Banking-as-a-Service (BaaS): Navigating the Maze

The worlds of Open Banking, SaaS and BaaS may actually be converging – with several highly lucrative winner-take-most platforms likely to emerge.

I came across this impressive twitter thread a few weeks ago from Nicolas Benady, who runs a new Banking-as-a-Service (BaaS) platform called Swan. It explains why BaaS, Core Banking and Open Banking solutions are totally different.

But, to our mind, some of the confusion is justified. While today there is a big difference between Open Banking, BaaS and B2B SaaS systems, like core banking solutions, a lot of the differences are dissolving. Further, not all BaaS platforms are created equal and, as the example of Sequoia walking away from its investment in Finix demonstrates, the BaaS space is also quite complex.

What follows is our schematic for understanding the differences between BaaS models, as well as a discussion about the battle to dominate the BaaS space over time, which we think is likely to involve both open banking and B2B SaaS platforms.

PaaS vs BaaS

Platform-as-a-service (PaaS) is about providing a platform on which others can simply and cheaply build a new proposition. Banking-as-a-Service (BaaS) is about providing a platform that allows (normally non-financial) businesses to embed banking into their existing proposition, like point-of-sale credit.

However, this is a somewhat false dichotomy in that many of the platforms actually do both. They can enable companies to build a new proposition on top of the platform and offer an already-assembled service to be embedded directly into an existing proposition; the distinctions can be quite nuanced.

The differences in BaaS

Instead, we perceive the main points of differentiation in BaaS to be the extent to which services are vertically integrated vs modular and the extent to which they are out-of-the-box vs customizable.

 

Out-of-the-box BaaS

Let’s start in the top left quadrant.

Out-of-the-box BaaS models are fully-formed, end-to-end services that a brand can embed into their propositions, typically with little customization. They tend to work on the basis of a variable, revenue-sharing model. And they are generally best suited to smaller businesses that have few internal developers (or don’t want the hassle of development) and do not want to be regulated in any way: that is, those business willing to forgo customization (and higher margins) for ease of use.

An example in the payments space would be Stripe, which allows any digital business to accept payments through a simple API integration. Stripe integrations are largely the same – the same layouts, with the same fields. And Stripe charges a variable fee for this service, 2.9% and $0.30 “per successful card charge”.

An example from the wealth management space would be DriveWealth, which we profile in our recent report, which provides an end-to-end brokerage service that brands can embed into their proposition on a revenue-sharing basis.

Vertically-integrated, customizable BaaS platforms

In contrast to out-of-the-box BaaS services are those that are still vertically integrated (in that a single platform provides the end-to-end service) but they allow for much higher levels of customization. This is where the line gets slightly blurred between PaaS and BaaS in that with many of these platforms it would be possible to build both a standalone fintech proposition as well as highly customized user journey with distinctive look and feel within an existing proposition.

There are broadly two models for vertically-integrated, customizable BaaS.

Vertically-integrated, customizable BaaS offerings from incumbent banks

The first are from incumbent universal banks, such as Goldman Sachs (Marcus), BBVA (Open Platform) and Standard Chartered (Nexus). This is a logical play for these banks, since it allows them to spread costs and grow volume. Much of a bank’s cost base – software, infrastructure costs, compliance – is relatively fixed and, therefore, generating a higher volume of business through indirect channels helps to spread these costs and improve cost/income ratios. Furthermore, new customer coming via indirect channels should be acquired at much lower cost since they are existing customers of the acquiring platform. However, what is less clear is the extent to which the better unit economics will be shared between the brands distributing banking services and banks manufacturing them (especially over the medium to long term).

Newer entrants offering a narrower range of services

The other players–more numerous for now–operating in this area are relative new entrants, regulated digital platforms or banks which offer generally a much smaller range of services than could be offered by a universal bank. These players, by dint of being platforms and having little or no consumer-facing activities, are not particularly well known, such as Solarisbank in Germany or Cross River bank in the US. There are also examples solely focused on specific segments. One example, profiled in our wealth management report, is WealthKernel, which provides a full-end-to-end stack for businesses to start wealth management businesses, a kind of Shopify for wealth managers.

Finix is a kind of hybrid model

In the matrix above, we have positioned Finix between the regulated and the unregulated spaces. This is deliberate since, although Finix is regulated under the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, it is not regulated as a payments company. The quirk here is that Finix basically provides all of the capabilities for its customers to become payments facilitators, for which they need to be regulated, and in doing so it changes the economics for those customers. Instead of paying a per-transaction fee, customers pay a subscription to Finix meaning that a much greater proportion of the income from payments accrues to customers over time. In a strict sense, then, Finix is not a direct competitor to Stripe. But, it is an alternative to Stripe, which is why Sequoia felt the need to walk away from its investment.

 

Modular and customizable BaaS platform

 The other main type of BaaS systems are those that are both customizable and modular. By that, we mean that they afford their users a lot of flexibility in the implementation of the services, which can be easily extended, but also that it is not a single provider providing the service.

These types of BaaS platforms are a partnership between a service provider, which typically provides the service configuration and orchestration as well as customer and risk management, and a regulated institution, normally a bank, which provides compliance, balance sheet, settlement, custody and other regulated services.  

An example in the wealth management industry is Bambu (profiled and evaluated in our wealth management report) with its Bambu GO platform for the US market, which allows new entrants to launch a robo advisory service or to embed one into an existing offering, using Apex Clearing to provide the custody and brokerage.

The business rationale for these partnerships is around specialization and flexibility. The partner banks can focus on banking manufacturing while the partner can focus on the distribution of these services, which requires these services to be served up in context-aware user journeys. Moreover, the BaaS provider can work with different partner banks in different countries to overcome the geographical constraints of these partner banks, which tend to be limited to operating in single countries or jurisdictions.

This kind of partnership with BaaS providers can be very lucrative for the banks involved, but it is harder to see how this can be a viable model for incumbents. Owing to the scale economies and lower CAC, small credit unions and community banks in the US that have developed these partnerships are earning elevated returns on equity. Celtic Bank, for instance, a small commercial bank based in Salt Lake City, earned an RoE of 37% in the quarter to end of September 2020 (source: US Bank Locations).

The problem with the incumbent banks is that they have very different cost bases compared to these small credit unions or digital banks. The idea of distributing services wholesale through these intermediaries is difficult to imagine given the sunk distribution costs, such as a branch network, that most banks have as well as the high costs from legacy technology. Distributing a subset of services through these intermediaries might be more viable to grow subscale or non-strategic business lines through an indirect channel, such as Goldman partnering with Stripe Treasury. But, in the main, we expect incumbents to move slowly on BaaS and when they do to elect, at least initially, a vertically integrated model – because they are not yet ready to decide which services are core and non-core.

 

BaaS operating platforms: the value of linking many to many

A change that we foresee is for the BaaS systems to become less static and more networked over time. In short, we expect the modular BaaS providers to evolve into providing a many-to-many gateway. By that we mean that rather than partnering with a single or a very small number of banks on the supply side, which is generally the case at the moment, we anticipate that these players will work with both many suppliers and many brands on the demand side, in a model more analogous to a software operating system. We already see the early signs of this. Synapse for example offers a service to connect brands with their existing bank provider, while Bond is even closer still seeking to use AI to make the bridge between brands and bank services. Stripe Treasury is also interesting, both because for this service Stripe moves from top left to bottom right on the matrix above, but also because its go-to-market is to partner with other platforms like Shopify, making it the platform of platforms.

This model of the BaaS operating system is, in our view, the most exciting area in the whole of the fintech landscape – the pinch point where the most value is likely to accumulate.

The emerging competitive landscape for BaaS operating systems

However, it is a not a foregone conclusion that the most successful BaaS operating systems will stem from the BaaS field. B2B and B2B2C are becoming increasingly blurred and this opens up the possibility for B2B systems of intelligence to also emerge as BaaS operating systems contenders.

Consider the graphic below, which relates to the wealth management market. On the left-hand side, we illustrate a B2B SaaS system of intelligence, in this case additiv for wealth management. additiv provides wealth managers with software that enables them to manage the customer relationship independently of the core banking system and independently of distribution channels, but the software is mostly used by single institutions in a vertically integrated business. Elinvar has the same proposition as additiv, except it also offers some business processing outsourcing. Next is WealthKernel, mentioned earlier, an end-to-end vertically integrated BaaS platform. Then, we have an example of a modular, BaaS platform: Bambu GO. The interesting point to note here is that Bambu’s main business is being a SaaS provider to regulated firms, such as Standard Chartered, providing its solution in the service of an integrated business model, just as additiv does. The offering provided by Bambu doesn’t change, just the end customer (now not a regulated entity, but fintech or consumer brand) and the provider of regulated services (a partner, rather than the end customer).

Therefore, it follows that any B2B system of intelligence can easily pivot through partnerships to become a modular BaaS provider and, from there, to become a BaaS operating system. In fact, the move to a BaaS operating system is, in many ways, easier since these systems of intelligence are being used by many banks in a SaaS setup, meaning there are already several supply-side options for the brands on the demand side. Bambu has already started down this route with Bambu GO, but others in the wealth management field, such as Elinvar and additiv, are moving in this direction, too.

 

The other players that are potentially in the running for the BaaS operating system are the Open Banking platforms, like Plaid, Bud, Yolt, and Tink. These platforms provide the capabilities for connecting customer data with other services, where the customer provides the permission for this to happen. For example, if you want to connect your accounting system to your bank account, an open banking platform will provide the connectivity to make that happen. However, most platforms have realized the potential to go further, moving beyond just connecting banks and services and towards fulfilling user journeys, such as switching a utility provider. By connecting banks and brands, they are also in a position to pivot and become BaaS operating systems.

So, rather than being completely different, the worlds of open banking, SaaS and BaaS may actually be converging – with several highly lucrative winner-take-most platforms likely to emerge.

This blog was based on an excerpt from our recent “Digital Age Wealth Management” report, which you can access and purchase through this link.

The Market Map |
Some surprising results

We get very different outcomes compared to conventional evaluation studies. A lot of smaller vendors rise up the rankings thanks to advanced technology and flexible architectures. And for incumbent software vendors, it clearly distinguishes those that have kept up with technology change and those that haven’t.

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aperture launches its “Market Map for Wealth Management Software” with some surprising results

aperture, the Swiss strategy consultancy, today launches its “Market Map for Wealth Management Software” as part of an in-depth report, “Digital Age Wealth Management” looking at the customer, technology and business model trends transforming the industry.

New vendor evaluation methodology places relatively unknown providers like Nucoro and Elinvar over much better known and more established players like Avaloq and Investcloud.

Geneva, 16 February 2021 – aperture, the Swiss strategy consultancy, today launches its “Market Map for Wealth Management Software” as part of an in-depth report, “Digital Age Wealth Management” looking at the customer, technology and business model trends transforming the industry.

The Market Map has been introduced to address the shortcomings of conventional vendor evaluations. Until now, most vendor evaluations have focused on product breadth and vendor maturity. However, not only do these criteria favor large vendors over small vendors, but they are increasingly irrelevant in an age where functionality can be sourced easily via API integrations to third-party applications and where vendor maturity often correlates with antiquated technology.

The Market Map is a new software evaluation methodology designed to assess the key criteria for systems in the digital age. It takes as its focus the capacity for innovation. More specifically, it looks at two axes: the ability of software solutions to help firms capitalize on new technologies to improve customer propositions, and the ability of solutions to help firms to adapt – or launch new – business models for the digital age. As regards the latter, the broader report sets out in detail the ways in which business models are changing from being supply-driven and vertically integrated to being demand-led and networked.

Given the radically different criteria used by The Market Map, it throws up very different results to conventional analyses. To underline this point, the report contrasts the results of its evaluation against conventional criteria to demonstrate that not a single vendor has the same position and many “niche players” become leaders (or “transformers” in its terminology).

According to The Market Map, the best solutions for digital wealth management are Nucoro (based in London), Hydrogen (New York), Elinvar (Berlin), additiv (Switzerland), and Temenos (Switzerland).

Ben Robinson, co-founder of aperture, commented:

“Digitization is turning competitive advantage on its head. Mass production for the mass market is no longer a winning strategy. Instead, firms must leverage the power of computing and networks to deliver better customer outcomes at greater scale. However, the way we evaluate the solutions that are critical to doing this has been unchanged for decades. With The Market Map, we have sought to upgrade vendor assessment criteria to help those charged with selecting and investing in software solutions to make better informed decisions about what characteristics matter in the digital age.”

This Thursday, 18 February, two of the leaders from the report, Elinvar and additiv, will appear alongside Impaakt, identified as a “company to watch” in the report, and Tinkoff, the banking super app, on a 4 x 4 Virtual Salon discussing “New Business Models in Wealth Management”. More details here.

END

About aperture

aperture is a strategy consultancy with a difference. We design, build, fund and scale digital era companies. We do this on behalf of incumbents launching new business units, universities spinning out commercial projects, and start-ups. Our services consist of consulting, investing and, most importantly, doing. We like to embed ourselves in the companies we work with, applying all of our team’s expertise to acquiring customers and unleashing network effects.

As well as its core business, aperture is also a content producer, hosting the popular “Structural Shifts” podcast and publishing The Market Map, a digital age methodology for evaluating software solutions.

For more information, visit www.aperture.co

For enquiries: contact@aperture.co

A new approach to enterprise software analysis (and why we launched The Market Map)

Introducing The Market Map for Wealth Management Software Solutions, a new approach to evaluate technology solutions in the digital age.

When was the last time you went into a branch (even pre-COVID)? Or the last time you paid for something in cash?

Financial services have been gradually digitizing for years. It started with digital distribution of existing services. And then the services and service providers started to change. Who still uses their high street bank for FX payments or for buying stocks?

We’re now moving into a new phase where, now digitized, financial products are going to be more and more embedded into other services – either tightly, like payments within the Uber app, or just bundled together for convenience like in super apps.

But while the industry is undergoing this paradigm shift, the way we evaluate the enterprise software on which it runs remains unchanged.

At best, the conventional analysis is becoming increasingly irrelevant but, at worse, it is steering decision makers towards systems that are not fit to address their changing needs.

So we’ve decided to shake things up. We’ve written a report explaining in detail how wealth management is changing as a result of digitization and, as part of the report, we launch The Market Map, a new criteria for evaluating software solutions in the digital age.

Here’s why we think enterprise software analysis is broken and a look at how a new approach would produce radically better results.

From supply to demand

When we talk about digitization, we invariably focus on technology itself, specifically how far it has advanced. But its more significant — and often overlooked — consequence is that business models are also changing.

If the industrial revolution solved the problem of supply and made economies of scale possible, the digital revolution is turning the supply-demand equation on its head.

Supply is no longer an issue because, most of the time, sourcing, distribution, or both can be digitized. Even where creating economies of scale isn’t feasible, the proliferation of as-a-service tools means you can borrow them at a reasonable cost.

Instead, it’s now demand — or, more specifically, customers’ attention span — that’s in short supply.

This shift from supply-side to demand-side economies of scale has far-reaching implications. Mass consumerism is falling out of favour because, with supply abundant, customers don’t have to settle for a limited selection of highly standardized products or services in exchange for affordability.

On the contrary, they now expect to be treated as individuals, and will vote with their feet if their needs aren’t met.

A vicious cycle

If individual consumers are embracing their newfound power and demanding more tailored experiences, enterprise clients — particularly in the financial services space — are yet to smell the (small batch roast) coffee.

Digital transformation has been one of the financial services industry’s top priorities for several years. And Covid-19 has only made the need for it more pressing. But the business models underpinning most firms have remained largely unchanged, in that they’re still predicated on mass production.

The result is that firms tend to approach vendor selection in an anachronistic way. And the system is self-perpetuating.

Procurement teams’ requirements are rooted in supply-side economies of scale.  At the same time, the businesses who evaluate enterprise software need to appeal to the enterprise buyer. So, their reports give importance to the criteria procurement teams look for, even though these aren’t necessarily the criteria that matter.

And the cycle continues.

Size doesn’t always matter

The way enterprise software analysis is currently done has two major flaws.

For starters, many reports are directly or indirectly pay to play. Right off the bat, this creates an economic barrier for smaller vendors.

More significantly, even where the economic hurdle can be overcome, vendors may still be let down by the methodology. This is because reports tend to rank on criteria that make sense from a supply side perspective rather than the demand side.

Consider size.

On paper, staff numbers, office locations, and annual revenue are important, because they’re the mark of a financially viable, trustworthy company. In a tightly regulated industry where the stakes are sky high, it’s understandable that firms would prefer an established firm over an untested upstart.

But when it comes to the actual job of launching a new business model, do these numbers matter?

Probably not.

Take revenue. In an on-premises or single instance scenario, whether a vendor makes $5 million or $500 million a year has little significance aside from, possibly, indicating they have more resources to put into R&D.

But bigger R&D budgets and capabilities aren’t as beneficial as you might think. On-premises and single instance upgrades are time-consuming, expensive, and, as a result, infrequent. And in an era where APIs make integrating highly specialized tools quick and easy, it may actually be a disadvantage for software to have a wide breadth of functionality.

If anything, with 80% of digital transformation projects doomed to fail, the bigger risk is investing time and money and undergoing a disruptive implementation phase only to find out your chosen software isn’t fit for purpose.

Of course, this is not to say size never matters. Having a large number of clients is extremely important where a vendor is able to leverage this customer base to externalize network effects by, say, training a common AI model or aggregating services that are useful to the network.

But to deliver these kind of demand-side economies of scale requires a modern technology architecture, which can orchestrate interactions across a network. A lot of older vendors, with higher revenues and more employees, don’t have this.

From one-stop-shop to best of breed

When packaged software became commercially available, it was a vast improvement on what banks were working with.

Before there was an IT industry, banks wrote their own apps in-house at considerable expense. In comparison, packaged software met most of their functional needs and ran on cheaper hardware.

Better still, changes could be applied easily, so the ongoing run-the-bank costs were lower, while it was possible to launch new products much more quickly than in the past.

But, the move to SaaS has changed the landscape entirely.

SaaS is more than just a new delivery model. It has changed the plane of competition. When integration was hard, having monolithic systems with broad functionality was a competitive advantage. Now that integration is less of a concern, the focus has changed to software architecture and the quality of both (narrower) functionality and the user experience.

There are many second-order effects. One is the possibility to circumvent the enterprise buyer to sell simpler and better solutions bottom-up directly to the end user. But another is the move to best-of-breed.

If integration is easier, why would an enterprise buyer not want to source the best functionality, rather than take it all from a single application? This again can make breadth of functionality actually a disadvantage, rather than advantage.

The logical play for incumbent software solutions is to become the bridge to these best-in-class applications, but many applications don’t have the capability or the vendors fear the risk of cannibalization. Either way, this is not something that most software evaluations even consider.

New business models

In the same way as vendors need to start thinking about changing their business models, so do financial services providers.

They similarly need to think about demand aggregation, supply aggregation (becoming a platform) or focusing on the plethora of underserved or overserved customer demographics that can now be reached directly through digital channels.

However, to be able to do, requires them to have different technology solutions. For example, they might need to aggregate multiple (non-financial) data sets or deliver services over third-party distribution channels. But, again, these are not criteria in most evaluation reports.

Introducing the Market Map

So, we have launched a new methodology for evaluating software solutions. It starts from the assumption that, now or in the future, financial firms will need to do more than routine innovation. That is to say, to survive and thrive, they will need to move beyond just distributing existing solutions to existing customers over new channels.

Financial firms will need to undertake non-routine innovation.

Since non-routine innovation is a function of capacity for technology innovation and capacity for business model innovation (and normally both), these are the key criteria we use in our evaluation methodology.

Better outcomes

The way enterprise software is analyzed and evaluated is bad for everyone.

Vendors with exciting products are missing out on growth opportunities. Enterprise customers are missing out on potentially transformative technologies. And analysts are spending time putting together reports that are out of sync with their clients’ needs and, so, ever more valueless.

Clearly, enterprise software analysis is broken. Our bet is that changing the methodology will encourage the industry to embrace tools that, though not fitting the traditional mold, unlock more value at lower cost and allow them to get better at what really matters in the digital age: delivering better services at greater scale.

 

The Market Map |
Some surprising results

We get very different outcomes compared to conventional evaluation studies. A lot of smaller vendors rise up the rankings thanks to advanced technology and flexible architectures. And for incumbent software vendors, it clearly distinguishes those that have kept up with technology change and those that haven’t.

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Capitalism without Capital and after COVID (#37)

Structural Shifts with Stian WESTLAKE, co-author of ‘Capitalism without Capital’ book.

Our guest is Stian Westlake, co-author of ‘Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy‘ and we discuss the implications of an economy built increasingly on intangible assets, even more so in the post-pandemic world. In this podcast, we discuss the four S’s that explain how intangible assets behave differently than tangible ones, why we’re not seeing more economic growth or higher productivity right now, even though intangible assets are more scalable, what governments need to do to mitigate the increased income inequality that’s occurring in part due to the rise of intangible investments, and more. Stian serves as the Chief Executive of the Royal Statistical Society. Previously, he served as an advisor to three British ministers for science, innovation, research, and higher education. He also led the policy and research team at Nesta - UK’s National Foundation for Innovation.

Full transcript
Structural Shifts with Stian WESTLAKE

Sometimes there are things that are very easy to measure at the big picture, but they get harder to measure the more granular you get — and intangible investment is definitely one of those things

[00:01:30.26] Ben: Stian, thank you so much for coming on the Structural Shifts podcast. We’re really delighted to have you on. I think there are a few structural shifts as profound as the one you’ve been investigating, most notably through your 2018 book, “Capitalism Without Capital”, which is the shift from a tangible to an intangible economy. This is a phenomenon which has been playing out over the last 40 years in developed economies, and which, as we’ll discuss, has likely been accelerated by the pandemic. It’s also a phenomenon, which, although it might seem slightly esoteric, is at the roots of or contributing to some of the biggest changes we’ve seen in society, such as inequality, as well as in business, such as the rise of big tech platforms. So if it’s okay with you, let’s start by just defining what we mean by an intangible economy. So, do you mind just kind of setting the scene and telling us the extent to which investment has shifted from tangible to intangible assets?

Stian: Yeah, of course. If you think about what the economy used to be like 40, 50, 100 years ago, the majority of the stuff that businesses, that governments invested in were stuff you could see and touch — what economists would call tangible capital. So, it was machines, it was factories, it was vehicles, it was buildings — all these kinds of things. One of the things that we’ve been noticing is there has been a really slow but pronounced change over time, such that now the majority of investments that businesses make — buying an investment, I mean, something that you incur a cost upfront, and it delivers you a benefit over time — most of the stuff is stuff that you can’t see or touch, things that you can’t stub your toe on, as it were. It’s things like investing in r&d to create new ideas, new patents, things like investing in marketing, advertising, customer understanding to build brands, it’s things like employer training. And it’s stuff that has this kind of fuzzy idea of things like organizational development. So if you think of a company like Apple, one of Apple’s competitive advantages is its remarkable supply chain. Now, the supply chain includes some things that you can touch — it includes factories — but Apple doesn’t own them. So those are to some extent tangible. The stuff that really creates value for Apple is these privileged relationships, the expectation of doing business, and their access to these suppliers, which allows them for example, to get products to market at volume, fast. These things are investments, they’re costly to acquire, they deliver benefits over time, but they’re very different from the world where your investments were the machines and the factories or the land that you grazed your cattle on.

For most of history, tangible assets represented a much bigger slug of the economy, than the investment in intangible assets. And about 10 to 20 years ago, depending on the country, those two lines crossed.

[00:03:59.18] Ben: The book is full of brilliant graphics but one of the ones that really stands out is the one that shows the acceleration in investment in intangibles and the point at which it crosses over. So intangibles now represent or comprise a larger proportion of overall business assets than tangible assets.

Stian: Yeah, that’s right. So if you think of these as a percent to GDP, so in relation to the size of the economy, for most of history, tangible assets represented a much bigger slug of the economy, than the investment in intangible assets. And about 10 to 20 years ago, depending on the country, those two lines crossed. The intangible line has been moving up and up and up, slowly but steadily for decades. They crossed. If you look in rich countries now, the intangible investment represents roughly 15% of GDP of national annual output, and tangible assets more like 10–11%. One of the nice things about these slow but steady changes is you can be pretty confident that these things are reliable. We have so much data on this. This is a change that’s been going on for a very long time.

[00:05:06.17] Ben: You say we can be confident in the reliability of the data. But, I mean, you used the term ‘fuzzy’ for some of these intangible assets earlier on. And that sort of suggests that there might be things that are quite difficult to define, and therefore quite difficult to value and capture on a balance sheet or in economic statistics, GDP statistics.

Sometimes there are things that are very easy to measure at the big picture, but they get harder to measure the more granular you get — and intangible investment is definitely one of those things in that national accounts do a kind of okay job of representing this.

Stian: So it’s a really good question. And it’s one of these things that have traditionally not been very well captured in either economic statistics — the kind that governments put together — or in business statistics, the kind of thing that your accountants would put together. And one of the interesting parts of this work, my co-author, Jonathan Haskell, along with many other economists, have really spent a lot of the last 20 years trying to work out ways of measuring this intangible investment at the level of the economy. And they used surveys, they’ve used fascinating historical data sets; it took quite a while to get a handle on this stuff but the results are pretty conclusive that this intangible investment is growing. Where things get tricky — you mentioned company accounts — sometimes there are things that are very easy to measure at the big picture, but they get harder to measure the more granular you get — and intangible investment is definitely one of those things in that national accounts do a kind of okay job of representing this. Nowadays, most countries will record their r&d investment and record some of their human capital investments. But corporate accounting standards don’t recognize this stuff. So, you will find very few intangible assets on a balance sheet. And I guess one of the interesting aspects of this is if you look at the job of people who try and value businesses with a lot of intangible assets — such as sell-side investment analysts, people who work for hedge funds or other investment funds; it’s really interesting, there was a whole bunch of research done on what these guys spend their time doing when they’re on CEO calls, CFO calls, and someone managed to code all these conversations. It turns out that most of these things are actually asking about intangible assets, to try and understand the value of whether it’s supply chains, whether it’s the r&d going into the new product line. And there’s a kind of an interesting opportunity here if you’re involved in investment because this stuff is harder to value — and if stuff is harder to value that’s good for the people whose expertise lies in valuation.

The reason why we should care about the change to intangible capital is that from an economic point of view, intangible capital behaves differently. And the four S’s are the four ways in which it acts differently: scalability, sunkenness, spillovers, and synergy.

[00:07:19.18] Ben: It’s true, I never… I suppose I had thought about it, but not like that exactly, which is it’s kind of an arbitrage opportunity there because I suppose superficially, things like return on capital might be understated, or profits might be understated because so much of this stuff should be on the balance sheet, but it is an expense to the p&l. And then, you know, just having a better understanding of the things that are not recorded in annual accounts or in the annual report potentially gives you an edge.

Stian: Yeah. And I guess, you know, if you think about the way things have always worked in, say, on the sell side, when you look at sectors like pharma. So pharma is a sector that has always been heavily based on intangible assets. The value of GSK is kind of the value of its pipeline of drug ideas. And I guess, if you’re an analyst in that sector, what you’ve always done is basically, you’ve done a bunch of valuations of what you know to be the product pipeline with some kind of option value based on what you think the individual capability of the firm is. And I guess in an economy where intangible capital gets more and more important, more of the task of investment analysis is going to look more like the pharma investment analyst or even a kind of an analyst of the VC house.

Intangible assets have a lot of spillovers, and that means that a company that makes them can’t always be sure that it will get most or even any of the benefits of an investment that it makes. […] It’s much harder to control those spillovers than it is with tangible assets, […]. And so, managing those spillovers becomes a really important part of what successfully managing business looks like in an intangible economy.

[00:08:30.22] Ben: Definitely. You talk about the four S’s of intangible assets. Do you mind just running us through it? Because I think it’s really critical that we understand the properties of intangible assets. And since they behave differently, that then, in turn, means that economies behave differently, and so on. Do you mind just telling us about the four S’s?

Stian: Yeah, totally. If you take away only one thing from the book, this is the thing to take away from it. So the reason why we should care about the change to intangible capital is that from an economic point of view, intangible capital behaves differently. And the four S’s are the kind of four ways in which it acts differently. The four S’s are scalability, sunkenness, spillovers, and synergy. So I’ll just quickly give an example of what I mean by each of those. So scalability: if you compare an intangible asset to a tangible asset, a tangible asset, you can only get a certain amount of use before you need to kind of invest in more of those tangible assets. If you own a fleet of taxis, if you want to carry more of a certain number of customers, you need to buy or lease more taxis. If what you own is an algorithm for dispatching private hire cars like Uber, you can scale that if not infinitely, then arbitrary. You can scale that across a very large number of taxis and a very large number of cities. So valuable intangibles go a really long way. And one of the implications that means that we can go on to talk about is that if you’re a big company with some valuable intangibles, you can get very big, you can create a lot of value.

Stian: The second S we talked about — sunkenness. So sunkenness refers to the economists’ idea of sunk costs — the fact that sometimes once you invest in something, you can’t recover the value of it. And that’s very much more true for intangible assets than tangible assets. So if you own, for example, an office building — a tangible asset — and you go out of business, you can very often sell that office building, you can recover quite a lot of the value from it, even if you’re in a distress sale. If you own a patent, you can sell patents but patents are very often worth almost nothing to anyone apart from a small number of providers. A brand of a company that’s gone bust is not worth a lot. As we can maybe come to talk on later, that’s got some really important implications to how you finance businesses that have a lot of intangible assets because debt investors do not like sunk costs.

Stian: The third S is spillovers. The idea of spillover is, intangible assets have a lot of spillovers, and that means that a company that makes them can’t always be sure that it will get most or even any of the benefits of an investment that it makes. So, there are classic examples all through the history of tech, but Xerox PARC — kind of one of the foundational stories of Silicon Valley — they invented almost every foundational computing technology, every desktop computing technology you can think of. They make no money from it. Most of the value was captured either by Apple, by Microsoft, or by a host of other companies. It’s much harder to control those spillovers than it is with tangible assets, where we’ve got a set of very clear rules around them, they’re kind of physical, they’re kind of easier to keep tabs on. And so, managing those spillovers becomes a really important part of what successfully managing business looks like in an intangible economy.

There is a lot of productivity growth, at the moment, it’s just not evenly distributed. So, if you run one of these companies that can benefit from the synergies and the scale of intangibles — i.e. own a bunch of valuable intangibles, you can scale them across a really big business, and you can combine them in ways that make it very difficult to compete with you. 

Stian: And then the fourth S — synergies — is this idea that intangible assets seem to be especially valuable when you combine them in the right way with other intangible assets. So, a classic example we talk about in the book is the EpiPen — the epinephrine injector for stopping allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock. And what we talk about in the book is how that isn’t really a typical pharmaceutical invention. In fact, it’s based on a drug with a patent that expired over 100 years ago. But one of the things that EpiPen’s owners have very effectively done is they’ve combined a whole bunch of intangible assets from the design of the injector, to their very privileged supply chains, to the various legal moats that they put around things to even the brand name — the recognizable brand name — of the product that you kind of want to be able to recognize when describing in an emergency. And together, all of those things, all of which are kind of intangible assets, combine to create a big competitive moat around the product, but ultimately kind of very profitable, very value-created product for them. And these synergies exist, you know, between talent and intangibles, between different intangibles. And again, it means that if you’re a company that has a bunch of these valuable intangibles, you can create a lot of value for shareholders.

[00:12:59.01] Ben: Fantastic. So I think the four S’s give us a really nice framework to dig into some of these other topics, right? So I wanted to move next to growth. You talk about the scalability of intangible assets, right? So if the economy is made up of more intangible assets, and those intangible assets are more scalable, why don’t we see more economic growth or, you know, or higher productivity growth than we do at present?

Stian: So that’s a really good question. It’s something that really ever since we started working at this, we’ve been wrestling with, and it’s a big subject of our follow-up book, which is coming out later this year. But I guess one of the things here is that there is a lot of productivity growth, at the moment, it’s just not evenly distributed. So, if you run one of these companies that can benefit from the synergies and the scale of intangibles — i.e. own a bunch of valuable intangibles, you can scale them across a really big business, and you can combine them in ways that kind of make it very difficult to compete with you. Those businesses, as far as we can see, are very profitable, their profitability is growing, they make a lot of money for their shareholders and their employees, and they’re kind of seen as iconic businesses. So, you know, your classic dominant internet platforms, Google and Facebook, and whoever would be examples of that. But, you know, we see this in other areas as well. So, you know, Domino’s Pizza — a classic example of a business that looks very old fashioned, but has totally killed it in terms of developing a very powerful internet platform. So you have a world where some businesses, because of the intangibles are doing really well. And one thing that we’ve been looking at is the fact that in an economy like that, because of these spillovers, you create kind of perverse incentive for the rest of businesses. If intangibles have quite a high spillover and if some firms are really good at getting the benefit of those spillovers, the rationale for investing, for your kind of laggard businesses, your runners up in industries is plausibly much less.

there’s been a ton of research over the last kind of 20 years now, looking at that gap between your so-called leader firms and laggard firms. And basically, in every country, in every industry, that gap is growing. And really, interestingly, it’s growing the most in the industries that have the greatest number and that have the greatest proportion of intangible assets.

Stian: You know, if you’re in a traditional — if you imagine a very tangible-based economy like an industry like, I don’t know, running a laundromat, let’s suppose the best laundromat has the best washing machines and the best building; if you run the second best and the third-best laundromat, you can catch up in due course. You can borrow money from the bank, you can buy better machines, it’s kind of pretty obvious what you need to do to catch up because you can visit the other businesses and look at what they’re doing. There you would expect to see over time the gap between the most productive, most profitable businesses, and the least, would shrink because you can just copy. Now, if you’re in an intangible economy, those dynamics change. Imagine you want to compete with Uber. Okay, you can try and develop your own dispatching app but the scale effects are such that you’re going to be up against vast fixed costs, it’s very unlikely you’re going to be able to compete with the huge amount of money that Uber can pour into their development. And because of scale, you won’t be able to kind of amortize that across a large business. Okay, so you say, “Okay, well, I’ll come up with some new product feature that Uber hasn’t come up with.” Let’s suppose you’re an absolute product development genius, and you come up with something. In this economy, because of the synergies and because of the spillovers that we talked about, you might not be very well advised to do that, because Uber could quite simply copy it, or, you know, they might buy you, which would be kind of a good story for you but in terms of the dynamic, your business goes away, and therefore the leader business grows more powerful. So, rather than the world of laundromats, where catching up with the leader is about copying, it’s about acquiring probably mass-produced tangible capital, where you can probably get a bank loan for it, in the intangible economy, it’s much harder to catch up like that.

Stian: And I guess this comes back to your original question about what might be going wrong with productivity. If you can imagine an economy where the best businesses are doing really well, they’re generating a lot of money for their shareholders, they’re being really productive but there’s huge disincentive for a large chunk of the economy to invest and to catch up. In aggregate, that could come to an economy where productivity growth is actually pretty slow. And in terms of the evidence for this, there’s been a ton of research over the last kind of 20 years now, looking at that gap between your so-called leader firms and laggard firms. And basically, in every country, in every industry, that gap is growing. And really, interestingly, it’s growing the most in the industries that have the greatest number and that have the greatest proportion of intangible assets.

One of the issues of spillovers is businesses will invest less than is socially optimal in R&D. If you’re in a world where you want more R&D investment, but businesses won’t do it, that probably means you need governments or research institutes to do it. Again, that’s quite a judgment-based process, so you’re sort of saying you’ve got to trust people in positions of authority to do this kind of thing, which is particularly challenging in today’s political circumstance. So that’s a real dilemma.

[00:17:23.07] Ben: Do you think there’s another thing at play as well, which is, in the world of tangible assets, economies of scale were eventually subject to diminishing returns, right? Whereas in the world of intangible assets, you know, where we have network effects, you could argue that a lot of times, you get just increasing returns to scale. You talked about Uber — I guess the more customers you have, the more drivers you can attract, the more drivers the more customers, and you get these virtuous self-fulfilling feedback loops, meaning that you get increasing returns to scale, whereas in the past that almost wasn’t possible in economic terms.

Stian: Yeah, that’s definitely true. And I think those network effects you talk about are a really important part of this kind of scalability of intangible assets.

[00:18:07.18] Ben: Do you think we should be using more antitrusts? So you talked about Facebook and when I think about Facebook, I think, you know, the initial platform was super successful, had very strong network effects, it delivered a lot of utility to its customers. But since then, you know, it’s copied features from other people like Snapchat, it bought Instagram. And I just wonder, you know, should we be using antitrust to stop the big platforms from getting even bigger through copying and m&a, for example?

Stian: Antitrust and competition policy clearly become very important in an era of intangible assets because of this kind of tendency of the best companies to do really well. The flip side is, I think a lot of the old rules become a lot harder to apply. So, traditionally, we’d look at an economy, and also we’d look at an industry and we’d say, if the kind of concentration ratios are above a certain level, then that’s a problem and we need to break up the leader firm or we need to block acquisitions. That becomes a lot harder in this kind of economy, I think, for two reasons. Firstly, because these synergies because there are so many crossovers between different types of assets, it becomes a lot harder to define an industry. So, for example, you know, are Facebook and Google in the same industry? I mean, on one level, they’re clearly not — one is a search engine, one is a social media site. But, you know, if you’re an advertiser, they might look a lot like they’re in the same industry. So it becomes a lot harder to make those distinctions. I think the other thing is that, you know, the kind of silver lining of scalability and spillovers, is that although businesses can thrive and grow and their dominance can get entrenched, the flip side is, when things go wrong, they collapse very quickly and your rivals can grow up very fast. So the kind of optimistic vision of competition in a world of intangibles doesn’t look like a market where there’s kind of, you know, seven or 17 or 70 competitors all in the same market. It might be a market where you have people who temporarily look a lot like very dominant, almost monopolistic players, but where there’s a lot of competition almost across industries, and where you have enough dynamism, enough opportunities for startups, that people like Facebook and Google occasionally get dethroned.

[00:20:29.04] Ben: I agree with that. I think there’s not enough documentation of negative network effects. Because, you know, on the way up, it’s exponential; potentially, on the way down, it can be exponential too. Are you saying that competitive or antitrust policy is difficult to execute, therefore, we shouldn’t try? Or are you just saying that we need to find new sort of yardsticks for anti-competitive behavior? Because similarly, you know, it’s difficult to look at concentration; it’s also difficult to look at price because so often these platforms lead to lower prices because they’re monitored indirectly.

Stian: I think the short answer is, it’s probably the latter of your two things. It’s more that we need to kind of come up with new ways of analyzing this new way of looking at it. And that’s really tricky because one of the nice things about the world of 20 years ago, if you were a competition regulator, your job — I don’t want to say it’s easy; it was a difficult job — was quite rules-based. There were ratios and there was a whole academic infrastructure of how you would think about the concentration ratio in a particular sector, although a lot of judgment needed to be applied to that. That was kind of some yardsticks. I think if you’re looking at this kind of thing now, it becomes much harder. And in the same way earlier that we were saying that to be a sell-side investment analyst, scale becomes more important and the job becomes harder. I think that’s also true if you’re a competition regulator, which I guess where that takes you, if you’re to say, “What does this mean for politics or for public policy?” is a really unfashionable position. Basically, it means you need to spend more money on people who’ve been derided as bureaucrats and pencil pushers, more money on their analytic ability, and be more willing to at least consider innovative approaches to how you do those kinds of things.

We shouldn’t use the intangible economy as an excuse to give up on doing just the basic stuff to make society fair.

[00:22:14.20] Ben: But it all becomes a bit less objective, doesn’t it? Because in the same way that… You know, a sell-side analyst you could sort of test in advance their ability to understand the company accounts, or you could test civil servants’ ability to understand a legal framework, or similarly, you know, financial information. It’s very difficult ex-ante to understand or to kind of determine how good people are going to be at those jobs, right? How much to pay them and so on, right?

Stian: Well, it becomes much more judgment-based. And one of the things that we know from, there’s, I think, a whole branch of Management Science, looking at this kind of thing, that if it’s harder to measure performance in these jobs and more discretionary and more judgment-based, that typically leads to higher salaries, and it’s a more costly process to run.

[00:23:03.07] Ben: But I think in the world of antitrust if decisions are taken more based on judgment, then I suppose they’re more open to legal challenges and so on.

Stian: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s really interesting. We see that across the piece as a result of intangible, so it’s not just… I mean, we can come on to talking about this a little bit later, but this is also an implication of spillovers, for example. We are probably in a world where one of the issues of spillovers is businesses will invest less than is kind of socially optimal in stuff like r&d. If you’re in a world where you want more r&d investment, but businesses won’t do it, that probably means you need governments or research institutes to do it. Again, that’s quite a judgment-based process, so you’re sort of saying you’ve got to trust people in positions of authority to do this kind of thing, which is particularly challenging in today’s political circumstance. So that’s a real dilemma.

[00:24:00.21] Ben: Do we need stronger IPE protection? Because I guess that’s, again, a double-edged sword, which is, what’s the right balance to anything?

Stian: So I guess the things we’re trying to balance, the spillovers of intangibles would suggest that you want kind of tough clear IPE rules because you want to make sure that the stronger your IPE rules, the more the incentive to own IPE and to invest in it are. Now, the problem, the thing that complicates that is the synergy between intangibles. So, if you take a product like Spotify — it’s a great example of something born from the synergies of intangibles, because you’ve got music rights, which are kind of one intangible asset, you’ve got the software, and the network, and the customer insight that Spotify has. By combining those, they’ve created a really valuable product that many of us are very happy to use. Now, suddenly, what people at Spotify have always told me is that if the music rights industry had their way, if they had tougher IPE rules and kind of more political influence that Spotify would never have been allowed to get off the ground. They would have been sued and out of existence in their first year or two. Now, I guess that’s the kind of great example of if your IPE rules are too strong, you don’t have a problem with spillovers so people will very happily make lots of music because they’ll make lots of money from it. But you’ll never get an innovation like Spotify, because it will always get crushed. So, I guess this comes back to what you’re saying. You need to strike the right balance between the two.

One of the ways to tackling inequality in an intangible economy, surprisingly, is through a very tangible asset — it’s through housing. It basically means that making it easier to build housing, making it cheaper for people to move to places they want to move in, becomes even more important.

Stian: I guess one interesting — if we sort of say, well, what’s the current failure mode of IPE rules? I suspect there’s probably quite a range of IPE rules that would work okay. What doesn’t work okay is a set of rules where there’s a huge amount of opportunities for special-interest lobbying where things get very distorted. So I guess the US patent system is kind of notorious for this, where you’ve got specific jurisdictions where a lot of patent lawsuits take place because they’re particularly pro-rights holders. I think the East Texas courts for patents seem to be like that. Similarly, in the US, you’ve got quite a lot of uncertainty. So you might have come across the copyright lawsuit over Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines”. So there was a huge lawsuit where the estate of Marvin Gaye sued Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for basically creating a song that seemed very much like a song that Marvin Gaye had written. And what was really interesting about this case, is that Pharrell Williams says he actually set out to create a song that was inspired by the Marvin Gaye song, but didn’t breach copyright. And it turns out, you know, there is a whole industry of forensic musicologists who would advise you on whether your song breaches copyright or not. And what was interesting is, in this case, the case went to court and I think it was a jury trial, weirdly; the jury just came up with a totally unexpected ruling in favor of the Marvin Gaye estate, even though everyone thought what was going on was kind of probably okay, with the result that the music industry is still talking about this. They’re saying, “Oh, well, you know, in light of this trial, what are we allowed to sample? What are we allowed to be inspired by? So that’s a kind of example of where an unexpected, quixotic interpretation rule is especially damaging. In the same way that, you know, if your business owns a factory, and it is possible to repossess that factory, sort of, you know, 5% of the time based on the phase of the moon or something like that, it would create a lot less incentive to invest in fixed assets.

Stian: So I guess what that means, probably matters less about precisely how strict the rules are, as much as making sure they’re clear. It also means that if you’re a government, you need to spend quite a lot of effort resisting the efforts of either rights holders or lobbyists to make little exemptions and carve-outs in the rules in their favor. Having been on the other side of the table working for the government on IPE policy, it’s really difficult to do that. IPE lobbyists are really smooth, they’re very kind of effective, they’re very highly paid. So that’s a challenge.

[00:28:17.19] Ben: Okay, I want to move on next to inequality. Let’s start with the inequality between people, right? So you’ve already alluded to this that where you have the right skills, the payback is going up, remuneration is going up. What are the kinds of skills that are most in-demand in an intangible economy? The most valuable.

Stian: Some of them will be the skills that are probably obvious — the tech skills; if software and algorithms are really valuable, the ability to code, the ability to manage teams of coders, or the ability to kind of manage big scientific projects and research projects. Those are clearly going to be more important. But that’s probably obvious, everyone knows that. The things that may be a little bit less obvious, is that in a world where the spillovers really matter, where it’s really important to combine synergies, the ability to bring those things together, also matters a lot. And those are often kind of soft skills. They’re often skills of hustle and entrepreneurship or social skills, things like the famous reality distortion field that Steve Jobs was famous for creating. Those things potentially become even more important in an economy like this. The other thing that I guess is potentially troubling about this is a world where who owns these assets and who has the right to use them is less clear. You could be in a world where political influence or even soft social influence becomes more important — whether that is retired politicians taking on high-profile jobs, whether it’s Instagram influencers, those general soft skills probably become more financially valuable than they were worth 40 or 50 years ago.

[00:30:02.09] Ben: Who loses out? What skills are less valuable, less solicited in this new world?

Stian: Well, one direct effect is that in some cases, these intangible assets directly relate to making some more routine jobs even more routine than they already were. Kind of the proverbial example here is, say, working in an Amazon warehouse, where, compared to a traditional warehouse job, intangible assets allow you to be more monitored, they generate a quicker work pace, which I think most people say this makes these jobs less enjoyable and less well-paid than they would otherwise be. So there’s a kind of direct effect there. But I guess there’s also an effect where if what you’re seeing is social status, social privilege, educational opportunities become more important, the flip side is that the pain of not having those things gets higher. So, you know, if you are more socially excluded, if you’re in a place that doesn’t have these job opportunities, it’s kind of not surprising that you will feel more left behind and that your sense of social exclusion — which, you know, there has always been kind of a divide between the big city and the kind of small town or the countryside; that’s always been there culturally. But the fact that cultural divide gets kind of underpinned now by an even bigger economic divide, is kind of… You can see that playing out in our politics and our current society at the moment.

[00:31:24.22] Ben: We definitely see that bifurcation of society in things like the Brexit vote. 14–52. Are we seeing, do you think, in a way, more losers than winners? I mean, relatively speaking, right? Because, you know, we don’t see massive rise in unemployment but what we do see is potentially a big bifurcation in the quality of the employment and the remuneration of employment. And I’m just wondering, you know, since we can see inequalities rising, is that because, you know, there are increasingly a small number of winners, if you like, or big winners, and then the overall population is tending downwards, in a way, in terms of, you know, real income?

Stian: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s always hard to say what’s ultimately driving inequality, because you can always, even if you have an employment system that’s creating a lot of inequality, you can always tax, you can always redistribute to generate more equality afterwards. I guess the kind of an optimistic way of looking at this is that this intangible economy, as well, is generating some of these superstar jobs that are really prestigious and really highly paid. It also generates a lot of jobs that are potentially more satisfying, more fulfilling for people to do than your kind of traditional job 50 years ago — even if they’re not as highly paid. So, you know, there’s a lot of jobs in the creative industries that are not particularly highly paid but all the research that has been done on well-being suggests that people actually like doing these jobs much more than potentially some jobs in traditional manufacturing. So I wouldn’t be totally pessimistic, but it’s definitely something that we need to be aware of this bifurcation between these elite jobs, and the kind of more socially-excluded mass.

[00:33:09.24] Ben: What do we do about inequality in this way? Because we have, I suppose, a small number of superstar firms, a small number of superstar individuals earning, sort of excess rent, if you like, or whatever. Excess returns on their skills? Is the answer to tax that and redistribute it? Or is that an industrial age policy idea that doesn’t hold someone in the digital age?

Stian: I don’t think we should give up on tax redistribution yet. I think that is pretty important and is still worth doing. And, you know, for all the people who talk about international tax-avoiding companies, I think there’s still quite a lot of low-hanging fruit there. In a country like the UK, you can just employ more tax inspectors. And, you know, we kind of under-invest in that. There is probably a low-hanging fruit in just basic compliance. So we shouldn’t use the intangible economy as an excuse to give up on doing just the basic stuff to make society fair.

Stian: I guess what you then get is, I think there have been some interesting angles where aspects of the intangible economy maybe exacerbate unexpected problems of inequality. So, one thing that there’s been a ton of research on looks at the cities that do really well out of the intangible economy — researchers were both in the US and in the UK. One thing that’s really interesting, if you take the Bay Area, Northern California, a great example of a place that’s been very successful because of intangible assets; not just computers, even before that. And what research shows is that once upon a time, housing in and around the Bay Area was pretty cheap. It was easy to build more housing when you needed to, and therefore the cost of renting or buying a house nearby was kind of somewhat affordable. And what that meant is if you had people making a lot of money in, say, San Francisco, that money somehow got spread around, because it was easy to move from a poorer part of the US to San Francisco, even if you didn’t have high skills, and you could take a low-skilled job but because you’re in a place where there were lots of people making a lot of money, you would get a pretty high wage relative to what you would have got had you stayed where you were.

Stian: And what people like Enrico Moretti, an economist who looks at these things and documents it, is that that’s kind of changed because it’s become much, much harder to build new houses in places like San Francisco; it’s definitely true in the South-East of England as well. And what that basically creates is that creates a really hidden unfairness because if you grow up in a place where there aren’t a lot of great jobs, and for whatever reason, you’re lucky enough to have a good education, to have the skills where you can take advantage of the intangible economy, you probably have a high enough salary to make it worthwhile moving to London or San Francisco. You can afford the crazy rents, your landlord will suck up a lot of money. But it just makes sense and you can grow there. But if you aren’t in that position, you’re stuck where you are. So, the old world where — and it’s very unfashionable to talk about money trickling down or trickling out — in the old economy, it did that much more than it did now. And the real barrier, one of the real barriers was rent. So I guess what this means is, one of the ways to tackling inequality in an intangible economy, surprisingly, is through a very tangible asset — it’s through housing. It basically means that making it easier to build housing, making it cheaper for people to move to places they want to move in, becomes even more important.

[00:36:38.08] Ben: Yeah. So, I guess you can’t have social mobility without geographical mobility, or it’s much harder.

Stian: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, there was a very widely talked-about book a few years ago by David Goodhart, who talked about the idea that the world was divided into somewheres and anywheres and the anywheres were the kind of Metro elite who kind of went from New York to London and just kind of didn’t care and somewheres were kind of rooted in Pittsburgh or Grimsby or wherever, and kind of loved their city. But I think there’s another way of looking at that, which basically says, it’s not that people who David calls somewheres are unusually in love with one place and hate moving; it’s that we’ve made it so that even if they want to move, they can’t afford to, so mobility has become something that only the very privileged who are going into these high-paying jobs can ever hope to do. And in a world where a lot of this intangible economy is happening in particular places, that’s a very damaging burden to inflict on a country.

[00:37:41.21] Ben: Yeah, and I think you probably have great statistics on this but it seems to be also that the intangible economy maybe doesn’t throw up as many jobs as the tangible economy. And a lot of the job growth is in what we might call proximity jobs. And therefore, we’re sort of holding back the growth of those types of jobs by, again, not allowing geographical mobility,

Stian: Yeah, you’re totally right.

[00:38:05.08] Ben: It’s becoming more and more difficult for traditional lenders — you know, universal banks, corporate banks — to lend to corporates because it’s really difficult for them to get enough comfort over that kind of loan, where it’s made in the absence of collateral — you know, physical assets that a company can pledge to the bank in order to secure that loan. And I think, again, there’s another brilliant graphic in the book, where you show that, you know, despite everything we talked about the growth of intangible assets versus tangible assets, actually, the lending is going up against tangible assets versus intangible assets, which just seems perverse. Right? So is that the root of it? This absence of collateral?

Stian: Yeah, that’s right. So, I mean it’s been called ‘the curse of collateral’, the fact that banks, ideally, want assets that they can take a charge of if a business fails. That is the way debt finance works and most businesses in the economy rely on debt finance, most financial institutions provide debt finance. You know, if we talk about stock market or venture capital, those are modes of finance that apply to a very, very small minority of businesses. So, there’s a kind of real challenge here. On the one hand, how do you develop institutions to provide more equity-based finance to a greater range of businesses? But also, how do you make a rule system that doesn’t discriminate against that because obviously, the first rule of financial structuring for a business is that debt interest is tax deductible, but payments to shareholders are not. So, you know, you’d want to finance a business with that.

[00:39:45.17] Ben: So okay, there’s a lot to unpack. So the first question is, you know, should we change that? Should debt not be tax deductible?

Stian: The kind of wonkish answer, the ideal world answer is, yeah, you want to change that. You want a world where debt finance and equity finance are placed on the same footing. And, as I said, this is quite wonkish. This is something where economists and tax policy wonks have come up with 1,000,001 proposals for exactly how you do this and all the things like equity tax credits. The problem is this, politically, would be a really hard thing to do. I mean, if you were to try and change the economy like this, you’d immediately have the private equity industry up in arms, you would create a lot of challenges for the banking system, it would be a big change. So, you’ve got to think not just about what’s the ideal end-state, but also what’s the institutional basis for it and how do you get there without totally causing lots of unintended harm to the economy.

[00:40:45.20] Ben: Exactly. Because you then form policy in a vacuum away from all the subpart dependencies. But maybe a better question might be, then, how do we get more VC-type capital flowing to the economy?

Stian: So I think that’s a really good question. Germany is an interesting example here because if you look at the way German banks do business lending, they very often will take equity warrants in small businesses, which is effectively like a way of making your debt finance more equity-like. And one of the effects of that is, if you look at, say, a British small business lender — you know, British High Street bank making loans to small business — almost invariably, they will look to take charge on the owner’s or director’s house. And that caters to the idea that the owners own their own house, which is obviously quite an assumption anyway. So it kind of skews you towards lending to a certain type of person. Now, that’s basically a way of getting tangible collateral, in a business that’s mostly intangible because a house is kind of pretty tangible. Now, in Germany, probably partly because homeownership rates have always historically been much lower, and more people rent in Germany, banks are gonna have to find a way around that. So these equity warrants is something that they’ve always done. Now, it means the banks end up doing more due diligence into the businesses because you need to understand more about how the businesses work. But I guess, they figured that’s a worthwhile cost, because the upside of these equity warrants is quite high. So, I guess that’s one example of it being done well. I mean, if you look on the fringes of the venture capital sector, it’s really interesting to see different types of more kind of growth-oriented venture capital branching into more markets and I think it’s really interesting from that point of view. So, I think we’ll see a gradual growth there. But this is really hard. This is a 10-year project, and will probably require governments to get behind it, too.

[00:42:40.18] Ben: Now, a lot of these intangible businesses have become a bit better understood. And, you know, so you see people lending, for example, or putting debt into businesses that have SaaS revenues, or you see people putting debt into businesses where they understand the mechanics of a game, for example — you know, they know the points of which a game is going to get large pickup, and they’re happy to invest to allow the games provided to invest in paid advertising on Facebook or whatever. So I think maybe the idea that debt no longer works is perhaps too simplistic and maybe just debt needs an upgrade.

Stian: That’s definitely true. And I guess, obviously, you know, as anyone involved in that markets will know, some lending is against collateral, but actually, you know, a ton of debt is lent against cash flows and expectations of cash flow. But I guess, to your point, what that does, it requires a greater understanding of what those cash flows look like. And, again, this is another one of these things, where it advantages the smart money. If you can understand these streams of cash flows and get enough certainty to be able to lend against them, then knowledge is unusually valuable.

[00:43:49.14] Ben: Something that’s only really occurred to me lately, since I started a business, which is, if I invest capital on the stock market — this may vary jurisdiction to jurisdiction — I face a capital gains tax of x, right? And that capital gains tax is the same as if I take a much more risky stance of investing in a business that creates employment, generates intangible assets with spillovers. So do you think we need a separate treatment of people, depending on where the gains from capital come from?

Stian: That’s really interesting. We’ve got some kind of limited examples of that already. You know, there are some tax breaks for providing risk capital either in the UK — things like the seed enterprise investment scheme, venture capital trusts, and so forth. So, that principle is there already, but it’s a really interesting question. I think, broadly speaking, you know, if the spillovers are good, then ways of subsidizing those — whether that’s through direct funding or tax breaks — it seems like there’s a strong economic case of that.

[00:44:54.06] Ben: And then the last question I wanted to ask you in this section was really around the role of government here because you’ve probably seen it — you know, there’s Mariana Mazzucato. In her diagram where she said the constituents of the iPhone and how many of them were spillovers from government fundamental research. And I’m just wondering, you know, there’s been, I would say, a reduction in government fundamental research in lots of countries, right? Because, you know, there was this sort of ideology of that crowding out public, private sector investment, and so on. But do you think we should maybe shift the balance there and the debate and push more money towards fundamental research?

Stian: I think there’s definitely a really strong argument saying the government should be funding more things like r&d, because they have these spillovers. If you just leave it up to business, you will get less of that than you would otherwise get because businesses can’t be sure they will internalize the benefits. And I think one of the really important things that kind of Mariana’s book really made the case for that in a kind of very powerful way, which is really important. I think there’s a lot of questions on how you do that, what the best way of doing that is, and particularly doing it in a way so that businesses also invest alongside because obviously, what wasn’t told in that story of the iPhone, is that alongside lots of fundamental research, there was also a ton of often quite unrewarding r&d done by businesses, whether it’s gonna join Magnetoresistance, which is how you got the kind of hard disks that these devices rely on, to the actual turning these things into useful consumer-friendly products. All of that requires a lot of investment as well, which often has quite high spillovers. So, public investment, yes, we absolutely need more of it. And it’s quite well that a lot of governments, I think, are moving in that direction. It also becomes even more important to work out how it may not mesh well with what businesses want to do.

[00:46:44.17] Ben: So many people talk about this sort of K-shaped economy, where everything that was analog is really suffering and everything that was digital or intangible is kind of accelerating. And I’m just wondering, is that a too simplistic read of the situation? I wanted to start with how intangible assets fare during the lockdown, for example, because I’ve read a piece that you wrote on Medium where you made this somewhat counterintuitive argument that actually intangible assets might not be faring as well as you might think, during a lockdown.

Stian: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the pandemic was very interesting from the point of view of what you said for the intangible and the tangible economy, because when it started out, I think there was a huge focus on whether we’ve got our tangible asset response right, the way I would describe it. So people sort of say, you know, “Can we build enough hospitals? Do we have enough ventilators? Do we have enough factories making personal protective equipment?” And you know, everyone was very impressed when in Wuhan they built this huge new hospital, and we would say, you know, “Will the UK be able to cope? Will the US be able to cope?” And then we built the Nightingale hospitals, this is great. Wow. So this was all about tangible assets, you know, physical things. But I think what people kind of rapidly realized is that, actually, that wasn’t the real challenge and it wasn’t the thing that people struggled with, because actually, what people came to realize was really important was what you could call intangible assets. So, first and foremost, it was, “Can we develop vaccines that are effective? And can we put in place the supply chains to get them out there?” Both classic intangible asset problems. “Can we put in place tests and trace systems?” Test and trace systems are made up of software, they’re made up of processes, they’re made up of data? You know, those were classic examples of intangible assets. And some countries did them really well and some countries did them maybe not so well. And I think if you look at the differential mortality rates in different countries, it was, in some ways, the intangible response that really, really explained the bigger gaps much more than the tangible assets. So, I think that was kind of one interesting aspect of how the focus changed. I guess another really interesting question here is the move on what many people’s part remote working has done. So, certainly, in the UK, the latest statistics, 35% of people are now working entirely remotely. The historical figures for that before the pandemic struck have been less than 5%. So, that’s a really big change. And of the 65% who are not wholly working remotely, a fair chunk of those people are doing some remote work. So although this isn’t the majority of the population, it’s a really big chunk of people, it’s a really big change.

[00:49:38.17] Ben: And what happens to spillovers in the world of remote work? Because, you know, I think, again, it was in the same article, which I very much recommend to people — it’s on Medium — which is you talk about how during Prohibition you could trace a reduction in the number of patents because people needed to meet in bars to come up with some really brilliant creative ideas. And I think there’s some element of that, which is, you know, even though, ostensibly, we’re still interacting with our colleagues in a very collaborative manner, it’s different, right? It’s different if you’re remote, and you can’t go for a beer or coffee, whatever, and have those brainstorming moments, those moments of serendipity. Is it your hunch that this is going to lead to fewer spillovers.

Stian: So I think this is the $64,000 question. So, no one really knows and I think, to some extent, it’s probably up for grabs. It’s almost certainly true that it’s going to have some effect on spillovers, because you’re not getting these, as you say, these casual interactions that maybe some ideas depended on. The question is, you know, to what extent can we replicate them? To what extent, maybe, can a lot of remote working work well? And to what extent can we come up with ways of doing more remote working that gives you just enough of what you need? I mean, there was that famous saying, where, I don’t know who said it, but it was, “50% of my advertising works, I just don’t know which 50%.”

Ben: Oh, yeah.

Stian: It’s probably the same. You kind of think, well, you know, there’s probably some really important part of the time you spend in and around the office with people but it might actually only be 10% of that time. And the question is, can you work out what that is, and focus on that more effectively? So I think if we can do that, there’s a huge benefit, because remote working is incredibly good for productivity. But you know, it’s a big forced experiment.

[00:51:34.29] Ben: Well, I think the thing is the experiment is going on for a very long time now. So I’m sure people are starting to codify some of those things that there’s moments of serendipity and putting them into the way that we do remote working. Because in the beginning of the pandemic, it was very much kind of everything just moved to Zoom. And now I think people are realizing, for example, that, you know, just doing things synchronously through Zoom is not great, and Slack sometimes can be a better medium, for example. I think people are sort of now adapting the way they do remote working.

Stian: I think that’s totally true. And it’s interesting, you know, there are some industries that have been doing this for longer. So, you know, huge parts of the tech industry have been very comfortable with aspects of remote working and having remote development teams, as you say, using asynchronous communication and text communication much more than video conferencing. And I guess the real question is, can we work out the lessons for that? And can we scale them up quickly? Because that could be really valuable.

[00:52:28.15] Ben: You started to talk about San Francisco earlier on, and I had to hold myself back from delving into that. But on a few podcasts ago, we had Ian Hathaway on, and he was talking about his idea that, you know, smaller and smaller cities, if you like, can learn from San Francisco to some extent — you know, replicate the playbook. And I’m just wondering, does that diffusion of the magic of Silicon Valley happened faster now? Because maybe that was less important than it was to be in physical proximity?

Stian: Yeah, I think this is a real opportunity for anyone that wants to compete with Silicon Valley to make the most of it, partly because it’s about getting new norms in place that will help these areas. So, if we can get more comfortable with remote hiring, if we can get more comfortable with remote VC funding — something that’s often driven proximity — then this is a sort of an opportunity, as you say. There’s a kind of two-year window where some of these new practices could get trenched and people could realize their worth. That’s a huge opportunity to make a step-change. I mean, I guess the other dimension talking about San Francisco — San Francisco has kind of an interesting story. So, you know, I worked in Silicon Valley at the beginning of the 2000s. And San Francisco wasn’t really a part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem back then. The idea that this one big city is kind of the epicenter of tech is, as far as I can see, kind of something that it’s the kind of last-decade phenomenon. Silicon Valley for a very long time was just kind of the suburbs of Palo Alto and Mountain View, and places like that. And so, there’s kind of an interesting question. Well, you know, maybe the move to really core cities — maybe we might take a step back from that. So I definitely think it’s a lot to play for. You know, if you’re a city leader, or you’re someone who wants to kind of build a cluster somewhere other than San Francisco or New York, or London, then this might be a big opportunity for you.

[00:54:35.14] Ben: One of the things I thought was interesting in that article you wrote is you said that a tangible asset during lockdown doesn’t get used, right? And therefore, the productive capacity of that asset is kind of frozen. And then once things get back to normal — whatever that normal looks like — it then becomes productive again. What you said about some of the intangible assets is they degrade much faster in the absence of being used, right? And again, it was something that I thought was quite interesting because I think there’s been this assumption that everything intangible is benefiting and everything tangible… You know, you wouldn’t want to be an airline. And it was just a more nuanced kind of view of tangible versus intangible assets.

Stian: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, there’s this kind of question we were thinking about what’s the economic cost of leaving an asset, a business unused for a while, and we were speculating that maybe for a very physically-intensive business, that cost was lower. So it was easier to kind of mothball a factory and turn it back on, again, than it is to mothball an advertising agency and turn it back on again. But that’s very speculative and I think that’s something that I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that. So, there’s lots of real-time economic puzzles kind of going on right now.

[00:55:51.10] Ben: Okay, and this is the only political question I will ask you, which is, do you think that the pandemic is kind of giving a backdrop, or a unique set of circumstances in which somebody like Joe Biden could introduce a massive set of policy initiatives — a new deal, if you like? Because one of the things that we’ve talked about, every sort of policy initiative we’ve talked about: we’ve talked about some really difficult politics around it. For example, you know, opening up planning restrictions, I’d imagine is a very difficult political thing, changing the tax relief on debt would be a very difficult thing politically to introduce. So, does it give the pretext for more ambitious political maneuvers?

Stian: I think there is definitely the need. You know, there is a platform of policies that would be really great to put in place, whether that’s more investment in r&d, planning reform, making sure that we create opportunities for people to take on these new jobs, investment in education. There’s definitely a need for that. I think the really difficult thing is that in an age of populism, all these things get harder to do. So I talked to you earlier about when we were talking about the competition policy, that really actually what you need is, you know, more bureaucrats, more pen pushers, and to give them more power. Now, that is a pretty hard sell in the age of queueing on and, you know, ramp and populism in most countries. So you have this kind of weird situation, the need for this kind of institutional reform is greatest at a time when the political dynamics push you in the opposite direction. You know, if you want to sort of say, “Let’s spend more money on r&d, because that will lead to good business opportunities and create economic growth and more jobs.” What does it mean, when you say, “Invest more in r&d”? It means you’re going to tax people more, and you’re going to pay that money to kind of liberal elite scientists. That’s the kind of paradox and I think it’s really interesting to see different people trying to negotiate that in different ways.

[00:57:53.25] Ben: And you don’t think that the pandemic gives kind of enough political capital to unlock the paradox? So you think it’s not as simple as that?

Stian: It might be, you’re right. You’re totally right. Maybe the pandemic will give the opportunity to do this. And maybe it’s the kind of thing where even if you can’t do the big push, you can get some of the way there and that will still make a difference. It’s definitely tricky, because the politics and the policy push in opposite directions.

[00:58:23.04] Ben: Would you mind sharing with us one of your favorite books?

Stian: A really interesting book I read recently, is a book called “The Hungry Empire” by Lizzie Collingham. And what’s fascinating about it is it’s basically a book about the history of the British Empire seen through the history of food. And what’s so interesting about this, it obviously speaks to a lot of issues around global history, around race, around the relationship between Britain and the rest of the world, all of which is super topical at the moment. But it does it through a prism that I think will be really interesting to anyone who’s interested in technology, in kind of economics, in kind of the business of how the world works. It’s a long way from technology, but in some ways, it’s a book that’s very much about technology and a lot of issues in the world today. So, it gets a strong recommendation from me.

[00:59:12.19] Ben: Okay, I’m gonna read that, and, for the listeners, we’ll share the links to all of these on our website. So the next one, a favorite recent article.

Stian: For me, I think something I would absolutely recommend here is the work of Enrico Moretti on cities. We talked a bit about it earlier, but he wrote a great book called “The New Geography of Jobs” and a few articles based on that where what he looked at was the way that we live in a world where great cities, dynamic cities are increasingly economically important. But one of the problems that we have is that the ability to live there, to afford to pay the rent there or move there is unequally distributed because we make it harder and harder to build in these cities. And he effectively made the case that it is totally kind of countercultural range where we like to talk about somewheres and anywheres but he talked about the fact that actually what lies at the heart of our problem is the fact we’ve made it harder to move. And this is not something that people actually want. There’s not something that makes people happy. So to me, it’s a very important and topical article right now.

[01:00:15.02] Ben: And then, the next one is a favorite thinker, somebody whose essays and articles you regularly turn to.

Stian: This may be — I don’t know if all of the people you have on say this, but I’m addicted to the blogger Scott Alexander, who used to write Slate Star Codex. He’s now gone on to Substack and the new version is called Astral Codex Ten. You may know, he’s a US-based psychiatrist, he’s kind of very involved in the rationalist community. He writes about technology, economics, psychology, about kind of almost anything. He has an absolutely incredible writing style. Everything he writes is an absolute breeze. But he does it with a kind of an incredibly good nature. So a strong recommendation from me.

[01:01:04.17] Ben: This is exactly why we ask these questions because I confess to not knowing Scott Alexander.

Stian: It’s amazing.

[01:01:11.03] Ben: Okay, the next one: a productivity hack, something that enables you to operate at scale in the intangible economy.

Stian: This is a very weak productivity hack because I’m very bad at it, but I do try and do 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation at the beginning of every day, and I’m probably the worst meditator in the world but either because of some kind of placebo effect or because it’s useful, it does make me feel a little bit more on top of things.

[01:01:39.28] Ben: Okay, and then the last question is a favorite brand.

Stian: My surprise favorite brand I think it would have to be Bovril. I rely on Bovril for my protein needs. It keeps me going in home working, kind of always have a mark of it on the go. It’s a remarkably nutritious food. And it’s got a retro appeal in the sense of it’s something that was very big 100 years ago, but has kind of come back into popularity in an age of high protein, low carb eating.

[01:02:09.29] Ben: Yeah. And I think it’s something that’s quite polarizing. So it’s good that you’ve taken a slightly controversial position there. That’s good.

Stian: I’d like to think so.

Ben: I guess many people that listen to this will not know what Bovril is. So that’s gonna be interesting to see and googling.

Stian: Yeah. A very affordable, a very accessible product as well.

Ben: Great. Stian, this has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing your insights around this structural shift from the tangible to the intangible economy.

Stian: Thanks so much, Ben. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you about it.

Transitioning to a Multi-polar World (#30)

with Michael O’SULLIVAN, author of The Levelling: What’s Next After Globalization

Your host, Ben Robinson, is joined by Michael O’Sullivan, author of ‘The Levelling: What’s Next After Globalization’ and former CIO of the International Wealth Management Division at Credit Suisse. Michael currently serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the New Economy. In this episode, Ben and Michael discuss what is the role central banks will play in the transition period to a post-globalization, multi-polar world; what international organizations should be completely reshaped to meet the needs of this new world, what new institutions should be created, and more.

Michael Recommends

 

  1. One book: “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West” by Catherine Belton
  2. One influencer: Chris Watling of Longview Economics
  3. Best recent article: Work done by Lisa Sanders for the The New York Times
  4. Favourite brand: “La Femme sans Tête”, bières artisanales de Paris
  5. Productivity hack: be ready to say ‘no’, politely.

Globalization is ephemeral, it’s in the ether, in the sky, in the way that people tend to look at it. There’s no ministry for globalization. So, it’s quite hard to get a grasp on it.

[00:01:23.24] Ben: Michael, thank you so much for coming on the Structural Shifts podcast. I’ve been really looking forward to this because it has been delayed a couple of times, but we finally got to do the podcast.

Michael: Yes, thanks! It’s a great pleasure. I’m delighted to do it.

[00:01:36.27] Ben: I wanted to kick off by just testing a little bit the premise of your book, ‘The Levelling’. Is globalization really over? Or are we just in a period where it’s sort of temporarily in retreat?

Michael: No, I think it’s dead. I think it’s over. I think there are many people, I suppose, for good reason, whose fortunes are tied to globalization, who don’t want it to be over, who deny its passing. Maybe it’s been dwindling as a force — in the last two years, we have been storing up many of the side effects or the perceived side effects of globalization. And that, I think, it’s been dealt a fatal blow by COVID. And I should say, I’m in favor of globalization. I mean, it’s done so much good. Billions of people have risen out of poverty, it’s transformed cities like London, Dubai, etc, it has given us so many technologies. So, I’m in favor of globalization but my reading, as it were, of the situation is that it’s dead and going. We’re moving on to something else now.

[00:02:50.15] Ben: And how objectively can we show that it’s over? Because, again, might it not just be changing form because, if we look at financial flows or trade flows, sure, we can show that it’s in retreat, but what about things like the flow of data? Is it not just becoming more digital?

Michael: I think there’s maybe three things just to bear in mind. One is that globalization is ephemeral, it’s in the ether, in the sky, in the way that people tend to look at it. There’s no ministry for globalization. So, it’s quite hard to get a grasp on it. We do have the benefit of history that we’ve had a wave of globalization from 1870 to about 1912, which looks very like what we’ve seen in the last 30 years or so. And that wave of globalization came to a juddering halt with economic crises, nationalism, etc. So, all of the warning signs are there. And then, thirdly, if I debate globalization with people, what I try and do is bring that debate down to indicators — the movement of people, the flow of ideas, trade — and all of those have been coming to an end, they have been cut off in different ways. So one example I give is that globalization began with the fall of communism, the opening up of Eastern Europe — not just economically, but democratically as well — and now we have events like the shutting of democracy in Hong Kong, which is the bookend to what happened with the fall of communism. You mentioned digital globalization. I think that’s quite interesting because tech and digitization have played a really strong role in globalization but the channels of digitization are being funneled in different ways. So one example I give you is Google in the early 2000s had about, I think, a third of the search market in China. Now it has close to zero. So, what we’re actually seeing is we have more digital activity, but it is becoming more regional. You look at TikTok as another example — potentially global company now being shuttered in terms of how it can be used not just in the US, but also in China and other parts of the world.

One of the problems we have, there really is no Minister or Prime Minister for globalization. It is an interconnected, interdependent activity, and many of those interdependencies are breaking down. In our world, the role of the nation state is still very, very important —Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:05:18.01] Ben: Why do you think is over? Because as you yourself said, it’s had massive, massive positive effects. It’s a positive that raises economic activity and wealth for everybody. So why do you think it’s overall coming to an end?

Michael: I think that the prime concern I would have is that the economic engine of globalization has slowed. So, in many emerging countries, the rate of growth is slowing. In the developed world, productivity has been slowing — notably so in countries like the UK, where it’s at multi-decade lows. The financial side effects of globalization, the negative ones have been rising, so the world is becoming more and more indebted, which will slow future growth. And then, there’s a range of economic problems that people associate with globalization, such as inequality. To my view, it has really, nothing to do with globalization, but rather the way individual countries have harnessed it. So if you look at the most globalized economies in the world — Ireland, Netherlands, etc. — the income inequality in those countries is actually reasonably well managed, because they use tax to distribute the benefits of globalization. If you look at the US, where inequality is really egregious, they have not used their tax system to spread the benefits of globalization, and that creates discontent with globalization,

[00:06:52.07] Ben: Had globalization been better managed, then it wouldn’t be coming to an end?

Michael: I think that’s largely true. And I think one of the problems we have, there really is no Minister or Prime Minister for globalization. It is an interconnected, interdependent activity, and many of those interdependencies are breaking down. In our world, the role of the nation state is still very, very important. I think COVID is a great example of this: different countries have managed and digested globalization in very different ways with different consequences.

The post-globalized world order will be a multipolar one. What I mean by that is you’d have at least three big regions: China, Europe, the US — for the reason of their size will be dominant but also who will do things increasingly differently — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:07:35.16] Ben: You talk quite a lot about Brexit in the book. I suppose we should see Brexit as being part of something bigger, i.e. the end of globalization. But can we really draw that conclusion? I mean, could Brexit not just have been a political mistake, a referendum that should never have happened, a unique set of circumstances? You know, the refugee crisis, etc. Can we not just see Brexit in those terms? I mean, does it have to be read as part of this end of globalization?

Michael: That’s a very good question. To give context, we’ve had two big waves of globalization. The first of the early 20th century, which was led by Britain from London. The second was an American wave of globalization. So, both waves have been led by Anglo-Saxon countries. And the two main Anglo-Saxon countries — the US and the UK — are now in political crises. That much is clear. And those political crises are also crises of globalization. In the case of the UK, I think there is an argument that the calling of the referendum, or the way it was constructed, was accident-prone and could have been done better. I think, however, the way I tend to look at globalization, it’s like a big block of ice that’s begun to fragment and the first really big crack in the world order was Brexit — something that many people thought would be inconceivable happened — and that respected was the first shock, and I think the first really big event that’s taken us into the post-globalization age. And why I’m convinced that it’s linked with globalization is that many of the underlying problems in the end of globalization argument — low productivity, inequality, a country dominated by one city, one elite — you find all of those in the UK. And I think what I’m also drawn to is this whole idea of the rise and fall of nations and the fact that nations go through cycles and globalization is doing the same. The UK is now in a cycle where it’s in, I think and I hope, it’s sort of a bottoming out phase. And in the next few years, we’ll begin to see things improve and be reconstructed. So there is that logic to it, I think.

We would probably feel the end of globalization more severely if it weren’t for central banks, but the cure is arguably storing up worse down the line — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:10:09.09] Ben: How does a country like the UK fare in a world that’s deglobalizing? Because, you know, it’s detached itself from a very large trading bloc and so, now it’s seeking, I guess, new alliances, new trading partners in a world that has become less interested in trading. So, how does that play out, do you think?

Michael: Yeah, it has a lot of risks. And one of the risks, I think, is that the discourse in Westminster and in London is not really focused on what’s happening to the world order. It’s really very inward-focused — and this is a risk that things shift outside the UK, and it doesn’t adapt. So I think that there are several things. The most important, I think, is that the post-globalized world order will be a multipolar one. What I mean by that is you’d have at least three big regions: China, Europe, the US — for the reason of their size will be dominant but also who will do things increasingly differently. So, if you look at the way the EU is imposing itself on the tech world in terms of regulation, that’s a good example. So the UK needs to ask, “Okay, first of all, do we want to be outside this very powerful block?” — and that decision is already made. So, then it becomes a relative decision: “How do we position ourselves between these big blocks?” And in particular, two of them, the US and Europe are very, very close political and trade partners. And my hope would have been that they pay acts to arbitrage these regions. It’s a sort of third independent, but not neutral party, whose upholding of the rule of law makes it more where people feel very secure to do business. So, in that plate, the declaration in Parliament that the UK would break the rule of law is extremely worrying. And I think the international consequences of this have not been thought out at all.

Coming out of the global financial crisis, central banks were like doctors who gave financial morphine to the economic patient — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:12:17.07] Ben: What role do you think central banks are playing? I mean, do you think their role is helpful or not? In the sense that are they smoothing the transition period by cushioning economies from some of the worst economic effects of the transition? Or do you think they’re prolonging the transition and exacerbating some of the ills of the current age, such as wealth inequality?

Michael: Yes, this is a very good question — quite a complex area. We would probably feel the end of globalization more severely if it weren’t for central banks, but the cure is arguably storing up worse down the line. So the way I tend to phrase that is that coming out of the global financial crisis, central banks were like doctors who gave financial morphine to the economic patient. You know, a doctor, if you’re injured, he or she may give you morphine for a couple of days to take the pain away, but they won’t do it every day for 10 years. And that’s what we’ve had. And to that end, markets, investors, many other players have become dulled and stultified to the reality of economics and what’s happening. So, we’ve had no inflation, except in asset prices, valuation for government bonds for many equities, the technology equities are at all-time highs. What we have is we have bubbles in financial markets, which potentially rob future generations of the returns they will need for their pensions. And I think, at the same time, what the cover of central banks has done is to make it much less urgent for politicians to address underlying economic problems. So, if you look at Europe, there’s actually been relatively little reform on things like capital markets union, banking reform — all these things that were super urgent nine years ago, where we had promises from finance ministers that they would be addressed — pretty much nothing has been done.

[00:14:27.09] Ben: Yes, slowing down reform. And also, I guess, it’s also removing some of the market censoring that happens to politicians and to political actions, right? So, you know, you might argue — I’m sorry, I don’t want to get into counterfactuals, but you might argue that in the run-up to Brexit, there would have been harsher market movements, because the central bank was intervening.

Michael: That’s absolutely true. And I think it raises many legal questions, too, as to what end should central banks go in terms of trying to intervene in markets and economies? And you now have a situation where central banks are trying to mandate themselves or justify themselves on a whole range of criteria. The European Central Bank is now adopting the mantle of the green economy; in the US, the Congress has proposed that the Fed do everything it can to reduce racial inequality, which is a just cause, but it’s much, much better left to politicians and lawmakers than central banks. I don’t know how they would go about doing that. What we want in democracy is we want parliaments and governments to address these problems, not central banks to, if you like, swamp the whole political economy in terms of what they’re trying to do.

[00:15:57.16] Ben: If we break those things down, then, so first of all, how do we sort of de-politicize central banks? Because as you say, it’s absurd to think that the body in charge of monetary policy could affect racial inequality. So, how do we de-politicize central banks?

Michael: So, the world went through — from the ’70s onwards, many central banks were politicized in that their governors or presidents had, in some way, ties to the governments who appointed them. And then we went through a phase where central banks were trying to crush inflation, which was politically very unpopular — the best example was Paul Volcker in the US. And we’ve gone through an era of independent central banks who are run by technocrats, civil servants, independent from politics. And that is beginning to change, I think. There is a sense that, maybe in the States, that the heads in the central banks are somehow siding with the mandates of individual governments. It’s been the case certainly in Japan. And I think that there’s several things we can do. I think the appointment process for central bankers is important, and also the people who populate the committees of the central banks; stressing their mandates, and narrowing their mandates is also very important. And maybe, I think, in future what we need — we probably need another crisis to get over this — is a curbing of extraordinary powers, like quantitative easing. That, when it was introduced, was something that was considered off the charts and now it’s normal. So, there needs to be a debate about the extraordinary powers that central banks have.

I would prefer a total reboot. I think some institutions have remained relevant, like the OECD, because they’ve had a good sense to attach themselves to a bigger framework in the shape of the G20. Others, I think should be completely reshaped — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:17:52.21] Ben: Yes, that was gonna be my second question, which is, how do we roll back the balance sheets? How do we de-leverage the central banks? Because I think in the book — you know, the book is already out for a year, so they’re even higher, particularly COVID — but you said they’re as high as they’ve ever been since the Napoleonic Wars. So how do we de-leverage central banks and get back to some sort of sensible level of leverage?

Michael: So the background picture to this is that world debt to GDP levels have been rising, they’re passing out the previous high of the Second World War, on course, as you said, to hit the highs of the period around the Napoleonic Wars. And that’s quite extraordinary if you think of the events associated with that. One of the reasons debt is rising is because interest rates are so low, governments, companies find it very, very easy to borrow and, in particular, government debt has been hoovered up by the central banks. Now, there’s a number of ways of walking back from this. One is the enlightened approach where policymakers decide, “Look, there’s just too much leverage in the world system. We need to pare it back.” And that’s done in a collaborative way across central banks. I don’t think that’s going to happen — that would be too ideal.

[00:19:20.20] Ben: This is what you refer to as the ‘New West Failure’, right?

Michael: It is. We need a reordering of finance in the world, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty of 1648. That’s a very grand example. But, you know, the size of central banks, the size of debt in the world, is the biggest in centuries. So, we do need a grand setting for this. I certainly think that we are storing up the ammunition for the next financial crisis which will be a crisis of debt and ‘debtness’ and it will probably come about by, you know, additional QE from central banks not working or not functioning, a loss of confidence, and then, for the first time in some time, people begin to look to get the money they’ve lent back, either from governments or countries, projects, companies — and it’s just not there. You get a deep recession. Maybe central banks will try more QE and that won’t work because often, in a credit crunch, monetary power can — in a deep credit crunch, monetary policy can lose its power. So that’s sort of a negative, nasty scenario, which I don’t like to paint, but in the absence of enlightened policy, that’s a potential route for the future.

[00:20:51.26] Ben: And I can’t resist asking you this — I know we’re gonna go slightly off-topic here — because you used to be a CIO, so it’s too tempting not to ask this. But how does one position a portfolio for a world where there’s a massive governmental debt crisis on the horizon?

Michael: Yeah. So, I think you do a number of things. The first thing, I suppose is to figure out what really is a safe asset. So what government debt will you feel really safe holding? I mean, that’s why German bonds, for example, continue to trade-off at a negative yield, because it’s one of the true safe assets — maybe Dutch debt as well. So, if I had a portfolio and there were private equity in it, for example, I would switch that into things like distressed debt funds, long/short credit funds. I think what you can begin to do, as well, is to look at tail-risk strategies — that’s quite a technical term, and what it means is that these are strategies that would form a small part of the portfolio, but if an extreme, negative event happened, they would pay off quite handsomely, they would tend to be kind of derivative-based or derivative-type strategies. And then also, I think, you know, in other parts of a portfolio, you want to aim to hold companies that have got a lot of cash and less debt. Ironically, some of the big tech companies fall in that category, even though they have somewhat stretched valuations.

[00:22:33.13] Ben: So, just coming back to the book and the end of globalization, how do we get back to sustained organic growth? Because some of the things that you talk about in the book have become, I guess, slightly passé or old fashioned, which is you advocate for things like education and rescaling and things that don’t seem to be at top of the political agenda right now. So, is that what we need? Do you think we need to get back to education and re-boosting productivity? Because that’s the only route back to sustained organic growth.

We can continue with globalization as it is, which I think is unlikely. We can have a lapse into chaos and disorder, like the 1910s and ’20s. Or I think what’s much more likely is we’ll have a multipolar world, which I think the way to look at it is that it’s not so much a world dominated by big regions, as to the fact that these big regions do things increasingly distinctly or differently — Michael O’SULLIVAN

Michael: I think someone said — maybe it was Paul Krugman — for developed countries, in the long run, productivity is everything. And I agree with that because it’s the main — unless you’ve got rapidly changing demographics — it’s the main and perhaps the only way to boost economic growth. And I think the first step is that there needs to be a debate and a movement amongst governments to focus on productivity and focus on what I would call ‘trend growth’. So, what’s your sort of trend level of growth? And the best way to improve that is through productivity. As you said, many of the things that drive productivity — you know, rescaling education, careful investment in technology in country strategy — they have been forgotten. If you look at what’s happened to education and educational attainment rates in the US, that’s quite alarming. And many of the other factors around that, things like human development, are regressing. So you’re right. I mean, they’re worse than passé. They’re just being degraded. And there’s really no other way for developed countries to grow in the long term. You can do trade wars, you can try and convince countries to reshore investment, but that’s all one-off kind of short-term stuff. The real driver of growth is through productivity. I think the problem many politicians have with this is that we are in short, political cycles. So, by the time you’ve invested in the factors that drive productivity, you only see the benefits of that maybe 5–10 years down the line.

[00:24:58.03] Ben: I wanted to ask you about the US elections in November because you make the point in the book, you sort of draw the parallel with the 1980s and you say, you know, people were fixated with the end of communism, and they felt as bought what was coming next, which is this period of rapid globalization and internationalization of trade and everything. And to some extent, you say the same thing here. Now, we’re obsessed with a little bit the political circus, and we’re missing this bigger shift. But to what extent is Donald Trump and this US election, a circus versus being really important in determining how we transition to this new world, whether it’s a smooth transition, an elongated transition, etc.?

If there’s any doubt that globalization is over, four more years of Trump will entirely smash that — Michael O’Sullivan

Michael: He is very important. And I think what is important is that, you know, Donald Trump as an individual has a lot to be responsible for. But he has come at a time when that’s maybe apt in that it’s the end of an era and he is the human wrecking ball breaking down the old order. He is not going to be the person to build up the new order. And he has also been enabled by many people principally on the Republican side for whom it’s convenient to have him as President. I think it’s quite clear that, you know, four years of Donald Trump have broken many things. He’s broken America’s diplomacy with Europe, with parts of the Middle East, but not all; obviously, broken diplomatically with China, and sown general confusion. He’s also, I think, devalued many of the institutions in the US — the State Department, some of the financial institutions as well. And then, in that background, four more years of Donald Trump would make permanent all of these ruptures and it would cause the rest of the world to maybe ignore America. Europe in particular will tend to go its own way. I think countries like China will be more and more convinced that the US is in turmoil, and it is weakened, and Russia will probably have the same view. And they will act accordingly. And I think that will well and truly break globalization. If there’s any doubt that globalization is over, four more years of Trump will entirely smash that. Joe Biden, for his part, I think will not be a transformative president, but a restorative president in that he will restore the status quo, he will repair the State Department. His team, I think, is very strong on foreign policy, maybe less so on the economy. And he will, I think in particular, restore relations with Europe and try and rebuild the partnership with Europe, to the detriment, I think, of Russia, and maybe China as well.

[00:28:10.06] Ben: But I guess the point that many people would make is, as you said, he’s a wrecking ball. He’s gutting institutions domestically, globally. But, in a way, is that necessary? Do we need to break these institutions in order to remake them? You know, would a Biden presidency as you said, restore the institutions or, you know, other institutions still fit for purpose? So, I suppose the question is, do we need four more years of Donald Trump to hasten this transition to the new world? Or would it be a disaster and lead to a much, much more uncontrolled transition to the new world?

The level of denial amongst governments and companies that things can go on, as they were, I think, is still very, very high, and that denial needs to be broken — Michael O’SULLIVAN

Michael: I hesitate to recommend four more years of Donald Trump, but a lot of what you’re saying, which I accept, which is that we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift, which is a very overused phrase — and you only get paradigm shifts for a number of decades, maybe centuries, and you only get the rebuilding when a lot of the old order is broken down, there is chaos, and then people come forward with new ideas and new initiatives. And the reason I think we need more breaking is the level of denial amongst governments and companies that things can go on, as they were, I think, is still very, very high, and that denial needs to be broken. So, if you take as an example the debate over the World Trade Organization, which is potentially a defunct and irrelevant organization in the context of a multipolar world, the debate now is to whether we just have a new leader and someone who’s not from Europe, or the States and everything would be fine. And you have similar debates about the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and not about, you know, should these institutions be radically changed or displaced? And what institutions of the future do we need to have?

[00:30:19.06] Ben: And do you have a view on some of that or not? So, you know, I don’t want to run through the list of all the international organizations like the IMF, and so on. But, are some of them still capable of doing the job we need them to do or do you think it’s a total reboot?

Michael: I would prefer a total reboot. I think some have remained relevant, like the OECD, because they’ve had a good sense to attach themselves to a bigger framework in the shape of the G20. They’re sort of the think tank of the G20 now. Others, I think should be completely reshaped. The World Bank, I think should be relocated physically to Africa, which is the one part of the world that really needs the help of the World Bank. And then, I think there needs to be a debate on what the institutions of the 21st century need to be. Do we need, for example, an institution on climate change that has got the power to fine governments and companies in a forceful way for climate damage? Do we need an institution to govern cyberspace and cyber warfare and cybercrime? We don’t have that. We don’t have an international police force for the internet. So, there’s all these things that are beginning to crop up as future problems, and have not yet been framed either in philosophy and law or by institutions.

[00:31:48.20] Ben: Moving to what comes after globalization. So you’ve used the term ‘paradigm shift’, and you’ve also used the term ‘multipolar world’. Is that what globalization gives way to? Does globalization become a multipolar world?

Michael: I think so. I mean, there are many scenarios. We can continue with globalization as it is, which I think is unlikely. We can have a lapse into chaos and disorder, like the 1910s and ’20s. Or I think what’s much more likely is you’ll have a multipolar world, which I think the way to look at it is that it’s not so much a world dominated by big regions, as to the fact that these big regions do things increasingly distinctly or differently. So, again, coming back to the internet — I mean, the US has got the big internet giants, and they are stockmarket monsters. China has cut off its internet, but it has a thriving e-commerce sector. And then Europe doesn’t have any of these big internet companies, but it is becoming the regulator of the internet, looking to protect people from the ills of the Internet.

We’re in a world where lots of issues are emerging and lots of well-placed frustrations are being vented. So, it is definitely a period of turmoil, where democracy and rights and liberties are being contested — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:33:12.23] Ben: For how long can it seek to regulate the internet without those platforms? Because, to use an analogy from a previous podcast, it’s sort of trying to control the seas without a Navy or an infrastructure, right?

Michael: Yeah. It can because of its size and the power of its economy, and the fact that Europe in particular is very, very sophisticated in terms of policy, and regulation. So, if Britain were to try and come up with its own set of rules for the internet or how British people consume the global Internet, it may well not be able to do so. But Europe is obviously much bigger. I think the way we’re going now is we’re going towards a values-based, multipolar world. So what I mean by that is that when it comes to economics and politics and climate change, each of the big regions has got very different values and approaches- and those values will inform how they build out their economy. So, Europe wants to protect its citizens and their data. It’s also very strong on the environment, and many of the new policy plans we hear about from Europe, are focused on the green economy. Much less so in the States where there’s just a very different balance between society and the economy. And then China has its own very distinct set of values, which I think we don’t spend enough time trying to understand, in the West. And I think it has its own risks and its own complexities which are maybe not readily apparent in newspaper headlines. And if you look at the Chinese Communist Party, which is a very big machine, inside it you have lots of different groups and rivalries that effectively mirror what you have in western politics just that they’re all under the same big disciplined umbrella. But I think in China, the secret is not just the vision, but also the implementation. They can implement policy for such a big country in a very, very speedy kind of way.

[00:35:38.00] Ben: The gravitational poles are US, China, Europe. Will countries that aren’t in those countries or in those regions have to choose between them? So, you know, will Africa have to align itself with the USA? Or will India — and it looks increasingly like India is already aligning itself with the US — is that what it will be? It’ll be a question of choosing between one of these poles for everybody else?

Michael: Yeah. So, I think there’s maybe a few things here. So, I think countries who fall between the poles — so, Japan in Asia, Australia, they are between America and China; the UK, Russia, in Europe — they’re on different sides of Europe, obviously — they will potentially find life more difficult because they’re not as big as the three poles and they’re sort of mid-sized powers and they have to come to terms with that and reshape their own identity. I mean, Russia has its own crisis in that it’s a military power, but not an economic or financial power. I think other parts of the world are in the stream. India, if you add it on to the area of the Emirates, is potentially in time, another pole, but it has a lot to travel in terms of its development in order to get there. And then I think for countries like, you know, Nigeria, Bangladesh, who are populous and growing, I mean, they have lots of choices. They can sort of say, “Well, let’s co-opt ourselves to China and the Chinese model, or do we still follow what the Americans have done? Or what the Swiss or the Irish have done?” Or they can kind of say, “Well, look, we just do it our own way.“ So, I actually think that these countries — there’s maybe 10 of them — you know, big, populous countries in Asia and Africa, who have not yet really globalized or developed, where they go in the future and how they do it, and what templates they use.

[00:37:35.14] Ben: And you see them as potentially in a strong, almost bargaining position or arbitrage position, do you think, between those poles?

Michael: Not yet. I think what they need to do — and this is where some of the new institutions of the world order would come in — is that these countries perhaps need to collaborate better in terms of building up their own cooperative institutions so that they collectively have more power vis-a-vis the US or China, as it were.

[00:38:05.16] Ben: You’re a big fan of small countries, right? Because you just used the example of Switzerland and Ireland — so, small countries that are very globalized in the sense that they’re magnets for certain kinds of information, trade flows. Are you still as bullish about those small countries in this sort of de-globalizing world?

Michael: I am, obviously, as an Irishman who’s lived in Switzerland, quite biased. And how I got involved in the whole globalization debate is I wrote a book years ago on Ireland and globalization — at the time, Ireland was the most globalized country in the world. I’m still bullish about them because I think this has been shown by the Coronavirus crisis, is these countries in general, they have a resilience, and they have a robustness. So, by virtue of being small and being open to world trade, they’re also very much aware of what’s going on in the world and what they need to do to correct against some of the imbalances that they will suffer. And the countries I have in mind are the likes of Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, Singapore, etc. They’re all very different in terms of their culture and politics, but they have similar problems, but also similar ways of dealing with them. They tend to be the best countries who have this mix of strong rule of law, very good institutions, trust in experts, investment in education, etc. So, that model for me is still one that’s really relevant today.

[00:39:52.01] Ben: And how do you align that or reconcile that with also being a fan of supranational bodies like the… I mean, would it not be a good thing for power then to be devolved down increasingly to sort of nation states or even cities within nation states. Because if small is better, small is more agile, if small is more resilient, then is now an argument for fragmentation?

Michael: I mean, you can call it ‘fragmentation’, you can call it ‘devolution’ as well. I think what you may see is you may see countries like France become a bit more devolved to its regions in terms of taking some of the power that’s concentrated in Paris and devolving that to some of the regions. That doesn’t mean that France is going to break apart or that Europe is going to break apart — quite the opposite, because all of these countries are still happy to have the umbrella of the EU and to enjoy its laws on data protection, etc. I think, also, that globally, we do need to look at governance. So, climate change is my favorite example here, where many countries signed up to the Paris Accord, but it doesn’t really have teeth and it’s not, in my view, really contributed anything in terms of lessening climate damage. What you find is many of the big cities in the world, however, are much more progressive, and much more green than their individual governments. So, my suggestion would be that you have a sort of Paris Accord between big cities that it has teeth. They can, for example, tax their hinterlands, they’re better in control of pollution in their economic hinterland, they tend to be more advanced in terms of infrastructure and green policy, than individual countries. So that’s maybe one way to look at governance, I think.

we are beginning to see a fracturing of political systems where dominant parties are being pushed aside — Michael O’Sullivan

[00:41:56.07] Ben: Well, practically for other issues, because you still need a sort of supranational accord, that the cities sign up to. Would you need the same thing when it came to cybersecurity, or what else is coming down the road — you know, genomics, or digital currencies? How would you simultaneously have global accords in a de-globalized world with city states taking more responsibility?

Michael: Yeah, so I think cities are probably apt for climate change. I think something like cyber, you know, you need a cyber accord probably between at least five countries — and most of those will be on the UN Security Council. They are the cyber powers of the world plus a bunch of others because they are the ones who are either initiating or defending many of the cyber attacks and cyberwars. You know, this is an area of activity where there are no rules. So there’s no template or rule that says, “If Russia hacks me, I’m allowed to fire back a missile, because hacking me or hacking my hospitals is a declaration of war. It’s an aggressive act.” So, I think you need increasingly to match the institutions to the locus of the problem, the locus of the issue.

[00:43:24.06] Ben: Who are The Levellers? And why do they matter? And one of the related terms is ‘The Agreements of the People’ — what are the agreements of the people?

Michael: Okay, so the Leveller is a somewhat obscure story, but probably one of the most important in British history. And I’m guessing many people haven’t heard of them.

Ben: I used to live in Putney, and I’d never heard of them.

Michael: So my starting point is that we’re in a world where lots of issues are emerging and lots of well-placed frustrations are being vented — you know, from gender inequality, you’ve got black lives matter, and you’ve got then democracy-based struggles in Belarus — and you can go on for quite a long time. So, it is definitely a period of turmoil, where democracy and rights and liberties are being contested. In some respects, I’m not a fan of a lot of this political debate on Twitter, and I wish a lot of it were more constructive and that they were more constructive channels. I look at a lot of these protests movements, and you ask yourself, you know, can we go beyond protesting? And how would you take a movement forward and make it concrete and begin to embed it in changes and in laws?

Michael: I recall reading a couple of books some time ago on the Putney Debates, which happened in the middle of the 17th century in Britain. So the king was captured by Cromwell’s New Model Army and with the king being captured people had an inkling of what a parliamentary democracy might look like and they began to debate this down in Putney — it was called ‘the Putney Debate’. And it was primarily a debate within the army, the soldiers, and the officers. And one very important cohort was a group called ‘The Levellers’, who effectively were kind of the social democrats of the day. And they and their leaders came up with a template called ‘The Agreement of the People’. Quite a short template, but it’s really, in tangible form, what the people wanted from government and from parliament. And I think that’s missing today. And that needs to be reconceived.

Michael: For lots of somewhat bizarre and interesting reasons, these agreements of the people were written down, but then not fully transcribed or rediscovered for another 200 years. So, it’s an example for a while lost to history, but it was the first popular expression of what a constitutional democracy would look like, at a time in Europe when Europe was just beginning to throw out some huge innovations in politics and nation states. So, a very important time. And I actually think that if people today could look at these agreements of the people and use them as a rough template for what they want — because they were very practical. You know, they talked about people being treated equally by the debt courts, they advocated limited political terms to reduce corruption — so, foreshadowing many of the things we have today. And I think the use of a template would be taking many dissatisfactions with politics and many movements and making them concrete and also constructive, which I think is largely missing.

[00:46:59.27] Ben: I really like your idea of getting off Twitter, because, first of all, you know, Twitter tends not to lead to anything that’s particularly concrete. But also Twitter tends to lead to massive bifurcation which is, it’s very difficult to hold the center ground on Twitter, because it’s the extremes that gain traction on a platform like Twitter. But I suppose the question is, how is this so different from electing representatives with well-defined mandates in the first place? Are you just saying that we, as constituents, would put forward our ideas, and then almost the political parties would be formed to then put those into statute and into place? Would that be the difference then? So, rather than the political class coming up with the manifestos that we then vote on, it becomes much more bottom-up?

Michael: I guess it should ideally be more bottom-up. I think there’s a sense also that many political parties are somewhat jaded in terms of what they represent. And maybe one question, which I think we haven’t seen yet, is whether we get new political parties, new political entrepreneurs coming through. And I think there is dissatisfaction — you know, what we are seeing as well, we are beginning to see a fracturing of political systems where dominant parties are being pushed aside. You’ve seen that in France, the two dominant parties pushed aside. It’s interesting, we haven’t seen it in the UK or the US yet; the two-party systems remain dominant. But I think there needs to be channels constructed for taking, you know, what I think are well-founded grievances, and getting those into law. For example, there’s a lot of work now being done in social media, such as petitions for parliament in the UK — a lot of work being done there, in social media to get people’s petitions into parliament. So there are changes beginning to come through, but certainly not as fast as I thought would happen.

[00:49:10.03] Ben: I like that idea, too, because I think there’s sort of contrast between Twitter — again, to use that analogy — and the way we do politics it has now become enormous. And the politics hasn’t kind of responded yet. Because, you know, I think what Twitter is doing is giving us the sense that we know as much as the political class. I think we really saw that during COVID, which is everybody thought they knew as much about how to cope with this crisis, as the political class did, because it gives that impression of the narrowing of, or this sort of information asymmetry disappearing, which is an illusion. But I think what would be good would be to sort of reboot politics to be more like social media, in the sense that, as you say, we could treat it like a platform, which is, you know, we could contribute all of our ideas, and then you could build new political parties on top of a platform, which would then be much more networked and responsive to changing ideas. Is that what you had in mind, then, that it will become more networked and responsive?

Michael: In a way it is. And again, one lesson I remark on in the book with The Levellers is that they were idealistic. And parties are a result of that. I mean, they were very good at things like pamphleteering. So they were the social media geniuses of their time, but they were totally outmaneuvered by the incumbents. So I think there is a cynicism required as to how the political system works, which needs to be matched with idealism and a desire to change things. You know, I use the example of Emmanuel Macron, who is seen as being a revolutionary political figure. But I think what he figured out was that the best way to do a so-called ‘revolution’ is to take the system from the inside, not the outside. Now, he had the help of many parts of the system and the institutions in doing so. But it seems to me that that’s sort of a speedier way to changing politics than trying to do it from the outside.

[00:51:18.15] Ben: I can’t resist asking the question, which is, how satisfied are you with Emmanuel Macron? Somebody living in France? How much do you think he’s really changed politics? Because he seems to be a bit like Obama or a bit like Donald Trump. He used digital means to campaign in a completely different way. But the governing has been almost very traditional. Do you accept that?

Michael: It has been traditional in that he — I mean, he has replaced one elite with another younger one, for sure. And pretty much all the people around him reflect the fact that France is still very much elitist in terms of politics, in that they all have the same formation, the men and women have the same views, education. I mean, it’s more stark than, say, the UK is. So he and the people around him are still very much a product of the French system, the French elite. They’ve just, I think, made a lot more fresh. I mean, I think there are areas where he stands out. I don’t think in any way he’s corrupt. I think he’s absolutely sincere in what he wants to do and he’s very, very driven, in that sense, in terms of implementing his vision. I think what he has changed, in my view, compared to the two previous presidents — Sarkozy, and Hollande — I think, with both of those, there was a sense that they were kind of filling a gap and that they might not be around for the next four or five years after. Whereas Macron, I think people have a sense that perhaps he will be here for another term, and that we will have a Macron era that he has the time to implement changes. And he, I think, before [00:53:08.12] he had already implemented quite impressive labor market changes. France needs more of those. I think also, one area that’s clearly open to him is Europe and European politics. And certainly, the energy for European politics and political initiatives in Europe is very much in Paris. It’s not in Germany. We will soon have the post-Merkel era, politics will be a lot more fractured, which will leave France as the dominant country driving policy in Europe.

[00:53:46.04] Ben: If Brexit was the first sign of the end of globalization, is TikTok, the first sign of the post-globalized world?

Michael: Actually, it’s an important sign because it shows how a service that should, I suppose in many respects, be harmless and that should be global, and that people in many countries can use it, but has been used for political ends, can become carved up in the manner of this multipolar world. So, you know, in the US and China, there are clear barriers around the use and the ownership of different parts of TikTok, which begin to, at the same time, sketch out the map of this multipolar world that’s coming.

[00:54:47.12] Ben: Last question. COVID: do you think that this is, again, laying bare the fact that we have reached the end of globalization? Or do you think it’s a reason to be optimistic because it’s a crisis that all countries face and really should galvanize us to work together?

Michael: It’s certainly been a test — a dramatic test. And I think what individual healthcare companies, universities have worked together. The absence of collaboration between countries and regions, for me, has been the litmus test — a litmus test that shows that we are at the end of globalization and heading into a more singular, maybe more selfish, multipolar world. In previous crises, you’ve seen countries and governments collaborate — global financial crisis being an example. And we just had an absence of that this time. They’ve squabbled over vaccines and masks, etc. So that’s the lesson that needs to be borne in mind.

[00:55:57.08] Ben: You would just argue, then, that COVID — again, exemplifying what the new world would look like — at the same time is probably bringing it forward faster?

Michael: I think so. I think it accelerated this whole thesis, for sure.

Ben: Michael, thank you very much indeed for coming on the podcast.

Michael: It was good!

Strategy in the Post-fixed Costs Economy

October 2020

Evaluating strategic options in a world where businesses have never been easier to start, but never been harder to scale

 

We’ve talked often about the diminishing importance of supply-side economies of scale. In its simplest expression, digitization flips the industrial age equation. What was scarce in the industrial age was supply; what is scarce in the digital age is demand (attention).

In the industrial age, to scale supply meant mass production to spread the fixed cost of large capital investments over large volumes. And the industrial age was an age of mass produced, relatively standardized goods. This applied to goods and services provided by the private sector, but also to state-provided services, such as education and public services.

Since the advent of the internet, this is changing. We first noticed the shift in industries where both supply and distribution could be digitized (e.g. media) because supply became abundant faster and this highlighted our limited attention sooner.  But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that all industries are being disrupted as software has eaten the world. More and more physical goods have software components to them, making supply more digitized. Where supply cannot be digitized, distribution nearly always can. And where supply-side economies of scale remain important, they can be borrowed.

 

Renting scale and the end of fixed costs

AWS was not originally intended to be a platform on which third-parties would run their businesses. But, thanks to Amazon’s business model, it was possible to open up that infrastructure service to others. In doing so, Amazon created a massive and highly profitable business which contributes 65% of group operating profits.

But, as big as the impact has been on Amazon, the broader societal impact has been truly dramatic.

Before AWS, companies had to make large upfront investments in computing hardware – a significant barrier to entry. Even buying hardware was a major source of risk: buying too much could bankrupt a company while buying too little could cause a major bottleneck to growth. And so, AWS removed both risk and cost for new businesses. As a direct consequence, it also contributed to the creation and success of hundreds of thousands of new businesses.

This boost to global GDP over and above the value captured by Amazon itself is difficult to calculate, but it’s certainly very significant. It’s probably not an overstatement to suggest, as Charlie Songhurst does, that AWS has been the single biggest factor in the rise of angel investing.

But AWS is not the only internet era platform. From Shopify to Stripe, examples abound of platforms that share their scale economies to remove the cost and complexity of doing ecommerce – allowing companies to form and start trading faster, with reduced risk and at lower volumes than would have ever been possible.

And not all internet-era platforms are providing digital services. As Rita McGrath, Columbia Business School Professor, discussed on a recent Structural Shifts podcast, by helping establish prices and create trust, digitization is making more and more non-digital assets tradeable on marketplaces. As she put it:

“What we’re seeing with the advent of the digital economy is that more and more transactions can be conducted in markets that used to require a firm.”P

Uber was a pioneer in this regard, but we now see this “uber of x” phenomenon everywhere – even in the enterprise market. At aperture, we are very much an embodiment of this, providing strategy and go-to-market as-a-service that enables companies to avoid the fixed costs and risk of underutilization and underperformance in these functions.

In effect, it’s becoming easier to rent all services, physical and digital. All become liquid and on-demand. Capex gives way to opex or, as Younes Rharbaoui says: we have entered the post-fixed costs economy.

“Signs of a post-fixed costs economy are all around us: companies switching to full remote, increased reliance on independent workers & freelancers, on-demand software where cost matches usage, are all creating lean financial structures for growth.”

And, of course, like many other secular trends, the impact of the pandemic has been to accelerate it. If COVID-19 drew a binary distinction between online and offline services, lifting the former and sinking the latter, then it was disproportionately brutal in its treatment of those offline businesses with high fixed costs – oil companies, airlines, hotel chains and so on. From now on, all fixed cost investments will be more heavily scrutinized and, where they exist, variable costs alternatives will be more actively considered. Even Warren Buffett, a regular character in aperture blogs, is starting to consider the wisdom of some high fixed-cost business models.

The fact is, if fixed costs were already becoming passé, they definitely will be in the post-pandemic world – ushering in a faster transition to a new, internet-era economic structure.

Platforms, aggregators and the long tail

For the best explanation of the difference between platforms and aggregators, we recommend this classic essay from Ben Thompson. In it, he uses the Bill Gates platform definition, namely that: “A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it exceeds the value of the company that creates it. Then it’s a platform.”

On this definition, the business we have already mentioned – AWS, Stripe, Shopify – are all platforms. They make the large investments in fixed costs – datacenters, fulfilment centers, payment networks, etc. – that mean their clients don’t have to. They make it cheaper and simpler to do business.

It’s this commoditization of supply and associated end of fixed costs that’s now starting to give rise to a long tail of providers. Thanks to lower and variable input costs, it’s possible to make money at lower volumes than in the past, which in turn means a higher number of providers can co-exist.

Take newspaper publishing, for example. The massive costs of producing and distributing physical newspapers gave rise to significant economies of scale and produced an oligarchical market structure. Compare that with today, when a platform like Substack allows independent writers easily and cheaply to publish, distribute, and monetize paid newsletters. These writers can make a living with only a small audience, allowing potentially tens of thousands of them to co-exist – and giving rise to a broader phenomenon, the “Passion Economy”, where more of us can pursue our craft or our talent and make a living from it.

However, the difference between the long tail as it’s conceived now and the original theory, is that supply is abundant, not demand. The constraint on all digital-era businesses is demand and the gatekeepers of demand – the most profitable actors in the digital ecosystem – are aggregators.

In a world of abundant supply, aggregators help match buyers and sellers. They are in a position to do so because they provide interactive content that rises above the noise to command our attention. When in possession of our attention, they can monetize it by charging advertisers to reach us. This has become the biggest cost for many online companies, accounting for 40% or 50% of the investments they make in growing their business.

As Clayton Christensen predicted in the Law of Conservation of Attractive Profits, as one part of the value chain commoditizes, the value is captured elsewhere. As platforms helped generate an economic surplus, aggregators increasingly captured that value – especially Google and Facebook.

While it has become cheaper to start a business, a sharp increase in customer acquisition costs more than offset these savings.

More precarious

But it’s not just high customer acquisition costs that prevent long tail companies from rising to a size where they exploit scale effects. There are other factors at play.

First, the falling costs of starting a business is a double-edge sword. If one online retailer can set up on Shopify, so can any other. Platform companies are lowering the barriers to entry for everyone, making it harder to defend a business than in the past.

Second, if a business model has network effects and a company can grow large enough to exploit them, this market leader becomes more powerful than an industrial-age leader. This is because, unlike supply-side economies of scale, demand-side economies of scale are subject to increasing returns to scale; the more they exist, the stronger they become. And so, where the industrial age gave way to oligopolies with clearly defined industry boundaries, the internet age gives way to winner-takes-most aggregators, large-scale platforms, and a long tail of suppliers operating across the economy in general.

Third, there’s also one important supply-side economy of scale which makes size important even in the absence of network effects – and reinforces them where they exist. This is the ad score. Basically, the bigger a company gets, the cheaper its relative cost of customer acquisition becomes because it pays a lower cost per lead thanks to a higher ad score (the algorithm that advertising platforms like Facebook and Google use to calculate the likelihood of a customer clicking on an ad).

Effectively, the post-fixed cost digital economy is one where is it simultaneously cheaper than ever to start a business, harder than ever to defend and scale it, and where the returns to scale have never been more important.

If it was hard to cross the chasm from startup to large, scaled business in the industrial era, in the digital age it is harder still.

So where to next?

Let’s look at strategic options for new entrants, from where to play to how to scale.

Where to play

Marc Gruber, a professor at EPFL and former podcast guest, wrote a book on “Where to Play”. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the narrative, it argues that companies spend too little time thinking about which market opportunity to pursue – assuming a good product eventually finds a market – and instead provides a framework to select the right market before commencing activities.

Like Marc, we believe it makes sense to invest the time upfront to consider carefully where to play, even more so in the post-fixed cost economy. Marc’s book provides the methodologies for this choice, so we limit ourselves here to explaining the rationale.

In a digital world, where returns to scale are bigger, incumbents will be harder to displace. Therefore, it follows that any startup should focus either on creating a new market or, more likely, on market blind spots: the niches where consumers are underserved or overserved.

Underserved and overserved markets

In the digital age, underserved markets are likely bigger opportunities than in the past because geographical limitations are removed. A micro market in one country might be a big market when addressing all countries collectively.

B2B marketplaces are a classic example of this phenomenon.

While there are B2C marketplaces for seemingly everything, many entrepreneurs overlook B2B marketplaces because they seem less scalable. They think that it will be difficult to build a big business if your buyers and sellers are very specialized; that there won’t be a generalized pull effect. Buyers of fish are unlikely to be drawn to a specialist marketplace for, say, cement and building materials. But when you are dealing with a global B2B vertical, a two-sided network is more than sufficient to build a massive business: the wholesale fish market, for example, is worth USD150bn!

Another reason B2B marketplaces are sometimes overlooked is because it can be a long game. Many of the businesses we work with are patiently helping incumbents digitize their offering as a precursor to enabling one-to-many transactions. But their ultimate goal is to become a platform for enabling a many-to-many marketplace.

Trade Ledger Business Finance Lending Platform

There are also plenty of opportunities to target overserved customers. As Gary Pisano discussed on another episode of Structural Shifts, companies often push so far with innovation with an existing product or within an existing business model that they overshoot customer demands and leave themselves open to disruption from new entrants providing more user-friendly products or offering more convenience. He gives the example of subscription-based razor blade services like Dollar Shave Club disrupting the overengineered and expensive Gillette razors (“I can only shave so close before it’s scary!”). But this concept of overshooting is especially prevalent in B2B software where, in order to meet the enterprise buyer’s demands, traditional companies have overshot the demands of the end user creating the opportunity for disruptive innovation. This idea is brilliantly expressed in the following excerpt from an a16z article:

“Since effective top-down sales require a highly choreographed (and costly!) dance between pre-sales and the customer, product teams are incented to add more nobs to the product so these teams can sell more value and extract more dollars. Vendors get crossed off the list in vendor discovery if their product doesn’t check all the right boxes for the enterprise buyer, even if many of the boxes don’t actually deliver any value. This often creates a vicious cycle where more complex products give rise to longer sales cycles for more dollars, which then incentivizes even more complex products. For any user of legacy enterprise software, it doesn’t take long to realize that designing a seamless user experience is by no means a top priority for the vendor.”

Direct to consumer

Targeting underserved and overserved customers is what Clayton Christensen refers to as “disruptive innovation” and, as he tells us in the Innovator’s Dilemma, disruptive innovation is about simpler and cheaper products, but it’s also about marketing:

“disruptive technology should be framed as a marketing challenge, not a technological one”

This is even truer today than when Christensen wrote it because digitization opens up new routes to customer. As a result, product, monetization and customer acquisition have to align seamlessly around these new distribution opportunities.

The big trend is direct-to-consumer.

In the retail space, this mostly refers to the phenomenon of avoiding any intermediation – retailers or wholesalers or even any physical retail footprint – to sell directly to the consumer.

In the enterprise space, direct-to-consumer is different. Historically, it was not worth going directly to end users because they didn’t have much influence – or budget. Therefore, it was necessary to go through procurement teams and the choreographed dance of RFI, RFPs and workshops mentioned above.

But what is changing now is that technology products are not just sold directly, but are consumed directly. This makes software-as-a-service a much more disruptive phenomenon than people think: it’s more than a cheaper deployment method, it is a way to circumvent the central buying function and reach the end user.

In this context, it’s clear SaaS companies should have products marketed to end users, simple enough for them to consume without heavy configuration, and priced so they won’t appear on the central procurement team’s radar (e.g. freemium models to test and deliver value ahead of the paywall).

Slack is the example many cite. It markets directly to end users, who can try it for free. Once it has taken hold in an enterprise, it spreads virally thanks to strong network effects (even across enterprises). All the while Slack reaps the benefits by having a pricing structure that reflects usage.

Some argue that it’s harder to make this bottoms-up, direct-to-consumer approach work in areas like fintech, where regulation is important and IT security teams have more muscle. But we see it happening everywhere.

One fintech example that we came across recently, in the context of our upcoming wealth management report, is Hydrogen.

Hydrogen offers a classic bottoms-up approach: a user can provision for themselves a free sandbox environment from the Hydrogen website, pre-integrated with the services they’ll need (like Plaid). The customer only begins paying once they cross certain thresholds, such as API calls. In addition, that also take a jobs-to-be-done approach to solving end user problems by offering discrete services as no-code plug-ins to existing applications, meaning an end user can add a service like tax optimization in minutes.

Avoiding the aggregator tax

Going direct to underserved or overserved consumers is the new playbook for disruptive innovation, but it doesn’t mean companies can avoid the aggregator tax. In fact, costs just get reallocated: in retail, CAC is the new rent, while in enterprise, CAC is becoming the new senior sales rep.

Nonetheless, while unavoidable, businesses can minimize the aggregator tax.

One way is to invest in brand.

A lot of startups seem to believe investing in brand is a luxury. We don’t agree. Marketing is like a pump: first, you have to fill it, if you want to draw it down. Sure, you can generate some leads from well-targeted paid campaigns, but it’s not a sustainable endeavor and you’ll end up paying more to aggregators over time. Instead, you want to run paid campaigns into a customer demographic that’s heard of your company and thinks positively about it, which will improve your ad score and lower your ad cost.

You should also invest in data. Going direct to consumers means you know more about your customers than your industrial age predecessors ever did. It’s critical to capture this information in order to:

– build proprietary routes to customers

– learn more about your users to better target and to aid self-discovery through recommendations

– learn how consumers use the solution so you can constantly improve the utility of the product, everything from ease of purchase to completeness of solving user’s problems.

You must leverage the power of networked buyers.  At the most basic level, your product should be differentiated enough that customers will want to advertise it on your behalf. That customer advocacy might come in the form of a positive review or post, but as former podcast guest Julian Lehr highlights, it may also come in the form of signaling.

In addition to advertising, the networked customer can be an acquisition channel.

Wherever possible, you should try to build into your solution the viral features that make the product better when it’s used together with others (e.g. messaging), that lead to customers acquiring other customers. And, even when it’s not possible to build these viral features into the product, it’s possible to build them around the product. A Nike running shoe has no inherently viral features, but the community it has built around its products, the millions who share fitness information, definitely does. And it’s not just consumer brands that can create communities. Consider Salesforce, for instance, which has a community of over 2 million organizing events and sharing content. This attracts others, but also binds together the users in a way which makes it hard to leave the community (by choosing a different product).

Don’t just rent commodities, rent luxuries

If you’ve read this far, it probably won’t come as a surprise that we advocate for renting commodities. Don’t buy your own servers, for example, or write your own accounting software. This will keep operating costs low and variable.

However, we also advocate for renting specialist skills. It allows more cost flexibility and avoids underutilization, but it also reflects a structural shift.

The best people increasingly don’t want to work for a single company. They like the variety and the speed of learning that comes from working across multiple companies and projects. And, platforms are emerging that go further than just matching companies with freelancers – platforms that put together, manage and take responsibility for (the output of) interdisciplinary teams. Effectively, they give businesses greater flexibility and quality at scale and specialists the security and freedom to keep learning.

Achieving internet escape velocity

Brett Bivens, a venture capitalist at TechNexus, came on the Structural Shifts podcast earlier this year to talk about his theory of “Internet Escape Velocity”.

Essentially, internet escape velocity is what happens when a company successfully executes the strategy playbook described above. That is:

– it identifies an underserved or overserved niche

– it leverages internet distribution to reach those customers directly

– it unleashes a growth loop by combining the reinforcing properties of product, distribution and monetization, and

– it uses data and marketing to avoid the aggregator tax

At that point, it hits internet escape velocity, becoming capable of crossing the chasm of precarious long tail supplier to become an aggregator itself, using the pull of its loyal customer base to pull in more suppliers or to launch new own-label services. Brett uses the example of Spotify, which he describes as follows:

“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.”

When a company hits internet escape velocity, it also has the option to invest in fixed assets. As we showed in a paper we wrote with Dave Galbraith in 2016, internet-era companies tend to become asset heavier over time as they seek to entrench their position and deliver better customer fulfillment. But the critical point is that they invest after they achieve a sustainable route to customers. Assets grow like the roots of a tree, downwards from distribution rather than upwards from production.

If, however, a company that hits internet escape velocity doesn’t want to invest in fixed assets, the good news is that it’s never been easier to rent supply in the post fixed-cost economy.

When Software has Eaten the World (#29)

Structural Shifts with Belén Romana, Spain’s former head of Treasury

There is a lot of anguish over what’s happening online these days from the rise of hate groups to media manipulation, the propaganda to interference with elections — are the positives of our digital world even worth it? Well, today, your host, Ben Robinson, digs into this question with Belén Romana García — Spain’s former head of Treasury, and an economist who has worked in both the public and private sectors. Belén is also a board member for several public companies and foundations. She says that people are primarily driven by three things: power, money, and knowledge — and she is especially driven by knowledge and curiosity and a desire to understand the world and its possible future. Today, she and Ben discuss, should our elected officials have to learn how to code to better understand the world that we’re living in? Should we scrap GDP as a metric since it’s not accurately reflecting our service economy? Does democracy mean equal voting? And how does the information and infrastructure of our online world affect our freedom or a sense of freedom in real life? And more. 

Belén recommends:

 

  1. One book: A world without work, Patrick Susskind
  2. One influencer: Azeem Azhar
  3. Best recent article: The geopolitics of information, by Eric Rosenbach and Katherine Mansted (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs)
  4. Favourite brand: Spotify
  5. Productivity hack: Never waste a chance to learn something new. Listen to podcasts while driving, flying, cooking or having a walk.

Information in itself is a huge good that we have in abundance. Of course, when you have any scientific advances or new ways of creating value or knowledge, that does not come without its flaws, and without its problems. It takes time for societies to understand the real implications — good and bad, by the way — of any advance. It’s sort of trial and error. We are understanding the implications, the advantages, the disadvantages, and it will take some time until we do understand the whole thing.

[00:01:32.14] Ben: Thank you very much for joining us! So, the key thing that we wanted to pick up on today is one that you talk about a lot, which is the notion that software is everywhere, and it’s this idea that, as software’s become more powerful, it’s proliferated, and it’s become much more pervasive in our lives, our communication, our politics, our industry — and I thought maybe a good jumping-off place might be the quote from Peter Thiel, the one where he said, “We wanted flying cars. Instead, we got 140 characters.” So, has this world of pervasive software delivered on its potential? i.e. Do you think that the world is now better for having so much software in it?

Belén: Definitely! I think that we are better off. We can communicate better, we can find more data, store that data, analyze that data, deploy that data. So, I think that information in itself is a huge good that we have in abundance. So that’s a much better world. Of course, when you have any scientific advances or new ways of creating value or knowledge, that does not come without its flaws, and without its problems. It takes time for societies to understand the real implications — good and bad, by the way — of any advance. So, I think that we are better off. It’s sort of a trial and error thing. We are understanding the implications, the advantages, the disadvantages, and it will take some time until we do understand the whole thing. And so, it will take some time until we get the world right. And we will try again and again and again. And finally, at some point, we will have a reasonably good set of rules. So, I think that we are better off but we should be quite modest in terms of we have to understand that this is a journey that started, as societies, and it will take us some time to really get it right.

As human beings, we usually get to understand, control, and react. So, the fact that some advances have dangers, that’s always the case; […] And reality leads us to think that once we get to understand, then things are much better after that advancement than before. The problem, of course, it’s always the transition period.

[00:03:44.01] Ben: If we think about some of the negative applications of digitalization, we might think about, you know, its scope for manipulation, for example, or we might think about, you know, some of the scary things that people say about where AI is headed, right? You know, that we’ll be controlled by software, rather than it kind of being used as a tool by us to improve, almost. But you believe that, on balance, overall, it’s been a force for the good?

Belén: I think so. Of course, it has many dangers. But that happens with anything that you can think of. When the car started, there were so many dangers around that and there were no roads. So, it took some time — decades — to set the rules and understand what is good, what is bad, what should be done, what shouldn’t be, who should be controlling that? How should the authority control that? How can we drive around the world? So there were a number of things that happened over decades. But finally, the car gives us many things — of course, good and bad — and if you understand the real implications in groups, for example, climate change, then you get to have a much better deployment of that advance. You know, as human beings, we usually get to understand, control, and react. So, the fact that some advances have dangers, that’s always the case; that happens with medicine, that happens with pharmaceuticals, that happens with anything you could think of, basically. And reality leads us to think that once we get to understand, then things are much better after that advancement than before. The problem, of course, it’s always the transition period. So, since this is a trial and error, and it will take time for us to get it right, there will be many things that will happen that won’t be good, and people that will be harmed. That’s absolutely the case. And that’s a very difficult point because, as I said, when it’s something new, we don’t fully understand the final implications. So, this trial and error… And you see that everywhere. So, we didn’t know that Facebook could be potentially dangerous for political institutions, the suffering, that outcome to understand, “Yeah, this may happen.” And now we are starting to think, should we do something? What can we do? What are the limits? So, does it mean that social networks should be banned? I don’t think so. They should be here for good. It’s like with cars. I mean, the fact that a car is a dangerous tool doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t control it, you shouldn’t regulate it.

We are on a very, very early stage and it’s very difficult for rulers to set the rules. One of the things that I worry about around this — setting the rules — is the fact that Parliaments understand laws, but they don’t understand codes. It turns out that codes are also ruling our lives. So, if we don’t get them to understand code, to understand that language, it will be very difficult for them to set the right rules. And I think that we’re far from that.

[00:06:38.21] Ben: And if we just continue for a second with that analogy of the car, where do you think we are in this transition? You know, it took a long time before cars had seatbelts, it took a long time before cars had emission standards. How far into this digital transition do you think we are? And how good a job do you think the rule setters are doing?

Belén: We are on a very, very early stage and it’s very difficult for rulers to set the rules. One of the things that I worry about around this — setting the rules — is the fact that Parliaments understand laws, but they don’t understand codes. It turns out that codes are also ruling our lives. So, if we don’t get them to understand code, to understand that language, it will be very difficult for them to set the right rules. And I think that we’re far from that. If you had a council of wise men, old men that couldn’t read, and they had to set the rules for the printing press, they would just say, “Okay, whatever is printed that I cannot read should be fair, balanced, whatever.” But they cannot enforce it, because they cannot read the book. I think we are in a similar situation where individuals setting the rules do not speak the language, cannot read the code and hence, all they’re doing so far is giving this open recommendation of should be fair and avoid bias and these things. But then, they are driven by the outcome, and they cannot prevent it from happening, because they don’t understand. So I think that we are at a pretty early stage. We need rulers that understand code.

because of the cyber GDP that we are not measuring, we are not taxing, we are not tracking. So, we don’t know whether we are getting richer or not, we don’t know whether we have a fair tax system or not. Basically, there’s a part of the GDP that is not there.

[00:08:30.29] Ben: I think the EU Cookie Policy is a very good example of a policy that’s set by people that don’t understand the nature of the digital world. What about economists? So, you’re an economist. How good a job do you think economists are doing at understanding the new world and changing their measurement tools? To make it more concrete, we basically live in a world where we don’t think we have any inflation, we think productivity growth sucks. But is that really the case? Because you know, there might not be inflation in the price of streaming music, but there feels like there’s a lot of inflation in other areas — healthcare and such. So, do you think we’re using the right measurement tools for the digital world?

Belén: We, economists are really struggling because we are all educated in an industrial world. So, if you take GDP — GDP nominal versus real is inflation, GDP is a very industrial concept in many ways. I mean, it started as one physical thing times the price, and that is GDP. And the evolution of both the number of physical things and the prices did see it to the GDP real and nominal. We started struggling with services. So, for decades, for example, financial services were not part of the GDP because no one thought it could be measured in terms of any value added. So, with services, which is something in the middle between digital and industrial, we struggle to understand productivity to measure; you don’t have a physical thing — you know, whatever the assets times the price. It’s services. And you know what that means, in a very industrial world. So, we tried to build this bridge with services — did a very good job, but reasonably good, I think. But, if you jump to digital, you don’t have this vertical approach to sector, which has been industrial. And there’s this huge debate now in the economists’ world, around inflation and productivity as you were rightly saying. There are now two camps: some people say we’re heading into a world of no inflation forever, and some people are thinking that we’re heading into a high inflation world because finally, monetary phenomena. But, as I said, I struggle with that, and it’s difficult to get the cyber economy into this, the cyber factor into the GDP.

Belén: Now, I’ll give you one example that I always think of: the value for Google of having Germany, where is it? Is it part of the German GDP? It doesn’t look like that because that value is not the revenue coming from the German part. But more than that it’s network — so, it’s part of the network that increases the value of the whole network. That’s not part of the German GDP. Where is it? My point is that probably it’s part of the Google market cap and that’s why, because of this cyber GDP, we are not measuring, we are not taxing, we are not tracking. So, we don’t know whether we are getting richer or not, we don’t know whether we have a fair tax system or not. Basically, there’s a part of the GDP that is not there. And you see that again, and again, and again. You gave the music industry as an example. That’s a perfect example of something like that. So, we used to have a music industry that could be measured in an industrial way — the number of LPs or the number of stores, or the number of concerts, and then you have tickets times price. Then all of a sudden comes streaming. Basically, in terms of GDP, the music industry has disappeared, because you don’t have much employment, you don’t have tickets, you don’t have LPs. So, you don’t have physical things that you can measure. However, we have never been able to access so much music in our lives. Not necessarily for free. You pay for that — Spotify, you pay for it. But you access a huge store of music that you can choose to confine whatever. That’s not part of the GDP.

The competition policy is basically based on the knowledge that if the prices are low, competition works because the prices are the final signal of a monopoly or oligopoly. It turns out that’s not the case because we’re not paying with money.

[00:13:06.14] Ben: Yeah, it seems to me that the problem that you talk about translates into consumer surplus, right? Which is, you know, by definition, not captured because it’s surplus. And I often wonder if we were able to better understand consumer surplus, and somehow feed that back into GDP, that might be a way of capturing some of the benefits. But I just wonder, in general, if GDP is just, you know, we should scrap it, if it’s just obsolete. And we should start again. Because you know what I mean? It’s like you’re saying, you know, it’s a bit like inflation — you have RPI minus x, RPI minus y. And it’s like, how many things can you augment a broken metric for, in the end, before you have to just start again.

Belén: But the fact that we are using not a perfect measurement does not mean that we should use none. So, for me, the key thing is understanding. Again, understanding that we’re missing part of the economic evolution, wealth — whatever you want to call that — and that we need to develop other means. We will still have a physical world, we will still have services. But we are missing digital. So I think that one of the key things for, first, universities and probably also statistical authorities, is developing that understanding of how to measure. This is a new thing. It does exist, it does create value. So, this is again, a very old debate: value versus price. And that impacts everything. So I’ll give you another example. It’s the competition policy. The competition policy is basically based on the knowledge that if the prices are low, competition works because the prices are the final signal of a monopoly or oligopoly. It turns out that’s not the case because we’re not paying with money. We’re paying with data, and data has no value, no price. So, they’re for free. So, all of a sudden, you have a competition policy based on a very industrial concept that needs to adapt to something different, which is we’re paying with our souls, so to speak — our data. So, I think that the key thing is for, firstly, universities to start thinking about this — and I think that some have already started — thinking of this concept of cyber GDP. And value versus price happens when you have value, but no price or a price that does not fit much with the value as in the case with data. So, I wouldn’t say, okay, we don’t use GDP anymore. But I think that we should, at once, develop other complementary ways of measuring and understanding the digital world.

when you have a huge concentration of power, you have a problem. And as a state, the concentration of power is always dangerous. So, one of the things that I really wonder is why people — that happens especially with younger generations — do not care about giving away their information to companies but they care about giving information to the state.

[00:16:03.20] Ben: I just wanted to return to that idea of regulating the digital economy, because, as you say, you know, in the past, the litmus test was, you know, our prices going up to the end consumer, therefore, there’s sign that the company has market power, and can manipulate pricing. How do we regulate networked businesses? And how worried are you about the increasing size and influence of some of the largest platforms?

Belén: Over the years, when you have a huge concentration of power, you have a problem. And as a state, the concentration of power is always dangerous. So, one of the things that I really wonder is why people — that happens especially with younger generations — do not care about giving away their information to companies but they care about giving information to the state. And if you live in a democratic state, you do have rules, you have a transparent system where you know your rights, and you have tools to defend your rights. That’s not the case with the large platforms. And there are millions of that; you have Facebook measuring video views and charging for it. So, it’s the same as the judge and the defendant is the same. Or you have no ability to prove that whatever video you’ve posted has been more or less than another one. So, you know, I’m starting to read articles on the corporation as a courthouse, because within the Amazon world, it is much more efficient to solve conflicts within Amazon, than using the courts. That’s, I think, hugely problematic, because, as a citizen, even though you know the rules, those are not the standard procedures. I mean, if you live in a democracy, and you don’t like the Prime Minister, you can vote against him or her, and at some point, the guy leaves. You cannot vote against platforms. So, you don’t have any access to understanding how it works, what your rights are, and how you can defend your rights, what kind of tools you have. Whereas democratic societies have all those things very clear. So for me, as a citizen, I would rather give my information to a democratic state than to someone I cannot access. I don’t know where I am.

The problem with data is that the value comes from the aggregation. So, on your own, you cannot get value from your data because your data or my data have no value on themselves. They have to aggregate and aggregation means something that goes farther than the individual.

Belén: So, these platforms have huge power in economic, financial, political, social, and they have no rules. So, I think that we do need to regulate those platforms. And they basically act as monopolists in different fields. So you have a set of monopolists. And that’s, by the way, nothing new. We had that in the late 19th century, where, in the US there were, again, a number of huge monopolists. And the state, at some point, reacted and they said, “Okay, hold on. We need to do something about the mobile or we need to do something about many different industries — the oil industry and then telecoms” — because the power was too much. I think we are exactly where we were at that point. And, in order to avoid that, the competition policy was born. Now, I think we need to think of another competition policy. But I don’t know whether that’s enough. All the states have a regulation for networked industries, but networked industries are something much more national. This is international, isn’t it? And we don’t have common rules. We have common rules on how do we rule the seas. And that’s similar. So, you know, there’s an international law around these. We don’t have an international law around digital and that means sometimes we don’t even have a national law about digital. So I think that we need to develop that.

[00:20:28.23] Ben: Yeah, I suppose the only good precedent there, you know, whether we think is a good piece of legislation or not, something like GDPR, even though it’s a law that’s imposed within one sovereign area, which is the EU, it does tend to have ramifications outside of that sovereign area. Because if you want to do business in the EU, you have to treat customer data in a certain way. And what tends to happen is those policies then tend to become globally applied. But I just wonder, in general, I think you said earlier on that we have politicians that understand the law, but they don’t understand code — I think is what you said — and that was never more evident than in the times that the big platforms are brought to Congress, for their annual grilling, right? And I’m just wondering, you know, if it’s difficult to impose regulation cross border, and if it’s difficult for our current generation of politicians to impose the right kind of regulation at all, is the answer maybe to devolve more responsibility down to us as individuals, and in some way try to give us more transparency so that we make better-informed decisions about the platforms we use and what we share with them and so on? So, i.e. you know, put more responsibility in our hands.

we are clearly moving into a world of fragmented internet

Belén: For a number of reasons. One is they are monopolists. So that’s the first point. The second point is the nature of data. The problem with data is that the value comes from the aggregation. So, on your own, you cannot get value from your data because your data or my data have no value on themselves. They have to aggregate and aggregation means something that goes farther than the individual. So, the combination of the two things makes it very difficult for individuals to really be responsible. So, you would be asking them for something they cannot do because they don’t have the means. I’ll give you one example. For me, GDPR is the first step. But I’d really like the right to be forgotten because that’s something that, you gave away your information, or someone gave away your information, in a situation when we didn’t really know the consequences of that. And then, you suffer those consequences. You know, the right to be forgotten was a concept that was born in Spain — it was a Spanish case that led to this thinking of ‘this is unfair’ because someone did something three decades ago, and the guy is suffering from it again, and again, and again. And the problem is, I’ll give you one example. If you have a public appointment in Spain, your number gets published. And, at the same time, it looks like that should be private. And, you know, years ago, I had an attack, and the police told me, “Everyone knows where you live, and your number.” And I said, “Yeah, but that came from the fact that I was a public official.” So, all of a sudden, you have something that was ruled thinking of a different world, and now all of a sudden becomes a threat. And you cannot do anything because that is not part of the right to be forgotten. That’s nothing wrong, but it’s part of my privacy. And even then, it’s there. So, as an individual, I cannot do much. I need infrastructure or authorities, courts, that help me protect my rights — understand and protect my rights. So I don’t think that individuals are the way out.

[00:24:18.08] Ben: So regulations are still a thorny issue. And the other issue I wanted to talk about was your idea of policing the seas, right? Because what are the seas? I think we’re getting lost slightly in the analogy, but like, you know, what’s the landmass? What’s the sea? And if Europe is a landmass and we don’t have any really large platforms, where do we stand? I mean, for example, for how long can Europe impose regulations like GDPR when it doesn’t have platform companies of its own? Because it’s a bit like, you know, we’re imposing legislation on companies that aren’t even in our jurisdiction.

This dream of an open Internet for every country I think it’s over

Belén: But that’s why I like the analogy of the seas because, in the international law, you do regulate companies that are not part of your jurisdiction. And I think that the internet has been almost a global ocean. I think it’s not anymore. The exception being, of course, China. Right from the beginning, the Chinese thought, “Oh, if this is an ocean, I want to control my ocean, I want to set the rules.” And I think that we are clearly moving into a world of fragmented internet, where we, again, have not an ocean, but different oceans or seas if you want. And you said that the Russians announced that at some point, they wanted to close their internet and have a sort of a narrow channel into their internet so that they can control both — their internet and the channeling. The Chinese, of course, control that. I think that the US is thinking also, we need to think of how we control and have a walled garden — that we know what’s going on, who’s doing what, and we can react to that. So this dream of an open Internet for every country, whatever, I think it’s over. And, of course, that worries me in terms of Europe. So Europe has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is that, of course, we lack any sort of platform. That’s a huge disadvantage. The advantage is that we still are the largest market in the world. We are interesting. The problem is when you’re not interesting at all — then you’re done. But when you can add value, then you have some tools to regulate that value that you are creating. So I think that Europe has that right and that ability. And also, the tradition. I think that we do have the tradition. We may over-regulate sometimes, but we know how to regulate and we think of the individual as someone that has to be protected. That comes from a long, long tradition of European thinking, philosophy, political science, sociology, anything you can think of. So, from that point of view, Europe has a chance.

in the 21st century, those countries or regions or companies, for that matter, that will rule the world will be the ones that will be able to do the three things: produce, store, and analyze data, move around those data — the platforms — and then set the right rules.

Belén: The thing is, for me, that if we use another analogy, and we think of the late 19th century, and how the industrial power was built — and that means power or states or companies — there were three things: the ability to produce things, the ability to move those things — so you needed a physical infrastructure — and then the rules of the game. And if you look at the industrial world, the industrial powers what they did is, Okay, I produce, I build infrastructure — the train being the first one; if you look at how the trains were designed in the 19th century, you knew who was powerful in terms of countries, and who was losing the battle. And only looking at that map is clear. And then, the rules of the game, which is free trade. That, coincidentally only applied to industrial goods, not to agricultural goods. Okay, 100 years have gone, so then digital power — who can produce, store, and analyze data? Very few countries or companies. The infrastructure is the platforms — we lack the infrastructure. And then the rules. So far, we haven’t got any rules. No rules at all, not even this free trade rule. We didn’t have a rule because we didn’t think we needed it. So, in the 21st century, those countries or regions or companies, for that matter, that will rule the world will be the ones that will be able to do the three things: produce, store, and analyze data, move around those data — the platforms — and then set the right rules.

[00:29:14.16] Ben: So how worried are you about Europe? Because at the moment we’re trying to set the rules to some extent — you know, GDPR, for example, PSD2 — but we don’t produce or move the goods, right? Or we don’t have the infrastructure, so we won’t be able to set the rules very long in that case. So, where does that leave us? And do you think the game is over in terms of creating the infrastructure?

The European Union, as a project, is built on conflict, it has always evolved out of problems. It’s not when everything works, and it’s peaceful. Whenever there’s a problem and a crisis, right from the beginning, the inception, the European Union evolves and tries to build on that.

Belén: I think we’re really far behind but it doesn’t mean that we have to say, “Okay, we give up.” I think we should fight. And fighting means a number of things. One is if we could understand how to rule this right — how to read the code — we would have a huge advantage. And that’s something that we could develop. Another thing that for me is hopeful is the fact that we’re starting to listen to the European Commission talking about digitization, which is quite a new thing, in a much more thoughtful way. And I’ll give you one example. So the European authorities came to the conclusion I think — that’s my understanding, I have to say — they came to the conclusion that “Okay, we have lost the war on personal individual data, but there’s a huge wave of data coming, which is data coming from systems, physical things. We are an industrial power, why don’t we build on that?” I think that is great because, by the way, physical things you get to personal data. So even though we lack the platform for personal data, which is the case, we could build platforms around non-human data, if you want. It has stemmed from good systems. I thought this is good, because instead of wasting resources fighting something that’s going to be very difficult, because you’re on late, let’s try to build something that is not built anywhere else, and then we won’t be late.

Belén: So, for me, that’s a very useful way of understanding that. And I think that with COVID-19, that the European Union is using it in a positive way, so to speak. The European Union, as a project, is built on conflict, it has always evolved out of problems. It’s not when everything works, and it’s peaceful. Whenever there’s a problem and a crisis, right from the beginning, the inception, the European Union evolves and tries to build on that. I think that now is starting to happen that. I mean, Europe has a soft power, and Europe has someone that understands that there are two huge giants rising, which is the US and China and thinking that they don’t like each other as much as they did in the past — and Europe is in the middle; that could be a potential advantage if we are smart enough. So, for me, the worst part of it would be if we thought of it as when you have a castle on your right, another castle in your left, and you are on the plain, then whoever comes, you’re done. That is not the way to understand that, I think, because then we’re done. If we build on our chances, I think — and we do have chances — I think that’s quite clear. You know, with the cloud, we’re late, but still, Germany and France are thinking or are starting to create a cloud. Will it be like that? Will it be as competitive? We’ll see. But I think that’s the right move. We should have done that move long ago. But at least we’re starting. So, in relative terms, we are behind the US and China, but we are ahead of the rest of the world. So, I’m hopeful. And I think that Europe is built on this notion of the individual has his rights, which is differential, I think.

[00:33:34.17] Ben: It’s quite interesting what’s happening with Tik Tok because I think, you know, is probably a good way of thinking about this, which is you’ve got this Chinese castle, the US castle. Do you think what we’re now seeing is, you know, those two citadels are trying to now establish and define their spheres of influence? And so, you know, Tik Tok was a case of… That’s almost like an invading army and we’re not going to allow that into our Citadel. And then everything that’s happening with Tik Tok in India seems to be a bit like, you know, India’s kind of aligning around the US castle. And then, I think your current comparison of Europe as kind of no man’s land is quite accurate because Europe hasn’t yet, I don’t think, really decided which castle is going to align itself with. And, as you said, maybe, for a short period of time, that gives us a position of influence because we can arbitrage between those two castles. Is that the way you think about the world, which is that that’s where we are now? The idea of this, you know, Pax Americana kind of world that was global is over, and increasingly nations are gonna have to choose between which of these two castles they align themselves to — or do you think they’ll be more castles like the Russian castle, the African castle?

when we all have access to information, that does not give us knowledge

Belén: A long list of things, as you mentioned. One is India. I don’t think that India is aligning with the US. I think that India is thinking, “I’m large enough and I’m advanced enough, and I have the knowledge and human capital needed to build my own castle. So, what I think that they are doing is, “Okay, let’s create our own apps.” So then it’s much more the understanding of, this is exactly a backdoor that you can use to look around and I want you to have that. It’s not only the influence, but it’s also the information that you get. One of the things with digital, it looks like the network effects come with a huge amount of data and that huge amount of data, if we’re talking about personal data comes from large populations. India, which is a very large country has the means to create its own network effects. They don’t need to have anyone else. As it happens with China. They are large of their own, they don’t need to have anyone else to create network effects. So, I think that they have understood that and they want to build on that. And from that point of view, neither the US nor Europe, on our own, I don’t think we are large enough in terms of that sort of pool of population. Probably, we need to think of something that combines both, otherwise is very difficult. If you think of if the US thought, “Okay, I’m closing my castle, it’s only us”, that’s not enough. That’s clearly not enough. They need to think of other pools of population. And probably we will see, at least, I think that large countries will try to build their own castle. Brazil is another example of a country that thinks that they are large enough, that they have the means, they have the knowledge to do something on their own. And so, we will have that as it happens with it. If you think of the industrial world, of course, the first superpower was the UK, but then Germany reacted pretty soon and then the US. So, you end up having a short number of industrial powers, but a number of industrial powers. So I think that Google sees something similar. I think we will have a number of powers. And I hope that Europe will use that as a chance.

[00:37:36.17] Ben: I think what’s interesting about India is with Geo. They’ve almost sort of separated infrastructure from production, which is to say, “You know, since we own the infrastructure, we’ll allow foreign companies or American platforms to operate on the infrastructure, but we own the infrastructure.” So, they have a certain level of sovereignty, that Europe, for example, doesn’t have, because we need to have the platforms or the infrastructure, right? So, I wonder if that might be the model. You referenced Brazil. I wonder if that might be the model that is followed by others. At least, then, you have a stake in the digital world, whereas if you own neither the infrastructure nor the platform you have, nothing.

Belén: I agree. I think that at least you need to control the highway. And then, you get to decide which car can go through that highway and whether you have to charge or not and the whole thing. If you lack everything — if you lack the highway and the car, you’re done. So, as it was the case in the industrial world, you needed to have infrastructure for the trains that you built, controlled. Otherwise, if we didn’t have the money to build our own infrastructure in the 19th century, the British companies that built it, they did it for their own, not for the Spanish people. It was more to extract value out of mines, basically. So, we had exactly the wrong infrastructure that we did not own, not control, not design. You’re done. You cannot succeed in the industrial world, with those weaknesses.

[00:39:16.15] Ben: I want to speak of something that you talk about, which is that democracy does not equal voting. What do you mean when you say democracy does not equal voting and how is that sort of relevant to this digital shift?

Belén: People tend to think that if I vote, that’s fine, then I can defend my rights. But that’s not true. For example, you have certain rules to control propaganda or financing in a democracy or what kind of information you can give or how long — are you always in campaign or can you be bombarding people again and again and again, do you give them one day they have to think? Whatever. So a number of things that complement the voting. But I think that we have completely forgotten that that infrastructure of rules is key — and if you don’t have that, then voting doesn’t… Any dictator can organize voting. And, quite coincidentally, is always to his advantage, it’s always 95%. It’s not the voting. It is the whole thing that comes before the voting, that grants that that voting will be a legitimate exercise in terms of democratic access. So, that, for me is key. You can opt-out Facebook — that’s voting; you vote with your feet, which does not change much, perhaps, because you’re out, but that’s not much.

when information is for free, we tend to vote out of emotion

[00:41:02.27] Ben: So you’re arguing almost we’re succumbing to this illusion that because we get to vote more often and there are more referenda that we’re somehow more empowered and we have more control over our affairs, whereas you’re saying the opposite is true? Because if I understand what you’re saying, rightly, you’re saying a lot of the underpinnings of democracy as we think about it are being washed away or eroded by digitization. So, can we just delve slightly into that? So if we think about some of the things that are critical to a democracy, such as having accurate information, is that principally on information that you think that democracy is being eroded? Or do you see other areas where the waves of digitization are washing?

COVID-19 was the rise of nation states. They were reborn, and all of a sudden, people turned to them to be protected, in many ways — limiting the movement of citizens, offering healthcare, buying vaccines. So, the nation state has, again, become a key player in the economic and social world, which means that people, when in danger or in a difficult time, and in various situations, they turn to those that are closer to them and have the size to protect them

Belén: I’ll give you one example. I can access a lot of information. Does it mean that I can self-diagnose my illness? That’s completely wrong. I have information but not knowledge. So, the difference between information and knowledge now is quite clear. It has never been the case over centuries in human history. So, we need to understand this difference. And, you know, there was this very interesting exercise. IBM has this Project Debater and they created a machine that can debate with a person and they had this public exercise that you can watch on YouTube, of a guy debating with a machine.

Belén: And that exercise was arranged by Intelligence Squared US. And they have this mechanic whereby the public first says that they are against or for whatever proposition and then after the debate, they vote again. The party that has moved more wheels, if you want, or more opinions, wins. They did exactly the same. And their proposition was, “Should states finance, pre-schooling education?” And the machine was told to say ‘yes’, and why and the individual, ‘no’ and why. And the exercise was, for me, quite telling, because, of course, the machine came with hundreds of examples, of data, if you want. And the individual less, but some. But he, even though he voted he was against that proposition and most of the public was for the proposition at the beginning, he could move more opinions, because he could understand emotion. All of a sudden, when we all have access to information, that does not give us knowledge. That means that we can look at things that we would like. And, of course, you can always find data that justifies your prejudice. That’s always the case. You can look at part of the information, and that leads you to say, “Yes, I’m right!” Or the other part, which is, “I’m wrong.”

Belén: Finally, when information is for free, we tend to vote out of emotion. And when I saw that exercise that I found so interesting, I thought, “Now I understand Brexit.” So finally, is it, “Do I trust you or not? Do I think that you have an intention or not?” So, one of the things that I find quite interesting is that there’s this crisis in democracy, at least democratic states, that people are losing trust in institutions, being those private or public. And then comes COVID-19. And for me, it was quite a surprise because COVID-19 was the rise of nation states. They were reborn, and all of a sudden, people turned to them to be protected, in many ways — limiting the movement of citizens, offering healthcare, buying vaccines. So, the nation state has, again, become a key player in the economic and social world, which means that people, when in danger or in a difficult time, and in various situations, they turn to those that are closer to them and have the size to protect them. If it’s tiny, if it’s only a city, they don’t have the size to give me what I need. I need something larger. I think that’s good for democracy, of course. Any economic crisis raises the danger of populism and all these things. So, I’m not naive from that point of view. But the way I see it, I think that democracies with this huge crisis, have a chance to rebuild themselves. And, for example, the fact that the European Commission is now trying to get to buy enough vaccines, I think that increases their legitimacy. The problem was, in the beginning, the European Commission did not react at all. So it’s not only they lacked legitimacy, they lacked action. The fact that you need someone that can protect you, I think that gives a chance to democracies to react and rebuild themselves. But of course, they need to develop an understanding of the code, to control the rules. So, all these things that we have been mentioning, and of course, build your own infrastructures, as well.

[00:46:55.29] Ben: You often talk about how the conception of democracy is bound up with industrial age concepts, that I suppose the other question is, you know, if democracy depends on nation states, and nation states are with a long term view in trouble, and if democracy depends on the institutions of the industrial age, then is democracy in trouble from two sides?

Belén: The key distribution of wealth comes through wages to work, which is quite an evolution in terms of the history of the humankind. So if you work more, you get the chance to be wealthier. And that means that we are basically all the same because we can become the same over time. And so, why can you vote and not me? And you being first a landowner, then a man or a white man. So, if I am a woman, and black, and I am poor, I can become what you are. So, why can’t I vote? Now, with the digital world, it’s, again, if we find the way to assign prices to value, that can bring us again, to a situation where I can earn my living in a reasonable way, and hence, this whole structure can survive. If that’s not the case, if we cannot understand how value is created and distributed, and therefore, how fair our economies are — we don’t know how fair they are, because we don’t have the right measurement, again, so we will measure part of the fairness or unfairness; but the rest does not exist. So, if democracy is a key to grant fairness, then we need to have those tools. Some people will be helped by training. Some people won’t. So you need to think of how can you protect and help people that won’t be able to be retrained. You know, with COVID-19, I found quite interesting the fact that live sports have suffered so much, and then eSports are thriving. So, all of a sudden, you have a whole sector of eSports that is growing, and that entails employment, in many ways.

[00:49:25.12] Ben: Is that a positive? Because I absolutely 100% share your view. I’m an optimist, I believe that the world that awaits us will be more positive than the world that we leave behind. But I’m worried, like you are, about the transition, because this transition is now happening so much faster on the back of COVID-19. Does that somehow reduce the scope for wars or civil unrest or whatever nastiness that could normally come to because it’s happening now just, you know, at an accelerated rate?

Belén: In terms of the COVID-19 I’m worried about the short term economic effects it brings. That’s absolutely true. And it’s also true that is somehow accelerating these trends. But the positive side of it is that they’re becoming visible. If a problem exists, and it’s visible, you can tackle it. The problem that we have is that these trends have been there for 10 years, 20 years, and they weren’t visible at all. So, there was no public debate, public worry, nothing at all. Remote working has been there for a number of years and some companies were very good at using remote work, and some specific groups of people wanted to only work remotely. But it was sort of a lateral and receivable, but it was clear that it was a trend that at some point would affect many others. Why don’t we have an industrial organization with a service economy? That’s exactly the case. Now, all of a sudden, we have found that, indeed, we didn’t have an industrial organization. Well, now it’s visible. Now everyone is thinking of, “How can we do this? Should it be five days a week? How can we really apply this technology that we already had, but we didn’t use?” So, from that point of view, COVID is making many of these trends visible. I think that is, a tree that falls in the forest — is it falling? No one hears or sees it. It’s exactly the same with problems. And we only look at problems when they are big enough, as societies. Now they have become big enough. So, I think that that will also accelerate the transition in terms of their reaction.

[00:51:47.14] Ben: I almost feel like the furlough scheme, or you know, whatever it’s called in the country. Is, in some way, almost like an experiment in the universal income in a way, which is, how do we compensate people whose jobs are not going to exist in a digital world?

Belén: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And instead of having the finish with this experiment, now we are all making it. And there will be things that won’t work, but we will find which ones do. So I think that’s another example of things that I think are accelerated. You will get to see that. If you use that analogy of the COVID and digital, some populations are suffering more than others. And so, they get isolated, so you need to protect them more, because they are isolated, because they need to be isolated.

we have the chance to understand better the world that we are already living in. I think that societies have stopped and are thinking — which is really, really helpful because it’s not just the elite thinking

[00:52:38.13] Ben: A lot of people use the war analogy for what we’re going through, which is, the enemy is the disease, it’s not another country. And that’s interesting in a couple of ways, right? One, because the government’s taking an unprecedented or warlike intervention into the economy to boost aggregate demand, and so on, which is interesting. But then, what a lot of people say is that won’t be the rebuilding exercises necessary after a war, which then sustains aggregate demand. But in a way, don’t you think that might also force governments to figure out how to redefine the tax base?

Belén: Not only the tax base but also the economic structure. If you look at the European Union Fund, it talks about two things. One is green, and the other one is digital, which is we need to rebuild the societies thinking of those two things, which is quite a novelty, I have to say. So, we have an enormous amount of money to rebuild the economic structure. And that, I think, is a unique opportunity. So, we don’t have physical infrastructures that have been damaged, as is the case in a war, but we have indices that have been damaged by the digital world, and they have not been able to react. And so, I think that’s a huge chance. It’s sort of a Marshall Plan effort in a different way. So, it’s not bridges and buildings, but it is platforms and data. I think that there’s no clear answer to that. It will depend on the society and how they feel that they need it and whether they have someone that will finance that.

[00:54:35.16] Ben: But that Marshall Plan, if I’m not wrong, that Marshall Plan is something that Europe is thinking about, but it’s not something… You know, whether we consider the UK in Europe or not anymore, I think in four months we’ll find out but the UK doesn’t have an equivalent of the green new deal or the digital Marshall Plan, and the US may or may not, depending on elections in November. So, do you think many countries will take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild?

Belén: Again, I think about that, and it depends on the country. But in terms of the nation states, we are seeing, again, states are not only regulating but owning and managing a large part of the economy. So, that’s more sort of the ’70-like situation where you had the state doing two things: doing things and regulating those things. And I think that model that looked completely over is back, and it has advantages and disadvantages. So, back to the network effect, much of the technological revolution in the US came from the collaboration between private and public institutions. We never had that in Europe. Now, I think we’re going to have that. And it’s a precondition. But you need to have both sides of the world collaborating. I think that’s key. When you lack both, you lack size or the ability to combine private and public forces, that country will struggle, I think. It’s not only the quality of the politicians, which is key, but also the tools that they have. Probably they won’t have the same tools.

[00:56:29.29] Ben: I want to finish on, if we can, on a really positive note. I think you started by saying that digitization has been a force for the good, right? We may not see it in our GDP statistics or our productivity statistics but we feel it. We feel it in particular as consumers. But then we got on some slightly more negative topics. So we talked about how democracy is struggling in the face of digitization, we talked about how digitization is kind of dissolving the global world into nation states, we talked a bit about how the transition is going to be tough. Maybe we started to get into more optimistic ground with how the pandemic may find a route to faster transition. But I just wanted, if you would, to finish by giving us your most optimistic projection of the future.

Belén: It’s difficult for me because, by nature, I’m not an optimistic person. I think that the problems that you don’t identify, you don’t solve. So, I tend to focus more on the problems than on thinking that there won’t be problems. So that depends on how you define an optimist. But, in my view, I think that we have the chance to understand better the world that we are already living in. I think that societies have stopped and are thinking, which is really, really helpful because it’s not elite thinking. I think the whole society is thinking. It happens — this crisis — at a time when we have already suffered some of the negative impacts of the digital world. So, we have either Facebook political things and things like that. So I think that awareness is higher and I think that’s very good at all levels of society. So, for me, an optimistic or a positive — much more than optimistic, a positive outlook into the future, would be democracies get stronger, because they understand the rules of the game. We get to measure track, and if needed, to control the value and impact of digital and hence, we really create abundance and give it away to us. I think that Europe has the size, the human capital, and now the understanding. So, we have the tools, so let’s use them.

[00:59:19.08] Ben: Belén, thank you very much for your time!

Belén: Thank you! Thank you so much!

What we learned from doing the Structural Shifts Podcast

What the world looks like when seen through “a great series of conversations with people who are building the future”

 
 

In the break between seasons — season 2 starts again on September 24th — we thought we’d take stock and reflect on some of the things we’ve learnt from making our podcast.

When we started Structural Shifts (initially without a name, that came from episode 14), it was just an excuse to reach out to and chat with people whose life and work we found interesting. What surprised us was two-fold: firstly, that people liked it and recommended / introduced other people we should interview, making the whole endeavour sustainable; and, secondly, that many of the evergreen topics we set out to explore bubbled up to the top of the people’s agenda and consciousness.

The fundamental transformations that used to quietly shape our world — over years or decades — suddenly became topics for mainstream conversations. The acceleration everyone’s talking about — we felt it too and it has influenced how we make and develop the podcast.

It’s safe to say that doing the podcast has taught us valuable lessons.

“I found this podcast borderline post-modern, and refreshingly frank. A profound look into what’s next. Love every bit! The guests, the music, the format.” — Simone Cicero, Co-Creator of Platform Design Toolkit

A crisis can be clarifying

The worldwide lockdown had wide-ranging effects, some of them even on the positive side. For example, it enabled us to interview thinkers we greatly admire, but who are geographically remote — like Rita McGrath and John Hagel — as well as to grow our audience.

In a world already hungry for meaning, the pandemic triggered a pressing need for strategic thinking. First, it made people pause and reflect on what truly matters — for their lives, work, for the planet.

Then, because institutional and private reactions to the pandemic left many disillusioned, they became determined to gain a stronger understanding of big topics — fintechinternet business models, geopoliticsthe climatethe future of work.

We had profound, unhurried conversations with people who are thinking and doing things differently. Their thoughtful observations, distilled from decades of practice and reflection, challenged our received wisdom on a range of topics — from innovation to marketing — as well as encouraged us to entertain contrarian viewpoints.

Instead of a just-do-it mentality, the pandemic reinforced the timeless value of reflection and flexibility, reflexes that all our podcast guests share. If you keep an eye out for it, you’ll notice that in every episode we publish.

Good questions are catalysts for change

Good podcasts depend on two key ingredients: interesting guests and good questions.

Our listeners increasingly took care of introducing us to great thinkers, some of whom — like Brett Bivens or Julian Lehr — we caught on the rise to becoming big stars. And we concentrated on trying to get the best out of the conversations.

In the past six months, we’ve spent a lot more time on research. As our audience grew, so did our sense of responsibility to get the best out of every conversation. Many weekends and late nights were spent reading the books our guests had written, which made us well-prepared — and hopefully improved our the return on our listeners’ time.

Some of the book authors we had invited at Structural Shifts podcast

Our goal was also, for ourselves and our listeners, to delve into diverse topics such as the ethics of technological change or building a safety net for the self-employed. A risk because many podcasts listeners like to keep digging into a given topic like investing, we hoped to create the context for the cross-pollination of ideas, frameworks, and viewpoints that can serve both professional and personal pursuits.

As the inner workings and implications of the networked age leapt into view for the entire planet, we developed an even keener focus on asking questions that help us have better, more stimulating conversations. Questions are essential to decode, deconstruct, and rebuild our vision of the world as it is — and as it might become.

The case for techno-optimism is one of our favorite examples of such a conversation, providing signposts to use when engaging in mainstream conversations around key topics in tech and their society-wide impact.

“A great series of conversations with people who are building the future. Each one is like having a dinner conversation with a smart friend who has come back from a voyage. I listen when driving or jogging — the miles just melt away and I arrive with a refreshed mind.”

It’s easier to connect when you share purpose and focus

Another thing we noticed while doing the podcast, especially in the past 6 months, is that people who share the same principles tend to resonate (or “click”) more easily when having conversations remotely.

It was surprisingly easy to delve into complex topics with them because everyone was eager to dive in. Maybe you’ve also noticed how small talk takes less and less time in online meetings as we have more of them.

This desire to have important conversations, to support clarity and good decision-making translated into our guests sharing personal perspectives more openly.

What’s more, it was easier to connect with new guests who dedicated even more time than before to share their expertise and experiences. We’re grateful for every minute they spent with us!

Capturing attention in a roaring world is a big challenge

As Herbert Simon predicted, a wealth of information gives way to a poverty of attention.

Our response to this has never been to compete on giving information, but to focus on carefully curated insights. A great fan of craftsmanship, we meant for the conversation — except for maybe the couple we did on previewing the post-pandemic world — to be timeless; as relevant now or in two years’ time as they were the day they were recorded

We also found that the lockdown period — or more specifically the extra time that many people gained through not travelling and commuting — opened up more demand for the long-form product we offer.

“Always insightful and informative. It is a relaxed conversation with people who have had interesting experiences and something to say. Ben Robinson, brings out the best in each guest.”

The Structural Shifts podcast remains one of our favorite projects, in which our enthusiasm for the topic and our guests’ generosity combine to help you see farther — and more clearly.

Helping ourselves and our network to move from scalable efficiency to scalable learning and, in do doing, to prosper in our networked age is why we do the podcast.

We hope it helps you achieve the same.

“I really love this podcast series. There’s not much content like this coming out from Europe. Should serve as an example to others” — Bozidhar Hristov


Our thanks to all of our guests and listeners and to Sarah Mikutel, our podcast editor. In series 2, we’ll be back with more mind-expanding conversations, covering the token economy, the future of finance, the end of globalization, the startup community way, the new precariat and much more…

Igniting Entrepreneurial Sparks (#28)

Structural Shifts with Michel Jordi, serial entrepreneur

Full transcript:

 

 

We were four people at the launch of Le Clip. Six months later, in November, we were 50 people, and we produced 10,000 watches a day.

Ben: Michel, welcome to the podcast!

Michel: Hello, everybody! Thank you for having me here! I’m looking forward to a great talk with you!

[00:01:37.17] Ben: So Michel, in preparation for this podcast, we read your book — we read ‘Ignite That Spark’. I mean, it’s a wonderful book! You could call it a self-help book for entrepreneurs, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s really a celebration of entrepreneurship. And so, we’re going to talk about this book, in quite a lot of detail. But I hadn’t realized, until you arrived this morning, that you’d also written an autobiography because my impression of this book was that, you know, I loved it, I would advise everybody to read it. It’s a very easy, compelling read, but the bit that it misses a bit is your life story. And then, when you arrived this morning you said, “Actually, I’ve got this massive tome, which is my autobiography.” And so, if you don’t mind, can we start there? Can we start with just a little bit of your background? How you entered the watch industry? You did your first startup at 23 in Japan — how did you end up in Japan? So, if you don’t mind, could you fill in the gaps on Ignite That Spark and tell us how you started in this industry and why you were in Japan in the first place?

my dad was my first role model, the perfect example of what I really did not want to do with my life — Michel JORDI

Michel: Yeah! It sounds interesting, thank you very much! You know, life is a journey and it’s a learning process. We learn every day. I’ve been a very, very curious person, enthusiastic, loving life. When I grew up, my dad had eight-to-five jobs, leaving every morning at 7:30, coming home for a one-hour lunch break, and go back to work until 5 PM. And when I saw him in action, my dad was my first role model, the perfect example of what I really did not want to do with my life.

Ben: Yeah, sometimes happens.

Michel: I mean, I decided right there in my teens, “This is not what I’m going to do. I want to be independent, to break free, to be my own boss in planning my day.” This was really my goal. Fortunately, I had a fantastic mother who, when I was 18 or 19, she said, “You have to go to England. You have to study English because if you don’t speak English you’ll never get anywhere in your life.” So I went to England — actually, not in London. I was at Leeds University, which was great because nobody spoke German or French there, so I was forced to speak English every day and to learn it quite quickly. I must say, it’s a great language — the language of Shakespeare, which I love very much. When I came back, my sister had already moved to Geneva because she wanted to improve her French and she said, “Why don’t you come down here?” So I still remember, 16th of April 1969, I ended up and I slept on the floor in my sister’s studio. That was my first night in Geneva. I immediately was very quickly in a company in Geneva, a watch factory. It was a time when the Japanese watches became very strong — Seiko, Citizen — and all their watches had metal bracelets, except the Swiss watches. We had only leather straps. And I remember, they put me in charge of the purchasing department there, at that watch company. And our salesmen always complained that we did not have any metal bracelets. So they told me to seek for metal bracelets. So, I looked around and I realized that the manufacturers in Switzerland, first of all, they were only very few and very expensive — 50 francs or more a metal bracelet. So, I looked around and I realized that all these bracelets came from Asia — Japan, Hong Kong, Korea.

[00:05:14.28] Ben: At that point, was the Swiss watch industry losing competitiveness because it didn’t have metal straps?

Michel: The Swiss watch industry was in deep trouble — really threatened by the Japanese watch manufacturers. As I said, Seiko, Citizen, Ricoh, Orient — these were the four big ones. But it was not only the bracelets, but technological changes. Number one, there were the quartz watches because the Swiss, although they invented the quartz watch, they didn’t believe in it. The Japanese used that technology and they made the watches always thinner, and thinner, and thinner. And the Swiss watches were big potatoes, heavy potatoes. Nobody wanted them in the world markets. And in addition, in all those warm and hot countries, humid countries, a leather strap is dead after three or four months. So that’s why the Japanese have metal bracelets. And I wanted to bring those metal bracelets to the Swiss watch manufacturers, as well.

Michel: So, I left for Japan — I was 23 years old — made a joint venture which was my first startup at age 23. And there, in Tokyo, I remember I had 10,000 Swiss francs in my pocket, and I knocked on the door of the biggest major bracelet manufacturer in Japan — 3000 people. And I remember as if it was yesterday, the president of the company, the chairman of the company, he received me there, I explained to him about my dream, what I wanted to do. He did not even let me finish my sentence. He just came out and said, “Jordi-son, you must have a big dream!” And so, he told me, “Look, if you don’t have big dreams, you never get anywhere.” You know, I expected that we would discuss five or 10-year plans. The guy spoke of the 21st century and the Silk Road long before it was a thing. He said, “Jordi, I’m going to make a silk road to Europe and you will be my first link.” That’s where it started. The bracelet was my first business. I founded that in 1971. And after about 15 years, I kind of got tired. I mean, business was flourishing, we made 25 million Swiss francs in sales with metal bracelets. I was the biggest supplier of metal bracelets to the Swiss watch industry. Everybody used my bracelets.

Michel: And then, Le Clip was my second company. The way Le Clip came along: I was always looking for new designs for watch bracelets, and we worked with a lot of freelance designers. And one day, I came into an office of designers, here downtown Geneva, and there was a drawing of a clock in the shape of a closed pack. There is a big clock, those taper clocks which you put in watch stores as advertising. And when I saw that clock — this was in 1985 — it was just shortly before the Swatch watch was launched. And when I saw that, it was within one night; it was a spark, really. A spark. I saw the whole business plan, I saw this, instead of a heavy brass clock, I saw that in plastic with colorful fancy designs, and to be clipped on and wore anywhere, everywhere except on the wrist. And so, the next day I went back to these guys, I bought the drawing for 1000 Swiss francs. And then, I developed the whole thing. And that was in September 1985. Le Clip was launched on June 10th, ’86. I mean, seven, eight months later, we were on the market.

[00:08:55.11] Ben: When did the Swatch watch come?

Michel: ’82 or ‘83.

Ben: Okay. So you were riding the wave.

Michel: Yeah. I was riding the wave. It’s true.

[00:09:06.25] Ben: Yeah. One of the anecdotes I loved from the book is that… So, you’ve spotted the opportunity to do something a bit different with Le Clip and you got some investors on board. And then, you said those investors became a bit nervous and they wanted some external party to validate the opportunity. And they called on McKinsey to do so. And McKinsey pretty much rubbished the idea, right? Or at least said that you couldn’t price it at any sort of premium. And you chose to just completely disregard the McKinsey report and just launch anyway, at the price point you’d already thought.

Michel: Yeah. I’ve mentioned this in my book, Ignite That Spark. For me, everything starts with a vision. And my vision was so clear about this Le Clip watch. I mean, as you said, I took the Swatch watch as a benchmark. But it was not a wristwatch. And our slogan, actually, was “The watch to be worn everywhere except on the wrist.” That was our slogan. And, for me, it was clear I had to position it at the same price as the Swatch watch — 50 Swiss francs. Not 49.95 or 51. It had to be 50 — exactly the same thing, with the same very, very trendy, colorful, advertising and promotions. And I was just sure. I work a lot with my guts. I listen to my guts. And I had the gut feeling that this was the thing to do. And I put 35,000 watches in production.

Michel: And in the beginning, the problem was I couldn’t find any retailers. Nobody wanted to buy that watch because it is not the watch you sell at traditional watch retailers. They didn’t look at it as a watch. So, I went to see department stores. And department stores loved the idea because it was colorful, they saw the success with the Swatch watch. And the big advantage that you have with the department stores is you get a lot of frequency. People come through. They just go through these stores, they see it, they look at it. And at 50 Swiss francs, you impulse purchase. But still, my two partners were afraid. They said, “Michel, you have to make market research.” So we did market research by McKinsey. And the report came out just about a month before the launch. It was devastating! “No one will buy the product. Totally useless. It’s a gimmick. Who the hell cares about a watch in a closed pack, and what is the watch for if you can’t wear it on the wrist?” And I used that, actually, as my promotional slogan: “The watch to be worn everywhere except on the wrist.”

[00:11:49.26] Ben: There’s a great photo in the book, with “You’re wearing it everywhere but the wrist”.

Michel: Yeah. Actually, we made the front of the People Magazine in the United States. Front page! And People Magazine into circulation is three and a half million, with 46 million readerships. We made the front page of People Magazine! It was amazing!

[00:12:10.10] Ben: So, please buy the book, but if you don’t — this is a photo of Jordi and he’s got watches hanging off his mustache, his hair, his eyebrows, his ear, his finger. It’s a very impactful image.

Michel: Yeah. And if you turn the page, you see Andy Warhol, who came as a special guest for the launch in New York, in October 1986. And, actually, he told the journalist, “I’m waiting for Michel to make a version to clip on my contact lenses.” I loved that one! He was a great guy!

[00:12:48.06] Ben: So your lesson from the McKinsey incident — we’ll call it that — was that you can’t put too much stock by market research. It can essentially prevent you from doing what your gut tells you — and your gut is sometimes a better yardstick of what might work than market research.

Michel: Yeah, for me, at least. I mean, I listen to my gut. Everything I do, I listen to my gut. Which, of course, it doesn’t mean that you’re always 100% right. I mean, sometimes you know, it is a little bit trickier. What market research does not do is it does not take into consideration your advertising expenditures and your promotions. I mean, we sponsored the Montreux Jazz Festival. We had an advertising budget of a million Swiss francs in 1985 or ’86. That was a hell of a lot of money. We had TV commercials, billboards, and the Montreux Jazz Festival. And people just loved the product! I mean, it took off like a rocket. We sold 1 million watches for 23 million Swiss francs in the first year. I mean, imagine, that’s almost 2 million per month for a startup in which the McKinsey report did not believe in the product at all. We were four people at the launch of Le Clip. Six months later, in November, we were 50 people and we produced 10,000 watches a day. I mean, just structure-wise, organizational-wise, everything was just so fast. It took off like a rocket. In all of my life, I’ve never lived anything like those first six months. It was just absolutely unbelievable! The sky was the limit — I can say that!

[00:14:42.29] Ben: And how did that feel?

Michel: It felt fantastic! It was so motivating! It was actually uplifting. We were like on a cloud. We were just running through the world on a cloud. It was unbelievable!

[00:14:59.08] Ben: One of the things I also liked about your book, which resonated with me was — I mean, it’s obvious when you talk about your dad’s life story that you wanted something that was in opposition to that rigid corporate life. But then, what you say in the book is that, as an entrepreneur, you feel the highs so much more and also the lows so much more. And so, I can just imagine how it felt to, first of all, prove all the naysayers wrong. And then, to get something out there, where you’re producing, 10,000 watches a day, and everybody wanted it. I mean, I can just imagine how that felt.

Michel: Yeah! I mean, department stores like Grand Passage in Geneva or Globus in Zurich, they had to empty their cash register on big days — Friday, Saturday — they were doing it three times a day. There was so much cash, they couldn’t put the cash anymore in. At that time, you didn’t pay by credit cards. You paid cash.

a lot of people say, “The business plan is dead, forget about the business plan.” I think it’s totally wrong. — Michel JORDI

[00:15:53.28] Ben: Yeah. That’s wonderful! So I guess, also, you were very much part of the renaissance of the Swiss watch industry at that time, right?

Michel: Yes! Which, as I said, was initiated by the Swatch watch. And this came along. It was in the same trend.

[00:16:09.29] Ben: So, in this story in the book, you talk a lot about your gut instinct. You also have this — you call it, ‘ready-fire-aim’, right? This idea that if the timing’s right, you’ve got to get something into market, and then you can iterate after that. But, at the same time, you talk a lot about the importance of writing a detailed business plan, documenting the mission, the vision. How do you reconcile the ready-fire-aim mentality with having really detailed business plans? Because this was one thing where I kept reading those two statements in the book and thinking “I’m not sure they’re completely consistent.” So I just wonder how you, yourself, reconcile those two.

in discussing with young entrepreneurs who always say “I have a great idea, I want to do this and this.” I say, “Put it on paper.” — Michel JORDI

Michel: The book is divided into four parts. Part one talks about the lucky clover, which is the first four commandments. And those first four commands are vision, guts, different, and timing. And I think these four are so important — and what I’m telling all young entrepreneurs is, “Fill this out — that lucky clover — and evaluate it with notes from zero to 10, for each of the four leaves. If you hit 40, you’re gonna have a home run.” In those three companies, I always had 40. And that’s why the three companies became international successes. I mean, Le clip, The Swiss Ethno watch, the Twins Heritage — they all were 40 point measurements on the lucky clover. But if you’re below 30, I think you should really worry about what you’re going to do as an entrepreneur.

Ben: Yeah.

The only thing that changes all the time is the market. So adapt to it. If you want to be successful and stay in business, you have to adapt to the market. — Michel JORDI

Michel: Then you have to start to measure what is missing, which of the four parts are not correct? What I’m trying to say in this book because a lot of people say, “The business plan is dead, forget about the business plan.” I think it’s totally wrong. Well, what I think is, it’s almost impossible to do and what is not right is when people ask you to make sales projections for the next three to five years. This is extremely difficult, especially for a new business. But what is important in writing your business plan is going through the thinking process of your business. It’s like what I also explained afterwards in my rainbow target, which talks about marketing, price positioning, and all these different things. It is very important, when you write a business plan, it forces you to go through the thinking process of your business, and then, suddenly, you get stuck somewhere. Did you think about distribution? Did you think about marketing? Did you think about the point of sale? All these things, you have to think of it. And I felt, in discussing with young entrepreneurs who always say “I have a great idea, I want to do this and this.” I say, “Put it on paper.”

Ben: Yeah.

Michel: The minute they put it on paper, they get stuck. They don’t know what to write on the paper. That’s what I’m trying to say, if you cannot put it on paper, that means your vision is not clear and it’s going to be very, very difficult to reach your goal. But then, as I also said, ready-fire-aim means you cannot always get all the parameters 100% the way you would like to have them, because there’s some gray zones. You don’t know exactly what to do. If you want to, just aim all the time, you can aim for 2,3,4 years — you never shoot. So there comes a time, there’s a certain factor of risk involved, you have to shoot and then aim as you go along because then, you really, in the real world, you’re in the market, and you have to adapt to that market at all times. Markets are changing. The only thing that changes all the time is the market. So adapt to it. If you want to be successful and stay in business, you have to adapt to the market.

[00:20:16.16] Ben: Yes. Jeff Bezos talks about this idea of being able to take decisions when you’ve got 80% of the available data.

Michel: Yeah. Exactly!

[00:20:26.15] Ben: So what you’re saying is a business plan for you is making sure you understand the big blocks that will be needed to be successful. So, understanding your go-to market plan, understanding how you’re going to do marketing, distribution — but it doesn’t have to be completely precise. And there’s no point in doing five-year projections.

Michel: Absolutely! I totally agree! No, I mean, as I said, you cannot always have everything right. There is a gray zone, which you only know once you’re in the market. That’s what I’m saying. Then you start to aim.

part of the problem is when you make a disruptive product — like Le Clip and also the Swiss Ethno watch — if you want to make a market research, you’re going to meet some people. They all say ‘no’. Do you know why? There are no benchmarks. They cannot compare with something existing. — Michel JORDI

[00:20:56.29] Ben: Tell us a bit more about the Swiss Ethno watch.

Michel: Well, as I said, I mean, from Le Clip, the problem with Le Clip was it grew so fast that I just couldn’t finance the whole project. I ran out of cash. So, I had to bring in an investor. And I was very naive and believed everything he said, instead of taking a lawyer or an advisor with me to make sure we all do every step properly. I trusted my two former partners, that they will take care of that part. But instead, they partnered up with the new guy, and they kicked me out. So I mean, a naivete. I concentrated on business, whereas they concentrated on what is the best way to kick him out so we can take control of the business, you know? And then, of course, I didn’t know what to do.

[00:21:55.29] Ben: You’re right! I’ve missed an important step, which was exactly this point, which is, you lost control of your own company. And I think this is, again, one of the lessons you draw in the book, which is around managing cash flow. Because this is a classic case of, you just grew so fast, there has been such working capital pressures on the company, that in the end, you had to take in what we might now call ‘vulture capital’ — you took in capital that came with, ultimately, in this case, really horrendous repercussions. So, talk to us a bit about some of those lessons. I mean, I think there’s a whole section here.

Michel: Yeah, it’s commandment number 10 — Cash Flow. Cherish your cash. Cash is your oxygen, as in if you run out of it, you die. But again, I went to IMD, I went to Harvard. That is exactly what they tell you everywhere: “Be careful. Don’t run out of cash. Grow slowly, because if you run out of cash, you may lose control.” That was the situation with Le Clip. And there was just no choice. It just went through the wall! You can’t stop it. You can’t stop it. But then, I mean, maybe today, what I would have done differently, I should have immediately taken my personal lawyer or advisor and make negotiations myself instead of my first partners doing it. Because, in the end, they just partnered up, as I said, with the new investor and kicked me out. I mean, the guy promised to invest seven and a half million Swiss francs in 1987. That was a hell of a lot of money. He brought two and a half million. The rest never came. So, I took a lawyer, I started to attack him, but I had already lost the majority when the deal was done. I was below 50%. And he brought only two and a half million. What can you after it? It was too late! I couldn’t come back. I mean, I was kicked out but as I said, in hindsight, you’re always smarter, you know what you should have done differently. I just had to acknowledge that this was one of my learning curves, one of the things which did go wrong, but I knew should have been done differently. But I can also say that had there not been Le Clip, there would never have been the Swiss Ethno watch because I couldn’t do this with the Ethno watch, without all the lessons, everything I learned from that first experience.

[00:24:34.06] Ben: And so, talk to us about the Ethno watch. First of all, where the idea came from, how you executed the idea, what you did that was different from Le Clip? So, building on the learnings from Le Clip.

Michel: Well, first of all, Le Clip was sold at 50 Swiss francs, it was a fashion accessory wore everywhere except on the wrist, but the Swiss Ethno watch was a classical wristwatch to wear on the wrist with a leather strap. But, what I did differently because after Le Clip, I made a trip around the world to see former friends, to get ideas, brainstorm what should I do next. I mean, I was devastated, I lost my ground, I had a family to feed, I had two kids. And I knew only one thing: that I wanted to remain free and independent. So, no way that I would go and work for somebody else. So I went around the world, saw old friends, and asked for advice, “What do you think I should do?” And several of them said, “Make your own watch. Why don’t you make your own watch?”

Ben: Yeah.

Michel: As I said, “Who is ever going to buy a watch where it says ‘Michel Jordi’ on the dial?” I just couldn’t envision that at this point. I didn’t have the confidence to put my name on the dial. It was my wife, actually, who convinced me. She said, “You have to do it!” She felt it was a great idea! She’s Korean origin, she has a big spirit and can think big. After a few months, I decided, “Okay, let’s have a go!” And then, these people I met around the world in Singapore and Japan said, “Why don’t you make a typical Swiss watch? Like the Swiss Army knife.” Now, what is so typical about Switzerland? The most typical symbols we have in Switzerland are the cows and the edelweiss. So I took to cowbell, embroidered the edelweiss on the strap, and the cows went in circle around the bezel of the watch — That’s exactly it. It was amazing! It was an amazing timepiece. But, again, part of the problem is when you make a disruptive product — like Le Clip and also the Swiss Ethno watch — if you want to make a market research, you’re going to meet some people. They all say ‘no’. Do you know why? There are no benchmarks. They cannot compare with something existing. So, they said, “This is a kitschy tourist trap. No Swiss will ever buy the product. Maybe you can find some tourists in Interlaken or Lucerne.” But I decided to do it anyway. I put 10,000 watches in production before I even had an order.

I did not sell folklore, I sold lifestyle — Michel JORDI

Michel: And, again, retailers didn’t want to buy it. I decided to make it rare and limit distribution to only 100 product sets. But each one of them had to invest in a package of 100 watches for 20,000 Swiss francs. And I managed to get them together. It was very, very hard work, a lot of persuasion, a lot of traveling, but finally, thanks to Bucherer — the big retail chain store, Bucherer — they ordered 1500 watches as a starter. And once I had Bucherer on board — the best retail in Switzerland — all the other followed because if Bucherer says that’s fine, then, I think it must be something good. So, I managed to put them together. I made an amazing launch. I invited them to launch the product to the cradle of Switzerland, at the shores of Lake Lucerne for an unbelievable launch party, for which they had to dress in their Swiss national costumes. They were all motivated and joyful. They all went home and said, “We’ve got to spread Swiss Ethno fever”, and suddenly the product took off. I can also say, one thing is, we spent one and a half million at the launch party, advertising, and promotion-wise. If you cannot advertise heavily in promotion, you don’t have a chance to bring the message across.

Commitment is 200% and you never think about the plan B, when you start. It’s impossible. — Michel JORDI

[00:28:47.04] Ben: Yeah. Because you’re trying to persuade people to change their buying behavior.

Michel: It’s a must. You have to make it a must. I wanted it to make it a must. But I did not sell folklore, I sold lifestyle. The most important thing was to sell it as a lifestyle product.

[00:29:04.23] Ben: There’s a few things to delve into, here. So, one is marketing. I mean, I’m a marketer myself, and so, I loved some of the things you were saying in the book about marketing, because my frustration or my critique of a lot of marketing efforts is they put too much emphasis on just one of the P’s — promotion. And what I liked a lot in your book is you talk a lot about the other three P’s. And one of the things you talked about a lot was these launch events and the impact you can have of getting something on the radar of people, of the consumer who’s time-poor, of the publications who are stretched in terms of resources. And so, a big launch event could catalyze the branding and the marketing of something new. So, can you talk to us about that? Because I think that, again, there’s a lot on this in terms of these launch events.

Michel: Yeah, it’s crucial. I think it’s crucial in our success. If you only advertise or communicate through classical marketing, you have those beautiful pages in magazines. But today you open a magazine, there are tons of advertising. Tons of advertising, also, of watches. But people don’t talk about an advert. They just turn the page. But when you make a crazy event, like what we did — we made a fashion show at Piccadilly Circus with cogs, a Swiss Folk group, and Swiss flags, as well. I mean, Piccadilly stood still. And then we made the Swiss Primetime Evening News. I made an advertisement at the foot of the pyramids, in Egypt. We took a sailboat up to the foot of the Matterhorn. All those crazy events. Then, what it does is, first of all, it projects the company as being very dynamic, disruptive, unusual. And, at the same time, people talk about it: “Did you see what the guy did? It was cows and edelweiss and camels in front of the pyramids or a sailboat at the foot of the Matterhorn!” People talk about things like that. So you can stretch it for quite a while. And especially, also, I always invited my retailers — the network — to these events, because I wanted them to be part of it. And very often, we didn’t just invite the owners, but the sales personnel because suddenly, the sales personnel was there at the launch with the owner of the company — with Michel Jordi. They could talk to him. You know, you have to be very humble in these situations. We’re all the same. And the retail, if you want to sell something, it is a long chain. Many people are involved and important for a sale. And I always say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And, if at the front of the sales point, the salesgirl, the salesman, doesn’t believe in your product, doesn’t propose your product, you’re not going to make any sales. So, that’s what I say. Then you advertise. The last ‘p’, as you mentioned before, is the point of sale. If when you advertise, you cannot have a really optimal presentation, your product doesn’t stand out on the point of sale. You’re not going to sell it.

[00:32:29.23] Ben: And I suppose this idea of hacking — we might call it hacks or guerilla marketing — it’s actually become probably more, not less important, right? Because we’re all on our devices, we’re all even more distracted than we were in the past. So, it’s even harder to get on to the consumer’s radar because the consumer is more attention-deprived than ever. So I think the lessons in here are, you know, it’s not like because you were launching watches in the ’80s that these lessons are not applicable today. I would say they’re even more applicable today. And the other thing I liked a lot when you were talking about marketing was the importance of price on the one hand, but the other thing was packaging.

in my age, it was a shame to fail. It was a real shame. People looked down on you […] I mean, I failed four times. So what? Give yourself a chance to fail because, as I said, the most important thing when you fail is that you learn a lesson every time. — Michel JORDI

Michel: The packaging is very important. The first contact your customer has with your product it’s the packaging. First of all, you have to stand out! Of course, I mean, I’m lucky. I mean, I’m a Swiss citizen. What are the Swiss colors? It’s red and white. And red is the color of passion. Red was always involved in my packaging and everything. So red stands out. My books are red.

[00:33:39.15] Ben: Yes, that’s true! And also, for the Ethno watch, timing, again, was very important because you timed the watch to coincide with Swiss anniversary, right?

Michel: Yeah. Again, it’s part of the lucky clover — the first four commandments — as I said, vision, guts, differentiation. If you’re not different, if you don’t have a USP or a competitive advantage, you don’t stand a chance. And then, the last of these four is timing. And I realized that all these companies, which have been very successful, the timing was just perfect. And there’s a market research by American Venture Capital Group who revealed that 42% of startups fail because of bad timing. And I must say, sometimes it takes a portion of luck. I mean, the Swiss Ethno watch, without the 700 years anniversary, will probably not have been as successful as it was. Because we got a lot of write-ups from the press because we linked it with this 700 year anniversary. And if I come back to Le Clip: Le Clip was because I could jump on the bandwagon of the Swatch watch. And then, the Twins Heritage — I mean, imagine, my third watch, the Twins Heritage. I made Le Clip 50 Swiss francs. The Swiss Ethno watch, gold plate — 395. And then, after that, I come with the Twins Heritage — the price is ranged from between 70,000 to 220,000 Swiss francs for watches. When you go to any university, any business school, they just tell you, “This is simply impossible. You cannot, with the same brand, Michel Jordi — Le Clip was different — but from 395 you go up to 70,000 or 200,000!” Everybody said it’s impossible. And that’s what the press told me: “You’re crazy! It’s simply impossible. You’ll not be able to do it!” You know what? We made a fantastic launch event, with a great write-up in the Tribune de Geneve, production for Twins Heritage was booked out for a whole year within only two weeks after the launch. And we sold over 4 million Swiss francs of watches, in the first year. It was amazing! And because it was, again, something different.

[00:36:12.06] Ben: I just want to get back to the idea of guts, which is one of the four parts of the lucky clover. How do you rank guts? Because clearly, you’ve shown massive guts, putting a 10,000 order for Swiss Ethno before you’d even had a single retailer prepared to take it. It shows massive bravery. But, how do you rate guts out of 10? Because I can see how you could see what’s in the market and you get a sense for, this is 10 out of 10 differentiated. I can see how you can look at the timing and say, “Okay, there’s something I can hang this on.” There’s some market change or some technological change, and that’s the perfect timing. I can see how the vision you could rank it out of 10. How do you rank guts out of 10?

Michel: Well, I guess everybody has his own way of measuring his guts’ capacity or whatever. I mean, I just kind of developed it. Somehow I developed this and that was always very daring. I mean, guts is daring courage, risk-taker. I mean, guts has a lot to do with risk-taker. I took a hell of a lot of risks in my life. It also failed sometimes. I mean, that’s why I’ve fallen on my nose. But the good thing about guts, it’s like when you eat: sometimes you bite up a little bit too much than you can chew. So, you have to work your way through, to be able to chew it down and digest it. It’s the same thing with guts. Sometimes, you maybe took a bite a little bit too big. But it forces you to find solutions. You just have to go because giving up is no option. My book, actually, the autobiography, the English title, actually, is “Guts” and the subtitle “Giving up is no Option.” That’s the only thing, just guts. I envision things, I fix myself objectives. And then, of course, you have to weigh “How far can I go? How much can I bite up and hope to be able to digest?” And then you just have to run for it. You just have to work. It’s very, very hard work. And you just don’t give up. There’s no choice.

the best product in the world is of no use if people don’t know that it exists and where to buy it and why should you buy it — Michel JORDI

[00:38:36.20] Ben: Yeah. And another part of the book is where you were interviewed, and somebody said, “Well, what’s your plan B?” And you laughed, and you said, “There is no plan B”. So it’s gut almost like a proxy for just how committed you are to this?

Michel: That’s a very, very, very good question. As you say, correctly, this TV presenter asked me, “What’s your plan B for when you start your new company?” No. Commitment is 200% and you never think about the plan B, when you start. It’s impossible. That means you have two business plans. You have, “This is what I want to achieve” and “This is what I do when it fails.” That means that you plan to fail there in the first two weeks or the first two months. Forget it! Then you’d better don’t start. I mean, when you launch something, you plan to be there at least for a year or two or more. And since the markets are moving so much in six months, once you choose this, the market will be so different, everything’s so different than when you started out, that you cannot foresee what will be your plan B by then. So, just focus and concentrate on your success and make it happen.

[00:39:53.09] Ben: In the book, you point out that the pace of change is accelerating all the time, which is, I suppose, a good and a bad thing, right? Because more and more opportunities are opening up for entrepreneurs. And then, you say that also, that it’s become cheaper and cheaper to launch startups because the barriers to entry, the tech costs of creating a startup are falling. So, is your advice now, still the same as it was — i.e. create a business plan, have massive conviction, do the research, understand if it’s differentiated? Or is it more trial and error, now, because there’s so much change, to do more startups, to try more things?

Michel: Of course. Of course. I mean, time is now! I mean, your time is now. Of course, the thing is, you cannot stop progress, and we cannot stop where we are moving now. But I think every era, every period has its pros and cons and its advantages. I would say, today it’s so much easier to start a company, than in my time. First of all, in my time, it was almost impossible to find the money. We didn’t have the same technology. We had no computers, we had no iPhones, we had nothing. No smartphones. Today, all the tools are there. They are at your disposal. And also, I mean, in my age, it was a shame to fail. It was a real shame. I mean, people looked down on you, “Look at this guy! He failed!” I mean, I failed four times. So what? I mean, give yourself a chance to fail because, as I said, the most important thing when you fail is that you learn a lesson every time you fall. And, as I said, without Le Clip, I could never have done the Swiss Ethno watch; and without the Swiss Ethno watch, I could not have done the Twins Heritage. Everything became an evolution and was a fantastic learning curve. And what I can say, also, in hindsight, I don’t regret anything. I had a fantastic life. I enjoyed myself. I never looked at my watch. I never felt that I was working. Yeah, as a watchmaker, I never looked at my watch.

Ben: Yeah, as you say, it’s an irony.

Michel: I really had fun. I just lived my passion — and I think that’s the most important thing: people living their passion. I mean, life is so short and it gives so many opportunities. And also, when I mentioned the event marketing and all that stuff — today, things have not changed. Event marketing is still there. But it’s different because today you have the social media. With social media, you can make so much noise! You have Instagram, you have Facebook, you have all these things. We didn’t have that. So, the enormous opportunities and the advice I could give to young entrepreneurs who want to start their own business, start as early as possible. Start in your teens. The greatest thing to teens — 13 to 19 — because maybe you’re still in school, but you have peers, you have colleagues. You have no responsibility, no family responsibility, you have no kids. And it gives you a chance at 19 or 20 — you can fail two, three times and you’re still young to make it to the next point. And every time, you learn something, until you finally hit the jackpot!

in all of my companies, the most important for me was to surround myself with competent people — Michel JORDI

[00:43:31.13] Ben: I think this is, again, a really salient point, which is, you talk in the book about always being curious, always learning — which I’d say is, again, universally applicable probably more important now than ever, right? You know, you talked about your father’s life, this sort of rigid eight to five type setup and you wanting to do something different and be your own boss, and so on. But actually, almost like the option to have that rigid corporate life is disappearing, right? Because I mean, there aren’t so many jobs that you can do for your whole life anymore, right? So, it’s almost like more of a need to become entrepreneurs through necessity than was the case before. And one of your definitions of an entrepreneur is somebody who’s just constantly curious and constantly learning. Do you think you can teach that? Or do you think that’s just something that’s inherent intrinsic to individuals?

Michel: I think everybody has the ability to cultivate it. It’s an attitude. It’s an attitude to be curious. I mean, I’m so curious. I always ask a lot of questions. I want to know more, and I never take no for an answer. I want to know what is behind. And I think today, for the kids, they just have to be alert. Be alert. Eyes open, ears open all the time! And learn. Because, in the end, what is important is know-how. Through all the experiences we do, we learn a lot of things — which today we call know-how. And know-how is maybe one of the few things you don’t learn at the business school or universities. You only learn it by doing. So do it. Break your neck. Stand up and try the next thing. You know, without failure, there will never be any progress. You have to understand that. You know, the Wright brothers, the people who started to fly — how long did it take until you could fly an airplane? How long did it take until you could lift up and fly? How many people died? I mean, unfortunately, it’s the same thing, but the damages are not the same because you don’t lose your life. Those pioneers lost their lives.

[00:45:57.06] Ben: Yeah. Maybe we should talk about one of the things that didn’t work for you, which was the Swiss Icon. What was the reason it didn’t work, from an approach point of view? Did you apply the same methodology, the business plan, etc. to that business? Or was that one where you knew it was riskier because it didn’t score so well on the lucky clover? Talk to us about that.

Michel: It’s the perfect example. And I think it really rounds up my book because if I look at that lucky clover, at least two out of the four leaves were not optimal. The number one was timing — it was the worst time.

Ben: If you could just elaborate on that.

Michel: We launched it in August 2011. It was exactly when the Euro collapsed and so did the Swiss francs. And suddenly, you could buy Swiss watches cheaper in London or Paris or anywhere in the world, because the drop was over 20%. It was unbelievable! That was, even, at that point in time was almost par: one euro for one Swiss franc, for a couple of weeks. And so, of course, everybody stopped buying. I started to sell only on the Swiss market, concentrate on the Swiss market. So, time was definitely very bad.

Michel: Another thing was differentiation. It was a beautiful product. This is a beautiful product, I have it on my wrist every day, but it was not as different as all my other products. And when it is not that different, then what you need is you need very, very heavy advertising. You need a hell of a lot of advertising. And what we did, I had two partners in that company. So, what we did when the Swiss franc collapsed, we cut our advertising expenditure. Huge! We just crossed and stopped everything. And that was the first big mistake. And what we should have done is, if you cut the advertising budget, you should also reduce the price because suddenly that price — 7900 for a chronograph would only be paid if you advertised strongly so people would want to have it. But if you reduce your communication budget, your price should also come down, your retail. So maybe we should have sold it at 4900 or whatever, 3900. We didn’t do that. So it was definitely a mistake, a misjudgment, or whatever. But as I said, I also had two partners. I couldn’t do everything. I mean, the launch wasn’t the way I wanted to. And then came my bicycle accident where I lost consciousness and I had three broken ribs and things were going to get very, very difficult and more complex. And I decided, in the end, to sell the company to the partners and get out of it.

[00:49:08.10] Ben: So, was one of your learnings that when you’re launching a disruptive product, the advertising budget should never be seen as discretionary? Because it’s just trying to do something really disruptive — without the air cover of a big marketing budget is Canute-like, impossible to do.

Michel: Absolutely! You have marketing expenses — they are very, very important. You have to communicate, because the best product in the world is of no use if people don’t know that it exists and where to buy it and why should you buy it. Of course, I mean, there’s several ways of marketing. Also, what’s important is, I always try to first have trendsetters to wear your product because when you have trendsetters to go around and talk about you, it’s visibility. You need a lot of visibility. And you can only get that visibility when it’s the thing to have, which means you have to communicate.

[00:50:07.04] Ben: I would say that that trendsetter part is more important now than ever, also, right? Because we live in a world where branding is so tied to individuals. So yeah, having influencers wear your stuff. And when you were getting trendsetters to wear your stuff, did you pay for that? Or you just created a product that was so desirable that people wanted to wear it?

Michel: No we didn’t pay for it.

Ben: That’s what I expected, yeah.

Michel: But it was just so good, people bought it to have it. But we made it sexy. You have to communicate it in a sexy way and you have to package it properly. I mean, in the end, the product almost has to sell by itself. When you take it in your hand, there’s an emotion going through your body. You feel it. That’s the difference when you’re wearing a Swiss watch. A Swiss watch has a soul. If I buy a watch made in Japan or Korea or China, there’s no soul in it. It also gives the time, but it is no soul on it. I mean, the Swatch watch at 50 Swiss francs I think it’s the greatest consumer product ever made. Ever made. Because at that time, the watch was 50 Swiss francs. What other consumer product gives you technology, precision, mechanics, time, and lifestyle, for 50 bucks? It’s amazing! I think it’s a great product still today!

[00:51:42.02] Ben: Why do you say that Swiss watches have a soul in a way that other countries watches don’t have a soul?

Michel: The way we communicate it, the way we market it.

Ben: Yeah, because I think one of the things that Switzerland does brilliantly is packaging, right?

Michel: And communication. It’s communication. I mean, most big companies, they have a great slogan around. Look at the Rolex advertisement — it’s amazing!

[00:52:08.07] Ben: So, I just want to get you in a couple of other things that you talked about in the book. There’s a really nice soundbite where you say ‘talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships.’ Can you talk to us about the importance of building great teams and how you cultivate those teams?

Michel: I think it’s essential for every company to have a great team. And that’s exactly the slogan you just said: a team wins championships because, if you compare it with an army, there’s no use to be a general when the troops cannot follow you. Napoleon could never have won if the troops were not right behind him. And in all of my companies, the most important for me was to surround myself with competent people. You can read about them; I get a lot of testimonials in my book here. One of my guys is now CEO at Rolex Australia, another one is CEO at Bucherer in Lucerne, about 10 of them have started their own company. I have regular contact with them and they always tell me, “Michel, without you, I would have never been there.”

[00:53:26.12] Ben: So there’s two functions there. One is spotting raw talent. How did you do that?

It’s beneficial for the company to take a vacation, to take off. And this is what I think we have to understand. You cannot perform when you’re tired. Enjoy life! — Michel JORDI

Michel: Empowered them. Empowering people.

[00:53:37.17] Ben: But empowering people presupposes that they’re good in the first place. So how did you spot the great people? And then we can talk about how you empower them.

Michel: You know what? It is very fun and very interesting: I believe that a lot of people have much more talent and are much more capable than they think. But you have to give them the confidence. You have to detect and see where the strength is and let them go, let them loose. You know, I realized, when you let them loose or ask for them big things to do, it’s very motivating. Because they’re like, “My boss has confidence in me! He thinks I can do that!” I mean, the one who is now in Australia, the Rolex CEO, he was a watchmaker repairing watches at a retail shop in Zurich, and he was about 22 years old or 23. I said, “What are you doing here?” I mean, you know, as a watchmaker at his age, I saw that guy had potential. And I wanted to have salesmen going out to sell my watches, who know what they talk about — watchmakers. So I took him, I trained him on the Swiss market, then I sent him with my best salesman internationally, to the Middle East to learn about the international salesman. Then I told him, “Now you’ll go to Hong Kong and you’ll open my affiliate office in Hong Kong.” He opened my affiliated office in Hong Kong, and then made a business plan. We showed him how to do it. And the guy, he was 26 years old, he was trembling. He said, “Can I do it?” I said, “You will do it! Just go!” Throw them into the water, give them a chance to maybe make mistakes. But you learn from the mistakes. Again, they learn to swim.

[00:55:28.19] Ben: The impression I get when I listen to you is not only were you very much part of the renaissance of the Swiss watch industry, but also to the longevity of that Renaissance because of all the people that you coached and all the people to whom you gave opportunities? Would you say that’s fair? I know you’re a modest man.

Michel: I’m a very, very small part of that. And in the end, it’s still the guys who have to do the job. But if we come back to Bucherer, now the guy who is CEO, his second man below is also a guy from me because he was looking for a number two man. And I had him, he was a guy who worked in another company, in the Twins Heritage. So now Bucherer’s number one and number two, both come from my team. So these guys, once you give them the opportunity, they have to see their opportunity. They have to grab it. But very often, I think a coach’s job is to detect the ability, the talent and give them the confidence to really develop all their potential. Very often, they don’t even know what they’re capable of. So, develop that potential.

[00:56:48.11] Ben: The confidence and the opportunity, right? Because you did both, right?

Michel: Yeah. See it, have your eyes and ears open.

[00:56:56.03] Ben: And then what about leadership? Because it seems like you’re the sort of leader who leads by example, right?

Michel: This is leadership. Show them the example. Exactly. I mean, for example, you know, most of the time, I was the first guy in the office. Most of the time I was the guy who closed the door. You have to show them how to do it. Get your fingers dirty yourself.

[00:57:21.27] Ben: But having said that, you also talk about the importance of work-life balance in the book.

Michel: Yeah.

Ben: So, live by example, show the level of commitment to the business, but at the same time… Or would you say also lead by demonstrating to people the importance of not burning out, of pacing yourself off, as you say, eating well, living well, exercising.

Michel: I never had anybody in my company who had to burn out. But I must admit that I have been close to burnouts a couple of times. One of them was at Le Clip. I remember I arrived once in Vancouver on a Friday night and I stayed in bed the whole weekend and on Monday I traveled on to Japan, to Tokyo. I didn’t see anything of Vancouver except the airport. I was just so completely tired. So you have to listen also to your body. When you’re down, you’re down, then you have to rest. And what I learned over time is that when I grew up, you were a hero, and you wanted to show that you work hard and you work long hours. Today, I realize — that’s what I’m also trying to tell people is that the art of doing a good job is of knowing when to relax and when to slow down. So, I started to take long weekends, and that’s what I could suggest to anybody. A long weekend, let’s say three, four days, when you’re in the 30s or 40s. I mean, it can do wonders in regenerating yourself. Or take a week vacation — whatever — because when you come back, your mind is emptied, you know, and you have just so much energy. And it’s only good for the company. It’s beneficial for the company to take a vacation, to take off. And this is what I think we have to understand. You cannot perform when you’re tired. Enjoy life! That’s all I can say. I love to drink a good glass of wine. You work like hell during the day and in the evening, a good glass of wine — hey, what a pleasure! What a relaxation!

[00:59:31.07] Ben: Talk to us about why you ended up calling it a day when you realized that you didn’t want to do any more startups — and the conditions that then gave rise to you writing this autobiography, which sadly, is only available in German, right? At some point, maybe you’ll publish the English version. So, talk to us about that realization that enough is enough. It was now time to take a step back.

Coaches are so important, because, as I said, a lot of people lack the confidence. They don’t see all their potential and that’s what a coach is for. And I think, if I can help people detect their potential and live also, as I said before, a balanced and a rewarding life, then I think it’s a fantastic way to end the fourth part of my life. — Michel JORDI

Michel: Like I said, the lucky clover has four parts. Our life has different segments. There’s our youth, there’s education, then you start to get into the corporate drive, then you become independent as me, but then, I’m 70 years old now. I mean, you have to think how much longer you have to live? It’s 10 or 20 years if I’m very lucky, if God wanted. So, what do I do with the rest of my life? And I think the rest of my life is not going to be behind the desk and doing operations stuff. But coaching people, or consulting companies, detect talents or detecting opportunities. Coaches are so important, because, as I said, a lot of people lack the confidence. They don’t see all their potential and that’s what a coach is for. And I think, if I can help people detect their potential and live also, as I said before, a balanced and a rewarding life, then I think it’s a fantastic way to end the fourth part of my life. First of all, life is not a 100-meter dash. Life is a marathon. And it’s not like a football game where you have two halves. I think it’s more like basketball where you have four quarters or something like this. So I’m maybe a man now in my fourth quarter. And I think there’s still a hell of a lot to do and I’m looking forward to it.

[01:01:40.20] Ben: Fantastic! That’s a wonderful optimistic note on which to finish the podcast. So Michel, thank you so much for coming. Buy the book — Ignite That Spark — it’s full of sage advice, and it’s really a great read. You can read it in a single sitting. I think it’s also a reference — you can keep coming back to it.

Michel: Yeah, it’s like a Bible. You can take it back anytime. But also, what I said is, the book costs 19 Swiss francs — roughly $20. What I say to everybody who buys my book is that if you don’t get 20 bucks value or wisdom out of this, write to me, and I refund it.

Ben: You get your money back, guaranteed, from the man himself. Okay. Thank you so much again, Michel!

Michel: Thank you! It was great!

Brand Conversations and Creativity at Scale (#27)

Structural Shifts with Youri Sawerschel, CEO of Creative Supply and Visiting Lecturer at EPFL EMBA and ESSEC Business School

Full transcript:

 

 

We keep on hearing about the fact that consumers are in conversations with brands. We keep on hearing that it’s a two-way street and everybody’s saying, okay, brands have to rethink everything, etcetera. And it’s true only to an extent because what people tend to forget is that yes, it’s a conversation. But as a brand, you’re the first one who speaks…

Ben: [00:01:51] Youri. Thanks very much for joining the podcast. Wanted to kick off with a pretty broad question, which is what is the role of a brand in the digital age?

Youri: [00:02:04] If we look at branding before the role of brands before the digital age, It’s very much about trust, right? If you were in the fifties, you wanted to go travel to a Hilton. So you thought, well, if I go to Hilton, I’m going to have hot shower and nobody’s gonna rob me. So a brand was very much about identifying quality service for people in the digital age. This has changed a little bit because it’s much more transparent, right? You don’t need to stay at Hilton to be sure that there’s going to be wifi. Right?

So the role of branding is a little bit more subtle. It’s more about building up association of ideas, right? If we think about B2C, right? If I buy this brand, what does it say about me? If I am a customer from this brand, what signal do I send to the people around me? And that’s pretty much the role of brand, which is going to be more about increasing the perceived value. I think fundamentally our brand is about reducing perceived risk and increasing perceived value at the same time. In a B2B setting, it’s still very much about decreasing perceived risk, right? Let’s say you want to buy machine tools for millions, from a new supplier.

It’s very hard to decide which one’s the best because you look at all the criteria. So the brand is this thing that’s going to make the difference. Thats going to make you feel “okay, I can trust them”. So I think in a digital era, the branding is a, is more and more about increasing, perceived value, and maybe a little bit about reducing the perceived risk in a B2B setting.

Ben: [00:03:42] If branding is about creating an association of ideas, then it doesn’t really work, does it, to try to micro-target? Right. And because, you know, we, we might be able to stimulate demand maybe by micro-targeting, but we can’t create brands by micro-targeting. Right. Because as you said that they are a statement of ourselves and the sort of lifestyle that we aspire to in many ways.

Youri: [00:04:07] I think all marketing practitioners will not fundamentally agree with what I’m going to say, but marketing is very tactical. You know, it’s about defining your own, your four Ps type of thing, you know, product you have or what price, which channel you use cetera. But what we miss most of the time is that these levers that we can use in market coherent with something bigger, which is what the brand is.

Right. And which is much more strategic. So what is your positioning? What do you stand for in the market? What are your key messages? How do you frame a brand? How do you present it to the world? And once this is clear, the strategic level, then you can go down to the operations of the tactic and decide, okay, we’re going to distribute our, our whiskey brand, we’re going to distribute it more into exclusive concept store rather than in duty-free to show that we are an exclusive brand because we are [00:05:00] positioned as an exclusive brand. So I think that two different things, right, and this whole microtargeting really comes at a, at a very tactical stage.

Ben: [00:05:10] So do you think that, you know, we’ve seen a rise of, you know, just on a kind of short term tactical proceeds versus the longterm strategic stuff like brand building?

Youri: [00:05:20] Well, I think we see obviously a lot of short term type of tactics anyway, but I think that they’re not going to build brand equity in the longterm. Because, you know, I mean, yes, you can increase your followers by 20% in a week, but what does it say about your real brand equity?

Maybe not much. What I think is really interesting when we speak about a digital era is that you mentioned it. We keep on hearing about the fact that consumers are in conversations with brands, right? We keep on hearing that it’s a two way street and everybody’s saying, okay, brands have to rethink everything, et cetera.

And it’s true only to an extent because what people tend to forget is that yes, it’s a conversation. But as a brand, you’re the first one who speaks you are the first one who speaks, which means you can define who you are. You can frame yourself, you can position yourself and then people can react to this. They can agree with it, not agree with it, and it’s good and it’s bad. And then the conversation starts, but the framing, you know, the positioning upfront of a brand at a digital level, it’s still a one way streets and I think people tend to really, really forget that and kind of just think that the brand is just something that you know, is going to be a completely shared, that intangible thing.

But actually first is something that is created by someone, a brand doesn’t appear because people think it’s their first, someone give a direction and then people have association of ideas. And then yes, the brand is in the mind of the people who are the audience, but. You know, to have an audience, you need to produce something first.

You see what I mean? And I think it’s something that’s completely overlooked in this digital marketing era, where you have all those digital driven agencies that just speaks about engagement and conversation, but they totally missed the point about it. What is the message you have and what is the content? Just this morning, I was in conversation with one of the big digital agencies in Switzerland and those guys trying to sell me services to take care of my Facebook ad and Google ad cetera, but by discussing with them, and you know, they were charging four, five, six, 10 K a month as a retainer. And then I’m really trying to understand, and maybe I sound a bit stupid, but what is it exactly that they do?

And then it comes down to, yeah, we look at key words and we can make recommendations and be like, well, that’s a lot of money for, for just looking at things. But then they’re like, yeah, because you know, then you’re going to push some really good content and I’m like, but who does the content? Oh yeah, this you should provide to us.

So it really goes down to something that was there before digital, and is still here after digital, which is what you have to say and do the value you offer through content is going to, in my view, definitely overtake all those short term tactical exercise you can do.

Ben: [00:08:07] What about separating products from brand. If you’ve got a great product, people will tell each other. So is in a world where everything’s more transparent. Does it shift the balance towards investing more in product marketing, you know, or to put it another way? Can you have a) a mediocre product, a good marketing team? and b) a company with good products and a mediocre marketing team?

Youri: [00:08:30] It depends what’s your internal benchmark for quality and value is, but if you have a mediocre product and a very strong brand chances that you’re not going to last forever are very high. So I think from the worst, which will be a fad to something, to be a trend to something which might be around, but then it’s going to die off.

Uh, at some point it’s not going to fly and it’s not going to be a brand that will really get people to invest in. I think, especially because then you create a gap between the messaging you sent saying, Oh, we have amazing brands, but actually product is crap. And, and this gap. Into messaging and reality needs to be managed very, very carefully in a digital era, you know, back then it wasn’t the case, but good product is a key success factor you needed to, you needed to be in the game, right.

But a good product alone. It’s not going to cut it. You know, if you have a very good fashion brand or a very good academic program, I have some example about this. Oh, you have a very good boats rental service. It’s not enough. And we sit over and over and over again. We’ve got companies big, smallest that come to us.

They have a really, really good strong offering, good customer service, good product, but they just don’t manage to try to prove them out of it. And then we can help them with the commercial work we do increase that perceived value and reduce the perceived risk of buying them. But we can [00:10:00] only do this because the base product is good.

And when the base product is shaky when, when advertising is basically a misleading and lying advertising type of thing. And that thing, it’s a very, it’s a very dangerous slope to be on,

Ben: [00:10:12] So, you know, a brand starts the conversation, but it is a two. It is, you know, it is a two way conversation and arguably the customer is much, much more influential than they were, you know, pre-digital both in, in terms of, you know, acting as a ambassador for the products, but also I guess, in a sense in shaping the product, right? Because you can get feedback in a way that you couldn’t, when you didn’t have so much direct access to the consumer. So how much, how important is it consumer become in, shaping the brand in the, you know, as in, like now that that two way street is possible.

Youri: [00:10:45] Depends. Really? Which type of companies we’re talking about in reality. Yeah. In theory, yes, consumers are involved in everything, et cetera. In reality. There’s only big, big groups that can afford, for instance, different focus groups and having different market testing, et cetera, only big FMCG companies can afford. As soon as you are in the mid side, uh, segment companies don’t have the time or the cash to do these type of things.

So yes, they’re gonna involve the customer in the sense that they will collect the feedback for instance upfront, but you won’t have that collaborative process. I think there’s two schools of thoughts when it comes to involve the customer. Actually, I am on the one that has the feeling that you should not involve them too much because people actually don’t really know what they want.

They don’t really know why they buy things. And if you ask them, they don’t give you the right reasons. The typical example is the iPhone or the iPad that everybody knows, you know, nobody would have said, uh, Well, I want an iPad or I want an iPhone. You know, I think it was Henry Ford who famously said, if you had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

I think we need to be careful with involving too much people in the, in the creation process, because we need to test it when we can. But from the creative inputs, I’m not sure how valuable this is. We need to understand who the people are and what they want overall. But. I wouldn’t make them co-creator. Long time ago, there was a very small business in Geneva, actually, it was called Leman Loisirs and, um, what they do is boat rental service, right?

So basically you pay money upfront in order to rent a boat over the summer, quite expensive, because you need to have a boat license. You know, you pay at least 3000 bucks minimum for the season. And the business was not going so well. And the owner asked a bit my help. We kind of had an agreement when I help him out.

It’s very small local business. If I had to ask the current customers, what do you think about the service they would have said? Yeah, it’s great. I’ve got my boad, its a good money. There’s not too many people. You’ve got nothing to be changed. So the things that is absolutely not valuable from a brand building point of view, however, what we understood was, well, there is money left on the table because this businesses is positioned as a local hobby, when it should be positioned as a private club. And if you position it as a private club, we can drive the revenue up and we can make it much more attractive for a target segments. So we rebranded the whole thing to Boat Club Geneva, and then, which is not original, but which does the trick, it corresponds to what target audience expect.

Then once we rebrand this whole thing to Boat Club Geneva and told the story about an exclusive club in the center of Eaux Vives in which you can be a member, not a client, a member, the sales picked up. And picked up because we didn’t ask the client what they wanted. So that’s why I think, yes, we need to listen to customer. Yes. If we see that something doesn’t work we definitely need to tweak and test in trials, it works a hundred percent, but at some point you need to take the cat and say, okay, we aren;t going to do it that way because that’s not how we can drive a premium. Branding is about driving a premium. And if you ask customers, they’re never gonna tell you, Oh, I would love this product was 25% more expensive because you tell me a better story about it, even though we know we can do it.

Ben: [00:13:55] Is that how you measure the success of a, of a brand to the extent to which it creates loyalty and the ability to charge a premium?

Youri: [00:14:03] The way we look at it. We look at branding from a very business perspective, which is if you do branding, you need to be able to drive a premium on your business. I need to be able in the longterm to lower your marketing cost because people want to be part of it.

So you don’t have to advertise so much because people want to speak about you, being the price et cetera. So, yeah, I mean, we see it now with an MBA program we worked on in Switzerland, we really had them reposition their brand, their whole program. We didn’t touch the syllabus because that’s not our job. And we’ve seen an increase of 30 or 35% of applicants.

And this is just by branding. And we’re talking about the MBA in a top university in Switzerland. You would think people are rational when they look for an MBA, they would look at the syllabus, look at who the professors are in the syllabus and decide based on the syllabus and the fees, whether this makes sense or not.

But that’s not how people choose an MBA. They choose it [00:15:00] because: does it tell a story I want to be part of? Is it something I’m proud to walk around with?

Ben: [00:15:04] How do you persuade people to come to you and how do you win clients and how do you also charge a premium for the work that you do?

Youri: [00:15:11] You mean us as Creative Supply?

Ben: [00:15:12] Yes. Or a branding agency in general

Youri: [00:15:15] The way we get, we manage to get clients and really build the reputation of the firm because we only are five years old company, but we really, really growing strong.

It’s really two steps process. Actually, it’s so simple, but I’m happy to share it because nobody’s going to do it. You need first to have really clear, good content. And when I mean content, I’ll speak about intellectual property, which means models, frameworks, analytical skills. We’re not selling a vacuum cleaner where I can tell you, try it, if you like it, you buy it. What I’m telling you, what I’m selling you is intellectual capacity to, to build your brand. So the best way I can do. I can do that is by sharing with you some models, some frameworks, some reports, some things where you thought, okay, those guys understand what this is. It’s very easy to do.

It’s very easy, in theory, it’s very hard in practice because one, you need to have the capacity to do it, two the discipline and three distribute it. And then once this is done, while you distribute it and you share your content to as many people as, as you can, and you use that content to open doors. And for us, the doors have been pretty much, uh, I don’t know, half of the startup incubator in Switzerland, some of the top universities, uh, in Europe and in Switzerland, the trade associations, magazine trade press because we provide them with valuable content, which is not selling our service. Right. Nobody wants to be sold. Everybody wants to buy it. Well, I read it in a book from the thirties, he was right. Nobody wants to be sold. Everybody wants to buy and we have, and we have to provide that.

And we’ve been very, very good from the beginning from day one in investing in content. And I’m not talking about just writing random articles to crowd everybody’s Google, but really think what are the models? How do we look at branding? How do we do branding for B2B, for instance, and then we’ve done interviews of 20 executives across Switzerland about the question: B2B branding. And the result is a report on the topic that we’ve made in collaboration with the eMBA of EPFL. And once you have that and you go to clients and you say, Hey, you want us to help you in BTB branding? Oh, if you want, you can have a look at our report on B2B branding that we’ve done with, guess what, the second best technical school in Switzerland. The pitch is very high. So now you can have someone who just become a B2B branding consultant, but what premium can you charge? And we are basically reducing the risk, right? Earlier in the discussion, I was saying a brand is about reducing the risk and increasing the perceived value by bringing those discontent pieces, we reduce the risk.

You think if you’re a potential client, okay. Those guys are able to actually publish something with EPFL, they cannot be that bad. So they trust us.

Then step two for me, so one is content. Two is a channel if you want to stay in contact. Oh, yep. Yep. So it’s content channel and then the third is closing, because then you get the clients.

Ben: [00:18:18] Yep. And then after that community, right?

Youri: [00:18:21] Yeah. If you want a four, you need the currency because you know, it’s getting project is as much about getting than giving. And you cannot have a short term mentality where everybody you meet is about selling them a project, because then you are a traveling sales guy.

Nobody wants that. But if you look at it, we look at it a very long term and we say, what is the vision for Creative Supply in 10, 15 years? And our vision in 10, 15 years is we want to be the reference in branding, at least in Europe. And if we want to become the reference in branding, we cannot have a mentality where we just moving from one project to the next, because that is just called cashflow.

It’s not called being the reference. So we grew an ecosystem, a community to pick up on what you said, and this community is made of what… people we teach at universities pro bono work we do with young startups that are promising. Direct coaching, publication, et cetera, and need to have all of these as part of our ecosystem, some will drive projects some months when in the longterm we can become a reference.

And a lots of our competitors don’t think that way because they have such a high payroll that they’re just driven by getting the next project to pay the bills. But since we have a very different structure, we don’t have that. I don’t need to send you a 3D rendering because my 3d guys are sitting, doing nothing, I don’t care.

So I can focus on, on growing Creative Supply as the reference in the industry rather than just getting more projects, which is a very short and we are looking at [00:20:00] it.

Ben: [00:20:00] So community view is a bit also a bit about creating multiple revenue streams. Right. But one of the things you just said there, it was quite interesting. Cause I was going to ask you that when you said you were working with startups, which is how do you monetize relationships? And I think you answered it right by saying a lot of it’s pro bono, because I guess, you know, you help them as they grow, you know, they come back to you.

Youri: [00:20:18] The way we did, with startups, we actually had to draw the line is we do pro bono work with startups which are involved with sustainable developments. That is very clear. Any startup that has, that has something linked to green startups, sustainable development. We work, we do typically workshop program with them. But other type of startups. We don’t do pro bono, but we cannot, uh, do full project for them because. We are too expensive and it doesn’t make sense for a startup to spend 50k on a, on a branding project.

You know, you just need to, you’re very smart with your resources. What does make sense for a startup is to do half a day workshop where we can give them the key tools to direction, the clarity. One, two hours of coaching here and there. The budget remains very, very valid and then they can grow with it. And actually a lot of startups weve had and some of them, you know, two, three years down the line, they come back and then they got the funding funds. That’s going to say, well, now we need to professionally. And then they come back. So I think different types of options, clients of companies have different types of needs and you cannot just sell a full branding and a strategic audit to a mid company in Neuchatel. You know what I mean? So we need to adapt.

Ben: [00:21:28] And how repeatable are some of the, some of the work you do? Because I think it’s know it’s interesting. You’ve created all these different revenue streams, which is great, but the sort of core engine of, of your business, which is branding work, you know, how, how often, how, how longterm is that? If you find a client, you know, or do you just do a rebrand and then move on to the next client

Youri: [00:21:46] Interesting that you ask this because you really hit the spot in term of how we’ve changed our strategy in the last six months is we used to be, I call it a Tinder agency, a one night stand or one type of project, right.

They come to us, they have a problem. The burn is not clear. The message is not clear. We do the work and then we bill and we disappear. And then we move on to the next one, right? The next swipe to keep the Tinder analogy. And, um, couple of months back, we realized that there’s a few problems with this.

Well, The lack of stable cash flow is one, but also from the client’s side, we realized that we did really good work at the strategic level and then implementation really failed because they went for the wrong provider. The one supplier didn’t manage the process well, or they didn’t have the skis all the time.

And it was not so much a question of budget, more question of focusing coherence. And so we thought it’s really stupid because then we do all this work, which is very good, not a shiny powerpoint and then comes to reality and it just doesn’t look like that. And we thought, okay, let’s, let’s, let’s go away from being a Tinder, uh, agency.

And let’s, let’s become a true creative partner, branding partner for all our clients, where we handled everything from strategy to implementation, uh, in agency jargon, we speak about the long tail, which means that you don’t do, you also do the small things, you know, like kinda like a motion design and a webpage design.

So we do these things now. It;s just that we’ll never do it for a client that needs just this. Right. So if someone comes to us and say, Oh, we need a poster design. We;re definitely the wrong agency to do that. But if someone comes to us saying, we need the branding and then we need someone to work throughout the year for our needs.

Like we can really, really be good at that and make sure that we, we ensure all the touch points. we werked for example with a private school in Geneva, we’ve reached a level where we have this role of kind of final think. All the branding and communication efforts. And I think it’s, it’s really a, it’s really paying off

Ben: [00:23:53] In preparation for this podcast I was watching something, a video of you talking about storytelling. What’s what’s the role of storytelling in branding.

Youri: [00:24:00] The role of storytelling in branding is essentially storytelling is a tool to explain, share what your positioning is to your audience. So storytelling alone depends from your brand positioning.

And depending on the story you tell, you can influence again, the perception and the, uh, association of ideas that people have with your brand. I think the main difference between storytelling, where we speak about branding versus, uh, you know, movie stories and movie, is that a story in a brand should never have an ending.

Cause, you know, in all the movies you have type of a linear structure, right? The hero does something. They have some challenge in fights and again, he wins and the printer stops there. And then it’s the end. But as a brand, you can;t think like this because you’re a brand, you don’t want yourtbrand to end. So your story at its heart at its center must have an idea, a concept that a brand can never, never fully [00:25:00] reach.

Right? I did ask there’s as for instance, impossible is nothing. Which means there’s always a way to get something further. So it’s a story that never ends. Yeah.

Ben: [00:25:11] And you don’t feel like some of these, some of the storytelling’s a bit kind of contrived? Like it’s a fabrication. It’s like, it’s, it’s clearly a marketing tool for us to engage with the company. It doesn’t feel authentic.

Youri: [00:25:26] Storytelling is a bit like a, I guess, a murder, you know, as long as you don’t get caught, it’s fine. And I think if you take, I can mention you at top of my mind, a couple of brands that I know Ted Baker, have you heard of them Ted Baker? There’s no Ted Baker, right? You would assume that that’s the name of the designer, right? this guy doesn’t exist simple as that. Right. So there is, there’s so many, so many brands that, how can I say this? That. That are telling story that actually are not true. Or Hollisted, maybe you know, it’s like a bit of a teenager fashion brand. It says that Hollister is from California and it was founded in 1922, but actually the brand is not from California and it was not founded in 1922.

It’s just that, you know, people don’t check because imagine how many decisions you have to make every day. And if you had to do a full due diligence on every brand, you buy. This would take you a lot of time and consumer don’t do it. They don’t one because they don’t have the time, but two, they also don’t do it because they don’t want to because, you know, it’s so nice to, to be, to buy from this Hollister brand from California since 1922, you don’t want to know that this is a lie, right?

It gives the fenders to the brand, especially in consumer branding. What I’m talking about is more consumer branding. I think when it comes to storytelling in B2B, we’ll have to much, much more careful with the reference that we use, but the logic is the same. There’s a very strong example in B2B, actually from Holcim, a cement company and I love it because really you would not expect a cement company to be, actually be a benchmark in branding. So when you sell cement, you basically sell stones, crushed stones, right. And those, those are called ready-mix and. They all have very rubbish numbers, right? They call Alix 205 Alix, 206, and those are the product number.

And that’s how they’ve been known in the industry. But in one day, one guy in Holcim thought, well, what if we give names to our cement? So let’s call the very strong one Robusto and let’s call the one that’s a bit red Rosso. And then they spinned those names, those Latin name for each of the products or some of the product line… and all the industry laughed at them.

They took the piece saying, can you believe you are selling ALX200? Why do we need to call this Rosso? What do you think you are, an espresso? Right, but the client didn’t think that way. This, this is very good. The red one is Rosoo, everybody knows what I speak about. I like it. So then what happened next is the clients of Holcim but also other cement company went to other cement company and say, Hey, we would have to buy some whole Robusto or some Rosso from you, but the company had no choice but to say, Oh sorry those ones are from Holcim, but we have Elyx 205 for you. If you like. So the story is very different. I will speak about ingredient branding in technical terms.

And so I think you can tell a story at so many levels. It’s just a difference, right? From a B2B or B2C.

Ben: [00:28:25] What makes a good hotel brand? Because I notice that you guys work with a lot of different hotels. What stories should a hotel be selling? What, what, what are the association of ideas? What’s the lifestyle association that’s important for a hotel?

Youri: [00:28:38] Hotels have a high in a very difficult situation because at the moment it’s a, I think it’s a whole different topic actually, but overall, it’s very tough to build brands in the hospitality industry. For the one reason that people only stay with you once and even the best hotel brands out there. And they will never want to share the numbers, but maybe five, 10, 15, 20 for the best one for us of the customers actually returning customers. But most of them are just out of one to one nightstand for literally. So how’d you be the brand with people who never come back. The industry just doesn’t want to accept that, but they still try to build brands based on that operational proposition, which is so dumb if you think about it, because nobody cares about it since you only stay once. So what would hotels have to think about? And I think it’s, this, this, this virus is gonna really help them think through. And I think the strongest and the more, agile we’ll really be surviving. After that, they have to think if we were not selling rooms, what would we be about how do we there attract people to us?

And that’s a very, very tough question for most of the hoteliers, because most of the hoteliers branding pitch, or the communication pitch is. Hey, come to a hotel. Great for family, business, couple or whatever you want. We are good. We have a nice swimming pool, fast wifi, and a [00:30:00] breakfast is included. Come stay with us.

This is pretty much the messaging of every virtually, every single hotel brand in the world. Some will throw the word luxury in there or exclusive in there, bespoke or tailored, but they’re telling you the exact same story. You take an advert of Ritz Carlton vs an advertising of Four Seasons.

Those things are the same. Just the room designs, slightly different. One is beige than one is blanc. You know what I mean? So once you start thinking about what the hotel is doing, you know, check-in checkout and housekeeping. When you start to think what is our role? Can we be a creator of something? Can we be an educator?

How can we contribute to our larger community? Not just the local one. Right. What role do we take and find, since we worked with these clients in Paris, building a full new brand for them called French Theory and. We thought about it saying, well, it’s not a hotel brand with something between a, probably a media company, a retail company that happens to have rooms.

And our role is to relay the culture and intellectual life of Paris fifth district. So once you think about a place like this, you not about your role is not about selling rooms. That’s the outcome. That’s what happens next, but issue about relaying. The cultural life of a district.

There’s so many more things you can do. And that’s where I think you can build strong hotel brands because people don’t come to you because you have a room with wifi anymore. So yeah, I think it’s a bit, I know I have a slightly controversial view on stuff. If we actually just published it, talking about publication, we’ve recently published last week, a full hotel concept handbook in collaboration with the École hôtelière de Lausanne which really shows what other, those trends happen in the hospitality industry coronavirus aside. And then what are the steps you need to take in order to build a strong hotel concepts, strong hotel branding, ultimately,

Ben: [00:31:58] is that what you propose enough to see off the Airbnb phenomenon? Let’s pause for a second about how Airbnb fairs posts lockdown, but like just ignore corona for a second.

Youri: [00:32:12] I love that you bring this because you know, what’s what have Airbnb been doing? It’s it’s dematerializing the hotel offering. It’s saying, well, you don’t need to go to a hotel in order to have a room, you can do this through different settlements.

And a lot of attention has been focused on Airbnb in the past years because most of the hotel revenue comes from rooms, right? 70, 80%, most of the time. However, what hotels failed to realize is that. It’s not just the rooms business that is being dematerialized. Hotel pickup is now called Uber. The in room entertainment is called Netflix.

The concierge service is called Google maps. The business corner is called zoom, et cetera, et cetera. So the entire offering an added value of a traditional hotel is actually being dematerialized. So if you think about it, you can book yourself an absolutely amazing Airbnb in Paris, top luxury, you can get picked up with a limousing from Uber. You can have delivered to you some of the top Indian food with a delivery of uber eats. You can have your personal trainer that comes in to, with you to help you to the thing you can use your meditation app in the morning. So do you still need to go to a hotel, questionable right? So once hotels agree to that analysis, they need to say, what is our role?

What can we offer that those digital, uh, offerings cannot. And that’s when branding starts to be very interesting because branding becomes a compass for what’s next, maybe to draw around, not to completely speak just about hotels, if you’re a hairdresser, for instance, right. Depending on how you frame yourself, depending on how you position yourself.

You can also have very different types of services. So a hairdresser typically before the coronavirus would say, I’m a guy who cuts hair in a hair salon, right. That’s how it will be positioned right now. There’s no salon anymore. So what are you? Well, you can be a guy who does cuts hair without the salon, but that’s not a good value proposition.

So you could say, well, actually I’m a guy who knows how to take care of hair. So that’s a very different brand promise. So once you reframe it and you say, I’m the guy who knows how to take care of air, what are the things you can offer, where you can have? I don’t know. an e-shop that shows people how to do that, or that sells a shampoo to people.

You can have a tutorial about taking care of your hair. You can sell a home kids to do braids yourself. I don’t know. It’s endless because your branding is different. And I think hotel, you have to understand that it’s tough. 80% of your business comes from rooms. Why change?

Ben: [00:34:53] Not to go down this rabbit hole too much, but how should marketing branding respond to [00:35:00] the pandemics? So you’re saying, you know, post pandemic, you probably have to reposition a brand reposition the brand promise in some cases, but what about during the pandemic? You know, look. We can take an example of the hotel if you want. But right now you’ve got, you’ve got very little business, I would say. almost zero business. Therefore do you just stop marketing or do you, or do you market knowing that eventually customers will come back and this is the chance to, you know, to gain, share a voice, for example, what are you telling your clients?

Youri: [00:35:30] I’m obviously biased, right? Because the more you’re stopping marketing the more we are going to go through that crisis as well. Okay.

Ben: [00:35:37] So make the case, so we know your biased, you have to make a really good case.

Youri: [00:35:40] But I can make the case by simply telling you that we put our money, where our mouth is. And we are doubling down at the moment. Everything into marketing, as a company, we are changing our website. We are pushing up new content. We are reaching out to new partners and we really doing this using a timeline that, that is really fast because it’s very easy now to just like, Lack the discipline and just let it slip through one day, two day, five weeks type of thing.

I really want to use that time to, well, number one, top of the mind of everybody we work with, number two, prepare the, after, you know, a seat like the army was not fighting now. So let’s make sure those guys really retrained instead of just having everybody chill. And I think that’s a good moment to, uh, to get in you call it share of voice, we call it awareness share, but same thing, right when everybody’s panicking you need to make sure you’re not, and we can get more visibility. You get more publication out there. Get more leads. I don’t expect much in term of business conversion in the next six months. I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to. We’re not going to do a record. Yeah. These being said, we just had a very, a major project coming in literally next week that we just signed in middle of the pandemic for a client. Who’s launching a robot, a co-bot is called, which is about automatization of supply chain for foods. So some industries are very resilient and those industries will need branding as well. And those ones are also pushing the branding.

So yeah, I think that’s what, that’s what brands have to do it, you know, I mean, besides the obvious survival thing, which is about protect your cash and make sure I don’t go do anything stupid, if you can afford it. I think it so much to reach out, but nothing to a, let me try to sell you my product to survive type of way, because you know, you should never try to sell something when you are needy because people feel it.

However, you can share a lot of value to a lot of people. We’ve been organizing a couple of online sessions for free, actually to kind of give people advice about how to run with the brand during this time of crisis, simple, personal branding, et cetera. We have grown our audience. I think you have three, 400 new people in our database since the beginning of the pandemic.

I don’t know if Icould sell out a lot,or not, but it’s definitely people that we would not have reached out if we hadn’t moved our asses. So I think that’s what really brands have to do. And we’re going to double down on branding and marketing efforts in the next six months. We’ll see how it goes for us. I mean, we have a very, very strong pipeline and we have the chance to be very diversified, actually, something I was very often critical criticize for by my peers.

Uh, because, you know, we acted in so many different things, different countries, different industry, and it’s always something that people kept on telling me, you need to focus. You need to focus. You cannot be an agency doing hotel industry and luxury and education, investment branding. But right now I’m very glad that we have doing this because some industries are picking up, some are not, and we have those levels,

Ben: [00:38:38] would you work with tobacco companies? Would you work with arms. Where do you draw the line in terms of the ethics?

Youri: [00:38:45] We don’t draw. We don’t work for tobacco and anything weapon related. We had to turn down a couple of times and it actually would, you know, from a fees point of view, you know, that they pay you for your loss of soul, so it’s very profitable, but then you gotta tell me well if you worked for UBS, which we do well, some of the money they invest is maybe not in the best place.

So then for us, it’s very, very hard to draw the line. We tend to have better conditions for companies that are involved in sustainable development. So we want to emphasize that with having a check out and saying anybody who’s not in a sustainable development, we don’t work with, for instance, while it’s economically not viable.

So, yeah, it’s a bit of, um, you caught me a little bit here because as I think as a, as an industry, the marketing and branding industry as a whole, we are really guilty for, uh, the, the state of the world in which we are. Right. Because you should look at global warming, which now is less of a topic because there’s something called COVID-19.

But if you look at global warming, this is so much linked to over consumption, right? If people were not traveling as much buying so much clothes and eating so much beef, we would not have a problem. And the reason why they buying so much is because they are incentivized to do so by the branding and marketing [00:40:00] industry.

So yes, we are not the one who pulled the trigger, but we provide the gun.

Ben: [00:40:03] Part of the, of the solution to that over consumption will be marketing related, right. I mean, we’re going to have to create a new narratives.

Youri: [00:40:12] The problem at the moment is the whole narrative about green consumption is only, it’s a very negative narrative basically saying, don’t do this, don’t do that.

Don’t do this, can’t do that. And this is really so not attractive. And if you, if I tell you all think about the sustainable fashion brand for instance, They kind of all look the same and you have this image of, you know, something with the linen badly cut, and then you look like some sort of hippie, so the association of ideas linked to anything sustainable are not sexy.

So how can we reengineer the narrative, change the story so that we can emphasize consumption that are more reasonable. I know I’m issue, issue, uh, do much more wellness and meditation. This is consumption, but it’s not hurting the planet. So I think there’s a lot of things that can, that can be done at that level.

And we’ve been doing a bit of work with Climate Kick, which was one of the major European agencies, which is funding and giving grants to sustainable projects. And we really saw the potential because you know, it’s people in those industries, they are, so they are in there because they want to make a difference.

And so they think that their value proposition is the fact that they’re making a difference. And this is true for very small niche audience, but for the mass, it’s not the case. I met a couple of years ago, I think the co founder of Fairphone, a smartphone that use like material that are sourced responsibly? Not, not destroying the planet, but the whole pitch they have is we are, we are nice and we are fair. And I told him, well, the problem with that. I said, who are you clients? You say, well, 70% of our clients are people with PhDs. So highly educated people who think the cause matter, which is great, but you’re not going to make an impact.

Because in order to make an impact, you need to get the mass. And the problem as sad as it is, is that the mass will not react to a message of restriction. So the messaging has to be difference.

Ben: [00:42:09] The answer is probably not to consume less, but to consume more sustainably, right?

Youri: [00:42:14] Yeah. Constant, more sustainably, constant things that mostly dont need resources. Yeah. If you consume education, for instance, if you were consuming lentils instead of beef, if you consume a super fancy, uh, secondhand shops like they have in Tokyo. It’s different. Right. So I think there’s a lot that can be done at that level. And it’s not, I make it sound like it’s very easy to solve or actually so many different facets and dynamic in that, in that question.

But. I think that’s actually the contribution that the branding industry can do to that. I think that’s why I said,

Ben: [00:42:46] I want to talk to you about your business model. Cause this is, this is really interesting and it’s, um, it’s something that we have talked about quite a lot on this podcast. Right. Which is essentially you’re moving away from a sort you know, static kind of hierarchical model, to something which is much, much more networked, right?

Because, so I’ll give you the chance to describe how it works. But basically if I’m in the marketing team of a company, the likelihood is overtime my skill set is going to, you know, going to diminish because I’m not challenged because I’m working for the same company doing the same thing every day.

Right. And then there’s, and then you’ve what you’ve also understood is that there’s a sort of, there’s a gap, right? If I, if I try to sort of unbundle my, my marketing team and source them using freelances via Upwork. I still have to manage the overhead of managing all those people. So what you’re doing is you’re sort of creating some sort of platform that mediates and transfers risk from both parties, right?

Because, because you are matching the best companies with the best creative talent, but you’re doing it in a way where you take responsibility for the deliverables, you take responsibility to make sure the people that work on your platform are looked after financially in terms of mental health and so on.

So it’s, it’s like a new category of platform company. That, of which there aren’t many examples yet. That’s the way I would describe it. How would you describe it?

Youri: [00:44:06] I think we’re definitely a hybrid actually in the sense that we do work with independent creatives. I tend not to use the word platform because it’s too associated to a kind of peer to peer type of model.

And we don’t offer this a client who worked with us. Don’t get to choose which designer they work with. Right. So we don’t have. Were not a matchmaker, we, the best we come up with so far is that we are a branding company as far as it, as it goes. And the fact that we work with this creative network, it just about how we do it, the client come to us because they trust Creative Supply to be the best partner for them, to meet their branding meets.

And how will you make this happen? To an extent is secondary. It’s secondary because we run the entire project from strategy to implementation. We project manage it. If there are problems on the client side or actually creative [00:45:00] side, we handle that. So from a client it’s super smooth, they will never have the feeling that they are working with independent creatives.

You know what I mean? They don’t get that field. So yeah, we, we bridge both worlds because we can access too. We really kids specialists, you know, let’s say top 3D guy motion design. Copywriting transaction services. Illustrators is a good one. And, but even graphic designer, because the graphic designer who is very good for a food festival is not going to be the best person for a corporate website for banks.

It’s most of the traditional agency they’re stuck with one or two art director. You know what I mean? Like the things chef in the kitchen, and then they all, they just send the same person over and over and over again. And then one day the art director leave and they have no design capacity anymore. And this is something we wanted to avoid from beginning.

We work with a pool of different people who have different skill sets, different interests. You know, we have people who are really good art director, but they just cannot do web. But that’s fine because we have someone else that can do web et cetera. And this, this really allows us to assemble like genuinely the right team for our clients.

And because we don’t have a hidden agenda of sending certain skills or discipline because we have to pay for it because you know, we study first and then we source them your way. The way it works is very nice because we have standardized processes, you know, in term of what type of project of products of services we sell, what is the process for a brand platform, a brand entity, all of these things have been super streamlined, you know, so we like a product company in house,uh, the timing needs the number of rounds of review, et cetera, in all the people who work with us, you know, down to how you save your files. Everything has been streamlined, which means that we can not actually just, just a couple of hours before our call. I had a kickoff with a team of seven people, uh, for new projects and everybody’s remote.

And everybody’s on board and in what’s going to be happening, et cetera. So we have the capacity to have very big creative team, like the biggest agency, right? You never have more than 10 people because it’s just, it’s just not needed even for very, very big projects. And, and we have that capacity in watch.

The amazing about this is that now we have this 10 people working on something tomorrow. We have another big project that we have. We don’t have a major capacity issue. Because we have a pool of people. Where we get the bottleneck is in the project management and the core consulting team is Zurich so far we are managing and the company we grow, we grow its core as we go.

So yeah, I think it’s a very good model and the client love it because you know, they have one point of contact, they have one email address and they say, Hey, we need to do some 3D renderings for a new machine. Oh, we need to do a photo shoot for our new offices. Or we have some transition done to be done. And they know that we pick the best people.

So they come to us and the quality is there. The pricing is right. Yes. There’s a premium of price, but you pay the premium for us because we reduce your perceived risk. Now of course, all of them know about Upwork, but if you try to book a designer on Upwork, good luck. You’re going to spend half a day, just sorting out another half a day, discussing with them half a day to brief them, but then you’re not even trying to get it.

And then it works. If you’re a small startup makes total sense. If you’re a small to midsize company or big company, it just doesn’t make any sense. You better have strong partner that handled this for you.

Ben: [00:48:26] A hundred percent because you don’t know if they’re good or not. So. You don’t save any time there. And then when you actually want them to do something, cause you say, no, you have to brief them.

So there’s not a time saving with the briefing. And then if you want to make them part of a team, then you have to assemble the other parts of the team. And then you have the overhead of managing that team and managing the outputs. So it’s like, yeah, it Upwork for me doesnt work. it doesn’t work.

Youri: [00:48:45] I think it works for very specific clients

Ben: [00:48:48] or very specific projects, very narrowly defined projects, but where you really want to run marketing at scale or branding at scale, it doesn’t work.

Youri: [00:48:57] Yeah, because, you know, I mean, if you think about it, if you have a company you don’t want to rely on random people. To do your brands. You know, it’s a bit like who handles your files? You know what I mean? Is this secure? If you need something, is she on holiday or is she still around, or is she now doing other freelancing work too?

You know what I mean? You don’t want that as a partner, you need something that’s more stable and that’s the role that Creative Supply have for those clients.

Ben: [00:49:23] But I also think the converse, which is everybody works for me is on my payroll. It doesn’t work either, because as you say. You know, you don’t have access to a large enough pool of people to deliver everything that a customer might want or everything your, your, your company might want.

And secondly, the people that work for you because they, because they don’t have, they don’t see the variety of projects that, you know, they stop learning and they stop developing new skills. And so I think it’s got to be, you’ve got to create this arbitrage, right? You’ve got this concept. You’re uncomfortable with platform, but there’s gotta be some party that sits between the sits between [00:50:00] the body of freelancers and the corporates.

Youri: [00:50:02] In any case, you need it? Either its a client who does it directly, or it has to be someone like us who handles it for, for big projects or midsize project, for sure.

Ben: [00:50:13] Was it like on your part, a major insight that, you know, if you want to get the best people, then you know, you have to, you have to look outside of your company,

Youri: [00:50:22] you know, it’s funny. It’s very personal actually, because I started my career in a small consulting firm where I was one of the junior partner. So it was a very traditional type of company. And then I moved to a big branding agency and I only stayed two months and I just quit the place.

And I realized that the agency model is dead and it took me two months? Actually it took me a week when I tried to convince myself for the remaining weeks that everything was going to be ok but then I realized there’s no point because you know, the typical agencies, everybody shows up on Monday, there’s a brief, then everybody has lunch together on this big, long communal table.

And then there’s beer ping pong on Friday afternoon. And if you look, thats the cliche of creative agency and from Sydney to Shanghai, they have the same pitch. And I was like, this is so weird. We, as branding company, we are meant to help our clients stand out yet we all communicate in the exact same way. We do the exact same thing than all of our competitors.

How can we be trusted by our clients to help them stand out if we’re not able to do it for ourselves? No. It’s like all the people who tried to sell me digital services, but I have more LinkedIn followers than they have and be like, Hmm, not sure I can trust you on that. And I saw all these people who are so comfortable in the job, you know, you have the creative, you know, he’s a bit there, then a bit coffee, a bit chill.

And then the copywriter and they be cheap and nobody has their ass on fire because they are hired. And if you, and so the connection between the work you do in the results gets loosen up. it is even more true in a big company, but even already in an agency of 30, 40 people, you see it, you know, and then people have to fill in time sheets, they have to say, Oh, on Monday morning, I work four hours in this project. So everybody’s cheating on those sheets to make sure they look like they’re doing some work. Right because you don’t want to be the one that has not the right profitability ratio as they call it. And I was thinking, this is so dumb.

It’s treating people like children. It’s making sure they’re very comfortable. So when people are comfortable they are not out of the comfort zone, which means they don’t get creative and at the end they don’t develop themselves. And they’re just gonna, you know, be there. So I quit that whole time. And then I promised myself that I will never go back to any agency that works like this.

And then I saw that I need to create mine. And that’s how Creative Supply was born. Actually, it was born out of frustration, a frustrating experience, which give me the, the courage. If I’m honest, the courage to go out and say, well, Let let’s do this. And then I went out there and I really looked for people, it took me so much time, middle creatives.

You know, you have to fill them, test them. Some are good, some are bad, some say they are, but they’re not, you know, announcing and build a team, which now can grow because you know, people know good people and the people are going to bring new people. Now it’s very easy to grow, the beginning was tough, but now it’s very, very easy.

And once we had that, now we are able to deliver. And it’s funny because I see sometimes those agencies that were on my radar as dream employer, like five to six years ago. And now we are winning pitches against them because we have a proposition which is to some kind more attractive, some kind of more, the more conservative one are very hesitant because they’d be like, wait, what how does it work cetera. But, you know, it’s a very good filtering mechanism because the client who reacted that way, we know they’re not for us, because if they cannot accept already this, how are they going to accept that we will transform the business branding. It’s too much. So they are out already.

Ben: [00:53:57] I mean, I don’t want to, I do want to revisit the conversation we had earlier or in any way undermine the importance of branding, but what you’re telling me, and I totally agree with is that you’ve got a business model that’s winning in a market because it’s superior to everybody else’s business model.

Cause it’s based on a distributed workforce that allows you to get just access to better people at scale.

Youri: [00:54:17] Yeah, that’s it. And that allows us to scale as well, because if now you tell me, Oh, we have a three major projects coming in tomorrow. Well I’m going to be in a rush for three, four days, just to arrange the project plan and to line up sthe resource.

But after that we can run it. There’s no problem on time on track because everything has been, so, yeah,

Ben: [00:54:36] I mean, you’re, you’re in a way you’re bringing a sort of, you know, sort of digital phenomenon to the non digital world in a way, right. Because you know, why, why is Amazon so successful? Because it delivers better quality at scale.

And it’s, it’s kind of difficult to do that in a service industry, but that’s what you’re doing here. You know, you’re taking a technology business model and applying it to the service industry and that’s why it’s trumping the others.

Youri: [00:54:58] Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t say that [00:55:00] it’s fully done yet because I think we have so much room for growth ahead, you know, and saying that this is done now, it would be. Yeah, it would not be correct you. Yeah. It’s not like done. And now we can just relax. I think from a backend point of view, from a, you know, it’s always in development, you know, from how you communicate with the team, how your quality, quality control is a huge topic with us. Yeah. Yeah. You know, how do you make sure that the designer don’t misspell the client name?

You know, those very simple things. So operationally, you know, how to make sure that the consultant puts the right dates on the documents, you know, in those little things at the moment, the core consulting teams spensd too much time policing around. So we will have to. The client doesn’t say this because at the end we deliver something that’s great. But on our point of view, we could be much more optimal. So I think that’s where this whole internal streamlining has to, has to get much, much, much better, but, you know, we are so much far ahead than the others well, competitors, I think because they are. Now, they;re just, after coronoavirus, I think a lot of agencies are just panic because they don’t have the usual place where they all meet.

The canteen is no longer there. Uh, all their files were on an internal folder. Some of the employees don’t even have their own computer. So they used to work on a desktop, you know, and you have all that thing in there. They must be so challenged. And for us, it’s a bit like business as usual, you know?

Ben: [00:56:24] How do you create an adequate sense of belonging with the team that’s distributed?

Youri: [00:56:28] Yeah, we, we spoke about that. The choice we’ve made early on is to not to pick creatives from everywhere because you know, the tempting thing to be say, Oh, let’s get creatives from anywhere. Right. Because we can. We can but, there’s a couple of problems with this. The first one is a timezone problem, right? If you have the best guy in Mexico in Shanghai, good luck coordinating the project because we mainly work in Europe.

The second one is from a cultural point of view. It’s nice. If people can, can see each other sometimes. So we made the deliberate choice to build the creative networking in, Paris, Paris, because it’s, who’s the strongest market after Switzerland. And because the, the level of people you get in Paris is so high.

There’s so much competition that if you are a director in Paris and you survive, you must be good. In Switzerland you just sit there in Zurich, and you know Stefan, Fabienne and Urs. And you went to school together and you charge everybody 200 bucks an hour and nobody blinks. Because the market is so protectionist.

If you are in Paris, you cannot do this. If you are in Paris, you must deliver. And that’s why we build the network in Paris, which allows us to actually have 90% more or less of the creative skills in Paris. So typically we can do every year, a Christmas party in Paris, we bring all of them together every night.

And then we have meetups where not always everybody meets, right. But some people meet physically in Paris to try, you know, dissolve the zoom lifestyle that the whole world is used to now. It’s actually very strongly in building a culture. You know, you have the internal Slack channel and et cetera. Uh, so it not that bad.

If you think for a big company. Yes. If you have your colleague that you see severyday, but you don’t see, you see you every day. Right. So I think. I think we manage it fairly well. In the future I would love to be able to offer much more value to the people who are the member of our network. Right. So that’s, can we offer them discount on further education? You know, what are the things that we could offer them? Could we help them with their accounting, for instance, you know, what’s the service we could offer, not, not as a revenue source for us, but more as a strengthening the link we have with our people. Cause you know, you have people you’re working with for four or five years now and, and it’s going strong and they just love it.

They still do their thing sometimes next week, sometimes they have their client, their own project, but they like Creative Supply because it gives them access to projects they could never get otherwise.

Ben: [00:58:46] Yeah. And then you take care of the customer acquisition costs.

Youri: [00:58:48] Exactly, they’re not so deep then, you know, when the client don’t pay on time, which happens at the moment 95% of the time we are running after the bids, but we are paying the creative sometimes.

So yeah, there’s, it’s a very, it’s a win, win situation for everyone actually.

Ben: [00:59:03] Definitely. Great. Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to us.

Youri: [00:59:07] Thanks Ben. It was a pleasure.