Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Case Study: kaChing, Anatomy of a Pivot

(The following guest post is a new experiment for this blog. It was written by Sarah Milstein in collaboration with kaChing CEO Andy Rachleff. kaChing has been very active in the Lean Startup movement. If you haven't seen it, Pascal's recent presentation on continuous deployment is a must-see; slides are here. In the interests of full disclosure: I am an advisor to kaChing but did not participate in the interviews that led to this case.

With case studies like this, we aim to illustrate specific Lean Startup techniques through the stories of current practitioners. It is written using the information that the company voluntarily shared, and therefore reflects their current thinking and recollections. I am particularly interested in feedback on this case study. Do you find it helpful? Please give us your feedback in the comments. Thanks, Eric)

You probably know that Flickr, the photo-sharing site, started out as an MMOG. And if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that IMVU started out as an instant messaging add-on. It’s common, perhaps the norm, for startups to pivot like that—to discover that a product is catching on in unintended ways worth pursuing. Yet there’s a lot of mystery around pivots, and entrepreneurs ask all the time how you know it’s time to commit to a new direction.

To shed some light, I talked with kaChing, a destination that enables individual investors to find outstanding money managers to manage their money. The company’s audacious goal is to disrupt the $11 Trillion mutual fund industry. The startling part is that kaChing started out as a…Facebook game. That’s an epic pivot, like shifting from making solar calculators to powering the Space Shuttle. How’d it happen?

kaChing launched a virtual portfolio management game on Facebook in January 2008 and a similar version shortly thereafter on The intent was to discover amateurs who could manage a portfolio as well if not better than professionals (think American Idol) and then facilitate individual investors giving them their real money to manage. In other words, the game would serve as a kind of minor league for the profession. Because kaChing prefers its portfolio managers to have a long track record, the marketplace launch (i.e., the version that would facilitate the investment of real money) was planned for late-2009.

kaChing deployed the game across a slew of platforms, including MySpace, the iPhone, and the Yahoo App Platform. The result? They attracted more than 450,000 portfolios—a decent number for a company that hoped a good percentage would prove out as capable managers. They also hoped a reasonable percentage would realize they were lousy money managers and would then convert to clients.

In the early fall of 2009, as kaChing prepared for its marketplace launch, the management team showed the app—which included real time market data, SEC-grade accounting, analytics, compliance and customer management tools—to a number of investment pros to get feedback and endorsements. One of those pros was John Powers, head of the Stanford endowment. He noted the platform would be good not only for amateurs who had proven themselves as outstanding portfolio managers in the game, but also for professional money managers —a group that had insufficient tools for managing and scaling their businesses.

The kaChing system was based on full transparency. A portfolio manager’s entire track record & holdings had to be disclosed. The company didn’t believe professionals would be willing to reveal that level of detail. But Powers’s reaction was intriguing enough to prompt Andy Rachleff, kaChing’s CEO, to call friends who were professional money managers and describe the idea. The response was surprisingly positive.

Andy Mathieson, a founder and managing member at Fairview Capital, was particularly supportive. He was unconcerned about transparency, noting the good have nothing to fear. Mathieson signed on to be a money manager in the marketplace launch, committing five years worth of prior transactional data. Mathieson’s firm has a minimum investment of $1 million dollars outside of kaChing. On kaChing, consumers could invest in Fairview Capital’s strategy with as little as $3k.

When the marketplace launched on October 19, it included seven amateurs who had risen through the game’s ranks and four professionals, including Mathieson. Within a month, kaChing observed several interesting things. First, because the amateurs weren’t SEC-registered, the site had to refer to them with awkward terms like “geniuses.” That was confusing for consumers, who already had to figure out what on was a game and what was real. Second, out of 450,000 gamers, only seven had qualified to become kaChing managers. Third, the company expected hundreds of amateurs who performed poorly in the game to realize they weren’t good at investing and therefore become customers. in fact only five people converted into paying customers. Finally, after launch, 30 professional money managers, having read articles on the company, contacted kaChing out of the blue. These managers weren’t concerned with transparency. They were interested in the tools and new distribution medium kaChing provided.

In November, kaChing held an all-hands meeting, circling up chairs in their small Palo Alto office, to discuss whether they should focus solely on professionals and abandon the systems for proving amateurs. “Some people weren’t comfortable because it wasn’t as fun, and one senior engineer thought we’d be losing the part of kaChing that was an enabler for anyone who wanted to make it as a pro,” Rachleff recalls. “But what we really wanted to change was not who manages the money, but who has access to the best possible talent. We’d originally thought we’d need to build a significant business with amateur managers to get professionals to come on board, but fortunately It turns out that wasn’t necessary.”

The staff agreed they could better fulfill their goals by working just with professional managers. In December, they removed the game from In February, they held another all-hands meeting to talk about shutting down the legacy Facebook game, which still had 60,000 active users. “Everybody felt the burden of supporting all those transactions every day,” says Pascal-Louis Perez, kaChing’s CTO. “It took a ton of our time, and just wasn’t contributing to our long term vision.” That all-hands lasted five minutes.

Which is a nice story. But when kaChing actually shut down each game, hundreds of angry players spewed venom. “We had to ignore them, because they weren’t our target audience – and were never likely to become customers.” says Rachleff.

kaChing says they had the fortitude to make quick decisions and stay the course not just because they’d observed how people were using the marketplace, but also because they’d spoken with hundreds of potential and past customers. To acquire new money managers, the company makes traditional sales calls, which means they’ve interviewed many, many professionals and gotten a strong sense of their needs. At the same time, whenever a customer closes an account, kaChing contacts the person to find out why; most agree to a short phone interview. (The site has about 700 active paying customers.

Perez says this level of contact, synthesized with their own observations, has given them confidence to make bold decisions. Of the money managers they’ve interviewed, he notes, “The feedback is consistent; we solve big enough problems for people that we believe they’ll come on board.”

With 21 employees today, kaChing is devoted to recruiting professional managers and finding product/market fit, first for money managers, then for consumers. Thus far the results are encouraging. More than 30 qualified professional money managers have been attracted to the platform and more than $190 million of customer assets have been committed as well.

The kaChing team is quick to note that because they’re still closing-in on product/market fit, they’re less data-driven than they plan to be once they’re in optimizing mode. “We create hypotheses, and test them,” says Rachleff. “If something fails, we cut it off. If something seems to succeed, we pursue it aggressively. You have to have the courage of your convictions. With limited data, you have to make tough decisions.”

Special thanks to Pascal-Louis Perez for sharing information and making this post possible.
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