Ready, Test, Go. // Episode 6

Innovating for the Common User

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About This Episode

Feature-rich products don’t necessarily lead to widespread customer adoption. In fact, the everyday user likely prefers a stripped-down, easy-to-understand product to one that offers all the functionality under the sun. Striking a balance between speed to market, inventive products and an emphasis on digital quality can sometimes lead to a push-pull that sinks innovation initiatives.

Turns out a diverse background can go a long way toward substantive innovation — just as Gary Larkin, the Chief Strategy Officer of Marker Trax and Koin Mobile. In this podcast episode, Larkin, whose background includes marketing, graphic arts and advertising, explains why an approach to product innovation must be simple yet refined and thoughtful yet profitable — not always easy needles to thread in the global marketplace.

Special Guest

Gary Larkin

Gary Larkin is the Chief Strategy Officer of Marker Trax and Koin Mobile. Through decades of leadership experience, particularly in the payment solutions space, Larkin has learned the ins and outs of successful product innovation and adoption, which often boils down to forming meaningful and ongoing bonds with customers.


(This transcript has been edited for brevity.)

DAVID CARTY: We are the product of our personal experiences. Perhaps that's why we look back on our past with fondness. Even if you're like Gary Larkin, whose days of youth were a bit on the wild side in the outskirts of Sydney, Australia.

GARY LARKIN: I mean, very different time. I was a child of the late '50s and '60s, and growing up in Australia, which was still I guess awakening at that point in time. What we call the great Australian bush was my backyard. We grew up in an environment where pretty much everything you saw would kill you. So you learn to be aware of your surroundings pretty quickly. But it was a wonderful childhood. It was a different time. One of those things, I think we all look back on our childhood and wish we could give it to our children, but I truly do believe I was blessed and had the gift of good luck on birth that you just can't buy.

CARTY: Gary moved to the US in the 1980s to help launch Foster's Beer. Yeah, really. He's been here ever since helping some iconic brands and even television shows achieve relevance here in the States.

LARKIN: In my early careers, I was involved in a wide range of film, entertainment, radio, TV, and subsequently put together a global marketing company that was specialized in sport and entertainment. And we had many Australian clients for whom we would operate both internally, but we were lucky enough to get the contract to help what was then Carlton and United Breweries launch Foster's globally. So we actually had the global launch through UK, Europe, Canada, and then into the US. But I was addressing our other business with my partner in the US at the time. He was engaged to an American and he had intended to take up root here. And I can recall clearly him calling one day and asking if I could get on a plane and come up and help him for a couple of weeks. He said, we really need some assistance here, this launch is getting a bit beyond us. And I can remember packing for two weeks, 37 years ago, and have never lived in the country since.

CARTY: Gary's background includes everything from radio, television, and live events production and marketing to graphic arts and advertising. That might be a far cry from where Gary is today, but those experiences helped shape his perspective as an innovator.

LARKIN: I think the through line really is, the business fundamentals apply. It really doesn't matter what you're applying it to, you have to remember that what's important to business is, at the end of the day, more money coming in the front door than going out the back, delivering a service that people like and come back and use more of as often as possible. And if you apply that critical thinking to whatever field you're endeavoring to move through, you'll find your footing fairly quickly. Solutioning through industry problems, looking for the bottlenecks, what are the points of abrasion, trying to think it backward from a customer experience perspective. And I think that kind of thought process of always starting with the customer, who's using this, what do they want out of this, not what do I want to give them, but what might they find valuable from what I'm trying to push forward is a really consistent thing.

CARTY: This is the Ready, Test, Go. podcast brought to you by Applause. I'm David Carty.

Today's guest is Aussie expat and Chief Strategy Officer of Marker Trax and Koin Mobile, Gary Larkin. With decades of experience in leadership positions across various payment solution companies, Gary Larkin has learned what works in innovation, and what doesn't. Gary helps companies successfully execute on their innovative visions in the expanding but highly regulated casino gaming industry. Innovative minds can dream up some big, grand ideas, but they need to be grounded. Let's find out from Gary how to approach that.

Now Gary, it's one thing to have a great idea for a product that will revolutionize an industry, and it's another thing to have it launched successfully in the real world. So what are some of the key criteria to executing on a product vision?

LARKIN: Look, I think the first thing is be prepared to fail fast. First and foremost, you really have to find out if the dog is going to eat the dog food. It doesn't matter how good for the dog it is, if the dog's not going to eat the dog food, it's not going to sell. And you need to do that with the consumers. Again, back to the consumers. Take it to the coalface. Find out, does -- I have a great idea, but does everybody else think it's a great idea? And even if they think it's a great idea, will they adopt? You can be easily drawn into sitting in a vacuum and talking to yourself when you're doing products development and trying to revolutionize or bring new products to market. It's very important, I think, to get a proof of concept out into people's hands quickly at the risk of being told it doesn't work.

CARTY: Right.

LARKIN: And do that early enough to pivot, come back, learn from that, and keep iterating on that product, thought, and design. Don't get too hung up in the technicalities. Don't let perfection be the enemy of good I think is the important part of how to bring something into market. And to be measured in where you release it. Don't get over your skis, put it everywhere. Try to do it in a measured fashion so you do have the opportunity to adjust in the product design and development and packaging before it gets into a fully open market environment.

CARTY: Now it can be difficult to have a detailed grasp of how the customer is going to use the product, the customer journey when you're developing an innovative product. What are some of the ways that you can help get an understanding early on into how the customer will eventually use that product in their journey?

LARKIN: Look, I think it's really rather dependent on the type of product and the end consumer. Clearly, getting to the typical target and consumer quickly for input is important, but most products have interlocking circles of target customers. That center of the bullseye doesn't always jump out at you. And sometimes your product's going to fit a little better for the customer profile you didn't anticipate. So you've got to be open to this. I think it is important to check yourself and make sure you're not putting your thumb on the scale. Really, really be careful and try to be as clinical about how you allow the customers to come to your product as possible. If you're there helping them, that's not a true experience. Find ways to remote yourself and look in at what's happening. Get outside the paradigm and look back in, and learn from that, and really, really listen, and again, at the risk of learning what you didn't want to hear. Better to know early. Fail fast. And then learn and regroup and move on.

CARTY: And as part of that, there's always going to be a little bit of a trade-off between speed and depth of product, right, having a really feature-rich product and having one that gets to market fast. So what is the balance between a minimum viable product that really, really hits on one or two great things and a more expansive, full-featured product.

LARKIN: I know there are exceptions that don't prove this rule, but in my experience, the simpler the product is -- if you're moving a market, if you're trying to get a consumer to adopt a different behavior, buy a different product, shop at a different store, don't look for the ultimate solution out the gate. Iterate the -- move them forward gradually. Bring new products, new things in behind it. Build on the basis of the relationship you formed with that customer. Far too often I have seen, I have been guilty of this myself in my career in over-engineering products, putting all the bells and whistles in, and not realizing in the process I'm confusing my customer. That the true value proposition is getting buried in a lot of glitter and it's not resonating with them and needs to be stripped back to a more naked version of itself in order to find that earlier adoption. So there isn't a one size fits all. There's no, regrettably, no panacea. I think it takes a lot of thoughtful minds to solution a product's vision into a marketplace sustainably. And then the other part of that is always, how do I repeat this? How do I keep doing it? And have I built a product that is robust and fault tolerant, and scalable, and able to meet the supply chain needs and keep coming out to market day after day?

CARTY: And this is an especially important idea if you're creating a product for the common consumer, the meat-and-potatoes type of user, right? So how can you develop a successful product that really connects with a broad consumer base that might not care about all the flashy bells and whistles, all the glitter, as you say, behind the product?

LARKIN: I think there has to be a common thread of need, or at least value. Get clear on your value proposition. Really understand what you're doing for the consumer. That can sometimes be a little confused and muddied in products that get delivered through a supply chain, retailers. Or as we are in the gaming industry, we deliver a solution to a player through the casino who has a set of requirements, beliefs, and sometimes limitations. So working through that supply chain and understanding how to nuance that towards the end goal, not letting your mission and your message get hijacked by the distribution channel. And that can happen very, very quickly. So keeping close what you're doing and giving value to the supply chain, but not giving your product away in the process. Careful dance. And sometimes you don't know you've lost it until you look back and realize you just gave it all the way to the channel. So keep an eye on how the product is going to be delivered over time and make sure you factor that in in how you develop packaging, messaging -- customer support is a big part of this. These pieces are important if you want to own your product. While it seems sometimes easy to default that away to the channel when you do that, you also default the relationship of the customer to the channel.

CARTY: And speaking to that relationship to the customer, they care first and foremost that the thing works, right? So how important is digital quality along this innovation journey, especially when it comes time to put a product in the actual hands of the consumer?

LARKIN: Look, I think it's very important. I think in today's market, that with incredible media clutter, with incredible competition for front-of mind awareness for time -- screen time, just simply getting people to want to click your app, use your whatever -- there's a lot going on there. It's incredibly important to ensure you have solutioned the smoothest possible customer onboarding experience to your product. Is it easy for them to use? They don't want to think. None of us do. We want to think about the things we like, but we want all the stuff that we get to just work. When we get our iPhone out of the box -- and I think that's the great example. We all want the iPhone equivalent product, and I think it's the great, somewhat of a gold standard. Get that -- lots of things to fault about iPhone, but by and large, consumers know they get an iPhone, pull it out of the box, plug it in, it's going to work. And that's what they've come to rely upon. I think looking for that as our gold standard and making sure whatever you do, no matter how little, and often it's less than you want, but no matter how little you do, do it well. Make it faultless. Let the customer know they can rely upon it to work persistently over time, they'll come back.

CARTY: I definitely co-sign on that idea, by the way, of, I don't want to think, especially at the end of a workday. The kids have exhausted me. Last thing that I want to do when I'm finally have time to myself is to think about the product that I'm working with there. So I co-sign on that. Speaking to that digital quality concern, is there a little bit of a push and pull and a balance there, too, especially when you're talking about innovation efforts? Can it be difficult to establish that success criteria in a way that doesn't interfere with the innovative goal there?

LARKIN: Well, look, I think you've said it earlier, it's a give and take. If you have enough value in what you're doing, a consumer will put up a little bit of pain. But they'll move quicker and stay longer for convenience than they will for cost. Most people tend to focus on, I can be cheaper tends to fall down the list of what motivates people to stay with something or move to something else. We'll all say it's the cost, but it's the convenience. And so if there's a lot of value, which isn't necessarily monetary, but if there's a lot of value for the consumer's participation with your products or services, they'll put up a little pay. But again, you want to be careful how big an audience you give that pain to. I think it is about trying not to keep making it painful as you iterate your product. Try to work a lot of this out.

CARTY: Now today's marketplace is arguably more global than ever before. What's the key to success as you expand your product, both in terms of functionality and expanding it into new markets?

LARKIN: Well, look, I think you have to understand your lane. And I did a lot of export development in my earlier careers for the Australian government, Swedish government, Norwegian governments, bringing tech products and other products into specifically the US market, or other global markets. While the world is global and the opportunities are vast, I think you have to understand your niche, your segment. It may not be every geography, or it may be every geography but a much more limited niche within those geographies. Understand who you're selling to and what real potential you have to move into those global distribution channels. And is it valuable? Do you chase every shiny bauble, or do you focus on what's near and able to be mastered?

Be careful not to overreach because many companies have failed with growth. The expansion has overrun them and they've collapsed. Don't get beyond what you can sensibly support and control to keep integrity in your product, and make sure your resources -- and often if it's a new technology, the resources are limited, even if your budget isn't. The technical skills the domain expertise that's needed to build support and nurture your products delivery are often not in abundance. So they can be overrun pretty quickly, and good people can be buried in a sea of technical debt trying to catch up.

CARTY: Right. It's a great point. And to your point, it has to be a viable fit in a new market, right? If local regulations prohibit what you're doing, online gaming, for example, it really doesn't matter how well it works, doesn't matter what the innovative vision is, it's simply not going to work. But even beyond that, there are many considerations when it comes to localization, the culture of the users in that market, for example. So is there anything that you can do at the planning stages of a new market launch to really help reduce that risk that you're taking on with expansion?

LARKIN: Well, again, you do need to spend a little time with the consumers. I recall in the early days of taking high-risk credit products into Mexico for Cash America then, as it was, we were trying to emulate products we'd successfully launched here in the US, presuming a somewhat similar adoption given the demand for credit. And I can remember staffing up for the large employment opportunities. We'd go out to large industrial complexes and we'd try to get employees to sign up to the program. And it was fairly typical at that point in time for financial service companies, banks particularly to have great looking gals in short skirts go out and try to promote their products. And so we followed. We thought that was a good thing to do. And we had a lot of attention and large crowds, and nobody signed up, or very few signed up. And what we realized is that they like to look at the girls, but they felt intimidated by them. So they wouldn't come over and sit down and sign up. No problem, we decided we'd put guys in suits and make it look more like a bank. Nobody signed up. And we eventually discovered that we needed a much friendlier, maternal kind of look and feel, and we hired housewives. And suddenly, adoption was immediate because they didn't feel threatened and they felt like they could interact.

So I think understand that culture, what is that culture. Don't project your thoughts, your cultural experiences into that new market. And that's true even within a geography like the US. I mean, it's often overlooked that the US is 50 states, and they're not all the same. And a big mistake that's made by a lot of people coming into the US, they just say, well, it's 330 million people, and you know, I'm doing so well in this market of 20 million people, this is going to be fantastic. And then it fails miserably because they don't understand the complexities and the geographies and the socioeconomic differences as you move across even states, let alone from state to state.

CARTY: Yeah, it's funny how a conversion or a purchase can sometimes just come down to a gut feeling. It's always kind of interesting to think about that.

LARKIN: And don't overlook that. I mean, believe me, at some point, every visionary has backed their gut. Steve Jobs, against all odds.

CARTY: Right.

LARKIN: You know. And now there are many, many stories of people who have done that and failed. But at the end of the day, somebody's got to make a call. And that's the other part of it. Don't overthink it either. It's analysis to paralysis sometimes. You do need to move. Learn going forward, not sitting in the workshop trying to make it perfect. You do need to put it on the street, generally for two reasons. One, you don't get any revenue till you do, and that's an important ultimate event. But also, you learn more out there than you'll ever learn in the boardrooms or the huddles.

CARTY: Right, the real feedback, absolutely. You have a rich background in payment solutions in particular. This is a challenging industry right now between global expansion, different forms of centralized and decentralized payments taking hold. There's really a lot to be mindful of there, right? So how can brands innovate in this space in a thoughtful but substantive sort of way?

LARKIN: Look, I think that much of what we do in payments today hearkens back to the early days of Bank America morphing into Visa. It's about trusted relationships. The very essence of our global banking system relies upon good faith relationships between banks and governments, that, at the end of the day, if you tell me you will pay, you will pay, and that the money was there. We put controls on that. We've layered anti-money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act and OFAC screening, and all of these things to make elements of the financial transactions safer or more secure for governments, but at the end of the day, underlying that you have this core need for trusted services.

So if you're going to get into the financial services sector, I would say first and foremost, plan to be a trusted partner, first and foremost. Remember that everybody operates with a sense that they're at some risk. So respect that. And while it may move slowly, and it does, as does gaming innovation, it does for a reason. There is a lot of risk associated with the transactions that take place when they get to scale. And typically, things don't start going wrong until you get to scale. The frauds don't happen until you have visibility, by which time you better be buttoned up. So how do we innovate? I'd say firstly, understand the entire landscape. You're dealing with banks at the end of the day. Crypto has proven to be the unreliable new kid on the block who one day is great, the next day is falling apart. It'll, in my opinion, in my humble opinion, will ultimately find its footing when it adopts regulation. And I think it will get there. And I think banks will move towards blockchain as the underlying technology to drive future financial transactions. We're seeing a lot more of that already.

But you need to look at who's there, what are you really trying to do, and what's out there. First and foremost, if it exists, don't build it. A lot of people run off and they start building technologies believing they're going to invent the better mousetrap. This is a tightly regulated environment. There are a lot of huge players in there. I prefer to look how to leverage what they do around a niche opportunity that we add value to in some way, which, quite frankly, is what we've done with Koin for the gaming industry as a mobile wallet, and what we've done with Marker Trax. Neither of those two products, essentially, are any different than things that go on every day of the week all over the world in financial services. They just haven't happened inside the gaming floor. And what we had to do was to identify what existed that we could lever, how did we build a channel, create a connectivity between it and the gaming floor, what had to be regulated and make sure we don't overregulate ourselves, and then we solutioned back from that. And we're still learning. It was a long process. I remember the day when we began it 3 and 1/2 years ago with Marker Trax, we thought, how hard can this be? We just block the cash. Well, 3 and 1/2 years later, we laugh about that. It can be really hard. But it's born an incredibly successful business in an industry that is burgeoning in the US market, burgeoning in the global markets, and we find ourselves in high demand.

Lot to do going forward, but much of what we talked about earlier here today we tried to apply. Been guilty at times of forgetting it and losing our way, and then having to come back to center. But we had the luxury of some outstanding patents that protected some uniqueness of what we did and gave us a little latitude to be wrong once in a while and still come back from that. Not all opportunities bring that with them. We've been blessed with that.

CARTY: Gary, our world is more extensible all the time, our digital world. All of these APIs that need to connect, that need to speak with each other, they rely on each other. And you see this in your line of work, as well, right? Cashless products need to synergize, they need to come together, they need to create a better experience, for the gamer, in your case. So this question is going to depend on the openness of the particular industry, but how important is extensibility and even partnerships between different products when it comes to that end user's experience?

LARKIN: Look, in industries as mature or those siloed historically as the gaming industry, partnerships are essential. Our product couldn't exist if we weren't first able to form a partnership with one of the leading system manufacturers in the gaming industry. Konami was our first partner. I give them credit. They've been great. Having that and a test bed with a founder's property to play with as we learned, you know, would the dog eat the dog food, will they come back, what does it take gave us the chance.

But beyond that, the need to constantly partner with evolving parts of this marketplace. We found over time by staying open to the prospects that competitors aren't enemies, they just have a different product they're selling, and maybe one day we'll do that together, has allowed us over the 3 and 1/2 years to come back and partner with people who would have initially thought us to be complete rivals. And we continue to do that and are open to doing that. And thankfully, they are, too. We have to add value. You've got to be clear, ensure that the business partnerships you forge have value for each of them. And it's a big industry and, fortunately, we're able to coexist. But yeah, partnerships are essential both in the industry and outside the industry because, in our case, we're bringing traditional financial services -- banks, processors, payments aggregators -- into this environment through relationships we've forged and intermediary technology we control.

We're partnered with a large global entity, Euronet, who's been a phenomenal partner to us strategically, technologically. We've been able to bring a lot of what they do into our products to improve them, make them more robust, more scalable, more fault tolerant, more able to run alongside the growth we're finding inside our business. And that's the other reason, I think, to constantly think about partnerships. What it takes to be a startup, what it takes to be an early stage company, and what it takes to be a productized enterprise class deliverer of financial services, completely different things. And at each point along the way, knowing when to transition into that next architecture, it really is -- and it's not just the tech. It's the company. You need to be mindful that often what you start out with as a competency set has to be morphed over time to meet a growing business opportunity or you'll stifle your own growth.

So it's the great challenge of business. It's the thing I love about business. And it's the constant through line in whatever business you are in, whatever industry you have been in, anywhere in the world. And so if you can get those fundamentals locked in early and you bring that to the table each time you embark on a new adventure, ultimately, you'll find them paying off over time.

CARTY: OK, Gary, final sprint questions here. In one sentence, what does digital quality mean to you?

LARKIN: Digital quality mean to me? I think it's delivering a seamless experience to an end consumer, whoever that is, that satisfies their need, and persistently satisfies their need.

CARTY: That's perfect. What will digital experiences look like five years from now?

LARKIN: Oh my God. I wish I could, I wish I could imagine -- different. Different. Completely different.

I mean, I think of a world that much of what we rely upon in the day weren't existed, where laptops, iPhones are moving away. We don't have them. And then what does that mean when we decouple? What point do we -- I mean, I think of the discussions that are looming around singularity, you know. Awesome and frightening topic. I think the thing that's going to change us most in all industries is what probably is most frightening, and that's AI.

What AI will do to every industry, what it will allow us to do that we've never thought of doing, the power it will give to our innovation is going to so greatly change the shape, I think, of our daily lives in the next five years. I'm excited to see it. I'm a little scared as to what it might do because I've seen some, as we all have, we've seen some great downsides of some of the technology revolutions over the last 15, 20 years. It hasn't all been good. We haven't mastered our technologies well to our end goals. But hopefully, we'll do better as it continues to evolve.

CARTY: Gary, what is your favorite app to use in your downtime?

LARKIN: My favorite app to use. I'm going to admit to this to my wife's chagrin, and that is I'm a TikToker.

CARTY: Yeah?

LARKIN: Yeah, I do. I mean, I play a few minor games. I like to keep my mind active, but I'm a little concerned that I overstimulate. You know, I'm a bit guilty of constantly reaching out for the phone. But yeah, I love that instant gratification, that eye candy that TikTok gives you with little bits of what's going on in life. But I'm a news guy, too. So I like to get on the news feeds and catch up with what's going on around the world.

CARTY: And Gary, what is something that you are hopeful for?

LARKIN: What am I hopeful for? I mean, in a business sense or in a general sense? I mean, in a business sense, I'm hopeful that we find greater harmony with the technologies that we're making available to ourselves. I truly am. I think there's a tremendous potential to have great outcome. I don't think we're doing it well enough today. I think we can do it better, so I'm hopeful for that.

On a more general note, I'm hopeful that we can step back away from some of the vitriol we've been able to inject into our culture over the last 5 or 10 years. I think we use the screen of social media to vocalize things we would never say to somebody's face. And that kind of bullying or just bad behavior, I'm hopeful we'll find its way out of our culture.

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