Finance is littered with the graves of startups that have tried to do social. Remember, Kaching, Cake Financial, Robinhood.io? Everyone has failed.
But this has not deterred a new crop of fintech entrepreneurs from throwing their hats into the ring. Venture capitalists again are pouring money into these startups. And it is likely to end in tears.
Network economics do work
Don’t confuse social with network economics or marketplaces. Finance has been at both for centuries. Look at banks building out branch networks or traders coming together at commodity and stock exchanges.
In the last 100 years, finance has combined network economics and technology to change the way we live for the better. Think of Visa’s network of partner banks or the brilliance of ATM machines.
Recently, fintech startups have embraced network economics to bring us peer-to-peer successes like LendingClub and Kickstarter. They have spawned hundreds of look-a-like firms in every country in the world. But none of these businesses are “social.” There is no Facebook of finance. There is no finance on Facebook.
Who’s in the graveyard?
Two of today’s best known fintech success stories started in “social.”
Wealthfront used to be called Kaching. Its mantra was not about passive investing, but quite the opposite. Kaching wanted to create a social-network for like-minded investors to trade stock ideas. Robinhood with its zero-commission trades today, started as robinhood.io, a near identical business to Kaching where you followed the smartest investors in the community.
But they aren’t the only ones to abandon “social.” Yahoo and MSN used to have bulletin boards back in the first dot-com boom. Cake Financial, founded in 2006, burned through $10 million before whimpering into E*Trade’s arms.
Niches and zombies
Today there are less than a handful of “social” platforms that can be called moderately successful. But none are household names, like Bloomberg, Fidelity or Schwab.
What’s even more telling is that the niche players are from right across the fintech landscape.
In the stock market, StockTwits is the leader in social. But it has 580k monthly users versus CNBC’s 8.4 million. It’s been stagnant since 2012 and has failed to expand its model outside the U.S. In a recent bust-up, it bagged a high-profile executive from CNBC to be its CEO, only to see him quit and return to CNBC in less than a year.
In currency trading, Cyprus-based eToro leads the funding race, with $60 million raised, including a recent $27 million round led by a Russian bank’s VC arm and a Chinese insurance company. Their website talks of 4 million users in 140 countries. But eToro has yet to find a way to open up in the United States. Their core product, called CFDs, is regulated out of existence in the US.
In asset management, Covestor lets you copy other people’s portfolios. It’s been running since 2005, raised $24m from VC royalty at Union Square Ventures and Amadeus Capital. But with just $100 million in assets after five years, and a lifetime value per customer well below their $700+ acquisition cost, they fell into the arms of its custodian, Interactive Brokers.
Unfettered VC optimism
But VCs and entrepreneurs aren’t concerned.
The list of new entrants hoping to bring social to finance is huge. A few notables include: Bux, ClosingBell, Darwinex, Harvest, InvestFeed, Invstr, MeetInvest, Nvestly, Openfolio, Stockfuse, Thinkum, Tipdoff, TradingView, Tradeo, Vetr and Vuru.
Of these, perhaps the leader to date is Openfolio. They’ve persuaded 25k people to connect their portfolios to the service so they rate your portfolio and then share it with the community.
But it’s early days for all these firms, and we are in a bull market, so until the tide goes out, we won’t know who’s wearing shorts.
The barriers to “social“
The barriers to “social” in fintech are clearly visible. A recent analysis of Facebook Ads by Salesforce.com shows Finance ads to have one of the lowest click-through rates at 0.2 percent. That’s even lower than the automotive industry and only slightly higher than online deals companies like Groupon. Culturally, people are not sharing openly about their finances.
This is because no one trusts a cold-caller offering investment advice. Films like Boiler Room and the Wolf of Wall Street, come to mind. So why would you trust a stranger on the Internet?
TV channels like CNBC and Fox Business are full of talking heads, sharing financial advice. It seems that investors do not want to replicate the same noisy experience online.
But could social work?
Perhaps. And for once, we consumer jockeys need to look to the B2B market for the answer. There is a dominant social network for investing, but it’s just for the professionals.
The joke in finance is that the Bloomberg terminal is the most expensive social network in the world at $2,500 a month. There’s truth to the joke. It’s been a winner-takes-all market. Reuters failed in the last decade to build an alternative network. And more recently in 2013, Markit partnered with every leading investment bank and competitor of Bloomberg and tried again. But it failed in less than a year.
So what is Bloomberg’s secret? Bloomberg never led with its messaging platform. The data and analysis was key to its early success. Sharing that data and analysis is the core use of its messaging service. The service is private and secure, and who you interact with is of your own making. What you interact about is driven by data and analytics from one of the most credible companies in the world. Bloomberg’s data is integral to its messaging platform.
For social to find a place in finance, it needs to learn from Bloomberg. People don’t need a new way to communicate with each other or share investment ideas. They need a way to come up with new ideas and validate them with the people they trust.
Anything else is likely to join the rather large graveyard.