The Problem with Selling A Revolution: How FinTech Companies Struggle to Explain Themselves
The pandemic has me justifying my binge-watching of true crime tv shows in a new way.
Wrapped in real-world fears, these horrific side tales feel comforting. In the most recent iteration of the genre that hit the streaming platform two weeks ago, I found myself struck by one specific detail: The manual fingerprinting processes used in 1985. Fingerprint Analysts had to physically compare thousands of fingerprints against the original ones found in a crime scene in a large binder they considered their database. Monocular telescope in hand, these analysts would spend dozens of hours sifting through paperwork trying to match fingerprint indentations in order to convict some of the most reckless and dangerous criminals.
This scene struck me as wildly ridiculous, comparable to medieval leeching practices. It went directly against my understanding of criminology. Fingerprints are a guaranteed ticket to a speedy capture in any movie or television show I watched growing up. More impressively, the newer crime shows always feature a hacker type character that gets into some mainframe and has a digital index of every person who has ever placed their finger on a surface (or so it seems). So how did this happen? These parallel universes are only decades apart.
On a larger and more conceptual scale, we’re dealing with this disconnect in the modern FinTech revolution. Part of what eliminated the need for manual fingerprint finding is what powers our everyday interactions. The current revolution has made everything prior to it look archaic, not to mention there are individuals born into these past decades that cannot understand the manual-intensive world of their older peers. Saving time and energy has always been a driving force of any forward-thinking endeavor. The digital revolution has turned that concept on its head. Through the introduction of high-level technology, our expectations have shifted. We’re not just selling efficiency anymore. It’s a completely new way of life, and we’re expecting companies to wax poetic and find a way to put that on paper.
So how do we tackle this intangible thing that is happening around us at all moments in time? How do we shift the narrative in our favor?
I go back to true crime developments. Manual fingerprint searches make absolutely no sense in today's world. It’s not a matter of changing people's minds about it, it’s a given. Financial digitalization is one of those same developments. People will look back at the way we deal with money with similar awe, and at the rate of how this revolution is going, it’ll be sooner than we expect.
We aren’t selling fantasy or ideals. Everyone’s aware of what is possible. So, we lean in. Our job is to sell a newly minted necessity, not a luxury. Digital life is impending. The question isn’t how but when, and FinTech companies need to be able to realize it’s not about adapting. It’s just the way it is. We’re already here.
“You Are Here” Maps for Our Mindset
Your local mall can be one of the most hectic places you find yourself in, especially during the holidays. There is something incredibly intimidating about walking out of a store, bags in hand, and realizing you’re completely turned around after spending too much money on a pair of shoes. The mall map is a beacon, an old but true form of finding ourselves within the human highways around us with the glaring red dot reading “you are here.” This idea can extend itself to the same chaotic energy that we find in FinTech. If we accept that we are here, within the realm of a completely different world, we can begin to look around without so much confusion. The directions are around us, we just have to be open to reading them correctly.
If anything, that release of control is daunting for those of us tasked with understanding the technological future. It’s not a “how-to” guide any more. You’re picking up cues from every interaction and moment. In the same way, we cannot measure the impact of an earthquake until the tremors have subsided, our role in this is to absorb what we can and measure the seismic waves once we’re back on our feet and to build structures with this inevitable seismic activity in mind.
There are theories upon theories regarding the impact of this modern technological world we live in, but nothing is certain. The shift in outlook can change the way we talk about these things. It can excite others with new possibilities and also be a personal admission of our limited knowledge. The idea that limitations are weakness is part of legacy thinking. Personal limitations need to be seen as a way to learn more instead of admitting you know less. If we can find our spot in all of this and start to look around, we can start to understand where we’ve come from and where we need to go.
When in Doubt, Simplify
FinTech companies are in a constant conundrum. They sell incredibly simple ways of life with incredibly complex products. Some people need to know every detail of a product, most people don’t. I don’t understand the intricacies of how my car runs, but I know it runs. Regardless of whether or not the ignorance towards our technology is good or bad, I find that we all live in a thinly veiled world where without the right specialist or Youtube tutorial, our everyday mechanisms would spontaneously become impossible conundrums.
This becomes a bit more complicated when you’re dealing with other people’s money and newer technology. Companies feel the need to overcompensate by piling on as much information as possible to assure partners and customers that they know what they’re doing with such a delicate topic, meanwhile balancing the fact that there are as many (if not more) unknowns than knowns in this new field. From my perspective, there’s an easy solution.
There are certain messages that we need to bring to the forefront of the brain:
You can trust us.
We will increase your productivity.
You will make more money.
You need a car, not a faster horse (we’ll get back to this later)
The first three statements can be backed by numbers, financial institutions, regulations, and all of the other references FinTech companies have at their disposal. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to sell. If you walked into the Blockbuster headquarters in the early 2000s and told former CEO Joe Antioco that you had a revolutionary business idea for the future of Blockbuster, he’d laugh you off the lot. You can explain how something you’re working on will be so ahead of the current that it will change the film industry for good. You can show him your business plan and ideas with facts, numbers, and logistics. But all that person will see is someone else saying that they’re not running their business efficiently enough. Why jeopardize steady success for someone’s intangible pipedream? As the idiom says: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Hindsight is a powerful and irrationally infuriating tool. As we know, Blockbuster’s demise was a sign of the times. By the end of the aughts, the company was going out of business. More importantly, this hypothetical scenario isn’t really hypothetical.
In fact, Blockbuster had future innovation close enough to touch. Antioco walked none other than Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph off the hypothetical lot by refusing to buy their new idea — a small startup that we now know as Netflix.
You Need a Car, Not a Faster Horse
The most powerful emotion you can evoke as a disruptive company is simple. You must, first: make people see things in a different way that they can easily understand, and second: give them something they didn’t even know they needed. We’ve touched on the first point through our three basic statements and can strongly assert that it’s simply not simple at all. Fortunately, the second part of the equation is even more complicated.
Henry Ford has been attributed to the famous quote that circulates business blogs that goes a little something like this: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Ford was the creator of the Model T. He streamlined vehicle production and made modern-day transportation accessible to most people in the US. The myth of the quote is very much alive today. It hangs on the wall of many an innovator, even being credited in a Steve Jobs speech. Unfortunately, it’s probably not a real quote. Fortunately for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter.
The emotional response that those words provoke is more powerful than its reliability. There was no such thing as cars until there were cars. Ask someone for efficiency and they’ll give you a more efficient model of their current idea. Fingerprinting analysts would ask for better telescopes or ink that sits better on the page. A digital database isn’t in their vocabulary. This isn’t about assuming the worst in people. We’re not here to say we know better. We’re just here to say we know differently.
Innovation — whether tangible or not — doesn’t exist until it does. And even when it does exist, there are still many short circuits to figure out and people to convince. When people saw the first moving picture of a train they scrambled to the aisles of the theater because they thought they were about to get struck by it. This whole process is terrifying to some and foreign for all.
So how do we get through? How do we sell a revolution?
It’s hard to feel like Ford when you’re not Ford.
I circle back to our neighborhood mall map. The door isn’t quite unlocked yet. All we can do is realize where we are on the map and start looking around. Talk to people, be honest about what we do know. For me, it’s that same feeling when a word is stuck on the tip of my tongue. We’re almost at the precipice of our knowledge it’s just about finding that last spark to put it into words. In the meantime, we need to keep our eyes and ears open and know that this journey has just begun.