What are the odds…
Do you have a lockdown song? I do.
It happened accidentally. The song came on while I was on a run early in the first lockdown. My playlist was on random shuffle and I had not heard the song in years and then on it comes and I must have replayed it four times on that run and almost every day of lockdown since.
“Struck by lightning, sounds pretty frightening. But you know the chances are so small…” do you know it?
Odds Are, by the Barenaked Ladies.
It’s a song about hope… “It’s a twenty-three four-to-one, that you can fall in love by the end of this song… So get up, get up… Tell the bookie put a bet on ‘not a damn thing will go wrong‘.”
At a time when we all need a bit of optimism, this song is my pick-me-up. “The odds are that we will probably be alright.”
But are they?
Playgrounds and cinematic montages
Over the last fifteen years this thing emerged that we call the fintech ecosystem. We all know what we mean when we say it. We mean innovation programmes and startup showcases, proof of concepts (POCs) and conferences that feel like festivals. We mean incubators and hackathons. We mean an environment of extreme friendliness, compressed creativity and hopes on steroids.
We mean a thing that is real and yet it is not the full story.
A playground feel of safety in experimentation, where you can truly believe that if you climb onto the roof you can reach the sky and if you stretch enough, you can take a big bite off a cloud.
Those of us on the financial institution side of the equation are all guilty of creating and nurturing this feeling. And we owe a whole generation of entrepreneurs an apology.
Because in offering a cinematic montage of hackathon to unicorn transitions set to uplifting music, early-stage start-ups rubbing shoulders with the founders of runaway successes and nobody ever speaking about how non-funded entrepreneurs pay their rent or what happened to all the early stage founders we used to see at events ten years ago? When did they stop turning up? Are they ok? Did anyone even check? Were they struck by lightning, even though “the chances are so small”?
Probably not. Because what we didn’t mention in our conferences and incubators and showcases and accelerators is that in the life of an entrepreneur, it’s not the chances of being struck by lighting that are small. It’s the chance of surviving.
Surviving the search for product market fit.
Surviving your own runway.
Surviving full stop, while investors ask for proof points and sticky revenue and your competitors seem to have a rich dad or all the luck.
I was speaking to a founder the other day and she said words that I have heard before: I knew this was going to be hard. But this is harder than I ever imagined.
Similarly I have had many a conversation with successful founder friends and they all, unconnected and unrelated and unbeknownst to each other, say the same two things: I would advise anyone in their right mind never to do this to themselves…
And then with a faraway smile they all, always, add: but god I would do it again. I would do it all over again, knowing what I know. And I will probably do it again.
Why is that? Are they insane? Or are they how we make the montage, how we spin the fairytale: they are the ones that made it against the odds and now they know that the odds were not great but hey they made it and we pick them out and only tell their story making it look easier and more linear and almost inevitable.
Is that it?
The part about how the industry tells the story is sadly pretty true. But the rest?
Are the successful fintech entrepreneurs singing to themselves, “the odds are that we will probably be alright”?
You know… I don’t think so.
Although we are truly and utterly misleading with our montage of happy endings and happy collaborations, I don’t think the entrepreneurs who throw themselves into the fray do it because they buy the fluffy narrative. I mean, we are guilty, but they are not gullible.
It’s love, stupid
“Somewhere in the world, someone is gonna fall in love by the end of this song” and that is all there is to it. Somewhere between fintech happy hour and being flown half way around the world for a pitch competition funded by a big corporate like that’s normal, these guys fall in love. With what is possible. With what is possible for them.
With the ability to build.
With the possibility of success, of making an impact, of making a killing, of making a difference.
And when that happens, they don’t even think, “the odds are that we will probably be alright”, it doesn’t even matter any more. We didn’t help with the saccharine happy ending montage. We didn’t help by concealing how hard it is. We didn’t help by creating a playground that would make the advent of digital technologies less scary for the banks, blind to the fact that we made the startups expendable and ultimately interchangeable.
And before you tell me that fintech is a multi-billion dollar industry, a massive, roaring runaway success, I will tell you I have lists of names of people and ventures and ideas that didn’t succeed. Many, many times the length of the list of those that did. And although that’s the cost of doing business, we were less than honest when we ran our competitions and invited entrepreneurs to take the plunge and chase the dreams because “odds are we gonna be alright”.
Thankfully for us, even though the odds were wrong, many incredibly talented folks fell in love with the journey and delivered us incredible products, amazing companies to work for, technology and business innovation beyond our expectations and a radically, fundamentally different industry. A change we get to benefit from but don’t deserve because frankly we didn’t help with our “odds are we gonna be alright” vibes.
What should we have done, I hear you ask?
Damn… it’s all in the song:
“Sure things go wrong, but I’ll take my chances. Odds are long, so why not play?”
I bet you most of the entrepreneurs I know – the ones who made it and the ones who didn’t – would have come into the fray even with this reality check. Although some may have held something back.
And some wouldn’t enter the fray at all. Those who believed us when we said, you’ve got this.
When we said, there is room for everyone. When we said, success and business viability is a hackathon and an industry challenge away. When we said, funding is plentiful and the market is open. When we said, we were worried about disintermediation but would encourage partnerships. When we said, “the odds are that we will probably be alright”. And we were absolutely wrong. And yet some of our generation’s most creative minds fell in love by the end of the song. And they kept going despite the odds.
And although the odds were stacked against them… and against us if you really think about it, they transformed the industry despite both the odds and our best efforts. For all of us.
And I was there to see it all. What are the odds of that?
And most definitely fell in love with the journey, by the end of the song. The odds for which are twenty-three four-to-one.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!