Payments Innovation

PYMNTS' Summer Reading List

While the “official” start of summer — the one marked by the passing of the summer solstice — is still about a month away, the summer is getting its unofficial launch party this weekend in the United States with the celebration of Memorial Day.

Summer used to be a slower time of the year, but in this fast-paced world called payments and commerce innovation, there’s no rest for the weary, at least not for those who don’t want to be irrelevant a few years from now.

But even the most intensely focused innovators find time to head to the beach – and when they do, they like to grab a good book. And so, in between making decisions about what API looks the most promising or how you’ll really make money, is the all-important decision of what to read.

Here’s where we have a few thoughts and recommendations for specific companies across the payments, tech and commerce ecosystems that we think can deliver both an enjoyable read by the waves and useful insights for when they return to work.

So who can we make some recommendations for?

The Theranos Team

Book: "Crime & Punishment"

The Cliff Notes Version:

Raskolnikov is a young 19th century Russian intellectual that at some point before the story begins realizes that he is both smarter than everyone else and thus better than the petty constraints of right and wrong. He decides the best way to prove that is by murdering a bad person (and, by accident, her mentally ill sister) and getting away with it, because Russian novels are incredibly dark.

Raskolnikov then spends the rest of the story being driven mad by his own conscience, the purity of the prostitute he’s fallen in love with and the investigator that totally has his number. He ends up breaking down, confessing and going to the gulag for the murder, but feeling morally purified by the experience of accepting and realizing his guilt.

Why We Recommend This Book For The Theranos Team

OK, we admit that author Fyodor Dostoevsky is both a little dark and heavy for the beach, but if we are being real here, the Theranos team turmoil appears dark and heavy.

Theranos managed to build a company with a valuation of $9 billion firm on the back of a revolutionary new diagnostic test that suffered from the small defect of not working at all.

As in not at all – and by their account. Reports indicate that Theranos recalled each and every one of the tests it had ever done on the grounds, because they were not accurate. As in tens of thousands of them — tests that real human beings and their health care providers used to make relevant health care decisions.

“There have been massive recalls of single tests in the past, but I’m not aware of one where a company recalled the entirety of the results from its testing platform,” said Geoffrey Baird, associate professor in the department of laboratory medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. “I believe that’s unprecedented.”

Ahh the magic of “groupthink.” High-profile people start talking it up, and prominent VCs and hedge funds start throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at it and the board gets peppered with the likes of Henry Kissinger. No scientists though — not a one. And no research ever published in a peer reviewed scientific journal. Too “top secret.”

And while there is no way to know if the upper echelons of those who pushed their “revolutionary” Edison platform are feeling Raskolnikovian levels of inner turmoil right now, the punishment phase is beginning. Regulators are talking about banning its “female Steve Jobs” CEO Elizabeth Holmes for two years, and the lawsuits are beginning. It was hit with its second class action lawsuit just yesterday.

"Crime & Punishment" is more than a book about a murder. It is a book at the hubris of those who think they are just a little too smart to follow the same rules everyone else does.

The Amazon Team

Book: "Team of Rivals"

The Cliffs Notes Version:

Abraham Lincoln was elected as President of the United States with two problems. The obvious one everyone knows about is that the South had seceded over his election. The one that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book explores is that he was also the newly elected president head of a new political party that had ended up beating out a series of more accomplished, well known and famous people through a series of complicated circumstances.

The books tells the story of how Lincoln took a collection of men who resented him for winning and personally hated each other and turned them into the cabinet that helped him win the Civil War.

Why We Recommend This Book For The Amazon Team

While a little heavy to lug to the beach at almost 1,000 pages, we presume they will buy the Kindle version with one click. Amazon is looking build and then capture the hearts and minds of its own team of rivals called merchants to expand their payments experience.

As the largest retailer in the world, (by market cap) and now 7 percent of apparel sales, getting higher-end retailers inside of their marketplace, and the acceptance of Pay With Amazon off Amazon, is the fuel they need to keep the engine moving.

The big brands, with eCommerce and digital channels of their own to build, have been slow to move for fear of letting the fox into the proverbial hen house. But the bad retail reports of late might provide enough of a catalyst for them to consider joining the band.

Even Gap CEO Art Peck said that he’d be “delusional” not to consider it. And high-end e-Tailer Moda Operandi allows its fashionista shoppers to pay for their designer wardrobes by “logging in with Amazon.”

Given that building a team of rivals fails far more often than it succeeds, it probably makes sense to study at the heels of one of the few success stories where there was a lot at stake.

But Lincoln has a secondary lesson to offer, not just on how to build a team of rivals, but also on how to look good while doing it. Lincoln was many things, and among them he was a very canny politician who knew how to be aggressive while looking convivial.

Cybersecurity Experts

The Book: "Dracula" (Bram Stoker version)

The Cliff Notes Version

Dracula is an old demonic force that preys on the blood and life force of the living. London lawyer Jonathan Harker crosses his path and helps him enter England, at which point Dracula goes on a vampire rampage. After many maidens are drained of their blood and henchmen are driven mad, Dracula steals Harker’s wife, at which point Harker and vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing team up, hunt Dracula down and drive a stake through his heart.

Why We Recommend This Book For Cybersecurity Experts

Other than the fact that it is a good read, anyone who has taken note of some of the more recent high-profile cyber breaches lately (particularly across the SWIFT messaging system) will note something similar. SWIFT’s system that connects 11,000 banks and FIs thus far maintains that its payments messaging system is entirely secure.

The SWIFT messaging system has not been hacked into from the outside.

But what hacks in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Ecuador all seem to have in common is that the SWIFT message system was accessed through a weakness in an end point, meaning that someone with the physical means to breach the bank (and the technical means to) were able to use the system according to its established protocol to send large amounts of money to the places they wanted it to go.

Dracula reminds us that even back in Victorian times, people understood that locks to keep unsavory out were useless if a predator was clever and tricky enough to get themselves invited in without having to break in. Dracula could be considered the original human hacker. Once inside, he disabled protections against him like garlic and crosses and proceeded to slowly drain the life out of his victims.

Unfortunately, cybersecurity experts need not look to Dracula for clues on how to stop those perpetrators once they are in. He could be stopped with a stake through the heart. Cybercriminals seem much more difficult.

Silicon Valley

The Book: History of the Internet: A Chronology, 1843 to the Present

The Cliff Notes Version

So ever heard the one about how Al Gore invented the internet? Or about how one day DARPA just poofed the internet into life.  How about the one about how the internet is a completely unregulated, crowd sourced endeavour?  Or the one about the internet being 40 years old.  Or 20 years old?

How many things about the internet have you heard?

Interested in how many are true? Then try this - the entire history of the internet - much longer, more complicated and based on inter-relationship than anyone understands.

Why We Recommend This For Silicon Valley

We don’t want to pick on bitcoin and the blockchain, but it is the easiest example.

How many times have you heard the bitcoin and the blockchain is just like the internet?

“Owned by no one,” and a glorious libertarian bastion of permissionless trust, the devoted use the analogy of bitcoin and the blockchain as one that is identical to the physical Internet — a global network based on nothing but protocols that move data all over the world in real time without any central authority telling it how and what to do,” was how Karen Webster summed up the “just like the internet” blockchain pitch.

And while it sounds great, its suffer from the problem of being entirely false and a very poor comparison.

But it is unfair to just pick on bitcoin - a lot of innovations are being pitched to investors as “just like the internet.”

And while it it’s true that some really big innovations will have some similarities to the other ones –when making those comparisons it’s always helpful to have the proper details at the ready so that the comparisons hold muster.

 So we encourage everyone to read the history of the internet - the entire history - and then decide if what they are talking about is really “just like the internet” or “somewhat like the internet” or “nothing at all like the internet actually - but still very innovative.”

And with that, we’ll leave you to your BBQ prep and your summer reading list lay-out.

Happy Summer




The September 2020 Leveraging The Digital Banking Shift Study, PYMNTS examines consumers’ growing use of online and mobile tools to open and manage accounts as well as the factors that are paramount in building and maintaining trust in the current economic environment. The report is based on a survey of nearly 2,200 account-holding U.S. consumers.

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