Outspoken: Bill Harris, Founder and Chairman of Personal Capital and former CEO of Intuit and Paypal
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In the early days of Barefoot Innovation, one of my guests said something very provocative, that I knew would not sit well with some of our listeners. I considered whether to edit it out. Someone on my team pointed out that my website features a quote from Carl Sagan about the importance of truth-telling, and we decided that it’s the essence of this show to have a wide range of guests and let them speak as they want, without editing, and with the understanding that it’s their opinions rather than mine.
It’s a good thing we have that policy, because otherwise, I would have quite the project figuring out what to do with my very lively conversation with Bill Harris, the former CEO of Paypal and Intuit, and Founder and Chairman of Personal Capital. Bill and I got together, in a little office I was using at Harvard, and had a very far-ranging conversation. By the time we finished, I told him I’ll probably have to offer equal time to all the people he -- shall we say, critiqued -- during our talk.
Seriously -- if anyone Bill mentions would like to come on the show to offer opposing views, please reach out.
A lot of Bill’s outspoken views these days focus on the controversy over customers’ right to use and share their financial data. Much of today’s most promising innovation works by having people give permission to a fintech to access their bank account, so that the fintech can help them save, invest, or manage their money. This is the model behind everything from Mint (podcast with them is coming soon), to Digit (see our past episode with Ethan Bloch). For the past year or so, banks have been raising concerns that these arrangements can be risky to customers because the fintech may have inadequate security, and/or because there may weak controls on how the fintech uses the data.
The innovators are countering that many of them have better security than banks do -- basically because they have new technology rather than the aging, siloed IT at most banks. They also argue that the potential risks can be managed, including through best practice by data aggregators like Yodlee. Bill is part of a newly-formed fintech group on Consumer Financial Data Rights (which I have advised) and which is trying to build consensus on how to provide consumer protection while also assuring that consumers can access and use their data freely. The core argument is this information belongs to the consumer, rather than to the company that’s holding it.
There are huge stakes in this, because data is the life’s blood of financial innovation. Regulators and the financial community must assure that it’s protected and not abused, but also have to enable it to flow freely, with the consumer’s permission. If it doesn’t, most of the best innovation underway with wither and die.
In our discussion, Bill talks about this challenge, including the fact that the Dodd-Frank law authorized the CFPB to set out guidance on it. (Here is the CFPB’s request for information on the data rights issue.) Even more basically, he talks about the underlying problem, which is how to actually secure consumers’ data and establish reliable identity verification. Bill has helped to found three major security companies and shares his deep thinking about a security world beyond passwords (which he calls “stupid”). He also warns against universal data security standards that are rigid or one-size-fits-all. And he offers a vision for how we will really solve identity authentication and security problems -- through the phone.
We talked about his current company, Personal Capital, which provides personal financial management software to about 1.3 million users, for free. For customers that want more help, the company then provides fee-based investment advisory services tailored for people with complex financial situations. It arose from Bill and colleagues deciding that people’s biggest financial challenge is the “chaos” that leaves people leading “unexamined financial lives.” Personal Capital has designed a solution that is simultaneously high-tech and high-touch.
Bill has wide-ranging views (including some praise) about new models emerging in investment management and robo-advising. (Here is the earlier podcast I mention in our talk, with Jon Stein of Betterment.) Our discussion also included a look into how Bill starts businesses and scales them up, and about the challenges of legacy bank IT systems (stuck together with “bubble gum and sealing wax”).
I think you’ll especially enjoy his stories about past adventures, including the early days at Intuit, and the hair-raising startup of PayPal with Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, in a “small second floor thing over a bakery on University Street outside of Stanford.”
And listen closely as he recounts an intriguing dinner conversation with Steve Jobs, about financial services.
More for our listeners:
Watch for our upcoming shows, including Colleen Briggs of JPMorgan Chase; Wai Lum Kwok, who leads the regulatory sandbox in Abu Dhabi; Jonathan Dharmapalan, founder of eCurrency; Al Ko, who leads Mint; and the one and only Brett King, among others.
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