Interview

What’s Cooking with Spiros Margaris? On Fintech, Corona, & the Future

The venture capitalist, TEDx speaker, influencer, and fintech expert speaks on the state of the fintech industry.

The fintech industry is at once an increasingly prevalent and increasingly invisible force in many–if not most–of human society.

Indeed, the fintech industry seems to be growing horizontally: while there are some companies that aim to build ‘full-contact’ relationships with their clientele, a growing number of them are building infrastructure that takes an elegant backseat to the lives of their customers: technology that is as intuitive and easy-to-use as breathing air.

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However, in the current environment, the balance between being at once seen and invisible is quite a challenge, particularly for young companies; add coronavirus to the mix, and the path forward for fintech startups becomes even more complex.

Recently, Finance Magnates sat down with Spiros Margaris, venture capitalist and founder of Margaris Ventures, to talk about the relationship between building brand and user experience, as well as the effects that the coronavirus will have on the fintech industry.

This is an excerpt. To hear the full interview with Spiros Margaris, click the Soundcloud or Youtube links below.

 

Who is Spiros Margaris?

After decades of working in the finance industry, Spiros has seen–and done–it all.

“My past was in asset management, in hedge funds,” he explained. “I lived for 20 years in the States, and I had two startups, which also crashed during the dot com era–so, I know how that is.”

“Many years ago I left my company where I was a partner in Switzerland, and looked for new opportunities to invest in startups–then, fintech slowly started to come to the seen,” he said, adding that “fintech” wasn’t even called “fintech” at the time, although “financial tech” companies did exist.

“Then, I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” he continued. “But, besides asset management–looking at companies as a portfolio manager and an investor…I’ve had my share of failures and successes, and I think that’s part of my success story now.”

A success story indeed: Spiros has also risen to the top of the fintech industry as an influencer, with almost 100k followers and 50 million readers on Twitter per year; he has been ranked the top influencer in the space by Onalytica, a prominent Influencer Relationship Management (IRM) SaaS platform recognized by Gartner, Forrester & industry influencers.

“People take me also as a brand ambassador for their startups,” Spiros continued. “[…] There are so many startups out there–good ones,” he added.

But there’s a challenge for these startups when it comes to “getting [their] voices heard”: that is, “it’s like radio stations,” Spiros said. “There are a lot of bands, but if the radio station doesn’t play your music, then it’s probably hard to get a big following and the attention your startup deserves.”

How can fintech startups get their voices heard?

Of course, “it takes more than just an audience,” Spiros explained. For example, “I’m not involved in any startup that doesn’t have clients, because otherwise, it’s just an idea–and it’s very important for me to realize that those startups know how to sell their solution.”

This is because “once they sell to clients, it means that some people believe that what they do adds value to their business, and pay for it.”

Additionally, “[startups] should know [their] industry,” Spiros said; in particular, “[you should know] who the thought leaders and advisors are who can help [startups] grow further and strengthen their brand recognition. Many startups think they don’t need anyone to grow their brand, and it is sufficient to do what they did so far to be successful.”

Indeed, these companies seem to think that “‘oh, we’re successful, we have a PR company, et cetera’, but that’s just part of the game.”

“And you can’t buy journalism,” he added. “You can’t buy good articles–I can’t do it either. I can’t call a journalist and say ‘write this’. But if what we do is interesting enough, they might comment, because I’m a prominent voice–but I can’t approach them and say, ‘hey, would you like to push this?’”

“And I would never do that,” he added, “because you have to protect the integrity of the journalists–besides, they won’t allow it.”

Fintech companies need the “right” exposure

Still, “[…] it’s very complex,” Spiros digressed, “the efforts those startups give–they bigger they get, it’s just a plainly different league, and then you need to think of different things that are appropriate to the new competitive environment.”

Specifically (in addition to clients and public relations), “people who have an [existing], strong, global brand who can help startups enhance their brand–not among just clients, investors, and journalists, but globally…if you connect yourself with some of the ‘top guys’, the chances are better than you get the right exposure.”

But how can startups gain the attention of top influencers in the space?

It really comes down to raw material, Spiros said: “one trick that I have when I look at startups is that I don’t study them in the beginning–because the longer I spend on understanding the business model, et cetera, the more I invest time and effort–in the end, I might just like them because I spent so much time on it.”

Indeed, “I’d rather look at it and say, ‘oh! I like this idea.’ […] if I like it as a consumer, then it’s much more interesting for me.”

Spiros also said that he tries to avoid a sort of confirmation when it comes to evaluating startups: “[there’s a tendency] that even if people realize they’re wrong, they can’t leave their path. For me, I don’t want to commit myself to an opinion and just let it happen. If it doesn’t resonate, then it’s maybe not something for me.”

The tech is out there: now, fintech companies must differentiate themselves with innovative thinking

And what is resonating with Spiros at the moment?

He commented that there isn’t necessarily any one thing in particular–after all, the things that are developing in the fintech space at the moment are mostly extensions and reiterations of existing technologies.

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“We [all] have the same ingredients…AI, [fintech], insurtech, Internet of Things–and, and, and. The technology’s out there, but everyone uses it differently.”

Spiros made a comparison to the food industry: “it’s the same as a cook–if we both had a restaurant, we would buy the same [ingredients], but maybe your dishes would taste better, because you mix it differently; you present it differently in the kitchen, you cook it differently.”

“It’s the same thing with technology,” he continued. It’s not about “trends” anymore–”everyone knows what’s out there–it’s a question of how you will use it.” Just like in a restaurant, “people come to eat, and when they leave, they might recommend it.”

Indeed, “[…] it’s not about trends any more,” he said. “It’s all out there…in the end, it’s the ‘chef’, the ‘cook’, and the team that differentiates,” he said. “Like restaurants.”

Fintech is “past the peak”

Indeed, the most groundbreaking things in fintech at the moment are these reiterations and recombinations: therefore, “we’re past the peak,” Spiros said.

However, “fintech is increasingly important…although maybe people are less aware that it’s there,” Spiros said.

“This is a compliment to fintech, because the less obvious it is, the better it is,” he explained. “It’s user experience–if you have to read how a phone works, that’s not a good user experience; if you pick it up and it works, that’s a great user experience.”

 

In other words, “the less thinking you do, the better it is” when it comes to B2C. “[…] It’s like breathing air–if you don’t have it anymore, it’s a problem. But you don’t walk through the street [saying], ‘oh my god, [I’m breathing.]’”

Of course, this doesn’t apply to every aspect of the fintech industry: “B2B has different goals–in B2B, people don’t really care about fintech being like air. But in B2C, yes.”

“We’re all against cash, but cash is great.”

Spiros pointed specifically to the advent of Amazon shops that allow customers to walk in, take what they need, pay, and walk out without having to interact with a cashier. “That’s great user experience,” he said.

However, he also pointed to the fact that laws are being drafted in certain states to require a cashier to be on the premises to assist people who may not have credit cards. While this is a separate issue, Spiros noted that this points to what may be an unpopular truth in the fintech space.

“We’re all against cash,” he said. “But cash is great.”

After all, “cash gives you privacy,” he said; additionally, “now with corona, we are all locked up; we could not have imagined that this would have happened many years ago…but it’s reality.”

And indeed, the sudden and massive paradigm shift that coronavirus has brought onto the world has opened the whole world to discussions about preparedness for disaster and sudden paradigm shifts more generally.

For example, “what about if we don’t have electricity for two weeks?” he said. “How are you gonna get the money out of your bank? How are you going to pay for something? It could happen. I mean, anything could happen.”

Therefore, Spiros said that people and governments must realize that “there’s a value to cash.”

For startups, the next one to two years will be rough

In addition to the rise of this ‘disaster-preparedness’ mindset across human life, Spiros pointed to a number of other long-term consequences for fintech that will likely come as a result of the coronavirus.

“[For] smaller startups, it’s going to be harder to get funding,” he said. “[…] I think that if [a startup doesn’t] have enough money for the next one to two years–at least one year–it will be very hard to survive, because investors–whatever money they have–they will probably invest in startups that will survive and are already in their portfolios.”

“If you can show your investors that your business will survive, because you will have fewer customers, and your running costs are not as high–your burn rate is manageable–I think that will attract more investors than if you come to them and say, ‘we might go under if we don’t get money’. That’s going to scare a lot of people off.”

But early-stage companies won’t be the only ones who are affected by the economic fallout from the coronavirus: “even banks will be shaken…even tech giants are shaken by corona.”

However, “if you’re a big player, you’re probably going to survive and get stronger–Amazon, Facebook, Google, big banks–and the smaller players, small fintechs, a lot of them will disappear regardless, besides the fact that a lot of them disappear anyway because that’s the nature of the startup business.”

The greater consequence of all of this, Spiros said, is that “innovation will go down because if there’s less competition out there, there isn’t a need to innovate as much.”

This is an excerpt. To hear Finance Magnates’ full interview with Spiros Margaris, visit us on Soundcloud or Youtube. Special thanks to Spiros Margaris.

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