Monday, February 22, 2010

New York under zero: some thoughts on the Engage! Expo

"If there are any Mattel engineers in the audience, the astronaut Barby's space suit is not crash proof" (loose paraphrasing on Will Wright's keynote)

Yep, the keynote was entertaining and Engage brought a lot of vendors to snowy New York's Javits center. The two day event, though a bit low on developers, had a few interesting sessions and some interesting chances to share opinions. So what did I pick up from these two full days?

Payments and mobile

This Engage was heavy on payments companies, and by payments I mean mostly - if not exclusively - mobile payments focusing on SMS billing through carriers (obviously Paypal was there - a few of my colleagues and me - and additional sponsors). While the value of mobile payments for a streamlined, high conversion purchasing experience is clear (on the verge of overstated), the abundance of these companies over such a small space only served to emphasize how not-that-different these companies are from one another. Better coverage, low fraud and a promise for lower fees in 2011 were the value propositions.

Now, while I think mobile payments are clearly an avenue the industry must pursue, it was clear to me that until operators make a big leap of faith to embrace mobile payments, this field will not move much unless the companies themselves move to a Zong+ like, account based system that allows users to add a financial instrument and for the mobile payments company to charge it directly. And, as you are soon to find out, account based systems are a whole new world of pain - while with direct billing you charge a prepaid or underwritten balance an operator is liable for, accounts are a much more complicated structure. Plainly put, you start writing big fat checks directly to fraudsters' pockets. Looking at chargebacks in hindsight, as at least two of the participants suggested, just doesn't cut it. So mobile payments are looking for the next big breakthrough, and if fees don't drop soon (and they probably won't), I'm expecting some M&A work as competition heats up.

Offers and tasks

I'm a long time advocate of offers. Yes, offers have their "dark side", when misused, however they have a huge potential for creating incremental volume - something I personally love. When at the conference I heard that Offerpal are integrating tasks from Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and have been hearing assertions that competitors are going to follow suit (also heard it on stage from's CEO). Why is this good? I think that using social gaming to crowdsource simple but human intensive tasks is good for user education - do something good instead of just signing up for Netflix (nothing bad about Netflix, though); plus, it's good for the potential work providers - ideally, research institutes, advanced OCR services and others. In short, tasks are the new "green". Two caveats in this optimistic view, though: the first is that there is a serious chance of shortage of tasks, at least until this market picks up; the second is that abusing this model is still doable, maybe even easier than standard offers - if I were a fraudster, I'd immediately outsource my CAPTCHA operation to Amazon. Oops! Better read previous posts and do some risk analytics, guys, or you'll find you're breeding an ecosystem of thieves.

Zero cost of goods

I had this feeling in the past, but the conference reassured me: the "zero cost of goods produced" concept is both a blessing and a curse. Why a blessing? Because developers, bathing in the sensational bliss of high margins, were keen on trying new things - new business models, new payment options (30% take for mobile payments? come on) and various experiments in user interaction (offers, vanity items and many other really cool stuff). Why a curse? Because the notion has outgrown its proper boundaries, actually harming some of the developers. Assuming that if you just auto-refund your zero-cost virtual good, the problem of chargebacks goes away is a mistake, and not checking operational costs related to this "zero cost" work will make your bottom line look pretty bad eventually. Additionally, zero cost of goods got many developers focused on solely growing their user base and ARPU - both important but, as a few speakers noted, shifted attention from a few other very important stuff. Like fraud, like going international, but also like pricing - when the third pretty senior person suggested to developers that going all-in on a freemium model just isn't a good idea, I started to understand that the problem transcends risk management and controls; it's starting to detach companies from sound business judgment. So this is probably time to reconsider - it's all a part of growing up as an industry.

P.S. One last thing

I was delighted to meet a few young and talented entrepreneurs working exactly on the things I find exciting - namely p2p trade and new, great ways to engage users. It's fun to see how ideas evolve, and I'm looking forward to hearing more about them and others like them. Well done, guys!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fraud detection and User Interaction: why are Millennials slower?

A scientist was conducting an experiment with a fly. He pulled off one of its legs and set it down to see if it could fly. Conclusion: a fly without one leg can still fly. He pared off a second leg and set it down, saying "Fly!" Conclusion: a fly without two legs can still fly. He removed all the legs and set the fly on the palm of his hand, shouting "Fly!" Conclusion: a fly without legs can still fly, briefly, before crashing to the floor. He pulled off all the fly's wings and set the fly on the palm of his hand, yelling "Fly!" Nothing. "Fly!" Nothing. Conclusion: a fly without wings is deaf.

This was an old, lousy and a bit vicious joke even when I was a kid. It does, however, effectively demonstrate a long lasting truth: it is not the collected data, but rather how we interpret it, that renders its effectiveness in decision making. Errors range from confusing cause and effect (is it that customers who experienced fraud are more active, on average, or that active customers are, in average, more prone to experience fraud?) to gross segmentation causing severe false positives; a lot of these cases are triggered by analysts sticking to high level, big numbers rather than complementing their analysis with case-by-case review and customer engagement. Business intelligence is a very important practice, and we must use our tools wisely to reach the best possible conclusions to guide our decisions.

One interesting case of interpretation I found was regarding Javelin's 2010 Identity Fraud Survey Report. Here's an excerpt from the link:

"18 to 24 Year Olds are Slowest to Detect Fraud – Millennials (consumers aged 18 to 24 years old) take nearly twice as many days to detect fraud, compared to other age groups, and thus are fraud victims for longer periods of time. Millennials were found to be the less likely to monitor accounts regularly and the least likely group to take advantage of monitoring programs offered by financial institutions. However, Millennials were the most likely group to take action such as switching primary banks or switching forms of payment."

Why is that? Well, looking for interesting opinions I came across this blog post. It suggests that Millennials are optimistic about the economy and feel invincible, being young, not imagining that fraud could happen to them. Interesting, but I don't buy into this kind of explanation, for two reasons: one, is that it's over simplistic in its description of Millennials' psych, but the second is that it puts a cap on our ability to engage with a group of users about their financials. It's just too important to let go: being able to engage with your user community to deter fraud will be a growing need for payment services in 2010 and beyond, and I claim that they expect this to happen. It just doesn't resonate with me that social networks and games can get you engaged but your bank or eWallet, the place where all your money is, can't. It's just a question of the right engagement model. What is the difference between those that work and those that fail? As a user myself, I don't feel like I have compelling interfaces that help me monitor my financials - and I log in to my online banking interface on a daily basis. There's just too much information, too many buttons and graphs to make sense. To add insult to injury, many monitoring programs (such as the lately advertized Chase debit card program) require users and parents to set their own monitoring rules. This reminds me of another area, online predator monitoring, which poses the same challenge to parents - you set the rules to monitor suspicious words in your child's IM. Seriously? We force the laymen to do our job for us? Can we really not provide a compelling, interactive, machine learning interface that provides an appealing user experience? I think we can. Especially if the alternative is accusing Millennials of being too optimistic.

Looping back to the beginning of the post, I'm just hypothesizing (or pulling the fly's leg, if you'd like). It's now a question of actually engaging with users and examining behavior to validate basic assumptions; something that we must do to make sure we understand the data we are getting. But this is my own hunch on Javelin's results. What do you think?

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Next Big Thing (and what is it takes to be that thing)

When something happens for the first time - it's avantgarde.
If you see it twice - it's original.
On the third time - it's plagiarism.
On the fourth - it's pastiche.
But when it happens for the fifth time - it's a genre...

In the never ending discussion on innovation vs. execution (see Sara Lacy's great post here) I tend to be an avid supporter of the execution point of view; I've yet to see a great idea execute on itself, but I have seen pretty dull ideas becoming hits because of laser focused hard work. And, of course, it is my personal tendency for building and running strong organizations rather than engaging only in ideation. The reality of the business, as well, shows us companies that succeeded with strong execution on the ideas of earlier, less successful and agile companies (see the article for some examples). This is why I really like the dynamics of a new genre of products and services - if you follow closely you can track the evangelists, the copiers, the big and small players all mixed together, fighting for their place.

The dynamic is pretty straight forward - after a need is established by the avantgarde, in come the strong execution oriented players; proliferation kicks in, and many companies rise to offer similar services and products, each with its own twist. This stage ends with convergence - first with aggregation services, and then with the big winners emerging from the crowd of competing companies. Finally, when these winners become too big or fail to innovate, new avantgarde kicks in, discovering new niche segments that the giants were overlooking.

Social networks are, generally speaking, beyond the genre stage. Facebook and Linkedin emerged as winners, and though there are aggregation solutions out there I personally don't see any need to mix my personal and professional business networks. In fact, Twitter has signaled a new niche (together with Yammer, its LinkedIn-like twin), taking the Facebook status line to the extreme - but the cambrian explosion of networks has passed. It might be best reflected in the coverage and attention Ning - the DIY social network platform - is getting (or not getting) these days compared to 2008.

Online games are in an earlier stage; although there are a few major players in every part of the ecosystem (hardware, portals, platforms, publishers etc.), the barriers are still low and any garage geek can develop the next game. Until now, major game publishers have overcome this by cloning, executing quickly and gaining more and more traction; but as the market becomes more sophisticated and gamers' expectations rise, we will see changes. Acquisition of smaller studios by larger ones to get hold of new IP, traditional game companies entering the space and introduction of known franchises (I vote for Star Trek!) will all come into play, signaling the the battle for control is far from over. But there's another interesting story here - and that's payments in the virtual space.

New ways to pay and be paid have caught the eye of entrepreneurs and VCs alike. Investment money is running like crazy, funding the next-next innovative, zero-click-super-social payment service. Kwedit gets $3 million for letting people pay if they feel like it, Square is making news by enabling coffee shop sales via iPhone. We have hit the spot where there are just too many payment options, and platforms try to answer the need for convergence. Now, I have the utmost repsect for new inventions, but as I started this post, you also need to know how to execute on them (Square is going to discover that, with Verifone's generous help). Remember the three pointers for a successful payments service? Easy, Enabling, Trustworthy. Getting those nailed doesn't take mere ideation, but good old fashioned execution on boring stuff like compliance, reconciliation and relationship management with card associations. And merchants are not early adopters like most gamers - getting them to expand to yet another payment service, in a highly fragmented market, is hard. Merchants are looking for a broad and established user base. Succeeding in this is much harder, and therefore constitutes a bigger barrier, than in other industries.

I can only give only two general advice: one, is do not underestimate compliance and regulation; they will either limit your market (SMBs don't usually work with non-compliant payment services) and you may be facing huge fines even before you start profiting. And two - make anything possible to establish yourself as reliable - it's a merchant's biggest nightmare to have their payment service vanish one day, or to see their customers' data accessed by fraudsters. Guard you system, adapt your best grown-up face, and think about availability because being cool is great, but will only last that much. For success, you need to understand the basics of executing on a successful payment experience, to complement the big technological and business ideas.

Watching the payments industry over the coming two years is going to be extremely interesting, much more volatile than we were used to. Hopefully, some of these incredible minds will adjust to the demanding type of execution the industry requires, and will make it on the other side of the convergence.

Two quick ones: due to a new role I'll be taking on in Paypal, the content and nature of my posts my shift a little. I apologize in advance to those who expected the deep dive on mobile payments threat analysis. On a similar thread, I will be at the Engage! expo next week - buzz me if you'd like to chat.