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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Filtering by Category: Disruptors

Transforming Payments: Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire

Jo Ann Barefoot

Welcome to our first episode focused on Bitcoin, digital currency, and the blockchain. My guest is one of the most thoughtful people anywhere on this topic and on payments overall: Circle CEO and Founder Jeremy Allaire.

I met with Jeremy at his office in south Boston's "Innovation District," a few blocks from where I live myself. They have quintessential startup space in an old brick warehouse, and we sat down on a New England winter day for a really fascinating conversation.

I often talk about the five huge technology trends that are revolutionizing financial services. Number 4 on my list is digital currency. Not long ago, even senior leaders in banks and regulatory agencies dismissed Bitcoin as insignificant and weird at best, and dangerous at worst. Today, many people still think it's weird and dangerous, but no one thinks it's unimportant. I'm going to assume our listeners know the basics - that Bitcoin invented the "blockchain," which is an open "distributed ledger" of transactions, visible on the internet, and that being on the internet makes it (like everything else there) instant and free. Most people also understand that this can transform our slow, high-cost payments system, and also any other system that is, in effect, a chain of transactions or records. Most people also know the blockchain record is unfakeable, unbreakable, and again, visible - attributes that can fundamentally change how we organize things from money and contracts and legal titles to operational systems and markets of all kinds.

I once wrote a blog post called "The Benefits of Bitcoin", arguing that the cheap and instant movement of money can bring incredible upside potential for financial consumers, as well as new risks. It will eventually change everything from remittance services to the struggles facing people on tight budgets who now rely on cash, since it's the only way to be sure a bill gets paid exactly when it's due.

As understanding of Bitcoin has spread, a new conventional wisdom has emerged - the notion that the crucial innovation here is not digital currency, but rather the blockchain, including closed chains inside companies and closed networks. In our conversation, Jeremy challenges that idea head-on. He argues passionately that the big power in this technology is its openness.

He reminds us, for one thing, that the internet initially spurred hot debate over how to secure the unprecedented free-flow of information. In a widely-circulated article on re/code.com last November Jeremy wrote,  "Remember, the Internet was unreliable, insecure, and filled with creeps and hackers. People wanted safe, secure, trusted and proprietary networks. That was the future...(yet) We all know what happened. Smart creators and engineers from all around the world got inspired by the open Internet...Permissionless innovation took hold, and we changed the world." He thinks we now need to take the basic DNA of the Internet - open protocols and distributed and decentralized networks - and apply them not just to sharing data and information, but to the sharing of value.

He also emphasizes a core power of this - the fact that if you don't have to trust a single centralized institution to facilitate value exchange, amazing things become possible. Jeremy refers to bitcoin as a distributor of trust, one that "provides a highly secure ledger to exchange value around the world." He believes that just as the early Internet disrupted media and communications, this wave of innovation will transform the "trust and assurance" industries - "which includes government, law, accounting, insurance and, last but not least, finance."

Entering into a global economy in which everything from social identities to commerce flow instantly and freely is discomfiting to some. Even though today's closed and proprietary technology and networks create frustration and high costs for consumers, Bitcoin critics still doubt the soundness and resilience of the model. For innovators like Jeremy, though, it is creating a whole new set of solutions that use financial technology to build "smart rules" and business logic that can eventually shape the new laws of global commercial and legal governance.

Jeremy's "aha" moment on this came in 2012, and inspired him to start a company that would use blockchain technology, which he calls the "global trust and transaction ledger," to change the way we store and use money. That company is Circle, a provider of mobile apps "aimed at enabling greater ease-of-use in online and in-person payments, enhanced security and privacy for customers, and the convenience of free, instant, global digital money transfers." A revolutionary idea. As I say in our conversation, I'm a Circle customer myself.  Every time I use it, it amazes me.

Before Circle, Jeremy was an entrepreneur who'd already spent two decades building and leading global technology companies. His first startup, Allaire Corp, pioneered the use of the Web as a platform for commerce and business applications, and grew to serve over 1 million customers around the world. In 2000, Allaire Corp was acquired by Macromedia, where Jeremy became Chief Technology Officer and helped transform Flash into a platform for rich applications and video that became the most widely adopted piece of software in the history of computing.

He then founded Brightcove, the first Internet video publishing platform for websites, smartphones, tablets and connected-TVs. The company has customers in more than 100 countries and powers video operations for 25 percent of the top 10,000 websites in the world. From 2003 to 2014, Jeremy also served as a Director at Ping Identity Corporation, an industry-leading software and online service provider for securing identity on the Internet whose clients include many of the largest financial institutions in the world.

 

In our conversation, Jeremy explains his vision, his long background in technology, how Circle works, their business model and plans, and his thoughts about regulation of finance and fintech.  The regulatory challenges are obviously huge. Circle sought and received the first-ever (and at this writing, still only) New York State "bit-license." Jeremy talks about the challenges of becoming licensed as a money transmitter in the U. S. state-by-state regulatory patchwork. He also recognizes that, importantly, governments throughout the country and the world see potential as well as risk in these innovations. An example is that Jennifer Shasky Calvery, Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, has testified before Congress that FinCENrecognizes the "potential for abuse by illicit actors," and that the agency has for almost five years worked with its regulatory partners on designing rules that provide the "needed flexibility to accommodate innovation in the payment systems space under our preexisting regulatory framework."

Jeremy Allaire has an exceptional gift for making mind-bending technology and regulatory challenges easy to understand - and for provoking thought. This is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating episodes we've had.

Enjoy it, and please be sure to click the "Donate" button HERE, and to write a review on ITunes, to keep supporting the show.

And.....Introducing my video series: Regulation Innovation

Meanwhile, I have a video for you -- two of them, actually.

Many listeners know I have long been a consultant to the financial industry, first on regulatory matters and more recently on fintech. A couple of years ago, someone suggested that I take the kind of advice people pay me for as a consultant, and distill it into video briefings that are accessible and affordable for a much wider market. It was a great idea, and so I began building a video series offering my advice.

I've focused the videos on the most important question facing consumer financial services -- How to survive, and actually thrive, through the twin disruptions that are hitting the industry:  technology innovation, and regulation.

I think everyone in fintech will enjoy them, but the series is specifically designed as a guide for financial companies - it's informative, thought-provoking, and practical. It's for both traditional companies and innovators. And it's for the people working on innovation, regulation, and building the business.

I am very confident in saying there is nothing else remotely like it.  Please check it out!

And while you're there, check out my little bonus video because it answers, at long last, this burning question: "Why does Jo Ann Barefoot have an Xbox, since she's never played a videogame in her entire life, and what the heck does this have to do with financial innovation?"

www.regulationinnovation.com. See you there!


If you enjoy our work to bring together thought provoking ideas and people please consider a contribution to support the site.

Support the Podcast

Please subscribe to the podcast by opening your favorite podcast app and searching for "Jo Ann Barefoot", in TuneIn, or in iTunes.   

Effortless Saving: Digit CEO Ethan Bloch

Jo Ann Barefoot

This is one of my favorite episodes we've ever done - my conversation with Digit founder and CEO, Ethan Bloch.

Digit has set out to solve one of the core problems in consumers' financial lives - how to save. Their solution is to make savings effortless, using an intelligent algorithm that analyzes your spending and income patterns and automatically moves funds into savings. I had dinner with Ethan last summer and suddenly realized he was describing an "Uberization" of savings, paralleling the financial industry's efforts to "uberize" payments, in the sense of making the mechanics disappear, like the non-exchange of money at the end of an Uber ride.  Out of sight, out of mind. With Digit, you sign up, and you automatically start to save.

I had always assumed that getting people to save requires fostering mindfulness - getting people to think long term instead of short term. Digit is going in the opposite direction - not mindfulness, but mindlessness. Again, effortlessness. Instead of hoping people will form habits that keep them focused all the time, on saving Digit just lets them decide to save one time. After that, they save. He's trying to drive the "minutes per year" spent on saving to nearly zero. No more budgets, expense tracking, figuring how much you should save and can save and did save. They're breaking all those practical barriers that keep most people stuck.

I know it bothers some people to have consumers saving without thinking. We wish, instead, that everyone would become financially educated and focus on their life goals - you could call it developing the financial virtues. There are innovators working on that approach, too, using behavioral economics to get people motivated. Still, if the eat-your-spinach approach was going to work, it probably would have by now. It's time to try new tools. I know other companies working from the same logic.

And here's an interesting twist. After Digit gets people started on effortless saving, they actually do switch over to mindfulness. They start texting their customers about daily savings progress. And they do it with humor which, as I've been saying, is a secret weapons of many fintech innovators. They are blowing up the boredom factor that keeps so many people from focusing on their finances. I asked Ethan for examples of this. Unfortunately I didn't get the jokes because they're aimed at millennials, but if you -- unlike me -- happen to know what's cooler than cool, Digit will send you this fun GIF.

 


Speaking of millennials, Digit's average user is 27 years old. Some people want to dismiss fintech solutions for this group, because so many other consumers need tools too My answer to that is, the millennials are the early adopters of new technology. It makes sense to start with them. As these products get traction, they will broaden.  Listen to Ethan, and many of our other guests, and you hear a big vision about remaking the financial lives of everyone. (And by the way, we do have a show coming up with Bee, which is reaching for a very different market.)

At the age of 30, Ethan is at the forefront of the fintech revolution. Digit is a winner of the Financial Solutions Lab competition sponsored by CFSI and JPMorgan Chase, which focused its first year on solutions for the more than one-third of Americans who struggle with managing cash flow management. (Recall that another winner was Ascend - we talked with its founder, Steve Carlson, in Episode 9).

Ethan explains how much money Digit has saved people so far (by the way, we recorded this discussion late last year, so his progress data are for 2015, not 2016). He explains how customers are using the savings they build up. He describes their investors and business model and plans.

And he talks about how to design great financial tools, that are like smart phones - that people can just pick up and use, without needing manuals, much less lengthy federal disclosure documents.

Speaking of those, Ethan really calls out the failures of disclosures. He also discusses the shift underway toward a more principles-based approach (echoing our episodes with other guests, including Thomas Curry). He describes, too, the huge obstacles to innovation that arise from well-intentioned government efforts, including the difficulties innovators face in working with banks.

Ethan also had the most surprising answer I've gotten yet to my standard question on how he keeps up with technology change.

Finally, for our many listeners who play Barefoot Innovation while you're carpooling to school in hopes it will inspire your kids to grow up and found the next PayPal, I should say I'm rating this episode PG-13, for language. Ethan uses a few words in our conversation that...let's put this way, you hardly ever hear them on National Public Radio.

Learn more at www.digit.co and @hellodigit and @ebloch and find further links below:

Note to Our Listeners:

If you're enjoying Barefoot Innovation, please be sure write a review on ITunes and also click the Donate button, to help us can keep it growing!

Last but not least, I am finally launching my long-in-the-making video series, Regulation Innovation. It's for people in the financial world contending with the top two disruptive challenges - regulation and technology innovation. It for both business and regulatory people, and for both traditional companies and innovators. I'll have much more information coming on this, but please come to www.jsbarefoot.com in March, and check it out!  I promise, there is nothing else remotely like it.


If you enjoy our work to bring together thought provoking ideas and people please consider a contribution to support the site.

Support the Podcast

Please subscribe to the podcast by opening your favorite podcast app and searching for "Jo Ann Barefoot", in TuneIn, or in iTunes.    

Steve Carlson, Founder & CEO of Ascend, Winner of the CFSI Financial Solutions Lab Competition

Jo Ann Barefoot

Episode 9 finds us at the 2015 EMERGE conference in Austin with the winners of the first Financial Solutions Lab competition.

The contest is a $30 million, five-year initiative funded by JPMorgan Chase and run by the Center for Financial Services Innovation, or CFSI, the conference sponsor (note -- I serve on CFSI's board). It challenges entrepreneurs to create solutions for the cash flow difficulties facing millions of American middle and lower income-households.

Two hundred ninety-eight innovators applied. Nine were chosen. And  -- drum roll - one was Steve Carlson of Ascend Consumer Finance, our guest for this episode.

Ascend was recognized for its unique approach to broadening credit access and affordability for non-prime borrowers.  The company wants to drive a new generation of lending with its Adaptive Risk Pricing tool, which actively monitors and rewards customers for positive financial actions throughout the span of their loan, sharply cutting interest costs.

I've known Ascend's Co-Founder and CEO Steve Carlson since we both joined the Consumer Advisory Board of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) when it first was formed in 2012. Ascend has benefited - and so does our podcast - from Steve's double background in banking and technology. He has held senior executive roles at HSBC and Washington Mutual and advised global financial services firms as a co-founder of Sung Carlson Associates. He was also the head of marketing and business development at Intuit Financial Services (Mint.com and Quicken).

(A side-note on Intuit:  in the recording, Steve  relates its history and I ask if its founder, Scott Cook, got started by making calls from a phone book. Afterwards, I looked up the story and found it in The Lean Startup, by  Eric Ries (pages 88-89). He writes that in 1982 Cook "picked up two phone books: one for Palo Alto, California, where he was living at the time, and the other for Winnetka, Illinois." He randomly called people to gauge interest in his idea, and a company was born. For any listeners who haven't read The Lean Startup, do!)

In our conversation, Steve describes the impetus behind Ascend, their current status (including their partnership with Lending Tree), and why he believes banking should be a value-driven proposition. He thinks both consumers and the industry can benefit by improving the financial health of consumers. The company's pioneering product, RateRewards, enables borrowers to earn up to 50% off their interest expense by making responsible financial choices throughout the life of their loan. With Adaptive Risk Pricing, Ascend is able to offer loans at rates that reflect real-time performance instead of past behavior. This, Steve says, is reinventing "the whole concept of underwriting and risk assessment."

Indeed, many "non-prime borrowers" - a group that actually represents about a third of the U.S. population - are better candidates than their credit scores would indicate. One-time financial shocks and "thin" files can greatly diminish a consumer's chance of getting a reasonable rate on a loan, or even a loan at all at a traditional institution. Ascend is encouraging borrowers to bet on themselves and prove -- through their actions, rather than their credit history -- that they are creditworthy. As Steve says in the episode: "Everyone today [is] going to be in a different stage in terms of their financial health ... I might be in great shape today; tomorrow could be totally different."  Ascend is trying to make the road to financial wellness smoother -- something Steve says he feels good about.

This episode of Barefoot Innovation became a brainstorming session, as Steve and I tried to think through how innovators, banks and regulators can move toward better ideas for financial consumers -- including musings on how innovators should interact with the world of bank charters and regulation.

Enjoy it!  And check out more information on Ascend, and on the Innovation Lab winners.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes HERE or by opening your favorite podcast app and searching for "Jo Ann Barefoot".

 

Episode 3 - Arjan Schutte of Core Innovation Capital on Venture Capital in FinTech

Jo Ann Barefoot

 

Arjan Schutte (pronounced Ar-yon Shoot-eh) is Founder and Managing Partner at Core Innovation Capital  in Los Angeles.

Core is a double-bottom line venture capital company seeding innovation that both helps consumers and wins in the marketplace, with the ability to reach huge scale.  Listeners will discover several kinds of value in his insights. 

One is an overview of the fintech innovation landscape – what are the exciting things happening?  VC firms enjoy a unique vantage point, since their funding makes nearly every innovator seek them out. They see it all.

Another insight to glean from our talk is that many of these startups are taking aim at perceived vulnerabilities of traditional financial companies – the industry’s Achilles’ heels.  Some innovators think many customers are not happy today, or at least can be lured away with a vastly better customer experience. Some believe millions of potentially high-profit customers are being neglected by the mainstream system, or are accessing it only through high-cost products that can be replaced. These startups are working on cutting delivery costs, reimagining the customer experience, using big data to invent powerful new risk analytics, using behavioral science to engage customers in new ways, empowering consumers with new tools, leveraging mobile to reach massive new markets, and much more. Many are making impressive headway. For those wanting to understand the fintech innovation realm, this is a quick primer.

Core’s companies include:

    

In addition, L2C has exited.

Notice the broad range of business types.  Core tries to have at least one company in each arena that’s important to consumers, from affordable lending and personal financial management to digital currency.

In our conversation, Arjan talks about the unlikely journey that brought him to this work, Core’s launch as a bold initiative of the Center for Financial Services Innovation, and the firm’s strategy.  He zeros in on the incredible opportunity around mobile services closing the “digital divide.” And he laments the minuscule impact of 40 years of well-meaning but small-scale community development lending, laying out a big vision for how to measure Core’s impact as it seeks to change the lives of millions of people. 

The key is to make it very profitable to do right by them.

Enjoy the show!

Please subscribe to the podcast by opening your favorite podcast app and searching for "Jo Ann Barefoot".


Episode 2 - "The Cheerful Disruptors" with Josh Reich and Shamir Karkal from Simple.com

Jo Ann Barefoot

Episode 2 is my lively conversation with the irreverent co-founders of Simple – CEO, Josh Reich, and Shamir Karkal, the company’s CFO.

Simple is a Portland, Oregon start-up offering a simplified, consumer-friendly account for saving and making payments.  Last year it was acquired by the global Spanish bank, BBVA, which has been making bold moves in tech innovation.

Our discussion captures the clear voice of the disruptors who are challenging traditional banking. Josh and Shamir describe the famous email that led to their venture, including why Josh’s friends thought he’d gone crazy (hint: it has to do with regulation). They explain their own very unbankerly backgrounds, and talk with passion about what they think is wrong with mainstream banking, including why it’s so hard for banks to change. 

They made me laugh throughout -- there’s a moment where Josh is explaining the company’s funny style and says, “she had this wicked, wicked sense of humor.

I think my favorite thing in our talk is how they tell their customers’ stories about Simple making their lives better.  The key is helping people save, including by highlighting a number labeled “Safe to Spend,” rather than the account balance.  Simple idea, isn't it? And powerful.

I feel like Simple might be on track to crack the code on the core problem that bedevils financial consumers: how to get regular people actively engaged. Most people are very interested in what they use their money for, but bored by the money itself -- a fact that leads them into mistakes. Simple is trying to change that.

After we turned off the microphone, Josh said one more thing that has stayed in my mind ever since.  I’ll share it in my postscript at the end of the podcast.

You can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes HERE

Show Notes

The companies:

You can find full information on Simple here, and on BBVA here.

My guests:

Josh Reich, CEO & Co-Founder  — Josh’s career has spanned marketing analytics and quantitative finance, including running a data mining consulting firm, a quantitative strategy group at a $10 billion fund, and core components at the mortgage lead market, Root Exchange. Four years ago, Josh founded Simple, formerly BankSimple, a company that is working to radically redesign banking by using modern technology to help people worry less about money. Josh has a BSc. in mathematics and statistics from the University of Melbourne, most of a medical degree, and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.

Follow him on Twitter at @i2p

Shamir Karkal, CFO & Co-Founder  — Shamir is a software engineer turned finance and banking expert. Prior to Simple, Shamir was a consultant with McKinsey & Co. specializing in strategy consulting for financial institutions in Europe, the Middle East, and the US. Prior to McKinsey, Shamir was a software engineer. He has a bachelor’s in computer science, a master’s in information technology, and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.

Follow him on Twitter at @shamir_k

FAQ’s about Simple:  https://www.simple.com/faq

 Here are the two firm’s announcements about BBVA acquiring Simple:

Here and Here

    

Please note that the views expressed by guests on Barefoot Innovation are their own and do not reflect the opinions of Jo Ann Barefoot or Jo Ann Barefoot Group LLC, nor do we endorse any product, service, or company discussed.