Exactly two years ago we launched Mallowstreet.
Here’s the blog I wrote a few weeks later:
“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door…”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Well, we finally delivered the mousetrap and the world is beginning to beat a path to our door; the one in the middle of the woods at the north-east corner of the City and on the border of edgy Shoreditch. Yes, after seven months of painstaking development, mallowstreet went live at 20:00 on 23rd November 2009.
We created mallowstreet because the more we talked to people, the more it seemed like a good idea. To be honest, it’s not like everyone was telling us to go build a digital social platform, but enough people said they didn’t feel connected to other people whom they thought could be important to them.
Others said they didn’t have enough access to good products and services. Some people said they were being asked to deal with complex issues they didn’t really understand. And still others said they were pensions lawyers who didn’t know a single asset manager and didn’t really understand the inner workings of asset backed securities although they were being asked to express legal opinions on them.
Some people told us they worked in a Pensions Solutions Group at a bank, but had zero direct access to pension trustees, so weren’t sure if they were on the right track.
And a lot of pension fund trustees said they felt too reliant on a single consultant, that they didn’t know many other trustees or pension fund managers, and that despite their best efforts, they felt they were fighting a losing battle as the funding level inexorably declined.
At the exact same time, we watched as 370 million people joined a website called Facebook and 60 million people signed on to another online platform called LinkedIn. The web, we realized, brings like minded people together.
We were also intrigued by the subtle, powerful influence of a website like Amazon. I mean, last Christmas, millions of people didn’t bother going to the shops; they just ordered their stuff online and it arrived the next day ready to be wrapped and put directly under the tree.
And that’s not all. Oh no. Amazon sorts things and it does it on a scale that is frankly incredible. Amazon catalogues literally (ho, ho) millions of books and it will find the one you are looking for in the blink of an eye. Amazon will also tell you what the crowd really thinks of your book and what else the crowd thinks you should read. “If you liked that, you’ll love this…”
We checked out TripAdvisor. Same idea. Just hotels, not books. The web, we recognized, sorts and sifts vast amounts of information, quickly and very, very, efficiently.
Then, as we got stuck for answers and used Google, we thought long and hard about the power of a website that comes up with an answer to your question almost as quickly as you can type it. What is Tiger Woods’ real name? What is the population of Bali? Who is the oldest person in the world right now?
Eldrick Tont, 3,156,912 and Gertrude Baines. Just like that.
A while ago my Apple Mac froze and, try as I might, I couldn’t eject a DVD. The pair of tweezers I brought to bear just snapped off bits of plastic. So I went online, threw out the question into a forum on Macs and a guy in San Francisco said to press down on the mouse pad for 8 seconds and then hit the Eject button. It worked.
The web, we understood, answers your questions. Even the most niche and obscure. And there are lots of world class experts “out there” with answers to the pension industry’s many questions.
Earlier this year we signed up to Twitter and witnessed the greatest paradox of all. A system of online communication that limits you to only 140 characters, becomes the most powerful communication tool of all time. It almost brings down the Iranian government.
Some Twitterers have more than a million “followers”. It introduces a level of connectivity and dialogue that makes all previous connections pale into insignificance. If you’re not on Twitter, you will think I’m over-egging it. If you are, you won’t. Now, we appreciated that the web turns everything into a conversation.
Meanwhile, YouTube, the video sharing website set up in 2005 by Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, established itself as an online phenomenon. 24 hours of video footage is added every minute – the equivalent of Hollywood churning out 150,000 blockbuster movies every week.
Every day, a few minutes of footage “goes viral”. Ghyslain Raza inadvisedly videoed himself waving a metal pole and pretending it was a light sabre. His mate uploaded it to YouTube and it has been viewed more than 21 million times. Someone even made this enhancement to it. Ghyslain has since moved State and changed his name. It is a timeless reminder of the power of the web.
Or take Susan Boyle’s astonishing debut on Britain’s Got Talent, one of the most viewed video clips in history. 81 million online hits confirm it as four minutes of utterly compelling video as the sniggering pre-conceptions of the entire studio and watching television audience are turned upside down. A paradigm shift if ever there was.
We took away three major lessons. First, the Lesson of Ghyslain: Never, ever, video yourself doing something you wouldn’t want everyone else to see. Second, it is now technologically dead easy to create a highly watchable video clip. Third, you can convey a huge amount of information in 3 minutes.
It dawned on us that the web allows anyone, anywhere to broadcast sophisticated, high quality, news and information.
So we got together and asked ourselves “What if?” questions. What if all the like-minded people in the pensions industry could be brought together in one place?
That would include anyone with something to say or offer to pension funds: asset managers, banks, investment consultants, actuaries, law firms, accountancy practices, custodians, administrators etc. It would also include all pension plan trustees, pension managers, corporate senior executives…
What if we provided a place where they could contribute their wisdom, experience, knowledge, humour, whatever and we could sift and sort it like Amazon does? If the crowd could rate everything – tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t – that would be immensely powerful.
What if trustees in particular, but everyone in general, could ask complex questions and get simple answers? That could be truly empowering. I was talking to a trustee a few weeks ago who confessed that after three years of trying he still really didn’t understand what a Total Return Swap was.
What if he could throw that question out onto the street and get back several answers? One might be a video from an expert at a bank. Another might be an article from an asset manager or a contribution in a forum. Or a succinctly written blog. He could choose the best ones, tag them, link them and then tell other people. Soon you would have the best material on the site at the click of your mouse.
We were inspired by Jeff Bezos, the self effacing guy who started Amazon in his bedroom. When he started in 1994 with four others, they tripped the circuit breakers when they tried to run their PC at the same time as a vacuum cleaner because they had so many orange electrical cables plugged in around the house. Now Amazon is one of the world’s most successful companies. Everything is possible.
Well, mallowstreet is growing quickly and as with all digital platforms it’s doing things its creators didn’t anticipate: An inflation swaps trader at a bank messages a trustee at a pension plan: “I cycled L’Etape last year and this year I’m doing Land’s End to John O’Groats. I see you just did both. Let’s grab a coffee. Whenever works for you.” The trustee writes back: “Love to. I’m in Canary Wharf next Tuesday. Does that suit?”
“Sure.” Says the inflation swaps trader. “I’ll meet you at Starbucks and afterwards why don’t you come in and I’ll take you round the trading floor and show you how we construct and execute an inflation swap.”
And there you have it. They’re talking to each other, not as a major financial institution to a large defined benefit pension fund, but as two guys with a similar all-consuming passion. And it leads to a pension fund trustee spending a very useful morning on one of the City’s premier swap desks. That’s a whole new thing. Those conversations are kicking off across mallowstreet and, slowly but surely, like-minded people are connecting.
The community includes pension fund trustees, pension managers and secretaries, corporate sponsors, actuaries, investment consultants, asset managers, investment bankers, lawyers and various industry experts.
Already there are 72 (today: 1,800+) blogs or thought pieces across a wide piste and including inflation, pension deficit funding, social media for pension funds, funding level indices and the Pensions Regulator. Plus much more.
From the pension plan trustee who tracks aircraft, to the actuary who is an expert in Ikebana, to the fixed income world-class tri-athlete, there is, trust me, something for everyone. And we’ve only been on air for three weeks. Cowabunga!