This summer, I worked at McKinsey & Company, serving a small specialty consumer finance company that sought to enter the personal loans space. The company was the leader in the “structured settlements market” (aka – they are in the market of giving lump sum cash at a discount to people who have won a personal injury tort lawsuit but whose payments are staggered over a period of time). However, this was a stagnating market and they were seeking ways to grow. They used direct marketing to target customers, often through commercials aired during daytime television shows such as Jerry Springer.

Early on, we identified that personal loans would be a good space for our client to consider, given that they received a vast number of calls from people who had no idea what a structured settlement was but were looking for a loan. These clients actually had pretty good credit (FICO scores of above 660 or “prime”) but were shut out by the traditional credit markets because they often did not have collateral to back up their need for credit. We felt that our client could very easily broker leads to a personal lender and in a few years do an acquisition in this space. Further, we felt that online personal lenders represented an interesting acquisition opportunity, given that our client did not operate any brick & mortar stores and wished to limit their geographical footprint.

I was tasked with scouring the universe for online personal lenders and identifying companies that that had a high quality business model, were led by strong management, and also fit with our client’s caller base. In the process, I discovered some fascinating things.

In particular, I discovered a lot of extremely shady, underhanded companies that will exploit every loophole in the law to charge usurious interest rates to customers. Generally, regulatory bodies are quite strict on how much a lender can charge in the form of interest rates. However, there are some online personal lenders that have formed partnerships with Indian tribal lenders (who do not fall under traditional state jurisdiction) in order to charge ridiculous interest rates and do business in states that they would otherwise not be able allowed to touch. We normally consider doing business online as being more transparent and straightforward. Unfortunately, my research showed that there are a lot of lenders that have intentionally used an online business model in order to hide information and mislead customers.

On the plus side, there are a lot of extremely innovative companies that are using creative ways to both underwrite customers as well as advance personal loans to markets that did not historically have access to credit. For example, Zest Finance (founded by the ex-CIO of Google) uses big data to re-invent underwriting and target the underbanked. They look beyond FICO scores to everything from technology usage and social media presence to determine the creditworthiness of an applicant. According to their website, their “machine learning-techniques and large scale data analysis” has led to higher approval rates and lower default rates.

Another company I found was interesting was a California based online lender called LendUp. Their website is designed to help borrowers rebuild their credit profiles. LendUp advances loans at pretty high interest rates to first time borrowers but rewards them for timely repayment and for completing credit education courses. In time, these borrowers become eligible for longer term loans at lower interest rates.

Finally, my research led me to discover a niche space within the world of online personal loans called “peer to peer lending.” Several online platforms, such as Lending Club act as an intermediary between lenders such as you and I seeking to make a return, and borrowers who do not want to take a loan from a bank. These companies also rely on a strong underwriting model and enable lenders to split up their loan into small amounts (for e.g. giving a $10 loan to 10 different individuals) order to diversify risk. I found it interesting that these companies were democratizing the process of acquiring a personal loan, and believe companies such as Lending Club could disrupt traditional financial institutions in the near future.

I feel my summer internship only hit the tip of the iceberg of this fascinating space and would love to see how the market evolves as more people look online as a means by which to consume more financial goods and services.

 


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How iOS 7 Could Disrupt the International Phone Call Market

A little known feature on Apple’s new iOS 7 operating system could potentially disrupt the international phone market. The new app is called Facetime. While most iPhone users know Facetime well, what they probably do not know is that the app received a makeover with the latest iOS release. Now iPhone users have the option to Facetime audio. Ever since the release of iOS 5 in 2011, users have had the ability to make Facetime video-chat calls over 3G networks. What the new functionality allows users to do is less. Apple now is giving users the option make video-chat calls without the video. Most people would say that this sounds pretty boring. That it is nothing more than the ability to make a normal phone call. And they would be exactly right. The “so what” is that two iPhone users in different cities, states, or more importantly, countries, or continents can now make pure data phone calls to each other through a native phone application. The question is: how will this affect the international phone call market?

First things first, this is not an earth-shattering new technology. Many critics will assert that other Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) applications such as Skype, Tango, Talkatone, and Viber have given users this functionality for at least the past few years. While this is true, none of these companies have been overly successful at gaining a substantial market share for multiple reasons. One such reason is that for any of these apps to work, both participating parties must have the same application installed. As a result, many cellular phone owners have multiple VOIP applications and rarely use any because of the hassle of maintaining multiple contact lists. Additionally for any of these applications to work, users have to allow them to run in the background of their phones utilizing precious battery life and processor speed. Facetime solves both of these problems by being integrated into iOS 7. It utilizes the phones organic contact list, so users do not have to shuffle to find a phone number and remains dormant while not in use just as the previous version of itself did, to preserve battery life and processor speed.

So the underlying question is whether or not large telephone companies should be concerned. Although Apple holds approximately 40% of cellphone market in the United States, its worldwide numbers are not nearly as high. Commanding only a 25% global market share, Apple is not placing its new, industry changing software in everyone’s hands; however, whether or not it will be in enough people’s hands to make the telephone companies feel a little queasy is a different story. Apple has broken down the barriers to adoption of its new technology by making it as simple to use as a standard phone. All you have to do is open your iPhone’s contact list, find a friend with an iPhone, select Facetime audio, and chat away.

 


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Online Learning: MOOC challenges and success factors

Last spring I participated in a course titled “Creating ChinaX: Teaching China’s History Online” as part of the HarvardX MOOC—Massive Open Online Courses—offering for the edX platform. The course provided me an opportunity to design a MOOC and get a taste of this surging edtech phenomenon, which has lately gotten major headlines including the edX and Google partnership. The MOOC movement is endeavoring to globalize education by offering free and fee-based (credentialed) online courses (from a network of academic and non-academic institutions) to practically anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Major players in the MOOC space include Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy, and edX. Refer to MOOC ecosystem infographic for details on funding sources for these players.

While the MOOC revolution seems to hold great promises (e.g. democratization of education, answer to education budget crisis, etc.), it also presents its own set of challenges. I offer four of them:

  1. One of the great lessons I have learned from the ChinaX course is how excruciatingly difficult and time-consuming it is to design an online course for the masses. Contrary to the popular belief, designing a MOOC is not about re-packaging existing lecture videos and assessment questions, uploading them and pushing the “Go Online” button! The online instructional context is very different from that of the classroom and requires careful considerations to make online learning engaging: creating bite size (5 to 10 min) lecture videos that provide one-on-one focus between instructor and participant; applying facilitation strategies in conducting the course online and ensuring active student participation in online discussion forum; embedding online formative assessments throughout the course; etc.

  2. MOOCs are also very expensive to create, so not every institution can afford to get into the MOOC space. Penn State has reported that the MOOCs they have developed cost around $50,000 each, which mainly includes stipends for professors and teaching fellows and cost of videography.[1]

  3. MOOC dropout rate is yet another challenge. One widely quoted figure for the dropout rate is 90%.[2] Lack of a tight-knit online learner community, I feel, is a prime contributor to this astonishing rate. Many MOOCs have registered participants initially that number in the fifty to hundred thousands, which contributes to one’s solitudinal feeling of being “one in the thousands”. I myself have registered for a MOOC and tapered off my participation for this very reason.

  4. Finally, I think the technology to create an immersive MOOC-based learning experience hasn’t fully developed yet. Most MOOCs are text-heavy in their content and discussion forum (although new tools such as VoiceThread are increasingly available) and mere videos can only go so far in terms of drawing out interactions from participants. MOOCs need to incorporate emerging technologies such as augmented reality, virtual worlds, and location-aware mobile devices to make learning situated in the everyday context and more interactive.

It’s true that technology seems to have its way of optimizing very quickly in time. The fast advancements from CDs to cloud-based audio streaming, offline retailing to online outlets to location-based marketing to mobile-based payments are just a few examples of this trend. However, I believe that technology is not going to be the key driver of advancements in learning. It’s how we “learn” that needs to be advanced! The key to online learning I feel is improving “learning” itself. Technology is an “enabler”: a means to optimize learning, to make it better, faster, cheaper and available at scale. According to Dr. Bror Saxberg (Chief Learning Office at Kaplan) “the key driver for learning is what you get a mind to do, not the technology you’re using”.[3] Therefore, I feel MOOC’s success will be determined to a great extent by learning innovations. This entails applying educational research in how people learn (e.g. through case-based discussions, hands-on projects, etc.) to online course designs; applying evidence-based learning science principles to media designs;[4] and leveraging the offline context to provide learners opportunities for shared, in-person, social learning experience. Technology can then be applied to enable such a learning experience. It’s encouraging to see that MOOCs have started to take steps in that direction to bridge the offline and online learning contexts.


[1]. Popp, Trey. “MOOC U.” Penn Gazette | MOOC U. The Pennsylvania Gazette, 1 Mar. 2013. Retrieved from http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0313/feature4_1.html

[2]. Rivard, Ry. “Researchers Explore Who Is Taking MOOCs and Why so Many Drop out | Inside Higher Ed.” Researchers Explore Who Is Taking MOOCs and Why so Many Drop out | Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 8 Mar. 2013. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/03/08/researchers-explore-who-taking-moocs-and-why-so-many-drop-out

[3]. “Bror’s Blog.” ‘Bror’s Blog’ Bror’s Blog, 4 Sept. 2011. Retrieved from http://brorsblog.typepad.com/brors-blog/2011/09/technology-driving-learning-or-learning-driving-technology-which-way-round.html

[4]. Clark, Ruth Colvin., and Richard E. Mayer. E-Learning and Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Science-Instruction-Guidelines-Multimedia/dp/0470874309

 

 

 


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Megamall Culture – A challenge for GCC online retailers

Think of GCC shopping and you would picture images of fantasy mega malls packed with shoppers looking to spend their non-taxable income. In a buoyant economy with strong fundamentals for digital adoption, early entrepreneurs aimed at replicating the shopper’s paradise into an online experience. They have spent their efforts developing the online business model – identifying monetization channels, setting up safe payment solutions and improving customer confidence, building their distribution capabilities and negotiating delivery costs, etc. Yet, very few were able to anticipate that the region’s mall culture could present a challenge for the online retailing space.

Indeed, in the GCC, consumers are immersed in an established mall culture that become a focal point in their every day’s lives – one of the few available avenues for social interaction for a population that spends, on average, 8 hours in a mall every week (highest in the world). As such, it was challenging for online retailers to increase their share of the consumers’ wallet, as those are looking for a time-filling social shopping experience rather than a more convenient online service. In fact, a closer view on the online shopping statistics reveals an even less enticing story for select consumables – fashion, electronics and home décor items. These were less favored by online shoppers as they present an integral part of their weekly shopping experiences.

In this context, online entrepreneurs had to quickly ramp up their value propositions and find new ways to channel consumer spend from offline retailers to their online platforms. A social mindset had to be overcome. Hence, they had to resort to different tactics, beyond the promise of “shopping convenience from your own home.” Examples range from claims of competitive discounts with alerts when prices hit low to offering an SKU range that is more varied than Brick-and-Mortar businesses’. Even recently, a local consortium has ventured into setting up the region’s first e-mall with interactive experiences that could simulate a mall culture in a virtual environment.

Today, online retailing is gaining more traction in the GCC. Well-established early entrants are growing at over 20% per year. Yet, as the appetite of consumers continues to grow in this space, I am quite intrigued how online retailers will adapt their business models to market realities as well as alter the shopper attitude in a “mall” culture. I wonder if online retailing could ever change the social mindset and steal the crowd out of the malls. You never know in a region that managed to build a palm in the ocean or a ski arena in a mall. You can never stop to wonder what is next.

 


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Team Titleist Case Study – Repurposing Social Media Content

This summer, I had the opportunity to intern at the Acushnet Company (owner of the Titleist, Pinnacle and FootJoy brands). I worked with the Golf Ball Marketing team and was tasked with a project related to website analytics, and therefore, I was quickly exposed to the company’s branded social hub, Team Titleist (http://www.titleist.com/teamtitleist/).

Team Titleist compiles all of the brand’s social media content, including that from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, on one platform. In addition, the social hub includes a blog and a discussion board.  But, most importantly, it gives users the opportunity to create a profile and become part of the “team.” By creating a profile, users can enter information about their games (equipment used, course membership), track their statistics (rounds played, fairways hit, greens in regulation), and post to the discussion board with their customized team member ID.

By the end of the summer, I was convinced that Titleist’s approach to social media is superior to many other well-known brands. It takes all of its fragmented social media platforms and repurposes them to provide the company with a number of benefits such as the following.

First, by encouraging users to sign up for the “team” and create a profile, Titleist collects and owns a database of golf-specific information on thousands of consumers. (Consumers are more willing to give this information away because it doesn’t present privacy concerns like one would expect from signing up for Facebook.) As a result, Titleist knows consumers’ locations, ages, handicaps, and ball and equipment preferences and can use this information to continually update its segmentation studies. The Titleist Consumer Insights team can also use this large consumer database for its annual research studies. The company does not need to pay other channels, such as Golf Channel and Golf Digest, for access to their databases.

Second, Titleist’s content creation efforts are so robust and unique compared to its competitors that it attracts golf enthusiasts to sign up for the “team” even if they are not Titleist brand loyalists.  They simply want access to the unique content. Thus, Titleist is presented with an amazing opportunity to convert these enthusiasts into consumers of the brand. Third, Titleist takes this online social hub to the next level by connecting with fans off-line at sponsored regional events and by recruiting them for local photo shoots. This is possible because Titleist knows the locations of its team members and can easily connect with them about events through this trusted platform.

With this in mind, why don’t other brands adopt similar social hub strategies? We all know that it is extremely difficult to measure the ROI of social media efforts.  It is not necessarily easy to measure the ROI of the Team Titleist community, but at least in this scenario, the company benefits tremendously from owning detailed consumer data for segmentation studies and research studies, is given the opportunity to convert golf enthusiasts into Titleist brand loyalists, and is able to create both on-line and off-line activities for its team members.

References:

Nerney, Chris, How Titleist Built a Thriving Online Community of Golf Nuts, August 2013, CITEWorld, http://www.citeworld.com/social/22211/titleist-telligent-community?page=0.

Oden, Lee, Social Media Hubs for Brands – Best Practices & Examples, June 2013, TopRank, http://www.toprankblog.com/2013/06/brand-social-media-hubs/.

Rabara, John, Golf Gets More Social with Titleist, June 2013, Telligent Blog, http://telligent.com/company/news/b/teamblog/archive/2013/06/12/golf-gets-more-social-with-titleist.aspx.

 


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