Reframing Build vs. Buy Discussions in Capital Markets

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It feels like we’re at an interesting inflection point in the capital markets discussion of build vs. buy. Ten years ago, maybe even just five years ago, the industry was split into two buckets of firms: those who built all the technology they needed in house, and those who didn’t have all the technology they needed, because they didn’t have the budget to build it in-house. 

The largest brokerages in the world leveraged their size and global platforms to get economies of scale and build the solutions they needed in-house. These could range from trading tools and applications, through to compliance solutions, and CRMs. If you didn’t have the budget to build it in-house, you had to buy something off the shelf, or make do with ad hoc solutions – but the unfortunate reality was that there weren’t too many ready products available off the shelf. The build vs. buy discussion was usually relatively straight forward: if you want it to work well, you build it. If you need to compromise, or don’t have the budget internally, you buy it.

Fast forward 5-10 years, and we find ourselves at the start of 2020. There are two major themes that are radically re-framing the build vs. buy discussion. First, margin compression. In an industry that is increasingly under margin pressure, having massive technology teams building everything bespoke becomes more challenging. Firms are being forced to re-evaluate what is a core offering and truly differentiates, which they should continue to build, versus what isn’t a differentiating product, and what they should think about replacing with an off the shelf solution. 

The second theme is perhaps more important though: machine learning (data scale) and network effects are making the build discussion ever more difficult. Applications built in house will never have access to the same scale and scope at market solutions. It’s just a reality of building something. The potential client base is limited to one. In a world that is increasingly driven by machine learning and artificial intelligence, that means that those in-house solutions will never be as ‘smart’ because they will never reach the same scale as a market solution. Build vs. buy becomes challenging when some parts of the problem can’t be solved with just resources – they need scale. 

The second part of that challenge is the network effect. As products are reaching more data scale, they are also becoming networks. Networks inherently benefit from increasing the number of participants, as they centralize value for participants. Look no further than an Exchange for an industry example. Thus, it is very hard for each firm to ‘build’ their own network. 

Reframing the build vs. buy conversation

Around a month ago, I was in with one of our largest prospective clients (who is now a client) and was having a discussion with one of our sponsors. The topic of build vs. buy came up, and they asked me: how do you think about the trade-offs?

I thought to myself for a moment, then framed the question in a different way, which I think really captured the thought for me:

“If you build what we have, you’re essentially choosing to start a competing company who will only ever have one customer. Sure, you get to control the product roadmap, and you can make it a little more bespoke, but you’ll never have more than one customer (yourselves) so you’ll never get any scale, and you won’t benefit from any network effects. If you think this is a core competitive advantage or differentiator, I would encourage you to consider that option, but if you think this is infrastructure or a commodity, then I would consider you to re-evaluate. It’s like deciding to build your own airplane versus building your own airport as a plane manufacturer. Building your own airplane makes sense. That’s your differentiation. Building your own airport doesn’t. That’s infrastructure.”

That framing and analogy seemed to really resonate. 

It makes sense though: how can you expect to build a competitive product, when you are inherently limiting the customer base to just yourself, and then expect to do so for cheaper or more efficiently? There is no way that Airbus could afford to build their own network of airports. Instead, you can leverage the existing network – thus splitting the cost across all the clients, but also get the scale and scope when it comes to intelligence and machine learning. 

The build vs. buy conversation continues to evolve as the industry evolves. More and more we’re encouraging our clients to think about whether or not the product in question provides a unique advantage or differentiation. Should you build core infrastructure, plumbing, and applications in house? Probably not. Should you build intelligent recommendation engines, analytical tools, or other personalization engines in house? Probably. 

It feels like we’re reaching that tipping point where the conversation is starting to tilt away from “build” in the majority of cases, towards buy. The true value will come from stitching together all the ‘buys’ into one central view in house, and providing that truly unique analysis and holistic view of all the data sets and insights together.

Perhaps the conversation will evolve to “buy, then build.”

Blair Livingston
Street Contxt

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Your Content Strategy in Banking – A Practical Guide

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Just before the holiday, I put out a piece titled “Building a brand in banking” and it got a lot of really positive feedback. I had several follow up conversations about how content is being leveraged (increasingly in banking), the value of that content, and what firms were getting out of it – specifically, how did they measure or think about ROI? Many of the conversations started at a high level, but at some point we got to the “okay, so how do I implement this with my banking team?” I realized more and more that people were asking me for a somewhat tactical guide, and based on the number of times I was asked, I figured – why not write one?

Now, before I begin, let me state that I’m not a ‘how to’ writer – this might not be perfect, but it’s simply one way I see a content strategy tactically working in banking. Additionally, it’s not just my opinion – some of the top investment banks in the world (and specifically, top banking teams at those banks) have been quietly running an astoundingly successful content strategy for years. It’s not unusual to hear that certain MD’s have distribution lists in the tens of thousands, with an individual or team who’s full time role is to manage that list, the responses, and the follow ups. It’s a powerful strategy. As one banker explained to me, “it’s a massive source of insight and business for us – it’s basically our pre-pitchbook stage”. 

So, on to the tactics. 

First, which banking groups should read this? Sector teams are the most obvious, but it could just as likely be leveraged by product teams as well.

Second, who should be reading this within a sector team? There are two important people. First, the MD/sector lead who is building the brand, looking at the engagement data, and responding to clients, and second, the junior team member who will likely be putting together the content, managing the distribution list, and sending it on behalf of the MD.

Content Strategy in Banking 101

Most bankers have two types of clients: existing relationships, and prospective clients. Your role as a banker is to get in front of them, stay top of mind, establish yourself as a trusted expert, and be ready to provide assistance, whether thematically or for a transaction. There’s more to it than that, but let’s consider that the 50,000 foot view. 

A good content strategy can help you do all of those things.

Here’s what you need to do:

Step 1: Put together a list of your top clients and your top prospects, and their email addresses. Put them into one single distribution list (this is likely the only step the MD needs to do for now). If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can sort them into two lists: “clients” and “prospects”.

Step 2: Decide on the cadence at which you’re going to send out commentary. This can be anywhere from daily to monthly. It’s up to you. I would suggest you start with monthly and build the muscle, then perhaps go to a weekly or bi-weekly cadence.

Step 3: Now it’s time to assemble the actual content. Have an analyst or associate put together a piece of content with a couple different sections, with the content of course depending on your sector. For the sake of this example, let’s say you’re in TMT. Your content could include 1) a section highlighting top research from the firm in that sector, such as a new industry piece analyzing the growing tech industry, 2) a section highlighting top news in the sector, such as M&A, announcements, or anything else, and 3) a highlight of recent deals or transactions that your team has been involved in. Link to the relevant articles/pages.

Step 4: Review and approve the content. This should likely be done by the MD.

Step 5: Send the content. The ideal situation here is if the junior analyst can send it on behalf of the MD. With sophisticated solutions (like Street Contxt!) this is really easy – but for others, it might require some manual work, or might not be possible at all (you might not even have distribution list management). If you have no tools in place, simply copy and paste the emails into Outlook (BCC) and send.

Step 6: Follow up and take action. Follow up with key prospects and clients based on engagement. Who is reading? Who is engaging? What are they engaging with? Use this to drive personalized conversations. Be ready to respond to incoming emails and responses, and to answer questions. 

Step 7: Repeat. Now that you have the distribution list in place, you can simply put together the content, send it out, and follow up/respond as needed. Now you have your branding and prospecting efforts running full steam. Build it into a repeatable practice.

Bonus Step: This one’s a bonus – include an invite link. As your content invariably gets forwarded around, you want to make sure that the recipient can subscribe themselves (and passively grow your distribution list and reach). If there is no clear way to subscribe, then people won’t bother. You can use tools like the one built into our platform (we have a branded invite link), or you can hack something together with a custom web page. 

Down the road, you can start to monitor and evaluate your content strategy performance over time. How did you do in Q1? How many prospects did you manage to get in front of? How much engagement are you getting from key clients? Have you seen no engagement from someone in a long time, which might warrant a reach out? These are all powerful questions that you will now be able to answer.

It’s that easy

So there you have it – a strategy that is so easy to tactically implement that you could do it this afternoon, but can provide so much value to your teams brand, prospecting efforts, and leads. What makes it even better is that you can have the team do it during those quiet hours in the morning, and once you build the habit, it will be easy to continue. 

I’ve heard bankers refer to their content strategy as their “secret weapon” – but now you have an easy playbook on how you and your team can implement it. The reality is that a very small portion of will actually start this strategy – but if you do, I can promise the results will more than make up for the effort.

Good luck as you review your firm’s content strategy for 2020, and as always, we’re here to help!

Blair Livingston
Street Contxt

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