In 1640, the English poet John Donne famously wrote in meditation 17 “No man is island.” Given the contemporary limitations of travel and communications in the 17th century, that was clearly intended as a metaphorical explanation of the nature of humanity, rather than any kind of literal statement. In 1640 it would be easy for anyone to become an island – riding a horse 25 miles away from the nearest town would more or less do it.
The same line written in 2015 would actually be an entirely accurate portrait of day-to-day life in the developed world. Through the magic of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to name but a few, it’s entirely possible to know almost everything about every member of one’s high school class, or to keep track of what the entire Kardashian klan is thinking about (or wearing) at any given moment. One can argue the degree to which this level of connectedness is a good thing, but there is almost no room to debate that this level of connectedness isn’t our world.
Until it comes time to pay the check that is, at which point we are all about as connected as we were when John Donne first penned his poem. Commerce can be social, but payments, notes Tab CEO and founder Rob Ianelli, are still mostly geared toward individual actors.
But he doesn’t think they have to be. And in fact, as he told MPD CEO Karen Webster, given the way the market is evolving to shared services like Uber – he thinks that payments, too, will have to become more social and that his firm is in just the right position to aid that transition.
"At the end of the day we looked at P2P payments as a concept that has been around since medieval times. It’s call an IOU,” Ianelli explained. “The system of sending money works. If I need to send you money, it’s easy for me to do that through any number of methods. But there is really nobody to help where people are both splitting and sending."
And that is actually a larger problem than it sounds. There are a number of situations where people want to spend communally, not individually or person-to-person.
The most obvious – and overused – example is large groups eating in restaurants – where the perils of splitting the check are numerous. But the settling the dining bill problem is, according to Ianelli, too narrow a focus for a consuming and spending economy that is increasingly social and sharing oriented.
"We started to think of use cases alongside the evolution of the sharing economy,” Ianelli explained. “There’s a number of incumbent mobile wallet providers now, but whether it’s a bachelor party, or four roommates in college, or a group of co-workers running out to get coffee for everyone, we all have to transact together, but we’re all forced to do it with individual payment methods and many times with methods that require that consumers pay individually with merchants. It just makes a really terrible experience for both the merchant and the consumer. So, we wanted to build a technology to make it easier on both sides."
Ianelli’s company, Tab, is essentially a platform that makes it easy for groups to pay together by creating an accessible mechanism for individuals to log in and pay their share of a bill.
"Consumers don’t have to do the math on the receipt or send requests to your friends. We really want this to be more like an Uber experience,” Ianelli explained to Webster. “Consumers are able to connect socially with their friends, so that they can pay for a gift or a meal, and we take care of a lot of the back and forth that would occur. The basic idea that motivates us here is the notion that connected customers should have the ability to spend together."
That guiding principle has been a core part of Tab since it started two years ago, and they’ve been pushing hard ever since.
Last year, this small firm debuted at Innovation Project 2014, an experience that catapulted them to four months at a London-based FinTech accelerator.
“That was a great accomplishment, we got a little bit of funding and we were injected into a great ecosystem, the London FinTech market,” Ianelli noted.
It was also a learning experience for the company. Tab’s founders initially envisioned the firm as offering an essentially consumer-facing product, specifically one geared at a millennial market where shared expenses are more prevalent. As they worked further through implementation deals with MasterCard and several other financial service providers, they realized their greater value might be as a platform that can enable large firms to offer sharing services to their customers.
"[Large institutions] deal with a lot of data privacy concerns and they aren’t able to be as nimble as a small startup. We realized the infrastructure that we built is really very valuable and that’s sort of risen to the top,” Ianelli explained. “We’re doubling down on our backend infrastructure API and that is already being used by a mobile wallet provider in the Netherlands. That is something that I never would have expected a year ago sitting in Boston at a payments conference at Harvard."
As Tab returns to Boston for IP 2015, they’re in negotiations with a local bank to be their backend for shared transactions, as they continue to pivot to a B2B service.
"We’re bullish on connected commerce in the future,” Ianelli told Webster, “And even though up until now we have tried to stay in scope for millennials, we see a larger segment that we can help with group payments. Even from a charitable perspective, 20 or 30 people can be paying toward something – whether that is a college student who has relatives chipping in to pay for a gift or an official charitable organization like Oxfam."
Tab comes to Boston this year a somewhat different firm than it left Innovation Project 2014 last year – though their vision of a shared payments economy remains unchanged. But, Ianelli noted, the single most important thing they’ve learned about working in payments hasn’t changed one bit.