How to have better meetings: The case against brainstorming

BL Magazine, November 2016. Original article p76-78.


How to have better meetings: The case against brainstorming

Everyone is prone to groupthink – even the boss. There are better ways for truly getting the best ideas out of people, because true innovation is often borne out of moments of quiet.

If you want your team to solve a problem, lock them in a room with a whiteboard and a pizza and don’t let them out until they have something – that’s the conventional wisdom. Brainstorming remains a go-to method for inspiring new thinking, and it sounds great: by creating a relaxed environment, people can throw ideas around and see what sticks. Except there’s a problem: brainstorming isn’t actually all that effective.

It’s a blow to companies that see themselves as dynamic operations where everyone’s always available, but there’s a myriad of research on this topic that argues for the opposite approach: give people some quiet! And only then, after some alone time, put them together to share their ideas. The problem with brainstorming is groupthink: people tend to fall into behavioural patterns in groups that have more to do with social dynamics than with innovation. It also doesn’t help that we’re drawn to people who sound confident, and there’s no evidence that the loudest person in the room is also the smartest.


The groupthink phenomenon can happen at any level of an organisation, including at the top where you may think people would know better than to fall in line without merit. “In terms of a company board, groupthink means the way disparate ideas are less forthcoming because people start to think of things in the same way,” says Richard Sheath, partner at Independent Audit, the specialist corporate governance consultancy focusing on the effectiveness of boards. “They see things through the same lens, and over time they start thinking in the same way – rather than what they should be doing, which is bringing their different experience and skills to the table.”

This conundrum holds a clue as to why brainstorming, or group decision-making, remains so popular: it makes people feel connected. In her excellent book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, Susan Cain cites research studies where participants in brainstorming sessions often believe their group performed much better than it actually did. Writes Cain: “Group brainstorming makes people feel attached – a worthy goal as long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principal benefit.”

Add to this the tendency of some people to do or most of the talking, while others sit quietly, and the appeal of brainstorming meetings to drive innovation starts to lose its lustre. Cain references studies that show how we perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types: “We see talkers as leaders. The more a person talks, the more other group members direct their attention to him, which means that he becomes increasingly powerful as the meeting goes on.”


screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-13-26-59In order to ensure no one railroads a meeting, you have to understand the dynamic of the group and be well prepared, says Ian Churchill, CEO of digital workflow software specialist BigHand. “When you get to know a group of people, you recognise their strengths and weaknesses. You have to make sure you engage the people who have a depth of knowledge, over those who just have a strong view.”

Churchill, who’s in charge of about 150 people, thinks large groups aren’t actually very efficient when it comes to solving problems: “I don’t particularly like big meetings. I think you get more done with four people than with eight.” Gathering a few people means they’ll be strongly motivated to solve a problem, says Churchill – that probably won’t be the case once the numbers grow. “Plus the bigger the group, the more challenges you have with strong personalities.”

Having good ideas is not solely reserved for those with the gift of the gab, so a key task for the person leading a meeting is to encourage participation from people who’re naturally more quiet. “There are some really smart people out there who’re quite shy, or who get intimidated by loud people,” says Mike Thorpe, now a director of the Janders Dean consultancy in Jersey after eight years with Ogier Fiduciary Services.

The most important person in the meeting is the one who’s leading it, says Thorpe, as he recalls how he recently saw ITV newscaster Alastair Stewart moderate an event at the Institute of Directors: “You could tell he has years of experience. He was very authoritative, knowing when to let people talk, and when to shut them up.” The smartest employees are sometimes the quietest ones, says Thorpe – they’re the people who just get on with their work: “Where companies have good moderators, or good leaders who allow them to speak, that’s when you get the most out of them.”


Richard Sheath concurs that effective chairing is key to getting the most out of a meeting. “You need an awareness of what each individual is able to contribute to the discussion, and give them space to do so. This can particularly apply in situations with different nationalities around the table,” says Sheath. He points out how some cultures value assertiveness more than others – the same can also be true for gender. But it’s important not to be dogmatic about how meetings are run, says Sheath: “With time constraints, and a sense of needing to give everyone an opportunity to comment, it can become a bit of a go-around-the-table. … It can become a collection of disconnected comments, rather than a discussion of a particular theme.”

As different personality types have varying approaches to discussions, leaders need to be aware in order to get the best out of people. “Extroverts think out loud and on their feet, they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say,” writes Susan Cain. “Introverts, in contrast, … listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.” Each type bring different strengths: perhaps the best example of how powerful this combination can be is how it took extroverted Steve Jobs working with introverted Steve Wozniak to create Apple.

To maximise the chances of hearing also from the quieter members of staff, it helps to prepare them, says Mike Thorpe: “If you want to get something specific out of a meeting, and you know the person you need to [speak] is a quiet person, you give them a heads up. … Tell them, ‘I’m going to lead you into it.’” Thorpe emphasises the importance of setting an agenda for meetings: why are we doing this? That includes taking a moment to wrap up at the end, and make sure you got what you wanted out the meeting. This is the opposite of brainstorming sessions that end up with pizza-smeared post-its all over the walls, but the research backs it up: the best ideas come when everyone has a chance to contribute, not just the loudmouths.

Leading by example
What happens if the leader is a quiet type too? Ian Churchill is reluctant to describe himself as an introvert – the term is often misunderstood to mean shy, and that isn’t a positive trait for a CEO. But Churchill is more than happy to describe himself as someone who listens: “I recognise I have a set of skills that are different from the other members of the team. … To lead and make decisions you have to assimilate a selection of opinions, and then distill down what is the right way.” This is true for any leader regardless of their personality type, and Churchill thinks the stereotypical ideal of a larger-than-life CEO has started to disappear. “You have to engender respect to become a leader; you have to earn respect rather than demand it. But I don’t think you necessarily have to be charismatic to do so.”


Secret tales of the cities

Qatar Happening, October 2016. Original article.


Secret tales of the cities

If you look closely, cities are full of poetry. We went on a search for random and obscure poetic attractions and found plenty to love in New York, London, San Francisco – and also in Seattle, but only in the rain.

For a visitor, sights that only show up when they feel like it can be frustrating when you’re on a schedule. In New York, anyone can go look at the Statue of Liberty, but if you wanted to see the larger-than-life art of Jenny Holzer at the Guggenheim, you had to be there at the right moment in 2008. That’s when it was projected across the entire front of the museum: “More people and new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones – real, make-believe, short-lived.” For a moment, Holzer’s bold poetry prompted New Yorkers to stop in their tracks.

Temporary sights are often all the more magical: you’ve seen something that was only there for a brief moment. The permanent attractions are there for anyone, but these subtle, poetic installations are often the purview of locals. Created by artists, they’re placed not in galleries but where people might not expect to come across them, rendering them all the more powerful. Like four years ago, when visitors to London’s Shoreditch area could briefly spot the poetic art of Robert Montgomery out in the wild. You could be walking along the street, and suddenly be faced with giant posters with the artist’s poetic musings: “This city is wilder than you think, and kinder than you think. It is a valley and you are a horse in it. It is a house and you are a child in it. Safe and warm here, in the fire of each other.” Read on a giant billboard, it stayed with you all day.

Image courtesy of Rainworks

In part because we don’t expect to find it, street poetry will often feel hard-hitting. Last year, locals and visitors in Seattle were treated to what was literally a rainy day project: local magician Peregrine Church adorned the city’s pavements with words that can only be seen when it rains. “Rainworks” used biodegradable, water-repellent spray to stencil poems onto the concrete pavement, rendering the letters dry when it rained and hence readable. “Worry is a misuse of the imagination,” declared the wet pavement, cheerily. Each poem wears off after about six weeks, but “Rainworks” sells kits to anyone who wants to create their own rain poetry – meaning they could pop up everywhere.

The New York City subway has been treating its passengers with random moments of poetry since 1992, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched “Poetry In Motion”. First off was an excerpt from the Walt Whitman poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt / Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.” London’s “Poetry on the Underground” scheme is 30 years old this year, initially launched to bring poetry to a wider audience. Shakespeare features frequently among London’s Tube poems, which may well be the perfect place to contemplate the meaning of sonnets written in Early Modern English: “Where the bee sucks, there suck I / In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”


The marquee at the corner of Turk and Larkin streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin has been called the world’s largest fortune cookie, because there’s always something new to see there. The sign, with its rotating selection of quotes, is managed by Bill Brinnon, who works at the tire shop next to the sign. It’s been going since the 1958, and it’s still changing every three to six weeks, depending on the feedback and current events. This winter, a David Bowie quote appeared a few days after his death: “The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are all arriving and departing all at the same time.”

In New York, there’s a fantastic piece of city poetry that you can still catch, if you’re quick. It’s painted across the entirety of a Brooklyn parking garage, courtesy of Steve Powers. “EUPHORIA IS YOU FOR ME,” the garage boldly declares, in what has become known as a love letter to the borough. Earlier this year, the garage’s owner announced it will be torn down, causing an outcry among people who’ve come to love the upbeat poetry that you can’t help but read every time you pass it. The black and white text wraps around the entire building, creating what the artist calls a “block-long poem”. The garage is still standing, but don’t wait too long: by the spring the building, and the poem too, will be rubble.


Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern

Litro Magazine, July 2016. Original article.

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s sense of home

The Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective is at the Tate Modern, London, until 30th October 2016.

“I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said. Right now, the Tate Modern’s retrospective of the pioneering modernist may well present you with art unlike what anyone has shown you. Because after spending an afternoon in O’Keeffe’s company at the Tate, I can’t help but think that for a reasonably well-known name, O’Keeffe is vastly underrated. She’s been unfairly pigeon-holed as that desert lady with the flowers, but her work is so much broader than that. You may expect this show to be great – but it is in fact wonderful. Like O’Keeffe said after seeing New Mexico for the first time: “Well! Well! Well! … This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!”

Those famous flowers kick things off – there’s one in the Tate’s poster and that’s what will get you through the door. And by all means: the flowers have earned their fame because they’re stunning, no doubt about it – they’re so much more beautiful on canvas than they appear in reproductions. The colour play is exquisite and the curves are masterful – everything O’Keeffe does has these incredible subtle colours and curves – and it’s delicious. Sweetly pink, white and turquoise in ‘Music – Pink and Blue No 1’. More white and mint green in ‘Abstraction White Rose’. But in ‘Grey Lines with Black Blue and Yellow’ it’s not subtle anymore: the soft pink is contrasted with bold yellow, blue, pink.

This is also where it gets a little tricky, as O’Keeffe steadfastly maintained throughout her life that if we’re seeing anything sexual in her flower paintings, that’s on us, not her: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.” Fair enough. But once it’s been suggested that those petals could also be vaginas, it’s very difficult to stop seeing it. Did she deny this interpretation because of the times? ‘Grey Lines with Black Blue and Yellow’ was painted in 1923. But part of the Tate’s intention with this exhibition is to “dispel the clichés that persist” around O’Keeffe’s work, so we should probably give her the benefit of the doubt. If the artist claims a flower is just a flower, who am I to say otherwise?

The flowers are very beautiful though, regardless of interpretation. They feel overwhelming, maybe because they’re so big and up close.There’s something unapologetic about them, but at the same time, they’re simply pretty. Maybe that’s why they feel so radical: the notion that you can take something so delicate and lovely, something as passive as a flower, and make it look so powerful. If passivity – let’s go ahead and call it femininity – is considered a lesser state now, it certainly was a hundred years ago, around the time these paintings were created. But it was lazy to read O’Keeffe’s art based on her gender back then, and it’s even lazier now. O’Keeffe put it this way: “I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me. … You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.” O’Keeffe creates a world inside each flower, and invite us to get lost in there – but she never quite tells us what the flower means to her. We may be having our own experiences with her work, but she’s completely in control.

This feeling continues into the next section of the Tate show, which has photographs of O’Keeffe by her husband, Arthur Stieglitz. There’s O’Keeffe’s face, her torso, her breasts, hands, arms. There’s O’Keeffe staring into the camera, the photo cropped defiantly low across her naked chest. But in the photos, O’Keeffe doesn’t look defiant at all – she just comes across as someone who knows exactly what she wants. Looking at ‘White Iris”, the flower is so soft in white, pink and just a little green; if we see something in there – passivity, defiance, whatever – that’s on us. O’Keeffe simply meets your eye and makes you really, really look.

O’Keeffe moves on from flowers after she came to New Mexico – they’re rare in the desert – but she still examines the details of her surrounding with the same close, loving gaze. Her knack for curves is applied to the mountains and the mesas, except now the colours are saturated: the red clay and the blue stone, and then, the adobe buildings in soft brown, pale grey. Just like with the petals, O’Keeffe creates layers, and the same happens with the skeletons. O’Keeffe paints the bones so lovingly against the pale blue sky or the pink sands that they appear far more romantic than any of those flowers ever did. It takes a moment to realise just how artfully she’s recreated the shades of white of the bone – her technical mastery has become secondary to the sheer interestingness of her work.

O’Keeffe’s paintings of the desert landscape around Ghost Ranch, her first New Mexico home, are less flashy than the flowers and the skulls, but every bit as remarkable. Those curves are now perfected: the sides of the mesas, the rise of the mountains, the cutaway rock-sides. The shades of pink in ‘Red and Yellow Cliffs’ – dusty rose, pale salmon, buttery peach, gold, muddy greens – you could drown in those colours. O’Keeffe discovered a sense of home when she came to New Mexico: ‘As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It’s something that’s in the air – it’s different.’ She loved New Mexico, and the feeling pours off the paintings.

This is where O’Keeffe really dives into exploring layers. In the Black Place and the White Place series she paints the exact same things over and over, varying the colours or the style. That’s what it’s like to look at something over and over: there’s always something else there, because you’re a little different every time. The experience of standing still is very much an exercise in change. The paintings of the door of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home are the highlight of this joy of repetition – she’s really making us look closely now, just like the flowers, except now she’s giving us even less to work with: just a plain brown wall and a black door, barely any sky at all.

But this time she provides a hint about the world she’s hidden inside all those layers. ‘My Last Door’ is a black square on white, that’s pretty much it, but it took her two years to complete. She loved that house – you can feel her reaching for that feeling, striving to articulate it on canvas in its glorious, plain, untamable state. All the way through O’Keeffe’s work there’s a sense of her chasing down experience, hidden in the curves of the petals and the bones and the mountains – there are worlds to be discovered everywhere, if only you look close enough. But never is it clearer than with O’Keeffe’s repetition of that plain door, over and over: home is a feeling, and love is a place.

Un-precious skins

Published July 2016 in The Debrief (now part of Grazia).

Meet the people who turn the tattoo needle on themselves

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When Piper Chapman, anti-heroine of ‘Orange is the New Black’, tattooed herself at the end of last season, she’d learned it the hard way: if you want it done right, do it yourself. “Cliché my ass,” she muttered, grinning through the pain of etching onto herself the infinity symbol she’d previously been mocked for wanting.

There are lots of reasons why someone might choose to turn the tattoo needle on themselves, but regardless of their motivations, it’s always a very personal experience. If you’re the one pushing the ink, you can’t look away and wait for it to be over. You have to sit there, repeating the action maybe for several hours – you are in full control of creating the mark that will stay on your skin for life.

katherineKatherine Coffey, 36, first tattooed herself when she was 22, while at university in London. The two banners on her feet read ‘Heroes’ and ‘Villains’, a play on the old-school standard of having opposite phrases on your knuckles. “Plus I’m a big Beach Boys fan!” Katherine, a graphic designer, still loves her foot tattoos: “I find them just as valid as so-called ‘real’ tattoos. I’m someone who spends a lot of money on tattoos, and travels a long way to get them done by specific artists – I take it seriously. But at the same time, I don’t actually take it that seriously!”

Katherine, who describes herself as “fairly covered” in ink, says going to a tattoo parlour is more about getting someone else’s art on your skin. Doing it yourself, however, is how you get exactly what you want. “With many of the professional tattoos I’ve got, I’ve often thought I’d have done it a little differently. I’m a fussy customer!” She laughs. “So [doing it yourself] is also about being in control of your own body, and having the final say in what you look like. … The experience of marking yourself is definitely more empowering than going to someone else and asking them to do it for you.”

Before embarking on her DIY tattoo project, Katherine sought advice from someone who’d done it already. But it was still a bit of trial and error: “I got some fine sewing needles and wrapped them tightly with thread, and used graphic pen ink. That worked really well. … I went over the tattoos maybe three times.” The tattoos look pretty good for home-made ones, but Katherine says she never intended them to look perfect. “I’ve always thought, I don’t care if anyone ever sees this tattoo, I’m not doing it for anyone else’s benefit. It’s a personal thing, and I want this on me.”

theaFor Thea Dery, 20, the process of inking her own skin became something of a meditation. “It was satisfying to do it, like how people knit or draw as a relaxing experience. Once you get past the pain it’s a repetitive, satisfying process.” Thea, who’s currently living in Chile as part of her Spanish university studies, was 18 when she put an eye on her finger – it’s currently her only tattoo. She’s interested in getting more formal work done in the future, but that would need careful consideration.

Thea made sure she knew how to tattoo herself safely: she used calligraphy ink, sterilised needles, antiseptic wipes, and gloves. But the actual design of her DIY ink was impulsive: “It was a spur of the moment decision to do it. My friends had gone away that weekend and I was alone, watching a movie. I figured that since I had the materials I should try it out, just a little one on my finger.”

Thea says it did hurt, at least in the beginning: “But it quickly became numb, as you have to keep poking at the same spot. … I poked for almost two hours straight, just to get this tiny thing.” The tattoo is rough, says Thea, and she wouldn’t consider it well done. “But it still makes me happy to look at it. The process of pushing the ink into my skin was an important experience about making a permanent decision about my body.”


19% of Britons and 24% of Americans have tattoos, according to a 2015 YouGov survey – permanent ink is no longer all that controversial. But historically, this is a very recent development. In her book, ‘Bodies of Subversion’, researcher Margot Mifflin explains how tattoos have swung back and forth from favour:

“No form of skin modification is as layered with meaning as tattooing, especially for women. Tattooed women of the 19th- and early 20th centuries flouted Victorian ideals of feminine purity and decorum,” writes Mifflin in the 2013 edition of her book. “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains, and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies – and why.”

The current tattoo revival stems back to the 1970s, when Janis Joplin became one of the first women to openly display ink. Mifflin describes this as the start of overturning the unsavoury image of tattoos, which was previously considered the purview of aggressive men and sexually available women. These stigmas are now thankfully outdated, as today’s tattoos are associated more with self-expression, as well as an act for claiming your body as your own to do with as you please. The latter is especially true when it comes to the rough stick-n-poke tattoos people give themselves in their bedrooms.


cassandra1For Cassandra Sherlock, 24, one of the key points to doing her own ink is that skin doesn’t have to be that precious – she’s even let other people practice on her. “I’ve rejected this idea that it has to be a big deal about what your tattoos mean. Just because it’s permanent doesn’t mean it can’t be something goofy or fun, or something you saw and thought, ‘That looks cool, I want it.’”

Cassandra, a video editor and animator who lives in Indiana, has six home-made tattoos out of about 19 total. “I started off doing these small geometric shapes. The first one was an X. I have these small circles, little moons, some dots … I have two cats that I’m proud that I did myself. The two beets are more intricate. Those are the only ones with colour.” Asked why she chose to do it herself, Cassandra laughs: “I was broke!” And also: “I was a little bored, and I wanted more tattoos.”

Some of Cassandra’s DIY tattoos are stick-n-poke, but she’s also used a tattoo gun she bought on the internet. She doesn’t necessarily think it’s any more risky to do tattoos at home: “I’ve seen people go to shops and get nasty infections.” Cassandra recommends buying professional tattoo needles and ink from a reputable shop – it’s not that expensive. Her homemade tattoos are important to her, says Cassandra – precisely because she did them herself: “My [self-tattooing phase] wasn’t necessarily a great time in my life, but I was proud of these things i made. They’re always going to be a reminder of that.”

mike1For Mike Marcus, 43, the stick-n-poke tattoos on his wrist have also become reminders of a unique moment. “They’re the molecular structures of tryptamine and phenethylamine,” says Mike. He did them four years ago, using sterile tattoo needles and Indian ink: “I’d finished a big relationship, and some business entanglements. I was in between chapters in my life.”

When people ask what the molecules represent, Mike’s answer depends on the situation: “One thing you can say is that those molecules are like the operating system of consciousness.” In more relaxed company, Mike will fill the rest of the story: “I used to be into psychedelics.” As Mike now runs a microbrewery in Manchester, he doesn’t have time for that anymore. “But I like the tattoos. They’re individual. [What they represent] isn’t really a part of my life now, but they’re a landmark.”

By this logic, tattoos become a map of your life, says Mike: “They make an indelible mark, so you can’t just move on from that part of your life and pretend you didn’t experience it.” If he were to get any more ink, Mike says he’d definitely be the one to do it: “Tattoos are a really personal thing. … Apart from exceptional circumstances like the Holocaust, anyone who’s got a tattoo has imposed it upon themselves. If you’re going to do that, you might as well do it yourself.”

Meet Moven, the non-disruptive challenger bank

FusionWire, June 2016.


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Meet Moven, the non-disruptive challenger bank

Is it actually necessary for challenger banks to re-invent the wheel? No, says Alex Sion, co-founder of Moven. We went to New York to learn how Moven is making waves in the US as a next generation bank that doesn’t actually hold money.

What if, instead of building an app-focused bank, you built a great banking app that could be used by anyone, regardless of where their accounts are?

That’s what Moven has done. Alex Sion, co-founder and Managing Director, is the first to admit that Moven is technically more of a customer experience startup than a bank – but even so, the Moven experience is an impressive imitation of a bank. After linking up their existing accounts, US customers use the Moven app to manage all their money, and even spend it with a Moven-branded bank card. “Moven is structured as a programme manager that sits on top of a bank,” says Sion. “Basically, we orchestrate the banking experience.”

I’ve met the Moven co-founder in New York, in a non-descript Midtown office building across the street from Madison Square Garden. Inside, the office very much looks the part of a startup, down to Sion’s company hoodie with “Spend, Save & Live” written across the chest. 47 people work for Moven right now, says Sion, who co-founded the company alongside Brett King in 2012.

“We always had a vision that the future of banking was going to be an app. But that’s different from saying that banks need apps,” says Sion. To explain what he means by this, Sion points out how banking apps are different from other apps because you need to have the product before the app is any good to you. You wouldn’t download the HSBC banking app unless you already bank with them – what would be the point? This, the Moven founders thought, needed to change:

“If banking is to become an app, the app needs to have a value proposition just like every other app.” He lists them off: “This is the app that helps me find restaurants. This is the app that helps me buy clothes. This is the app that helps me play music. So we thought, the value proposition of banking in the future is: this is the app that helps me build better spending habits. This is the app that guides me to save, and helps me to buy the stuff I want in smart ways.”

The commerce link
This is the reason why Moven is more about the experience of banking, rather than the nuts and bolts of holding money. The fact that customers don’t have to leave their old banks to join Moven means the company is less of a disruptor to the established financial providers. But this also means Moven has sidestepped what’s arguably a fundamental tenant of banking. To date, Moven has raised over $24 million in funding, most recently in a $12 million round led by Route 66 Ventures in October. Does Sion think the fact that Moven doesn’t hold the money could become a drawback as the company grows?

Sion admits this issue is something they think about, especially now that the fintech startup landscape is maturing. Four years ago, any kind of new bank was a bold move, but that’s a long time ago in the startup world: “People are pursuing the same ideas now, but in more aggressive ways.” But Sion is quick to add that the fundamental idea behind Moven is sound: “[When we launched,] we believed the important part was the experience layer – banking itself would remain largely the same.”

If you ask people what banking is, says Sion, they’ll say it’s a place that holds money securely, moves it about, and gives yield and credit. “We believed banking products weren’t going to transform that much. What was dramatically going to change, was how people experience money. … What you needed to do, was build an experience layer that would tightly connect to the infrastructure of money. That would be the redefinition of banking. You don’t require a charter to do that.”

This is an interesting approach to the task of building a challenger bank: the idea that you don’t need to build from scratch, as the new banking experience can sit on top of the existing system. It also negotiates a fundamental problem faced by challenger banks: that people are notoriously reluctant (or too lazy) to move current accounts. “The challenge with fintech, and neobanking in general, is that it’s hard to underestimate centuries of history when it comes to the sensitive of money. Habits aren’t going to change overnight. But what is changing rapidly, is behaviors toward commerce,” says Sion. “For us, that had nothing to do with banking.”

The fact that people are experiencing commerce in new ways, via the likes of Amazon and eBay on mobile phones, means we’re expecting the same levels of ease from banking, says Sion – but banks haven’t stepped up to fill that gap: “To me, that gap is the threat and the opportunity that we can solve. There’s the massive behavioral shift that’s central to how consumers engage with their money.”

A visual approach
So what does this solution look like? Sion opens the Moven app on his phone, and swipes around while explaining how it works. The app is surprisingly simple-looking, using visuals to monitor spending (green means on budget, red means having gone over), and to motivate to reach savings goals (tap three times to “break the glass” and access the cash). “We simplified it as wants versus needs. Wants are discretionary items. Needs are non-discretionary. It’s colour-coded.” Sion taps into the restaurant category. “Here’s my dining out: I’m $404 above typical. If I want to see why, I can see that was because of Mother’s Day. I could dive in deep.”

The app also lets Sion see what he’s spent on his American Express card, as Moven becomes a hub for everything to do with spending money. But the home screen on the app isn’t your usual current and savings account balances, because Moven doesn’t focus on accounts – it focuses on behaviour: “This is organised around a vision: this is the app that helps me build better spending habits, and guides me to save and buy something I want.”

The lifestyle element of Moven starts from the moment Sion enters the app: he doesn’t actually have to log in. “I’ve enabled it to recognise the ID on my phone. We did that because there are very few lifestyle apps on your phone that require you to log in every time.” Banks take a black and white approach, says Sion: either you’re logged in and can access everything, or you’re outside and can see nothing. With Moven, you can look at basic information without a password, only requiring one when it comes to doing things like transferring funds.

Global ambition
Moven has started moving beyond the US, currently operating in New Zealand in partnership with Westpac, and in Canada in collaboration with TD Bank. Moven in Canada operates as TD My Spend, a companion app to TD Bank’s regular app. “It’s like Facebook and Facebook Messenger: they are separate apps, but they’re completely integrated.” Yes, they’re considering the UK, says Sion: “Commerce and its behaviors do not discriminate by geography. We have very ambitious plans to drive growth. … We’re poised, in this calendar year, to break a million people using the Moven experience.”

Over the coming year, Moven’s plans are to continue to expand its partnerships with banks: “We’ve got a healthy pipeline of opportunities to do that, and to expand by geography.” On the consumer side, it’s all about broadening the product line: “We started out with a basic focus on what consumers would consider spending, and we now monitor savings habits too. Further out – I don’t like to use the word credit, because credit is just spending. Spending money I don’t have, basically! But we’re going to continue down the expansion pipeline, to the point where we’re full-service. You’ll soon be able to get every experience from us that you currently get from a full-service retail banking operation.”

Over and over

This Recording, June 2016. 

In which we try not to be suspicious

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 16.01.12Over and over

A while back, for about a year, I lived in a flat with a classic roll-top bathtub. It’s one of those features that looks classy when you see the place for the first time: claw-shaped feet, separate chrome taps for hot and cold. Then, after moving day, you go to take the first shower in your new place and you realise you’ve made a terrible mistake: you can’t stand up to wash, but must lie down, like a child, as the shower head doesn’t attach to the wall. It’s simply sitting there, draped across the taps, and you’ll have to hold it over your head yourself. So for the next year that was what I did: I held the shower head in one hand while attempting to get the soap out of my hair with the other, as the frustration built.

It’s been ten years since I lived in that flat, in London’s Camberwell. I’ve had fully functioning stand-up showers in every place I’ve lived in since – I made sure of that because I know now: a good shower is a small but powerful pleasure. I probably haven’t thought about the Camberwell bath humiliation every time I’ve had a shower in the past decade, but it’s close. I can confidently say that I think of it at least a couple times a week. If I’m in a hotel, or somewhere else with a particularly good shower, I will wax lyrical about it afterwards, to anyone who will listen and even if they won’t. Because I once had a bad shower year, I’ll tell them, back when I lived in Camberwell. It was around 2006. It was rough! I had very long hair, you see. I remember it well.

Ten years is a long time to think about a bad shower. But I’ve appreciated the hell out of a good wash ever since, so maybe it was worth it? My partner has dubbed this the Camberwell Effect: when a negative experience boosts future appreciation. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, after having been sick for three weeks. In the grand scheme of illness it wasn’t that bad, granted, but in the depth of it I was still your garden variety miserable: too sick to leave the house or do any work, and unable to wrap my foggy brain around complex thought. All I knew was that I was profoundly uncomfortable. Until one day, after three weeks in bed, I felt up to going outside again. It felt like a miracle. I walked along the canal for a bit before sitting down to watch the ducks, in complete and utter wonder at being able to this without feeling exhausted and dizzy and seconds from falling over. How long would this feeling last?

It’s been about a month since this charmed trip down to the canal, and I can report that the post-illness Camberwell Effect lasted about three weeks. Or maybe it’s still going? It’s more subtle now, but I think it’s still here. I text my mother some photos last week, with the caption: “Greetings from sunny New York City! When you’re feeling well, all is well.” And then: “Is this the sort of thing you say when you’re getting old?!” I thought about this for the rest of the evening – it was the middle of the night in Europe so my question went unanswered for a while. Getting older is a rude awakening when it comes to health – laptop shoulders are real. So maybe the absence of illness, or a really good shower, will become an increasingly reliable trigger for happiness?

My mother, responding in the morning, concurred with my analysis, although I would tell she took the whole thing with a pinch of salt – she does that when I get overly philosophical. And in fairness, New York will certainly thrill even the most jaded of visitors: you don’t need to be freshly bedridden to find a million things to love. But the Camberwell Effect would probably have flourished even if I’d stayed in London, wandering up and down the same old streets. Anything is better than being stuck in my house, bored by Netflix and frustrated by my body’s failure to snap to, in a way only a person historically blessed with good health can be.

These are a few of my favourite things: The first coffee of the morning. Reading great non-fiction in bed. My best friend of 16 years; how our lives are in a striking moment of synchronicity right now. Walking along the canal by my flat. Pho on Kingsland Road. Texting with my best mate; he’s back after we almost ruined it by hooking up but now it’s the way it was always supposed to be. Cocktails with rum. Soda water that fizzes against the roof of the mouth. Working on something I really enjoy; that feeling like it’s going right. Sunshine in the city. The lush, humid feeling of London in the summer. A man who knows exactly what to do. A really great shower. To be well enough to be in the world.

They say that if you start listing nice things every day, soon you’ll find yourself looking for those things and it will change how you see the world. It’s certainly possible to train yourself to be appreciative of a full decade of good showers. Not that I remember most of them – with a few exceptions, they’ve blurred into sameness. The same goes for that first cup of coffee in the morning, sipped in silence as it wakes me up, bringing with it the promise of the day. It is a perfect pleasure, in part because it’s so very simple. I didn’t even have to do anything to feel like this – there’s no Camberwell Effect at work here. There are certainly things I love just as much as this early morning caffeine jolt to the system, but nothing that’s quite so lovely in its uncomplicated nature. Maybe that’s just caffeine addiction for you, but it’s good nonetheless and I try not to be suspicious of good things.

Back in London, I was walking along the road the other night, the weekend was just starting and my hair has been on excellent run lately. It was still wet, fresh from yet another hands-free shower, but it wouldn’t take long in the warm evening. Then “The Jean Genie” came on in my earbuds, and I emptied my coffee as I felt my pace quicken. It was a perfect moment: I was alone, about to see someone I love. It wouldn’t last long, but it happens all the time, over and over.

Why every bank’s a technology company too now

FusionWire, March 2016.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 10.59.14Is the Capital One 360 Café the future of banking?

Is it a bank, or is it a café? The Capital One 360 Café in San Francisco is financial innovation in practice, says Jacob Mullins, as we spoke with the Exitround co-founder about why major corporations are branching out to invest in tech companies and run cafés.

From the street, the Capital One 360 Café in San Francisco’s Financial District looks like any other big city bank branch. But once you’re inside, things quickly become a lot less clear. Is this actually a bank? The bright, sunny room looks more like a coworking space – the free wifi is excellent, and there’s communal tables with plentiful plug sockets where people sit and work all day. Adding to the startup vibe is sustenance provided by Bay Area coffee chain Peet’s, with a sign next to the stacked beans: “Are you ready for retirement?” Also, your drink is 50% off if you have a Capital One credit or debit card.

The space at Post and Montgomery in San Francisco is one of eight Capital One 360 Cafés around the US. The bank describes it as a “reimagined banking experience”, delivered by a financial organisation “built on digital tools and human connection”. It’s an interesting take on where the the bank branch of the future may be headed, now that people are increasingly going online for their basic banking needs. The San Francisco outlet has no cash tellers, just people in Capital One shirts milling about with iPads, reflecting how the bank branch is increasingly about expert advice. Considering how Capital One 360 is an online-only bank, this is a clever way to create a point of contact for customers, not to mention a fresh take on marketing in a digital age.

The case for looking beyond your industry
The Capital One 360 Café isn’t the bank’s only effort to make a name for itself as an innovative financial services company. Last year, Capital One acquired Monsoon, a company specialising in design, development and marketing. This follows the bank’s 2014 acquisition of another design firm, Adaptive Path, shortly after making waves by hiring Dan Makoski, the so-called “pirate” designer known for pushing boundaries as head of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects team.

At the time, even Adaptive Path co-founder Jesse James Garrett acknowledged the choice to go to Capital One was “weird” for a design company: “No one here was more skeptical than I was. I simply could not imagine that a huge bank would be able to foster an environment of creativity in which we could truly flourish. But honestly, when it comes to truly human-centered thinking, Capital One is among the top tier of all the organisations I have worked with in 15 years of consulting.”

Because banks need great design too, and corporations from every single industry increasingly need great technology. Capital One is not alone in reaching beyond previously rigid industry boundaries to make acquisitions that reflect this fact, says Jacob Mullins, CEO and co-founder of Exitround, the private marketplace for buyers and sellers of technology companies:

“Over the past five years there’s been a huge trend of large companies, which are not traditionally software companies, as they’re starting to realise: ‘Oh actually, we are software companies!’ So Coca-Cola makes drinks, but they need to reach their users in a brand experience through mobile apps. Home Depot need to be selling products through online channels. [Sports clothing company] Under Armour spent $560 million last year buying mobile apps for athletics. They realise that’s how you build a brand, and that’s how you actually build loyal customers.”

Exitround’s matchmaking engine
Mullins co-founded Exitround in 2013 with a wish to create a more efficient way of pairing people looking to buy companies, with those looking to sell. Mullins would facilitate deals as part of his job at Shasta Ventures, but it was a slow process based on personal networks: “Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch have armies of associates churning away at finding the right buyer or seller, and that’s incredibly resource intensive. The fees are stratospheric. … I was thinking, there’s got to be a bigger opportunity here. So how do you connect more people for the purpose of fundraising or M&A? Through software.”

Mullins and I have met in Exitround’s office in San Francisco’s SoMa district, where the company is operating in classic startup style: no sign on the door (Is it a business, or a storage unit?), the mandatory ping pong table, and the still-present machinery from the space’s previous occupant – a butcher – down to a meeting room that used to be a meat freezer. Capital One is one of Exitround’s clients, alongside the 4,000 sellers and 30,000 buyers currently using the platform to find acquisitions, make strategic investments, or form other kinds of partnerships.

By creating a data solution that matches companies based on what each party is looking for, Exitround has taken away some of the need to know the right people in the right places in order to make connections. But like any good matchmaker, Exitround only steers you in the direction of what you’re looking for – the parties then have to meet and see if there’s chemistry: “Actually meeting, and starting to build a relationship? That’s a human process.”

Exitround operates as a closed marketplace, where buyers and sellers create anonymous profiles with their characteristics, financial data and team experience. Exitround’s custom-built matching algorithm then does the work of determining who’s worth a closer look. “It enables that company to get inbound interest from potential buyers or investors, which can then turn into a conversation. It’s not one-click shopping. It’s a relationship-building network,” says Mullins. To ensure the platform maintains a certain quality, Exitround rejects about half companies looking to become sellers. Right now there’s 90 million potential connections between buyers and sellers, says Mullins, but nobody’s identities are revealed until both parties have opted in.

Buying a culture of innovation
This kind of matchmaking is especially valuable when a corporation is looking to invest beyond its core industry, which arguably means going outside your personal network. Asked why a company such as Capital One would buy a business that’s outside their traditional focus area, rather than just hire in that service, Mullins thinks this is a result of trial and error. Many large corporations have attempted to build in-house developer teams, only to realise this isn’t that easy: “It’s difficult to build a culture of technology and innovation in a company that may sell insurance, lumber or clothing. The easiest way to do this is actually to buy a company that’s been very successful with what they’re doing, and who happens to fit into your particular industry space.” Google and Yahoo! pioneered this model, adds Mullins, and it’s now being adapted by non-tech companies.

The Capital One 360 Café is a great example of how this trend work in a practical setting, says Mullins: “It’s a free innovation space, right? It’s so unique. Capital One is a bank, but they’ve been very acquisitive. Now they’re creating a culture of innovation in that café, bringing people in, trying to get the lion’s share.”

The plan for Exitround going forward is to create a window into private capital markets, something that’s lacking today, says Mullins. “How do you raise money? You pick up the phone and ask your friend to introduce you to some people. If you’re both interested and they decide to invest, great. But how do you know the price of a company? … Whether it’s an investment or a sale, there’s zero insight into the valuations for deals.” Exitround won’t share specific deal prices, but Mullins says the company is able to share deal pricing trends based on types and sectors.

Exitround may also be able to help businesses operating outside the Silicon Valley startup hub to gain access to this supercharged investment environment: “We have companies in Africa, Asia and Europe getting visibility to buyers from all over the world, who otherwise would have had to pay a banker an extortionate amount in order to get access to those buyers.” 80% of Exitround’s operations are still US-centric, but the UK segment is growing, says Mullins, adding they have a number of London-based companies looking to attract investors or buyers. “There’s still less venture capital going into the market [in the UK], so there’s less ability to build venture-backed companies. But that’s the case everywhere else in the world too – there’s just an unusually high amount of activity here [in the Bay Area].”

One day we may all be freelancers

BL Magazine, March/April 2016. Original article p46-48

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 15.44.36

Is freelancing the future of work?

It’s a long time since freelancing was just a fancy word for temping – self-employment has become an attractive choice for motivated workers seeing flexibility and opportunity in the brave new world of work.

Do you want to be your own boss? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone – the number of people choosing the freelancing life is soaring. 20% of us will be freelancers by 2020, according to the Office of National Statistics, with the current 16% being the highest since records began. This prediction could actually end up being modest, as the outlook for freelancing is actually higher in the US: Intuit predicts a whopping 40% of US workers will be independent by 2020.

Never before in modern times have we been so willing to go it alone in the world of work. 87% of respondents in a 2015 survey by PeoplePerHour said they would choose self-employment, spurred on by the promise of flexible hours, independence, and potential for increased creativity and work satisfaction. “The upside of freelancing is that people get different opportunities, experience on varied projects, and to meet new people. They also avoid the dreaded appraisal, and get to stay away from office politics,” says Shelley Kendrick, director of Jersey-based recruitment firm Kendrick Rose.

But freelancing isn’t for everyone. “Contractors are usually hired for projects where things can change, and they have to roll with that. They have to hit the ground running, as they’re on a daily rate. And when the work is gone, they have to get another contract,” says Kendrick. Freelancers are also responsible for their own benefits such as sick pay, holiday pay and pensions. Overwhelmingly, the PeoplePerHour study found the main drawback to freelancing to be lack of stability, and fluctuating income.

More freedom in exchange for less security has always been a key tenet of self-employment – that doesn’t explain its recent popularity. There are a number of longterm societal trends at play: the rise of technology, the decline of jobs for life, weaker unions, higher qualifications among young people at a time when it’s harder for graduates to get work – all creating disillusionment with the traditional model. The recession has a lot to answer for: cutbacks and zero-hour contracts meant freelancing became a last resort for some, while others decided to go it alone after being made redundant.

The sum total of all these factors mean businesses now rely more than ever on non-permanent staff. But does that mean freelancing has become more respected? It’s not that long ago it used to be something you did if you couldn’t get a real job. Philip Dodson, founder of London coworking space @WorkHubs, laughs as he admits his mum, who wouldn’t dream of disturbing his brother at the office, often calls him in the middle of the day. “But I do think [freelancing] is starting to be seen as more respectable, and something more people would actually like to be doing,” says Dodson.

@WorkHubs, which caters to independent workers and small businesses, has several tenants who work in tech, but there are plenty of other professions too – there’s even an independent finance director. Older, so-called ‘silver’ freelancers are on the rise, Dodson has observed, but recent graduates make up a significant slice, as they increasingly opt for a career outside the corporate structure.

The ability to hire specialists with fresh ideas to work on projects as and when they’re needed is a key reason why businesses are benefiting from the rise in freelancing, says Jonathan Atkinson, CEO of Jersey-based business consultancy Greenlight: “As organisations compete and innovate, their use of external contractors will increase.” But, he adds, the attitude from businesses who hire them is mixed: “It ranges from resentment, at what people believe to be inflated day rates, to the other end of the spectrum where contractors are recognised for providing impartial advice. Contractors bear the scars of having already achieved what the employer needs elsewhere, and therefore bring with them valuable lessons learned.”

While the inherent lack of stability is a drawback for some, other freelancers revel in it; Atkinson says contract work is popular among people who thrive on change. Running your own operation can certainly mean making more money than working for someone else, but the average freelancer isn’t actually earning that much. In 2014, when the average UK salary was £27,200, PeoplePerHour found that UK freelancers made just shy of £20k. It should be noted the majority or respondents were under 35, but freedom may come at a cost:

“People in the corporate world, tired of working on someone else’s dream, may like the romantic idea of breaking off,” says Dodson of @WorkHubs. But freelancers often end up making less money, Dodson thinks, because they compete on price for the same old work they did as employees: “The best freelancers are those who do something different. That way, they’re not compromising on value.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 15.44.42But the fact remains that not everyone who works for themselves are entrepreneurs. Some people are self-employed because they have no choice: maybe their profession runs on contract work, or it’s harder to get a salaried position now. People working on laptops in cafés may be the image of freelancing, but the most common self-employment professions are actually construction, taxi-driving, and carpentry. And if the barista at that café is on a zero-hour contract, they are something of a freelancer too – arguably not a happy one.

The emergence of communities like @WorkHubs is a response to the fact that going it alone can be difficult even for the most motivated freelancer. WeWork is a New York-based workspace company that’s now opening its eighth space in London, after arriving in the UK less than two years ago. “I think this is less about ‘going to an office’, [and more about] going to an inspiring environment that breathes energy and vitality into the workday,” says Hillary Deppeler, brand manager at WeWork. Freelancers and small businesses can rent space at WeWork on a month-to-month basis, a valuable feature for growing startups or people with lumpy incomes. WeWork now has over 5300 members in London, says Deppeler: “Our spaces, besides being visually compelling and comfortable, are primarily designed to encourage connectivity amongst our members.”

Though for some people, the ability to work from anywhere is a key draw to self-employment. That’s the case for Alex Flewitt, a digital marketing freelancer on Alderney. “The best thing about moving into freelance work on Alderney is that I can make my own rules. I can be flexible: if I want to work extra and take the following day off, I can. I feel very lucky.” Flewitt started freelancing about six months ago, keen to be her own boss. She’d also been contacted by several potential clients looking for help with marketing or social media, from both the Channel Islands and the UK. “The internet on Alderney is pretty good, meaning I can work very easily without worrying about my location. I have to take occasional trips off island for business, but mostly I work via Skype with my clients.”

The Channel Islands always have to pull talent from far and wide, and that’s no different when looking for freelancers, says Kendrick of Kendrick Rose. She points to the strict residency rules affecting contract workers, meaning just hiring someone on a three-month contract isn’t that cut and dry. “You can get freelancers from the UK and lots of businesses do, but it’s costly: you have the flights and accommodation, plus the higher rates of a contractor,” says Kendrick. But, she acknowledges, having access to more remote freelancers is potentially a positive for the skills gap on the Channel Islands. Atkinson of Greenlight concurs: “For some complex undertakings, the Channel Islands will inevitably have to look to the UK for experience.” The key, adds Atkinson, is to make sure this imported experience is passed on to the company’s full-time employees.

* Permalancing – is it legal?
The dark side of freelancing is when companies take advantage of people’s desire for flexibility to avoid paying benefits. Because is it really freelancing if you work steadily for just one company? British drivers are taking taxi startup Uber to court over this, arguing they are in fact employees and deserve to be treated as such. Their lawyer, Nigel Mackay, told BBC News that Uber is in breach of employment law, because of the way they’re controlling their so-called freelancers. Uber provides initial training, guides to routes, and requirements for minimum hours. Uber could also find itself on the hook for not ensuring drivers take rest breaks, not to mention providing sick pay and other benefits. Uber’s defence? Drivers love the freedom to work when they want.

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Meet Kash, the most exciting payment startup in town

FusionWire, January 2016.

kash wpMeet Kash, the most exciting payment startup in town

Kash isn’t your average scrappy payment startup – the billion dollar retailers have already started knocking. We met with co-founder Kaz Nejatian in San Francisco, to talk about how this startup is gunning to replace credit cards.

At first glance, Kash could be mistaken for just another payment technology startup, although one with a particularly bold goal: to become the retail payment method of choice. Nothing about Kash’s offices in San Francisco’s SoMa district pegs the company as remarkable; as is the case for many of the City’s early startups, searching for Kash’s offices leaves you concerned you’re about to walk into someone’s flat. But no, this is the right place, says CEO and co-founder Kaz Nejatian as he lets me in, explaining how there are six Bitcoin companies in the building, which neighbours Pinterest and AirBnB.

In his hoodie and ‘Toronto Law’ t-shirt, Nejatian brings out water in mason jars as he explains how four people work for Kash in SF and three more in Canada – this count should double this year. But this is by no means a bootstrapped operation. Kash’s ambitious plan to become the retail payment method of choice has some big-name backers: first Y Combinator, then investors including Tim Draper and Green Visor Capital – and in September, former Visa CEO Joe Saunders joined the Kash board, alongside Square founding member Sam Wen. In other words: the Kash plan may be bold, but the talent pool is deep. Nejatian tells a compelling story, and after an hour in his company it’s hard not to get onboard with the excitement.

The quick and cheap alternative
The key to what Kash does, is letting people pay for things using direct debit: “We’re the only direct debit company in the US,” says Nejatian. “In the US, there’s no instant payment system that’s affordable.” The alternatives are the credit card networks, which are quick but expensive – or the Automated Clearing House network, which is cheap but takes several days. Kash adds an API on top of the banking network, which then allows people to log into their bank accounts and pay directly, at low cost. It’s all done and dusted in about two seconds.

This all sounds great, but still – getting people to change a behaviour as fundamental as credit and debit card payments is a tall order. It’s not like Kash is the first to have tried? Nejatian nods, eager to explain. First of all it’s easy: the payment is done within the browser, with no app required, and the technology is available to 93% of US consumers. The low rates are a key issue for merchants choosing Kash: instead of paying the usual 4-5% transaction fee to clear card payments, e-commerce merchants pay 0.5% with Kash. This enables them to either pocket the difference, or pass this saving on to their customers.

“We do incredibly well everywhere we’re deployed. We’ve just deployed across a major e-commerce retailer – our e-commerce product came out less than five weeks ago! On this e-commerce route, we do over 25% of transactions. In the first week there, we beat every brand of cards.” Right now, about 400 companies use Kash, with several more in the pipeline. In about three months, a “multi-billion dollar company” with physical outlets in fifty states will join this number – Kash can be used both online and in-store.

The reception from the established banking industry has been positive, says Nejatian: “There are banks that really like us, and we have big and small partner banks. But credit card transactions are the single largest source of revenue for American banks, so there are obviously banks that are nervous about that revenue going away.” Nejatian hopes to partner with more banks, but accepts it will take time. “The regulators here take a much dimmer view towards innovation [than in the UK]. It’s not as easy for banks here to say they want to have a fintech innovation hub that lets startups do whatever they want.” Nejatian shrugs; the Canadian national was previously a banking lawyer in New York, making it easier for Kash to navigate this issue.

The anti-fraud guarantee
Another appealing feature of Kash is how merchants are protected from chargebacks, which in the US can be significant. Then there’s how the technology boasts being highly resistant to fraud. Kash will cover fraudulent transactions up to $100k, says Nejatian: “But we haven’t had a single case of fraud.” Asked to explain how they’ve managed to create a system that makes this possible, Nejatian compares standard card payments to a game of Chinese Whispers: you swipe your card and it starts a chain: to the gateway, the bank, the network, and many more steps beyond:

“Instead, we have an algorithm that clears transactions, determined fraud, and moves money around. We use literally hundreds of factors to determine fraud, credibility, and creditworthiness. None of those factors we use are used by credit card companies.” Nejatian asks if I have a $5 note on me. “If I have the serial number that’s on your bill, I couldn’t spend that $5, right?” I look at the note in my hand. “But if I knew the 16 digits on your credit card, I could buy myself a Louis Vuitton purse tomorrow.” He laughs. “If you were to design a payment system today, you wouldn’t say, ‘Let’s clear money using 20 random digits!’ Because that doesn’t make any sense.”

Most of the security features in the Kash algorithm are kept secret – Nejatian will go as far as saying one of them is your IP address, but there are several dozen more. “We know information about you that your bank doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know. … When we know those things, we don’t have to rely on numbers.”

A passion project
Having a catalogue of big name supporters to point to has been good for Kash as it pushes ahead with its ambitious goal. “But I think what makes us impressive to our merchants is when they see results. 80% reduction in transaction fees – that’s real to people.” Nejatian pauses. “I come from a long line of retailers. We moved from Iran to Canada when I was 12, and we had a corner store. I would go through our bank statements and look at credit card fees, and every month the credit card companies were making more money from my mom’s store than my mom was. Every single month. That’s true for most merchants in the US and Canada.” Nejatian was 14 years old when he decided he wanted to do something about this. “I’ve been thinking about this for a really long time! It’s nice to have a plug that a lot of people are using, and like. It’s having a real impact in the world.”

While getting small retailers onboard is Nejatian’s hobby, he knows full well it’s the billion-dollar chains that are going to make Kash a success. Progress has also been aided by the US’s recent migration to chip and PIN cards, which changed the landscape for card fraud by driving it online. “We honestly didn’t expect e-commerce [takeup] to grow as fast as it has,” says Nejatian. The company started in 2012, but the first few years were spent building the tech from scratch – the actual product is less than a year old. Even more amazingly, this growth has happened without a sales team, as it’s all been word of mouth. “But we’re building a payment company – it will take a while! I’ve waited twenty years to start the company. I can wait twenty more years for it to become a big company.”

The goal is to take Kash global: “The payment system is broken virtually everywhere. It’s bad in the US, but it’s terrible in Africa and Asia. … Moving money should be frictionless. Ideally moving money shouldn’t cost you. We have a long way to go.” Nejatian describes Kash as his mission in life, and considering his enthusiasm it’s hard to doubt his sincerity as he explains he didn’t start Kash to run his own company, but to make payments more affordable for people. “I want this to exist. I think we’ll be the ones to do it. But even if we’re not, I’d want this to exist.”

How to fix a leak in your bathroom

The Billfold, January 2016. Original article.

bathroom wp

How to fix a leak in your bathroom

1. Move into your new flat and marvel at the fact that you own this place. Before you’ve finished unpacking, receive notice that they’ve examined every one of the building’s 27 flats to find the source of a leak — it’s your bathroom! You’re on the hook for the repair costs, as the building insurance only covers the cost of repairing the damage resulting from said leak. This doesn’t make any sense, but okay. You chase the insurance company for three months to get them to send their repair crew. This, you realise later, is what they call “foreshadowing”.

Week one.

2. A repairman is set to arrive at 8am on Monday. He won’t know how long the job will take until he’s had a look, but he estimates three days, maybe five at the most. On Monday he texts to say he’ll start on Tuesday, but he’s confident he’ll be done by the weekend. Tuesday: repeat.

3. Pete the repairman shows up on Wednesday, deems the bathroom floor to be damaged and pulls up the tiles. Now he just has to put down new tiles. Easy! Then Pete calls you from the tile shop: do you want different tiles? The insurance covers like-for-like replacement, but if you want something different you can just pay the excess. Oh! Pete needs to know right away, but that’s fine — this is the moment design-Instagram has prepared you for. You know exactly what you want, and feel like you’ve really got a great deal here.

4. Friday morning, Pete calls: the tile delivery was delayed and he’s only just got his hands on it now. The job will run into Monday, not including the grouting and finishes of course. Fine, whatever. You spend the weekend tiptoeing around on a concrete bathroom floor, but the final result is going to look great!

Week two.

5. Brian the tiler arrives, deems a section of wall to have water damage too and pulls down the tiles in question. They are standard white tiles so he’s just going to swap them out. Easy. A few hours later, a bewildered Brian calls: your old wall tiles were not standard! The replacements are no good! Since this discovery only came after the old tiles were knocked down, it means replacing every single wall tile. Work stops for 24 hours as the insurance company ponders the issue.

6. To everybody’s surprise, the insurer decides to to cover like-for-like replacement of the wall tiles. So, says Pete, do you want different tiles? You know the drill — you’re practically a design blogger by now! Pete spends the rest of the week removing the old tile and preparing the walls, leaving your entire flat covered in a fine layer of plaster dust. It gets everywhere, including inside the kitchen cupboards.

7. On Saturday morning, you get up early as Pete has arranged for a weekend tiler — let’s get this done! — he says. You feel encouraged until Pete calls: the tiler isn’t coming because broke his ankle last night. You attempt to feel sorry for him. A second weekend is spent tiptoeing around on a chipboard bathroom floor. You have to crouch down in the tub as you wash, as not to splash the bare walls.

Week three.

8. Brian is back — your bathroom has now become a nuisance for him as he has places to be. No one expected it to last this long, Brian informs you, while you make him a cup of tea after checking the mug for plaster dust. The feeling of getting a bargain has well and truly evaporated, but both Pete and Brian seem confident it will be done by Friday.

9. On Tuesday morning, Brian calls in a fluster: there’s a leak! It seems all the jostling around has cause the original leak — the one that triggered all this, remember? — to reemerge. Or maybe it wasn’t fixed properly in the first place, Pete suggests, but you care little for his excuses. All that’s certain is that a plumber is needed before they can proceed, and also, a section of drywall needs replacing. Work stops for 48 hours as the insurance company considers who will pay for all this.

10. Thursday rolls around, and you tell Pete to go ahead — you’re ready to throw money at the problem. Pete says he understands. He finds someone to fix the leak and repair the wall — they’ll be over Sunday morning! Great. You spend your third weekend in a stripped down bathroom, crouching down to shower still, now with the added challenge of trying to flush the toilet at little as possible as not to aggravate the water damage. You travel the London Underground, where each station is covered in colourful, sprawling tiles, and you feel like they’re mocking you.

Week four.

11. Alan the plumber was a little too gleeful when he told you that having a repair last four weeks is nothing — sometimes these jobs go on for months and months because they just can’t locate the source of a leak. Imagine! Mere hours later, you realise there’s still the tiniest leak, and now, the toilet doesn’t flush properly. Someone will be round to fix it and finish the job, tiling and all, says Pete — bright and early on Wednesday. This is a low, you think to yourself as you spend the next three days with what can reasonably be called substandard plumbing. Your place has slowly turned into a tip and there’s building dust everywhere, but there’s no point cleaning until the work is done. You consider checking into a hotel, but you can’t chance it — you have no idea how much all this will cost you.

12. On Wednesday, a fellow named John arrives and says he’s going to stay until the job is done, which means he’ll be working the weekend. You nod feebly — you’re starting to accept this situation as your life now. You no longer have any feelings about any of it: not about your bathroom, the now-lost weekend, the mess that is your flat, or indeed the certainty that the arrow of time only moves in one direction. But John fixes the toilet flush, and tiles the shower so you can wash without worrying about damaging the walls for the first time in weeks. In spite of yourself you feel a spark of hope, but only for a moment: John can’t make it on Friday due to a veterinary emergency. You make sympathetic noises, but it’s all an act.

13. Good old Pete comes to fix that tiny leak. He can’t work out exactly what the problem is so you authorise a full replacement — it’s not cheap, but the thought that money could save you from this is sweet relief. John returns the next day and claims he’ll be done by Sunday night, but you know better than to believe a word of it.

Week five.

14. John is back bright and early Monday morning — of course he is. Yesterday he told you that whenever builders say five days you have to allow seven, which is not your idea of good expectation-management. But the tiles are in place! Pete has arranged for someone to come and finish up the last bits, including shortening your bathroom door, which apparently is a thing that needs doing. That’s not happening until Thursday though. Deflated, you go to pour yourself a drink, only to discover that John has finished your good booze.

15. Some guy called Sam calls you on Thursday morning: can we push this final bit to Monday? Oh we most certainly cannot, you inform him, you need to move on with your life. Sam rocks up at 5pm and informs you it’s really not a big job! But there’s too much left to finish it all today of course, and he’ll have to come back on Monday. Your mind goes to that Seinfeld episode where Elaine tells her phone line engineer: “You know, I could’ve killed you, and no one would have known.”

Week six.

16. Sam, who’s still alive, returns on Monday as promised and everything is miraculously done. You’ve never been so happy for a chance to clean in your life. The bathroom looks so good! And, you think to yourself, maybe the kitchen could do with some tile too? This time you’d do it yourself though — hell is other people. And you’re determined! In that respect, Pete, Brian, Alan, John and Sam have nothing on you.