Book review: “Zero to One”

Whatever you think of Peter Thiel, he’s got a lot of ‘street cred’ in the world of technology and venture capital. We all know how he founded PayPal and turned it into a billion dollar company. As a tech investor, Thiel is widely known for being an early investor in the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn. Listening to a recent interview between Thiel and Reid Hoffman on the latter’s podcast inspired me to read Thiel’s “Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How To Build the Future”. Thiel published “Zero to One” in 2014, based on a course about startups that he taught at Stanford previously.

Truth be told, some of Thiel’s views and concepts in “Zero to One” didn’t resonate with me, mostly because I struggled to convert them into action points I can apply to my own situation (read: working at a successful but early stage startup, and being based in London and not in Silicon Valley). Perhaps that’s exactly the point of Thiel’s book; to provide readers with a wide range of views, some more visionary and though provoking than others, and leaving it with readers to ‘pick and mix’ as they see fit. Consequently, these are the main learning points that I took away from reading “Zero to One”:

  1. Forget about being the first mover, be the last mover instead (1) – In strategy terms, people often talk about the benefits of being a “first mover”; a company’s ability to have a head start over its competitors as a result of being first to market in a new product category. The Hoover vacuum cleaner or Apple’s iPad are good examples of products which opened up a whole new product category and therefore did enjoy (durable) first mover advantage. Thiel, however, flips this by arguing the benefits of being a last mover.
  2. Forget about being the first mover, be the last mover instead (2) – Thiel argues that “moving first is a tactic, not a goal.” He stresses that the point of any business is to generate future cash flows, so being the first mover doesn’t do you any good if someone else comes along and unseats you. Video streaming app Meerkat is a good example of a product which was first to market, but got quickly overtaken by late(r) entrants Periscope and Facebook Live. Thiel explains “It’s much better to be the last mover – that is, to make the last great development in  a specific market and enjoy years or even decades of monopoly profits.” He advises that in order to get to such a position, companies need to dominate a small niche and scale up from there, constantly moving toward their long-term vision.
  3. The value of long term planning – I really like Thiel’s point about “lean” being a methodology, not a goal in it’s own right. As much as I see the value and importance of learning early and often, I do agree with Thiel’s opinion s about the pointlessness of iterating just for the sake of it. What’s the point of a Minimum Viable Product if you aren’t going to learn from it and iterate accordingly? What’s the value of just releasing ‘stuff’ without reflecting on whether a release got you a step closer to achieving your overall vision and commercial success? Thiel describes how successful companies like Apple and Facebook used long-term planning and business planning to get a position of durable market success.
  4. What to do with the “Power Law”? (1) – Thiel gives readers a good insight into the workings of venture capital (‘VC’) companies when he discusses the “power law”. The power law is based on the Pareto Principle. You might have come across this principle in the form of the 80/20 rule; explaining the unequal relationship between inputs and outputs, with 20% of invested input being responsible for 80% of results obtained. Thiel explains that this uneven pattern exists just as much in the VC world: “The biggest secret in venture capital is that the best investment in a successful fund equals or outperforms the entire rest of of the fund combined.” To optimise for the power law, Thiel recommends focusing on one market, one distribution strategy and, as a consequence, to be cautious about diversification.
  5. What to do with the “Power Law”? (2) – For me, the most valuable bit of “Zero to One” is the part where Thiel covers how to best use the power law when making critical business and product decisions. Going over his questions, I learned the importance of being pretty single minded about your unique proposition and execution (see Fig. 1 below). Thiel’s thinking about these questions is pretty simple: “Whatever your industry, any great business plan must address each every one of them. If you don’t have good answers to these questions, you’ll run into lots of “bad luck” and your business will fail. If you nail all seven you’ll master fortune and succeed.”

Fig. 1 – “Seven questions that every business must answer” – Taken from: Peter Thiel, “Zero to One”, pp. 153-154

  1. The Engineering Question – Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
  2. The Timing Question – Is now the right time to start your particular business?
  3. The Monopoly Question – Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  4. The People Question – Do you have the right team?
  5. The Distribution Question – Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
  6. The Durability Question – Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
  7. The Secret Question – Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

Main learning point: You can tell that “Zero to One” is written by someone who’s ‘been there and done that’. Thiel speaks with authority about the need to focus on a single market and busts commonplace myths about ‘lean’, first mover advantage and diversification.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/11098971/Peter-Thiel-the-billionaire-tech-entrepreneur-on-a-mission-to-cheat-death.html
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/21/peter-thiel-republican-convention-speech
  3. https://art19.com/shows/masters-of-scale/episodes/09f191df-d089-49a3-876d-75c7730a3f94
  4. http://www.reidhoffman.org/
  5. http://zerotoonebook.com/
  6. https://hbr.org/2005/04/the-half-truth-of-first-mover-advantage
  7. https://marketing-insider.eu/categories-of-new-products/
  8. https://medium.com/@RevelX/first-mover-disadvantage-9-reasons-being-the-first-to-market-may-harm-your-business-9ec75a85b1d2
  9. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/10/13/peter-thiel-we-dont-live-in-a-normal-world-we-live-under-a-power-law/#35b4d7fc7a7d
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle

 

App review: Toutiao

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of www.toutiao.com/ homepage 

When I first heard about Toutiaou I thought it might be just another news app, this coming one from China. I learned, however, very quickly that Toutiaou is much more than just a news app; at the time of writing, Toutiao has more than 700 million users in total, with ore than 78 million users reading over 1.3 billion articles on a daily basis.

Toutiao, known officially as Jinri Toutiao, which means “Today’s Headlines”, has a large part of its rapid rise to its ability to provide its users with a highly personalised news feed. Toutiao is a mobile platform that use machine learning algorithms to recommend content to its users, based on previous content accessed by users and their interaction with the content (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 – Screenshot of Toutiao iOS app

I identified a number of elements that contribute to Toutiao’s success:

  1. AI and machine learning – Toutiao’s flagship value proposition to its users, having its own dedicated AI Lab in order to constantly further the development of the AI technology that underpins its platform. Toutiao’s algorithms learn from the types of content its users interact with and the way(s) in which they interact with this content. Given that Toutiao users spend on average 76 minutes per day on the app, there’s a wealth of data for Toutiao’s algorithms to learn form and to base personalisations on.
  2. Variety of content types to choose from – Toutiao enables its users to upload short videos, and Toutiao’s algorithms of will recommend selected videos to appropriate users (see Fig. 3). Last year, Ivideos on Toutiao were played 1.5 billion times per day, making Toutiao China’s largest short video platform. Users can also upload pictures, similar to Instagram or Facebook, users can share their pictures, with other users being abel to like or comment on this content (see Fig. 4).
  3. Third party integrations – Toutiao has got strategic partnerships in place with the likes of WeChat, a highly popular messaging app (see Fig. 5), and jd.com, a local online marketplace. It’s easy to see how Toutiao is following an approach whereby they’re inserting their news feed into a user’s broader ecosystem.

Main learning point: I was amazed by the scale at which Toutiao operate and the levels at which its users interact with the app. We often talk about the likes of Netflix and Spotify when it comes to personalised recommendations, but with the amount of data that Toutiao gathers, I can they can create a highly tailored content experience for their users.

Fig. 3 – Screenshot of video section on Toutiao iOS app 

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of user generated content feed on Toutiao iOS app

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Fig. 5 – Screenshot of Toutiao and WeChat integration on Toutiao iOS app

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.toutiao.com/
  2. https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/toutiao#/entity
  3. http://technode.com/2017/06/05/podcast-analyse-asia-187-toutiao-with-matthew-brennan/
  4. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603351/the-insanely-popular-chinese-news-app-that-youve-never-heard-of/
  5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ywang/2017/05/26/jinri-toutiao-how-chinas-11-billion-news-aggregator-is-no-fake/#24d401d64d8a
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toutiao
  7. http://lab.toutiao.com/
  8. https://www.liftigniter.com/toutiao-making-headlines-machine-learning/
  9. https://techcrunch.com/2017/02/01/chinese-news-reading-app-toutiao-acquires-flipagram/
  10. https://lotusruan.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/cant-beat-giant-companies-on-wechatweibo-try-toutiao/
  11. https://www.chinainternetwatch.com/tag/toutiao/

 

 

 

How PSD2 is set to shake banking up as we know it …

Fig. 1 – A prophetic vision by Bill Gates!? – Taken from: https://www.slideshare.net/patrickpijl/how-square-is-disrupting-banks/6-Bill_GatesBANKING_ISNECESSARYBANKS_ARENOT

“Banking is necessary.  Banks are not.”  Yep. Bill Gates said it. Back in 1994. And 28 years later, it’s it’s set to become reality. From the 1st January 2018, banking will no longer be the exclusive domain of banking institutions because PSD2 is going to drastically alter the way in which we bank.

The biggest consequence is that more than 4,000 European banks will need to open their legacy (mainframe) data stores to Third Party Players (‘TPPs’) and allow them to retrieve account information (‘AIS’) or initiate payments (‘PIS’). Both capabilities will be facilitated through APIs. I wrote about the scope and ramifications of PSD2 a few months ago, and I’ve been thinking ever since about the implications for existing banks and whether they’ve got reason to be scared.

It would be surprising if some of the traditional banks weren’t nervous about the extent to which they’ll have to open their kimonos under PSD2. And even if the Facebooks, Googles or Amazons of this world don’t become banks overnight, I expect the traditional, lifelong bank-customer relationship to slowly evaporate as a result of PSD2 (and subsequent versions of PSD).

Fig. 2 – PwC: PSD2 providing third party access to data and payments via APIs – Taken from: https://www.finextra.com/finextra-downloads/newsdocs/catalyst-or-threat.pdf

Facebook could easily decide to become an AISP (Account Information Service Provider – see Fig. 2 above), which would enable them to offer an aggregated view of a user’s bank accounts. As a result, they would be able to analyse spending behaviour, understand their users’ financial profiles and personalise a user’s banking experience. This isn’t that revolutionary, as virtual assistants like Cleo and Treefin have already starting offering this functionality, and I believe it’s highly likely that we’ll see it roll out across Facebook Messenger or WeChat in the near future. If you need more convincing, Facebook made their first move two years ago by appointing David Marcus, former CEO of PayPal, to head up Facebook Messenger, so watch this space. Similarly, US bank Capital One integrated with Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa last year. This integration enables Capital One customers to pay their credit card bills and check their balances, by talking to their Alexa devices.

Fig. 3 – PwC: Six API-powered banking business models – Taken from: https://www.finextra.com/finextra-downloads/newsdocs/catalyst-or-threat.pdf

In addition, any remaining doubters about the power of APIs are likely to be converted as a result of PSD2. In the current Fintech landscape, there already are large number of banks that are either using APIs to hook into existing banking infrastructures (e.g. Varo Money) or offer additional services (e.g. N26). PwC recently conducted a study into the strategic implications of PSD2 for European banks and they listed no less than six API-powered banking business models (see Fig. 3 above).

Main learning point: It will be interesting to see what the actual impact of PSD2 will be, but if I were a traditional European bank, I’d be working as hard as I could to open up my APIs from today and start working on the creation of strong alliances with 3rd parties and their developers. As Nas once rapped on “N.Y. State Of Mind”, “I never sleep cause sleep is the cousin of the death.” If I were a traditional bank I’d follow Nas’ advice and give up on sleep completely …

Nas, lyric on “N.Y. State of Mind (Illmatic, 1994) – Taken from: https://uk.pinterest.com/MrConceptz/hiphop-101/

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.finextra.com/blogposting/14101/psd2-is-fast-approaching-dont-bury-your-head-in-the-sand
  2. https://www.finextra.com/videoarticle/1469/data-is-a-key-legal-issue-for-open-banking
  3. https://techcrunch.com/2017/01/12/what-facebooks-european-payment-license-could-mean-for-banks/
  4. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/apple-facebook-amazon-primed-psd2-demolition-card-networks-1606188
  5. https://www.siliconrepublic.com/enterprise/fintech-banking-psd2
  6. http://www.bankingtech.com/675841/psd2-and-the-future-of-payments/
  7. https://www.evry.com/en/news/articles/psd2-the-directive-that-will-change-banking-as-we-know-it/
  8. http://www.sepaforcorporates.com/single-euro-payments-area/5-things-need-know-psd2-payment-services-directive/
  9. https://techcrunch.com/2015/07/12/the-future-of-finance-is-in-real-time/
  10. https://www.finextra.com/finextra-downloads/newsdocs/catalyst-or-threat.pdf
  11. http://www.pymnts.com/news/b2b-payments/2015/task-force-launches-eu-instant-payment-plan/.VYpo1rnhBTI
  12. https://venturebeat.com/2016/06/05/say-hello-to-messenger-banking/
  13. https://www.finextra.com/newsarticle/28602/capital-one-integrates-with-amazon-alexa-for-voice-powered-payments

 

App review: Grip

 

Grip is a London based startup that specialises in “smart event networking software”. That sounds like a relevant problem to solve, because don’t we all have a (secret) love-hate relationship with ‘networking’ at events!?

Yes, I’d love to meet with interesting people at events but I hate approaching people randomly.

Let’s have a closer look at how Grip is looking to solve this problem:

My quick summary of Grip (before using it) – I expect an app that uses clever algorithms to suggest relevant people to meet during events.

How does Grip explain itself in the first minute? – The Grip homepage describes the tedium involved in networking at events, with attendees often failing to make the connections they’d hoped for. Grip’s value proposition is to remove this tedium by unlocking “valuable connections at your event, saving attendees time and hard work. We use advanced algorithms to recommend the right people and present them in an easy swiping interface that your attendees will love.”

Getting started, what’s the process like? – Grip uses natural language processing to connect event attendees based on interest, needs and other things they’ve got in common. I liked Grip’s ability to tell an attendee not just who, but also why they should meet someone, in the form of Reasons To Meet.

Grip users will be able to tailor the real-time recommendations they get by setting their own matchmaking rules. I like the element of Grip not totally relying on machine learning, but also giving users the opportunity to feed their preferences into category rules into the Grip dashboard. This will influence the matchmaking engine in real-time and improve the future recommendations for event exhibitors, delegates and sponsors.

I can imagine that the data around users’ acceptance or rejection of Grip’s suggested matches, will help in further refining the app’s recommendations. This reminded me about the review that I did of THEO recently. THEO acts a ‘robo-advisor’ and uses machine learning to provide its users tailored investment advice.

Integrating the Grip API – Apart from the app, Grip have also got their own API, which makes it easier for companies to incorporate event matchmaking capability into their website or apps.

Main learning point: Grip is taking a significant problem for event attendees and exhibitors, and is using machine learning to solve this problem in a real-time and personalised fashion.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://grip.events/handsake-event-networking/
  2. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/blog/event-tech-adoption-at-events-ds00/
  3. https://grip.events/ai-event-matchmaking/
  4. https://grip.events/7-secrets-game-changing-event-networking/
  5. http://event-profs.com/world-first-artificially-intelligent-event-technology/
  6. https://marcabraham.com/2017/04/19/app-review-theo/
  7. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/blog/event-tech-startups-2017-ds00/

 

Lessons learned from Uri Levine, Co-Founder of Waze

Last Friday, I attended a talk by Uri Levine, Co-Founder of Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation app that was sold to Google for $1.1 billion. In a two-hour session, Uri shared some of his key learnings from the Waze startup journey; from starting from scratch to a successful exit. I felt that his talk was packed with valuable insights, and I’ve selected some key ones to share:

Focus on the problem – I loved how Uri concentrated on the problem that you’re looking to solve. He talked about problem solving being a key driver for him and the different startups that he’s (been) involved in. For example, Waze originated from Uri’s frustration with traffic jams … Uri then talked us through the “Adjusted Startup Curve” to illustrate the typical journey of a startup, starting with a problem to solve (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – Knife Capital’s “Adjusted Startup Curve” – Taken from: http://ventureburn.com/2013/07/the-startup-curve-south-africa-wiggles-of-realism/

Don’t be afraid to fail – I always find it incredibly refreshing when other people speak openly about failures and not being afraid to fail. As Uri rightly pointed out, the fear to fail (and therefore not trying) is a failure in itself (see Fig. 2). He was also keen to stress that creating and managing a startup is never a linear, upward journey. By contrast, you effectively go from failure to failure, but you might win in the end – if you’re lucky that is (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 2 – Michael Jordan quote about failure – Taken from: http://www.quotezine.com/michael-jordan-quotes/

Fig. 3 – “Journey of Failures” by Douglas Karr – Taken from: https://twitter.com/douglaskarr/status/333027896241299457/photo/1

Passion for change – Uri’s points about entrepreneurs and their passion for change really resonated with me. I’m not an entrepreneur, but I feel that I’ve got some innate restlessness which is usually fed by change, learning and trying new things. It was interesting hearing Uri talk about how this passion usually doesn’t sit with well with fear of failure or loss. “Move fast and break things” was one of Uri’s mantras in this regard.

Honest validation of your ideas – As an entrepreneur, Uri explained, you need to fall in love with your idea. However, he also highlighted the importance of being able to critically assess your own idea. He suggested asking yourself “who will be out of business if I succeed?” If you don’t know the answer to this question, Uri explained, your idea probably isn’t big enough.

Iterate based on user feedback – Uri reminded me of the mighty David Cancel as David is also very focused on solving customer problems and listening to customer feedback (see Fig. 4). Like David, Uri didn’t get overly zealous about Agile or lean development methods. Instead, Uri talked about constantly iterating a product or service based on customer feedback.

Fig. 4 – David Cancel at Mind the Product conference, London 2016 – Taken from: http://www.mindtheproduct.com/2016/12/importance-listening-customers-david-cancel/

Main learning point: I found Uri Levine’s talk hugely inspiring; he was honest about the challenges involved in creating or working at a startup whilst at the same encouraging us to solve problems and try things.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.tellseries.com/events/uri-levine/
  2. http://uk.businessinsider.com/how-waze-co-founder-spends-his-money-2015-8
  3. https://www.ft.com/content/49857280-8eaf-11e5-8be4-3506bf20cc2b
  4. https://www.crunchbase.com/person/uri-levine#/entity
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/may/28/waze-uri-levine-tips-startup-google

App review: Vipps

I’m always on the lookout for new payment apps and I recently came across Vipps. Vipps is a Norwegian peer to peer payments app, currently only available to Norwegian users.

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Vipps – Taken from: https://www.vipps.no/

These are the main things I’ve learned about Vipps:

  1. Use the recipient’s mobile number – Similar to the way the likes of Monzo and Uber work, with the Vipps app all you need is the mobile number of the recipient. If you need to send money to someone else, your friend needs to download the Vipps app and the amount will be sent to his/her account registered with Vipps. Select the person you want to pay from your phone’s contact list or enter their mobile number.
  2. Use Vipps to split bills – For example, when you’re eating out with a group of friends, you can ask your friends for money when splitting the bill. Create a group name – e.g. Nando’s on Friday – and add the names of the group members. Now people in your group can enter all expenses that are to be shared between the group members. Once all the amounts have been entered and everyone has confirmed that there are no more outlays, it is easy to see who owes what.
  3. Personal account registered with Vipps – Vipps doesn’t have it’s own current account. Instead, users can send money through Vipps from any Norwegian bank, provided that they have a bank debit card and a bank account with the bank in question.
  4. Getting started with Vipps – To be able to use Vipps, users need to enter a Norwegian national identity number, a Norwegian mobile number, the details of their payment card (Visa or MasterCard), their Norwegian bank account number and an email address. Once you’ve created a four digit code, you can start paying or receiving money. When logging into Vipps, you can use your personal code or Touch ID.
  5. Vipps’ charges – Vipps doesn’t charge for amounts below NOK 5 000. For payments of NOK 5 000 or above, the charge is 1 per cent of the total amount. There is no charge for receiving money.

Main learning point: Love how apps like Vipps are making it easier and easier for people to pay and receive money. The splitting bills functionality is very welcome!

Vipps 3

Fig. 2 – Vipps’ peer-to-peer payments – Taken from: http://anti.as/news/vipps-by-dnb

Vipps 4

Fig. 3 – Screenshot of Vipps’ Android app; making a payment – Taken from: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=no.dnb.vipps

Vipps 5

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of Vipps’ iOSapp; selecting a contact or a company that you want to pay – Taken from: https://www.appannie.com/en/apps/ios/app/vipps-by-dnb/

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.vipps.no/
  2. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vipps-by-dnb/id984380185?mt=8
  3. https://www.finextra.com/newsarticle/30131/dnb-spins-off-vipps-mobile-payment-service
  4. http://anti.as/projects/vipps-by-dnb
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vipps
  6. http://www.lifeinnorway.net/living/money/mobile-payments/
  7. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=no.dnb.vipps&hl=en_GB
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mx5lsfs2d0
  9. https://www.vipps.no/vilkar.html
  10. https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/store/p/vipps-by-dnb/9nblgggz9jv1

App review: THEO

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of THEO – Taken from: http://fintechnews.sg/3137/roboadvisor/robo-advisory-services-asia/

I recently came across THEO, a mobile, Japanese investment service offered by Money Design. THEO acts as a ‘robo-advisor’; enabling users to invest using their smartphone, and applying machine-based learning to offer users investment suggestions. The service allows users to start investment from 100,000 JPY. By answering nine questions (see Fig. 2 below), Money Design’s proprietary robo-advisor’s algorithm selects an optimum combination from about 6,000 Exchange-Traded Funds (‘ETFs’) in about two minutes and provides discretionary investment management to the user.

Fig. 2 – Screenshot of questions asked to THEO users to create their investment profile 

The user’s answers will trigger THEO’s underlying algorithms to deliver the most optimal money management plan for the user (see Fig. 3). At this point, we’ll need to consider the artificial intelligence aspect of THEO. This is where the accuracy of the proposed plan, as generated by THEO’s algorithms, comes into play (see Fig. 3 below). As one Japanese investor commented: “I am an aggressive investor with a long timescale so I was surprised to see how conservative the allocation ended up.”

 

Fig, 3 – Screenshot of sample diagnosis results based on answering THEO’s questions

Main learning point: The key point with apps like THEO is going to be the accuracy and personal fit of the investment plan its algorithms will suggest to investors. I wonder whether any manual ‘tweaking’ is involved in assessing investment profiles and subsequent recommendations.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://jftoday.com/THEO,+the+robo-advisory+investment+app,+exceeds+5,000+users+for+100days/
  2. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-12/hedge-fund-founder-turns-robo-adviser-for-japan-s-cash-hoarders
  3. http://fintechnews.sg/3137/roboadvisor/robo-advisory-services-asia/
  4. http://www.retirejapan.info/blog/japan-robo-advisor-theo
  5. https://theo.blue/
  6. http://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/etf.asp
  7. http://fintechnews.sg/3137/roboadvisor/robo-advisory-services-asia/
  8. http://www.theasianbanker.com/updates-and-articles/robo-advisors-poised-to-take-off
  9. http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-china-wealth-roboadvisors-idUKKCN10S2GT
  10. http://finovate.com/drivewealth-brings-robo-advisory-china-new-partnership-creditease/
  11. https://medium.com/@Mosaic_VC/trust-in-a-robo-advisor-world-62397cbe75fe
  12. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/how-ai-is-transforming-the-future-of-fintech
  13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_intelligence