Bruce Davis, Freemarket
One day in 2003, a freelance ethnographic researcher found himself sitting in a converted barn nestling in the English countryside with the co-founder of egg (at the time, the world’s largest online bank) drinking coffee and eating cookies. The topic of conversation was not the search for a new product or innovation, but rather a point of view. After 10 years creating market leading innovations in the world of banking, Richard Duvall felt that he needed to step back and find a new point of view on the social and cultural change that he perceived to be going on around him – change which challenged his own perspective specifically on what money means to people in everyday life and what we value about money and finance. What was the world going to be like when the dust settled on the internet boom? What were the opportunities for himself as an entrepreneurial individual?
Egg had been an early adopter (in UK terms) of ethnographic research in the development of its products and services. Richard recognized the value of looking beyond conventional perspectives of ‘consumers’ and ‘needs’ and instead understanding the implications of the ‘social life of things’ – specifically what that meant for the meaning and value of money in an increasingly digitally enabled, individualized and changing cultural context.
While talking about my own experiences and the different ways that money was part of the creation and affirmation of meaning in the social and cultural experience of everyday life, it soon became clear that the ‘meanings’ of money were increasingly disconnected any idea of money being created and symbolized by banks, financial systems and macro economics. Money and the value of financial services were not immune to the individualization of culture enabled by the digital revolution.
Working together with a group of co-escapees from egg, the result of these conversations was zopa.com, the world’s first social lending website - a site which allows individuals to lend and borrow from one another via the internet without the need for banks or conventional institutions. Described as ‘eBay for money’ it has gone on to attract more than $50 m in funding and launch in the UK, USA, Italy and beyond – with an increasing number of imitations around the world including prosper.com and …
This paper will tell the inside story of the creation of zopa.com and the ethnographic insights that inspired a completely new perspective the role and value of digital money in everyday life, and also how those experiences have been taken into other areas of banking, from sales processes, branch designs and new product development in UK, Europe, Russia and USA.
Richard Duvall sadly died suddenly of cancer in 2006, but he did live to see his vision realized and shared by 200,000 users in the UK alone and the launch of the site in the USA.
About the author
Bruce Davis continues to work as a freelance researcher studying the social life of consumption, brands and of course, money. His clients include Unilever, Bacardi, egg, Royal Bank of Scotland, HBOS, Orange, Vodafone, GfK NOP, UK government (Treasury and Direct.gov) – he has been a contributor to reports on the future of digital money for IPPR and digital consumer activism for OfCom (to be published in September). He lives near the Thames in London with his wife and 4, soon to be 5, children. His most valued marketing creation is Monkey Shoulder whisky – inspired by weeks of immersion in the UK drinking culture on behalf of William Grant and Son’s. A drink that can claim to be the world’s first ethnographically inspired whisky!