Showing posts with label crowdfunding. Show all posts
Showing posts with label crowdfunding. Show all posts

Friday, 29 November 2013

Building Creative Commons: The Five Pillars of Open Source Finance

AHOY, THERE BE A CLOSED SYSTEM TO OPEN

This is an article about Open Source Finance. It's an idea I first sketched out at a talk I gave at the Open Data Institute in London. By 'Open Source Finance', I don't just mean open source software programmes. Rather, I'm referring to something much deeper and broader. It's a way of framing an overall change we might want to see in the financial system. To illustrate this, I set up an analogy between computer systems and economic systems, and I then explore what financial 'code' might be. I then sketch out the five pillars that could underpin an open finance movement.




Computer systems as economies
Computer systems are great metaphors for economic systems. That's because, in a sense, a computer is a microcosm of our economy, albeit one that is a lot more predictable and controllable. Economies, at some basic level, are based upon people using energy to extract useful stuff from the earth, using tools, procedures, systems of rules and labour to activate the earth's productive potential. Likewise, computer systems rely on taking inputs of energy (the computer plugged into the electricity grid) and combining it with software code (a kind of abstraction of human organisation), in order to activate the assemblage of physical hardware (signifying a latent productive potential) towards productive tasks, when willed to do so by a user of the computer.

We constantly interact with computers, but most people in the world do not perceive themselves as programmers of computers. They mostly perceive themselves as users of computers that others have programmed. And even if they wanted to dig deeper, they'd find that much of the software they use is proprietary, locked up in secretive, opaque, even obfuscated formations. Windows looks like a friendly interface, but you cannot see what it does, or how it does it. It's a useful intermediary interface between you and the inner workings of your computer, but it's also a hard-shelled barrier.


The Financial Status Quo: Power concentrated in intermediaries


Software code is the organising rule system that steers energy into activating hardware towards particular ends. So, extending this as an analogy, what might financial 'code' look like? A financial system, in a basic sense, is supposed to arrange for surplus resources (extracted from the earth), to be redistributed (in the form of money) via financial instruments (often created by financial intermediaries like banks and funds), into new economic production activities ('investments'), in exchange for a return over time.

Here, for example, is a rough financial circuit: A person manages to earn a surplus of money (a symbolic claim on real things in the world), which they deposit into a pension fund, which in turns invests in shares and bonds (which are conduits to the real world assets of a corporation), which in turn return dividends and interest over time back to the pension fund, and finally back to the person.

Shares and bonds are extractive financial conduits that plug into a corporate structure, but if you look for how they are coded, you'd discover they are built from legal documents that are informed by regulations, acts of parliament, and social norms. They are supported by IT systems and all manner of payments systems and auxiliary services.

But it takes more than clearly-worded documentation to be able to create financial instruments. The core means of financial production, by which we mean the things that allow people to produce financial services (or build financial instruments), includes having access to networks of investors and companies, having access to specialist knowledge of financial techniques, and having access to information. It's these elements that banks and other financial intermediaries really compete over: They battle to monopolise relationships, monopolise information, and to monopolise specialist knowledge of financial techniques.

And indeed, that's why production of financial services mostly occurs within the towering concrete skycrapers of the 'financial sector', spinners of the webs of the code that is mostly unknown to most people. We have very little direct access to the means of financial production ourselves, very little say in how financial institutions choose to steer money in society, and very little ability to monitor them.

We have, in essence, a situation of concentration of power in financial intermediaries, who in turn reinforce and seek to preserve that power structure. And while I may be happy to accept a concentration of power in small specialist industries like Swiss watchmaking, a concentration of power in the system responsible for redistributing human society's collective resources into new investments is not a good thing. It's systematically breaking our planetary hardware by steering money into destructive activities, whilst helping to fuel a culture of bland individualistic materialism in increasingly atomised communities.


Opening access, reconnecting emotion, liberating creativity


The Open Source movement started with software - and in particular with the concept of copyleft and free licensing - but the principles extend far past software. At core, Open Source is a philosophy of access: access to the underlying code of a system, access to the means of producing that code, access to usage rights of the resultant products that might be created with such code, and (in keeping with the viral quality of copyleft) access to using those products as the means to produce new things. Perhaps the ethos is best illustrated with the example of Wikipedia. Wikipedia has:
  1. A production process that encourages participation and a sense of common ownership: We can contribute to Wikipedia. In other words, it explicitly gives us access to the means of production
  2. A distribution process that encourages widespread access to usage rights, rather than limited access: If you have an internet connection you can access the articles. We might call this a commons
  3. An accountability model that offers the ability to monitor and contest changes: An open production process is also one that is more transparent. You can change articles, but people can monitor and contest your changes
  4. A community built around it that maintains the ethic of collaboration and continued commitment to open access. It's more than just isolated individuals, it's a culture with a (roughly) common sense of purpose
  5. Open source code that can be accessed and altered if the current incarnation of Wikipedia doesn't suit all your needs. Look, for example, at RationalWiki and SikhiWiki
You can thus take on five conceptually separate, but mutualistic roles: Producer, consumer, validator, community member, or (competitive or complementary) breakaway. And these same five elements can underpin a future system of Open Source Finance. I'm framing this as an overall change we might want to see in the financial system, but perhaps we are already seeing it happening. So let's look briefly at each pillar in turn.


Pillar 1: Access to the means of financial production

Very few of us perceive ourselves as offering financial services when we deposit our money in banks. Mostly we perceive ourselves as passive recipients of services. Put another way, we frequently don’t imagine we have the capability to produce financial services, even though the entire financial system is foundationally constructed from the actions of small-scale players depositing money into banks and funds, buying the products of companies that receive loans, and culturally validating the money system that the banks uphold. Let’s look though, at a few examples of prototypes that are breaking this down:
  1. Peer-to-peer finance models: If you decide to lend money to your friend, you directly perceive yourself as offering them a service. P2P finance platforms extend that concept far beyond your circle of close contacts, so that you can directly offer a financial service to someone who needs it. In essence, such platforms offer you access to an active, direct role in producing financial services, rather than an indirect, passive one.
  2. There are many interesting examples of actual open source financial software aimed at helping to fulfil the overall mission of an open source financial system. Check out Mifos and Cyclos, and Hamlets (developed by Community Forge's Matthew Slater and others), all of which are designed to help people set up their own financial institutions
  3. Alternative currencies: There’s a reason why the broader public are suddenly interested in understanding Bitcoin. It’s a currency that people have produced themselves. As a member of the Bitcoin community, I am much more aware of my role in upholding – or producing – the system, than I am when using normal money, which I had no conscious role in producing. The scope to invent your own currency goes far beyond crypto-currencies though: local currencies, time-banks, and mutual credit systems are emerging all over
  4. The Open Bank Project is trying to open up banks to third party apps that would allow a depositor to have much greater customisability of their bank account. It's not aimed at bypassing banks in the way that P2P is, but it's seeking to create an environment where an ecosystem of alternative systems can plug into the underlying infrastructure provided by banks


Pillar 2: Widespread distribution
Financial intermediaries like banks and funds serve as powerful gatekeepers to access to financing. To some extent this is a valid role - much like a publisher or music label will attempt to only publish books or music that they believe are high quality enough - but on the other hand, this leads to excessive power vested in the intermediaries, and systematic bias in what gets to survive. When combined with a lack of democratic accountability on the part of the intermediaries, you can have whole societies held hostage to the (arbitrary) whims, prejudices and interests of such intermediaries. Expanding access to financial services is thus a big front in the battle for financial democratisation. In addition to more traditional means to building financial inclusion - such as credit unions and microfinance - here are two areas to look at:

  • Crowdfunding: In the dominant financial system, you have to suck up to a single set of gatekeepers to get financing, hoping they won’t exclude you. Crowdfunding though, has expanded access to receiving financial services to a whole host of people who previously wouldn’t have access, such as artists, small-scale filmmakers, activists, and entrepreneurs with no track record. Crowdfunding can serve as a micro redistribution system in society, offering people a direct way to transfer wealth to areas that traditional welfare systems might neglect
  • Mobile banking: This is a big area, with important implications for international development and ICT4D. Check out innovations like M-Pesa in Kenya, a technology to use mobile phones as proto-bank accounts. This in itself doesn’t necessarily guarantee inclusion, but it expands potential access to the system to people that most banks ignore


Pillar 3: The ability to monitor
Do you know where the money in the big banks goes? No, of course not. They don’t publish it, under the guise of commercial secrecy and confidentiality. It’s like they want to have their cake and eat it: “We’ll act as intermediaries on your behalf, but don’t ever ask for any accountability”. And what about the money in your pension fund? Also very little accountability. The intermediary system is incredibly opaque, but attempts to make it more transparent are emerging. Here are some examples:

  • Triodos Bank and Charity Bank are examples of banks that publish exactly what projects they lend to. This gives you the ability to hold them to account in a way that no other bank will allow you to do
  • Corporations are vehicles for extracting value out of assets and then distributing that value via financial instruments to shareholders and creditors. Corporate structures though, including those used by banks themselves, have reached a level of complexity approaching pure obsfucation. There can be no democratic accountability when you can’t even see who owns what, and how the money flows. Groups like OpenCorporates and Open Oil though, are offering new open data tools to shine a light on the shadowy world of tax havens, ownership structures and contracts
  • Embedded in peer-to-peer models is a new model of accountability too. When people are treated as mere account numbers with credit scores by banks, the people in return feel little accountability towards the banks. On the other hand, if an individual has directly placed trust in me, I feel much more compelled to respect that


Pillar 4: An ethos of non-prescriptive DIY collaboration
At the heart of open source movements is a deep DIY ethos. This is in part about the sheer joy of producing things, but also about asserting individual power over institutionalised arrangements and pre-established officialdom. Alongside this, and deeply tied to the DIY ethos, is the search to remove individual alienation: You are not a cog in a wheel, producing stuff you don't have a stake in, in order to consume stuff that you don't know the origins of. Unalienated labour includes the right to produce where you feel most capable or excited. 

This ethos of individual responsibility and creativity stands in contrast to the traditional passive frame of finance that is frequently found on both the Right and Left of the political spectrum. Indeed, the debates around 'socially useful finance' are seldom about reducing the alienation of people from their financial lives. They're mostly about turning the existing financial sector into a slightly more benign dictatorship. The essence of DIY though, is to band together, not via the enforced hierarchy of the corporation or bureaucracy, but as part of a likeminded community of individuals creatively offering services to each other. So let's take a look at a few examples of this

  1. BrewDog's 'Equity for Punks' share offering is probably only going to attract beer-lovers, but that's the point - you get together as a group who has a mutual appreciation for a project, and you finance it, and then when you're drinking the beer you'll know you helped make it happen in a small way 
  2. Community shares offer local groups the ability to finance projects that are meaningful to them in a local area. Here's one for a solar co-operative, a pub, and a ferry boat service in Bristol
  3. We've already discussed how crowdfunding platforms open access to finance to people excluded from it, but they do this by offering would-be crowdfunders the chance to support things that excite them. I don't have much cash, so I'm not in a position to actively finance people, but in my Indiegogo profile you can see I make an effort helping to publicise campaigns that I want to receive financing


Pillar 5: The right to fork


The right to dissent is a crucial component of a democratic society. But for dissent to be effective, it has to be informed and constructive, rather than reactive and regressive. There is much dissent towards the current financial system, but while people are free to voice their displeasure, they find it very difficult to actually act on their displeasure. We may loathe the smug banking oligopoly, but we're frequently compelled to use them.

Furthermore, much dissent doesn't have a clear vision of what alternative is sought. This is partially due to the fact that access to financial 'source code' is so limited. It's hard to articulate ideas about what's wrong when one cannot articulate how the current system operates. Most financial knowledge is held in proprietary formulations and obscure jargon-laden language within the financial sector, and this needs to change. It's for this reason that I'm building the London School of Financial Activism, so ordinary people can explore the layers of financial code, from the deepest layer - the money itself - and then on to the institutions, instruments and networks that move it around.

Beyond access to this source code though, we need the ability to act on it. A core principle of OpenSource movements is the Right to Fork. This is the ability to take preexisting code, and to modify it or use it as the basis for your own. The Right to Fork is both a check on power, but also a force for diversity and creativity.

In the mainstream financial system though, there are extensive blocks on the right to fork, many of them actively enforced by financial regulators. They won't allow new banks to start, and apply inappropriate regulation to small, new financial technologies. The battle for the right to fork therefore, is one that has to also be fought at the regulatory level. That's why we need initiatives like the Disruptive Finance Policy program.

The Right to Fork needs to be instilled into the design of any alternatives to mainstream finance too though. I don't want to replace a world where I'm forced to use national fiat currencies with one in which I'm forced to use Bitcoin. The point is to create meaningful options for people. (To the credit of the original designers of Bitcoin, the right to fork has indeed been built in, and there has been significant use of the original Bitcoin sourcecode to create other cryptocurrencies, albeit it takes more to create a currency than merely deploying new code).


Ahoy! We set sail for the Open seas

EXPLORE THE DEEP
We may be in the early phase of a slow-moving revolution, which will only be perceptible in hindsight. As projects within these five pillars emerge, the infrastructure, norms and cultural acceptance for more connected, creative, open financial system may begin to emerge and coalesce into reality.

I hope this article has been of use to you, whether you're looking to design actual open source finance platforms, programs and free software, or pioneer a new element of open access and open data, or whether you're just keen to help beta-test new ideas as they get released. The financial sector is a big heavy conglomerate that is a perfect challenge for the adventurous pirate-meets-hacker-meets-activist-meets-entrepreneur. Please do tell me about anything you're up to, and, in the spirit of Open Source, please do leave suggested amendments to this article in the comments section. I'll try patch them into the next version of this.



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Saturday, 23 March 2013

Kickstarting the gogofactor: Top tips I learned from my crowdfunding campaign

KICKSTART IT BABY
My Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for a finance activism school was a great success. I managed to raise double my initial target, which is a good sign. I also learned a few useful things about the process along the way, which I thought I'd share with people who're thinking about running their own crowdfunding campaigns. Here they are:

Choosing a platform
There are plenty of articles on what crowdfunding platform to choose, so I won't repeat those here in any detail. I used Indiegogo because it offered the flexible funding campaign - which means you get to keep whatever money you receive even if you don't hit your target. That was appropriate for me because the perks I was offering were limited edition copies of my forthcoming book (The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance) and in a sense I was pre-selling them at a premium to fund the School. Thus, even in the event of the campaign failing to hit its target, people still would have ended up with a tangible reward.

What you don't want in the case of a flexible funding campaign is a situation where your campaign doesn't offer a tangible reward (such as a book), and where you don't put sufficient effort in to actually reach your goal, because then you could end up with initial donors feeling like they've given you money for nothing. One reason to consider using a fixed funding platform like Kickstarter (where you have to hit your target to receive any money) is precisely because donors know that their money only gets used if a critical mass of pledges to donate is reached, which psychologically charges the process and demands more of the fundraiser.

Coordinating with Paypal
In terms of fees, Indiegogo takes a 4% fee as long as you hit your target. If you don't hit your target they take a 9% fee. This is supposed to incentivise you to aim for targets that you know you can achieve. In practice, Indiegogo takes a 9% fee directly from your Paypal account every time someone donates, and then once the campaign has finished they rebate money to you so that the fee ends up being 4%.

A few words on Paypal:

  • Firstly, with Indiegogo and other sites, you need a verified Paypal account in order to receive donations. This takes several days to set up, and entails a somewhat mysterious process of entering into a direct debit agreement with Paypal via JP Morgan Chase (hence all the internet queries from people who've found JPMC RE PAYPAL INTL listed in their bank account direct debits). 
  • Secondly, you also have to have a premier (or business) Paypal account - this doesn't cost anything, but it means Paypal can charge you fees for receiving payments. 
  • Thirdly, a few days into my campaign Paypal detected that there were abnormal amounts of transactions occurring and temporarily froze my account. I had to send them documents proving that nothing suspicious was going on, which was annoying and potentially could have slowed down my campaign. So, make sure that you have updated your Paypal account (e.g. by updating your password etc.) and convinced them that you are who you say you are.

Creating a pitch
I spent a lot of time writing my pitch, but my video wasn't really good enough. People didn't mind it, but I made it in a hurry and it could have been more lively and more interesting. I'm an individual trying to raise cash, so perhaps I got away with not having a professional video, but if you can create it, a good video will certainly pay off. In terms of the pitch, Indiegogo gives useful suggestions on what to include in its campaign template. Basically, tell people what you want to do, why you should be the one to do it, how they can help, and what they'll get, and do it in as few words as possible.

Calling in the crowds
COME TO ME MY LOVELIES
The most important part of any crowdfunding campaign is to call in the crowds. You can have a fantastic pitch and awesome video, but ain't nothing going to happen unless you ask individual people to go see your site, and to help you share it (this point is important, because even if someone doesn't feel financially stable enough to contribute, they can certainly help spread the word). Here are six channels I used:
  • Channel 1 - Email: I started out by sending emails. Group emails don't work. Personal emails do. I also used this as a means to contact people who I haven't had a chance to catch up with for a while, so actually this was very useful regardless of whether people contributed or not. I probably sent around 100 personal emails, plus a couple group emails.
  • Channel 2 - LinkedIn: Not everyone is a big LinkedIn user, but I've got 500+ LinkedIn contacts, so this was an important channel for me. I only chose contacts who I wasn't personal friends with in life (I used Facebook for friends) and I sent about 95 personal messages here. I also prioritised this before Facebook, because more distant contacts take longer to respond in general and so need to be contacted earlier. Indeed, I got some contributions via LinkedIn, but mostly it was several days after I sent the messages.
  • Channel 3 - Facebook: I did a big messaging and posting blitz on Facebook. I've got around eight hundred friends on there, and I sent around 460 personal messages to people. Yeah, that sounds like a lot, and it was pretty time-consuming (by the way, I learned that if you send a load of messages on Facebook, they begin to suspect you're a spamming machine, and require you fill out CAPTCHAs to prove you're not, so try space the messages out).
  • Channel 4 - Reddit: I posted the campaign link to Reddit. It didn't seem to work that well, but Reddit is a slightly unknown entity to me that I have not yet mastered. I suspect this could be a pretty amazing tool if you can choose the right sub-reddit and get a campaign voted up a page. It's potentially worth trying other social bookmarking sites like Digg and Stumbleupon, though I know less about how those work
  • Channel 5 - Articles: I wrote a couple articles about this, one on Liberal Conspiracy and another on Max Keiser's site. I also got some coverage from Pluto Press and the Italian site Non Con I Miei Soldi. It's hard to quantify the impact of these, but certainly worth doing.
  • Channel 6 - Twitter: Twitter was a big source of traffic for me. I tweeted from my @suitpossum account regularly, encouraged others to tweet and finally, I sent direct messages to about 200 followers. In the direct messages, I wasn't asking people to donate, I was asking them to tweet the campaign out. That got a lot of twitter coverage for me, which is turn captured a few contributions from people who I have no personal connection with.
So all in all, I sent roughly 850 personal messages to get traction on this campaign. An important element was getting those contacts to share the campaign on social media so that strangers could see it. Indiegogo also encourages you to get social media activity going in order for their algorithms to assess the popularity of your campaign (what they call 'gogofactor'). I managed to get a fair amount of gogofactor, reaching the front page of their London section and their Education section, and I also managed to get on their weekly roundup blog. That said, it's hard to quantify the effect of this - I suspect that many people casually browsing Indiegogo are actually Americans, so for a London-based project the effects of that were muted.

Collecting the statistics
"HMM... WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?"

So who contributed to my campaign? I had 168 contributors, and here are the stats I've collected about who they were:
  • 68 friends: These are people who might have donated because they know me, or as a favour, or a combination of liking the project and knowing me. Roughly 26 were close friends, and 42 were more casual friends. They constitute around 40% of the total number of donators, but interestingly, only 35% of the money raised, suggesting that on average they gave smaller amounts than more distant contacts (then again, I don't hang out in particularly wealthy circles)
  • 43 (friendly) professional connections: These are people who know me personally through a professional context, but who wouldn't feel under any obligation to fund me. They constituted around 25% of total donators, and around 20% of total money raised
  • 57 distant contacts, and 2nd/3rd degree connections: These are people who I did not contact and who heard about the campaign via social media, friends and articles. Around half of these people are individuals who I have some knowledge of, such as followers on twitter, or people I've briefly met at a conference, or friends of friends. The other half are strangers. They constituted around 33% of total donators, but, importantly, around 45% of the total money raised, suggesting that they gave comparatively large amounts.
The moral of the story thus, is this: Your friends and direct connections will donate to campaigns, but larger amounts come from more distant connections who hear about it indirectly. This again highlights the importance of social media and getting your friends to share on social media.

Now to the business of starting it...
So, as you can see, I now double as a crowdfunding consultant. If anyone wants more tips, please feel free to email me (see address in the sidebar). Oh yes, and now I have to actually start the School that I raised money for. More about that to come in due course. Please feel free to share your own crowdfunding tips in the comment section. Cheers!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

My first crowdfunding campaign! Help me start a school for financial activism

I've taken a leap into the world of crowdfunding this week as I launch my first Indiegogo campaign. I'm aiming to raise seed funding for a London-based School of Financial Activism. Please do click on the link to take a look at the campaign, and if you feel inspired, I'd love for you to contribute to it!



As I've already mentioned in a previous post, I've got a book on the financial system coming out called The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money. I want to launch the School of Financial Activism as a way to build on themes I've developed in the book, and to help everyday people grapple with and challenge the financial sector. As a reward for contributing, I'm offering four uber-cool limited edition series of the book, as follows:
  • The Junior Trader series: 100 softcovers, signed and delivered
  • The Hardass Cityboys: 25 hardcovers, one for each of the 25 wards of the City of London, along with a discount voucher for the school of financial activism
  • The Hedge Fund Gamblers: 5 hardcovers, with a special gift, and a voucher for the future courses at the school
  • The Three Hackers: 3 hardcovers with bespoke covers, and a voucher for the future courses at the school
Of course, if you contribute you also get the pleasure of knowing that you've helped me start an awesome educational initiative. If you're hard up for cash, no worries - you can also help out by simply spreading the campaign around on Twitter, Facebook and Email. You can use the following link http://igg.me/at/financialactivism/x/2406554.

I'll keep you posted on how the campaign goes. Please help me make it a success! Please do post suggestions for both the crowdfunding campaign, and the course, in the comments section below. Cheers

Monday, 12 December 2011

Suitpossum's Ecologist article No.2: Four strategies of subtle financial subversion

COMING TO A CINEMA NEAR YOU
Last week I got published in The Ecologist. The article was called A four-step guide to bypassing high street banks. This is my second article for the magazine (my first was on food speculation), and this time the aim was to sketch out how people might engage in financial protest, not by waving placards, but by changing debit cards.

Many people agree in principle that major high-street banks have too much power, and that they frequently abuse that power. Nevertheless, many individuals don't necessarily have the time, or inclination, to protest about it directly in the manner of the Occupy protesters. There's been a lot of discussion about how to make financial protest more inclusive (including this piece by Kenth Gustaffson on a type of ‘virtual occupy movement’), but perhaps one of the most profound (and often overlooked) forms of protest is to distance yourself from mainstream finance by withdrawing deposits and avoiding using the services.

The article is pretty straightforward. It goes through four (UK-focused) strategies:
  1. You can move your money to a more socially responsible bank like the Co-Operative Bank, or to building societies and credit unions
  2. You can invest savings in socially responsible alternatives, including certain investment funds and specialist investments with environmental or social benefits
  3. If you need a loan, you can bypass the mainstream loan system and engage in peer-to-peer (P2P) finance or crowdfunding
  4. If you want to go bold, you can try detach from the mainstream currency system and use alternative currencies
THE ANSWER: BREAK MONOPOLY
Bypassing mainstream finance is not necessarily easy or convenient, and it's not a solution to the deeper structural problems of the financial sector. Change though, needs to come from many different angles. Regulatory and policy changes are needed, internal cultural changes are needed, and more competition is needed. Moving your money and getting involved in alternative finance is one way to boost competition, and one way to support sustainable finance innovation. It's an act of protest, but in encouraging financial diversity, it's also an act of creativity.

Please do check out the article. Any comments are most welcome, and I’d dig to hear any other suggestions for alternative strategies that I might have missed.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

House Rent Blues: On legal loansharks and crowdfunding


So I haven’t managed to get a blog post out for a couple weeks. That’s partly because I’ve been having some cash-flow management problems, due to some crap planning on my part and some unfortunate payment delays. This is an ongoing issue in freelance life, to smile through gritted teeth when someone at an organisation tells you the admin guy went on holiday and forgot to process your invoice. In a situation when one’s reserves are marginal, small frictions in the system can wipe you out.

Needless to say, when my landlord sent me an sms a few weeks ago saying ‘You haven’t paid your rent, and you have six months of bills to pay too,’ I got a deep down chill. My landlord is a cool guy. He only has one name, and our contract is informal at best, built on trust and belief in human nature rather than legal structures. That’s why he gave me some leeway, and that’s also why I didn’t want to abuse that trust. So I called up my friend George, and asked him what I should do. He wrote a song for me with some suggestions about how to deal with the house rent blues:


It’s an ancient blues, the house-rent blues, and financial services for people suffering from cash-flow irregularities are probably as old as the moon. Short-term loans attached to long-term shackles have long been the speciality of a certain class of societal demon called the Loan-Shark. I’ve been seeing the Loan-Shark in my dreams, under a bridge, at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49, right there in Clarksdale where John-Lee Hooker wrote the song. In that dream the Loan Shark says “35% interest per month, secured on your soul” and hands me a contract to sign. “That’s pretty steep” I say, “Are you regulated by the SEC?” He’s taken aback. “Hell no brother, but you can count on me.” I look at the small print on the contract. It says: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Yes it’s true, the Devil uses clich├ęs from the Eagles.

The dark desert highway of the Loan Shark extends around the world. You find them in Brazil, you find them in them in South Africa. In Bangladesh you’ve got the ‘5-6’: The guy that loans you 5 taka in the morning, and gets 6 taka back from you at night. That’s 20% interest in one day, which is about 7200% interest annually, uncompounded. That what you call raping the time value of money.

Anyway, in dealing with my cash-flow problem I decided to stay away from Brixton’s loan sharks and to take a look at the legal pay-day loan services. Payday loans are like advances on a salary. You show them proof that you will be getting paid at some point. They advance you the money. You pay the money back with interest when you salary comes through. It’s a way to tide you over liquidity crises.

There’s a big new payday loan outlet that recently opened up by the Brixton Academy, opposite the St. Barnados Charity Shop. I had to wait for a while to get served, and watched a women in her early 30s sort of plead with them for a two-day extention on a £200 loan that she couldn’t quite pay back yet. I’m not sure there was a pleasant story behind her situation, and the lady who served her was gently refusing. It can’t be an easy job dealing with people on the thin-edge of financial stability.

LO-FI FINANCE
When my turn came, I got served by a young guy who was quick to tell me that the company is actually American, and that they have six outlets in the UK, the Brixton branch being a flagship of sorts. As for the terms of their payday loan: 25% per month, which is 300% per year, more modest than the classic loan shark, but ridiculous costly nevertheless. In order to get a £625 pound advance on your paycheck, you’d have to pay them back £780. I asked what would happen if I didn’t pay back in time. He said the matter is then passed on to their payment delinquency service, who would organise an ‘alternative payment plan’.

I reckoned I might check out some of the online payday loan services instead. Payday UK comes top of the search results. Again, the terms of the loan are 25% interest per month. Yep, for a £400 advance, you pay back £500 in a month. Wonga is another one, only this time it has a deceptively cuddly name and even worse terms: For £400 loan, you pay back £525 within a month. This really does not seem like a sustainable business model and people looking for £400 advances aren’t really the kind of people who should be spending £125 on liquidity management. There must be social enterprise models waiting to emerge in this space…

Out of curiosity I visited the pawn shop. Pawn shops allow you to pledge gold or jewelry as collateral in exchange for a loan. I didn’t actually have anything valuable to pawn, but if I did, their deal was better, at 6% interest per month. 

WILL YOU ACCEPT MY AMULETS AS COLLATERAL?
The lower interest rate is a due to the fact the loan is secured on some valuable bounty, so if you don’t pay back, they just keep your stash. Collateral lowers your ‘cost of capital’ because it provides protection to the lender, and it’s one of those unfortunate realities that those who possess collateral tend to be wealthy individuals. Some might say that that’s a reason why wealth tends to concentrate around existing wealth… ahem, Mr. Marx.

So what do you do when you don’t have collateral to base a loan off? You label yourself an entrepreneur, and you raise money against the fabulous future wealth that you claim you'll create. That’s what I was thinking when I went to a talk on crowd-funding, given by Theresa Burton from a company called BuzzBnk. The idea behind crowd-funding is that you attract small-scale (philanthropic) investors to contribute to your cause. You need a catchy story to get people to invest in you though, and ‘Can you guys give me £400 so that I can pay my landlord’ is not going to cut it. On the other hand, ‘Can you give me £3000 so I can finish my book’ just might…. Did I mention that I’m writing a book? (more on this topic later)

In the end, time constraints required that I turn to the most powerful and ancient financial service: Angel investors…. By which I mean friends, the great providers of flexible and low interest loans. Thanks guys.

The moral of the story then is that I continue to live an unsustainable life and have a great new idea for an unprofitable business: A freelancers’ co-operative to help London’s army of freelance workers deal with the ordeals of invoice delays. This sounds like a good idea, to sink my energy into something which will have… um …. marginal and sporadic cash flows attached to it, at best.

But who needs stability when you have one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer…

As for how I defeated the Loan-Shark, I had another dream last night: 




Sunday, 22 May 2011

How to get involved in disruptive finance: The Finance Innovation Lab


Trading floors and paneled offices in Canary Wharf look profoundly hi-tech, and yet they are built on blueprints inherited from the past, in some cases the very distant past. Modern financial institutions like to use the language of innovation, and yet they endorse only a narrow conception of innovation, focused on product innovation. There’s very little tinkering with the base level assumptions from which they are created.

To challenge the deep-level normative status quo requires one to move out of the mainstream salons, and into the fringe coffee shops and covert speakeasies. Close to Moorgate station is one such safehouse, down a small alley, behind an austere wooden door. Enter the Finance Innovation Lab.

The Finance Lab initially started as a joint project by the WWF and ICAEW, asking the question “What does a financial system that serves people and planet look like?” It’s now a forum for an assortment of financial heretics, some outrightly so, others more subtly so. The community is partially centered on an online platform hosted by the Ning social networking architecture, and partly on monthly meetings where ideas are presented and workshopped.

On Friday, I attended the monthly brainstorm. The setting is old English, in a meeting room with gilded portraits, but the content was anything but traditional. The session focused on work by David Braid, showcasing his graphic design visualisations of the financial sector as a tool for altering the way people perceive the sector. Ben Curtis was also there to discuss the PositiveMoney campaign that seeks radical monetary reform. The atmosphere is part collaborative, for people to throw around wacky ideas, and part critical reflection, to bring attention to shortcomings in proposed innovations. Friday’s session saw both impulses in action. For my part, I wanted to see David’s financial maps interpreted by graffiti artists on the walls of the urban downtown, and I wanted to see a more robust proposal by the PositiveMoney guys.

In the end, the sessions are not designed to be prescriptive. Presentations are used to set up loose themes as a backdrop for open-ended explorations. Key topics that have developed over the months include complementary currencies, social finance innovations, methods for dealing with complexity in finance, building resilience and dealing with risk, grassroots finance and mutual credit systems, social enterprise and community investment, behaviourial economics, environmental economics and the art of dealing with externalities, crowd financing, religion and philosophical aspects of finance, alternative conceptions of value, alternative metrics of economic wellbeing, and alternative goals for economic systems.

In part, the specifics of what is discussed doesn’t necessarily matter. More important is the fact that you’re able to do it, and to meet others who are doing it. Ideas have a way of fertilising other ideas and creating mutations. It’s the Silicon Valley effect. You hang out with people like Bertrand, Eli, Tav, Nick, Mary, Timothy, Max, Deeti, Giles, Rachel, Jen and loads of others who are doing similar things, and your own ideas get sharpened and informed in light of theirs. 

There’s also no single objective. Some have a particular agendas. Some frame their goals in utopian or moral terms, whilst others are more hard-edged or pragmatic. There's a general sense of trying to make the financial system better. For me though, the objective is disruption, change for change’s sake. I think the true value of these forums is to workshop ideas that can cause shit, for better or for worse, and see if the resultant disruptions, outcomes not strictly known, could potentially lead somewhere worthwhile. I like the idea of a creative dialectic to keep the system on its toes.

Over the next few months I’ll profile some of the movements I've encountered at the Finance Lab in this blog, some of the fascinating thinkers and some of the shit-stirrers. Keep tuned, and sign up.