Wherein I
introduce
an important
new “product”

A significant event occurred last month in the payments industry.Yet for reasons beyond me, it went unreported in the press. You needn’t feel bad if the news didn’t reach you, for in fact it didn’t reach a lot of people. Moreover, you may not have felt its effects. It is only due to its immediate effect on me that I am aware of it and have decided to report on it. You can tell your friends you saw it here first.

Matt&Harrison

Harrison is the one
on the right.

The event, which took place on July 3, was the arrival of Harrison Grey Wilcox. 7.4 pounds and 19.5 inches, if you must know.

Accuse me of abusing this blog solely to brag about my newest kid if you wish. I have two replies. My first reply is, “Yeah, so?” My second reply is a bit more involved, and actually has something to do with this financial services business that you and I are in.

Sometimes a technological innovation is so sexy that there’s a temptation to sit back, admire it for the thing of beauty that it is, and assume that the market will ooh and ahh right along with us. But the objective isn’t to solely to dazzle, nor solely to produce a return pleasing to shareholders, important as that is. Ultimately, products succeed when they make life a little better for real people living in the real world. That is the distinction between features and benefits, as any decent marketer knows.

“Make life a little better” is no exaggeration. Anyone who ever made a purchase by check in the 1970s or earlier knows just how painful the process was. (Note: I am way too young to have experienced that first-hand. I heard about it from my parents. Or was it my grandparents?) You had to dig for your checkbook, find a pen that worked, fill out the check and, doing the math by hand, record it in a register. You had to produce three forms of ID, which usually meant a driver license and two credit cards. Finally, the clerk had to run and find a manager to approve your check. All of this took place while a line of customers behind you grew longer and grouchier. I think it’s fair to say that the invention of a system that lets you simply wave your smartphone and leave has made life a little better. It’s faster, easier, less stressful, more fun, and a heckuva lot more secure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They had to invent this before they could invent your smart phone.

The roots of this faster, easier, less stressful, more fun, heckuva lot more secure solution stretch farther back than you may think. Some credit surely must go to Basile Bouchon and Jean-Baptiste Falcon who, in order to bring the textiles industry into the 1790s, came up with a loom-controlling device that used punch cards. Their loom was a big success, and their punch cards were a bigger one. Innovative uses for punch cards followed until, in 1890, the United States government for the first time used punch cards to tabulate census data. This was thanks to a machine designed by Herman Hollerith, who was the first to think of using punch cards not just to control machines but to tabulate data. Not long after, Hollerith started The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. You may have heard of it, especially after it became International Business Machines, that is, IBM.

Progress accelerated. Punch cards gave way to magnetic tape, which gave way to an evolving series of magnetic disks, which gave way to an evolving series of laser disks, which gave way to … well, here we are today with pocket-sized devices that make Captain Kirk’s communicator look laughable and pack more computing power than housefuls of 1950s electronics.

Messieurs Bouchon’s and Falcon’s innovation in the late 18th century had profound effects on life in the there and then. Imagine their wide eyes had they been given so much as a glimpse of the changes brought about almost daily today by their great-great-great (and so on) grand-invention.

Holding Harrison in my arms, I can’t help pausing to think about the world of convenience and security that we’re building today, and wonder what it will look like by the time we turn it over to him and both of his (adorable) big sisters.

It drives home to me that what we’re doing with ones and zeroes matters not just in business, but at the human level. Over time, it may end up mattering a lot more than we can possibly anticipate. So let’s do it right.

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