SVP of Mastercard Ventures shares tips and wisdom for innovators.
Mastercard boasts 2.3 billion cardholders, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what the company offers. Their mission is to connect and power an inclusive digital economy by making transactions safe and simple for everyone, everywhere.
With nearly 40 years of professional experience, James was there to witness first-hand the introduction of personal computers and the World Wide Web, and the staggering evolution of these technologies over the years.
At Mastercard, James is Senior Vice President Innovation of Mastercard Labs as a Service, and SVP of Mastercard Ventures. Mastercard Labs used to mainly drive innovation within the company, until customers started approaching them saying “hey, what you’re doing is amazing – can you help me do the same?”
And so, Mastercard Labs as a Service grew into a vast organization with teams in 15 countries focused on product innovation and digital solutions.
Here are the key tips and ideas that James shared during Disruption Talks with our CEO, Marek Talarczyk.
Listen to this episode on our Disruption Talks podcast:
Eight lessons from James
- Technology is always about utility. If you find the utility, people will take up the technology.
- Innovation loves a deadline.
- Evidence defeats disbelief.
- When you’re helping customers solve real problems, you get a great buzz out of it.
- If you want to be as successful as Mastercard, you need to be a true business partner that shares knowledge.
- Not all great innovation is on the bleeding edge – a lot of it is about bringing proven capabilities to the table that de-risk the execution curve.
- The law of economic certainty: it ALWAYS takes longer than you think, costs more, and you end up making less than you wanted.
- James’ father used to say: “if you’re sitting opposite someone and you’re not driving value into the conversation immediately, you should leave the room.”
Trends are easy to notice but hard to implement
James describes his team as sherpas in the process of digital acceleration. Having done over 2,000 engagements around the world, he noticed that companies generally face the same difficulties when it comes to innovating.
The main difficulty is finding ways to apply new technological trends to your business in a way that makes sense. To get to the bottom of this, James’s process is to build intimacy with his clients and deeply explore their problems.
You won’t get any lengthy, theoretical, 200-slide Powerpoint presentations here.
James is always looking for ways to rapidly prototype and put things in front of customers.
We’re talking one-week prototyping sprints, immediate feedback, agile methodologies, and first-principles design thinking.
His work always starts with talking about the problems and needs of customers, because this is the most fundamental part of building new products – immediate feedback.
But, as James says, this is very often missed in technology. People get too wrapped up in their visions and their tech, when it should be the other way around. Always start with the customers and their needs, and the vision and tech will follow.
The digital genie is never going back in the bottle
In James’ view, we’re still at the very beginning of the cycle of digitization. Cash, or the gradual disappearance of it, is where innovation is most clearly visible.
In the past, you’d catch a taxi and pay by cash – now you hail an Uber and you don’t even notice the money changing hands. It all happens in the background. This trend will only keep speeding up.
James mentioned Thailand as an example, a country that went from 90% transactions in cash pre-covid to 90% digital transactions now.
What we’ll see next is increasing maturity and tightening regulations in the digital sphere. Data is a great example here. In the past, the average person didn’t even realize that all their online data was collected. Now, the awareness has grown but we still don’t control 100% of what happens with our data.
With time, we’ll have regulations that make it so you’re the owner of your data, not Big Tech. As the digital genie grows in power, security and trust will be the main aspects of how companies differentiate themselves, not just in payments but across the economy.
Don’t listen to forecasters or doomsayers
ChatGPT, and AI in general, is a great example of how people love to play fortune tellers and spout visions where technology will either create a utopia or destroy the world.
With the unprecedented speed of digital acceleration, it’s true there’s a lot of uncertainty out there, important ethical concerns, overhyped trends, and simply senseless tech applications. James believes we indeed have many lessons to learn.
However, the best companies have always innovated.
Whether you’re looking to capitalize on generative AI or the metaverse, James says the most important thing is to really understand the tech before you apply it, and to have clear goals.
To him, technology is ALWAYS about utility. It’s up to future-oriented leaders to find the signal in the noise and turn tech into something useful to individuals, societies, and economies.