Book review: ValueWeb

Chris Skinner – author of the bestselling book Digital Bank – recently published ValueWeb: How FinTech firms are using mobile and blockchain technologies to create the Internet of Value. The ‘”ValueWeb” covers the rise and importance of blockchain technology, describing it as a key technology for authentication and transactions. Skinner positions blockchain technology as a means to an end, with the ValueWeb being the ultimate outcome. The ValueWeb, being closely linked to to the Internet of Things, allows machines to trade with machines and people with people anywhere, in real-time and at virtually no cost.

The blockchain can be used as a shared ledger for shared economies. One of the things I liked about the ValueWeb book is how Skinner removes all sense of buzz around blockchains by stressing the fundamentals which underpin this new technology: “The blockchain creates a marketplace for globalised value exchange that is trusted, secure and irrevocable.”

These are the main things that I took away from reading Value Web:

  1. Mobile as an authentication tool – Skinner makes the point that mobile “makes invisible banking visible.” He also explains how mobile serves as a very effective authentication tool, based on four key mobile attributes (see Fig. 1 below).
  2. Africa shows the way to the future – The book’s chapter titled “Africa shows the way to the future” felt the most inspiring. In this chapter, Skinner zooms in on the success of M-PESA in Kenya. M-PESA is a pioneer with regard to facilitating mobile money transfers between people in Kenya, through mobile network operator Safaricom, a subsidiary of Vodafone. Through M-PESA, a mobile wallet, the mobile phone is acting as a ‘value exchange mechanism’, making it easy for people to send and receive money. M-PESA’s “agent network” is the key component here. Agents in Kenyan towns take money and text the agent in the location the money needs to be delivered. The agent in the receiving location gets the text message and then issues cash to the target recipient.
  3. Digital currencies –  The ValueWeb is based upon two key technologies. Firstly, mobile, which enables people to exchange value in real-time and facilitate real-time authentication (see point 1. above). Secondly, digital currencies, to provide a store of value to exchange. Bitcoin is the key value currency which started it all. The key thing to know about bitcoins, and the different variations of this cryptocurrency, is that it was the first ‘enabler’ of online value exchanges, conducted in real-time and at very low processing cost. Skinner offers a good overview of what the bitcoin is (see Fig. 2 below).

Main learning point: In “ValueWeb”, Chris Skinner does a great job of demystifying some of the buzz around blockchain technology and bitcoins. By focusing on the value that people can now exchange in real-time, Skinner paints an exciting picture of great opportunities that are are already starting to happen.

Fig. 1 – Mobile as an authentication tool, four key mobile attributes – Taken from: Chris Skinner, “ValueWeb”, p.  47

  • Tokenisation – You can check the customer is who they say they are by locating if they have a second token – a mobile registered to their account – with them.
  • Geo-location – You can geo-locate customers using location. For example, a company called XYVerify does this using telecom masts, rather than a mobile device. The system will establish a person’s location based upon where their signal can be located between different mobile transmitting masts.
  • One Time Passwords (‘OTP’) – You can authenticate who the customer is interactively OTP by text messaging. An interactive text or app-based OTP process means that mobile can offer a great second level authentication tool.
  • Mobile biometrics – Using mobile biometrics can become a very effective way to authenticate customers. For example, Banca Intesa in Spain was using mobile apps for iris recognition and Voice Commerce offer voice verification by mobile.

Fig. 2 – A quick overview of bitcoin – Taken from: Chris Skinner, “ValueWeb”, pp.  81-86

  • New bitcoins are generated by a network bode, and these network nodes are created each time a solution is found to a specific mathematical problem.
  • The people trying to solve these math problems are called miners, and each time they successfully solve the problem they create a new bitcoin.
  • This math challenge is so difficult to solve that there are businesses dedicated to this, with data centres running thousands of computers focused upon bitcoin mining.
  • The reason they do this is that each tine a bitcoin is created, the company or person who solved the problem receives 25 bitcoins, which were $250 each as of August 2015. Hence the bitcoin miners do this to earn virtual currency rewards.
  • Before you can buy any coins you must create a wallet to store them. You can do this by installing the bitcoin client, the software that powers the currency, or use an online wallet, where this data is stored in the cloud.
  • A bitcoin transaction is recorded on a public ledger system called the blockchain. The blockchain is a shared ledger system that means all of our bitcoin wallets can be see publicly.
  • No one knows who made the transaction, but the fact there is an electronic shared ledger ensures transactions cannot be made twice.
  • All confirmed transactions are included in the blockchain. This way, bitcoin wallets can calculate their spendable balance and can be verified to ensure they are spending bitcoins that are actually owned by the spender. The integrity and the chronological order of the blockchain are enforced with cryptography.



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Posted by on April 24, 2016 in Book Reviews, FinTech, Mobile, Technology


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App review: Azimo

Money remittance is big. Think Transferwise, WeSwap and World Remit; services that simplify the way in which to transfer money, offering attractive rates and a great user experience. Another good example is Azimo which I used to transfer some money to the motherland, The Netherlands:

  1. How did Azimo come to my attention? – A few months ago I listened to an episode of the “Breaking Banks” podcast in which Marta Krupinska – co-founder of Azimo – explained what led her to start Azimo. I loved her story how she’d fly and back forth between Poland and the UK ‘strapped for cash’ because the exchange rates and commission fees weren’t great.
  2. My quick summary of Azimo (before using it) –  I expect a service similar to the aforementioned TransferWise and World Remit. I would imagine that Azimo will cover a multitude of currencies.
  3. How does Azimo explain itself in the first minute? – “Send Worldwide” is what it says on the welcome screen when I open the Azimo app in iOS. The strap line below it reads: “Transfer money to over 200 countries, in over 70 countries, in minutes” (see Fig. 1 below).
  4. Getting started, what’s the process like (1)? – Creating an Azimo account feels very straightforward. The only thing I’m curious is about is the 5-digit pin I need to create – in addition to my password. I imagine that this for security reasons, but it doesn’t become apparent to me straight away.
  5. Getting started, what’s the process like (2)? – I feel encouraged when I land on a screen that promises that I can send money in 3 easy steps (see Fig. 2 below). I like that as soon as I start typing the name of the country that I want to send money to, the list of applicable countries starts appearing automatically (see Fig. 3 below). I know that this isn’t a groundbreaking feature, but simple things do help to make the overall user experience feel very intuitive. However, once I’ve chosen The Netherlands as the country that I want to send money, I’m slightly thrown by the screen that I then land on (see Fig. 4 below): I’m not clear why under “currencies” it gives me Euros and Dollars as options, nor I’m clear about what “SWIFT” entails as a ‘Delivery’ option. I know that mobile interfaces come with certain restrictions, but it would be helpful to provide users with some explanatory text, even if it’s just to reassure the user.
  6. Getting started, what’s the process like (3)? – I feel I’m getting close, but then I learn that I have to provide an IBAN code for the account that I want to transfer money to. By the time I come back to the app with my IBAN code – 5 minutes later – I seem to have lost the data that I’d entered previously and I’m back at square one. I wonder whether this is down to simple user error or some security issue that has thrown me out of the standard user journey. I believe it would be good to include upfront the information a user needs to have to have in order to transfer money. Also, a progress bar or some indicator of time or steps left remaining would really help in guiding the user through the process.
  7. Did the app deliver on my expectations? – It did, but I by the time I eventually completed the transaction I felt that the journey could have been even more intuitive; e.g. understanding upfront the bank/account details I need to provide and a better indication of user progress. Even though the overall experience could be improved in certain areas, I was happy with the outcome; payout into my Dutch account happened speedily and I was happy with the exchange rate and the fees that I had to pay.


Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Azimo’s welcome screen on iOS


Fig. 2 – Screenshot of Azimo’s “send money” landing screen on iOS

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Fig. 3 – Screenshot of Azimo’s “Choose a country” screen on iOS



Fig. 4 – Screenshot of Azimo’s “Send Now” screen on iOS


Fig. 5 – Screenshot of Azimo’s “Send Now” screen on iOS


Fig. 6 – Screenshot of Azimo’s “Send Now” screen on iOS


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My product management toolkit (8): learning who my users are

It’s great if you can find out what your user needs are but you’d also need to know who your users are in the first place. There’s risk of us product managers assuming that we know who our users are or how they behave. WRONG. I’ve learned over the years how important it is to know and understand your target audience before you start solving their problems.

Tool 8 – User research, learning who my users are

These are the main things I typically want to learn about my users:

  • Who are they? – Understand the demographics and characteristics of my target users
  • What do they do? – Learn how my target users behave and why

Why is it important to know who your users are? – I always wonder how you can say that you’ve solved a user problem successfully if you don’t know who you’ve solved the problem for. Identifying who your users are or aren’t will help you in three areas. Firstly, comms will improve as a result of shared understanding of user characteristics and behaviours. Secondly, measuring whether you’ve solved a particular problem will become much easier. Thirdly, a thorough understanding of your users will provide a good framework for tough prioritisation or tradeoff decisions.

Why is it important to know what your users do? – As a product person, I believe that fully understanding a problem that you’re trying to solve is absolutely critical. In order to understand what you’re trying to solve and why, it’s important to learn how people currently solve a particular problem. For example, through observation and watching your (target) customers in action there’s so much you can learn about user problems or frustrations.

Learning what your users do is by no means a one off exercise. Before you start designing a feature or write a single line code, understand whether the problem you’re looking to solve is an actual problem for your user. Similarly, once you’ve launched a feature or a service, do go back to your users and see whether it has indeed helped to solve their problem.

What are some of the things to learn about your (target) users? – These are the key things I’ll typically try and learn about my users:

  • What are the key characteristics of my target users? – Think about objective characteristics such as gender, location and age. I believe it’s equally important to understand how users can be best segmented based on shares characteristics or behaviours.
  • Which market segment(s) does my target audience form part of? – Is it an existing segment we operate in already or an adjacent segment where we need to look at reapplying our product or service?
  • How knowledgeable are users about our product or service, and competition? – I always find it helpful to have more context about users in a sense of my understanding e.g. whether users or heavy users of my product, use competitive products, etc. For example, can your users be grouped as “extreme users” – i.e. people who use your product or service a lot – or “limiting users” – people with limited knowledge of your product or service?
  • When do they use – or are likely to use – my product and why? – Understanding the context in which people use your product or service is crucial. For example, do people use the product when they are on the go or when they are relaxing at home?

How can you learn who your users are? – Interviewing and observing are two good ways to understand who your users are and what they do. I’ve outlined some common observation methods in Fig. 1 below. My classic example is Intuit, a big financial software business, who have a dedicated “Follow Me Home” programme whereby everybody in the business visits customers in their natural environment, watching how they use their products. Bang & Olufsen, the high end TV manufacturer, is another good example, as their employees will sit with families when they watch TV in their homes.

If it’s pure user demographics you’re after, your database or CRM system are likely to be your best friends. For example, a simple SQL query will help you to find out about the average age of your customer base.

Main learning point: Don’t just assume who your users are, make sure to understand their demographics and behaviours!

Fig. 1 – Common observation methods:

  • Field observation
  • Field study
  • Contextual inquiry
  • Guided tour
  • Fly-on-the-wall
  • Shadowing
  • Ethnography

Related links for further learning:


Posted by on April 8, 2016 in Product Management, User Experience


Site review: Carspring

I like cars. I like marketplaces. I worked at carwow. It’s fair to say that cars and marketplaces is a good combination for me. I was therefore very excited when I came across Carspring, a UK based marketplace for used cars. My initial thought was “why do we need another platform for selling and buying new cars, we’ve already got loads of those!.” However, I then looked into Carspring and this is what I learned:

My quick summary of the site (before using it): Another site where I can buy or sell used cars. Given that lots of people in the UK own a car, there are currently about 40 million cars on the UK roads, I’m not surprised to see another player enter the market for used cars.

How does the site explain itself in the first minute? – “A car for every journey” is what it says at the top of Carspring’s homepage. The strapline below that intrigues me though: “Hand-inspected, personally delivered.” This suggest to me that Carspring does more than just being an intermediary which connects buyers and sellers. It gets really interesting when I scroll down the homepage and see a section titled “How it works”:

  1. Choose a Carspring certified and inspected car – Carspring guarantees that all the cars on their site will have gone through a 128 point inspection by the AA and an additional inspection by Carspring’s in-house team before they arrive at the customer.
  2. Select a payment method (finance or buy) – Interesting to see that customers can apply for financing through Carspring, given that this service is heavily regulated.
  3. We deliver the car straight to your doorstep – This reminds me of Shift, a US based online platform for used cars which also does delivers cars to your doorstep. I listened to a talk by Minnie Ingersoll, coo-founder and COO at Shift talking about door to door delivery of cars to their customers.
  4. Relax with our 14-day money back guarantee –  Especially when it comes to buying a used car, I can imagine that customers will feel reassured by Carspring’s 14-day money back guarantee.


Carspring 1


Carspring 2

Getting started, what’s the process like (1)? – After I’ve clicked the “Show all cars” button on the homepage, I land on a page which features a list of cars, with the top of the page saying “162 results.” I can see a “Sell a car” call to action in the top right hand of the page, which in my view could be more prominent in order to encourage more people to sell their cars through Carspring. There seem to be a number of cars that are “Coming soon” but I’m unsure as to when these cars will actually become available for sale. I believe Carspring could do a better job explaining what ‘soon’ means for each individual car and alerting the interested buyer as soon as the car has become available.


Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 15.22.43


Getting started, what’s the process like (2)? – I look at the product page for a 2012 Fiat 500, I’m presented with a rather large image of this car and a sticky footer encouraging the user to click on ‘buy’ or ‘finance’. There’s something to say for keeping the product page simple for the user to navigate, but the large picture and the footer feel quite overwhelming. As a result of the large image and the sticky footer, it’s not immediately apparent to me that this is a carousel which lets me see one more picture, that of the car’s dashboard. Having thumbnail images of the car e.g. its interior and exterior below the hero image would be more intuitive.


Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 15.32.14

I like how Roadster does its product pages, providing all relevant information at a fingertip. To be fair, the product page contains the same info that Roadster offers, but purely because of the way this detail has been laid out I feel I have to work harder to get to this information before deciding to buy the car.

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Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 15.42.22

Getting started, what’s the process like (3)? – The filtering function on Carspring works well; the filtering options are clear and I can see at a glance the number of available cars per filter. However, because the supply of certain makes and models is still relatively small, filtering and sorting doesn’t feel as helpful as it could have been if there had been a larger number of cars on offer. For example, when looking at BMWs I started with 7 models and finished with 2 cars after I’d done all my filtering.


Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 15.47.50


Getting started, what’s the process like (4)? – Given that Carspring is a two sided marketplace it’s just as important that the seller of a car has a good experience. For me, Carspring’s biggest differentiator is that it inspects and grades your car. As a buyer, this gives me confidence about the quality of the car that I’m buying. As a seller, the process needs to be transparent and this will come from Carspring inspecting and grading your car upfront, providing sellers with a guaranteed sale price.


Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 08.55.56

How does Carspring compare to similar services? – Carspring does feel very similar to its US counterparts in the aforementioned Shift, Carvana, Beepi and Vroom. The points of differentiation between the various used car marketplaces seem minimal. For example, Vroom offers a 7-day money back guarantee and Beepi does the same within 10 days. What I liked about Beepi is the ability for the consumer to get in touch with person who’s certified the car in question.


Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 14.10.43

Did the site deliver on my expectations? – Yes. I can see Carspring’s model scaling rapidly, and I expect to see their car offering expand very quickly. The site lets users down in some places with usability issues that could be fixed fairly easily. I believe that the ultimate success of using Carspring won’t necessarily lie in the site’s experience, but will depend on the quality of the car delivered to a user’s doorstep. This ‘offline’ experience will determine whether people will come back to Carspring to buy their next used car and spread the word to their friends.

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My product management toolkit (7): learning about user needs

A key thing I’ve learned as a product manager is to validate a proposed product strategy or user assumptions before committing a lot of time, money and effort to a specific product idea.

I believe there’s a lot you can learn as a product person about user behaviour without having to rely on a dedicated UX researcher. In fact, lots of the startups I’ve worked at didn’t have a dedicated UX researcher. I thus learned simple ways to learn from users and validate my assumptions. “User research” is a very broad concept, but for me it’s all about user behaviour and feedback throughout the product lifecycle. Let’s start with the first question to ask: “What are the needs of my (target) users and why?.”

Tool 7 – User research, learning about user needs

What’s user research? – I’ve noticed how people tend to use the terms ‘user research’, ‘user testing’ and ‘usability testing’ interchangeably. I’m personally not a big fan of using the term ‘user testing’ since it sounds like you’re testing the user. In contrast, you want to learn about your users; how they, think, feel and act. It’s easy to sit behind your desk and make all kinds of assumptions about your users and their needs, but these remain guesses until you actually get in front of your users. “Validating Product Research” by Tomer Sharon covers the key questions to ask of your users and provides lots of techniques to get answers. Sharon’s book is a must read for anyone wanting to learn more about how to best do user research.

What does it mean to be learning about user needs? – Too often I see products or features being launched based on a ‘hunch’ or on something that a competitor is doing. UX and product management consultant Melissa Perry refers to this as ‘the build trap’: companies going straight into build mode without taking a step back to find out whether a product idea actually fulfils a user’s needs. The sooner you figure out whether a feature or product is worth building, the better. This will save your company lots of time and money in case you learn that your customers don’t want pay for a product or that it doesn’t solve their problem.

When to learn about user needs? – In “Validating Product Ideas”, Tomer Sharon explains that learning about user needs can happen when ‘strategising’ – working out what to build and why – or post product launch. As part of my toolkit I spend a lot of time and effort on understanding needs, ideally before a single line of code has been written. It’s important to do generative research to understand the scale and nature of a user problem before evaluating potential solutions to solve this problem.

How can you learn about user needs? – There are number of techniques you can use to learn about user needs:

  • Interviews – When interviewing your (target) users, listening is absolutely key. I’ve seen product people making the mistake of using conversations with customers to confirm their assumptions, only hearing what they want to hear. When conducted well, interviews can be a very rich source of products ideas and learning about user needs.
  • Observation  One of the reasons why I always like to observe people in their own habitat is that it provides an opportunity to truly understand people’s current behaviour without your product or service. Does the user really have the problem that your product is looking to address? Is is as a big a problem for the user as you think it is? If so, why?  Reframer is a good example of a tool that you can use to note down your observations.
  • Diary study – With a diary study, participants document their activities, thoughts, decisions and opinions over a period of time. The main benefit of this technique is that it gives you a good insight into what your users actually do and think. As Tomer Sharon mentions, “it reveals behaviour that would be hard to remember in interviews or surveys.”
  • Survey – Online survey tools like SurveyMonkey and Typeform provide a quick and easy way to learn from a large number of users within a short space of time. The main downside of surveys, however, is that you’re limited in exploring the ‘why’ behind certain survey answers. Interviews and observation can be more effective in this respect.
  • Experience sampling Experience sampling is a technique that helps you to answer a high level business or strategic question. In an experience sampling study, research participants are interrupted several times a day or week to note their experience in real time; users are being asked the same question repeatedly to strengthen the validity of your findings. This method will enable you to learn more about users’ objective needs and reduces the risk of users speculating about expected behaviour.

Main learning point: One of the key things to learn as part of user research is whether a product or feature really meets your users’ needs and whether the user will pay for your solution. Finding this out as early as possible will help you in validating your assumptions and in understanding whether your idea solves a real user need.

Related links for further learning:

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Posted by on March 20, 2016 in Product Management, User Experience


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Elliptic – Investigating Bitcoin transactions

The other day I wrote about blockchains, looking into this new technology. I then came across a company called Elliptic that specialises in “identifying illicit activity on the Bitcoin blockchain.” It made me realise how blockchains can be used for all kinds of illegal activity. Also, I can now see a clear link between digital identity management and blockchains.

Transparency is a key aspect of blockchains and, going back to the original purpose of blockchains, it helps Bitcoins to complete financial transactions through the chain. Naturally, there are lots of users who don’t like the transparency aspect and use anonymizing services to cover tracks when doing transactions through the blockchain.

I read an interesting article about how anonymous users and their transactions can still be identified, tracking users’ activity both in real-time and historically. There are a number of centralised services within the blockchain e.g. wallets and exchanges which have access to user and transaction info. Also, by doing an activity or user network analysis, one can find out more about the type of transaction and the identity of the users involved (see example in Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – An example of a sub-network between the thief, the victim and three other vertices – Taken from:


Network analysis

The majority of Elliptic’s clients seem to be either law enforcement agencies or financial institutions. For example, one of the uses cases that Elliptic caters for is making sure that the bitcoins a client acquires aren’t derived from the proceeds of criminal activity. Elliptic says that in the past year it has been able to map the entire 35 GB transaction history of the bitcoin blockchain.

Interestingly, Elliptic has created a visualisation technology to provide a number of anti-money laundering (‘AML’) services. If you look at the sample visualisation below (see Fig. 2), you can can see how Elliptic can visualise ‘known’ entities e.g. exchanges whilst naming illicit marketplaces and money laundering services.

Through an API, Elliptic’s clients will thus get real-time alerts about any bitcoin payments linked to known thefts, illicit marketplaces and other criminal activity, which are all identified by name. As a result, financial institutions can effectively do real time compliance, adhering to compliance regulation as transactions take place through the blockchain.

Fig. 2 – “The Bitcoin Big Bang” visualisation by Elliptic – Taken from:



Main learning point: As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the world of blockchains is a new one to me. Learning about how people can abuse this new technology is therefore just as new to me. Learning about how Elliptic helps financial institutions and law enforcement agencies to identify illicit blockchain activity has given me a first understanding of how one can work through to blockchain networks to figure out its users and transactions.

Related links for further learning:





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Posted by on March 15, 2016 in Data, FinTech, Open Data


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Blockchain – what’s all the fuss about!?

I love how blockchain has quickly become something that applies to lots of different things; from blockchain applications for Airbnb  to loyalty rewards to solar panels. Blockchain is quickly becoming one of those buzzwords, so it was good to get some clarification in a recent episode of the “Breaking Banks” podcast.

Blockchain started as a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, enabling anyone in the possession of Bitcoins to pay without the need for a middle man but has quickly become a way to enable a much wider range of transactions. From listening to the experts on the aforementioned podcast episode, I learnt more about the essentials behind Blockchain technology:

  1. Infrastructure or operating system – Blockchain technology effectively acts as the operating system or infrastructure to keep a Bitcoin or any other digital asset secure. Ethereum, created by twenty year old Vitalik Buterin, is a good example of a Blockchain technology platform.
  2. Shared ledger as proof of transactions without middlemen – Blockchain isn’t necessarily a consumer-facing technology. However, it does enable transactions between consumers. For example, there are plenty of private blockchains that provide a ledger of transactions to keep Bitcoin secure, allowing users to agree on who owns how many bitcoins. Each new block requires a record of recent transactions along with a string of letters and numbers, known as a hash, which is based on the previous block and produced using a cryptographic algorithm.
  3. Technologically binding smart contracts around digital assets – In the above mentioned episode of the “Breaking Banks” podcast, Bart Stevens and Brock Pierce from Blockchain Capital, a VC that invests in Blockchain enabled companies, talked about the future about how blockchains power ‘smart contracts’ between two parties. Consumers won’t have to worry about the underlying Blockchain technology, but just use the service that has been built on top of it. Abra, a digital wallet and remittance service, is a good example in this respect.
  4. Digital identity management – Digital identities is another key thing to think about in relation to Blockchain and the transactions it facilitates. David Birch, a UK based FinTech and digital identity guru, makes the case that Blockchains are all about managing and protecting digital identities. Especially as Blockchain technology starts getting combined with the Internet of Things, digital identity management will be a critical thing going forward.

Main learning point: I feel there’s a lot more to learn about blockchain technology, but the main thing I’ve picked up sofar is the way in which blockchains will make it easier and more transparent for people to transact.

Validating transactions in the Blockchain – Taken from:

Blockchain 1

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Posted by on March 11, 2016 in Digital Strategy, FinTech


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