Saturday, January 17, 2015

Why I'm a boat rocker.

"You're rocking the boat.  They don't like that."  

A comment I heard just this week... one woman chatting with another woman about how she did it... how was she able to overcome the overwhelming gender bias in this industry and join a team with an employer who actually cares?

How did she do it?  By not rocking the boat.

I've had this ... I guess we could call it a "conversation" with myself at various points in my life.  Usually it's when I'm getting washed ashore and clinging to dear land, gasping for air:  Oh, geeze. I rocked the boat too hard, again!  And everybody, like, freaked out.  They threw me overboard!  How dare they!?  

Why did they do that?  Because I rocked the boat.

Yes, rather than risk their boat getting toppled by little me, they decided that the smartest thing to do is just throw the boat rocker overboard.  Gee thanks.  But the interesting thing is that never has any team member from any boat I've been thrown from stopped with pause to think or ask logical questions about things like physics or wind, materials science, currents or compass...

Because all they can see is that their boat is getting rocked.   

If only they could see... logical questions have logical answers.  It's not the boat rocker who ultimately destroys the boat and ruins everything; it's the boat rocker who exposes the vulnerabilities of the boat and can help everybody be more prepared.  Before it's too late.  But the key is that ... you've gotta let the boat rocker stay on the boat.  Having somebody who's not afraid to push the limits of our boat is a good thing. 

The dearth of women and women in leadership roles in technology is obvious to anybody who has worked in technology.  Once in a while somebody will create a little movement ... some noise or a "non profit" or a summit or something.  But these blips are hardly ever noticed on the larger radar.  They fade and disappear.  People forget.  Men keep getting promoted over women, and they almost never have to fight quite as hard for the raises or pay they deserve.  Venture capitalists keep gladly seed-funding extras from The Social Network.   Firms from A...Z (pardon the pun) keep gladly throwing millions at startups which have been documented to willfully discriminate and retaliate against women.

Partially my (yes anecdotal) observation, but I'm not the only one who has noticed.
 
"We need a national conversation that examines the barriers that hold women back and prevent us from achieving true equality. Additionally and just as importantly, we need personal conversations among us all -- managers and employees, friends, colleagues, partners, parents and children -- where issues about gender are discussed openly.
The blunt truth is that men still run the world." ~ Sheryl Sandberg 2013

My two cents for the conversation is pretty simple:  there are only two different kinds of humans in the world:  Those who actively exploit women, and those who actively speak out against the exploitation of women.   Keeping your mouth shut for fear of rocking the boat -- this is a form of apathy all its own.  

The exploiters have general strategies:  when she's smart, competent, hard working, and nice, underpay her.  She's easy to take advantage of.  Besides, when we really drill down and look at things, she just doesn't  deserve the same basis as the guys on her team.   Or better yet -- why allow her to be part of the company at all?  Why not make sure she's thoroughly plundered of her wages by a middleman "temp agency" or headhunter?  The more fear and job insecurity you can instill in her, the harder she'll try. 

The other strategy the exploiters take is this:  when she's  smart, competent, hard working, and strong enough to stand up for herself, the exploitation takes the form of failure to hire, hiring with a longer "probation" period, bullying, biased performance reviews, or the ultimate insult of getting fired.

I've tried both the "nice" and the "strong" approach, and the unfortunate reality is that neither one really works.   The number of people who actively exploit women is still too big, and the quantitative number of women who aren't afraid to rock the boats is still too small.

But I'm not about to stop rocking boats.

Because it's not the boat rocker who ultimately destroys a boat.  It's the boat rocker who exposes boats that simply do not possess enough integrity to handle the seas.  And those are boats I don't wanna be on anyway.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Crowdfunding IS too expensive - the payments processing cartel everybody needs to know about

Crowdfunding IS too expensive
The payments processing cartel everybody needs to know about 



Crowdfunding is kind of a broadly-generic term.  As a recurring topic and point of discussion among hackers, startup entrepreneurs and "the biz guys", it deserves a special teasing-out.  Just what are people talking about when they talk about "crowdfunding"  ... is it like a Kickstarter campaign for a snazzy newfangled electric skateboard?  Is it a plea for funds that takes the form of a "donate now" button or post on Facebook to help that friend's doggie after it was hit by a car? Her dog needed emergency surgery - it was expensive and urgent.  Or, is crowdfunding some sort of "offering" of equity, like a stake in a potentially-profitable company that dangles future lucrative payout for some initial investment?

For the purposes of this post, let's define crowdfunding specifically as:

Any effort by an individual, group, or organization to raise money through an online campaign.  

Online campaigns where money is handled, authorized, and transferred online?  That's easy enough:  Everybody wants to do everything online these days -- seems so easy, and it should be so much cheaper, right?  Besides, who hasn't seen an online campaign to raise money? 

These campaigns take many possible forms.  As online campaigns go, what do they all have in common?

What they all have in common is the built-in, industry-crafted scam of payment processing fees as cents + percent.  And inflated over-the-top rates where foreign currency exchange is involved.  (But that's another post for another day).
  
Some of the time the do-gooder crowdfunding site doesn't even know it is being subjected to this scam... but sometimes it does, thinking it has no other options.  The most important thing to do is first find out which one of the evil1* Payments Processing Companies (PPCs) your crowdfunding site used or will be using.  Crowfunding sites usually charge BOTH "platform fees" and "bank fees" -- and sometimes crowdfunding sites glue these together to confuse people.  But let's assume, for simplicity purposes, that if they say they have to pay 2.9 percent + $0.30, it's (wittingly or unwittingly) bankrolling the cartel.  A few examples of such players are in the graphic to the left... but there are others.

1* The word "evil" as it is used by the author of this blog means: Anything  incomprehensibly wrong and despicable to the degree that it interferes with default benevolence in the nature of the Universe and humanity. 
 
PPCs  have figured out that the less you know of the truth about their doings and money-shuffling behind the scenes, the better.  

Players in the cartel cahoot will attempt to claim that by golly, their hands are tied -- look at how everybody charges basically the same thing.  This is "standard".  They pin the blame on "the banks" and how gosh-darn complicated this industry is... those banks sure do deserve to be rewarded handsomely for not only making it so complicated, but also streaming all those transactions.   When they say these rates are not negotiable, they are lying to you.    And if you attempt to ask them why ...  you will probably be given the used car salesman pitch where, oh... it's based on volume or some other equation where they actually control / manipulate one of the measuring variables -- be it time, individual transaction numbers, or sales volume -- to their benefit to make it seem like what they require is "standard".  Their biz guys are smooth talkers... they know exactly what they're doing.  

The truth is that:

(1)  There is NOTHING standard about Interchange.  The findings of a federal investigation concluded that because banks were allowed to set Interchange at whatever they wished, their incentive was to collude and charge the highest as default:  "The interchange fee can be a flat fee, a percentage of the transaction price, or a combination of the two." 

(2) There is NO NEED to collect an additional "percentage" of transaction amount ... this practice was invented by banks, for banks.   It does not benefit consumers, brick + mortar stores, people who sell online, people who buy online, or even large companies like Target, Walmart and Amazon.  It benefits banks, financial institutions, and all the evil PPCs out there who get their cut first.  It's AKA double dipping (charging both the payees and payors).  

(3) Back in about 2009 when the market was a literal MONOPOLY with "basically" just PayPal running the show, PayPal on a whim doubled rates to 2.9% + $0.30 and that's why it is what it is today. 

Why did this happen, and why has the introduction of numerous forces of supposed competition not changed anything?  Why are consumers not more riled up by this?  Lack of knowledge is one reason.  PBS Frontline's documentary: The Card Game is an interesting peek into this world of unethical businessmen, although it's a little outdated now, here ~ early 2015.  Following the payment card settlement for fixed pricing, economists predicted that consumers wouldn't see the benefits.  Retailers aren't seeing the benefits either.  But all of the companies in the cartel are.

Everybody wants to blame everybody else for why things are they way they are.  Indeed, depending on who you're talking to, the details about Interchange get skewed.   Let's take this apart piece by piece:
"One of the problems with interchange fees, say merchants, is that the rates vary depending on the type of card used in the transaction, making it very difficult for businesses to know what they'll end up paying at the point of sale. Debit cards have cheaper interchange fees than credit cards."  
Um, it's either a debit card or a credit card.  For the record, MOST online payment processors have been treating debit card transactions like credit card transactions, and therefore charge the higher interchange -- even when they have no legal right to do so.   Companies in the screenshot charge 2.9 percent + 30 cents ... even when donations are made with a debit card. In fact, you can have an online campaign made entirely by debit cards for a non-profit cause, and still get charged this amount.  Nobody is any the wiser.
"Another problem, say critics, is that unless you're an industry insider, it's almost impossible to figure out how they come up with the interchange rates, how much money is being made, and where it all goes.
Ah ha!  Well, here I am... former industry insider to tell you all about it.  At the company whose CEO set literal fire to literal paper cash to make a point about his delusions of power, it's clear:  these companies see Interchange as free, burnable money in their pockets. If funds are tight, they and their cronies can simply raise the rates in the network.  And because there's no incentive to lower rates (that is - ZERO COMPETITION among these companies) rates will inevitably edge higher and higher... unless something changes.  
"We don't have a lot of data on this," said Adam Levitin, an associate law professor at Georgetown University, who writes frequently about interchange. "There is no data from Visa and MasterCard, and the best way to make policy is to do it on an informed basis."

So who has the data?  The banks do, but they're not about to disclose how profitable this model is for them.  The payments processing companies would, too, right?

Find out from the crowdfunding website -- which evil payments company is it shackled to.  And then go out there and make a difference.

(1)  File complaints with the US Department of Justice + Start a Class Action lawsuit ... file complaints with the United States Department of Justice on behalf of individuals, non-profits or 501(C)(3)s that overpaid fees to Visa, Mastercard, PPCs and banks.  The payment card settlement lawsuit prohibits RETAILERS who accepted part of the 6 billion dollar settlement from suing the "Plastic Card Network", but it does not and cannot prohibit any other organizations who were unfairly subjected to the same plundering.  Why?  Because lawsuits are the only thing that these guys respond to for their wrong and unethical tactics. 

#indiegogo #kickstarter #gofundme #crowdtilt #crowdrise #giveforward

(2)  Demand competition among PPCs ... There is no reason that startups who want to process payments should have ZERO CHOICE in the fees they are required to pay.   There is no reason they should be taking such a hefty cut of money you're donating to good causes, to "the underdog" Kickstarter campaign, or any other transaction online.  Call them out on their baloney, and tell them it's not right.   

Crowdfunding IS too expensive.  But there is something you can do about it... arm yourself with the facts.  And remember, Simba ....

(blog comments disabled - see them here or here)

Monday, September 23, 2013

What the JOBS Act means for startup funding: beware the cookie lickers

photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/42621781@N08/
Seed money.  Angel investing.  Venture capital.  Funding start-ups that aspire to be "big business" has become a strange beast.   Today is the official effective date for Title II of the JOBS Act, which many are hopeful can kick off a New Great Era of fundraising.   But in many ways, this is a huge red herring.

Once upon a time pretty much any company that wanted to could raise money according to a broad array of "blue sky" laws which varied by state:
Blue sky laws developed in the frenzied years leading up to the Great Depression, in response to fact that more and more ordinary investors were losing money in highly speculative or fraudulent schemes promising high investment returns, such as oil fields and exotic investments in foreign countries

But after the hype, boom, bust and onset of the Great Depression, thinking changed a bit.  The passing of the Securities Act of 1933 was done with the belief that selling such "risky" early-stage investments to the general public left too much room for swindling.  You know -- bad guys running off with Grandpa's life savings (Which never happens today.  Right, Bernie Madoff?).  Accredited investors are the only ones who can 'afford' to lose, so let's make rules that allow only them take risk that yields high reward -- apparently this was the logic behind Rule 501 of Section D of the Securities Act of 1933, a rule which states that entities need a certain "net worth" to participate in investments which potentially might go public.

But of course, by shielding "small time" potential investors from swindlers, so too were those small- time investors denied opportunities to reap rewards earned from their decision to take risk.   As a result, the next 80 years or so saw an entire profiteering industry sprout up around capital finance, start-ups and highbrow private investing -- an industry "for the elite, by the elite" -- hedged on early access and exclusive access, it is essentially wealth funneling wealth.  It perpetuates by protecting first (usually via preferred stock) the wealth of the wealthiest "if and only if; then and only when" a tiny bit might "trickle" down to common shareholders -- including founders themselves!

If you think this logic sounds a little hokey, you're not alone. Several arguments for scrapping the "accredited investor" rules have floated around, but during the last 80 years, exactly zero headway has been made.   Fred Wilson commented in a May, 2012 Forbes article:
The biggest issue: there is simply too much money. Although $30 billion continues to flow unabated into venture-backed companies annually in the U.S., venture capital as an asset class hasn’t outperformed the market since the early 90’s, when only $10 billion was put to work.
What's happening?  In plain English what's happening is this -- that "exclusive access" members' only club is getting fat, tired and cranky.  Despite the fact that it already has too much on its plate and not enough time to chew, its people just won't stop licking cookies.  Many of those licked cookies are going to waste.

Enter the JOBS Act to "Jumpstart our Business Startups", a plan to help those little guys with freshly baked cookies -- what can be done to change things and help them get their cookie empires off the ground?   Should we make it easier for these guys to advertise their cookies?  Yes!  But first we should probably get rid of the law that makes it illegal to advertise cookies.

September 23 is the official effective date for Title II of the JOBS Act, which many are hopeful can kick off a New Great Era of fundraising.  But in many ways it's a huge red herring:  all it permits is the mere existence of information.  Start-ups now may "legally" use the Internet and/or public airwaves to inform the public that they're looking for capital to grow their business!  Then, with whatever attention their hype is able to attract, those start-ups may be asked to get in line to have their cookies licked by an authorized VC cookie licker.
Of course, the trends threatening VC’s bode well for entrepreneurs. More competition among investors means easier financing and better terms for startups. The eye-popping valuations of some companies may already be a reflection of this phenomenon. Wilson admits that this glut of funding is also probably good news for the economy, job creation and the proliferation of new goods and services.

But whoa. . .  big caveat here --  if a cookie seller accidentally let their cookies get licked by somebody who isn't "legally" allowed to lick cookies, they may get in #BigLegalTrouble and have to wait an entire year to get in the back of the line again.  Seriously.

The spin on this from the VC side seems to be that there 'ought' to be  more competition among VC's ... but is that the issue?  Last time we checked, competition among VCs wasn't the problem; as Paul Graham stated in his recent essay, it's competition for that "first" bit of VC attention that every entrepreneur needs to get the ball rolling:
The biggest factor in most investors' opinions of you is the opinion of other investors. Once you start getting investors to commit, it becomes increasingly easy to get more to. But the other side of this coin is that it's often hard to get the first commitment.

Obviously, we need a larger pool of potential investors / cookie-lickers to woo.  How, exactly can this happen?

The problems that existed at the time of the Securities Act of 1933 -- and the subsequent red tape and paperwork formalities to protect Grandpa's life savings -- surely these were well-intentioned protections.  But the reality of the world today is such that there are too many cookies going to waste.  The professional cookie-lickers of the world just don't have time to sample all the great cookies today's entrepreneurs are making.   Gambling halls and casinos (which certainly are just as likely to swindle Grandpa's life savings) don't require minimum net worth or income limits for patrons, so why are they imposed on investors, where the potential for Return on Investment (ROI) is significantly more feasible?

Title II doesn't address the core problem, but hopefully it can attract more attention and scrutiny to the issues preventing many small and medium-sized businesses from taking root.  Namely -- "accredited investor" rules are antiquated and unnecessary, and they do more harm than good for many small and medium-sized businesses that just want to sell cookies.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

It's time for a Price War in Payments

Bring on the price war.
image
Price wars are great; they are the very epitome of what our American capitalist economic ideals are all about: competition.

But for the last several years something else has been going on.  For the last several years, every single swipe of your debit card — every single “submit payment” click or iPhone tap for your favorite song, every single “$0.35 debit card fee” gasoline pump authorization button press you’ve been forced to accept has been much, much higher than it needs to be …  about 800 percent higher:
their initial analysis that concluded the actual cost of a debt transaction was only 4 cents.”
You read correctly.   A few days ago (before being bought by Mr. Jeff Bezos), The Washington Post broke the news that a Federal judge had overthrown the cap.
In a strongly worded decision, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said that the Federal Reserve had not properly interpreted the 2010 financial overhaul law, which directed it to revamp the way banks charge merchants for accepting debit cards. The Fed rule “runs completely afoul of the text, design and purpose” of an amendment authored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to limit these fees to the actual cost of processing debit card transactions.
What does this mean?  It means that our capitalist system is not working properly.  For the last several years, we’ve all essentially been forced, when engaging in natural economic activity, into padding profits of banks and other payments processors (such as my former employer, Balanced and its competitors WePay, Stripe and PayPal) who should be competing with each other for merchants' business.  But instead, these evil companies have are all part of the same snake pit, charging the same fees. 



With collusion, they and the banks (Chase, Citibank and WellsFargo -- just to name a couple) have a great deal; their collective “guaranteed” profit margin is much better — more money to throw around and lobby to keep things just they way they are, more huge VC rounds for those willing to hop in bed with the big banks, more barriers to entry for the little guys.

This is NOT a regulated industry, but it should be.   The only function of government should be to ensure competition, and STOP monopoly pricing and oligopies.  

By 2009, banks were reaping $16.2 billion in revenue from the fees.
This was ~4 years ago; a more modern calculation would surely yield a much higher number.  Indeed, as mentioned in my recent post the Durbin amendment was specifically targeted at this  discrepancy.

Basic economics shows that rather than engage in a price war, it is more profitable for them all to agree to tout like it’s “law” that these “Interchange Fees” set by the government are just not negotiable.  While this is a partial truth — that the Fed set a non-negotiable portion, that non-negotiable portion is actually the “max” but confusion around fixed and variable components inflated both sides.

Let’s break down the costs of the actual information.  Could it really be so simple?  Yes.  It is not nearly as complicated as they’d like us to think; from my recent post on Hacker News
The swipe is the recording of the
 - credit card # (16 digits long)
 - day/time/place of swipe or "submit payment"  
 - expiration date
 - cvc code

which, when put together, all add up to one little thing called an “auth” code which can be used to attach a particular transaction to a particular instance of potential fraud.  Maybe… 200 - 999 bytes for the swipe data alone.  The fraud detection and “cost of equipment” and other such items bundled in the price are other things they should be competing on, as well. 

Think of the cost of storing or transmitting one small text file.  Now that we mention it:  4 cents for even 999 bytes seems pretty high, actually.  

As an Industry expatriate, I will gladly testify that the only way change could have been done was from the inside out: some high-tech “startup” from Silicon Valley could have been the first mover and propagated this change without any Federal intervention.

But they don't want change... they don't want to stop the extortion; they are Evil.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Re-Engineering the Tax Code: Part II

Part II -- Closing Loopholes

In Part I we established that for this thought experiment, we need a new way of thinking about our be-loathed tax system.  It just doesn't make sense to keep gluing new doodads (exclusions / extensions) onto the old one; the best thing we can do with the rusted old contraption is to toss it out and start over from scratch.  Starting from scratch, we can implement 21st century concepts, materials, and thinking applicable to our 21st century economy.

Because this new system of taxation is being designed specifically to encourage businesses, organizations and/or entities with excessive profits to more generously reward the "low men on the totem pole," the progressive tax bracket system makes the most sense.  A business can choose to minimize total tax payments by paying its workforce more, or it can voluntarily pay more in tax than it must to when it chooses to keep profits concentrated among the few at the top.  This system rewards benevolence and discourages greed, both at a corporate and individual level.  

This progressive idea is the core strength of our system.   Continuing with our bicycle analogy, it can be likened to a design innovation -- visualize this fantastically awesome carbon fiber frame reinforced with Kevlar.  This frame has made the "guts" the lattice for increased capacity to wear and tear with none of the dead weight of its predecessor; it does more with less, and it provides a good framework to hold together the rest of our moving parts.      

Traditionally, the "corporate" tax rate structure has been different from the "individual" tax rate structure.   Corporations create "jobs," right?  That's why we have two different systems?  In the industrial manufacturing economy, this was more true; it made sense to tax a corporation more aggressively on its profit (which does not include payments to workers).  

Quick accounting concept here:  income (AKA revenue) is not profit.  At a very basic level, profit is what is left over after various business expenses have been subtracted.  There are all kinds of lovely accounting / finance acronyms (NOPLAT, EBITDA) outside the scope of this article, but  for the purpose of this discussion, the main point to take away is that the US tax code historically treats business revenue differently from individual income, even though both are essentially the same when we think of them in the context of earned dollars with the potential to be taxed.  

Historically, taxing business profit differently than worker pay, did NOT stop executives from underpaying workers; budget accountants have almost always had an incentive to minimize DL -- or "Direct Labor" costs (typically workers on the floor of the manufacturing plant / construction workers / wage-hour slaves)  -- lower labor costs  imply better efficiency, and greater efficiency means larger bonuses to managers and executives.   Because of this practice, companies have always sought to pay laborers as little as possible, and erroneously rewarded executives and managers who egotistically presume they are responsible for the "efficiency". 

Plant managers and executives, driven by the need to minimize "costs," would run through workers, with no heed to overtime, working conditions or general welfare of the workers.   Perhaps the only good thing to come out of this historical treatment is the federal minimum wage (which is another can of worms for another day).

Key:  Tax revenue inclusive of salaries and wages.   Tax-free dividend distributions to non-employee shareholders

Historically, if a business had, $2M in revenue and $1M in non-wage / salary expenses for a net profit of $1M ($2M - $1M = $1M), the corporate tax would be the same whether that business' $1M in payment expenses was $900,000 to the CEO and $20,000 to each of its five employees, or if the $1M was divided equally among all the workers.   With our new system, we tax revenue inclusive of salaries and wages; a business has tax liability on the full $1M to be distributed.  The actual tax payment due will vary, and depend upon how it's divvied up.   Thus, each dollar "paid out" in the form of wages and salaries  should be taxed only once; the leftover profit residual to keep the business going would be distributed tax-free to non-employee shareholdersFor employee shareholders, the stock  and dividends are essentially "additions" to salary, and be added to regular income. 
   
Keys:  disallow mortgage interest deductions; disallow deducting the "cost of obtaining a loan";  Dis-incentivize tax breaks for single companies managing multiple properties

The second loophole from the twisted mass of rusted-out metal that we don't want to duplicate on our new system has to do with property ownership.

First, let's look at the mortgage interest deduction.   This "individual" income tax deduction, as well as its "corporate" twin -- amortized lease expense -- is a cunning and insidious loose little thread.  As we saw from the sub-prime mortgage industry crisis of 2008, this loose thread unraveled the housing / commercial real estate industry and drew an impossibly deep rift between those individuals and businesses beneath the threshold of poverty, and those who teeter barely above its brink.

When Realtors and mortgage brokers collude, the result is disaster.  The 2011 documentary The Flaw discusses the "how" and "why":

Seems almost anti-intuitive, doesn't it, that a deduction that sounds so good could be so bad?  We can deduce that the intent of the deduction was originally probably peddled as being "good," but today we have overwhelming evidence that in the real-world, it has failed miserably to fulfill its purpose.  These are the facts:  this specific loophole allows real estate agents and landlords and mortgage brokers and investment bankers -- any and everyone with a finger in the "property management" pie -- to get away with legalized extortion under the guise of helping people fulfill the "American dream" of home ownership.

Landlords and PMCs use the "steady income" of rent payments to take out larger and larger chunks of debt (not to mention get bigger and bigger tax breaks).   They refinance and restructure their mortgages, always passing the cost of doing so on to the renter, while -- like a snake shedding its skin -- getting out of the liability of such "risky ventures."  

Indeed, the IRS code for tax handling of residential rental property and business  expenses expounds further.

So . . . given all of this, we know what is wrong.  How can we help our new system work better?  There are two possibilities:  dis-incentivize bad behaviors or incentivize good behavior.   In Part III we'll dig into each possibility.