I have been circulating the link to the Wall Street Journal article of last week. You can read the WSJ piece here.

It brought back the memory of a call I got several years ago. I was already thinking about how some financial data-sharing technology I had built might give business owners a way to get more control over credit evaluations when my phone rang. When I saw it was that certain business credit bureau I was a little freaked out. The timing seemed unusual but truly it was just a random sales call that I decided to treat seriously all in the name of market research.

Needless to say I took copious notes and here is the script:

Sales: I’m calling to tell you that someone has been looking at your credit file.

LaVonne: Oh? Who?

Sales: I can’t tell you.

LaVonne: Your manager won’t let you or you don’t know?

Sales: [long pause] Well actually I’m calling to tell you about our new service. It lets you monitor your file.

LaVonne: So I can see who’s looking at it?

Sales: You can see that it has been viewed and catch any errors.

LaVonne: I thought you guys were experts at getting accurate data.

Sales: We collect millions of records on millions of companies so sometimes mistakes slip through. But that’s why I wanted to tell you about this new service. It only costs $159 to get your report or $39 per month for online access.

LaVonne: I’d be interested in that $39 one. What do I get for that?

Sales: You can add a couple references and get any mistakes fixed.

LaVonne: Great! So I can edit the report online, sort of like a wiki?

Sales: Well, not exactly. We give you a special toll-free number to call.

LaVonne: Oh. I call someone and they go online while we’re talking to fix the mistake I report.

Sales: No. They take down your information and report it to our data center. Someone in the data center goes in and corrects the mistake.

Folks! We can do better than this. But it seems to me the starting point is still, who is in charge? Whose data are being used in credit decisions? We can open up credit practices, let people capture and share their data, and still promise trust and verification. It just takes a willingness to reframe the problem. Instead of what it takes to help creditors make faster decisions, ask what it takes to help businesses access the economic opportunities they deserve.

Do you have a similar story? If you are a creditor, say you manage a supply chain or you are a small business lender, have you heard similar stories from small businesses with which you work?

–LaVonne Reimer, Founder

Yesterday, Wall Street Journal carried a piece about the spin-off company from Dun & Bradstreet–Small Businesses Seethe at Credit Service Using Dun & Bradstreet Name.

In addition to realizing I’ve never used that verb other than in past tense, it was a striking story and quite familiar. We have collaboratively designed our platform as well as piloted it with scores of business owners and the financial advisers they trust most. Seethe is a good word to describe what I see when they talk about the credit industry.

At the same time, we’ve engaged many credit analysts to ensure that our profile framework is complete and that they’ll be thrilled when their business clients and partners use it. In spite of intensive conversations and their observations about data quality issues, I found them to be less than familiar with how the credit industry affects small businesses.

Now I wonder if that gap is due to businesses not feeling they can talk about the problem with their lenders and other stakeholders.

We’re still interested in hearing your stories good and bad but hope to flip the conversation. Would you like to feel proud of how your company is portrayed in credit evaluations or longer-term credit monitoring? How important is it to know your evaluators understand your business and your dreams for it?

Let’s make small business clout and impact our shared objective in commercial credit. Please let me know your thoughts in this post or send me an e-mail: lreimer@lumeno.us.

–LaVonne Reimer, Founder

I love data and am intrigued by metadata. So, following all the ins and outs of recent disclosures about the government tracking metadata. What a relief to come across this tongue-in-cheek piece thanks to another friend in Facebook (I have a wonderfully eclectic group of friends and colleagues in my network at Facebook which makes me wonder what NSA could conclude about me but that’s a different post).

The writer imagines how metadata might have informed the Brits that Paul Revere was someone to watch . . . and presumably could have prevented the midnight ride and who know what else!

This is a good time to point out that we at Lumenous plan to make use of metadata. We have mechanisms to collect it now but aren’t actively doing that. Here’s our plan:

We are all about users supplying their own data into their credit profile mostly by authorizing data to stream from external sources both private and public. These data vary widely in the degree to which they have been verified. For example, financial reports from an accounting system might be prepared by the business owner or an independent accounting firm. One is completely unverified and the other somewhat verified. The other end of that continuum might be legal records collected and verified by an independent publisher.

We expect to monitor activity levels and other patterns to present a unified view of data fidelity. In other words, if you are invited to view a profile by the business owner, can you trust what you see? That’s different than using metadata to determine who is creditworthy and who is not–a use of metadata that potentially has immediate and hard-to-contest implications.

All of this will be described in much more detail before we begin working with metadata in any significant way.

Government jokes and angst aside, metadata can be informative but need to be handled with care. In our world that includes disclosures to ensure confidence in our system.

I hope you’ll comment to this post or send me a message at lreimer@lumeno.us if you have any questions. Meanwhile, enjoy a little bit of math/stats humor!

–LaVonne Reimer, Founder

Yesterday, Slate published an online piece to which numerous of my Facebook friends have linked. I initially read it wearing only my hat as a Mom and someday grandmother. The essence is that children who are drowning don’t behave the way you’d expect given TV and movie depictions. They are mostly silent and not flailing in the water. As a result, some 50% of children drown with adults nearby and a shocking 10% while adults are watching.

The post goes on to identify specific behaviors and why they occur–the instinctive drowning response. Do read it here if you haven’t. Having seen the impact of the drowning of one of my nephew’s toddler daughters, it hits close to home.

This morning another image came to mind that relates to my founder of Lumenous hat. It’s the founders and managers of small businesses in the U.S. No, I’m not asserting that many of them are drowning. It’s more that many of them deserve and would benefit from greater access to economic opportunity such as loans, unregulated financing, and new forms of funding as well as sales.

It seems everyone is paying lip service to the ideal of a thriving ecosystem of small businesses growing to the next level, impacting their communities, adding more jobs. Some have put money behind their promises. There is capital sitting in banks; even the community banks we like a whole lot more than big banks. Federal agencies have set goals to allocate more procurement opportunities to small businesses. Great big companies promise revenue opportunities for small business suppliers and channel partners.

And yet, much of this opportunity is not reaching small businesses. It’s a bit like a crowd of adults ringing the pool with inflatable life rafts and rings in hand while business owners bob in the water instinctively trying to survive.

In other cases, these providers of great potential opportunity are literally in the water with small businesses but unable to recognize they could bring these business alive with the right connections and attention.

Before I carry this frightening metaphor over an invisible line, I’ll cut to my main point. I really don’t believe that the current commercial credit industry means to harm small businesses. Giving them all the benefit of the doubt, they mean to be the enablers of help flowing to the right small businesses at the right moment.

But there is a huge disconnect in the process. Back in 1841 when the founders of Dun & Bradstreet set out to streamline credit checks, the model worked. Today there is so much more data, so much more noise. That model I’ve written about below too often keeps business owners from not only understanding the data being used to evaluate them but also from accessing economic opportunity they deserve.

In a sense, this situation calls for an eye-opening initiative not unlike educating parents and other adults about “instinctive drowning response.” Through this blog and our technology, we hope to do that. Illuminate the need to evaluate small businesses differently.  And illuminate new ways to engage small businesses all to take friction out of the flow of considerable economic opportunity to the right businesses and at the optimal moment. If we wait for them to scream for help and flail a la movie drownings, it will surely be too late.

–LaVonne Reimer, Founder

 

For some time now, we have been tracking start-ups using social data to determine creditworthiness. In the past week, we first saw this guest post. Shortly after, a popular Silicon Valley tech news site picked it up and carried it farther here.

The author seems to see only upside. For example,

By analyzing years of social data that is difficult to fake, we can more intelligently combat ever-more-sophisticated cybercriminals. Simply put, online identity is becoming the new and improved credit score.

That it is hard to fake a social record I do not dispute. I end up creating many of our test financial reports for our developers and oh boy is it hard to fake even that. Income statement maybe but balance sheet that reasonably relates?

Putting aside the question of whether you can count on the relevance and veracity of social data, the concern we have is that most of the efforts to glean signal out of considerable noise are taking place in a black box. It’s an important matter for consumers but in commercial credit, there is the added impact of using personal data on the owner/CEO as well as entity data.

Assuming it’s possible to accurately predict risk using big data + black box, the method still virtually eliminates the opportunity for self-insight. Nowhere is such self-insight more important than to a business owner who hopes to not only provide a great product or service to customers but be a trusted member of his/her community.

Read the comments as well as the original posts in both cases and let us know what you think.

–LaVonne Reimer, Founder

Or how I taught ethical decision-making to road crew . . . .

I attended an event recently that challenged me to think about the meaning of “sense-making.” Most participants seemed to connect the term to something of an intellectual exercise. It reminded me of something else. Past experience devising instructional exercises that help students “feel” a difficult concept in a new way. It had been on my mind anyway as I think through how to make Lumenous member experiences with commercial credit practices simple and pleasing and yet instructive in the sense of experiencing what it means to be the leader of a creditworthy business.

Before I launched my first business, I had a small consulting firm. I advised businesses and government agencies on matters of business ethics and law. One such agency (a state transportation department) asked me to evaluate an ethics training program that was being panned by the “rank and file” and possibly teach some sessions as needed.

It was apparent to me that the traditional classroom model being used was a problem especially because they were mixing up employees. A single class might include tech professionals from one division, in-house lawyers, and road crew. The road crew employees struck me as being almost in pain sitting there–understandable given the total contrast from their normal working environment.

I couldn’t get permission to offer the session out on the highways so I set out to introduce an exercise that might work. I had seen an interesting scenario discussed in a PBC broadcast that I got permission to use. Two employees of the same company were long-time friends who shared a vacation home. The company had gone through an embezzlement case in which the insurance company paid up after no perpetrator could be identified. Naturally, one of the friends is staying at the vacation home when he stumbles upon computer print-outs that make it clear the embezzler was his friend. A confrontation follows in which the embezzler pleads for silence to save his job and family finances.

Here’s how I used the scenario. I showed the video up to the point of the confrontation. Then I asked participants to “take a stand.” Those in favor of disclosure on one side of the room and those in favor of protecting the friend on the other. I did this in over 40 sessions. Each time my stomach would clench in fear that no one would move or they would react in anger or disdain. Each time, they engaged . . . even the road crew.

They would stand up and start walking reasonably quickly and then you could see them slow down, maybe pivot, turn back and complete taking their position all while brows were furrowed in concentration. It seemed to me they were processing in a deeply physical way that ethical decision-making is complicated and not just a thumbs up/thumbs down choice. Observing this part of the exercise moved me to tears every time.

I’ve written below of my concerns about black box credit scoring. I think it’s related in part to this experience. A quick score-based decision about a business doesn’t permit the evaluator to understand the business much less the hopes and dreams of its founder. Much less inspire or inform a long-term constructive relationship.

Commercial relationships are complicated. Finding trust in them is too. Supporting the process through technology means we can’t tap into all of human senses but to the extent possible, we hope to continuously improve on design elements that help our members internalize credit and trust in new ways.

–LaVonne Reimer, Founder

http://pandodaily.com/2013/04/23/who-says-education-cant-be-lucrative-the-early-days-of-lynda-com/

This is an interview for an online publication that focuses on venture-backed companies but the featured entrepreneur didn’t start out with that goal in mind.

I love how the confluence of personal passion and practical drivers led this couple to launch one of the most successful e-learning companies today.