“What is the technology that can solve homelessness? That can make high quality health care accessible to all? I believe that is the world we should be creating.”
– Brett King
About Brett King
What you will learn
- He gets as much as 1,300 emails daily (03:08)
- Relationships and paying it forward is important to him (04:03)
- But you learn to say no in a nice way (07:35)
- Making sense of rapidly changing FinTech starts at 30,000-foot view (09:08)
- He keeps an eye on application technology and user experience (15:25)
- He predicted the move to mobile wallets but not QR codes (18:31)
- It all started with a blog… (21:50)
- …having a thesis… (25:15)
- …and a strong purpose (27:40)
- Join the conversation and find the value in yourself (33:08)
Brett King: Anytime we get together and talk, it’s always interesting.
Brett: Thanks, Ross.
Ross: You keep across amongst many other things, the edge of FinTech, and far more actually, which we’ll probably get to, and that’s a pretty fast-moving field. How do you keep across change and make sense of it, and understand what’s going on in this rapidly changing space?
Brett: The sheer volume of what’s happening in FinTech now means that I can’t keep across everything, but I can keep across stuff thematically that has emerged over the last 13 years or so since FinTech was a thing. I’ve been running a podcast for eight years, and that’s in the FinTech space. We’re always interviewing startups and players in that space, so that’s a good way to keep you on top of the news, actually interviewing people. Then I have a close group of friends who back in the 2008, 2009, 2010 timeframe, were the early content creators and curators of FinTech related content. Now, they have big followings, so keeping track of what those guys are talking about also helps from a macro perspective. Where I sort of fail is on the email side.
I’ve now got to the point where emails are almost totally useless for me because the volume of emails I’m getting is unmanageabple. I do tend to rely on people messaging me through LinkedIn or Messenger or WhatsApp or text or Twitter direct message, rather than emailing me, just because the volume of content I get through there is now too much to manage. 1200, 1300 emails a day at peak; you just can’t go through that many emails every day. There’s some stuff that I do better than others, but the curated Twitter feed, and the lists I’ve got within Twitter help me hone in on the core news that’s affecting the industry.
Ross: Starting off with talking about the relationships; Relationships are the people you know from way back, and you cannot just follow them on Twitter but have conversations with them, and reaching out to people who want to be interviewed on your show, and building the relationships there. I think part of this is around the quality of the relationships as well as who it is you know?
Brett: Yes, absolutely. That’s true; having people that trust you to deal with their message properly, when you’re in the public space, like I am, as someone that has been a foundational podcast on the FinTech side. The podcast called Breaking Banks came out, not long after the Breaking Bad TV series, you can see why we named it the way we did, but being sort of a vehicle for these people to talk about their startups, express their opinions, and so forth, early in the space gave me some credibility there as a team player.
I’ve also been very serious about paying it forward. I’ve been successful in this space, because of a lot of people who’ve got behind my message and amplified it and so forth. I’m also very aware of my responsibility to do the same for them, so I try and make sure that I’m a good social media partner for these people as well, and can help them get their message across when required or needed, so then when I go and ask them to help me out on occasion or ask them for some input, they’re quite open to it.
I think it is very much that when you’ve got a network like that, you have to keep that network nourished and recognize the value of the key stakeholders.
Ross: So it’s not just about trust, as in trust, they trust you that you’re going to do the right thing with whatever they share with you, which can include, of course, privileged information potentially or other things, but also that you’re actively doing things in their interest and which could be sharing information or other things, which will…
Brett: Yes, even just people being able to ask me for help. One of the areas and I’m sure you probably get this as well, one of the areas I get asked a lot is how they can get on the speaking circuit? How to build a speaking business? Because a lot of them see the stuff that we do, and they’re like, I would love to get paid to speak. Helping people understand how the speaking business works, and what they need as a platform to be able to successfully generate leads for speaking opportunities and all of that, that’s always going to take a bit of time because unless you’re in the industry and initially in the space, you don’t really understand the economics of how that works. That’s one area. Also, often getting asked to connect people with other people in FinTech, that’s another common one.
The other thing is when you start building a profile, and you have the bestselling books, you have the radio show, you also get a lot of people that will connect with you on LinkedIn, or connect with you on Facebook, and next thing, they contact to me saying, hey, I want some help with my business. Often it’ll be something like, you know all the banks, so maybe you could help introduce my company to all these banks. I was like, dude, I run six companies of my own, so being a sales force of one for your product is not really super appealing to me. Having to say that in a nice way, so they don’t get offended is sometimes tough.
One of the challenges is, as you get more time-poor, and there are more demands on your time, giving your time for other people and giving them assistance in that way, you have to be a little bit more selective. I do try at least take a 15-minute call or something like that, where I can, and help these people where I can or where I’ve learned those lessons. I think that’s important to pay it forward in that way.
Ross: So it’s not just information, but the value in many ways that flows in the networks of relationships. I guess it just becomes much more challenging when you’re prominent. I suppose, in a way a conduit for many, for their information being able to get out. You talked before about the themes. FinTech is incredibly complex and multi-layered from payments through crypto to transaction processing.
I don’t think anybody really understands the whole; it’s impossible. It is so rapidly changing, with Defi and so on. So how do you make sense of that? It’s not just about information, of course; it’s about actually building an understanding of what is changing, and from what has been this old establishment of the way money works to the way money is going to work? You mentioned those themes, is that one of the ways in which you pull out and build this understanding?
Brett: Yes, part of it is just taking that as futurists or forecasters, taking that 30,000-foot view and saying where is it that this is going to? Where is it likely to evolve to? When you start looking at things like crypto, Defi, or NFTs, this is an effort to digitize the world, to digitize money, digitize transactions, digitize assets, because we’ve created this digital framework of the internet and e-commerce and so forth on top of that. It’s the natural evolution of money.
Paper money, when it was created back in the 16th century, the first central bank in Sweden was the first issuer of paper notes, the Chinese had leather at some point as well in the past, but the point is, these national fiat currencies were built for value exchange within their geography. Today, the world is opening up into a global commerce platform where commerce can happen in real-time. You’d expect money has to evolve to meet the needs of the 21st century. That’s one part of it.
The other part of it is purely the fact that banking historically has not been accessible to most people on the planet. Up until the year about 2011, I think, you still had a 45% of the world that were unbanked, that never had a bank account. In the United States, 20% of households are still unbanked. Part of that is because of the rules that banks have created about who can access their services. You must have a driver’s license or a passport, you have these hoops that you have to jump through from an identity perspective. Imagine you are a homeless person, you don’t have an address, you don’t have a telephone number, how are you going to get a bank account when you can’t fill out those items on the application form,?
As banking has become more entrenched in regulation around anti money laundering and the Patriot Act, and all of these sorts of things, we ended up inadvertently excluding more and more people from the financial system when it should be the opposite. Then at the same time, you’ve got the smartphone that’s come in, and the smartphone has opened up access to mobile wallets, the equivalent of a bank account in parts of the world. For example, Kenya went from 25% of the adult population having a basic bank account to basically 98% of the population having a mobile money account through M-Pesa. You have these competing mechanisms. There is a heavily regulated industry that is very worried about things like anti money laundering, and customer identification, or know your customer rules and so forth, making it harder and harder to do banking, and then technology coming in, and making it more accessible. Those two worlds have collided and you’ve seen different regulatory approaches to that.
You talk about the different themes. Now we’ve got RegTech, SupTech – SupervisoryTech, and even just within regulation, we’ve got these different flavors of FinTech within that space. You’ve got the crypto environment, you’ve got cryptocurrencies, tokens, ICOs, NFTs, Defi, all of that. Then you’ve got the basic banking stuff, whether that is mobile deposit-taking, mobile money, or mobile wallets. You’ve now got companies like Wise, who have cornered the market on international transfers, that are faster and cheaper than what the banks can do. You’ve got buy now pay later schemes, which are replacing credit cards, providing credit access contextually in a purchase experience. You’ve got so many of these different things happening at once.
The really interesting thing about banking is that, during the .com, they missed the whole e-commerce message; they avoided that. They had branches, agents, and advisors, and they didn’t really want to disrupt that model, so when the internet came along, they resisted digitization, but the smartphone means that we’ve accelerated all of these new models in this space. The rate of change is actually faster than what we anticipated. Then there are the big venture capital raises. Q1 of 2021 was the biggest quarter we’ve ever had for FinTech investments. It shows no sign of slowing. It’s a really interesting space.
Ross: Pulling up to the meta level or the metacognition, taking out the content of finance, and FinTech, and banking, what are the thinking processes that you apply to make sense of those? You talked about some of these countervailing forces of regulation, and technology, and new spaces emerging, and so on, what are your thinking structures as a futurist, which could be applied to any domain, not just Finance?
Brett: One of the areas is the application of technology. Where is technology taking us? What will that technology enable us to do, that we couldn’t do previously? Then you get technology patents that have been in other spaces of our lives, that become design patterns for banking. For example, I can text you a photo or a movie from the other side of the planet, and you’ll get it instantly via SMS. Why does it take three days to send money as an example? That’s one area, application of the technology to make the system more efficient and just work simply better instead of using 1960s or 1970s computers and telegraph lines.
The other aspect that I look at is, and it’s very apparent in the user experience space, particularly with the app world we’ve seen that development, but in the next sphere of this with the application of artificial intelligence, smart speakers, smart assistants, and so forth, it’s removing the friction. What do banks provide for us? This is how I broke it down in bank 4.0. I said, if you look at a bank, and what a bank gives a customer, its three basic core pieces of utility. The ability to safely store money, the ability to safely move money, and the ability to access credit when you can’t afford something. That’s the three core pieces of utility the bank provides.
What the banks have done is they’ve created products that they can distribute through the branch that provides that utility. But what’s happening now is people are stripping away the friction of the branch product layer and figuring out how do we just deliver that core utility to a person when and where they need it? That’s really sitting back and abstracting what it is that banks do, and is there a way for banks to do that more efficiently? Then you apply the regulatory constraints, you apply technology, you apply customer experience development capabilities, the capabilities of app stores and smart speakers, and you just track that on a trajectory in terms of where it’s likely to go.
Ross: Do you do that visually at all or any other ways where you lay this out to try to build out what that structure is?
Brett: One example where I did do it visually, which is in Bank 2.0, my first book in the space, which was released in 2010. I tracked out the uptake of mobile phones and the use of mobile phone technology for payments, to extrapolate where I thought mobile phones would be used more for direct payments or discretionary payments than plastic cards. I predicted 2016, that mobile wallets would overtake plastic cards as a payment vehicle. I was wrong. I was out by a year. Alipay and Tencent and WeChat Pay were really the core movements behind that. We didn’t necessarily see that coming. We thought it might be NFC chips because the NFC would turn your phone into a credit card.
Back in 2010, we thought that NFC might be the vehicle. It turned out to be QR codes and other stuff. The network effect of having mobile phones was too good of a use case for payments that you couldn’t see mobile phones disrupting. That’s something you could actually track on a trajectory basis. Where it’s a bit trickier is on the regulatory side. It is when will regulations adapt to the new reality. Market by the market, that’s very different.
For example, China was very open to competition against the banks in those early stages and that’s why you have these massive tech fins in China that exploded. Ant group at its height before its aborted IPO was worth about $330 billion in terms of market cap valuation, which would have made it the fourth-largest financial services organization in the world if they had listed at that point.
In the US, there’s not even architecture from a regulatory perspective for FinTech businesses. There’s no FinTech charter. Now, the EU has FinTech charters, the UK, Australia, Malaysia, all of these different jurisdictions, Singapore, and so forth, have got that infrastructure, but why hasn’t the US allowed FinTech charters?
That’s more complicated, but it comes down to the fact they’ve got a lot of legacy legal infrastructure, like the Community Reinvestment Act, which is the determination that was made in the 1970s about how financial inclusion should be executed in the US bank branches. If you now introduce a FinTech charter in the US, you now have something that is illegal from the CRA act, so you need to reform that law to be able to enable it. Every market is a little bit different and a little bit harder to predict but on a macro basis, when you zoom out and you look over the space of 10 or 20 years, obviously, you still have that momentum.
Ross: I would like to come back a little bit to “analyzing the macro” but what you’ve just uncovered, this wealth of understanding, of knowledge, about what’s actually happening, not just in one jurisdiction but in many countries around the world, pull back and tell me, how did you learn all this? This is probably podcast interviews, or how much reading do you do? Is this all on your head? Do you have any kind of note-taking system? What is this process by which you’ve accumulated this wealth of knowledge?
Brett: I used to write a blog every week before I did the radio show. I used to write a blog every week, and I’d write about the space, and often for doing 1000 words on a blog, I would have to spend three, four, or five hours researching the topic. If any of the people listening to this interview have read my books in the past, you’ll see that I do a ton of research associated with these elements because that helps me sound down the ideas. Sometimes that research will take me off in a different direction. I might have a thesis in my head, and the research challenges that thesis, and I’ve got to rethink it. That process of research, synthesizing that information, and coming up with a concept around that is key.
The other thing was, as you said, interviewing different people, watching that stream of consciousness as this FinTech movement started with all these different players. There were networking events and conferences and stuff that I would go to, that have now and historically become nexus for a lot of this stuff.
SWIFT is the international payments organization that runs an annual conference called Sibos. At Sibos, back in the early days, there was a group called Innotribe, the innovation tribe. I would go to these events annually and meet these new startup founders. That’s where I met Vitalik Buterin who’s behind Ethereum. It’s where I met the guys that founded Wise. It’s where I met the guys that founded many of these startups over the years, the Blockchain and Bitcoin guys, and so forth, so it’s a combination of things.
In terms of note-keeping or record keeping, I don’t really keep a catalog of these ideas, but I do find that when I write about stuff, I tend to remember it. If it’s something important, I’ll write a blog post or something like that, that’s part of the process of me remembering that information. The other advantage I’ve got is now I’ve been in this space for 10 years plus so I’ve seen that evolution. I can talk about why things have evolved in that way because I’ve been watching it each step of the way, and there is a potential inference that you can get from that in terms of where you’re going to go from here, so you go looking for data again to support that thesis.
Ross: Absolutely. I think blog writing or book writing forces you to do your research, you have to go dig. You mentioned this idea of having a thesis. Having a thesis is something which forces you to do the research, you say, Okay, I want to support this, and then maybe you find that it hasn’t there; part of the point there is that you want a thesis, which you’re not too wedded to. It is something which then provides you a starting point to find the information, which suggests what is happening.
Brett: I think this won’t be a surprise to you. If you look at my basic thesis, I’m a techno-optimist. I think technology can solve a lot of the problems that the world faces. There’s often that lens that I put to it, what is the technology we’ve got that can solve homelessness? What is the technology that can make high-quality health care accessible to all? Now, I’ll go looking for things to support that thesis, because I believe that’s the world we should be creating. Often, it doesn’t necessarily work like that because there are other forces or mechanisms, but that tends to be at the core of what I’m doing.
The other element of this is also helping people navigate through these changes. That’s another core thing. Most people don’t think exponentially, they can barely think linearly when it comes to something that’s going to happen in 10 or 20 years’ time. “It’s too abstract. It’s too far away for me to worry about”. The problem with that very immediate short-term thinking that humans have, the next quarter, the next annual results, the next four-year election term, whatever it may be, that’s about the extent of where we do our forward planning. As a result, there’s a lot of chaos that develops with that, because we don’t plan how to get ourselves through these periods of disruption. When I talk about disruption, and how it’s going to affect your business, and what you should do, I’m trying to help people just absorb the reality of how this is going to change their world, and get them used to that so that they’re more adaptable when these changes come down the pipe.
Ross: There’s obviously some strong purpose in what you’re doing, I would like to hear a little bit about that. How did you become a techno-optimist? And how have you framed your purpose in what is your work, what you’re doing, and how you’re communicating?
Brett: It’s a complicated question. Part of it comes to my upbringing. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. I’m not as active in that religion as I once was. They have a belief of the future, not an afterlife per se because they believe that the earth is going to be converted into a paradise. That optimism, that we could live in harmony with the planet, and live in harmony with animals and all of that, conceptually, that was a very nice ideal to have. We seem to be getting further and further away from that with climate change, pollution, and things like that.
Obviously, then I’m looking for what’s the ideal? Or what’s the mechanism that could get us to a better lifestyle for humanity? The aspirational element? Part of that is what technologies can we apply. Also, I read and watched a lot of sci-fi as a kid, and when I looked at sci-fi, a lot of sci-fi was dystopian. You have the Star Trek universes and stuff like that. But I was like, how can we avoid that? How can we avoid the mistakes that might obviously lead us down a dystopian path? What could we do to optimize the chances that humanity has as species? So very philosophical, like what is the purpose of humanity? What are we here to accomplish? What are we here to do?
When you look at Aristotle and the great thinkers of the past, they all grappled with this question. I don’t think it’s money, I don’t think it’s capitalism per se. I think that system is largely an abstraction. We humans could easily survive without money if we just set our mind to it. Money creates all of this activity around generating returns and profits, and all of these other things, which complicates that core mission of what humans could accomplish in my view. It’s not an optimal form of humanity.
Now, capitalists will argue that we’ve had tremendous innovation through the capitalist movement. That’s true, but at the same time, it’s a mechanism that creates competition against each other. Companies competing against each other, nations competing against each other for trade and GDP, and so forth. Whereas, if we were competing for humanity, then I think we’d make very different decisions in respect to how we deploy resources, for example.
That optimism from sci-fi and so forth, it became for me short-term sci-fi but what do we do at those inflection points throughout history? How do we respond to these changes? How do we create mechanisms that encourage advances that are going to be good for everybody or broader social good? How do we push back against things that create greater inequality, greater disparity, and so forth? That has become the mission over the last few years. Again, how do we use technology to make the world a better place? But ultimately, in 10,000 years, where’s humanity going to end up? And what are we going to have accomplished? And if that’s the case, if we could get there, then what are we doing about it today to ensure that humanity has the best chance whatsoever?
You look at guys like Elon Musk when he talks about becoming a multi-planetary species and all of those sorts of things, I think that’s exciting. I think the potential of being able to live longer lives with longevity treatments, I think that’s tremendously exciting. I think people should have the option, the ability to have highly automated societies where we don’t have to work as much, and we can pursue learning, or play, or travel, or whatever. I think it’s all positive. That’s within our grasp but we have to make a decision collectively to go after it.
Ross: If you’re talking 10,000 years, then that’s suitably a macro frame.
Ross: There’s that idea, that’s the inspiring perspective. Thanks, Brett. Just to round out, what would be your advice to someone who’s looking to keep across an incredibly fast-changing space? For example, what’s happening in finance? What would your advice be as to how they should be aware of what’s going on and make sense of it?
Brett: Obviously, if you’re in a specific discipline, find the top 10 or 20 people in that discipline, who were thought leaders, who publish or regularly produce content in that space. There are tons of ways to access that content now, YouTube, TikTok, etc. Just plug into their stream of consciousness, because that’s how you’ll initially get up to speed. The greatest way to really refine your skills in that space is to attempt to put yourself in the middle of that conversation yourself, refine your message so you can talk about a unique perspective on that play or that specific industry that others might have missed.
Find the value for yourself in that dynamic, because once you do that, that creates massive enthusiasm. If you can carve out for yourself a platform where other people are listening to you, and you’re changing the minds of other people, that’s incredibly empowering. I know you’ve experienced this as well Ross when you’re in front of an audience, and we’re doing less of this physically these days, more virtually, it doesn’t matter, but when you’re in front of a physical audience, at least a few hundred people, and they come in with preconceptions about their space, and you’re able to take them through a thinking process where you change their mind, or you give them a realization, or they have an Aha! moment, and you’re able to see the light come on as you’re speaking, that’s incredibly powerful.
I do think I chase those moments. Informing people is one thing, but getting people to go, Wow, I never really thought about it like that, and then that changes the way they think, or maybe takes their career in a different trajectory; For me, that’s just one of the most powerful things in terms of what I can do as a contribution to society.
Ross: Absolutely. In order to get that you’ve got to come up with those perspectives, I suppose.
Brett: Exactly. You got to be well researched, you got to be able to defend your position, you have to be able to explain both sides of the argument, all of those things that come. Look for those opportunities, look for where you can insert yourself in the conversation, and provide value.
Ross: Thanks, Brett. It has been such a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for your insights.
Brett: You are very welcome, Ross. Great to work with you, as always, and hope to see you down in Oz soon. I know the lockdowns and everything is pretty crazy right now, but hopefully, things will start to improve.
Ross: We’ll be moving around more before long, fingers crossed.