Thursday, 28 August 2008

Pawnbroking Gets the Web Treatment

Kudos to Paul Aitken, Founder and CEO of Borro for spotting the gap in the secured loans market and cracking the process to support online pawnbroking in a way that people find usable.

For the cynics amongst you, this is not a ploy to prey on the overindebted. As the Channel 4 found, 50% of the customers have never been to a high street pawnbroker, and about the same are "middle class".

Pawning a souvenir or heirloom for a few months clearly seems preferable to persuading a bank to fund a short term gap in your cash flow.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

"Platform" as "Markets"?

A hat tip to The Bankwatch for pointing out Umair Haque's interesting post "What Apple Knows That Facebook Doesn't".

My sense is that there's really not much in this, and there are more similarities between the Apple and Facebook approaches than substantive differences.

I understand Umair to be saying that Apple has adopted a "market" business strategy, whereas Facebook is taking a "platform" approach. Apple facilitates an increase in flexibility and utility for its customers, while Facebook channels its users into functionality of its choosing and exposes them to advertising. Apple will dominate, Facebook is somehow doomed. Specifically, Apple's approach will alter the basis of competition, irrevocably alter the market by unleashing a domino effect and open the value chain to myriad new entrants.

But how does this improve on O'Reilly's explanation that the success of Web 2.0 businesses stems from their "architecture of participation"? He sees the internet as a "platform" but with a different set of rules for success. So it seems we should see platforms as a feature of markets or certain market phases, rather than "platforms as markets", as Umair would have it. Perhaps this is nothing more than saying that markets consolidate around 2 or 3 large participants (platforms?) and fragment again over time.

And you could easily switch Umair's examples.

Facebook has actually made the internet and internet technology more usable for people who want to network, socially or otherwise. Yes, there are crappy apps, but VC's are funding some of those because of their ability to acquire signficant numbers of users overnight, hence the notion of the Facebook economy. It may be hype, to some extent, but what VC-fest isn't? The basis of competition has changed, because you can launch a business today with a tenth of the funding you needed 3 years ago. The domino effect might be seen in the way incumbents are forced to enter the social network services space and in the numbers of start-ups and early phase businesses relying on low-cost services like cloud computing to reduce their "burn", helping making those services viable in turn. Similarly, Facebook is encouraging new entrants, and opening up the long tail of apps and content for all those niche communities you see in the groups.

Apple, on the other hand, sought to make its iPod and now the iPhone the dominant platform in its space. Apple drip-feeds new functionality, new versions and content deals with the majors as a way of trapping people on those platforms. The result is a standards war between device manufacturers, by any other name, and it's boring for anyone who wants truly interoperable mobile applications and music that will play on any device.

Actually, I sense that the approaches of Facebook and Apple may be more similar than different. Each has created an architecture of participation, and time will tell which is more successful at sustaining it - perhaps both will be.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

How to Keep Biking Down to a Sweet Roar

Keen bikers might shake their heads in disbelief, but I've been guilty of denial and procrastination over this since Jan '02, when I began blasting out along the M1 to Watford every weekday on an 1150GS. Boy does that wind howl in your ears at... ahem... 70mph.

Ear plugs seemed an obvious solution. But the little yellow foam ones had a habit of popping out en route. So I took myself down to Ultimate Ear within a few short weeks and got some custom-fitted silicone ones like rock musicians had begun to wear. They take out the high frequency stuff, but allow you to hear that some jerk has crept into your blindspot before it's too late.

But even with industrial-deafness averted, I still wanted to kill a bit more of that wind noise.

I threw money at the problem and got a larger, adjustable "Adventure" screen fitted to my GS. But when I traded that bike for a twin-spark version in late '03, I wasn't sufficiently persuaded by the results to transfer the larger screen to the new GS. My commute to Watford ended in early '04, so I stopped searching. But after 8,000 miles of pootling around West London I'm now commuting along the M4. Having taken a fresh look at wind noise reduction, I thought it might be helpful to share the results...

The science is important, of course, and Mike Lower and a team from the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research has found that even riders with enormous windscreens adopt unhelpful preferred riding positions from a wind noise standpoint - mainly because the windscreens can't be kept clean and clear enough to look through. So, on any motorcycle travelling more than 35mph:

"The main noise source was the turbulent flow from the top of the windscreen. The turbulence hits the helmet at a position somewhere between the neck or the top of the visor depending upon the windscreen's height. This position determines whether improvements to the sealing round the neck or improvements to the visor and its sealing and hinges will be more effective at reducing noise. Noise reductions up to 8 dB were achieved by simple helmet modifications or treatments. The lowest levels at the ear were obtained under earplugs and under a flying helmet containing earmuffs with active noise reduction."
While I'm just over 6'4" and my head seems way above the standard 1150 GS screen, the wind off the top actually only strikes the top of my visor. But it's the wind that hits my shoulders from the sides of the screen that seems to be worst, and that may be getting under the helmet to cause some of the noise. So how to keep it out?

An article on Webbikeworld recommended the Windjammer II as the best and longest wearing means of sealing the gap around your neck (though in winter the "elephant's foreskin" must help). But a comment on the article from a fellow Shoei helmet owner suggested that the Windjammer may not be that well adapted to Shoei's, and recommended the Shoei "chin curtain" at £7.99. I promptly ordered one. Fitting it to my XR900 was less than intuitive (don't be afraid to wedge the middle plastic "tongue" and the plastic "skirt" between helmet and helmet lining), but it has definitely cut the wind noise to some degree. It also raises the threshold at which the wind becomes louder than the engine to about 50mph instead of 35mph.

Meanwhile, I've also investigated the after-market in windscreens that are wider as well as a bit taller than the one I have. BMW will sell me an Adventure screen for about £196, including the screen blocks, but it's only about an inch larger all round, and didn't seem to make enough of a difference in the past. An MRA "Vario" will set me back about £106. Discussion forums talk about additional "winglets", but it's not all that clear that these are necessary. The rather fulsome X-tall Aeroflow will set me back £390, since it has to come from the US, via a French distributor. Finally, Cee Bailey of the US will send their biggest screen for about £240, just under half of which is for the shipping.

I've since ordered and fitted the MRA Vario, having seen generally good comments around the web, and discussed the why's and wherefor's briefly with Giles at HPS, the UK distributors.

I considered a here's-me-hands-free-on-the-M4-"Jackass"-style video clip for proof, but have contented myself with a shot of the the MRA Vario screen from HPS, in situ.

At last, I can hear that flat-twin Boxer at speed, instead of the wind.

Job done!

Friday, 22 August 2008

Too Many Snouts in the Bank Charges Trough

Some bank customers are understandably frustrated when it comes to refunds of what they regard as excessive charges. So the last thing they need is to pay needlessly to have their complaint resolved. Yet that is precisely what some customers are at risk of doing.

The Financial Ombudsman Service offers a financial services dispute resolution service that is free of charge to consumers. Thanks to some sensible increases in its remit, FOS can handle virtually all consumer financial services complaints these days, including those related to consumer credit.

True, the banks have diverted the specific issue of excessive overdraft charges to the courts, and are now dragging the whole process to the House of Lords. That means a long wait for most of the customers affected. But the Financial Ombudsman will still deal with complaints about overdraft fees for those customers in financial difficulty, and the delay doesn't affect complaints about other types of charges - like credit card default fees - which FOS is still handling.

So it's troublesome to see certain claims managers and law firms, advertising themselves as able to recover these charges for a fee, without any reference that I could see to the free service offered by the Financial Ombudsman Service. A bit rich from claims managers in particular, considering that they are responsible for 18% of claims referred to the Financial Ombudsman! Note, too, that in February 2008 there were 427 claims managers operating in the "financial products" space, with a total turnover of £68m - all additional cost and friction that the Financial Ombudsman is designed to avoid.

And watch out for the fine print. One claims manager debits its customer's credit card for all their "Service Charges" as soon as any amount of refund is obtained. Is it possible that a customer could owe more in service charges to the claims manager than the amount of the refund?

Time, you would've thought, for some joined up activity from the Ministry of Justice (which now regulates claims managers), the Office of Fair Trading (which regulates consumer credit) and the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (does what it says on the tin). These complaints should be resolved at minimum cost to the consumer. The best escalation path for any complaint should be from the bank's own complaints process to FOS. Heaven forbid the lawyers need to get involved, but we are here as a last resort. I don't see what value "claims managers" add in this sector.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Are You Dealing With Introverts or Extroverts?

Interesting piece on Mashable recently, suggesting that most social networkers are in fact introverts. That means they are driven by their own thoughts and feelings, whereas extroverts are driven by external interaction (I think you could be neither - i.e. somewhere in between on the continuum - but not simply "both", as the Mashable poll suggested).

For any online service provider this begs the question whether your customers are introverts, extroverts or neither, and how you should manage your marketing and communications for each type. However, assuming your objective is to generate passion and connection amongst your customers as a community, then perhaps its better to view your staff and customers as a team comprising all types who need to get along.

Further, as Idea points out, the introvert/extrovert dichotomy is but one aspect of personality and how personalities interact in a team scenario:
"In the Myers-Briggs assessment, personality characteristics are categorized along four continuums: Introvert/Extrovert; Sensing/Intuition; Thinking/Feeling; and Judging/Perceiving....
Whereas introverted team members need extroverts to initiate spontaneous verbal discussions, extroverts value an introvert’s capability for problem solving based on careful reflection and consideration of all ideas....

intuitive members need sensing personalities to remind them of facts and limitations. Conversely, sensing individuals need intuitive members to remind them to think outside of the box....

As team members, thinkers are effective in articulating logical reasons behind decisions, while feelers can bring people together....

A team needs the right mix of judging and perceiving personalities to ensure adaptability as well as adherence to project boundaries and deadlines."
Now I don't want to stifle debate, but some takeaways might be:
  1. An extrovert staffer could be asked to initiate discussions and debates, but might need to take some care to leave the discussion and conclusion open to engage the introverts;
  2. Provide opportunities for people to think outside the box;
  3. Articulate not only the reasons for decisions but also acknowledge how the decisions make people feel;
  4. Demonstrate flexibility, but set expectations about any constraints on flexibility, like resources and deadlines.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Getting Your Tencent's Worth?

A great blog by Chris Skinner on QQ coins and their role in the future of money. The numbers are extraordinary indeed, leading me to wonder whether certain of the - ahem - "retailers" using the service aren't opening a unique account each time they issue QQ coins to fund a particular transaction?

One also wonders how well the service will weather the alleged Chinese government crack-down reported by Dark Diamond.

Somewhat nervously, I found it interesting to compare QQ coins to the characteristics that I told some RCA students would mark successful financial services innovation:
"1. The service is unlikely to be offered or facilitated by an entity that consumers perceive to be an “institution”;

2. The service solves the root cause of consumers’ critical need in the course of actual or desired activities, linking with trusted third parties to provide a comprehensive consumer experience;

3. The service leverages a shock amongst consumers who subsequently accept that the world has changed, yet helps them to embrace that change;

4. The service leaves day-to-day control of the management of money with the consumer;

5. The service improves rapidly with user collaboration, giving value beyond the facilitator;

6. The service will remain successful so long as the facilitator continues to invest in enhancing the service and meeting related consumer needs rather than seeking merely to enrich itself (i.e. preferring to meet the needs of stakeholders other than consumers);

7. The service is safe, easy to use, and involves communications that are fair, transparent (enabling ready comparison) and neither misleading nor patronising;

8. The service and its operator plays well with the regulators and public policy/opinion-formers."

I sense from Dark Diamond's numerous allegations that, if those allegations are true, QQ coins will prove a little rubbery in terms of 6, 7 and 8, pending the outcome of the alleged Chinese government intervention. But I guess PayPal weathered a similar kind of storm, and even eGold was entitled to remain in business, albeit subject to the laws it and certain of its directors had flouted.

So definitely worth watching that space, as well as how Tencent's western versions, like QQ Games are taken up.

You Can Turn Back the Clock - Mens Sana in Corpore Sano

Yesterday, after 3 years, I finally managed to repeat the same triathlon event on behalf of Prostate UK - the aptly-named Prostate UK Castle Combe Rowing Triathlon (excellently organised as usual by Will Whitmore at DB Max).

So I was keen to find out if I'd improved on the previous one - if I'd turned back the clock.

It was a very near thing, as you can see. But I did it, literally, 'on the run' (NOTE: this year's run time included T2 transition from the bike)


3k row


20k cycle


3k run














15:20 (incl T2)

Comparing the training regimes, year-on-year, I'd have to put the improvement down to last month's consumption of booze and cigars at Henley Regatta...

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Employers: Underreact to Staff Social Network Case

Laurie Kaye reports on a recent case, Hays v Ions, where an ex-employee has had to reveal the data from his LinkedIn account to his former employer. The reason?

"Hays had encouraged Mr Ions to use the LinkedIn services for the purposes of his employment. However, the Court decided this did not constitute authorisation to use the information gathered and stored on his LinkedIn account after he had left Hays."
So Mr Ions was ordered to disclose:
- the business contacts on his LinkedIn page which had been requested by Hays;
- all emails sent to or received by his LinkedIn account from Hays' computer network;
- all documents that indicated his use of the LinkedIn contacts and any business obtained from them."
While employers need to be clear with employees about what is confidential and what is not, let's not rush to amend staff handbooks to deal specifically with social network services in this respect. That would infringe the 'principle' (adage) that a "hard case makes bad law".

This decision does not extend the ordinary obligation on any employee to respect his or her employer's confidentiality. It is clear from the decision that the employee was found to have agreed to use LinkedIn in the course of his employment; in the course of doing so he sent, received and stored confidential information; and then accessed or otherwise used that information outside the employment relationship. That LinkedIn was involved is irrelevant. The result would have been the same (though less topical) if the employee had used a third party email account for the same purpose.
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