Accountants vs. Robots: Fintech superheroes to the rescue

One does not have to browse for too long in today’s news headlines before encountering a story about how machines are replacing a lot of the jobs that used to be done by humans. These stories usually come with dramatic headlines, and for an avid reader of science fiction such as myself, it feels like the next step may actually be Isaac Asimov’s vision of humans starting to develop romantic relationships with robots, or robots taking over the task of raising and nurturing our children (arguably some parents have already started taking this leap with iPads).

While it is hard to predict when the first romantic relationship between a human being and a machine may occur (for the record, in a story that he wrote in 1953 Asimov predicted that the first self-driving car would be created in 2015, and romantic relationships were just a few decades behind – so watch out!) it is clear that machines have already started to take over a lot of the jobs that people took for granted, and this has clearly caused a profound level of stress in people that are being replaced by efficient (and more effective!) machines.

As an investor in technology driven companies, I have to admit that this triggers two conflicting emotions in me: On the one hand, it is impossible not to worry about all the disruption that society will be going through with this tsunami of technological change, while on the other hand one gets quite excited about all the new possibilities that the new technology enables.

So, will we ever be able to constructively deal with our own creations becoming better than us at what we do? In an attempt to gain some insight, I decided to read a book that I thought would be relevant in this context: “Deep Thinking” by Garry Kasparov, which is a first-hand account of how the then reigning world chess champion Kasparov came to terms with being beaten by a chess playing. With the whole world watching intently, Kasparov was decisively crushed by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, and thus became one of the most well documented case studies of machines trumping humans.

Based on Kasparov’s public statements after the match, as well as the general media coverage back then, it would be all too easy to conclude that Kasparov did not take the defeat very well!

Kasparov on losing to Deep Blue: “I was really angry and I couldn’t help comparing [a particular move in game 2] with Maradona’s Hand of God”

However, with the benefit of twenty-two years of hindsight, it is amazing to see how Kasparov has come to terms with his loss. Everybody should certainly read his book to find out for themselves, but one key insight that stands out is that humans can actually partner with machines to beat computers at their own game. In his book, Kasparov has some rare tidbits, one of which includes Kasparov’s Rule: Weak Human + Computer + Strong Process is better than Strong Human + Computer + Weak Process. In other words, we as humans can beat just about anyone as long as we know how to employ data crunching computers on the one hand and smartly designed processes on the other hand.

So how does this all relate to the world of finance and fintech? While Kasparov was a very publicized example, it turns out he was merely the canary in the coal mine, as what happened to him soon started happening to others. Brokers, traders, accountants and all sorts of finance professionals started being impacted, not to mention other industries such as travel agencies and organized retailers. The accounting example in particular is interesting for us at QED, since we believe that there is great opportunity in the midst of all this disruption in an area we know particularly well: small business lending.

Just as Kasparov was able to see the silver lining for the world of chess in his defeat, cloud accounting software and bookkeeping automation has opened up new horizons for the accountants of the world. Rather than seeing a job being taken away, they can now see it as an opportunity to start focusing on how to devote their energies on advising their business clients on other important finance related questions beyond just balancing the books. Obviously, the most important such question is to how to grow their business, which in many cases relates to funding, something that is not always easily accessible for a small business.

Capitalise cofounders Paul Surtees and Ollie Maitland: Turning accountants into fintech superheroes.

One of our investments in particular, a London based fintech startup called Capitalise, has tackled this opportunity head-on, by creating a platform that connects the hundred thousand plus accountants in the UK with finance providers, hence enabling these accountants to do what community bank branch managers used to do fifty years ago – advise entrepreneurs how to fund and grow their business. And the timing could not have been better! As bookkeeping was being automated, thousands of bank branches were shutting down, leaving their small and medium sized business clients with nobody to talk to on important questions like what kind of funding solution to use to finance the future growth of their business.

Hence Capitalise takes the challenge created by what seems like a disruption and turns it into a win-win-win solution: Accountants can focus on providing higher value-added corporate finance advisory solutions while machines do the bookkeeping, the small businesses that had nobody to talk to about growth & funding (with neighborhood bank branches closing down) can now talk face to face with their trusted accountants, and all the alternative finance providers and banks that have less branches or a reduced physical presence can now access thousands of small businesses via trusted accountants that help create positively selected loans (i.e. much less risky loans – it turns out Capitalise accountants consistently create loans with much better credit quality). And while doing all this, Capitalise is certainly adhering to Kasparov’s Rule, utilizing smarter processes as mentioned above.

So here is yet another example of how one technology platform can help mitigate some of the disruption that other technologies are creating. While an automated bookkeeping software can only tell you how much money you spent exactly last month, a human accountant, supported by Capitalise’s platform, can actually help a business owner ask the right question: What kind of financing is right for my business?

To take a quote from Pablo Picasso that Kasparov also references in his book: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Only truly empathetic and intelligent beings know which ones are the right questions to ask.

Why QED Chose to Invest in London

This summer marked the second anniversary since I joined QED Investors to open up our London office. In those two years we have already created or invested in six UK companies that are all growing rapidly. Those of you on top of current events will have noticed that our decision must have been made after the by now infamous 2016 Brexit vote (and, yes, I was able to hold on until the third sentence of this article to mention the B-word).

So why did one of the leading fintech funds in the US and Lat Am, having invested in six out of the top ten fintech unicorns in America, choose to open an office in the UK in the midst of all the Brexit noise and drama? While answers to questions such as this are always subjective and open to interpretation, as the head of our UK office, my view is that there is a set of obvious answers to this question that are underpinned by more fundamental reasons.

In terms of the more obvious answers, first and foremost, London is geographically connected to the rest of the world in a unique manner. Sitting in London, one is simultaneously a manageable flight away from Mumbai, San Francisco, and Sao Paolo. More importantly, it is possible to have a video conference call with any of the aforementioned cities within the span of the same business day. This is the classic time zone advantage that is often attributed to London.

Moreover, London is also culturally connected: From sports (think football or tennis) to literature (Shakespeare!), the UK is connected to the rest of the world in a number of complex and subtle manners. One just has to walk the streets of Soho, Piccadilly, or Mayfair to witness this. On any given street corner, you can find people from Argentina to Zimbabwe talking to each other about and exchanging ideas in English, the Lingua Franca of the modern world.

Secondly, from a VC perspective, the crucial ingredients that a venture capital ecosystem needs are all present in London in spades: Access to ideas, capital, talent, and markets are all available more so than any other European capital. All these classic reasons that make London a natural destination is also supported by economic facts. More venture capital was deployed in the UK than in any other European country in 2018, London is the largest foreign exchange trading market in the world, etc.

However, beyond these more traditional answers there are more fundamental reasons that have catapulted London to the position it occupies today. After all, from the perspective of Marcus Aurelius close to two millennia ago, London would hardly have seemed a central and connected place as he was travelling from Rome to Cairo to meet Cleopatra. So, what are the reasons that made London so central to the modern world over the subsequent centuries, and how do they relate to venture capital?

While I am no historian, I did receive a masters degree from the University of Chicago, and in my own humble view, the first fundamental factor that set (and continues to set) the UK apart is the value it places on individual freedom and enterprise. This has resulted in a legal and regulatory system that is market friendly, while valuing intellectual property and innovation as well as free speech and thought. It is also closely intertwined with a long history of stability: The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the world that have had continuous democratic governance over several centuries. 

The second, and equally important reason is tolerance. This is in part driven by the centuries of experience the UK has in successfully integrating diverse cultures and has yielded big dividends today in terms of diversity and a society that values mutual respect. While I have witnessed successful and well-educated expat friends of mine living in other European capitals facing difficulties renting accommodation on account of what appears to have been nothing other than their names (incidentally Shakespeare’s Juliet has an appropriate quote about this), the tolerance and acceptance of London has stood out in contrast. And tolerance in the UK extends to everyone, including the non-digitally native workers that feel frustrated at having been left behind a rapidly evolving world. The UK clearly realizes that to have a well-functioning society, the needs and constraints of everybody have to be represented and balanced, which is a complex and ongoing process.

Pictures from QED’s recent reception that took place in Soho, London

The third fundamental reason is that, the combination of tolerance and individual freedom has consequently resulted in the UK being able to attract and nurture creative communities in areas as diverse as technology, art, science, and media. Balancing creativity in areas as diverse as arts and Artificial Intelligence is not easy. And of course, it is this creativity that makes London and the UK fundamentally attractive for venture capital. It attracts the right kind of people and capital from across the globe, resulting a vibrant ecosystem.

While those are the reasons that have made London an attractive destination, last but certainly not least, one should also mention that the founder of QED, Nigel Morris is a Londoner (I know, I probably should have mentioned this at the beginning). While he moved to the US thirty-five years ago and co-founded Capital One which is now a top-ten publicly listed US bank, he still maintains a pied-a-terre in London as well as season tickets to Tottenham Hotspur (and he was willing to share said tickets with yours truly until I professed my support for a rival club in SW6). So I suppose in the end, determining why QED came to London is a classic example of historical analysis: big historical forces juxtaposed with the vision and values of individual actors. All I can say is that I am happy to be where I am, and excited about the future, both for London and the community of creators that call it home.