzword — but in very few cases it has been truly implemented, end to end. In Asia, I would say, yes, it’s been there, and it’s been definitely in the tech fins and in the more technology-averse digital wealth managers, it’s been playing to their complete advantage. In Europe, we’re still quite far away from that.

[00:17:10.10] Ben: One other aspect of the report I wanted to pick up on, was that I think you said this also, “in addition to changing operating models and servicing models, banks should also look at their sourcing models. But rather than just try to source things that are cheaper, they should also tap an ecosystem of partners to help deliver improving quality at scale.” I totally agree with what you’re saying, but it’s such a difficult area to get buy-in from banks because this is something that potentially threatens to cannibalize existing revenue streams. And so, I guess the question is, do you think that, culturally, banks and wealth managers are ready to look at changing their sourcing models in that kind of way, to actually insource even parts of their asset management?

Anna: When you mean sourcing, like outsource parts of their asset management? That’s what you mean, right?

Ben: Yes, outsource functions to India because they’re low cost. What about finding somebody who could offer a better-automated investment service than the one the bank has, for example.

Anna: I guess what wealth managers are facing today is a true definition of what their core competencies are and it is not like a process or your technology is going to be a key differentiator for you to win in the future. And we already see today that some wealth managers and private banking players are actually setting a primary focus on client servicing and investment servicing while some of the rest in the value chain, in terms of the middle back office, etc, is already quite radically and can be even more radically outsourced to third-party providers. On the other side, if you actually look at wealth managers today, they are still very strongly vertically integrated and it will require quite a change of mindset to let go of what is not core, in terms of, you know, “We do our own products”, “We build our own app”, “We have our own reporting”, instead of actually leveraging some of the players that are out there in the market. So, I would expect going forward, to also accelerate some of the changes that need to happen and accelerate some of the digitization elements that have to happen, that actually FinTechs — who are very focused on individual capabilities — will be a great source to pool and a great source to actually integrate to deliver some of these capabilities required.

The large wealth managers will clearly gain in market share, but they will only be able to do that if they do the right investments and the right level of personalization and client experience, and they will also act quite fast. The broad middle play, they will only survive if they stop being a big-bang, but they will also really refocus and turn around the operating model — Anna Zakrzewski

Anna: And then, the question is, in the future, what will wealth managers be? Will they be the ones that focus on wealth management, financial wellness, client experience? Will they be the players that will have everything in-house across the value chain? And then, the challenge is how do they get to scale in terms of the number of clients, etc. to really put the volume on their platform. And then you will have the players that actually are purely driven by technology — which are the tech fin and the digital wealth managers who actually are already having the digitized business model and don’t yet have the direct access to the customers.

[00:20:30.25] Ben: You said earlier on that you expect consolidation in this market because what COVID and then subsequently what an acceleration digitalization will do, is it will clearly separate the winners from those that are less strong and less able to adapt. How soon do you think that phase of consolidation will happen? And is it just the question of the large consuming the small or is it more nuanced? And then, if you allow me a third question, do digital leaders really need to buy assets? Because won’t superior value add just see them win those customers anyway, from those that aren’t able to provide that kind of value add?

Anna: Let me take one question at a time and try to bundle it. Today, nearly half of all wealth managers have a cost:income ratio of over 80% and some are close to 100, which means they’re already not very profitable today. The degree and the speed of consolidation, in our view, will depend on the severity of the crisis and also on how long the crisis will last. What we see is that size and profitability are definitely correlated, although, also here we see some examples of small boutique banks that are very successful and they are very focused.

Anna: So in terms of the speed at which consolidation will happen, comparing it to the previous crisis from 2008–2009, we have seen the big shift in terms of reduction, in terms of the number of wealth managers, approximately 18–24 months post the crisis. Now, in times of COVID, I would partially expect an even earlier kick-in of the M&A and consolidation wave driven by two drivers. The first one is, already today, a lot of wealth managers that were strong before the crisis are thinking and seeing this as an opportunity how in a relatively short period of time, they can acquire scale and acquire capability to make them stronger post-COVID — And typically, you will have 15 to 20% of players that come out stronger after the crisis. So, they will be the consolidation drivers and they have already started to screen and look for these opportunities, partially, today. And then, you will have the ones that will be so severely hit because they’ve already been in such a poor position before the crisis, that it’s going to be more a matter of decision, when do they sell to still get good value compared to how long can they last to somehow keep their business afloat. And this balance, I think, is going to drive the speed at which the consolidation wave will start.

Anna: On your other question, we already see today that some of the large wealth managers have significantly grown in the share of the market that they owned in the past few years. So, yes, it’s definitely going to be the mid-sized and larger players acquiring some of the smaller ones, which on average, are, today more unprofitable than some of the larger players, of course, because of the scalability of their business. But, like I said before, we will always have a few small boutique plays and niche plays that will continue to be very successful, already like we have today. But they are very focused.

[00:24:09.13] Ben: And then, the last question was around whether it’s actually necessary. So, the really successful digital leaders in this space, do they need to buy up the frail competition, or can they just take their customers through better execution anyway?

Anna: Okay. So, a lot of the pure digital players that we have in the market today, they have simple and nice, pragmatic client experience. They are very customer-oriented and friendly, but what they do not have is access to the clients. And let’s not forget that the customer acquisition cost is quite high. So, I wouldn’t necessarily see the digital players being the consolidators in the market. I don’t see that. I would rather see some of the bigger players trying to acquire the capabilities of the digital players or even more a partnership model where some of the more traditional players have great access to clients and they do have the client relationships, to actually tap into the digital capabilities of the other players, to have it as an integrated service model and as an integrated offering towards these clients. I don’t believe that the entrants such as robot advisors are actually going to be acquiring the smaller chunks of the clients that we see in the wealth managers today that may be up for sale at some point in time.

[00:25:36.23] Ben: What do you think the end state is? Does the middle just disappear? And what’s the final number of wealth managers you think we’ll have, once this consolidation phase is over?

Anna: Once we will definitely see in the future that the long tail of small wealth managers will actually disappear and only a few boutique plays will remain. The large wealth managers will clearly gain in market share, but they will only be able to do that if they do the right investments and the right level of personalization and client experience, and they will also act quite fast. The broad middle play, they will only survive if they stop to be a big bang, but they will also just really refocus and turn around the operating model — be it outsourced or be it really focused on a few segments and a few real credible value propositions.


The digital entrants focus on the younger population, most of them. I haven’t seen a digital entrant that focuses on retired persons yet — Christine Schmid

[00:26:33.27] Ben: Christine, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. Let’s maybe start by asking you, what is additiv?

Christine: Thanks a lot, Ben! Additiv is a technology company. It was established in ’98 and it helps the leading financial institutions to capitalize on digitization. The most known product is the Digital Finance Suite — that’s an orchestration engine for wealth management in particular. Newly, we have launched the KickStarter campaign that’s even a faster enablement for wealth managers to digitize. Additionally, it provides some expert systems, basically data analytics, but also credit tools. I would say it is global, excluding the US — this has some regulatory reasons — the US is a beast of its own. So, it is doing business out of Zurich, Singapore, Nairobi, and Frankfurt.

[00:27:25.17] Ben: And what’s it like trying to sell technology to banks and wealth managers at the moment during a global pandemic?

Christine: I think it’s the right time. For the ones that haven’t set up a servicing model through digital channels — i.e. where their advisors could serve their client through digital means — they’re doomed.

[00:27:47.16] Ben: So you’re saying almost counter-intuitively that this has actually risen to the top of their corporate agenda because, quite simply, they can’t service their customers in this environment without better technology?

Christine: I would say so, for the ones that are very still more towards the old dine & wine, that’s really over.

[00:28:05.02] Ben: Okay. Let’s assume they have the motivation to implement new technology and they have the budget even in the pandemic to implement new technology. How can they do it practically, if the IT staff are working remotely?

Christine: Working remotely doesn’t harm work. It just shifted. And, if you look for the wealth managers, they were used, I would say, on the IT staff side to work out of different locations — that’s common standard. So, just to give you an example, we were able with a large Swiss bank and it’s public with post finance to launch their new digital wealth advice during the pandemic. So, that’s no limitation at all, in particular, if you talk to IT staff on their side.

[00:28:55.11] Ben: So, Christine, before working at additiv, you used to work in the industry, right? You were in the wealth management industry. What’s your view on how bad a financial correction we’re looking at and how that will affect the wealth management industry?

Christine: So, yes, we will have a negative correction. We don’t know if it’s a V or a U or a W in the end, but it looks definitely like a correction. The numbers that are coming out from either the banks, on their estimate, but also from the IMF, are simply staggering. So, how does that affect wealth management? Certainly, we will have to refocus back on trust in quality, and people will focus more on the preservation of capital. But the line with what I would call stability and service at a fair level, at a fair price, a second thing is what we would expect and we see that also on the government side, is a refocus towards more sustainable investing again. It is already growing like there is no tomorrow but it will continue. So, if you look on the government side, they link their lending, often these days, to a greener approach of doing business. The same will happen on the investment side — this will continue. And on the retail side, I think we need tools in wealth management that allow for saving, that combine it with budgeting, and that have it in a transparent and fairly-priced way. I think the term that is often used and coming out of the UK where I hear it from often, is financial well-being. It’s really, on the retail side, how helping to save, but also helping to fund through a more difficult time on the economic side for every retail client.

I think that’s the ‘new’ normal model we see throughout various countries in Europe, in particular as well, Switzerland. They team up. It has become a ‘together’ and not only an ‘against’ — Christine Schmid

[00:30:51.03] Ben: You recently published a report on post-pandemic wealth management, and I think we’ve seen a number of these types of reports come out, where people try to anticipate what the future holds. And so, there’s a bit of that in your report. But the other thing I really liked about it is, you actually explain what you mean by digital wealth management — because I think a lot of times people either just assume we know what is meant by digitization or they — for me — minimize what it is and just assume it’s about, as you say, servicing clients through digital channels. So, can we start by having you explain what you think and what additiv thinks is digital wealth management?

Christine: Let me explain it from two views — first of all, from the view of a bank for wealth management, and secondly, then, from a client view. From the view of a bank, it transforms its business model. We always say, at additiv, it changes the operating model, it changes the servicing model, and it changes the sourcing model. So, operating model, it allows a cheaper production on wealth management. It allows on the servicing side an easier, simpler interaction with advisors to the clients, even taking all the regulatory means we have out there into account. And, on the sourcing side, it allows that you benefit from an engine in between, an orchestration engine in between, that already sources either the best partners for solutions or the best investments for solutions — and you can build upon that. So, you don’t have to do it on your own. And these three layers together, it’s not only wealth management; for the banks, it makes the risk management easier, it makes the compliance side easier, but also the audit side easier. So, it’s really various layers where it helps — coming back to where it all had begun — to transform the business model. That’s from a bank’s point of view.

Christine: From a client point of view, digitization in wealth management is partially about democratizing. It’s, from an exclusive offering, open to a broader number of clients. Honestly, it allows, as well, to produce cheaper, it allows as well to have lower fees in and lower costs. It can be personalized. So, in the past, you had a fantastic product and this fantastic product had to fit for a majority of your customers. You know more about the customers by combining different data sources and you can start to personalize that, you can start to personalize the offering, the information you provide. It’s not only that it has to be included within the e-banking but also it can be banking as a service. So, it has to be of becoming even more seamless to include it, for example, in a super app where you do all the transactions as a client, but you have banking services as well, aligned. This is how we break it up. But it will always be about trust, it will always be about a safe way to store your wealth. What is newly added — it has to be convenient. So, where the clients do their transaction they expect, as well, banking — and it has to provide a value add. I think that’s where digitization or digital wealth management really changes from the old world.

[00:34:21.24] Ben: Essentially, the trade-off that used to exist between quality on the one hand and scale on the other has sort of disappeared. We can provide better quality at better scale or higher scale. Would you say that’s fair?

Christine: And to lower assets under management levels. So, to lower levels of wealth per end client.

If you look in the Western world, pensions had quite a decent level of cost of living covered. The risk is, with the demographic pattern we have, with the lack of reforms we have seen, but also with the low interest rate level, you face a pension gap in which your targeted cost of living will not be covered by your pension anymore, and thus, you have to find a way to decumulate your wealth during the retirement period in a most efficient way, by not giving up completely on risk, by having the right investment products, which then allows you to live a life free of financial concerns. That’s a huge opportunity— Christine Schmid

[00:34:40.03] Ben: And in that kind of world, it would suggest that we can provide wealth management to a much larger population of customers? And so, how much bigger do you think we could grow the addressable market? Because I guess, most of what we talked about up until now is how we’re talking about a crisis in reduction in assets. But, on the flip side, if this accelerates the push to digitalization, then it also accelerates the opening up of a much bigger market for those wealth managers that can capitalize on that shift.

Christine: It’s a huge opportunity. It allows the scale — be it either self-serve with call center or with an advisor behind. At the moment, the only small amount is really advised of the assets out there. If you take the growth we are expecting in Southeast Asia but also partially the growth we are expecting in Africa, it’s really a super, super multiplier. So, from today’s around 50 million of people that really are fully advised, certainly at a lower scale of complexity, up to nicely into the 1.7 billion number of people — if you can scale it properly.

Ben: So, I’m not going to try to do the maths but that’s, as you say, it’s a big multiplier.

Christine: It will come at a different price tag and it will come obviously for way lower assets on the management per client, but there is where digitization helps to open their client groups.

[00:36:09.15] Ben: And what’s the share of your business that’s coming from existing wealth managers versus new entrants? You’ve got kind of all the right ingredients for new entrants here because you’ve got a large profit pool, fast-changing technology, fast-changing customer needs, which would suggest that there’s a once-in-a-generation kind of opening for new entrants. To what extent are you working with new entrants? And to what extent do you think they can enter the market successfully and build trust?

Christine: We are working with both sides. With new entrants, in particular on the pension side, it is not that simple because it is a highly regulated area. But they’re faster in terms of the platforms and the offerings. And normally, the new entrants then offer their model as a white label for the incumbents, so they follow fast behind. I think that’s the normal model we see throughout various countries in Europe, in particular as well, Switzerland. So they team up. It has become a ‘together’ and not only an ‘against’. Payment was different. On the payment side in particular, if you look at the case of Revolut, this was different because it really heated into a highly profitable area of foreign exchange. But here, it’s more a collaboration and a service model in the interest of the end clients.

[00:37:34.24] Ben: You’re saying that so far new entrants are more friend than foe, but how hard would it be either for banks to replicate these kinds of simple digital services that new entrants have provided? And also, how hard would it be for these new entrants to move up the value chain towards larger, higher net worth customers?

Christine: For the bank, if they start on a greenfield, it is doable. For the bank, if they integrated into their existing systems, it is rather expensive and a long-term project. So, it really depends on the incumbent side how willing they are to start businesses from scratch and maybe even cannibalize some of their still attractive earnings streams. How easy is it for the new entrants to scale up? We are seeing most of the digital banks, really, at the boundaries of wealth, I would say. They started with payment. They had a lot of success by cannibalizing into high-profit areas like foreign exchange. Now, they are really at the border of wealth management.

Ben: Barbarians are at the gate, as it were.

Christine: At the gate, exactly! They’re at the gate of wealth management. And what we see is they’re not growing as they were originally expecting, and this has really to do with the trust where you store your wealth. If you have a chatbot on the other side that sends you in circles, or if you at least can call a call center, or can call your advisor, that’s different. That’s really a difference. So there are some limitations in Europe. In the US, we have seen a completely different picture. If you look at the aims of Acorns, for example, they’ve entered in particular the 401k business quite successfully, and they’re growing nicely there.

[00:39:27.17] Ben: What you’re saying is, to be truly digital requires a business model change, and to some extent, is going to involve cannibalizing existing revenue streams. But, what you’re also saying about the additiv system, if I understand it correctly, is this can be introduced in a much more phased fashion, right? So in other words, you can both help banks to deal with the immediate need to service customers better, but also provide a simpler route to fundamentally changing their operating and sourcing model over time. Would you say that’s fair? So you can either, for those that are really progressive, they can immediately switch to a new business model with a new operation, a new business venture. But for those that are a bit more conservative, they can do it in a phased fashion using additiv’s orchestration engine.

Christine: Absolutely. So, the beauty is that they can transform their business model in steps if they want to, or they can even become more aggressive. The way it is built, if you look at the hybrid wealth management, it’s really tailored to a new servicing model. New servicing model by allowing working from home and serve the client as best as possible, and certainly better than through a simple phone call. At the same time, you could go fully towards accumulation robo, even being more aggressive out there, in the wealth management side, combining with other sourced options. So, it allows both.

[00:40:56.16] Ben: Decumulation versus accumulation. Why is that decumulation opportunity A so big and B, as you wrote in your report, so overlooked up until now?

Christine: Accumulation is growing wealth. So, you start to save preferably as early as possible, at the age of 25, and you grow your wealth through savings and obviously through smart investing over time, towards where you start to live partially from the wealth you have accumulated. It also can be that you grow your wealth at a young age and then start to decumulate because you start your own venture — for example, startup — or you go traveling around the globe for 12 months and you have saved 20K and you want to live off that for a year. Things like that are possible. That wealth will be decumulating — a reduction of wealth. Why is decumulation these days such a large opportunity? Why has it been neglected till now? If you look in the Western world, pension had quite a decent level of cost of living covered. The risk is, with the demographic pattern we have, with the lack of reforms we have seen, but also with the low interest rate level — which we now had for quite some years — you face a pension gap so that your targeted cost of living will not be covered by your pension anymore, and thus, you have to find a way to decumulate your wealth during the retirement period in a most efficient way, by not giving up completely on risk, by having the right investment products, which then allows you to live a life free of concern or free of financial concerns. That’s a huge opportunity. If you look into numbers, the gap is estimated up to 400, I think it’s trillions — a staggering number — which will be needed to close the gaps, either through savings, but also through smart investment offerings.

The paradigm we worked alongside was optimizing for return. Well, the problem was that not all the costs were internalized. That was really the problem — the costs that were taken by society and, in particular, by the planet. And if all the costs would have been taken in properly, certainly then, the financial market would have priced it differently. And therefore, it’s really the goal of the financial industry to start to not only recommend sustainable investments, but also to lend on the corporate lending side, according to the rules that take this cost into account— Christine Schmid

[00:43:04.01] Ben: If you look at all the FinTech entrants into Wealth Management, they seem to be mostly focused on accumulation — people like wealth from betterment. Why so few people focus on decumulation?

Christine: I think it’s a natural pattern. The digital entrants focus on the younger population, most of them. I haven’t seen a digital entrant that focuses on retired persons yet — maybe that’ll come, but I haven’t seen that yet. So, obviously, if you focus on a client group — 20 to 40 years old — you do not look into decumulation into pension savings, yet; you look into accumulation. You want these fun products, these easy to use, you want to cover traveling — or you wanted, in the past, to cover traveling — and foreign exchange, payments made easy; it’s the lifestyle that covers to that age group. Therefore, obviously, the ones entering that market were not focused on the needs of the elderly population. But also we all become older at some point. And, if you look at the age of 55 into your pension, it’s too late to cover the gap. You have to start earlier. We believe this is a huge trend and wouldn’t be surprised if market entrants not only start to look into accumulation but also on the way to build up into retirement. The best example will be Acorns, with its 401k plans. They do that. It’s still in the accumulation phase, but at some point, their clients will be retired. It might take a bit longer if they’re 25 years old today, but they will be retired, so it will become a normal business for them.

Assets under intelligence, how we call it, or return on intelligence, it’s not using only an investment product per se, but using multiple data sets, combining them and then giving even more personalized advice, optimized risk advice, and therefore, as well as optimized returns. So, it’s not the product per se that’s in focus. It’s really the whole construction within wealth management, but also other data sets around, that are more important to advise the clients going forward — Christine Schmid

[00:44:49.21] Ben: One of the concepts that I really, really liked in the report — in fact, it goes as far as to say I loved it — is this pivot in value proposition from being about return on assets to being about return on intelligence. Can you just go into slightly more detail about what that fundamental shift is in the value proposition of wealth managers?

Christine: In terms of the return on assets, you look at your assets under management, and you look at the profitability of the investment products that could have been sold within that group of assets under management. And obviously, therefore, the focus was on the best products to source. The best advice, then, to give to the clients that the level of sales, with hopefully, the best product was the highest. We expect this to change. Assets under intelligence, how we call it, or return on intelligence, it’s not using only an investment product per se, but it’s using multiple data sets. It’s combining it and it’s giving even more personalized advice, it can give even optimized risk advice, and therefore, as well as optimized returns. So, it’s not the product per se that’s in focus. It’s really the whole construction within wealth management, but also other data sets around, that are more important to advise the clients going forward than simply the pure investment product focus.

[00:46:28.18] Ben: You don’t see that many wealth managers yet ready to cannibalize their business. How ready do you see wealth managers are to take advantage of this move to return on intelligence, which presupposes that they’re ready to take this role as a kind of concierge and act to introduce customers to all sorts of different products and services?

Christine: The shift towards return on intelligence, that’s something they’re very keen on doing. It is linked, obviously — and we briefly touched upon base — before it was well linked to the whole area of sustainable investing. Sustainable investing has a lot of intelligence behind to select the right investments, but also the willingness if an investment wasn’t or hasn’t proven as sustainable to shift the transparency therein, I think the banks are really willing to go that extra route, as well to unbundle. At the moment, we have a clear shift towards ETFs and index products, but we don’t know what’s really in there — the detailed level of know-how we have per index is limited. And therefore, there will be another layer of intelligence that you could add, but really looking into the portfolio, unbundling all the ETFs, unbundling all the indices and adding it up then, again, on investment level. And guess what? You might be surprised by some concentration risk that’s in a client portfolio. And you might advise the client differently. That’s another level of adding intelligence to advice or combining it with payment data. If you know the client’s behavior on the consumer side, on the consumption side, you might know products a client would like, so you can, again, use this intelligence and provide it in a better way. Or, last but not least — and I think the industry has discussed that for quite a long time — you bring the intelligence of various clients — clients behaving the same — together and leveraging that for every single client.

[00:48:42.04] Ben: Last question. So, we’ve talked, I think, reasonably narrowly about wealth management. But I wanted to, if you’re okay with it, to zoom out and talk about another paper that you recently issued, which was about the changing needs of society when it comes to financial services. Financial services haven’t provided the insight that it needs to, and have those needs become more urgent in light of the pandemic?

Christine: The big question mark, is it the financial services who haven’t provided it, or is it the general economic, academic rules we are all behaving alongside? The paradigm we worked alongside was optimizing of return. Well, the problem was that not all the costs were internalized. That was really the problem — not all the costs that were taken by society and, in particular, by the planet. And if all the costs would have been taken properly, certainly then, the financial market would have priced it differently. And therefore, it’s really the goal of the financial industry to start to not only recommend sustainable investments but also to lend on the corporate lending side, according to the rules that take the cost into account. For the society to live on this planet — and I believe we just have one; there is no alternative, no planet B — the financial sector has a key role because it’s still the engine that keeps the funding alive. So, from savings, deposits into lending, into economic growth, into job creation. And obviously, this cycle has to be profitable, yes, but at the same time it has to take the costs for society and has to take the costs for the planet — climate change is a big topic — into account.

[00:50:45.17] Ben: So that was my last question, but as it turns out, it was actually my penultimate question because, how do we do that? How do we take those externalities and bake them into the price of assets and transactions?

Christine: How do you do that? That’s the question this industry is looking into, for the last 20 years. If you use the market to do it, then you would need to take the majority funding for each corporate. And the majority of funding for a corporate normally is bonds, and not equity. So I’m a big believer in the international capital market — the ICMA — rules for green bonds and for social bonds. These are rule sets that are not only legally enforceable but also international. So, if a corporation can issue a bond under a green bond ruleset the requirements have to be clear and they have to fulfill that. And the market, then, can price a green bond more attractive than a normal bond from the same company.

Christine: So, let’s take, for example, Volkswagen. They want to fund a new plant where they build the new e-cars. The new plant has to be according to certain standards — the buildings are done — but also about alternative energy use, so solar panels on the roof — all that set. They get cheaper funding than if they built a plain vanilla plant next to a nuclear power plant, for example. It’s a very basic example but you start to shift the funding towards greener, towards more social — by social I mean, for example, if you have to fund the bond for Inditex — and obviously, they have to fulfill certain rules in the way their clothing is produced, even if it comes from Bangladesh. And only if these rules are fulfilled, they are controlled, then they can issue the bond under these standards and they can issue cheaper. And the more the companies shift toward that standard, the more the rest in the old style will become expensive. That’s a way of market mechanism starting to include the pricing and using the market to do the pricing. Because what’s not working out there, if we’re trying to find out who is doing what and externalize the price into, this won’t be of thrive, this is not working. And through the bond side and through the debt side, you could use the market mechanism to start a pricing mechanism. That’s important.


If anything, this crisis has indeed accelerated the way we look at the digital world — Laurence Mandrile-Aguirre

[00:53:33.02] Ben: So, Laurence, I wanted to start off by just asking, what, so far, as we’re living through this pandemic, has been the hardest thing for you to manage in your job?

Laurence: Coordinating everything. We had to adjust to a lot of changes. Usually, when we need to adjust to change, it’s about your manager is changing or something is changing — but one element. In this case, we had to adjust to how we deal with clients, how we ensure continuity in the way we service our clients, how we deal with our people, understand their personal circumstances, how we communicate among each other internally. So, it’s more of making sure that we had everything under control to ensure continuity of business. And I must say that on the technology aspect, it took us a few days, but because we are a global bank, and we are used to having people traveling all over the world and working from a laptop, we were pretty well set up. The challenge was more coordination with the clients and the people.

[00:54:48.18] Ben: Because, I suppose it was not only with the normal channels of communication disrupted, but at that very time, you probably needed to speak more often with customers and with employees or with coworkers than normal because they needed reassurance and so on. Is that true? Would you say that’s a fair statement that, at the very time you needed to speak most and communicate most, the mechanisms you would ordinarily use for communication were disrupted?

Laurence: Absolutely! I mean, in a very short period of time, we had to get used to a lot of technology-related jargon — how to connect, which system to use, are we on the cloud, are we on the network, are we inside our own safe environment at work, terms of network. And the same for clients. Our clients are ultra-high net worth. They are global citizens, they travel a lot. They were not necessarily used to dialing to Zoom. They were used to go to a meeting and meet actual people, so we had to revisit entirely how we communicate among each other internally — it’s important as well — because we needed to be mindful of the bandwidth that we were using; audio/video had consequences on the network. And with customers as well. But, I must say that it took about a week or two to get used to this, and it’s almost common practice now.

I think digital is the way forward, and it was clear to the wealth management community even before this crisis. But it’s also a world that is constantly evolving. There are new technologies all the time. Things are being tested — whether it’s blockchain or artificial intelligence to see how we can use our clients’ preferences or behaviors to deliver a better tools to service them more efficiently. But definitely, I don’t think clients would want us to go back after this crisis and be less digital — Laurence Mandrile-Aguirre

[00:56:35.10] Ben: Yeah. I was reading somewhere that it takes something like 60 days for people to form new habits. Would you say that your customers and your team members have formed new habits? And to some extent, even if we could get back to normal, we won’t go back to the way things were exactly before the crisis.

Laurence: We have completely reorganized the way we communicate. So, we have large forums internally where we like to communicate the important features and the decisions that we are taking for the Private Bank. And, at the same time, we have smaller forums where everybody can voice their own concerns and ask their own questions. And I think we are going to keep that for a while because, obviously, in Switzerland, the economy has reopened. But, at the same time, we have not sent anybody back to the office. We are thinking about the safety of employees. So, we will need to continue communicating that way, definitely, for a longer period of time. And even when we will be able to go back to the office — we’re trying not to say ‘go back to work’ because we feel we are efficiently working — but when we go back to the office, because of the distancing and the security measures, I don’t think we will be able to do large meetings anyway and it will be from our desks, and therefore, phones and videos will continue to be the way forward.

[00:58:21.15] Ben: Looking back on this, you can argue whether this was a black swan or a white swan, whether we should have anticipated or not, or whether we couldn’t have anticipated this crisis. So, we’ll leave that question aside for a second. But, I guess, if we could just argue that what the pandemic is doing in some form is just accelerating the pace of digitization, right? So, we’re moving much quicker than was the case before the crisis in terms of remote work and digital interactions. Do you think that the wealth management community could have been better prepared, and maybe should have made more investments in this digital future while the times were good and ahead of this crisis?

for large banks, I would say — and Citi is focusing on the ultra-high net worth, what we are trying to do is to focus on keeping the full-service offering. That’s very important to us. Therefore, when we look at technology and outperformance, it’s under a more strategic long-term basis. — Laurence Mandrile-Aguirre

Laurence: Well, what I would say is that for sure, there was a strong level of awareness of the disruptive technologies — the need to become digital. We were all exploring our options. I would say that the smaller players could benefit from adding some new digital tools quite easily and for larger wealth managers it had to be compatible with a broader network and system. But I think we’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the options that were around us, how we could become more digital, how we could use AI in the way we improve client’s experience, the tools that we make available internally to our bankers. And we actually created a group called the Investment Innovation Lab, dedicated to that. So that’s what they were doing all the time — talking to FinTech companies, technology companies, looking at the new options, and what could take us forward. If anything, this COVID-19 crisis has indeed accelerated the way we look at the digital world. Just to give you an example, we had started to onboard clients digitally, but we still had a few hurdles to overcome. Most of the time, it was around regulatory requirements that we couldn’t fulfill completely easily. So the fact that we had to work from home triggered a lot of conversation to solve these points and basically, we managed to be 100% digital in onboarding and opening new clients in a week, while if we had not had this crisis, we would be probably still trying to work on the hurdles. So it has accelerated, definitely.

[01:01:20.02] Ben: So clearly, the most pressing problems that the bank is solving very quickly, like, how do we onboard a customer completely digitally? But, do you think you now prioritize more digital spending, particularly for things that are deeper down the technology stack, or for things that affect not just client servicing, but also the operating model and the sourcing model of the bank? So, do you think now there’s an appetite to make bigger investments in digital beyond the stuff that you absolutely had to do because you couldn’t function as normal without it?

Laurence: Absolutely. I think digital, anyway, is the way forward, and it was clear to the wealth management community, I’m pretty sure, even before this crisis. So, all this has just been an accelerator, and I’m pretty sure we will lock in what we’ve managed to achieve in that field. But it’s also a world that is constantly evolving. There are new technologies all the time. Things are being tested — whether it’s blockchain, which is a technology we use a lot at Citi — or artificial intelligence to see how we can use our clients’ preferences or behaviors to deliver a better system or better tools to service them more efficiently. But definitely, I don’t think clients would want us to go back and be less digital, especially the new generation and the millennials that are used to connect and access everything — and making information available efficiently and quickly is very important.

[01:03:12.24] Ben: Would you say that you’re clear on what the next big priority is in the digital journey for your bank?

Laurence: It’s clear we have a full team dedicated to exploring our options and are talking to technology companies all the time. If anything, a big portion of our budget, I know, goes to technology and anything digital. So, I have no doubt that we will continue to lead in that field. Absolutely.

[01:03:47.19] Ben: So, pre-crisis, I think it was clear that we were starting to see the big banks operating at a massive scale. We’re starting to outperform smaller wealth managers. What do you think happens post-crisis? And do you think this acceleration in digitalization also creates the potential entry point for new players? Maybe more FinTech-oriented players.

Laurence: I think indeed there is an opportunity for smaller banks or FinTech players, to enter the industry and be extremely good at one particular thing — for example, online payments or robot advisory. In one particular field, if you start from scratch and you don’t have the legacy of a large database and a full network, it’s, by definition, an opportunity to be very competitive and very good in one particular line or segment. But, for large banks, I would say — and Citi is focusing on the ultra-high net worth, what we are trying to do is to focus on keeping the full-service offering. That’s very important to us. We’re not trying to be extremely good in one area, but we are trying to continue to provide the full breadth of service. Therefore, when we look at technology and outperformance it’s under a more strategic long-term basis.

[01:05:31.26] Ben: Do you think that we’ll see consolidation as a result of this crisis? I.e., if what we’re seeing in other industries happens in wealth management, there’s a bigger separation in performance between the winners and those that are left behind. Do you think that will lead to consolidation?

Laurence: There should be opportunities as well in that field, and it’s been a trend anywhere, especially in Switzerland, for several years now. If you count the number of small banks, mid banks, and large banks, clearly there is a trend for consolidation. So, I guess that should continue. Whether it creates opportunities because of the current situation? Probably. We can see that, for example, access to lending is still available, but it’s becoming a bit more restrictive. So, I guess, at some point, there will be some difficulties for smaller banks to continue to provide certain services and therefore they could be open to merging. But it also triggers the questions on, when we think about consolidation and we try to merge two teams, two systems, two client database, there is a culture element to it. So, it’s also complicated. So, I guess the M&A activity will continue because the trend had started before, but it’s not that simple to buy a smaller bank and integrate culturally with the systems and the client base. It’s not that simple.

[01:07:25.14] Ben: What are you telling your clients? What advice are you giving your clients about how to position their portfolios and their assets in response to COVID-19? Are you advising them to sit tight, try not to worry too much about the volatility and just hold for the long term, or are you actively getting them to reposition to more defensive assets?

Laurence: So, that’s an interesting question because obviously, the market’s reaction has been quite sudden in March, and we had very limited time to review our recommendations. So, we had just finished our outlook for 2020, for example, which was quite promising — so, we had to do a lot of groundwork trying to understand when we had been in previous situations, if markets tended to recover quickly, if we were in a situation completely new that needed to be reassessed completely. So it took us about two weeks just to reassess the situation, take a bit of perspective. And we are taking always a strategic long-term view when we issue recommendations to our clients and guide them to manage their wealth. For example, advising to remain invested. We feel that trying to time the market in this environment is very tricky, and if you missed the best 10 days of the market over the last years, you could significantly miss out. So, we are telling clients to remain invested, but we’ve increased the quality of the underlying investments. Diversification, which is a very common concept, has never mattered that much than today. But we are also taking a thematic view — I give you an example: investing in private equity today, putting new money at work, giving money to a manager who would be able to invest post-COVID and deploy the money as the opportunity arise, I think could be a good recommendation to look at this space. To try to generate some returns that are less correlated to the traditional markets, I think it’s very good thematic investing. We were very engaged before this crisis in technology, healthcare, digital disruptions — the key themes that we believe will have superior growth going forward because they have their own trends. We continue to focus on, and we commit to invest in them.

Laurence: At the same time, what we are telling clients is that it’s very important to measure the impact of this crisis on the EPS earnings, and I think EPS growth has been revised downwards quite significantly, but it’s not clear yet how much it will hurt in Europe and in the US or Asia because the crisis is evolving at a different pace and economies will reopen at a different timing, and we don’t know whether there will be a second wave, etc. So, what we are telling our clients is to be careful about the equity markets, to invest in high-quality, high-dividend paying stocks and thematic investments, but to be ready to deploy more money along the way, because we might see market lower before it actually turns back. We’ve also advised our clients to explore opportunities in the capital market area — volatility has increased, our clients are trading a lot and by selling volatility, at least short-term is a good way to enter the market at a lower level. So, we are trying to be cautious but and remain invested, but there are some opportunities around volatility and private equity that we are recommending to capture.

Seeing Around Corners (#19)

Seeing Around Corners,
w/ Rita Gunther McGRATH

On this week’s Structural Shifts podcast, we talk to the brilliant Rita Gunther McGrath, author of “The End of Competitive Advantage”. In this bestseller, she talks about how the world is moving from one dominated by organizational systems and hierarchies to one of individual superstars where a stable career means a series of gigs. Hosted by Ben Robinson, they discuss strategy, the benefits / limitations of network effects, Facebook’s failures, and more.

Full podcast transcript:

 

 

I think the more confusing things are, the more you need a strategy because it orients you, it gives everybody the potential to be aligned around a common future. It pulls you into the future — Rita McGrath

[00:01:34.18] Ben: I wanted to start, Rita, talking about your book called, “Seeing Around Corners”. Probably the key concept in the book is this idea of an inflection point. I wanted to start by asking you, what is an inflection point?

Today, we’re living in the mother of all inflection points, and everybody’s assumptions have really changed.

Rita: So, an inflection point is some change, typically in the external environment, that creates what Andy Grove used to call a 10x shift in the circumstances under which your business operates. And what that does is it has the effect of changing the assumptions that you’ve been making about your business. So, of course, today, we’re living in the mother of all inflection points, and everybody’s assumptions have really changed. I mean, the idea that we would be comfortable in the company of strangers has been with humanity forever, and now that’s been abended.

Once you have credentialing based on a skill, rather than a degree, the whole edifice of higher education collapses. It’s a bit like when the music industry began selling songs by the song rather than the album — Rita McGrath

[00:07:34.14] Ben: And you also talk about the 6-months, the 12-month, and the 18-month metrics that would indicate which of these boxes, these quadrants we’re moving into. So, for example, if we were going to get to this new Great Society 2.0, what might be the sort of metrics that will indicate that? I suppose Joe Biden being nominated President might be one.

The whole notion that we compete in an industry is a bit narrow. And what we’ve seen certainly over the last 10–15 years is industries competing with industries. What industry is Facebook? Is it a media company? Is it a publisher? What is it? And yet, it’s soaking up much of the advertising revenue that provided the oxygen for many news businesses and entertainment businesses and so forth. So, in defining yourself very narrowly as an industry player, I think can create blind spots

Rita: And I think what a lot of people don’t understand is the inside higher ed — and I’ll just stick to higher ed for a minute because I think at lower levels it’s different than this. Inside higher education, the faculty all jockey to have their courses included as part of the required courses. Well, why do you do that? Is it because “Oh, the student must have this in their blood”? That’s the cover. But the real story is, if you have required courses, you have to deliver, and that means you have to hire faculty to teach those courses, and that means you get more faculty allocation than you would if you didn’t have a required course. So, a lot of the structure of what we’re teaching is designed for the faculty, it’s designed for the benefit of the institution, not for the benefit of the students. And so, to me, that’s very vulnerable. If you’re ultimately doing something that’s in your own interest and not in the interest of your customers, then, I think that puts you in a vulnerable place. Once we can have credentialing by the skill, once we can have credentials at a level lower than the degree, the whole kind of edifice of higher education really, is challenged.

if you take the sustainable competitive advantage world, you needed an innovation once every five years, and then the rest of it was all about execution. When you have shorter-lived competitive advantages, you really need innovation that’s more continuous because you need to be continually replacing your competitive advantages as the old ones expire.

[00:19:16.07] Ben: Also, I guess, that agility in supply chains might be harder to achieve post-pandemic?

The ease with which you can get into a digital business I think, actually, demonstrates the strength of one of the traditional concepts in strategy, which is you need to have entry barriers.

Rita: Well, I think what you see is when events move more quickly — if you think about the typical picture of a sustainable competitive advantage, it’s an advantage that goes on for a really long period — and if you have competitive advantages that last for shorter periods of time, that means you need innovation on an ongoing basis. So if you take the sustainable competitive advantage world, you needed an innovation once every five years, and then the rest of it was all about execution. When you have shorter-lived competitive advantages, you really need innovation that’s more continuous because you need to be continually replacing your competitive advantages as the old ones expire.

If you think about the relationship between employees and employers, back in the day the unspoken negotiation was, you gave me stability and security — and I gave you loyalty. But what that meant was that you had people who were prepared to invest literally decades in your organization. What we’ve got now is what many people have called “the tour of duty” economy. And so, you’ve got people who are migrants from company to company to company, and they are essentially free market operators. It therefore doesn’t give you any advantage that lasts because they’re always open to the next bidder when their contracts come up.

Rita: Now, why I think that’s so interesting is, it was much user-friendlier on the part of the customer, but when that digital request hit the company, there was no change required. You just responded to the digital request the same way you would have responded to a faxed request. So, the thing I think is interesting is you digitized something without perturbing the incumbent organization at the time. And then, once you’ve got that going, then you say, “Well if we’re sending digital orders, wouldn’t it be easier if we digitized the inventory? And that way, the incoming order would know what it was looking for, without a person having to go and look it up. Okay, that makes sense.” So you talk about antibodies — if he’d gone in there guns blazing and said, “We’re going to take this whole thing and digitize it all”, you would have come smack into the antibodies, and things would have gotten screwed up; I mean, things always get screwed up in a digital implementation and then it would have been, “See? It doesn’t work! I told you it wouldn’t work! The orders are all messed up, the inventory is all wrong.” Instead, what they did was they took it piece by piece and they said, “Let’s fix the fax problem. And then, once we’ve got the fax problem fixed, let’s fix the inventory-naming problem, and then once we’ve got that fixed, let’s maybe make an online store where we take out the need of a person to go pick this inventory — a customer can just pick it themselves.” But I think it’s that step by step solving of consecutive problems rather than announcing you’re going to turn the whole organization inside out — I think that’s really where it makes a difference.

if everybody you interact with is just like you, there’s a lot of overlap. So, they may be very comfortable, it may be very fun, but you’re not going to learn a whole lot

Rita: The second thing to worry about with network effects is they can increase but they can also fall away. So, a network can peel away even if it holds users in. I think Facebook is a super interesting example of that. So, what you’ve seen up until the recent pandemic is for younger people, they’ve been leaving the core Facebook product in droves. Now, they’ve been going to Instagram and other networks to do their exchanging — Tik Tok is the latest one — but you’ve got a diminished network effect, almost, there. So I think that’s the first thing.

don’t judge the quality of a strategy only by whether it delivered the results that you were looking for because that’s not always a predictable metric

Rita: Well, I think you continually have to be thinking about learning. One of the things I do at Columbia Business School is I direct a number of our executive education programs, and they’re very much about, your business education doesn’t stop at the age of 28. So, even if you have an advanced degree, even if you have a Master’s or an equivalent, I think it’s really important to keep coming back to get refreshed, to add some new tools to the toolkit, make new friends, make new network connections — all of those things are really important. And so, in the book — I think it’s the last chapter in “End of Advantage” — I really spend a lot of time on that. So, there’s a one-page quiz you can take which says, “How prepared are you?” It’s things like, “I’ve learned a new skill even if it wasn’t directly relevant to my job”, or “If I lost my job, suddenly, I know 10 people I could call that would help me find the next one.” It’s those kinds of things I think we need to be thinking about.

we have this cultural myth, almost, of the hero CEO who is going to come down and tell you what to do, and everything’s going to be fine, rather than the organization having to figure it out. I think we’re slowly realizing that the organization figuring it out is actually more of the norm.

Rita: I think it’s crucial. If you think about it, if everybody you interact with is just like you, there’s a lot of overlap. So, they may be very comfortable, it may be very fun, but you’re not going to learn a whole lot. It’s different than what you already knew.

crescive leaders are much more about discovering the organization’s capabilities, shaping decision-making, shaping decision premises, and a lot of those practices are actually much more closely associated with women’s styles of leading, for whatever reason, than they have typically been with men’s. And so, I think it’s very interesting now, as we look across the world, which countries have done well, in the midst of this pandemic? And overwhelmingly, they’ve been countries that have had female leaders.

Rita: One of the things that I find super frustrating as a person who studies organizations is you can make stupid, ill-informed, poorly advised, really dumb decisions and have a great outcome because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, you got lucky, whatever. And you can make well-considerate, very smart, strategically substantive decisions and end up with a bad outcome. So, take a company like Disney — here they are, launching their streaming service and hitting success on every possible dimension, and COVID-19 comes along, and now nobody’s going to theme parks. Well, that wasn’t their fault. And so, I think one of the things I really encourage people, really, to differentiate is don’t judge the quality of a strategy only by whether it delivered the results that you were looking for because that’s not always a predictable metric.

when your fundamental business model relies on your customers being ignorant of what you’re doing, I just think that’s a fundamental weakness

Rita: I think so. So the word “crescive leadership” was actually coined in the 1980s by my friend, Jay Bourgeois, and a co-author of his. They were cataloging leadership styles and they had four that they felt pretty comfortable with: so there was the command and control leader, and then there was the coalition builder — so four archetypal leadership. And then they ran across this fifth style, they could not figure out what to do with it. And finally, they said, “Alright, we’ll make it its own category.” And they didn’t spend much time on it, but they called it crescive, which I think is Latin for growth leader. And, you know, crescive leaders are much more about discovering the organization’s capabilities, shaping decision-making, shaping decision premises, and a lot of those practices are actually much more closely associated with women’s styles of leading, for whatever reason, than they have typically been with men’s. And so, I think it’s very interesting now, as we look across the world, which countries have done well, in the midst of this pandemic? And overwhelmingly, they’ve been countries that have had female leaders. I mean, if you look at Angela Merkel or the Prime Minister of New Zealand — calm, factual, not fear-mongering, but just matter of fact, and “Here’s what we need to do. Let’s take it step by step. And here’s why. And this is what I know, and this is what I don’t know — and I’m going to be very transparent about those things.” And it engenders trust, it engenders a willingness to cooperate, it engenders a feeling that someone capable is manning the helm — unlike the rather chaotic response of a lot of other countries.

it’s very hard to have multiple visionaries in one company. I mean, the only way I’ve ever seen that work is if you’ve got a strong divisional structure — so each visionary has their own swim lane, as it were — but at the top of the company, it’s really hard because by definition, if you talk about culture, visionaries are people who believe in let’s create the future, and if I’ve got two visionaries with two different dreams of what the future could be, it’s going to be really, really hard.

Rita: So, I have no personal vendetta against Facebook; I just think when your business model requires that your customers are basically ignorant and you contribute to that — you’re not transparent, you’re not honest about what you’re doing with the data. And then, Cambridge analytic was just this bit of the surface. And if you look at the way bad actors are using the platform, if you look at how they’re sort of washing their hands, “Oh, no, we’re not publishers. But yet, we derive a huge percentage of our revenue from the ability to reproduce news that’s created by other organizations that have to get paid for it somehow.” I don’t think their outcome in a political social sense is very positive and I think we haven’t yet quite accounted for the imbalances they’ve created in our system of interacting with each other, getting news, advertising, getting paid — that’s all kind of not come together yet. So, the reason I think they may be up for an inflection point now — it could be five years from now could be 10 years from now, but at some point, people are going to say, “This is not legitimate” and businesses, in the long run, that are regarded as not legitimate, fate has not been kind to them. So, take tobacco companies as a case in point. Once you begin to be seen as a provider of something dangerous — and in the case of Facebook, I think a lot of what Facebook is creating is social pollution. It’s just disinformation — and it’s sucked all the revenue out of legitimate news organizations. So I think at some point there’s going to be a rebalancing.

Previewing post-Pandemic Finance (#18)

Previewing post-Pandemic Finance,
w/ David GALBRAITH, Thierry ZOIS, Martin McCANN

We have another special episode for you on how post-pandemic finance would look like. We are bringing back two of our favorite guests: David Galbraith — Partner at AnthemisMartin McCann— CEO of Trade Ledger; and a new guest Thierry Zois — VC at Finch Capital.

Full podcast transcript:

 

[00:02:02.17] Ben: Dave, welcome back to the Structural Shifts podcast. You’re a deep thinker anyway, and I can imagine that since you’ve been in isolation, since your role is to look at future investment opportunities, you’ve been thinking about the pandemic and the post-pandemic world a lot. So, we wanted to pick your brain and have you share some of your thinking. What’s the right place to start? As we look at the post-pandemic world, what’s the right prism through which to look at future opportunities?

the landscape of everything has changed and therefore there are new products and new opportunities. There’s a switch toward adaptability, but it doesn’t mean that all the insurance changes. It just means that the market for insurance has increased.

David: So, I think there might be lots of them. People were worried about automation and losing jobs and we’re now seeing a bunch of very underpaid people, like delivery workers or nurses, suddenly becoming proven to be utterly critical. So, I think you will see the relative importance of the premium pay for social proximity i.e. human caring professionals. So, then this will be part of the backlash — the value of human interaction will be at a premium. And so, how that plays out online in terms of online investment is that ordinary social media has remained largely flat but real-time social media — and that includes things like Peloton, and that includes Houseparty, and that includes people doing concerts live, that includes virtual busking by musicians — has increased by up to 75% because people will crave real-time experiences. And I think we’ll look back at this period when people were watching Netflix programs on their own, asynchronously, when no one else was watching the same thing and realize there’s been quite a lonely period of media, and so, I think that is something that’s highly investible in the future, is real-time shared experience.

Part of this whole acceleration of change that’s happening now, is that people can make decisions and not have to do six months of PowerPoint presentations to the rest of the company to make a decision to actually say, “We’re going to switch to Zoom video.” They can decide overnight — we’re doing this and this is the way it is. — David Galbraith

[00:10:43.03] Ben: Yeah, and I think one of the things that’s interesting is it introduces social network effects into businesses that we never thought had them, like Netflix. Netflix was a business that had some sort of data network effects in the sense that if they understood you better, they could make better recommendations, but had very few other network effects. But if we think that it really matters to watch Netflix at the same time as your friends and comment on it, then it brings a whole new level of value to it, a new level of locking in.

the number of people going to visit a doctor is suddenly going to reduce because doctors shouldn’t be exposed to lots of sick people at the moment — it’s actually dangerous for them — and so, telemedicine will increase massively at the general practitioner level, for that first interaction with healthcare services. A lot of that will go online. — David Galbraith

[00:14:15.25] Ben: So do you see more B2B than B2C opportunities then, in all those B2B FinTech companies that can help the incumbents to become more efficient and deliver a better digital experience — that might be where a lot of the action is?

The delivery of electricity is going to look more internet-like than it currently does. — David Galbraith

David: So, obviously, this is one of these areas where it requires expert knowledge to look at pure healthcare services. But, if you were to look at the business of healthcare or the structural changes it took, you can have a view and one of the possible views is that it decentralizes. There are two aspects of healthcare that might change. One is, the number of people going to visit a doctor is suddenly going to reduce because doctors shouldn’t be exposed to lots of sick people at the moment — it’s actually dangerous for them — and so, telemedicine will increase massively at the general practitioner level, for that first interaction with healthcare services. A lot of that will go online. And that sounds trivial, but I recently, during this process, went to the pharmacy to get a Ventolin inhaler for hay fever. I was told that I had to phone the emergency services because they wouldn’t fill the prescription and the emergency services in France told me that I had to see a doctor in person and when I told them I would just go on the internet, they said that wasn’t possible, but when I hung up the phone and I did go on the internet, within 15 minutes, I had the prescription and went back and filled it. So it helps the healthcare service to accelerate these changes, to decentralize.

the markets are irrational at the moment, not because things are going to be terrible or things are going to bounce back; it’s because we don’t know and therefore that isn’t priced in. — David Galbraith

[00:19:43.08] Ben: I just want to revisit something you said at the start, which is, there’s no consensus among experts about what this means or what the right response necessarily is. So, as you said, people have been making a big cause of shutting down the economy. I suppose implicit, in all the actions that have taken place so far is there’s a binary choice between human life on the one side and the economy on the other. I think the Italians have, in a way, set the precedent by standing up and saying, “We’ll put human life ahead of the economy.” But it’s not as black and white, is it? I just wondered if you had thoughts about the morality of the response we’ve seen so far in terms of shutting down the economy?


we have seen in the market that a lot of corporate VC pulled out on investments due to the whole uncertainty. — Thierry Zois

[00:25:01.11] Ben: Thierry, what we wanted to discuss was the report that you put out a few weeks back, which is entitled “The Future of Disruptive and Enabling Financial Technology post CV-19”. We’ll share the link to it for the listeners, but in essence, it’s a 26-slide presentation, jam-packed with interesting data predicting what might be some of the near and medium-term impacts of COVID-19. One conclusion that seems to jump out from the report is that there’s this clear dichotomy between consumer-facing FinTech companies that face lower volume, shrinking assets, etc. and the B2B FinTech companies whose technology is now in really strong demand because financial services see that they basically have little choice but to become more digital more quickly. Would you say that’s fair, that that’s this overarching conclusion?

We also expect that the road to IPO is going to be so much more difficult. It’s going to be really tough for companies to go all the way down that road, given that there is not, anymore, this hungriness as there used to be in terms of capital providers — Thierry Zois

Thierry: Now, if we look on the B2B side, I think it’s a very hard time if you’re planning on signing on new clients. The main reason is because they’re very old-fashioned type of sales and very long, so there are a lot of procedures in place and a lot of face-to-face is actually quite necessary, in order to build a certain trust; given that it is such a big animal, they really want to make sure that any technology or any person that they onboard is the right technology for them and the right cultural fit, so to speak. Therefore, in the current crisis, to sign up new clients at the moment is quite difficult, I must say. However, everybody’s working from home, like you and me, and also the ones that work at the incumbents, they work from home. And well, they will be working on existing portfolios or existing openings that they still have. If you had started already your sales a couple of months back, then the likelihood that you will close them is still quite high — it just obviously will delay a bit, but the funnel will come to it.


I’m not sure that the pandemic is the only driver in the change of global trade. I think there’s been a shift in the ethos of global trade now for a couple of years. — Martin McCann

[00:45:22.03] Ben: Martin, I just wanted to start by talking about trade finance. I think one of the things that the pandemic has demonstrated to us is that our supply chains are probably much more fragile than we thought. And, for example, I think something like 80% of PPE comes from China. And so, what a lot of people are saying is that this is going to lead to acceleration and reshoring of production. Do you agree with that statement? And if so, how will that affect global trade finance?

cost should not be the only factor in determining how you structure a supply chain. So, the security of supply chains is actually becoming front and center in the way that supply chains are being designed, and that’s most definitely going to change a lot of trade in the next one to five years. But also, the lack of transparency has come front and center as well — Martin McCann

Martin: I think what this pandemic has done is two things — which build on that emerging trend — and you can see it in the numbers. It’s shown that cost should not be the only factor in determining how you structure a supply chain. So, the security of supply chains is actually becoming front and center in the way that supply chains are being designed, and that’s most definitely going to change a lot of trade in the next one to five years. But also, the lack of transparency has come front and center as well. The fact of the matter is, most people didn’t know that most PP equipment came from China. Most people who buy PP equipment didn’t know that it came from China. They’re just buying equipment without any visibility into the further reaches of the supply chain. But I’d say this is something that has been happening for a while. If you look at the numbers in terms of trade, effectively, at the highest level, trade looks like it stalled in terms of growth, but when you unpack that look within it, actually, it’s not really stalled in terms of growth; the way that we track trade is really aligned to physical logistics chains, where actually, what’s happening is a rebalancing of global trade as the economy moves on to a new phase globally. So, with more and more of the former low-cost production countries not consuming more of those goods — that’s not showing up in the trade figures, obviously — they are now producing a lot more services-based exports than they were previously.

there’s actually a very, very rapid rise in global services export across borders, which is very, very hard to track by traditional methods and there’s less of a focus on the traditional logistics networks, which tracked physical trade previously. The main change that we’re going to see from this pandemic is there’ll be more of an insistence that supply chains are visible all the way through. So, I think what we’re seeing is just a natural evolution of trade. — Martin McCann

Martin: So, there’s actually a very, very rapid rise in global services export across borders, which is very, very hard to track by traditional methods and there’s less of a focus on the traditional logistics networks, which tracked physical trade previously. So, I think what we’re seeing is just a natural evolution of trade. I think trade volumes include services as well — more complex services particularly — and the gig economy is definitely increasing, just not easily trackable. And for me, the main change that we’re going to see from this pandemic is there’ll be more of an insistence that supply chains are visible all the way through, and that there’ll be proactive decisions made as to what products need to have more strategic owners in terms of understanding the complexity, globally, of how to get the final products shipped, versus things which are much more of a commodity where it doesn’t really matter whether or not they’re disrupted.

It’s mind-boggling to think that in 2020 — we’re talking about 15 years after the advent of the Internet — we’re still using the same documents and finance mechanisms as have been around for hundreds of years. So, I think what we’re about to see is a rapid product innovation cycle for trade finance, which is more suited to clients who’ve got less tangible assets, and to more of a gig and services driven economy where those services are being delivered across borders. — Martin McCann

Martin: Yes. So services finance is slightly different in two respects. One is the term for which you need financing for is probably shorter because it has more to do with the payment terms of your contracts. Whereas with physical trade, it has to do with, the manufacturer and the shipping generally are the longest period of the credit terms which are required. It also means that the types of products are different, whereas when you’re looking at physical logistics, you have goods or components of goods, physical goods, which can be taken as security or at least assignment of those goods and the control of those goods can be used as a securitization mechanism. Whereas with services that’s not really the case. What you need to do is really look at the class of open-account trade finance products, really looking at the inflows and outflows from the companies that you’re providing credit to, and looking the less tangible assets that are available for securitization, mainly things like receivables, and looking at the other creditworthiness factors of those companies, as opposed to the physical goods required for securitization in more traditional trade.

demand will always determine the shape of the market and in times of stress, you need to see rapid innovation in order to meet the changing demands of the marketplace — and if you don’t see that, you’re going to ultimately see a decline in your business and you’re going to see yourself replaced by nimbler, faster-moving, more digital innovation propositions. — Martin McCann

Martin: So, I use the UK example again: it’s 80% guaranteed, so the government’s taking 80% of the risk and the bank’s taking 20%. The bank is still going to do the same credit assessment as it always does, not 20% of the risk. The problem of technology is quite interesting. What we’re hearing from all of the banks that we talk to is consistent — none of the banks actually have the ability to do straight-through processing on applications for SMEs. All of the banks have paper in the system. In fact, we know of a bank — our own bank — who told us that they can’t put an overdraft facility in place which we’d agreed before the crisis because of a lockdown on one of their operations centers overseas, which means that nobody can go into the office and print out a physical piece of paper required to approve the overdraft. And that’s sort of symptomatic of where the banks are. I mean, they’ve moved from legacy systems, they’re moving at pace, but they’re not able to respond in a matter of weeks in order to deal with this unprecedented demand of credit applications.

I think there’s just going to be extreme pain by the SME sector, despite the goodwill and all the effort by the governments because they just don’t know how to deal with these problems and they’re using peacetime governance processes to try and deal with wartime situation. — Martin McCann

Martin: Whereas, if you look at new cloud-based infrastructure, it can actually respond. So, the consistent feedback that we’re getting is that overall, the banks don’t have the workflow orchestration and automation capabilities; they don’t have standard technical capabilities and automation capabilities such as centralized task management, role-based user management on all of their systems so that across different teams, people can see when stuff needs to be passed off. There’s not a dropping of the applications between relationship managers and credit managers and documentation. There’s no standard way of actually triaging documents and information through the entire system — stuff needs to be printed off from one system and then re-entered in another system, then documents need to be taken from one place and stored in a central place and then accessed from somewhere else. And in the meantime, they’re going back to the customer and asking them for the same information multiple times in many cases or asking them for information, which they’re not being precise about the requests and getting the information in a format which doesn’t suit the processing of the application automatically. So, these are the capabilities, which, you know, they’re not rocket science, but these are the capabilities the banks don’t have, because of the legacy of how the systems have grown up.

There are going to be winners and losers, just as in every other business situation. The winners are going to be the people who actually realize what the new reality is going to look like — it’s fully digital when you talk about lending, there is no paper, there’s no relationship bias — and if you don’t use this scenario, as a way to accelerate your adoption to fully digital lending processes based on new modern infrastructure and technology, you’re going to be one of the losers. It’s that simple. — Martin McCann

Martin: A couple of points around the FinTech sector. I mean one is, the FinTech sector is unusual. It falls outside the funding schemes of most governments because it’s high-growth and massively loss-making. So it’s not a good credit risk if you just look at the numbers and the inflows and the outflows. So, it hasn’t been addressed, for the most part, by the schemes that are already in place. So you need to have a separate scheme to deal with FinTech. I do think that there needs to be a role for FinTech to solve the problem. What I talk about is the national interest to create that distribution infrastructure capability. But how do you do it without choosing winners and losers? So, I think there’s been wide criticism of how governments tried to do that before and one example I’ll use is the British Competition Remedies Fund set up in the UK last year, where 450 million was distributed because it was deemed to be illegal stated to the RBS during 2008. This was set up as an independent body, which in theory sounds like a good thing, but practically what happened was, the BCR basically made winners out of thin air, and massively disadvantaged the rest of the industry, and the process was done in a very, very unusual way, which has been open to massive amounts of criticism. And today, 100 million of that has already been returned. But now that 100 million is sitting there, it’s like, well, there’s a pot of money, which could be distributed much more quickly to help FinTechs that can provide part of the solution, but there’s no mechanism in place for government or this independent body to actually do that.

Previewing the post-Pandemic World (#17)

Previewing the post-Pandemic world, w/ Nicolas COLIN, Laetitia VITAUD, Ian Charles STEWART

Previewing the post-Pandemic World,
w/ Nicolas COLIN, Laetitia VITAUD and Ian STEWART

Today, we have a special episode for you on how the post-pandemic world would look like. We are bringing back three of our favorite guests: Nicolas Colin — Co-founder and Director of The Family, which is a platform for European entrepreneurs; Laetitia Vitaud— renowned writer and speaker on The Future of Work; and Ian Stewart — Executive in Residence at IMD Business School (an co-founder of WIRED). 

Ben Robinson interviews them separately, beginning with Nicolas, who talks about why this pandemic is so different from other crises like terrorist attacks and recessions. He also goes into why the stock market is currently doing okay — at least as of this recording — even though the unemployment rate has skyrocketed, and he and Ben talk about what a safety net could look like for the entrepreneurial age.

Laetitia continues the safety net conversation going into how much are we going to continue to value and appreciate proximity workers into the future? We love them now — are we going to continue to show them the love after this pandemic? And what about new protections for freelancers? What are we going to see in that space? Laetitia, who taught American Studies and English for 10 years, also goes into a really interesting discussion on Roosevelt and how his New Deal helped pull the US out of the Great Depression and what the chances are of something similar happening in the US, today. I’ll give you a spoiler — spoiler alert — things are not looking good! Laetitia ends by talking about how companies need to act today if they want to succeed today, but then also in the future after the crisis ends.

Ian picks up the leadership question, answering Ben’s question, “Is this a time to be brave and contrarian or is it time to just keep everything going as normal as possible?” Is China a safe haven for investors? How is the pandemic affecting US-China relations? And the perpetual question, when will China become the largest economy in the world? And is that even the right question to be asking? At the very end, we will circle back to Nicolas for his closing snapshot vision of how the pandemic will accelerate the transition to digital entrepreneurship. Enjoy the show!

Full podcast transcript:

 

[00:02:42.19] Ben: Nicolas, would you say, one of the biggest differences between the Corona crisis and some of the other major crises over recent years — the major difference is that there is no global leader? The United States led the response to the financial crisis and the United States led the response to 9/11, and you see very much that we’ve had this sort of balkanization of responses, right? Because, the UK was going for herd immunity, Italy was in lockdown, the United States, at least initially, wasn’t taking this very seriously — and we’ve lacked that sort of coordinated global response.

Nicolas: So, the US is a country that I’ve studied for a very long time and I’m passionate about it. I’ve traveled there a lot and I read a lot of books about its history, especially. What I find is different this time. So, one thing that’s different is that they have Trump and he’s a very unusual kind of leader to have in these difficult times. But another thing that’s very different is that the US is used to respond to crises by doing two things: one is, send troops abroad to invade Afghanistan or to invade Iraq and topple the regime there or Vietnam — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but sending troops is easy for them because they have the mightiest military in the world. The other thing that they do, usually, is that they close their borders, which is easily done when you’re the US because they’re isolated at the other end of the world, they have two oceans bordering them, they only have two borders to close, effectively — one with Mexico and the other with Canada. And so, basically, on 9/11 they did both things: they sent troops to Afghanistan, and then they closed the borders to prevent anyone from entering the territory.

Nicolas: For the financial crisis, well, they gathered a small group of politicians and experts and economists in the Treasury building in Washington, DC — that was basically all you had to do to solve the crisis. You had to take big difficult decisions, but in material terms, organizing to respond to the crisis was quite easy. This time, none of these works. Sending troops will not solve the problem; closing the borders won’t solve the problem because you have sick people at home on your territory, on US soil; and simply gathering experts in a building won’t solve the problem because, after two weeks, we know what should be done, but it’s all a matter of implementation now — and implementation on US soil, at that scale, with so much disruption for the way people live in the US is unprecedented. I don’t see a precedent of the US being confronted with such a crisis at home and they are not equipped as a government and as a country to respond to that.

[00:05:59.25] Ben: So you could argue that it is unprecedented and would be difficult for any US institution to manage. But, in addition to that, you’ve also said the fact that Donald Trump has been gutting the institutions that would be most able to respond. So, I read “The Fifth Risk” by Michael Lewis — I read it when it came out, and I think what am I going to do is reread it because it was so sort of prescient in highlighting the fact that what was happening was almost going unnoticed, and would go unnoticed, until all the institutions were suddenly needed, which is exactly where we are now is it not?

Nicolas: I’m French and you’re British, so we both come from countries with a very long tradition of strong and respected civil service. The reason why we used to have — maybe we don’t have them anymore — very efficient and effective civil servants is because we were countries confronted with many threats and we had a colonial empire to manage. Both France and the UK had a Global Empire to manage, which requires a lot of skills and a lot of capacities — you really need that to manage such an empire. In comparison to the French and the British, the Americans never had very effective governance when it comes to implementing policy at home. They’ve had for quite some time a very effective military, but when it comes to implementing policy at home, the US government is already lagging far behind those of other Western countries or China or Singapore, for that matter. And they’re used to it and they don’t really care because most of their government is done at the local or state level and most of the problems that Americans have on a day-to-day basis are solved by the private sector or by lawyers.

Nicolas: But, a striking example is that you can’t really manage your taxes without relying on a tax advisor in the US because the government won’t help you do that. They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the people to be able to respond to every question that every individual taxpayer has. So, that’s their tradition. Their tradition is that of a limited government and a government that nobody really needs in normal times, so no one cares about the government being underfunded or too small for this very big and large country to manage. And it’s only when such a crisis happens, that they realize, “Oh, maybe we should have the same kind of government that the French or the British or Singapore has.” But you can’t catch up in two weeks on doing that — it’s a whole tradition and a whole cultural matter.

[00:09:28.21] Ben: Donald Trump underestimated the threat and then he’s had some very public disagreements with governors. It doesn’t really seem to be affecting his poll ratings too much. Do you think Donald Trump will still be reelected in November or do you think this has materially changed the odds?

Nicolas: He’s been polling at 40% approval ratings forever and whatever he does, it never goes down. And so, people say, “Oh, he’s still popular because he was that popular when he won the election four years ago”, and so, he could do it again with such a low approval rating as a person and as a leader. But what I’ve been interested in is how low is polling in other ground states like Michigan, or basically the Rust Belt where he made a lot of promises about jobs coming back, factories reopening, supporting people, etc., and those promises have not been kept and people are feeling the pain. And so, they’ve probably already decided for many of them that they won’t vote again for Donald Trump this year, which will make a huge difference because he won Michigan with 10,000 votes, I think, in 2016. And so, it doesn’t take much for him to lose Michigan and then lose the presidency — even though he’s faring well in southern states and other conservative states.

[00:11:05.14] Ben: One of the things I wanted to ask you was — you know, this isn’t just from a US perspective — how bad do you think the economic consequences of this pandemic will be? I guess it’s a really difficult question to answer because we have no idea how long it’s going to last and so on, but, would you say that people are still underestimating how profound the impacts will be?

Nicolas: I think we’re underestimating it clearly. I’m not really sure what people are expecting in terms of impact, but clearly, after two weeks, people will look around and say, “Oh, life seems to go on. I’m stuck at home. In many cases, I still have my job. I still get my pay every week or every month and probably life will go back to normal.” But what’s normal? If you reflect on the 10 years that we’ve gone through after the financial crisis, yes, most of us did get back a job and recovered on a reasonable standard of living, but everything has changed, in a way — politically, economically, financially, it’s the rise of China, it’s Brexit, it’s Trump. So, we might have to expect radical consequences to the crisis we’re currently going through. We just don’t know what it will be about.

[00:12:39.26] Ben: Why is the stock market not more materially affected. The initial reaction was quite severe, but actually, it’s been ticking back up. And if you take the NASDAQ, for example, I just looked — I’d better timestamp this, just so we’re not completely wrong. So, it’s the 9th of April and the NASDAQ is down about 18% versus its peak. In a world where we’re potentially facing 30% unemployment, how do you reconcile those two statements?

Nicolas: I wrote a long piece about the stock market to try and explain why it was faring so well whilst many people think that the economy is going in the wrong direction. I think there’s a decoupling between stock market investors and most people. We’re way past the time when everyone was investing in stocks. That’s not true anymore. Most of the money that’s invested in the stock market is invested by large institutional investors and the main reason why it’s faring so well, even in the presence of such problems, is that those people simply don’t know where to invest their cash.

Ben: Yes.

Nicolas: They’re afraid of investing it in tech companies because they don’t understand innovation and entrepreneurship in an economy that’s driven by increasing returns to scale; they’re afraid of investing it in bonds because bonds bear no interest rate economy; they’re afraid of investing it in commodities and they’re afraid of investing it in emerging markets or any market that’s not the US because they prefer to invest at home. And so, what are you left with, when you want to invest in stocks in the US? Well, it’s a lot of investors chasing the same stocks. And what do you do? If you have too many investors willing to buy the same stocks, prices go up regardless of the fundamentals and the context. I think that’s what’s happening now.

[00:14:58.01] Ben: They have the quantitative easing taking place as well.

Nicolas: Yes, yes! It has brought so much money in the hands of so many large investors that they don’t really know what to do with all that money. And we should bear in mind, as well, that because the government and the central banks are pumping up so much money in the economy as of now, many people expect it to trigger inflation. And so, you don’t want to hold cash if inflation is coming around the corner; you would rather have that cash invested in stocks and count on an upside with stocks, as opposed to cash.

[00:15:41.15] Ben: But what is true of the stock market is not true of venture capital at the moment, right? We are seeing capital exiting from venture capital and it’s making it harder, particularly to invest in early-stage companies. So, what do you see is the short to medium term prognosis for venture capital?

Nicolas: In venture capital, at the moment, is very difficult to invest at the late-stage because at the late-stage, valuations are extremely dependent on the state of the economy — and now the economy’s in very bad shape, so you can’t really put a price on a late-stage startup. And so, that prevents late-stage investors from deploying capital and because late-stage investors don’t deploy capital, early-stage investors prefer to hold on their cash and keep it to further fund the startups they are already a shareholder of. And so, if you’re a new startup and you try to pitch an early-stage investor, they’ll probably respond, “Okay, but because no late-stage investor is investing at the moment, I won’t invest in your startup. I’ll keep my capital to deploy in my existing portfolio.” So, until the economy goes back on its feet in terms of predictability, we won’t probably see the engine starting again.

Nicolas: But, on the other hand, we’re already in a period where venture capital is diversifying in terms of how it deploys capital. More and more players are learning to design debt instruments to finance tech companies that are in fact part tech companies — part traditional companies. And so, what I expect is that it will probably put traditional venture capital to a halt, but then create room for designing hybrid instruments that mix venture capital with more traditional business financing.

[00:18:04.14] Ben: Do you think the government could take a bigger role in funding startups, at least in the interim period where funding has dried up?

Nicolas: The new generation of tech companies that were born right after the financial crisis 12 years ago, the two flagship companies of that generation are Uber and Airbnb. And so, there are a lot of discussions about what explains their success. Is it the macro context or the technological wave that was the iPhone and smartphones in general, or exceptional founders that were made grittier by the crisis? I don’t know. I think the three factors come into play, which would lead investors these days to look at companies that not only benefit from the macro context, but also surf a wave of technological change, and then are led by exceptional founders that are even more ambitious by the current context. What we’re seeing is radical change already happening, because of the lockdown, in education, healthcare, real estate, housing. I think people will reconsider their choices. I think fringe options when it comes to educating your children will become more mainstream — like homeschooling or part-time homeschooling.

[00:19:41.09] Ben: You don’t think people have been put-off homeschooling by having done it for a few weeks and trying to juggle it with everything else?

Nicolas: I think some people will be put off but others will realize that it provides them with more freedom.

[00:19:56.09] Ben: It is quite liberating to be unfettered from a curriculum. Like, one day, your children express an interest in something and you can spend the rest of the day researching that particular subject that’s much freer, more interesting for the kids than sticking to a rigid curriculum. But, it is thought to be very, very tiring for the

parents.

Nicolas: But what will be happening in those spaces? I don’t predict that every kid will be homeschooled soon or right after the crisis. What I predict is that the period that we’re going through, which will last for weeks or months or more, will provide an opportunity for parents to reconsider educating their children, will provide an opportunity for teachers to reflect on their own job, opportunities for entrepreneurs to make their case that they can provide a different approach to educating children. And then, when the crisis is over, most of those will go back to normal but some people will keep in mind what they’ve learned during this period and investments will have been made in new infrastructures, new products, and those investments will lead to higher productivity which will make it possible to lower the prices and to make the value propositions more attractive. So, we have a virtual circle that will lead everyone to reconsider, and the entire school system will reach a new stage, probably with more customization, flexibility, more of an online experience and so on. That will happen in education, obviously in health care — because the health care system will be profoundly transformed by the current crisis, with telemedicine becoming more of the norm, as opposed to being the exception — and also housing I think will be disrupted because people will reconsider where they live, and how they live and the kind of home or apartment they inhabit.

[00:22:18.05] Ben: You’re saying, almost like, what people were predicting about this post autonomous vehicle world is now going to crystallize because if we work from home, we might as well work in the most attractive surroundings we can because we don’t need to be very close to other people because there is a much less sense of office work.

Nicolas: Exactly! I’m sure many people are experiencing working from home, and realizing both that working from home makes them more productive, more creative, and realize that if they work from home most of the time or part of the time, they don’t need to live as close to the workplace as before. So, maybe that’s the unexpected event that will contribute to solving the housing crisis in large, dense cities.

[00:23:10.22] Ben: I don’t think we can have a podcast with you and not talk about the safety net. You’ve written extensively about creating a new safety net for the entrepreneurial age and your book was extremely prescient in spotting the need for this new safety net. And if the pandemic has done one thing it’s once again highlighted the absolute need for a safety net for digital workers because they’re so much more precarious. Are you more confident post-pandemic or during the pandemic that we’ll now take the steps to introduce the safety net?

Nicolas: I think there are several changes on the way — some countries, and we, as a society, will probably reconsider what it’s about to work in proximity services. Basically, those proximity workers are the only ones whose job hasn’t changed much because the nurses are still in hospitals, delivery workers still have a job. And also, for those who don’t work anymore, like in restaurants — restaurants are a powerful lobby, they have quite of a political clout. And so, I don’t know of a government that isn’t helping the restaurant industry as a whole because we expect them to reopen when the crisis is over, and so we don’t want all the companies to go down. But, in exchange for all that government money that will make it possible for restaurant owners to cope with the crisis, we’ll probably ask about how much are you paying your employees and what kind of safety net do they benefit from? Maybe we could make some progress on that form because those people were left on their own during the crisis. So, I think for the first time we’re reconsidering the safety net or the social contract for proximity workers. For the first time, some governments have been deploying mechanisms to help support self-employed people, self-employed workers, freelancers and platform workers and so on — which is a first — and then many, many startups will be lifted up by the crisis and will come up with innovative financial products or innovative approaches to managing benefits or innovative real estate products that will all contribute to revealing the new safety net.


[00:26:06.27] Ben: There’s no automatic reason why we should rebuild the safety net or create new institutions post-crisis. But that definitely could be one outcome, right? Because certainly, you see that many of the politicians right now have extra political capital and whenever we have this kind of shared experience, we start to have more empathy for various sections of society. So, it does seem like an opportunity to make some quite radical changes, post-crisis.

Laetitia: Yeah! It really does! Like, thinking about new collective bargaining institutions, if you think of the supermarket workers in France, they very rapidly obtained visibility and then there was this pressure on supermarket chains to pay them more and create new protections for them, so they built all those window panes to protect the cashiers from people’s droplets and then they decided they’d pay them 1000 euros more every month — which is not so bad. And once the crisis is over how can you go back to saying, “Okay, well, you’re actually worthless. Let’s just cut all this and go back to whatever it was before. I think that’s not going to be possible because they are united, they went through something so terrible that they think in terms of “We’re in this together — I mean the workers — and we’ll necessarily have more bargaining power and think collectively.”

Laetitia: So, it was this pressure. Carrefour in France, and Leclerc and Auchan — all those supermarket chains — one after the other, they added this special premium for workers so that they can get paid extra. This hasn’t happened in other countries, yet — or maybe in a few others that I don’t know of — but at least it’s a sign, that in terms of bargaining, something’s really happening.

Laetitia: And the second thing is that we’re understanding the rule of public services and how crucial they are and how completely helpless we are without those public services. If you think of the NHS, how, in normal times, it doesn’t have enough resources and how in spectacular times this lack of resources will cost so many thousands and thousands of lives, there is no politician in the UK tomorrow who will be able to attack the NHS — even Johnson, who is now at the mercy of the NHS, literally speaking. And so, the fact that in times of crisis we suddenly saw the possibility of boosting those public services and their critical role is something that will have a political legacy beyond the crisis.

[00:29:12.09] Ben: Do you think that plays out in the United States? Do you think there’ll be more pressure in the United States to create some form of public health care?

Laetitia: Well, the United States is such a mess! Such a mess! I’m not optimistic about the US. What I think will happen is a moment of reckoning with this epidemic. Everything, all their incentives are wrong, all their system is wrong. The fact that there is absolutely no safety net encourages people with no alternative to continue to work even after they’ve had the first symptoms of the disease, so the spread will be worse. And then, lots of people who cannot even go to a doctor — there will be more deaths than in any other developed nation. And then, the economic crisis will also be worse because there is nothing to cushion the impact of the crisis. And so, even with a $2 trillion package rescue plan, which seems like a lot, but if that rescue package is meant to compensate for the lack of anything pre-existing, it won’t be enough. It won’t be enough to cushion the country from something so deadly, that it will be a moment of reckoning. I’m very, very pessimistic about their ability to do anything before the worst happens.

[00:30:50.15] Ben: The way I see it is this juncture where the US could either turn left, metaphorically speaking, and kind of push towards creating a proper safety net to prop up the population at large, or it could double-down on individualism. And it’s not clear which way it will go. I think if they had potentially a different president, maybe we might be more confident.

Laetitia: Yeah. I’m unsure that anything massive or anything radical can be done in the current political context. Number one, the candidate, the official Democratic candidate now is Joe Biden — and Joe Biden is not a radical thinker. Number two, there are a lot of things that are completely deadlocked. There’s the Supreme Court that is durably conservative and that will strike down whatever ambitious proposal comes out of Congress — and that is if Congress is majoritarian in the hands of Democrats after the next election, which is absolutely not sure because the Senate is also likely to remain conservative. So, I don’t think anything can be done in the American political context today that will be radical enough or ambitious enough to make a difference.

[00:32:12.21] Ben: What were the political conditions at the time of the New Deal? Because this does feel like this could be analogous to the time that led up to the New Deal.

Laetitia: Yes. It’s interesting! This comparison is very interesting because Roosevelt had difficulties with the Supreme Court of his time.

Ben: He did, yeah! I remember that!

Laetitia: He did, and he came up with a plan that came to be known as the Court Packing Plan, and the idea was to nominate lots of new justices to the Supreme Court because there is nothing in the Constitution that says that you have to stick to nine — which it’s just tradition, it’s an unwritten rule or tradition. And he said, “Okay, they’re all old and conservative. Let’s appoint lots of new justices and pack the Court with friendly justices.” And that, of course, was very controversial and lots of Americans attacked Roosevelt for being so shockingly radical — and this Court Packing Plan probably wouldn’t have been accepted and wouldn’t have passed. But, luckily for Roosevelt, one of these old judges died and he could appoint a new one, and at some point, there was a turn and because they had felt so much pressure, some of the other judges sort of changed their minds and started being more flexible, and more liberal. And so, they eventually let the New Deal unfold, but it was a couple of years of very, very, very difficult institutional moment and a true battle between those two branches of power. And today that’s not going to happen because I don’t see how in a few years, the Supreme Court will change. It was designed by the conservatives to be made durably, durably conservative.

[00:34:22.07] Ben: So when the lockdown is finished, we won’t just go backwards to the way it was; one reason is because, first of all, millions of people aren’t literally going to be able to get back to work because they don’t have work. We’re going to have a much bigger appreciation for the proximity workers and appreciate how important they are in our day-to-day lives.

Laetitia: Including teachers!

[00:34:41.17] Ben: Including teachers! Oh, yes! Those of us that are homeschooling appreciate teachers. And a lot of those proximity workers will have more bargaining power and the same applies to many of the public services that we’ve maybe had underappreciated in the run-up to the crisis. What other ways do you think we won’t go back to normal and we’ll move to some kind of new normal?

Laetitia: Well, when it comes to remote work, and the digital transition of large organizations that suddenly overnight had to manage differently, choose different tools to work remotely, there’s no going back to before in terms of the flexibility of work, and the fact that you don’t need to prove to your manager that you’re perfectly able to do things without being watched constantly and without being physically present at the office. So, I think that’s something that will change. A lot more work will be done at home, and in co-working spaces — and that’s a small revolution in a way because when we think of workplaces, we usually don’t think of the home as a workplace, so I think that’s a big change. And the fact that we think of home as workplace has an impact of how we view housing and how we consider housing policies and housing inequalities; it has an impact for companies on how they think of the workspace in general and ergonomic solutions, and it has an impact on how you protect workers because a lot of the workers who work from home already and who’ve worked from home before were not necessarily considered in a lot of the institutions that were created for office workers or factory workers or field workers.

Laetitia: We talked a lot about American politics, but for example, Roosevelt’s 1935 Social Security Act did not include domestic workers, because these domestic workers were the descendants of slaves and for political reasons, it was safe not to include them so as to have the support of Southern Democrats who were racists. And that’s just one example of how domestic workers were never included in the institutions that were created to protect workers. And that’s something that’s going to change because these institutions include medical supervision, ergonomics, social protection, obviously, etc. And so, now, the home will fully enter the realm of the workspaces and it’ll have a number of consequences.

[00:37:43.08] Ben: If everybody can work from home or have more flexibility post-crisis, do you think this changes the relative attractiveness of being a full-time employee versus being a freelancer?

Laetitia: I’m certain that it does and it’s an interesting development that’s happened over the last few weeks. In the UK, as well as in France, for the first time ever, there’s been talk of creating new protections for the freelance workers who will lose all their gigs, and all their revenues because of the crisis. It’s millions of new freelancers who suddenly will find themselves without any revenue. It’s more than 5 million in the UK, and something like that in France — a little less, I think — and these are workers who could have been salaried workers under different circumstances. The French government in the Rescue Package that was created, created a new unemployment insurance — a crisis unemployment insurance — for freelance workers. That’s a first! And then, the British Chancellor did the same which is even more surprising in the British context that’s less protective of workers than the French tradition. The Chancellor announced that a new protection will be created for all freelancers, up to 2500 pounds a month on the basis of whatever you earned, on average, before that — and that will create a form of precedent.

Laetitia: What’s obvious is that there is a misalignment between workers and companies now, because companies faced with this unprecedented crisis realize they want most of their costs to be variable. They want fewer long-term salaried workers — for example in France where you can’t lay off people easily — they want fewer offices with fixed costs that can actually kill them and burn all the cash that they have left. Whereas workers, on the other hand, want as many protections as it’s possible, they will want to return to more traditional forms of employment that provide more protections, that come with a better bundle. They want unemployment benefits, they want health benefits, etc, etc. And because this misalignment is going to be a bigger problem than ever before, in the context of this crisis, new institutions in between will have to be created, so that the model will look more like Sweden — companies must be able to lay-off people whenever they need to, but people must be protected and helped to find other jobs in the future. And so, in between is a better safety net that makes it possible to have a better alignment of interests between companies and people.

[00:40:59.26] Ben: Do you think it’ll be necessarily the state that creates those new institutions? I suspect it might be a combination of both because if you think about the present context, people are firing their freelancers because they can, because they’re those that have the least protection, the shortest contracts. But, many of the best people are freelancers. Therefore, for anybody who’s willing to take a risk at this present time and be slightly contrarian, this is the time to go in and find those freelancers and create some sort of organization that arbitrages that risk between employers and freelancers.

Laetitia: That’s true! But it’s too many people right now. It’s a little bit like, you know, when you’re an insurance company, it’s fine to handle normal risks, but once you have a risk that’s as big as a natural disaster where you have either the entire country or an entire region that’s completely destroyed, that’s not something that one insurance company can handle. It’s too big. Only the state is big enough to handle a risk of that size. However, you’re right. In most cases, it’s a combination of the two that will be most effective. So, you’ll have lots of players handling smaller risks and the biggest of them all, the natural disaster, the huge crisis — that’s something for the state.

[00:42:34.15] Ben: So just to return to this, we’re in a situation where a small minority of people work from home in the crisis. Now, I don’t know what the statistics are, but probably it’s a small majority of people who are working from home.

Laetitia: It’s about half and half actually; or one third — one third — one third: roughly, one third of people are unemployed, one third of all people are working outside, in hospitals or in supermarkets or working in the supply chain, and one third work remotely. Depending on the country, the figures are different, but you get the idea. It’s roughly something like that.

[00:43:08.13] Ben: So we’ve got a situation where a small minority was working remotely, and now a third of the working population is working remotely. So, a massive increase from one day to the next. How do you think people are coping? What do you think are some of the unseen ramifications of that, in terms of gender inequalities, for example? And then, what are your tips? Because you’re somebody who’s been working remotely for a long period of time. And it’s difficult, right? For example, we find it’s difficult to know when to stop work, for example, in the evening because you could theoretically go on until bedtime and you can start as soon as you wake up. And so, how do you create new parameters for remote work?

Laetitia: Well, it’s an excellent question because the tips that are usually given to remote workers are not necessarily valid in today’s period when parents have their children at home, or they have other family members at home that makes it so much harder to find the focus or even just the physical space to do their work in normal conditions. So, these are very un-normal times for the tips for remote workers to figure out how to work. So, it’s more a crisis time and you do whatever works best for you; parents may need more flexibility because they will work early in the morning or late in the evening if they have young children or they will work in shifts. If there are two remote workers in the household, and the two of them need to work then the mornings will be for the mother and the afternoons will be for the second parent or vice-versa. They will have to find a system and unlike in normal times, it’s a system that works for the household. So, there is this merger, if you will, of the private sphere and the professional sphere in a way that we’ve never experienced before because in normal times you have other institutions, like daycare and schools and nannies and you have this organization where you fit your household with lots of other players and a lot more extra outside help.

Laetitia: So this is very, very different and I’m a bit irritated sometimes by the productivity pieces that we see today about remote work as if it was a normal time, as if it was business as usual. Also, we know that in terms of, as you said, you’ve mentioned gender inequalities and in some households it’s like going back to the 1950s because all the chores, all the workload that was more evenly distributed between a woman and the outside world — nanny, cleaning woman, whoever else came for help — is now reinternalized. And when you reinternalize it, it’s rarely evenly split. So, that’s a disaster for feminism — that was the title of an Atlantic piece that was very good; it was, “Coronavirus is a disaster for feminism.”

Laetitia: So that’s one thing. But another is that in normal times, no one would champion lockdown. No one would say, “It’s best when you work not to see anyone ever.” So we know that in terms of mental health, we are going to have to cope with extremely difficult moments and it’s not about being productive. It’s about surviving. So, I would say, the usual things that I write about managing scattered teams and how companies with no office, like GET Lab or Buffer or Basecamp have found solutions to help us do without an office — those things do not apply today because it’s so different from anything we’ve ever experienced before.

[00:47:30.26] Ben: But in a way, that’s another thing that won’t get back to normal, right? Because, I don’t know how much you saw this, but a lot of companies, when they first were forced to let people work from home, they tried to impose normal office hours, and then they figured that, as you said, people were managing multiple different priorities at home, and so, they had to be more flexible. So, that’s another way in which companies have had to seed more and more control.

Laetitia: Yes! And that’s a positive thing that may happen out of this — is that if they make flexibility the new default, and if there is actually more trust in their management, then it will benefit everyone, even in new normal times because parents still need flexibility and they still need to be able to handle the workload the way they see fit and incorporate all the constraints that they have. So, that’s something positive that could come out of this.

Laetitia: If you’re a pessimistic, you may see that a lot of the companies that are forced to work remotely overnight, are replicating the managerial culture that was theirs before and so they basically continue to watch their people and there’s this software to take pictures of your worker’s screen and verify what they’re doing. And then, you have lots of managers who want to be on Zoom all the time — and if you’re on Zoom all the time, when exactly are you supposed to do your work? Or how much flexibility do you have when you’re supposed to be in meetings all day on Zoom? And so, I think that there’s a big gap between the companies that have a more flexible managerial culture, more horizontal managerial culture, and those that are still very conservative and basically replicating online the culture, the managerial system that they had at the office.


[00:49:49.13] Ben: Ian, I wanted to ask you how business leaders should be responding to this crisis? Is this a time to be brave and contrarian or is this a time to make sure that you steward your company through a difficult time?

Ian: So, I’m afraid I’m going to give you a boring answer, and the boring answer — which I think is the right answer — is only if the evidence supports to be brave and contrarian. The trick with most difficult situations, whether you’re a kid in the playground faced with someone larger than you or a business leader trying to deal with the fact that 95% of your revenues have just died as is the case for friends of mine around the world today, is to try to look at things relatively unemotionally — it’s hard to be completely without emotion when people you know are dying — but to try and be relatively unemotional and work out what you can do. It’s clarity, its analysis, but it’s also the ability to make a decision relatively quickly. And in that sense, that’s brave. When you have to make a decision when the information isn’t clear because you have no choice because your business goes under if you don’t, that’s the bravery that’s necessary. It’s just making hard decisions when you have to, quickly. I think you don’t do one thing. I think the efforts to try and make sure that people don’t lose their jobs have been admirable in certain areas, but obviously impossible in an airline or a hotel industry where suddenly you have no customers at all.

Ian: Now, I say impossible. It’s not entirely impossible. Mark Greeven, a professor at IMD recently gave us a case study about the car company BYD in China, which overnight, within 24 hours, because they had to find something to do with their employees — they didn’t want to let everybody off — became the biggest producer of face masks in the world. This is a known case study now, but it’s only two months old. Then, there’s another company in China that I follow, that switched from being a 90% — 10% offline retailer with thousands of stores to online retailer — so they were 10% online and 90% offline — switched to 80/20 online/offline within 30 days and didn’t suffer either the employment losses or the revenue losses that people expected. So I think the bravery is in making tricky decisions in tricky times. Contrarian — only if the evidence supports. And try to look at things based on data, not based on just gut feel.

[00:52:26.25] Ben: And where do you see that there might be room to be contrarian? So, where do you see the opportunities that good leaders, prepared to make quick decisions, might capitalize on?

Ian: So that’s a very general question. It depends on the sector you’re in and the industry you’re in. So, at the moment, the problem isn’t so much decision-making because the decision-making is fairly clear. Right now, the issue is data. If you’re looking at markets, people are talking about the difference between a V-recovery, a U-recovery, an L-recovery, underlying that are estimates of when we go back to work, when customers start buying things again. I would suggest that one of the things that managers of retail businesses or managers of consumer business should be doing is trying to work out how much of consumer behavior changes over the next three to six months. Short-term shocks tend not to impact consumer behavior; consumers tend to go back to doing what they did before. Longer-term shocks, things that last longer, people get used to doing new things in new ways; maybe they don’t go back to doing things the way they did before. And trying to work out now, trying to pass that now and work out what people will do or won’t do, how much they will change, how much they won’t change — is a very interesting question. So, I think, at the moment, it’s more about trying to understand what data there is and what it’s telling us before we get decisions. Everybody, at the moment, is just trying to scramble — spend less money, find new customers, keep as many of the employees as you can because it’s hard to rebuild teams. It’s doing what they can in difficult environments. The tricky bit is what happens next, and when next is.

[00:54:05.26] Ben: Is China now a safe haven for investors?

Ian: China has never been a safe haven for investors. It’s always been tough. And this isn’t against foreigners or outsiders — it’s tough for everyone in China, local Chinese included. It’s probably the most competitive business environment in the world, and there’s a lot of money from lots of different sources aiming at the same projects. So, prices have gone up. It’s never been safe. Right now, in addition to that, we have a very clear anti-foreigner sentiment, partly exacerbated by the last couple of years, but it’s been there, frankly, pretty much since the arrival of Xi Jinping. So no, it’s not a great time for investors in China.

[00:54:44.06] Ben: Do you think more investors from outside China are looking for a safe haven for their money? Because China was first into the pandemic, is first out, and the economy is kind of getting back to normal. Is this a time for people to look at China with fresh eyes, from an investment point of view?

Ian: So, a lot of the conditions that make China a complicated place to invest in are still there. It’s still an environment where we aren’t terribly sure if they respect the requirements for reporting that we do in the West. We’re still not very sure about how much of actual activity is being reported in the books, what isn’t on the books, what’s slightly off-book, or what’s on a separate set of books. And even with public companies, this has been the subject of some debate amongst analysts. So I think those conditions have always been there. The second question, I guess, is whether or not China really is coming out of the cycle. I don’t believe that the COVID-19 cycle ends until there’s a vaccine. We’re already seeing second waves in different parts of Asia, in China as well. The Chinese government of course, is blaming us on people coming back to China — either foreigners or Chinese — but it seems likely that there’s been underreporting, so it seems likely there’ll be other waves. People forget that actually the whole question of this COVID-19 cycle, the only reason we’re getting flattening of the curves is because we’re all locked indoors wearing masks and staying away from each other. Any form of return to normalcy will involve greater human interaction, which will involve an increase in infection rates. So, I don’t think we’re out of China yet.

[00:56:25.02] Ben: In other words, there’s almost no safe haven until we have a vaccine.

Ian: So, two different things. One is, what’s safe for humans who want to live in a particular place? And the second is investment. I didn’t quite get to answer your question because I was creating my usual precursors, pre-conditions for answering. The answer is yes, I’ve been looking at companies like Tencent and Baba for investment, but that’s principally companies that are quoted overseas, so I’m reasonably sure about being able to trade, and it’s large companies where we have enough access to understanding what they do and how they do it — so it’s relatively easy to judge them or even then, I would suggest that we don’t really know anything about those companies. So yes, I started to look at investment in those areas. And if you look at how they’ve done, their shares, actually, haven’t come down in terms of public market shares — they actually haven’t come down as much as you might expect. If you look at the falls in some of the American stocks, the Chinese stocks, the top Chinese stocks simply haven’t fallen as much. So, again, your question, why the government isn’t above buying shares to support its own market and its own company? So, there is this element of lack of transparency in both private and public markets for investment in China. And so, it’s always going to be tough. So, therefore, the short answer to your question is no, it’s not safe.

[00:57:40.19] Ben: Do you think that China will suffer less, economically, than some other countries because it got on top of this quickly?

Ian: Because it depends to a degree upon foreign consumption, and because the manner in which it has dealt with the crisis affects people’s perceptions of China, that foreign consumption may change. It’s one of the questions we all have about what happens when we get out of this. What are people’s attitudes to China going to be? Because they tried to shift a lot of the consumption — their internal consumption — that makes them relatively speaking, less dependent upon foreigner views of Chinese production. So, that side of the economy should do better. Yes, they’re harsher on crackdowns, and there’s been some criticism of the fact that everybody has to carry this little app, which tracks them where they go and tracks who they meet, so the government knows whether they’ve done anything high-risk, which are elements which actually are starting to be talked about in the West but are generally presumed to be not acceptable to Western cultures. The harshness of the treatment of the areas that came under the virus notwithstanding, yes, I think China’s probably going to do a better job of managing the infections and therefore probably do okay coming out. But, as I said, we’re 18 months away minimum from a vaccine. That means nothing goes back to normal. It has to change. Economies and companies and ecosystems that want to keep transacting have to adjust the way they transact, which may not be a bad thing. A lot of people started talking about how this has become a big push for those companies not already online to try and do so. And so, that side it’s not a bad thing.

[00:59:19.13] Ben: So, I don’t know when the vaccine comes, but do you think in the period up to the vaccination or the availability of a vaccine, China is better able to manage in this unstable interim period?

Ian: So, I’d separate our period from China’s ability to manage. The Chinese companies are extraordinarily competitive and extraordinarily able and extraordinarily nimble. So, when it comes to adjusting business models or adjusting supply chains or adjusting customer interaction processes, there’s no business culture on the planet currently faster than the Chinese and better at adjusting. So, from that perspective, they’ll weather almost any shop better than most Western companies. This didn’t use to be the case. The Americans used to be the best of this, let’s say a generation ago, but the Chinese are definitely stronger at that now. So yes, I think they’ll probably do fine in many respects.

Ian: One of the reasons that I was excited by China in the North-East in the early 2000s, was the degree of innovation I saw in places like the Western provinces for telecommunications, because there was so little money out there, and yet the companies were trying to create an infrastructure and an ecosystem for transactions on the telephone. So, they had to produce systems that worked on very, very little. And innovation in early telecommunications technology at the time is part of what’s driven the success with Huawei and others recently. So, yeah, they will do well, they’ll do fine. The more interesting question is whether we, in the West, will trust what they produce and therefore, continue to purchase with the same alacrity as we have done in the past. That’s an open question.

[01:01:01.08] Ben: So just leaving that question for now, do you think that the pandemic will bring forward the moment at which China overtakes the US to become the largest economy in the world?

Ian: China was always going to become the largest economy in the world by dint of its sheer size. So, with 1.4 billion people, it was always going to pass a country that was 300 million people at some point. Does it speed it up? It depends on how you measure it, I guess. They’re growing, obviously, at a faster rate than anybody has — even slowing down to 6%, that’s double than anybody else’s speed by far. So, I’m not sure COVID-19 makes a material difference to that. The short-term slowdown of the West, yes, creates issues for certain sectors, but not everywhere. So I don’t think it’s material. I think China was always going to end up being the largest, relatively quickly, and I don’t think this materially changes. I would, again, add a corollary, which is, bigger isn’t necessarily best, bigger isn’t necessarily strongest. I remember, in the 1980s, people were afraid that Japan was going to be the biggest, strongest economy in the world, and it would dominate the global ecosystem. I remember books being written about the danger of Japanese dominance of the business environment at that time — and look what happened. So, let’s see how they do what they do, and I think that will, to a degree affect how everybody else receives them. But there’s no question they will be the biggest very soon, just in terms of size.

[01:02:31.06] Ben: And then, just to dive a bit into this notion of external perceptions of China, how do you think they are faring and how do you think they will change post-pandemic? Because, on the one hand, China was seen as getting on top of this very quickly, if you like, the consumer of last resort, they’ve been providing aid and PBU equipment all over the world to countries that couldn’t otherwise source them. So, that’s the positive part of the post-pandemic perception. But then, on the negative side, people see them as the source of this virus, they see them as having covered up the extent of the virus at least initially. So, where do you think we end up post-crisis in our views of China?

Ian: I think the largest problem, the largest challenge for China is its own insecurity about what other people say about them. The Chinese government representatives at almost every level are particularly thin-skinned when it comes to criticism and that tends to mean they overreact — and they overreact in ways that we might consider surprising for the biggest guy in the room. And until they, themselves, feel a sense of confidence about their place in the world and about how they can be received, I think they’ll continually misstep or misjudge important reactions, and we will, therefore, always find them slightly off-putting. So, I don’t think that’s necessarily changed, as implied in your question. We’ve seen that mix. They had the capacity to construct and build and react, they had the capacity to supply us with things we need, and although we have poor-quality goods coming out of China, we also have very high-quality goods coming out of China. It’s just a question of making sure you choose your supply correctly and manage quality control. So, you can get wonderful quality goods coming out of China.

Ian: As you said, though, we’re concerned about what we’ve been told, we’re concerned about how certain things were managed; we, in the West, have seen video reporting on Twitter, which people in China have not been able to see about what the lockdown was really like in Wuhan — and that certainly maintains our concern about the way the country is governed. So I don’t think anything’s changed from this. The same two sides — the capacity to do good and produce fabulous equipment, gear, products, and services remains, but the insecurity on the part of the governing group and their overreaction to criticism and their style of management of crisis, because it doesn’t necessarily fit with what we consider to be appropriate, will continue to encourage us to consider China with both those sets of lenses separately and empower.

[01:05:33.07] Ben: What do you think happens to US-China relations? Because they were already pretty tense in the run-up to the pandemic — they had an escalating trade war and a worsening narrative. How does the pandemic positively or negatively affect US-China relations?

Ian: Well, again, because China was the big kid entering the playground, it was always going to be some tension, right? The previous big kid, the United States, suddenly finds someone that’s twice his or her size and acting differently — not just a question of being larger, but their interaction in the playground has been different to everybody else. So, the cultural shocks are always going to create a problem. And of course, the fact that they’re bigger and the fact that they’re going to wield larger sticks means that everybody gets nervous. So this conflict was always going to happen, it isn’t just a question of the current leadership.

Ian: Having said that, leadership can make it better. On both sides, at least, when it comes to the US and China specifically, as opposed to the West and China, we have leaders who are happy to blame the other side for something, both arguably thin-skinned, both unhappy with a pint of criticism, and that doesn’t help. So, I think good leadership, leadership of the type we’ve sometimes seen in Europe, with Angela Merkel and others, I think would help others. So, let’s see what happens over the coming years. But the current situation has certainly not made it better. I’m not sure it’s made it a lot worse. I mean, even if we had a more able diplomat on either side, whether in the US or in Asia — it might have been better handled and things might be smoother, so I’m looking forward to that as leadership changes, but that isn’t going to happen immediately, and for the time being, it’s going to be awkward.

Ian: To counter that, of course, is the interdependency. The United States still manufactures a huge amount of sub-contracts or directly manufacture a huge amount in China, and even though China has done its very best to switch economic dependency onto local consumption, they still have a need for overseas customers. I think that independency is a basis for trying to create a relationship that works. It’s one of the reasons people tried to create Europe after the Second World War having an interdependent economy — it means you’re less likely to go to war with someone if you’re genuinely interdependent.

[01:07:58.10] Ben: Do you think some of those interdependencies will diminish? Because I think we all benefited from having these just-in-time supply chains, these geographically dispersed supply chains, because it meant that the cost of goods went down. But I think what we found is their supply chains are very fragile in the face of big shocks. So, do you think some of those interdependencies would just naturally be rolled back as we seek to make supply chains more resilient?

Ian: And again, the answer is in the question. You ask very good questions which provide their own answers.

Ben: Then they’re not good questions.

Ian: People are certainly beginning to realize the risks of relying upon others in difficult times and the risk of trying to get access to something when you need it in a hurry when a normal supply chain takes three weeks, and you need it in two days. So those sorts of things, those concerns are coming to the fore at a time like this. But the answer isn’t to decouple completely and roll globalization backwards as some people would prefer. The solution is to build redundancy into the supply chains. So, you need to make sure that you have more than one route to get anything that’s important. By all means, for economic reasons, we’ll still try to go to the low cost, high volume, reasonable quality producer, but we’ve got to assume on anything that’s important that we have an alternative in the event that either we have an argument with the supplier or there’s a need for a timeframe which is shorter, which means we could accept a higher cost — there have to be redundant sources for the supply chain.

Ian: Western Europe is currently slowly trying to do this with natural gas, to reduce their dependency on Russia. It’s an issue in a lot of things around the world. But yes, COVID-19, particularly on medical supplies, has made it a more acute, obvious challenge for specifically medical issues. But, remember, these trends have been happening for a while — partly that things like Trump’s bring-industry-back-home stuff, but also, in Europe, as people have realized the challenges of trying to maintain quality control in Eastern Europe, not just China. So, there has been a slight trend to think about whether we want to produce everything halfway around the planet and what happens when we can’t get it when we need it.

[01:10:11.26] Ben: So you’re involved with lots of different companies as board member, advisor, investor. What are you telling the companies that you’re speaking to every day? How do you think they should best plan and adjust for this crisis?

Ian: It depends on where. I tend to be involved in media and/or consumer tech and/or, to a lesser degree, arts and creative industries companies. So, for most of those companies, the big thing that’s happening right now is pushing to get digital faster, especially if they were traditional media companies — it’s very, very hard to get newspaper and magazine and book companies to do more online. When you have no bookstores or your distribution methods are constrained and people are stuck in their homes, then online is the only place to find them. So, that’s been a really quite interesting portion. So, resistant management teams are finally saying, “Okay, we have time to do this because our other methods of reaching out customers simply aren’t working. So, that’s a big plus, I think there’s going to be a real push in some areas to do more stuff online, and therefore, to understand how it is one attracts people online and keeps people online. It isn’t the same thing when you walk down a street. Once you’ve walked into the store, you tend to spend 10 minutes there because it’s hard to visit 20 stores in a day. Online, you’re a click away from changing so people are realizing that we just simply don’t have 10 minutes to grab someone’s attention. We’ve got seconds. And that changes the way people think.

Nicolas: This crisis is THE crisis that will accelerate the transition to a more mature entrepreneurial economy or digital economy or whatever you want to call it. That’s what crises do. There’s something that’s already happening, a trend that’s headed into a certain direction, but it goes at a slow pace until a crisis happens and the crisis accelerates the pace, it fastens the pace and we’re still going in the same direction, which is a more digital economy. Some countries are seizing it as an opportunity, other countries are missing the mark, and are sliding down in terms of economic development. Like everyone interested in long-term change, I’m thrilled by the acceleration that the crisis provides. I’m terrified by the consequences of the short-term and all the people suffering and dying, but I think it creates an opportunity for every nation to accelerate the transition to a new paradigm.