Q&A with Karen Webster, President of PYMNTS.com
WePay had the opportunity to catch up to Karen Webster, President of PYMNTS.com, at Money 20/20 and turn the tables a little on her by interviewing her about the payments space and trends she sees in payments coming out of the conference.
How did you get payments space and go on to build one of the payments industry’s top information platforms?
The consulting firm that I co-founded in the early 2000’s specialized in helping platform businesses develop the strategies, design principles, business and pricing models to launch and scale their businesses. Key to our work was a proven economic framework based on more than two decades of economic empirical work by my co-founder and our Chairman – both recognized experts on this topic. We used this framework to help platforms across many industries identify ways to leverage their platform assets to identify new opportunities, create and ignite new platforms, and/or defend their platform against emerging competitors. Payments was one of the sectors that we focused on and we were lucky to have worked with many of the leading innovators in the space (and we still do!)
In 2007, we began doing work with the then CEO of Business Wire after she read something we wrote about platform business challenges. Business Wire’s core business is content distribution – and we suggested, among other things, that they consider a strategy to reinvent the way that business- to- business content was developed and distributed. That evolved to become a joint venture with them to launch V.0 of PYMNTS.com in October 2008; Business Wire remained our partner until 2015.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Coming out of the Money 20/20 conference, what’s exciting you most in terms of companies, technologies, and/or trends?
I think there are several things that have caught my attention over the last year:
Authentication – even though it may not *sound* exciting, getting the balance right between security and convenience is really important now that a whole new crop of connected endpoints are capable of enabling commerce. The parties involved need assurance that the person or business they are interacting with is the real deal, has authentic credentials and the permission to use them. And the consumer can’t be subjected to lots of friction in the process – yet needs to feel comfortable that her identity and account credentials are secure. I see a lot of exciting (and necessary) developments in this area, particularly in the area of biometrics.
Voice-enabled commerce – voice is the most ubiquitous and natural “access” interface that we have – and for commerce, I think it has amazing potential. We are in very early days, but the level of interest in buying and using voice-activated speakers to engage in commerce, in just the last few years, from across all demographics makes my point.
Acquiring and Merchant Services. The transformation and disruption of the merchant services business is playing out right in front of our eyes – and in real time. I would characterize it as co-opetition on steroids right now as hardware, software, payments, processing services and new platforms all converge, consolidate and collide to reshape the merchant services supply chain in entirely new ways. How these players and the balance of power ebbs and flows over the next couple of years will be fascinating to watch.
And what do you see as most overhyped right now?
Cryptocurrencies and “the blockchain.” There is such a lack of understanding about both – including how the terminology is used – and the lack of a framework and context for examining the practical application of these technologies for financial services. It’s hard to have a balanced debate on the topic as a result so it all sounds like noise to me right now.
You’ve got pretty much every payments industry and fintech CEO on speed dial. Who most inspires you and why?
I admire and am inspired by every innovator I talk to – from the new guys just starting out to the big guys looking to adapt their business to a new way of doing business in the dynamic digital world in which we live now. I love hearing about what motivated their ideas, how they plan to ignite those ideas, and what they are learning along the way. It takes guts to get up every day and give it your all while slogging through the tough work of getting a platform off the ground. I always leave those conversations humbled by the unwavering commitment they have to solving the tough problems in payments and commerce in the face of such huge obstacles.
What’s the fate of the Bitcoin?
When you think about the business of the PYMNTS.com platform, what metrics do you use to measure success?
We track three metrics, four times a day, that tell us how engaged our readers are – and we circulate those metrics to everyone in the entire firm. This reader report card measures how many people come to the site, how many pages of content they consume when they get there and how much time they spend doing both – and it’s important that everyone in the firm feels that they play a part in driving those numbers. If we are able to engage our readers with the kind of interesting, original content that helps them do their jobs better – and if we focus on nailing that each and every day, then I believe the rest will take care of itself.
What’s an operating lesson you’ve learned that you often share with others?
I guess if I had to boil it down to one lesson, it’s to focus. That probably sounds a bit like motherhood and apple pie, but to know where to focus one first must have real clarity about what problem you’re out to solve – and for whom; some certainty about whether that problem is big enough to build a business around; whether it is one in which you have or can create the kind of barriers to entry that drive scale. Then, once you’ve answered the tough questions that narrow that focus, it’s then time to execute the heck out of it.
What’s the next big thing in payments?
I don’t think that there is just one big thing.
What I love about where we are in payments right now is the many, many opportunities at the intersection of mobile, digital, data, the cloud and the internet that are there – just waiting for innovators to find and unleash their creative energies. Three years ago, the notion of talking to a virtual assistant via a speaker and having her order and deliver your dog food a day later was the stuff of either science fiction or cartoons. So was the ability to embed payments into software so that businesses could get paid faster and improve their cash flow without having to endure months of development and integration time. Or for a bank to digitally open a new account and have it provisioned inside of a mobile app – knowing that the person on the other end was the real deal – and have it done quite literally in the blink of an eye.
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of where innovators and their imaginations can take us – and I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to talk to and work with so many of them as help us see and live a new future – and share their accomplishments on PYMNTS.com.