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They say every product or service must have a secret sauce. Some startups take the secrecy part of this advice to the extreme by going into stealth mode until they launch. While others point to today’s open world of startup events, mentoring sessions, Twitter and TED talks and question if it’s even possible to have anything secret.

Before sharing my perspective on this topic in this post, here’s a disclaimer: Frequent readers would be aware that this blog doesn’t distinguish itself with rigorous research and analysis. Even after making that admision, I must warn readers that I’ve taken personal observation and connection of random dots to unprecedented heights in this post. Proceed with caution.

For those who’ve come this far, I’m convinced that it’s possible to hide your secret sauce. My conviction comes from my recent deep-dives into a few products / services.


By launching a card reader attached to a smartphone and accompanying POS software, SQUARE expanded the market for debit and credit cards to merchants who were hitherto restricted to cash. In the early days, it appeared that Square was successful because it obviated the need for merchants to buy costly point-of-sale terminals to accept card payments. Later on, co-founder Jack Dorsey talked up the company’s success to the deep insights delivered by the Square POS software to merchants.

Square-Mobile-PaymentsWithout belitling these critical success factors, Square took off for a different reason: It was the first product / service that allowed merchants to accept accept card payments without a merchant account. For the uninitiated, this is a line of credit extended by an acquirer bank and it carries the risk of merchant going insolvent. While you can find more details here, the key source of acquirer risk is fund reversals. Merchants targeted by Square are micro and small businesses that wouldn’t qualify for merchant accounts from banks because of their higher risk profiles. Against this backdrop, Square stepped in between the acquirer bank and merchants and, using its well-funded status, got a merchant account for itself. It then signed up individuals and small businesses with minimum fuss and took the risk of letting them accept card payments – without having to “toil hard to get this privilege”, as an investor in a Square-clone startup writes in this MEDIUM article.

With this innovative model, Square created a win-win situation for everyone: Merchants who left business on the table before because they couldn’t accept cards were now able to win those sales. Banks who earned nothing from such merchants’ cash transactions in the past now started getting incremental merchant fees without the additional acquirer risk. Square has, of course, become a modern day payments legend.

Update: I just chanced upon this GigaOm article that explains SQUARE’s USP:

One of the payment back end capabilities that was revolutionary behind Square was the extension of the merchant aggregation model for credit card acceptance from the internet (which Paypal has used so well) to the real world through an elegant point of sale solution.

The merchant aggregation model is explained in detail in this Digital Transactions article.

#2. GPSVoice

This GPS-based app helps parents track their children without draining battery. I’ve written a blog post about how it manages to do that. Suffice to say that the app increased its appeal by actually removing a few features.

#3. PayTM

PayTM is a mobile wallet prefunded by debit or credit cards (or bank accounts) of users who can use the credit to pay electronically at participating merchants’ sites without undergoing the friction of entering credit card information for every transaction on merchant websites. Tired of failed payments, consumers lapped up the frictionless alternative offered PayTM quickly. The initial success of PayTM inspired a lot of clones. However, with 100 million users, PayTM is clearly the biggest mobile wallet player in India. Its leadership position is often attributed to early mover advantage, massive funding and superior execution.

Without undermining these factors, I attribute PayTM’s popularity to a major difference in how it operates compared to other mobile wallets. PayTM does not require the user to preload funds in the wallet. It tops up the wallet on the fly without user intervention. As a result, although it’s called a “prepaid mobile wallet”, users really don’t need to make one transaction to load money and another transaction to make a payment. This is in sharp contrast with other prepaid mobile wallets that bump people off with a message to load enough money first and then come back and reattempt the payment.

To illustrate this with an example, let’s say my PayTM wallet balance is INR 700 and I want to pay a bill of INR 1000. My transaction would fail on all other mobile wallets because of insufficient balance. I’d have to quit the payment, go prefund my wallet with (at least) INR 300 (being the difference between the payable amount of INR 1000 and the wallet balance of INR 700), and then come back and reinitiate the bill payment transaction. What a pain! In sharp contrast, PayTM lets me go ahead without any error message. It uses up the wallet balance of INR 700, then seamlessly switches over to its other role of electronic payment gateway, takes me to my funding source, asks me to fund the deficit of INR 300, and completes the payment in a single pass. No error message. No need to retrace my steps. Very frictionless. I also suspect it is a very sophisticated implementation of two-phase commit feature.


As the above examples illustrate, the secret sauce of a product or service could be hidden in a

  • New business model that empowers people to do something they couldn’t before, or
  • Tweak in product architecture that solves the Achilles Heel of an entire product category, or
  • Change in customer journey that delivers superior CX.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, it’s varied enough to show that it’s possible to have a secret sauce and hide it too.

Ketharaman Swaminathan On November - 6 - 2015

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