Companies & Industries

The Worst Business Model


Learn from outrageous, harmful business ideas like Wonga payday loans. Umair Haque explains it all

Posted on Edge Economy: June 8, 2009 2:14 PM

So there I was, surfing the web, when I came across this awesome little company called Wonga. What does Wonga do? It makes short term loans, like "payday" loans. At a 2689% APR. In case you're interested, that's 66 pounds worth of interest on a 200 pound loan...in just 30 days.

Wow! What a business model. I thought: hey, maybe I can do a little angel investment. But the big guys had already beat me to the punch. Three top venture funds are already investing in Wonga.

What vision! I thought investors were wasting time on stuff like fixing global healthcare and building a better transportation infrastructure. Boy, was I wrong. Investing in 3000% interest rates in the middle of a debt crisis—that's so smart, it hurts.

So I thought up four more awesome businesses for venture and private equity guys to consider.

A global marketplace for people to sell their organs. It's like eBay meets ER.

A social network for nuclear arms trading. Think Facebook for Mugabe and Musharraf.

A community for coyotes to trade tips about people smuggling. My analysis suggests 200% margins in this business.

(And this is my personal favorite) I'll hire five guys from my gym. We'll charge local businesses not to intimidate them. You can't lose with this one!!

So I want liquidity preference on the last one, too—OK?

***

OK. Let's discuss Wonga seriously.

John Cleese, Gargamel, and Dr. Evil put together couldn't dream up a more absurd situation than Wonga meets venture capital in 2009. Why not?

Today, we're about halfway through the biggest debt crisis for a century. For three top venture funds to invest in an ultra-high rate lender in this macroeconomic context beggars belief.

It is a breathtakingly poor choice: an economically, strategically, competitively, and ethically bankrupt choice to make. And, ultimately, it's a small but perfect example of how a deep, sweeping lack of leadership has consistently led decision-makers to those bankrupt choices—building a zombieconomy instead of shared prosperity.

Here's the score.

Wonga is an economically bankrupt investment. Authentic innovations create real economic gains. Like Hummers and McMansions, Wonga is an unnovation: it offers no gains to efficiency or productivity. That's because it is designed to extract value—not create it. From an economic point of view, Wonga's about as valuable as my old shoes (and I don't mean my Jordans). It is, in a nutshell, the game of musical chairs that caused the global economy to melt down. And that's always a startlingly poor choice to make, because...

strong>Wonga is a strategically bankrupt investment. Think Wonga's a great business, regardless? Think again. The world is deleveraging. Consumption is slowing. Taxes are about to rise wallopingly. Interest rates are rising. In this context, Wonga isn't likely to prosper. 21st Century economics demands a kind of better business—not because it's nice, but because, it's a matter of survival. For example, in a recession this deep, how long do you think Wonga's delinquency rate will stay below high double digits?

What are the kinds of businesses 21st Century economics demand? Read on.

Wonga is a competitively bankrupt investment. Interestingly, Wonga's backers think Wonga's disruptive. Is it?

Wonga's about as disruptive as a zit. In fact, it's the opposite of disruptive: it's going to get disrupted. Here's why. Unscrupulous lenders have been offering the poor 3000% APRs since the beginning of time. It's not new, interesting, or better. 21st Century economics demand real disruption in spades—and because it's more of the same old, Wonga is wide open to it. Here are five ways Wonga will get disrupted—which are also five businesses better investors will inevitably fund:

1. Offering low-grade borrowers disruptively lower interest.

2. Offering low-grade borrowers disruptively longer durations.

3. Offering low-grade borrowers disruptively less risky debt (for example, debt pooled across p2p lenders, as in a credit union).

4. Offering low-grade borrowers disruptively better monitoring and accountability mechanisms (as in microfinance).

5. Offering low grade borrowers disruptively less risky portfolios (ie: personal credit default swaps and credit insurance).

To make better stuff, we must strive to be better. But Wonga can't, because...

Wonga is an ethically bankrupt investment. Venture investors have a duty to create value for their limited partners—but not by subtracting value from others. Think piracy's theft? What about usury? Though Wonga argues that it tries to help lenders, it can never do so sustainably. Why? The problem is in the DNA—Wonga's incentives are perverse. The less you can pay off your original loan, the more we profit. In turn, Wonga cannot act for the common good—whether it wants to or not.

Venture money flowing into Wonga is not an investment—it's a misallocation. It is a morally, strategically, and economically bankrupt misallocation of capital to it's least productive—and most destructive use. And it is misallocations exactly like Wonga that caused the economy to come to a grinding halt.

Today's lack of leadership is the result of economic nihilism. The leadership problem that leads to investments like Wonga is present across industries. It is the direct result of economic nihilism: the belief that we can profit, even though you are worse off. And it's exactly what's behind Wonga: create zero value, book maximum profit.

What can you learn from the worst business model in the world? Simple. Don't make toxic stuff that's bad for people. Make awesome stuff that makes humans meaningfully better off.

All we have to do is ask: wait a minute—isn't cramming people down with toxic debt how we got into this mess? Has the venture community learned anything about 21st Century economics? Are they living on the same planet as the rest of us?

The story of Wonga and its investors is really the story of our economy and its leaders. And that story is really the story of the industrial era's "dumb growth." All those stories are telling us: capturing value from people is easy. But the rarest and most valuable capability in the world is creating authentic, meaningful value for people.

That's it for now. Commenters, feel free to convince I'm wrong as can be on this one. Or, better yet, suggest even more "value-creating" next-gen businesses for VCs to invest in.


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