Friday, October 8, 2010

Why I hope BankSimple succeeds but fear they won't have a choice in the matter

My current political affiliation is not the most popular with people right now. That's understandable. I tend to approach things from a rational and unemotional perspective. Call me callous. Call me a dipshit. I'm consistent if nothing.

But the issue that's been bugging me lately transcends party or political affiliation. It's one that touches me as a technologist, an IT worker and a citizen.

DevOps and the changing IT landscape

I've blogged/tweeted/talked/rambled enough about DevOps to make people sick. In some regards we risk crossing the line with our enthusiasm and killing interest in the topic. Ignore for a minute that much of what makes up "DevOps" is not new ground. That's not to say that the "movement" hasn't introduced some amazing things.

The point is that aspects of DevOps as a philosophy are changing how people approach IT holistically. Automation. Rapid iteration. Frequent changes. Breaking down organizational silos.

So how does this play into BankSimple?

It actually plays into it in two ways. The first is that, like DevOps, BankSimple isn't doing anything "new" per se. If you're talking "old" business, banking ranks right up there with prostitution and in shares more in common with it than most would want to admit. What's different is how BankSimple is doing it. The BankSimple guys want to make money, no doubt but they're approaching it from a different focus. It's been formed, not by the traditional cadre but by "techies". It's almost "Agile Banking".

You can guarantee that because of that perspective and the history of the cofounders, the business and by extension the IT aspect will be run differently.

If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.

I'm a hands-off kind of guy when it comes to my government. Many people thought that, based on concepts like "hope" and "change", the government was going to turn around and focus on its customers - the citizens. It hasn't yet turned out that way.

Someone asked an interesting question at the last DevOps meetup in Atlanta.

"Do you think traditional companies feel threatened by startups who use more agile methods to beat them to market?"

The answer:

"Not really. If they get to be too big of a threat, just buy them out.".

That, of course, assumes they're willing to sell. Some people might have that luxury but when the VCs start to chime in that choice may be stripped from you. On the flipside, some might believe that by selling what they've worked so hard to build up will be destroyed yet they feel an obligation to the people who started with them to sell.

    But let's assume that, in the case of BankSimple they have the goals of REALLY changing banking and finance (which I think they do). Assume they don't have to sell (which I don't know).

    If you can't buy em, buy a lobbyist

    I was talking to an individual a few weeks back about the idea that traditional companies would get eaten alive by leaner more agile startups. We were talking specifically about the financial sector but his comment applies. So I, with a head full of steam raving about agile operations and time to market, was hit head on with this reality in one comment:

    "Yeah but do they have lobbyists?"

    Every company I've worked at, save one, has had lobbyists on the books. At one company we actually had different colored checks that we printed for lobbyists vice expense checks. Some people think lobbyists just "lobby" for things like deregulation and "leave my business" alone but that's not the case.

    Without going into too much detail, at one company we actually LIKED a certain amount of regulation. You see a certain amount of regulation is just enough to restrict entry into the market by new players. We liked that each state had its own set of regulations. That in one state we were classified under one set of laws while in another state we were classified differently. This ARTIFICIALLY raises the barrier to entry for competitors. It keeps them small. It relegates them to one of two positions:

    • Small enough for us not to care because they can't afford to expand into new markets
    • Big enough to justify buying them to eliminate the competition.

    Sure, sometimes a company will succeed and grow big enough to be REAL competition but that's fine too. Helps prevent antitrust investigations. It's a win-win all around.

    Not all lobbyists are bad. I would argue that the ACLU is a "good" lobbyist but they can also exist to help preserve an existing business either buy demanding hands-off or demanding more regulation under the guise of "consumer protection".

    Sometimes the tree of innovation must be watered with the blood of failed business models

    I sent this out as a tweet earlier tonight. With no disrespect meant to the original quote that inspired it, I firmly believe this to be true. Without even discussing politics or regulation or monopolies, the fact of the matter is that to progress as a society some things have to die. Horse and buggy. Media distribution. Publishing. All of these changes help move us to greater things. Many a business is built on convenience and inefficiencies in the supply chain. FedEx and UPS would probably have not been needed had the post office not sucked so bad. In an age when information is passed slowly, traditional news organizations made sense. BankSimple is part of that progression just as DevOps is part of that transition in IT.

    But I hope that Alex and the gang aren't as naive as some people (myself included) have been about DevOps. Just as DevOps working its way into traditional organizations will have to deal with the Boogymen of HIPPA, SOX and PCI DSS, so will BankSimple have to deal with an establishment that, if threatened, sadly has the power to essentially make them "illegal".

    We need them to succeed so we can move on to better and brighter things.


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