The Internet is for snacking

Web products have followed a steady evolutionary path from the compound to the atomic. Today’s popular social sites are spin outs of behaviors that emerged from blogs and forums, the primordial soup of the early social web. Before there was Twitter, people were doing something similar to tweeting on so-called link blogs or micro blogs. Tumblr was a direct descendent of a particular strain of blogs known as tumble blogs.

The successful products took big meals and converted them to snacks. The Internet likes snacks – simple, focused products that capture an atomic behavior and become compound only by linking in and out to other services. This has become even more so with the shift to mobile. People check their phones frequently, in short bursts, looking for nuggets of information.

A notable exception to this pattern are online products that users pay for. The dominant payment systems (mainly, credit card systems) were designed to be offline systems and only much later awkwardly grafted onto the Internet. They are inefficient and prone to fraud. As a result, paying online means making a commitment of time and trust. That’s why one of the most valuable assets an online business can have is “credit cards on file”. It is also one of the reasons there is a rich-get-richer dynamic for paid products. Big companies like Amazon and Apple are the beneficiaries.

The perverse result of this system is that products that are naturally suited to be “paid snacks” have to contort themselves to make money. News and music are good examples. Only a few news sites are popular enough to entice users to commit to paying, and even those have had only limited success with paywalls. Other news sites depend on intrusive ads to support themselves. Music is mainly purchased through aggregators like iTunes and Spotify who charge a hefty tariff. You need a comprehensive catalog to convince users to commit to a payment relationship.

In-app payments on iOS and Android are the one place where paid snacks exist at scale. They have been wildly successful, quickly becoming the dominant business model for games, replacing up-front payments and banner ads. (There are individual games that generate over one billion dollars per year from in-app payments.) Outside of games, entrepreneurs have started building interesting new products that wouldn’t have been viable without in-app payments.

This is one of the main reasons people are excited about new payment systems like Bitcoin. A broadly adopted form of “programmable money” has the potential to bring paid snacking to the rest of the Internet, and in doing so enable the save level of innovation in paid products that we’ve seen in the free and ad-supported products.

How to disrupt Wall Street

Sarah Lacy has a very interesting post on TechCrunch where she argues that the internet is finally starting to disrupt Wall Street. I’d love nothing more than to see Wall Street get disrupted by the Internet.

While I agree on the big picture, I disagree with some of her specifics. She cites Mint and Square as examples of startups that potentially disrupt Wall Street. As I see it, these companies have merely built nice UI’s to Wall Street: Mint connects to your banks and Square to Visa and Mastercard and the bank that issued the credit card. If people at farmers’ markets use credit cards instead of cash, that means more money for Wall Street, not less.

I would argue the best way to try to disrupt Wall Street is to look at how it currently makes money and attack it there. Here are some of the big sources of revenue.

1) Retail banks. Retail banks make money on fees and by paying low interest rates on deposits and then doing stuff with those deposits (buying stocks, mortgages, issuing credit cards, etc) that gets them a much higher return. To disrupt them you need to get people to stop depositing money in them. Zopa and Prosper are trying to do that. Unfortunately the regulatory system seems to strongly favor the incumbents.

2) Credit cards. Charging 20% interest rates (banks) and skimming pennies off every transaction (Visa and Mastercard) is a very profitable business. Starting a new payment company that doesn’t depend on the existing banks and credit card companies could be disruptive. Paypal seems to have come the closest to doing this.

3) Proprietary trading. A big trend over the last decade is for more of big banks’ profits to come from “proprietary trading” – which basically means operating big hedge funds inside banks (this trend is one of the main causes of the financial crisis and why the new “Volcker rule” is potentially a very good thing). For example, most of Goldman Sachs’ recent massive profits came from proprietary trading. Basically what they do is hire lots of programmers and scientists to make money on fancy trading algorithms.  (Regrettably, I spent the first four years of my career writing software to help people like Goldman do this).  Given that the stock market was flat over the last decade and hedge funds made boatloads of money, the loser in this game are mostly unsophisticated investors (e.g. my parents in Ohio). Any website that encourages unsophisticated investors to buy specific stocks is helping Wall Street. Regular people should buy some treasury bonds or maybe an S&P 500 ETF and be done with it. That would be a huge blow to Wall Street.

4) Trading. The more you trade stocks, the more Wall Street makes money. The obvious beneficiaries are the exchanges – NYSE, NASDAQ etc. There were attempts to build new exchanges in the 90′s like Island ECN. The next obvious beneficiaries are brokers like Fidelity or E-Trade. But the real beneficiaries aren’t the people who charge you explicit fees; it’s the people who make money on your trading in other ways.  For example, the hot thing on Wall Street is right now is high frequency “micro structure” trading strategies, which is basically a way to skim money off the “bid-ask spread” from trades made by less sophisticated investors.

5) Investment banking. Banks make lots of money on “services” like IPOs and big mergers. A small way to attack this would be to convince tech companies (Facebook?) to IPO without going via Wall Street (this is what Wit Capital tried to do). Regarding mergers, there have been endless studies showing that big mergers only enrich CEOs and bankers, yet they continue unabated. This is part of the massive agency problem on Wall Street and can probably only change with a complete regulatory overhaul.

6) Research. Historically, financial research was a loss leader used to sell investment banking services. After all the scandals of the 90′s, new regulations put in stronger walls between the research and banking. As a result, banks cut way back on research. In its place expert networks like Gerson Lehrman Group rose up. LinkedIn and Stocktwits are possible future disrupters here.

7) Mutual fund management. Endless studies have shown that paying fees to mutual funds is a waste of money. Maybe websites that let your peers help you invest will disrupt these guys. I think a much better way to disrupt them is to either not invest in the stock market or just buy an ETF that gives you a low-fee way to buy the S&P 500 index.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I have no idea how to solve most of these problems. But I’d love to see the financial industry be one of the next areas of internet innovation.