The basis of innovation is not the desire to create something new or even the inspiration to do so. Innovation occurs where there is a problem and a person with the tools to solve it. It’s very deliberate. Of course, there’s a measure of inspiration thrown in, too, but a good idea without an application, or one that remains an idea but is never carried out, isn’t a very good idea at all.
In the latest PYMNTS Commanders in Chief series, Bruce Lowthers, executive vice president of FIS Global, a financial technology solutions provider, and president of the company’s Payments Division, didn’t set out to be an innovator. He sees problems consumers are having, and then he solves them. That attitude has led him to start four different companies and launch several products over the years.
“Anyone can have a good idea,” Lowthers said; innovation is about what you do with it.
Lowthers told PYMNTS about his innovation process and how it has shaped his personal journey as well as his leadership at FIS Global. Upstarts, pencils at the ready: The interview is excerpted below.
PYMNTS: How would you define your company’s approach to innovation?
BL: At the end of the day, we’re really just looking to solve our consumers’ problems. Once we get the ball rolling on consumer needs, we get our people together and think of ways to tackle their issues.
We look in different places to drive innovation — whether it’d be our accelerators, our innovation lab and our product team, or working with customers to try to identify their issues and solve them. We look at our global resources and consumer needs and try to find ways to solve similar problems that they face.
PYMNTS: Where do you look for innovative ideas, and why?
BL: The way that I’ve built my career is to go to the customers and ask them what they are facing.
The beautiful thing about our fast-paced lives of today is that social media and innovation are constantly surrounding the payments space — you would have to live in a cave to not be getting or seeking feedback from your consumers.
At FIS, we strive to build things that will solve our customers’ problems. We talk to our customers and their consumers to determine if there is a commonality in the challenges they are experiencing.
That said, the place where I get the most information is through social media — like LinkedIn. Especially during conference season, I’m constantly checking it. I get to see every keynote speaker, presentation and article relating to the payments space. With over 5,000 connections, the tool is invaluable. If I can’t make it to a conference, there is always a ”connection” posting something about the event, so it’s like I can almost be in two places at once.
I also use Twitter and industry-related blogs to keep my thumb on what’s happening, as well as our client advisory board meetings and think groups.
PYMNTS: What is the most innovative thing you’ve ever done?
BL: I don’t think anybody actually stepped out to do something innovative. We stepped out to do something that is going to help solve a market or customer problem. The term “innovation” came about in the context of reflecting on things after we had already figured out and brought to market something that has broad appeal that others like and use and has helped solve that challenge.
What I believe hasn’t changed — or perhaps it is what technology has finally caught up to — is the consumer’s demand and need for convenience, self-empowerment and information. Those three ideals will knock it out of the park every time to drive change.
In my career, I’ve been very fortunate to have several product launches that have received high visibility and are considered innovative — from prepaid cards back in the early ’90s, to online microfinance in the late ’90s, to identity verification back before the Internet arrived.
One of the most important things that we have developed over the last few years is employing the concept of mass enablement to push consumer-driven solutions and demands to our customers more efficiently in large blocks. This has enabled our customers to engage in new technologies faster and more cost-effectively and keeps them competitive in the marketplace. Mass enablement has probably been one of the most innovative operational efforts that any organization in the marketplace has recently accomplished.
In addition, I am also very proud of our leadership in the loyalty and rewards space. Real-time redemption at the point of sale and the concept that loyalty points can be a currency and the ability to do that at a fuel pump or retail store is something that has never been done.
This innovation has been a huge hit. It’s something that consumers love, retailers love and financial institutions love. There [are] a lot of places where you can use your points for something specific, but the ability to use it as a wallet currency is only happening with FIS.
There are limited models where we’ve matured the consumer experience to truly be a utopian experience, and this is it. It truly is changing the way a consumer can access their financial assets, and it’s been successful because of that.
PYMNTS: What do you wish you had more time to do?
BL: The simple answer would be to spend more time with the family, hanging out with friends and boating.
But industry-wise, I enjoy creating, so if I had more time in my day, I’d spend it talking to my customers, trying to identify how I could help them solve any business problems they are facing. When you sit around with a team and kick around ideas, you … [get] one piece of this idea, one piece of that idea; and then it becomes a new idea.
PYMNTS: What do you think that most people underestimate about innovating in payments?
BL: Most people underestimate the extreme complexity in getting a transaction processed. The system that a transaction moves through in real time and with such high efficiency is really quite astounding. It’s a good thing that we make it look easy!
PYMNTS: What keeps you up at night? What concerns you most in the online payment solutions space?
BL: Without a doubt, security and being able to provide [financial] services in a trusted environment are paramount concerns in the payments space. Security and risk issues have escalated over the last few years, and that isn’t going to change. It’s the biggest challenge and worry that we face every day.
PYMNTS: What trends and changes are you watching that are affecting the industry and your role?
Similar to what keeps me up at night — it is security and risk. The amount of energy put toward risk, security and compliance have added a tremendous amount of burden into the payments space. We don’t see that dissipating anytime soon; we see that continuing to build.
The real impact is that it’s taking capital away from new growth initiatives. So that is definitely the downside to the marketplace — the amount of compliance and regulatory oversight security demanded has become a direct impediment to innovation.
PYMNTS: Have you seen significant increases on this side of business — regulation, etc.?
BL: The workload has gone up dramatically. For not just us, but for everybody in the industry.
PYMNTS: What product has had the most impact on payments in the last five years, and why?
BL: The product that I think has had the biggest impact on payments isn’t really a product. It’s a model. It’s the Uber model. The Uber model put the employee and the customer, or the provider and the customer, in an interactive neuro network with the payment becoming invisible.
That model shifted the way we think about payments and empower[ed] the customer. Enabling [smart] technology in the hands of the consumer is really the beginning of a new time in the [online] payments industry. Everything is in the palm of your hands. Giving you the ability to execute a transaction whenever you want, wherever you want, however you want, is priceless.
PYMNTS: What advice would you give a young innovator in this space, and why would you tell them to heed it?
As an old guy now, looking back — innovation happens for those that have a passion for their craft. Now is a great time for our industry because [smart] technology is evolving at a very rapid pace, and this creates all kinds of new opportunities to help solve problems. In today’s market, with all of the change that’s going on and the huge leaps in technology, if you have a passion for new ideas or change, it’s a great time to be in the payments space to drive innovation forward.
I’d also add to just believe in yourself. In all the startups I’ve done, there were always people [who] would say it won’t work. You have to believe in yourself and the solution you’re bringing forward to solve the market challenge. And, just keep driving — fast!