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My product management toolkit (18): Keeping an eye on consumer trends

As a product manager, I know how easy it can be to get trapped into the every day and lose sight of what the future could bring. We tend to get immersed in the more tactical, day-to-day stuff and forget about the bigger picture. Also, there’s a daily avalanche of new technology developments and market trends, and it can be tempting to act on the latest trend, out of sheer fear to miss out. But how do you know whether it’s worth following up on a specific trend!?

A few months ago I learned more about how to best identify and assess trends by listening to a podcast with Max Luthy – Director of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching. TrendWatching have developed this very handy framework in the “Trend Canvas” (see Fig. 1 below).

 

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Fig. 1 – The Trend Canvas by TrendWatching – Taken from: http://trendwatching.com/x/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/2014-05-CONSUMER-TREND-CANVAS1.pdf

The Trend Canvas distinguishes between the “Analyze” and the “Apply” stages. During the Analyze stage, you assess a trend and its underlying drivers. What are the basic consumer needs a trend is serving and why? What kinds of change is this trend driving and why? In contrast, during the Apply stage you’ll look at ways in which you and your business can best tap into a trend, and who would benefit from this trend.

I’ve found the Trend Canvas to be very useful when exploring and assessing trends. The thing I like most about this framework is that it forces you to think about the customer and how a customer is impacted by a particular trend. Let’s take the trend of electric cars as a good example:

 

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Fig. 2 – Smart Electric Drive – Taken from: https://cleantechnica.com/2015/07/31/11-electric-cars-with-most-range-list/

 Analyse trends

  1. Basic needs – What deep consumer needs & desires does this trend address? – I haven’t spoken to many electric car owners yet, but the ones that I’ve spoken to mention “environmental consciousness” and “cost saving” as the basic needs that drove their purchase of an electric car. The experts at TrendWatching mention some other typical types of basic of needs worth considering as part of your analysis (see Fig. 3 below).
  2. Drivers of Change – Why is this trend emerging now? – What’s changing? – To analyse the drivers of change, it’s worth looking at ‘shifts’ and ‘triggers’. Shifts are the long-term, macro changes that often take years or decades to fully materialise. For example, a rapidly growing global middle class and increasing scarcity of oil are significant drivers of the appeal of electric cars (this report contains some interesting insights in this regard). Triggers are the more immediate changes that drive the emergence of a consumer trend. These can include specific technologies, political events, economic shocks and environmental incidents. I feel that recent improvements to both the technology and infrastructure with regard to electric cars are important triggers.
  3. Emerging Consumer Expectations – What new consumer needs, wants and expectations are created by the changes identified above? – Where and how does this trend satisfy them? – Purchasing expensive fuel for your car is no longer a given, and consumers starting to become much aware of the cheaper and environmentally friendly alternative in electric cars.
  4. Inspiration – How are other businesses applying this trend? – When analysing a trend, a key part of the analysis involves looking at how incumbent businesses are applying a trend. For example, the Renault-Nissan alliance has thus far been the most successful when it comes to electric cars and learning about the ‘why’ behind their success will help one’s own trend analysis.

Fig. 3 – Basic needs categories to consider when analysing trends – Taken from: http://trendwatching.com/x/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/2014-05-CONSUMER-TREND-CANVAS1.pdf

  • Social status
  • Self-improvement
  • Entertainment
  • Excitement
  • Connection
  • Security
  • Identity
  • Relevance
  • Social interaction
  • Creativity
  • Fairness
  • Honesty
  • Freedom
  • Recognition
  • Simplicity
  • Transparency

 Apply trends

  1. Innovation Panel – How and where could you apply this trend to your business? – To me, this is one of the crucial steps when exploring trends; asking yourself that all important question – how can I best apply this trend to my business? For example, how does a specific trend fit in with our current offering of products and services? Why (not)? It’s similar to when you assess a product opportunity and go through a number of questions to look at the viability of a trend for your business (see Fig. 4 below).
  2. Who? Which (new) customer groups could you apply this trend to? What would you have to change? – How often do we forget to think properly about who this trend is for and why they benefit from it. Which demographic is this trend relevant for and why? For instance, with electric cars, one could think about middle class families who are very cost and environmentally conscious consumers.

Fig. 4 – Assessing “Innovation Panel” when applying trends – Taken from: http://trendwatching.com/x/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/2014-05-CONSUMER-TREND-CANVAS1.pdf

  • Vision: How will the deeper shifts underlying this trend shape your company’s long-term vision?
  • Business Model: Can you apply this trend to launch a whole new business venture or brand?
  • Product / Service / Experience: What new products and services could you create in light of this trend? How will you adapt your current products and services?
  • Campaign: How can you incorporate this trend into your campaigns, and show consumers you speak their language, that you ‘get it’.

Main learning point: The Trend Canvas provides a great way for anyone to assess trends and innovations, looking at a trend from both a consumer and a business point of view.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://productinnovationeducators.com/blog/tei-083-trend-driven-innovation-for-product-managers-with-max-luthy/
  2. http://blog.euromonitor.com/2012/11/10-global-macro-trends-for-the-next-five-years.html
  3. http://trendwatching.com/trends/pointknowbuy/
  4. https://about.bnef.com/blog/liebreich-mccrone-electric-vehicles-not-just-car/
  5. http://trendwatching.com/trends/cleanslatebrands/
  6. http://www.cheatsheet.com/automobiles/10-car-companies-that-sell-the-most-electric-vehicles.html/
  7. http://www.cheatsheet.com/automobiles/the-10-best-selling-electric-vehicles-of-2014.html/
 

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App review: Plum

When I reviewed Cleo a few weeks ago, I also came across Plum. Plum describes itself as “your personal savings” assistant and lives in Facebook Messenger.

How did Plum come to my attention?  I came across Plum whilst reviewing Cleo, another virtual savings assistant. I then spoke to Victor Trokoudes, co-founder and CEO of Plum, who gave me a first introduction to Plum.

My quick summary of Plum (before using it) – I expect Plum to not only monitor my spending and saving habits, but to also do my saving for me and transfer savings directly to a savings account of my choosing.

How does Plum explain itself in the first minute? – From the headline to smaller print on the landing screen, it’s apparent that Plum is all about saving, helping me to save. Plum “monitors your daily spending and automagically sets money aside for you.”

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Getting started, what’s the process like?  After I’ve clicked on the “Sign up for free” button, I’m taken to Facebook Messenger where I see a landing page that explains about Plum; “I’m a robot. I was built to help you save money so you don’t have to worry about it.”

At this stage, I’m not entirely sure about how exactly Plum will help me to save money, but I decide to click on the “Get Started” button to find out.

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On the next screen, I’m presented with the choice between signing up and learning how Plum works. I decide to do the latter and click on “How it works”.

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And I’m pleased that I asked the Plum bot to explain how it all works, because I like the response that I get in return:

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I now feel more confident about how Plum works and how it can help me with saving money, so I decide to click on “Sign up”. After entering my email address, the Plum bot asks me for some more information to complete my setup. After clicking on the “Complete setup” button, I’m taken to separate page where I can enter my personal details.

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After I’ve entered my personal details, the next step is for me to link my bank account to Plum. I like how Plum is keeping me posted on progress by striking through the previous two steps of the onboarding process. There’s copy there to assure me that my bank login details will be treated securely by Plum; making it clear that Plum “will never, ever store it (my bank login, MA) on our system.”

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Did Plum deliver on my expectations? – Once I’ve managed to sync my bank account info, and have completed my Plum set up, the app starts helping me to save money. For me, Plum’s biggest draw is that I can add money to my Plum savings. Plum tells me how much of my cash is still available for withdrawal, and prompts to me decide on how much money I’d like to set aside.
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Similar to the standard account and transaction info that your traditional bank offers, Plum provides a neat overview of my monthly and total savings, and I can see my most recent transactions at a single glance. Ultimately, I feel I can only truly answer the question about Plum delivering on my expectations once why I’ve achieved a specific savings goal. In the meantime, I feel that Plum does offer a pretty smooth onboarding journey and a clear path to actually saving money. If you’re struggling to save or understanding how much you can save in the first place, definitely worth checking out Plum and start setting money aside!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Learning more about the Fintech ecosystem in China

In a few weeks’ time, I’ll be travelling to Hong Kong for the first time, looking to visit Shenzhen as well. I’m hoping it will be a great opportunity for me to learn more about the needs of Chinese customers and get a better feel for the Chinese Fintech scene. To start preparing for my trip, I used a recent report by EY/DBS Bank titled “The Rise of FinTech in China” to learn more about key characteristics of the Chinese Fintech space.

I’ve looked at the ‘current state’ of Fintech in China, both from a customer and a market perspective, and these are my main takeaways from the EY/DBS report:

  1. Fintech activity in seven vertical markets – EY/DBS’ report outlines the seven key verticals in which Chinese Fintech businesses are active (see Fig. 1 below). At a first glance, that the lion’s share of innovation by Chinese Fintech players thus far has been in the payments and e-wallets space. I’ve written previously about the absolute rise of alternative payment methods in China, mostly via mobile and predominantly driven by Alipay and WeChat.
  2. Chinese customers are embracing alternative payment and insurance methods – The EY/DBS report contains a useful diagram that outlines the percentage of customers per Asian country using specific Fintech services (see Fig. 2 below). Based on this diagram, it looks like both payments/remittances and insurance are already quite established in China, with opportunities for lending and personal wealth management to truly take off soon.
  3. Customer focus on online experience and functionality – A recent study by EY explored the appetite of Chinese consumers for non banks over traditional banks. It was interesting to read about the value placed on “better online experience and functionality”, as a key reason for using non banks over traditional players. One of my assumptions here is that Chinese consumer prefer banking services which are fully integrated into their daily lives, thinking about how WeChat seamlessly integrates payments into its messenger app.
  4. Alternative payment methods; disruption hasn’t finished yet – I had never given that much thought to low credit card penetration rates across China, but the stats in the EY/DBS report speak volumes in this regard (see Fig. 4 below). The report offers a pretty straightforward explanation for this phenomenon; a strong adoption of alternative payment methods and e-wallets. Unionpay Quick is a good example of a contactless payment method that is becoming more and more ubiquitous in China, particularly in so-called “first tier cities”.

Main learning point: Having read the EY/DBS report, I do feel that China is quite far ahead of the Western world in certain areas of Fintech, particularly in the payments and e-wallet space.  In the west, Fintech has been responsible for a lot of ‘unbundling’ of traditional banking services. In Asia – in China in particular – my feeling is that things are moving in the opposite direction: seamlessly integrating financial activities with people’s day to day activities. Alipay, WeChat and, in India, Paytm are leading the way in this regard.

 

Fig. 1 – Chinese FinTech activity in seven key vertical markets – Taken from: “The Rise of FinTech in Asia – Redefining Financial Services” by EY / DBS 

  1. Payments and e-wallets A mobile payments ecosystem facilitated by e-commerce and social media players, of which Alipay (of Ant Financial) and Tenpay (a Tencent company) dominate the market. Other notable players include UnionPay, ICBC e-wallet, JD Pay/Wallet (of JD.com) and 99bill (of Dalian Wanda Group).
  2. Supply chain and consumer finance E-commerce players lend to underbanked or unbanked individuals and small medium enterprises (SMEs) by leveraging users’ merchant data on the platform. Key participants include Ant Financial and MyBank (Alibaba), WeBank with WeChat (Tencent), JD Finance (JD.com) and Gome Electronic Appliance, which recently ventured into providing financial services for individual customers and suppliers.
  3. Peer-to-peer (P2P) lending platforms P2P platforms create a marketplace for peers to lend to individuals and SMEs underserved by the traditional lending sector. Market leaders are Lufax (Ping An Insurance), Yirendai (CreditEase), Rendai, Zhai Cai Bao (Alibaba) and Dianrong (the co-founder of Lending Club).
  4. Online funds Funds linked to payment platforms that offer ease of access and more competitive returns than the historically low deposit rates. Primary participants are Yu’e Bao of Ant Financial, Li Cai Tong (Tencent) and Baifa (Baidu).
  5. Online insurance E-insurance sold through e-commerce and online wealth management (WM) platforms. Notable brands are platforms by the People’s Insurance Company of China (PICC), Ping An, and Zhong An (in partnership with Ping An).
  6. Personal finance management Recently developed mobile-centric finance solutions providing access to mutual funds though stock trading apps. These platforms offer offline-to-online activity, with online brokers accounting for over 92% of new clients. Key players include Ant Financial (Alibaba), Li Cai Tong (Tencent), Baifa (Baidu), Wacai, Tongbanjie, Zhiwanglicai (CreditEase) and JD Finance (JD.com).
  7. Online brokerage Investment, social network and information portals for investors in China, providing thematic investing via websites and mobile apps, and offered by FinTech firms such as Snowball Finance, Xianrenzhang and Yiqiniu.

Fig. 2 – Percentage of banking/financial services customers using FinTech services – Taken from: DBS Bank, 2016

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Fig. 3 – Reasons for using a non-bank rather than traditional bank – Taken from: EY Global Consumer Banking Survey 2016

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Fig. 4 – Payment method used most regularly the past 3 months – Taken from: FT Confidential Research survey, May 2016

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                                                       Source: Survey of 1,000 urban consumers conducted by FT Confidential Research, a unit of the Financial Times18, May 2016
 
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Posted by on February 2, 2017 in FinTech

 

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My product management toolkit (17): Assess market viability

Whether you’re a product manager or are in a commercial or strategic role, I’m sure you’ll have to assess market viability at some point in your career. For that reason, I wrote previously about assessing markets, suggesting tools that you can use to decide on whether to enter a market or not.

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast interview in which Christophe Gillet, VP of Product Management at Vimeo, gave some great pointers on how to best assess market viability. Christophe shared his thoughts on things to explore when considering market viability. I’ve added my sample questions related to some of the points that Christophe made:

  1. Is there a market? – This should be the first validation in my opinion; is there a demand for my product or service? Which market void will our product help to fill and why? What are the characteristics of my target market?
  2. Is there viability within that market?  Once you’ve established that there’s a potential market for your product, this doesn’t automatically mean that the market is viable. For example, regulatory constraints can make it hard to launch or properly establish your product in a market.
  3. Total addressable market – The total addressable market – or total available market – is all about revenue opportunity available for a particular product or service (see Fig. 1 below). A way to work out the total addressable market is to first define total market space and then look at percentage of the market which has already been served.
  4. Problem to solve – Similar to some of the questions to ask as part of point 1. above, it’s important to validate early and often whether there’s an actual problem that your product or service is solving.
  5. Understand prior failures (by competitors) – I’ve found that looking at previous competitor attempts can be an easy thing to overlook. However, understanding who already tried to conquer your market of choice and whether they’ve been successful can help you avoid some pitfalls that others encountered before you.
  6. Talk to individual users  I feel this is almost a given if you’re looking to validate whether there’s a market and a problem to solve (see points 1. and 4. above). Make sure that you sense check your market and problem assumptions with your target customers.
  7. Strong mission statement and objectives of what you’re looking to achieve  In my experience, having a clear mission statement helps to articulate and communicate what it is that you’re looking to achieve and why. These mission statements are typically quite aspirational but should offer a good insight into your aspirations for a particular market (see the example of outdoor clothing company Patagonia in Fig. 2 below).
  8. Business goals  Having clear, measurable objectives in place to achieve in relation to a new market that you’re considering is absolutely critical. In my view, there’s nothing worse than looking at new markets without a clear definition of what market success looks like and why.
  9. How to get people to use your product – I really liked how Christophe spoke about the need to think about a promotion and an adoption strategy. Too often, I encounter a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of mentality which I believe can be deadly if you’re looking to enter new markets. Having a clear go-to-market strategy is almost just as important as developing a great product or service. What’s the point of an awesome product that no one knows about or doesn’t know where to get!?

Main learning point: Listening to the interview with Christophe Gillet reinforced for me the importance of being able to assess market viability. Being able to ask and explore some critical questions when considering new markets will help avoid failed launches or at least gain a shared understanding of what market success will look like.

 

Fig. 1 – Total available market – Taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_addressable_market

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Fig. 2 – Patagonia’s mission statement – Taken from: http://www.patagonia.com/company-info.html

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Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.thisisproductmanagement.com/episodes/assessing-market-viability
  2. http://www.mindtheproduct.com/2013/05/poem-framework/
  3. http://smallbusiness.chron.com/determine-market-viability-product-service-40757.html
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_addressable_market
  5. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/inspiring-company-mission-statements
 

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My product management toolkit (16): How not to become a “Product Janitor”?

It does make me feel sad at times. It does frustrate me occasionally. Sometimes I even want to shake them. “Product Janitors”. I’ve conducted countless job interviews where the candidate came across as as Product Janitor instead of a Product Manager. Let me outline what I think makes someone a Product Janitor and I’ll provide some tools to stop yourself from becoming one!

Tool 16 – Ways to stop becoming a Product Janitor

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Fig. 1 – Don’t become a Product Janitor – Taken from: https://www.lego.com/en-gb/minifigures/characters/janitor-4e9937bd82524499bdd36f44705f08c3

In my view, there are two key behaviours which make someone a Product Janitor:

Mopping up all the things that the other team members don’t want to do  I believe that as a product manager there’s a risk of doing things that you’re not necessarily supposed to do or which take precious time away from things like product strategy or engaging with (potential) customers. For example, I’ve seen good product people ending up as a Scrum Master / pastoral carer / tester / dogsbody for the product development teams that they’re a part of. Whilst I’ve got absolutely nothing against about helping each other out and collaborating, I’d be careful about picking tasks or responsibilities purely because no one else is doing so!

Saying ‘yes’ regardless – Granted, it can be hard to say ‘no’ to people. However, I’m afraid that as a product person, you’ll simply have to! If you don’t say ‘no’, or at least ask ‘why’, there’s a risk of you becoming a shepherd of a bunch of someone else’s user stories or requirements and that’s it. When I’m looking for good product people, I want to meet people who feel comfortable saying ‘no’. People who have a clear product vision and strategy and aren’t afraid to make tough decisions (see Fig. 2 below).

 

 

 

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Fig. 2 – “Big” Product Owner vs “Small” Product Owner – Taken from: http://www.romanpichler.com/blog/big-product-owner-small-product-owner/

This raises the question about what one can do to avoid becoming a Product Janitor:

Carve out time to create a product vision, strategy and roadmap – Having a clear product vision, strategy and roadmap can really help in safeguarding yourself becoming the steward of someone else’s backlog. The chances of you just cleaning up someone else’s mess become slimmer if you have a clear vision, strategy and roadmap that drive your everyday activities. Especially if you’re working at a small startup, you’re bound to wear multiple hats. However, I believe you can still be selective about the number and types hats you decide to wear, or balance them. Having a clear rationale to what you’re trying to achieve will definitely help you with that.

How to best say ‘no’?  Saying ‘no’ doesn’t have to be painful in my experience. There are tonnes of reasons to say no to an idea or request, even if it does sound really good or compelling. Learning how to best say no, is one of the key things that I’ve learned over the last few years. Even though saying ‘no’ warrants its own blog post, these are some of my suggested ways in which you can say ‘no’:

  • “We’re not doing that, instead we’re doing this” – “Instead” is the key word here; explaining to others why you’ve decided not to do a certain thing and highlighting what you’re doing instead, its value and rationale. This is where your overarching product vision, strategy and roadmap will come in very handy, as they act as key communication tools.
  • “Let’s look at the expected impact first” – This is a catchphrase for investigating the expected impact of creating a certain feature or solving a specific problem. Whether it’s looking at expected ROI, impact on other systems or cost of delay, the point here is you creating the ability to say ‘no’ in a well informed way, using data where available to assess tradeoffs.

Main learning point: As a product person, I believe there’s so much value that you can offer. Don’t do yourself a disfavour by becoming a Product Janitor, and solely cleaning up someone else’s mess. Having a clear plan for your product and the confidence to say ‘no’ are critical tools in stopping you from becoming a mere custodian of other people’s mess or their unwanted tasks.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://280group.com/product-management-blog/be-a-product-manager-not-a-product-janitor/
  2. http://www.slideshare.net/cmyers4/product-manager-or-product-janitor-its-your-choice
  3. https://medium.com/@matbalez/product-manager-you-are-664d83ee702e#.2qkjkft1k
  4. https://280group.com/product-management-blog/product-management-new-years-resolution-say-no-gracefully/
  5. https://blog.intercom.com/product-strategy-means-saying-no/
  6. http://www.jamasoftware.com/blog/product-managers-you-can-say-no-and-still-make-people-happy/
  7. http://www.romanpichler.com/blog/big-product-owner-small-product-owner/
  8. http://www.mironov.com/strat-priority/
 
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Posted by on December 7, 2016 in Product Management

 

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App review: Zuora

One of the product areas I’m keen to learn more about is billing; understanding how small businesses go about (recurring) billing. A few years ago, I used Recurly to power subscription management and payments for a music streaming service. I’ve now discovered Zuora, who aspire to “turn your customers into subscribers.”

“The world subscribed” – I really like Zuora’s vision – “the world subscribed” – and its 9 keys to building a subscription based business (see Fig. 2 below). Zuora aims to make managing subscription payments as intuitive as possible. For example, when I look at the info that Zuora provides on a specific customer account, it feels clear and clean, enabling the user to digest key account information at a glance (see Fig. 3 below).

Part of an ecosystem – The thing I like best about Zuora is the numerous integrations it has with partners and marketplace apps. As a result, Zuora users can integrate easily with payment gateways such as Adyen and link with accounting software packages such as QuickBooks. Similarly, there’s a whole host of apps and plug-ins that Zuora users can choose from.

Main learning point: Even though subscription management / billing forms the core of Zuora’s value proposition, I feel that there’s much more to it: helping people run their business operations as efficiently as possible. I don’t know whether the people at Zuora would agree with me on this vision, but I believe that, especially through it’s 3rd party integrations, Zuora can support its users more widely in their day-to-day operations.

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Zuora’s “Quotes” overview – Taken from: https://www.getapp.com/finance-accounting-software/a/zuora/

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Fig. 2 – Zuora’s 9 keys to building a subscription based business – Taken from: https://www.zuora.com/vision/the-9-keys/

  1. Price – Find your sweet spot. Dynamically adjusting pricing and packaging is the surest way to attract and retain customers, and multiply the value of your relationships.
  2. Acquire – Boost subscription rates with tools like flexible promotions, integrated quoting and multi-channel commerce.
  3. Bill – Subscriptions mean more invoices and more payments. Automatically generate fast, accurate bills and deliver them online.
  4. Collect – Get paid. Collect payments instantly through automated and manual channels, while maximising completed transactions and minimising write-offs.
  5. Nurture – Build beautiful relationships. Keep your customers engaged and happy. Seamlessly manage rapidly changing upgrades, conversions, renewals and other orders.
  6. Account – Measure everything. Twice. Zuora plugs straight into your accounting software and General Ledger. Register subscription and process deferred revenue with ease.
  7. Measure – No paper, no worries. Analytics make forecasting, accounting close and audits a breeze. Plus, it gives you the right insight your subscribers, so you can make smarter decisions.
  8. Iterate – Try something new every day. Subscriptions can involve complex customer relationships. Zuora lets you iterate and test what’s working with just a couple of clicks.
  9. Scale – Get growing. Zuora is built on a secure, scalable technology infrastructure. So wherever you start out, we’ll keep the system running as you grow.
Fig. 3 –  Screenshot of Zuora’s “Customer Accounts” page – Taken from: https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/zuora#/entity
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Related links for further learning:
  1. https://www.boomi.com/solutions/zuora/
  2. https://www.zuora.com/product/partners/
  3. https://connect.zuora.com/appstore/apps
  4. http://fortune.com/2014/06/10/10-questions-tien-tzuo-founder-and-ceo-zuora/
  5. http://www.forbes.com/sites/edmundingham/2015/10/13/why-own-anything-anymore-zuora-founder-explains-rise-of-subscription-economy-at-subscribed-ldn/#735812d65a49
  6. http://blog.servicerocket.com/podcasts/episode-7
  7. https://www.zendesk.com/customer/zuora/
  8. https://medium.com/the-mission/the-greatest-sales-deck-ive-ever-seen-4f4ef3391ba0#.xbezrudzi
 

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What Visa and R3 are doing with blockchain technology

In the online Fintech course that I’m currently doing, every other course video is about blockchain and the possibilities it offers. Earlier this year, I wrote about blockchain, trying to demystify some things I’d heard about it up to that point. If anything, watching my course videos with Blockchain experts such as Shaul Kfir, CTO at Digital Asset, has raised my curiosity about blockchain technology even more. In the past week alone, I came across two interesting blockchain related developments, which caught my eye: (1) Visa B2B Connect and (2) R3 Corda:

Visa B2B Connect

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Fig. 1 – Visa B2B Connect diagram – Taken from: https://usa.visa.com/visa-everywhere/innovation/visa-b2b-connect.html

Recently, Visa has started partnering with Chain, a US-based blockchain technology company, to create a proof of concept called “B2B Visa Connect” (see Fig. 1 above). Instead of building a more ‘correspondent’ type of integration between Chain’s core blockchain technology and Visa’s infrastructure, it’s looking to create a peer-to-peer relationship between banks. The essence of Chain’s blockchain network is a shared ledger that allows banks to move assets more securely and efficiently.

I listened to Adam Ludwin, Chain’s CEO/Founder, explaining on a recent podcast that Chain are effectively building “a business-to-business payment network.” Adam highlights that, in essence, Chain are applying cryptography to financial services. As result, entities – whether’s its financial institutions or customers – can have direct control over their financial assets, using a (private) cryptographic key. Adam stresses that there’s no single currency on the different Chain networks. Instead, the currency is specific to the currency issued by the participants of the network in question.

The main thing that I’m taking away from Visa B2B Connect is that Chain is looking to “digitise Visa’s existing currency” by building blockchain technology for Visa from scratch, aiming to design an architecture to solve Chain’s specific problems in mind. In contrast, the likes of Digital Asset, Ethereum, R3 and Ripple, are more like existing architectures which can be modified to meet the needs of specific financial institutions and their customers.

R3 Corda

Last week, R3 – a consortium of 75 banks – announced the introduction of an open source blockchain, to be used by banks. It was announced as “distributed ledger designed for financial services”, called Corda. The ledger hasn’t been built yet, but it was interesting to already get a flavour of its underlying principles:

  • Corda has no unnecessary global sharing of data: only those parties with a legitimate need to know can see the data within an agreement
  • Corda choreographs workflow between firms without a central controller
  • Corda achieves consensus between firms at the level of individual deals, not the level of the system
  • Corda’s design directly enables regulatory and supervisory observer nodes
  • Corda transactions are validated by parties to the transaction rather than a broader pool of unrelated validators
  • Corda supports a variety of consensus mechanisms
  • Corda records an explicit link between human-language legal prose documents and smart contract code
  • Corda is built on industry-standard tools
  • Corda has no native cryptocurrency

Fig. 2 – Overview of Corda’s underlying principles – Taken from: http://www.r3cev.com/blog/2016/4/4/introducing-r3-corda-a-distributed-ledger-designed-for-financial-services

The other thing that I took away was the business problems that R3 Corda is looking to solve:

  • Bank A and Bank B agree that Bank A owes 1M USD to Bank B, repayable via RTGS on demand.
  • This is a cash demand deposit
  • Bank A and Bank B agree that they are parties to a Credit Default Swap with the following characteristics
  • This is a derivative contract
  • Bank A and Bank B agree that Bank A is obliged to deliver 1000 units of BigCo Common Stock to Bank B in three days’ time in exchange for a cash payment of 150k USD
  • This is a delivery-versus-payment agreement
  •  … and so on…

Fig. 3 – Business problems R3 Corda is looking to solve – Taken from: http://www.r3cev.com/blog/2016/4/4/introducing-r3-corda-a-distributed-ledger-designed-for-financial-services

In essence, R3 Corda is looking to significantly improve the way in which banks share and managements agreements between them. The goal is remove any duplication of data or confusion about inter-bank agreements or transactions. Given the immutable nature of blockchain technology, it’s easy to see why banks are collectively developing Corda:

“What I see is what you see and we both know that we see the same thing and we both know that this is what has been reported to the regulator”

Main learning point: Understanding how blockchain applications are built to solve specific problems (R3 Corda) or improve existing experiences (Visa B2B Connect) really helps in painting a better picture of the tangible value that blockchain technology will deliver.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://usa.visa.com/visa-everywhere/innovation/visa-b2b-connect.html
  2. https://chain.com/technology/
  3. https://sharetheledger.com/reading-list/beginners/
  4. https://chain.com/docs/protocol/papers/whitepaper
  5. http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2015/06/24/nasdaq-selects-bitcoin-startup-chain-to-run-pilot-in-private-market-arm/
  6. http://www.the-blockchain.com/2016/05/03/chain-inc-rolls-open-standard-blockchain-capital-one-citigroup-fidelity-first-data-fiserv-mufg-nasdaq-state-street-visa/
  7. http://bankinnovation.net/2016/10/chain-releases-open-source-code-partners-with-visa/
  8. https://chain.com/press-releases/visa-introduces-international-b2b-payment-solution-built-on-chains-blockchain-technology/
  9. http://www.r3cev.com/blog/2016/4/4/introducing-r3-corda-a-distributed-ledger-designed-for-financial-services
  10. http://www.ithome.com.tw/news/105319
  11. http://11fs.co.uk/podcasts/ep119-back-blockchain-gang/
 
 

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