What Only The “Almost Famous” Know About Payments

Nobody in the real world likes failure.  When new business ventures are launching, entrepreneurs talk about the great and potent success they plan to enjoy, not the many valuable lessons they will learn in the wake their inevitable failure – a reality is that 99.99 percent of them will face.

Yet Silicon Valley publicly loves failure, advocates for it and sings its praises to anyone who will listen. While on the surface it might be hard take billionaire’s praise of failure all that seriously, it is undeniably the case that a great many great minds have failed, some pretty spectacularly.

Albert Einstein failed math in the fourth grade. Abraham Lincoln lost more elections than he won, and when he finally did win the big one, half the nation seceded from the union; as clear a vote of “no confidence” as any American president has ever received.  Julius Caesar was famously the first Roman Emperor, a fact most people know.  What most people are less aware of his he got that job as a result of overthrowing the Roman Senate, who had made the error of sending him a pink slip before he had surrendered his army.  Their stated reason—he had failed to advance the aims of the Roman Republic.

Today PYMNTS.com is celebrating five years of success, because everyone loves a success a story and PYMNTS.com will never complain about being one.  Because we are proud of everything we’ve accomplished here, our official explanation for still being around and going strong is a quality only accurately described as epoch-making awesomeness.  However, because we are also died-in-the-wool realists at PYMNTS.com, our unofficial explanation is that we are lucky to be writing about payments at the exact moment in history when payments got really interesting really fast.

So today, October 20th, we decide to both celebrate the great successes and outright failures in payments and retail.  For the Hall of Champions, check out our The 100 Innovations in Payments , you may be so inspired you might even think to nominate an entrant or two.

But we’re also saluting the “also-rans,” the “never-quites” and “this may not have been a good idea after all’s,” because it’s a good idea to keep an eye on those failures.

Pressure (namely the pressure not to fail) may create diamonds—but failures create general relativity, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Roman Empire—which is not a bad track record for a bunch of screw-ups.


The Kardashian Kard  |  1 Month

It’s hard to imagine that a family that originally got famous for a (supposedly) leaked sex tape could find new ways to incite public outrage for immoral practices.  That said, the Kardashian family has always shown a unique flair for redefining the notion of “lowest common denominator.”  America’s premier savants of sleaze managed to nearly outdo themselves with a prepaid card, known as the Kardashian Kard (of course), that quickly became famous for “pernicious and predatory,”  fees,  as the Attorney General of Connecticut put it.  The Kardashians, through a lawyer, reported being “shocked” at the notion that anything associated with their brand could be used to take advantage of the “financially unsophisticated.” They then terminated their licensing agreement with the company issuing the card.  On the upside, only 250 people ever bought the card, and it only existed for a month, making it absolutely a record failure.

Fun Fact:  PYMNTS.com also outlasted the marriages of Kim Kardashian to Justin Humphries (72 days) and Khloe Kardashian’s marriage to Lamar Odom (4 years)


Pay By Touch | ~2 Years

It was such a good idea. What if your very fingerprint were the mobile wallet? Given the world’s recent love affair with biometric authentication it may have been an idea before its time.

Pay By Touch developed a biometric authentication system that allowed customers to pay and get loyalty rewards with their fingerprint. It seemed to be an idea with legs, as it managed to rake in $300 million in funding from some pretty high-end names.  They also claimed to have 3,000 merchant locations and over 3.5 million users.

But they couldn’t make it work—a former employee writing for TechCrunch noted “Installing, maintaining, and training on biometric systems was expensive, and our value proposition only really came into play when we were installed everywhere. Otherwise, you did need your wallet.”  Eventually credit ran dry, it came to light that the company’s founder might have failed to disclose his criminal past and PBT was forced to shut its doors, just two years after launching.


“ISIS” | 3 Years

To be clear, PYMNTS has no opinion as to whether or not Softcard—the company formerly known as ISIS – will succeed or fail in its goals as a carrier backed mobile wallet. The jury is still out on that one.  What isn’t debatable, however, is the wholesale failure of its original name (or incredible success, depending on how you look at it) ISIS.  It did enjoy one brief moment of headline victory in May 2014 when many news outlets reported a rapid upswing in downloads of the mobile wallet, but that turned out to be attributed only to people who activated new phones, not exactly turning on their wallet.

Unfortunately that unexpected swell of public interest in the mobile wallet died as a militant terrorist group of the same name began staging a decapitation-filled insurrection in Northern Iraq and Syria.  Realizing that not all publicity is actually good publicity and that the ISIS terror group was a going to around for a while, ISIS changed its name to Softcard.  It then promptly lost the headlines war to a much more terrifying and better organized enemy: Apple and just about everyone else with mobile wallet ambitions.


The Latest Google Wallet Team | 6 months – 2 years

Again, PYMNTS has no opinion about whether the product Google Wallet will success or fail  – that’s a battle it will have to slug out with Apple, Alipay and PayPal according to the experts, we’ve interviewed for the Apple Ecosystem Tracker.

What we can say is that anyone who joins the Google Wallet team will last about as long as a Kim Kardashian mate.  The Google way to pay launched with great fanfare in 2011, as “one of the great adventures towards the future of mobile shopping.” That adventure immediately hit a roadblock in the form of mobile carriers backing rival service ISIS (except for Sprint) and Google finding adoption a much harder trick to pull off as a result of its ill-fated decision to use NFC. Within six months, one of the project’s co-founding engineers, Jonathan Wall, left with project lead Marc Freed-Finnegan to form Tappmo. The other co-founding engineer, Rob von Behren was out the door to work for Square. A year after that Google Wallet VP  Osama Bedier also announced his intention to leave the company, to work on “other projects.”  And, there was yet another wholesale turnover recently.


99Dresses | 3 Years

99dresses founder Nikki Durkin has been written about as Australia’s most powerful woman in technology, a moniker she says she came to hate as her start-up, 99dresses, was failing.  The site, which allowed women to swap clothing, failed to attain the bridge funding it needed, and announced it was closing up shop in mid 2014, about three years after a 19-year-old Durkin first launched the site out of the Y-Combinator in Silicon Valley. Soon after a U.S. launch, the site was seeing more than 1000 trades per week within three months, with revenue on every trade. App store reviews were positive and stock turnover grew from 17 per cent to 50 per cent, two to three times better than competitors. “Our retention rates were really exciting,” she says. “If my investors had wanted crack for women, then that is what we had created.”


But current investors didn’t believe the company could crack its already crowded marketplace and without support from their current base, the company couldn’t secure new funding.  Instead they decided to use their last few weeks of cash to shut-down the site as gracefully as possible.  In a piece about the failure of her start-up that went viral,  Durkin wrote that for all the praise heaped on failure in investor circles, one essential reality can’t be escaped, ““Let me tell you –  failure f—ing sucks.”


So, in conclusion, PYMNTS.com has beat Albert Einstein, Kim Kardashian, ISIS and most everyone who has worked for Google Wallet to this point in reaching five.