22 August 2016
As my colleagues and I have been talking about here at geek.ly, changes in technology are occurring at exponential rates. This is overwhelming, awesomely fun and incredibly challenging. But sometimes I have to step off the ever-accelerating carousel to re-focus on my business goals, to remember who my customers are and to understand the reasons people buy and use my products.

That's when I take the time to ask myself, "What would A.P. Giannini do?"

Take the Hard Road to Meet Your Customer
"Be the first in everything."  -- A.P. Giannini

If you are a Californian of a certain age, or an MBA student looking at banking, or a history nerd like me, you have probably heard of Amadeo Peter "A.P." Giannini. The son of Italian immigrants, Giannini was born in San Jose, California in 1870. He left college to join his stepfather's produce business, eventually owning the business himself, and by age 31, sold the business and retired.

In his retirement, Giannini ended up as one of the directors of Columbus Savings and Loan. Columbus, like every other bank of the era, saw its job as working solely with the rich. Even though San Francisco was the financial capital of the western U.S. -- funding the development of Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle -- small businesses and families in San Francisco couldn't get banks to lend them even $100 (approximately $2,500 in today's currency), and sometimes had to resort to loan sharks. Giannini argued that Columbus was missing a large opportunity in its own backyard, one where borrowers could develop personal relationships with a bank that would grow and prosper along with them.

In 1904, finally fed up with Columbus' other board members, Giannini started the Bank of Italy specifically for "the little fellow." The first headquarters was a converted saloon across the street from Columbus; the bartender was hired as an assistant teller. The bank was initially funded by a "friends and family" round. Under bank policy, loans were authorized based on people's reputation within the community, and the bank accepted deposits as small as a dime.

Giannini created an entrepreneurial bank from the beginning, targeting families in the community and offering loans to buy essential appliances like refrigerators, home loans for working people and revolving credit for small businesses.
We don't create the documentation, provide the training, or adapt the products to make them usable by customers.
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Educate Your Customer Base
"How can people know what a bank can and will do for them unless they're told?"  -- A.P. Giannini

Giannini saw that other banks had been taking the low-friction path, lending money to people who already knew how to use it. Bank of Italy had to teach its customers what savings accounts were and how loans worked. These customers were hard-working folks, but no one had ever sought to build a bank around them because of the effort involved in educating them -- in other words, creating knowledgeable users who understood the bank's product offerings. At the same time as it educated its customers, the bank adapted itself to them. Giannini famously created policies that emphasized a borrower's character as the primary evaluation criteria for a loan.

Probably because I am a teacher, but especially because I am a user, I think this is something we in tech constantly miss: we don't create the documentation, provide the training, or adapt the products to make them usable by customers. They may look great (or not), but how quickly can our users grasp what our tools are, what they do, and how to use them effectively?

What's the Point of Disaster Recovery?
"Be ready to help people when they need it most. Get ready to yank them out of a hole. The glad hand is alright in sunshine, but it's the helping hand on a dark day that folks remember to the end of time."  -- A.P. Giannini

On April 18, 1906, the infamous San Francisco earthquake struck. Giannini realized that even though the bank building had suffered little damage, fire might still strike. So he moved the bank's cash, gold and silver out of the San Francisco fire zone. Once the fires subsided, other banks were not able to open their vaults (the contents were superheated by the fires, and in the presence of oxygen would have been destroyed), but the Bank of Italy was able to address its customers’ needs with cash. Seeing Bank of Italy's ability to cope with the disaster, new customers flocked to the bank. This growth was so overwhelming, and the devastation of San Francisco was so complete, that Giannini authorized loan officers to grant loans based on the word of the borrower. All these loans were paid back to the penny.

When you look at your disaster recovery and business continuity plans, are you looking at them from the customer's perspective? Undoubtedly, Giannini's competitors would argue that they came through the earthquake just fine: everything in the safes survived and no one lost a penny. But no one could access those pennies! People needed money to find a place to live, to rebuild, to tide them over until San Francisco started to function again. What guarantees do your customers have that when the inevitable disaster strikes your company (and possibly theirs as well), you can support their recovery along with your own?
We can trust that the best startups and enterprises will use cloud services to innovate around obstacles and competitors.
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What Are People Building With Your Products?
"There is no fun in working merely for money. I like to do things, to be a builder."  -- A.P. Giannini

The Bank of Italy became the Bank of America when California made branch banking legal in the state and the bank expanded outside the San Francisco Bay Area. The bank of "the little fellow" contributed to California becoming the seventh largest economy in the world by funding the industries that made California unique, such as:
  • The movie industry -- the first movie Bank of America made a loan for was Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, and Bank of America lent Walt Disney the money to 
  • make Snow White.
  • The wine industry and specialty agriculture -- Bank of Italy made its first winery loan in 1911, and by the 1920s Bank of America had created a statewide winery service. The infrastructure survived Prohibition and helped restart the industry.
  • California's infrastructure -- Bank of America bought the first bonds for, and therefore validated the building of, the Golden Gate Bridge. 
  • Banking itself -- Bank of America's focus on ordinary people led it to create home mortgage products, which helped finance the building boom that built out California before and after World War II.
What role does your technology play in your customer's business or operations? Where might the customer leverage your technology to build a new product, a new business, or even a new industry? If your products are designed only to replace incumbent technologies, procedures, or processes, then why would someone turn to you when a new approach is required?

Seeing New Ways to Use New Tools
"I thrive on obstacles, particularly obstacles placed in my way by narrow-gauged competitors..."  -- A.P. Giannini

Giannini saw money as a tool, not an uncommon view among bankers. But he saw it as a tool that could be used by any responsible person, a tool he could provide to people to better their lives, build a business, even create movies or erect bridges. And the more audacious the use case, the better.

Being audacious is how the most successful cloud users will win. As an example, using the cloud to replace existing data centers may save a lot money (though many naysayers have strident opinions about this), but those who will "win" with the cloud won't stop there. Just as Giannini trusted "the little fellow" to make best use of his bank's services, we can trust that the best startups and enterprises will use cloud services to innovate around obstacles and competitors.

The answer to the question, "What would A.P. Giannini do?" should always be, "The thing that creates new opportunity for everyone."
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