I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Tortoise Strategy

Three years ago, I wrote that the unstoppable forces of Fintech were running into the immovable force of financial orthodoxy. Specifically, the technology cycle wasn't enough to overcome the credit cycle for peer-to-peer lending firms, which were resorting to selling their loan portfolios to traditional lenders, becoming buyers of last resort themselves when no buyers emerged, and offering deposit insurance for lenders.

Earlier this year, I wrote that incumbents had advantages - specifically, access to greater amounts of patient capital - which they can parlay in a multitude of ways to co-opt a would-be disruptors business: make the disruptor financially dependent by becoming one of their biggest customers buy buying their products (e.g., loan books originated by peer-to-peer lenders), licensing their technology, or investing in their business and getting board seats.

Last month, I wrote that being a late mover can be less financially ruinous than being an early mover. A fast-growth business with low barriers to entry attracts a lot of competitors who burn increasing amounts of capital chasing each other's customers more than new ones. Patience and playing to strengths is a better response than betting the balance sheet in an unfamiliar casino.

This week, the Financial Times ran an interesting article on the trials of peer-to-peer lenders. Finding lenders is hard, and finding borrowers is proving even harder. Incumbent banks have lower costs of capital, which allows them to lend at lower rates. In periods of economic uncertainty or downturn, banks offer safety to cash-holders in the form of insured deposits.

What does the FT article recommend? That the survivors will be those who follow a "tortoise" strategy:

That means working with investors with a low cost of capital [...], and avoiding yield-hungry hedge funds. It means not reaching too hard for high returns, which will become high losses in a recession. It means sticking to niches with good borrowers, who are too hard for big banks to serve. Finally, it means not spending excessively on marketing.
All this, of course, implies slow growth: hence the tortoise. But the hares are set for a very nasty couple of years.

'Tis better to arrive late than not to arrive at all.