Monday, May 27, 2013

Musings of a Finovate Virgin

They say you always remember your first time. 

After years of being built up by a great amount of hyperbole, including being dubbed The Disneyland of Fintech™ by my friend Brad Leimer, I finally decided to experience Finovate for myself a couple weeks ago in San Francisco. Similar to many 'first times' in my life, my experience expended a lot of energy, ended too quickly, but definitely did not disappoint.

To those not familiar with Finovate, the event is a fast-paced showcase of financial technology vendors, who have only seven minutes to provide a live demo of their solution (Powerpoint not allowed). It’s produced by Online Financial Innovations, the people behind the excellent NetBanker blog.

Taking place several times a year across the globe, FinovateSpring included 72 demos in front of a record crowd of over 1300 bankers, investors, media and bloggers like me. (Video archives of this year's presentations are available here)

As opposed to focusing on only a few themes, Finovate has something for everyone. This Spring's event covered some familiar themes that would be expected (Mobile, Payments, etc.) as well as some newer themes that sparked conversation, debate and maybe even a bit of fear among traditional bankers (P2P Payments, P2P Lending, Virtual Currency, etc.). 

My Takeaways

Overall Impression: Bordering on sensory overload, Finovate should be on every financial marketers bucket list. While many of us spend countless hours dealing with some rather mundane challenges at times (compliance and other internal battles), it is refreshing to know that innovation is alive and well in financial services. It was difficult to keep up with the presentations at times since there is no apparent logic to the order of presenters, but I quickly realized the value of the live blogs and recaps from Finovate, Bank Innovation, PaymentsViews, the William Mills Agency, and others.

What Was Hot: In an industry quickly moving to the mobile platform, but impacted by security and privacy breaches, it was not surprising to see an abundance of mobile authentication and security solutions. Almost 20% of the 72 presentations at FinovateSpring were focused on security and/or authentication of mobile or merchant transactions. These solutions included:

      • EyeVerify: Uses camera on smartphone to match 'eye prints'
      • Usher from Microstrategy: Uses QR code for single use identity
      • AuthenticID: Uses private data sources (not public records) to verify user
      • OneID: Secure digital identity without usernames or passwords (two factor authentication)
      • Internet Biometric Security Systems (IBSS): Four-factor authentication tool including voice and face
      • TrustedKnight: Software that protects all browser entered data from malware
      • Sygnifyd: Automates validation of card-not-present transaction with guarantee 
      • Encap: Two or three factor authentication including mobile device, PIN and keypad biometrics
      • Kofax: Image-based authentication using traditional IDs at time of account opening
      • Curaxian: Helps merchants quickly spot fraudulent transactions
      • Arxan: Protects mobile apps in a way that was described in a way too technical way for Finovate audience
      • ValidSoft: Uses voice biometrics and other tools to authenticate wallet transaction

What Also Was Hot: While not all are ready for prime time, there were several P2P and crowdfunding solutions presented. Realty Mogul aims to create a marketplace for investors to pool funds for investments in commercial real estate. P2B Investor, which definitely had the best tag line at the show ("I want to fund your brains out"), arranges for online investors to extend small businesses a line of credit on the basis of their receivables.

In addition, there were some interesting solutions for the wealth management sector, with a focus on better reporting and improving the client/advisor relationships. Examples of these solutions included: 

What Was Not: Unlike previous Finovate conferences, this Spring's event had a relatively minor number of mobile wallet and rewards platform presentations. There was also much less mention of 'big data' than I expected (thankfully) and virtually no mention of near field communication (NFC).

The Venue: While having visited San Francisco many times, I had never visited the Concourse Exhibition Center. Perfect sized for this event, the elongated shape with multiple levels allowed for 'booth' displays, presentations and food service to flow easily as needed. Unlike many events I attend, the team from Finovate went out of their way to provide ample electricity, uninterrupted WiFi and a number of big screens so that all in attendance didn't miss a thing.

The Format: Bordering on sensory overload, attendees can't let their guard down as the presentations are face-paced and rapid fire coming from two stages to avoid any down time until scheduled breaks. Imagine trying to tell what makes your company special in seven minutes using a demo format as opposed to Powerpoint slides. Jumping from a mobile solution to digital authentication to a crowdfunding platform can be tough to follow if you're not paying attention. As a result, it appeared that everyone was in their seat before each session started and that nobody left until the session was completed.

The Presentation Style: I realized very quickly that if the presenting company didn't discuss the 'why' of their solution before the 'how', they could quickly lose the audience (even in a seven minute demo). In addition, while a bit of humor is rewarded by higher scores, not providing a business case for the solution hurt when the attendees cast their votes. Finally, while the audience definitely was tech-savvy, that didn't mean that the presentation should be tech-heavy. When in doubt, show the user interface as opposed to the back office operations.

Audience Engagement: Maybe I am biased since I am a rather heavy user of Twitter, but I have always wondered why participants in banking conferences don't use this tool to interact, post opinions, etc. This is definitely not the case at Finovate. The audience was not shy to interact with each other (and the presenter) by raising questions, providing support, evaluating the solution, and at times critiquing the presentation. The tweets were not always positive in nature, but it added to the engagement level of the 1300 in attendance.

Finovate Audience Hijacking: In the middle of day two, the Google's annual developer's conference 'hijacked' the Twitter conversation at Finovate, by announcing a new payment option using Gmail. For the next two hours, as details emerged, the Finovate audience provided perspectives on the new solution.

The Power of Networking: While the format of the event certainly is set up for the networking between vendors and banks/investors, the most robust discussions at the event seemed to take place between attendees at breaks, meals, scheduled cocktail hours and after hour events. For many, it seemed to be a twice-a-year meet-up among fintech followers who love to share their thoughts of the show and their takes on innovations that are taking place outside the Finovate walls.

Thanks to several of the friendships I have created over the years who attended FinovateSpring and made my maiden voyage a success.

My Criteria for 'Best of Show': While I have no idea about the vote count, I got 4 out of the 5 'best of show' winners correct based on the following personal criteria:
      • Quality of presentation: Illustrated why their solution had value in a clear style
      • Market need: Did the solution meet a scalable market demand
      • Market ready: Could the solution be rolled out today
      • Evolution vs. Revolution: Is the solution really different
      • 7 minute tweet factor: Volume of positive tweets during the presentation
      • Floor 'buzz': Was there a positive impression beyond the 7 minute presentation
      • Booth traffic: Did attendees want to see more
The Winners: While it was obvious that all 72 presenters put everything they had into their demos at FinovateSpring 2013, the winners really did stand out from the rest in various ways as listed above. It was pretty amazing to see virtually all of the 1300 in attendance who didn't have early planes to catch waiting to see if their favorite would win. When announced, each winner got significantly more than just a round of applause, with many getting very loud (and well deserved) ovations.

The winners in alphabetical order (with their winning 7 minute video presentations) were:
      • FamZoo: Moving beyond a virtual family bank account with educational tools to include a family set of prepaid cards with limits and tools for refunding. The team from FamZoo had one of the longest lines at their booth and had a great deal of positive buzz during and after their presentation.
      • LendUp: Combining gamification with a better alternative to payday loans that will help the underbanked build credit. This was a very unique solution to a problem many FIs are trying to address.
      • MoneyDesktop: A three time Finovate winner, MoneyDesktop wowed the audience by going beyond their highly popular PFM solution to introduce a marketing solution that would leverage the same PFM insight for a powerful targeting and communication tool for financial marketers. Probably because of my marketing background, this was my favorite solution at the show.
      • PayNearMe: With by far the most unique presentation style (think human powerpoint), this solution takes P2P to a new level by allowing for cash payments at convenient retail locations.
      • TipRanks: As described above, this is an independent evaluator of 'buy' recommendations that allows users to determine how accurate tips have been in the past to predict future performance.

While not everything I do once is worth repeating, Finovate is definitely habit forming and worth many more visits. It is one of the best run events in the financial services space and, for the most part, the presenters did an amazing job. 

Living up to the moniker, 'The Disneyland of Fintech', Finovate captures the imagination and overwhelms you with sights and sounds not felt elsewhere. Everyone around you looks like they are having a great time, and you leave the event totally exhausted (in a good way).

Probably the most exciting part of this amazing show is that 80% of the participants change with each event, allowing for a totally unique experience each time you participate. And even if you are not a creator or avid follower of financial service innovations, it is great to network with those who are.

Additional Resources

Live Blog: FinovateSpring 2013 San Francisco by William Mills III: William Mills Agency

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1 comment:

  1. Great recap Jim, it was great to see you there. Hopefully, we'll see you in New York in September!