Four Conferences in Four Days

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I just got back from a great trip. I attended four very different conferences in four days all in my timezone!

1) IT governance course in Vancouver

I took my first formal course as a new credit union board director. It was an IT governance introductory course offered by CU Source held in Vancouver on the first day of the Credit Union Central of Canada 2012 Canadian Conference for Credit Union Leaders (yes, that is the longest conference title ever). As information technology is now the second largest expenditure at most credit unions – human resources is typically the largest – it's becoming more and more important for board members to have a deeper understanding of what's going on with the technology in place at their credit union.

Take aways: The course was a good overview, if not a little basic. The focus was more about risk mitigation versus using technology to serve members better. I suppose this will always be the case in such a heavily regulated industry, but I couldn't help feeling that the typical, cautious wait-and-see approach contradicts the notion that credit unions are smaller and, therefore, more nimble. Because most credit unions now out source so much of their IT systems, they can't be nimble – they are at the mercy and time lines of large, expensive and slow-moving vendors that have hundreds of financial institutions to service. In Canada, we're starting to see the big banks really take the lead on implementing technology tools like mobile banking and personal financial management. On a positive note, I think a smarter, more connected board is a really good thing and I appreciated the overview.

2) Filene i3 in San Francisco

I was in invited by the Filene Research Institute to be guest at the i3 group presentations. What's i3? "Ideas, innovation and implementation. Filene i3 is a work group of innovative, insightful and energetic credit union professionals who have not yet reached the CEO level, but are in a position with substantial responsibility. This creative group reflects diversity in experiences, credit union positions, geography and credit union membership. i3ers strive to be transformational leaders in building the future of credit unions and to create new ideas, innovate and implement for the benefit of the credit union industry."

Eight i3 teams, made up of three to five credit union employees, presented their finished projects to an audience of approximately 75 people.

Take-aways: It was encouraging to see the Filene i3 model in action. The credit union industry is old and largely stuck in its ways, but here is a group of people working hard to disrupt and reinvent the credit union movement from the inside out. There were two expert panels made up of accomplished entrepreneurs, scholars and academics that provided feedback to four groups each. Each expert added insightful advice couched with fairly gentle criticism. The ideas were solid, but not necessarily ground-breaking or fully baked. This is to be expected – i3ers are volunteering time outside of their jobs and day-to-day lives.

3) FinovateSpring in San Francisco

I attended the first day of FinovateSpring. Imagine 63 companies all given seven minutes each to demo their working solution to a crowd of more than 1,200 connected critics. No PowerPoint. No faking it. Here are the words that come to mind. Huge. Intense. Fast-paced. Overwhelming. Impressive. Too much. Future. Innovation. Awesome demos and products. So-so demos and products. Zuckerberg-like, T-shirt-wearing geeks rocking their demos. A few ex-bankers trying to be cool, but instead come off slightly awkward on stage.

Take-aways: Going in, I was nervous for credit unions. I was thinking that I was going to witness enormous disruption aimed at toppling incumbents. This wasn't the case. Instead, what I saw was highly polished companies with amazing software looking for partners, investors, clients and distribution channels. These start-ups are well funded with millions sunk in development and now they are looking for a return. Most were pitching the financial institutions in the crowd to implement their white-label solutions. Here are the best of show winners as determined by audience vote (in alphabetic order):

  • BehavioSec for its new security layer based on user typing/swiping patterns
  • BillGuard for its card charge dispute platform, BillGuard FI
  • Dwolla for its FISync service to enable banks to originate real-time payments
  • iQuantifi for its new financial planning and advice tools
  • MoneyDesktop for its PFM platform and integrated "deals"
  • Personal Capital for its iPhone app and interbank funds transfer
  • SoMoLend for its P2P lending platform

It was good to see a large contingent of credit union people there, thanks, in large part, to Filene. 

One sobering note: I was struck by the contrast between the i3 pitches and the Finovate pitches. Finovate is the big leagues. The solutions presented were fully baked and ready for market. You could tell that millions upon millions of dollars had been spent before anyone stepped on stage. The demos showed that the best technology minds in the fintech space are feverishly working at solving big problems. These firms are not regulated and are not stuck in their ways.

This is not a new wake-up call for credit unions – it's the same song I've been singing for years. But what was new for me was how in my face this reality was at Finovate. These solutions are real and they're spectactular! My hope is that credit unions get onboard and partner with the best solutions to offer their members more compelling reasons to stick around. I think Filene is well positioned to facilitate this connection between Silicon Valley and the credit union industry.

4) NCGA Marketing Matters in Portland

For my last stop on my whirlwind Westcoast tour, I was the keynote speaker at the National Cooperative Grocers Association Marketing Matters conference in Portland, Oregon. I did two talks:

  1. The Young & Free Story
  2. Integrated Social Media Marketing

Take-aways: I learned that there are a lot of parallels between credit unions and cooperative grocers. Shared challenges include awareness and understanding, selling member shares, economies of scale and confusion with competitors – community banks for credit unions and Whole Foods and Trader Joe's for cooperative grocery stores. And wouldn't you know it, cooperative grocers are also finding it difficult to attract Gen Y! I attended the reception on day one and it was like being in a credit union parallel universe with such similar conversations!

The highlight was someone telling me, "I can't believe you made me cry about overdraft fees." Ha!

In this International Year of Cooperatives, there seems to be a heightened realization that credit unions are cooperatives and that there is potential for cooperatives of different stripes to work together. This is a good thing.

I ended my second talk with some fun. Check it out (and pardon my shaky iPhone camera work).

Tim