App review: Zuora

One of the product areas I’m keen to learn more about is billing; understanding how small businesses go about (recurring) billing. A few years ago, I used Recurly to power subscription management and payments for a music streaming service. I’ve now discovered Zuora, who aspire to “turn your customers into subscribers.”

“The world subscribed” – I really like Zuora’s vision – “the world subscribed” – and its 9 keys to building a subscription based business (see Fig. 2 below). Zuora aims to make managing subscription payments as intuitive as possible. For example, when I look at the info that Zuora provides on a specific customer account, it feels clear and clean, enabling the user to digest key account information at a glance (see Fig. 3 below).

Part of an ecosystem – The thing I like best about Zuora is the numerous integrations it has with partners and marketplace apps. As a result, Zuora users can integrate easily with payment gateways such as Adyen and link with accounting software packages such as QuickBooks. Similarly, there’s a whole host of apps and plug-ins that Zuora users can choose from.

Main learning point: Even though subscription management / billing forms the core of Zuora’s value proposition, I feel that there’s much more to it: helping people run their business operations as efficiently as possible. I don’t know whether the people at Zuora would agree with me on this vision, but I believe that, especially through it’s 3rd party integrations, Zuora can support its users more widely in their day-to-day operations.

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Zuora’s “Quotes” overview – Taken from: https://www.getapp.com/finance-accounting-software/a/zuora/

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Fig. 2 – Zuora’s 9 keys to building a subscription based business – Taken from: https://www.zuora.com/vision/the-9-keys/

  1. Price – Find your sweet spot. Dynamically adjusting pricing and packaging is the surest way to attract and retain customers, and multiply the value of your relationships.
  2. Acquire – Boost subscription rates with tools like flexible promotions, integrated quoting and multi-channel commerce.
  3. Bill – Subscriptions mean more invoices and more payments. Automatically generate fast, accurate bills and deliver them online.
  4. Collect – Get paid. Collect payments instantly through automated and manual channels, while maximising completed transactions and minimising write-offs.
  5. Nurture – Build beautiful relationships. Keep your customers engaged and happy. Seamlessly manage rapidly changing upgrades, conversions, renewals and other orders.
  6. Account – Measure everything. Twice. Zuora plugs straight into your accounting software and General Ledger. Register subscription and process deferred revenue with ease.
  7. Measure – No paper, no worries. Analytics make forecasting, accounting close and audits a breeze. Plus, it gives you the right insight your subscribers, so you can make smarter decisions.
  8. Iterate – Try something new every day. Subscriptions can involve complex customer relationships. Zuora lets you iterate and test what’s working with just a couple of clicks.
  9. Scale – Get growing. Zuora is built on a secure, scalable technology infrastructure. So wherever you start out, we’ll keep the system running as you grow.
Fig. 3 –  Screenshot of Zuora’s “Customer Accounts” page – Taken from: https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/zuora#/entity
zuora-1
Related links for further learning:
  1. https://www.boomi.com/solutions/zuora/
  2. https://www.zuora.com/product/partners/
  3. https://connect.zuora.com/appstore/apps
  4. http://fortune.com/2014/06/10/10-questions-tien-tzuo-founder-and-ceo-zuora/
  5. http://www.forbes.com/sites/edmundingham/2015/10/13/why-own-anything-anymore-zuora-founder-explains-rise-of-subscription-economy-at-subscribed-ldn/#735812d65a49
  6. http://blog.servicerocket.com/podcasts/episode-7
  7. https://www.zendesk.com/customer/zuora/
  8. https://medium.com/the-mission/the-greatest-sales-deck-ive-ever-seen-4f4ef3391ba0#.xbezrudzi

What Visa and R3 are doing with blockchain technology

In the online Fintech course that I’m currently doing, every other course video is about blockchain and the possibilities it offers. Earlier this year, I wrote about blockchain, trying to demystify some things I’d heard about it up to that point. If anything, watching my course videos with Blockchain experts such as Shaul Kfir, CTO at Digital Asset, has raised my curiosity about blockchain technology even more. In the past week alone, I came across two interesting blockchain related developments, which caught my eye: (1) Visa B2B Connect and (2) R3 Corda:

Visa B2B Connect

visa-b2b-connect

Fig. 1 – Visa B2B Connect diagram – Taken from: https://usa.visa.com/visa-everywhere/innovation/visa-b2b-connect.html

Recently, Visa has started partnering with Chain, a US-based blockchain technology company, to create a proof of concept called “B2B Visa Connect” (see Fig. 1 above). Instead of building a more ‘correspondent’ type of integration between Chain’s core blockchain technology and Visa’s infrastructure, it’s looking to create a peer-to-peer relationship between banks. The essence of Chain’s blockchain network is a shared ledger that allows banks to move assets more securely and efficiently.

I listened to Adam Ludwin, Chain’s CEO/Founder, explaining on a recent podcast that Chain are effectively building “a business-to-business payment network.” Adam highlights that, in essence, Chain are applying cryptography to financial services. As result, entities – whether’s its financial institutions or customers – can have direct control over their financial assets, using a (private) cryptographic key. Adam stresses that there’s no single currency on the different Chain networks. Instead, the currency is specific to the currency issued by the participants of the network in question.

The main thing that I’m taking away from Visa B2B Connect is that Chain is looking to “digitise Visa’s existing currency” by building blockchain technology for Visa from scratch, aiming to design an architecture to solve Chain’s specific problems in mind. In contrast, the likes of Digital Asset, Ethereum, R3 and Ripple, are more like existing architectures which can be modified to meet the needs of specific financial institutions and their customers.

R3 Corda

Last week, R3 – a consortium of 75 banks – announced the introduction of an open source blockchain, to be used by banks. It was announced as “distributed ledger designed for financial services”, called Corda. The ledger hasn’t been built yet, but it was interesting to already get a flavour of its underlying principles:

  • Corda has no unnecessary global sharing of data: only those parties with a legitimate need to know can see the data within an agreement
  • Corda choreographs workflow between firms without a central controller
  • Corda achieves consensus between firms at the level of individual deals, not the level of the system
  • Corda’s design directly enables regulatory and supervisory observer nodes
  • Corda transactions are validated by parties to the transaction rather than a broader pool of unrelated validators
  • Corda supports a variety of consensus mechanisms
  • Corda records an explicit link between human-language legal prose documents and smart contract code
  • Corda is built on industry-standard tools
  • Corda has no native cryptocurrency

Fig. 2 – Overview of Corda’s underlying principles – Taken from: http://www.r3cev.com/blog/2016/4/4/introducing-r3-corda-a-distributed-ledger-designed-for-financial-services

The other thing that I took away was the business problems that R3 Corda is looking to solve:

  • Bank A and Bank B agree that Bank A owes 1M USD to Bank B, repayable via RTGS on demand.
  • This is a cash demand deposit
  • Bank A and Bank B agree that they are parties to a Credit Default Swap with the following characteristics
  • This is a derivative contract
  • Bank A and Bank B agree that Bank A is obliged to deliver 1000 units of BigCo Common Stock to Bank B in three days’ time in exchange for a cash payment of 150k USD
  • This is a delivery-versus-payment agreement
  •  … and so on…

Fig. 3 – Business problems R3 Corda is looking to solve – Taken from: http://www.r3cev.com/blog/2016/4/4/introducing-r3-corda-a-distributed-ledger-designed-for-financial-services

In essence, R3 Corda is looking to significantly improve the way in which banks share and managements agreements between them. The goal is remove any duplication of data or confusion about inter-bank agreements or transactions. Given the immutable nature of blockchain technology, it’s easy to see why banks are collectively developing Corda:

“What I see is what you see and we both know that we see the same thing and we both know that this is what has been reported to the regulator”

Main learning point: Understanding how blockchain applications are built to solve specific problems (R3 Corda) or improve existing experiences (Visa B2B Connect) really helps in painting a better picture of the tangible value that blockchain technology will deliver.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://usa.visa.com/visa-everywhere/innovation/visa-b2b-connect.html
  2. https://chain.com/technology/
  3. https://sharetheledger.com/reading-list/beginners/
  4. https://chain.com/docs/protocol/papers/whitepaper
  5. http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2015/06/24/nasdaq-selects-bitcoin-startup-chain-to-run-pilot-in-private-market-arm/
  6. http://www.the-blockchain.com/2016/05/03/chain-inc-rolls-open-standard-blockchain-capital-one-citigroup-fidelity-first-data-fiserv-mufg-nasdaq-state-street-visa/
  7. http://bankinnovation.net/2016/10/chain-releases-open-source-code-partners-with-visa/
  8. https://chain.com/press-releases/visa-introduces-international-b2b-payment-solution-built-on-chains-blockchain-technology/
  9. http://www.r3cev.com/blog/2016/4/4/introducing-r3-corda-a-distributed-ledger-designed-for-financial-services
  10. http://www.ithome.com.tw/news/105319
  11. http://11fs.co.uk/podcasts/ep119-back-blockchain-gang/

Varo Money and its focus on the banking – customer relationship

Varo Money is a US based Fintech startup that provides mobile banking and personal financial management services. We’ve seen mobile banks launching in various forms left right and centre over the last two years; think N26 in Germany, Simple in the US and Monzo in the UK, just to name a few. I’m keen to explore Varo more and learn more about its focus on personal financial management and building an ongoing relationship with its customers.

I listened to a podcast interview with Colin Walsh – CEO and Co-Founder of Varo – recently, in which he outlined as Varo’s core proposition and its main points of differentiation:

  • Next generation of consumers – In the interview, Colin explains how Varo sees the so-called generation of ‘millennials’ as a white space, currently not addressed well by existing banks. Varo aims to provide these target customers with an easy way to manage their accounts, but also focuses on providing them with financial guidance on how to manage their money.
  • Mobile first – Given that Varo targets ‘millennials’, Colin made a point of explaining that Varo’s customer experience needs to be intuitive and mobile first, since this has become the standard for millennial users. He describes this mobile first approach as a key differentiator for Varo, along with “delivering meaningful insights to customers.”
  • Relationship focus – Varo is all about “earning the relationship with the customer.” This means gathering customer data so that Varo can advise customers better and deepening the relationship with the customer by addressing their needs. This doesn’t make Varo any different to any other banks in my opinion, but it will be interesting to see how Varo will design an experience tailored to the needs of its customers. I liked Colin’s point about using data to enhance customer relationships, and I wonder how Varo will build this ‘customer understanding’ into its experience.
  • Goal-based – Similar to Qapital, Varo is all about helping its customers reach certain financial goals and outcomes. For example, if you want to save money for a big expenditure, Varo is looking to create an experience which will make it easier to set related goals and manage your money accordingly (see Fig. 1 below). I like how Varo enables users to have a single view of their money across a number of accounts (Fig. 2 below).
  • Underpinned by partnerships – Like many Fintech startups, Varo partners with a number of established third parties to provide the components of their platform. Varo is partnering with companies like Galileo (payment processing) and Socure (identity verification) who, as Colin explains, “things they do very well at scale” and will help with Varo’s speed to market. Varo configures these existing technologies in order to not have the reinvent the wheel. Instead, Varo wants to focus its efforts more on a human-centered approach to design and experience, providing customers with insights to help deepening relationships with them (see Fig. 3 and 4 below).

Main learning point: For a company that hasn’t even yet released its product into Beta, Varo has done a good job in creating a buzz around its proposition and its services. With so many new banking platforms popping up, it will be interesting to see how Varo will differentiate itself and establishes a critical mass of US customers and, as Colin says will become “a credible alternative to a traditional bank account.”

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Varo’s goal-setting functionality – Taken from: http://www.varomoney.com/whatisvaro.php#2

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Fig. 2 – Screenshot of Varo’s ability to provide a single view of all their accounts – Taken from: http://www.varomoney.com/whatisvaro.php#2

varo-1

Fig. 2 – Screenshot of Varo’s card functionality – Taken from: http://www.varomoney.com/whatisvaro.php#2 

 

varo-2

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of “V”, providing insights to customers – Taken from: http://www.varomoney.com/whatisvaro.php#3

varo-4

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://soundcloud.com/wft
  2. https://blog.varomoney.com/2016/10/05/from-toasters-to-mobile-banking-moving-to-better-experiences-and-better-outcomes/#more-775
  3. http://www.wsj.com/articles/silicon-valley-looks-at-something-new-starting-a-bank-1462146047
  4. http://www.varomoney.com/data/Varo-Bancorp-Partnership-Announcement-2016.pdf
  5. https://www.sofi.com/
  6. https://www.prosper.com/
  7. https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/varo-money#/entity

My product management toolkit (15): Storytelling

Storytelling is an important tool to have as part of your armour as a product person. This doesn’t mean that we should go around making stuff up, telling lies or sharing fables. In contrast, storytelling can be a very useful tool in any of the following situations:

  • Selling a vision for a product or service idea
  • Getting other people to buy into your strategy (product, go-to-market)
  • Before you present designs
  • Making tough tradeoff decisions
  • Asking for (more) budget or investment for a product
  • Explaining the value of your product to (non) customers

When it comes to storytelling, I learned the most from Sarah Doody. Back in 2008, Sarah wrote a great article titled “Why We Need Storytellers at the Heart of Product Development” :

  1. Facilitate collaboration and co-creation – This is the first goal of a product storyteller. Sarah highlights common tensions between product and marketing teams, who often work completely isolated from each other. As a result, marketing tells one story about a product or service, and product tells a completely different one. As a product person, working at the intersection between the wider business, technology and the customer, you’re in a great position to facilitate collaboration between different teams and help create a single story.
  2. Share and evangelise the story – So you think the hard work has been done once you’ve created story about the value of a product!? Think again. As the person who in my view bears ultimate responsibility for product performance, you’ll need to go out there and champion your product, both internally (with stakeholders, product development teams, the board, etc.) and externally (with customers, suppliers, etc.). Sarah rightly points out that when no one evangelises about about a product or service, people will quickly loose sense of the bigger ‘why’ behind the product.
  3. The story as a product differentiator – As Dan Pink has identified, the impact to story in business is that, “like design, it is becoming a key way for individuals and entrepreneurs to distinguish their goods and services in a crowded marketplace.” In other words, a compelling story will make it easier for customers to connect with your product or service.

There are number of different story types and techniques that you can use to tell a story that resonates:

Circular narrative – With a circular narrative, the story ends where it originated. You typically find circular narratives in poems, short films and novels. For example, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” opens with Alice playing outside on a riverbank. When she falls down a rabbit hole, she embarks on a journey through Wonderland before her sister awakens her, recalling her to the riverbank. If you apply this to everyday pitches or presentations, circular narratives can help to draw in an audience and provide closure at the end.

Fig. 1 – Picture of Alice on a riverbank – Taken from: http://www.proprofs.com/quiz-school/story.php?title=alice-in-wonderland

alice

Refracted narrative – Like the circular narrative, the refracted narrative is another form of non-linear narrative. Events can be told in any order. A story may start in the middle or at the end, and finish at the beginning or middle. It’s almost like white boarding, where you can add elements to the story or your points as you work through things. If you look at examples in the film world, then Pulp Fiction come to mind: the film uses parallel storylines and combines different moments in time.

Fig. 2 – Screenshot from “Pulp Fiction” – Taken from: http://www.miramax.com/movie/pulp-fiction/

 

pulp-fiction

Hook – Irrespective of which narrative type you apply, it’s worth making sure that your story has got a “hook” to it. When telling a story, you can use a hook to kick off a narrative or you can refer to the hook throughout. For example, a hook can be an underlying theme or worldview that readers can relate to and feel ‘hooked’ by. A strong hook typically helps to maintain people’s attention.

Button – So you’ve captured the interest of the listener or reader, and have kept them engaged throughout, how do you come to a clear conclusion of the story? A “button” is a technique that you can use to end a story with a satisfying resolution or a strong closing argument. Like the conclusion of a good book or film, a button should arouse curiosity or an emotional response from your audience.

Situation-Complication-Resolution framework – In 2014, Dave McKinsey introduced the “Situation-Complication-Resolution” framework, which I’ve found very helpful in taking listeners or readers on a journey, getting a problem, impact and resolution across in a short space of time. One of the things I like about this framework, is that you don’t have to apply it in a linear fashion:

  • Start with the situation – You can start with the situation, then follow with the complication and end with the resolution. You’ll thus take the reader or listener on a fairly linear journey, painting a picture of the current state, building tension and urgency through the complication and bring closure through the resolution.
  • Start with the complication – This approach follows a non-linear narrative form, by beginning in the middle of the action, and providing context after gaining the audience’s interest. In cases where you want to make sure that your audience is fully engaged right from the beginning, it can pay off to start with the complication.
  • Start with the resolution – Starting with the proposed solution first, can really help in scenarios where the audience is short of time or very keen to hear the outcome. I’ve found that the risk with this approach, is that in pitch situations you might not get a chance to explain the context around your solution (i.e. situation and complication), as the audience is keen to hash out the proposed solution or talk through versions of it.

Fig. 3 – Applying the Situation-Complication-Resolution framework in linear and non-linear ways – Taken from: http://mitxl.onlinecampus.getsmarter.ac/mod/book/view.php?id=163&chapterid=77

mit_fintech-m6u2_notes_fig-1-situation-complication-resolution

Storyboarding, getting others to create the story with you – I recently took part in a sketching session at a digital agency where we went spent a lot of time sketching user interfaces for mobile, without really understanding the underlying customer story first. This is where I’ve found Sarah Doody’s storyboarding technique to be most helpful. Sarah’s key point is that “Before presenting designs, you should first formulate the story you’re telling through the designs” and storyboards offer an easy way of doing so. With the aforementioned sketching workshop, I felt we could have benefit from fully understand the customer and their current interactions first.

There are five key steps to cover in your storyboarding exercise:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Establish the characters
  3. Write out the moments
  4. Overlay moments with emotions, actions, thoughts
  5. Sketch out each scene of the end to end story

Naturally, you can make the storyboards as sophisticated as you’d like to. The key thing is to have a good set of clear scenes and characters that make up your story:

scene-location-time-example-1

Fig. 4 – Sarah – Scene Time Location example – Taken from: http://www.storyboardthat.com/storyboards/sarah/scene-location-time-example

For instance, the example in Fig. 4 above is quite high fidelity, but it doesn’t have to be. Doing a rudimentary sketch with some people who might not be sketching every day will work well too, especially as way to get everybody engaged in a single story.

Main learning: Being able to tell a story is a true and not an easy one to master – I feel I haven’t even reached ‘beginners’ level yet – but very important as a product person. Given that you’ll often have to work with a wide range of stakeholders, being able to influence or get to decision quickly is critical. A good story can defintely help in this respect!

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://uxmag.com/articles/why-we-need-storytellers-at-the-heart-of-product-development
  2. https://uxmag.com/topics/team-dynamics
  3. https://sites.google.com/site/pinks6senses/home
  4. http://www.sarahdoody.com/storyboarding/#.WBidFOGLQ_U
  5. https://www.irishinvestmentnetwork.ie/5-tips-how-to-hit-your-next-business-pitch-out-the-park
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrative_hook
  7. https://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-narrative-hooks
  8. http://www.barbaraminto.com/concept.html
  9. http://www.slidemagic.com/blog/2009/12/mckinsey-flashback-logic-rhetoric-and.html
  10. http://www.slideshare.net/sarahdoody/storyboarding-in-user-experience-workshop-at-mobile-ux-london
  11. http://www.sarahdoody.com/3-ways-storytelling-can-improve-your-product-development-process/#.WBnkX-GLSgQ
  12. http://www.storyboardthat.com/storyboards/sarah/scene-planner-example