Reputation – Commerce Implications

9 January 2013

I’m sitting in NYC waiting on my plane..  thinking about reputation, not only explaining the importance of a “good one” to my 12 and 8 yr old boys, but also thinking about its broader importance in commerce. Where do I have reputations today?

  • Commercial: Bank, Credit Bureaus, Card Issuers, Local Merchants, Employers, Customers, Suppliers, Amazon, Linkedin, eBay, Blog, Google, …
  • Community: Friends, Neighbors, Schools, Church, Organizations,
  • Personal: Hospital, Government, Police, Government, Friends, Colleagues

Throughout history reputations were 100% dependent on relationships. These personal networks were the primary conduit of reputation information.  Financial services have benefited greatly, over the last century, from improvements made to reputation portability and standardization.

In this modern era, eBay offers many lessons in relevance of reputation, demonstrating what great things can happen when tools exist to manage it.  There are also many negative lessons here. For example in 2004, eBay launched into China. Prior to launch eBay’s risk organization wanted to keep the China community separate from the US. Community separation was a logical recommendation given that reputations take time to build, and dependent on community context. In the US buyers and sellers work for years to build trust and “confidence”. Reputations forged by self-dealing, or other fraudulent practices, were ferreted out. Unfortunately Meg didn’t want this community separation… she wanted one big community.  Within weeks Meg saw the downside of operating these 2 together, as fraud shot through the roof..  thus separating the communities and opening the doors for other competitors (See this Stanford University Case Study).

Reputation has a very strong societal and community context.  I told my sons that a Chef with a great reputation in New York or Paris means something completely different than a great Chef in a community of cannibals (… well it made them laugh). Markets hold people and money accountable, and the ability to measure and convey a commerce reputation is critical for network growth and efficacy. Banks have long held a central intermediary role in commerce as both a “reputation authority” and a manager of the corresponding risk. For example, letters of credit (LOC) are an instrument extended to a supplier receiving an order from an unknown buyer. After all, receiving an order for 100,000 widgets from a known buyer carries a far different weight that one from one that is unknown. Thus an LOC reduces the risk to the supplier by allowing money to be held by a 3rd party bank while the order if fulfilled.

Another excellent reputation example is in serving the poor at the base of the pyramid. In 1976, Muhammad Yunus created the concept which led to Grameen Bank, a success which resulted in the 2006 Nobel Peace prize (see Wikipedia). Muhammad recognized that lending must be tied to a reputation which is critical to maintain: that within the local community. The Grameen model lends money to a community group, whose individual members are mutually responsible for the loan. This is a fantastic model. What further opportunities could exist if participating individuals could expand their reputation outside of the community?

Modern markets have demonstrated that improving the portability of reputation expands the capital attracted to that market. For example financial markets expanded by specialists operating in a securitized model where risks could be aligned to capital. In retail banking, local markets evolved from local banks to national. Each bank could make rational decisions on where to participate and specialize in this market.

In business-business commerce reputation is a critical factor in the success of JIT inventory, virtual supply chains and vendor managed inventory. Few companies would be willing to let an unknown participant into their network. In the online world, eBay and Alibaba have done a tremendous job building communities around reputation. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could take your reputation with you? For example if Prosper or Zopa could get through regulatory hurdles (see here on their issues), lending could be done in an ad hoc community of investors without a banking license.  Commerce would be done based upon your community reputation (eBay/Amazon), and risk would be managed through non financial data from retailers, facebook, MNOs, …

Unfortunately few of the holders of your reputation are incented to share it (in a positive sense). Few people know that there are roughly 4 times the number of negative credit bureaus as there are positive. In other words, every bank and supplier are willing to share their negative customer information (ie didn’t pay their bill), very few are willing to share their positive customer information. In most OECD 20 countries, positive bureaus are not the result of commercial initiative, but rather a legal or regulatory one (Wikipedia Equifax).

In the US we have more of an aggregation problem.. how do we manage multiple reputations. In emerging markets the problem is much different: How do you build any kind of reputation? One of the first problems to crack is identity. How do you assign an ID that sticks? We see many government initiatives around National ID, but this takes time. Is there another number or ID that we could use in the interim? It certainly seems that a cell phone number makes the most sense given its global penetration of 5.3B consumers (75%+ of the worlds population). Could emerging market carriers enable an opt in “reputation” consumer service?

I’d love to see a few companies work toward this end.

In the US, I’d love to see a consumer service that just measures my reputation in all of these places (beyond banking).

Sorry for not finishing this blog cleanly…




2 thoughts on “Reputation – Commerce Implications

  1. Good thoughts, Tom. That’s one of the fav topics of Dave Birch (single, multi-layered, anon when needed, ID; and single reputation point). Hot area to tap into indeed…

  2. Pingback: Google in Payments: Why Yesterday was BIG News | FinVentures

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