Beyond the bustle and the noise, my Money20/20 Asia takeaways
In the days immediately after a big conference, we are all in a bit of weird limbo. Legs still ache from all the time spent standing and running from meeting to stage; with eyes still scratchy from sleep deprivation and jet lag, we try to tackle the email traffic accumulated back at work in our absence, follow up on the amazing conversations that started while we were in situ at the conference and bottle the energy that fuelled us through the event, to last us a few more days.
I’ve never been to a conference that was not immediately useful, because I make a point of making it so. I know what I am looking for when I say yes to an event. I always have a direct and immediate agenda. Tech talent. Partners. Regulatory insight. Whatever it is, I am clear about it before I board a plane and once there I make sure I get it.
It’s business. It’s transactional. It’s invaluable.
It’s good return on investment (ROI) for the time and money spent going to a conference.
And yet there is more, so much more, to these encounters. At the right events, you get to take the pulse of an entire industry and if you listen, you shall hear.
And I am always listening. So this is what I heard, at Money 20/20 Asia, aside from the sparring, and the slide decks and the company announcements.
- There is poetry in tech, there is magic in the air: Nikhil and India stack
I have said it before and I will say it again.
We live in an era where technical possibility allows us to re-imagine the human experience. What we have done with this possibility so far is timid and pedestrian, much as it has actually stretched us. What is conceivably possible, when we start exploring a different way of orchestrating life is mind-blowing and magical.
Enter left, India Stack, a set of APIs that allows governments and businesses of all sizes to use a shared digital infrastructure to solve India’s hard problems, towards a presence-less, paper-less, decentralised and human-centred future.
KYC, foundational identity, payments, storage and sharing of verified digital documentation are only the beginning. Anything that leverages information for its delivery and could benefit 1.2 billion people, is fair game.
This is neither fast, nor easy. This is not lucrative and it’s not linear. But it is inspirational, uplifting and possibly the single most exciting transformational movement of our time.
It is neither one man’s labour nor one man’s dream, it takes a village. But it also takes a story teller. And what Money 20/20 Asia taught me is that it does the soul good to meet Nikhil Kumar @nikhilkumarks and hear of the work he is part of and the dream that fuels them all.
- The reluctant king-makers determine business viability, one policy at a time
Banks have compliance departments to deal with the regulators in each of the jurisdictions we operate in. Some banks hire people dedicated to do business model innovation (this is bank-speak for let’s try and make some new money with the new stuff we keep building, because protecting old revenue may not be the way forward).
Start-ups, on the other hand, don’t have compliance departments. Their approach to regulation is binary – does it let us do what we are thinking, does it not; does it create a new opportunity; does it not. And their business model tends to be a simple schema after a choice of sell to humans, sell to corporates, be sold to corporates.
That is all as it should be, given relative sizes and product complexity.
But as we watched the various businesses and partnerships from Europe and Asia take the stage, what was blatantly true and perennially unspoken is that what works and what doesn’t, what business model flies and what doesn’t, has little to do with a bank’s appetite, nothing to do with the startup’s tech and everything to do with the regulatory permissions granted within each jurisdiction.
For a long time, barriers to entry were forbiddingly high. As soon as the regulator in Europe relaxed those provisions in the interest of higher competition, the competition flourished. PSD2 and open banking are opening the door to alternative business models: what is permitted will be attempted – and given the proliferation of fintech providers, success will come soon. Not to many, but from a market perspective soon. The many bright minds at work guarantee that. So the absence of a particular flavour of start-up or collaboration in a given geography, is not cultural. It is not market driven. It is not demand driven.
Banks don’t go for wholesale transformation just because their consumers have become more digitally savvy. They do it because the regulatory change opened up competition that will sell into that behavioural change and survival dictates hustle.
In the jurisdictions where regulation decrees collaboration and coexistence, the business models that will fly will axiomatically be consociational and symbiotic.
It is blatant to see if you take the 10,000 foot view. The differences that currently exist cross geography are directly linked to the business model favoured by the local regulations, consciously or unconsciously.
What is also there to see for all who are looking and listening is a regulatory convergence toward open banking, towards empowering the individual and towards regulators behaving (to paraphrase Sopnendu Mohanty) more as guide dogs into a more enlightened future and less as watchdogs for the checklists and assurances of old. They quietly transform the world we live in.
And you know what I think? Power to them.
- The hype is strong, so is the hard graft
Not all was inspirational awesomeness. The hype was strong with some of the participants. Buzz word bingo cards could sell well next year. As would a button that produces a loud “disqualified” beep every time someone presents an idea that is as useful as a chocolate teapot.
I was offered a device-embedded artificial intelligence (AI) solution with full user-override for cybersecurity on a decentralised permission-less blockchain. I was offered a crypto currency built on top of Ethereum, but not ether, like ether and using all the same protocols, but not ether but also not competing but also different.
But simultaneously, I saw companies solving real problems at real scale. Even more interesting, I saw companies selling to each other, not just selling themselves or selling to the big guns. Services developed to support a connected economy of smaller providers that don’t want to build everything but want to help their customer access everything, if everything is what the customer wants.
And I saw firms proudly offering a modular solution, that relies on the expertise of others to deliver fully. And I loved that these young firms didn’t treat this as the weakness we would have told them it is, a few years back. They are devising services for a platform economy. They are building the future.
- Bitcoin mania may be bad for crypto
Even though the frenzy of the past few months has made everyone a Bitcoin expert overnight. And every though these newcomers arrogantly dismiss any concerns around what the casino behaviour may be doing to the ecosystem, there was an undeniable realisation that the hype around Bitcoin may be bad for adoption.
A FinTech Finance-sponsored payments race saw five people hustling to get from Hong Kong to Singapore, taking in as many countries and as many transport methods as possible, using one mode of payment alone. Team Bitcoin’s Amélie Arras (@ameliearras) hustled hard but the adoption curtailment was undeniable. Regulation popping up in the past few months limited acceptance all over Asia. Volatility and the strain volumes put on settlement meant that places that used to accept Bitcoin as a currency, now could not handle same day transactions. As a direct result of Bitcoin’s rise to fame, its viability as a currency in the region was actively limited.
The racer rallied but the implication is clear: we are building the new economies through actions conscious and unconscious. Are the people who choose to use crypto as an investible asset and the folks who treat it as an alternative to “all on Red” part of the same narrative? Many folks say it doesn’t matter. That comes down to personal views. But the impact these behaviours have had is undeniable, even if how you feel about said impact varies by personal beliefs and benefits.
- There is great power in vulnerability.
Conferences are platforms and PR is par of the course. We expect a certain amount of “aren’t we awesome” and given its not empty chest thumping, there is value in it. Success stories are always needed: they are beacons. They are challenges. They are inspiration or a gauntlet thrown. They are proof that things are possible and a reminder that the world won’t wait for you.
PR or not, it does us all good to hear those stories. To inspire or galvanise us.
But the dark moments are still missing. We happily share the end of the road but not the agony of navigating uncertainty and in doing so we don’t help the newcomers start figuring out how to know when something is a bump and when it’s actually time to pivot. It’s hard to share those sides of the story. It’s hard to hear those stories and know what to take away, what may apply to you. But there is immense value in those learnings and immense value in taking time to attend the “failure” track. It may be the most inspirational thing you do – after India stack. And they both will inspire us all to stop holding back.
Amazing things happen when you put so many committed, intelligent, curious and engaged people under one roof.
Cynics will miss it all and wonder why they came. Let them. Focus on how much you can squeeze out of the incredible energy the building contains for a brief four days.
Talk. Laugh. Hustle. Seal deals and grab pen and paper to sketch out the previously unthinkable. This is the place to seek advice, find partners, float ideas, shake hands, hire talent, source tech partners and think outside the boundaries of your daily routine, however erratic and non-routiney that may be.
It’s been a crazy week: long hours, intense moments on stage, a million new ideas crammed into a few short days. My body aches but my spirit soars.
And while I am so tired I could kiss my bed, I am counting down to next time.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ new resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!