On 27 June 2017, I had the pleasure of attending the first Empire Startups Conference outside of the US, more precisely in Toronto, Canada. The event was the first of its kind and had an ambitious goal: fostering relationships among American and Canadian players in the fintech space. Corporates, entrepreneurs, thought leaders and media producers from both sides of the border came to the Great Hall in Toronto’s West End. Participants included well known entities such as Real Ventures, BankMobile, Credit Karma, TransferWise, Wave, TD Bank and Blockchain Canada. Here are my takeaways.
The rise of Toronto as a fintech hub
Panellists and speakers all agreed on one thing: Toronto is more and more referred to as a growing fintech hub birthing many ambitious projects. Many experts estimate that the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) encompasses 60-70% of the total fintech activity in the country, with Vancouver and Montreal in a distant second and third place. The city has a few things going for her: the primary Canadian stock exchange, ‘Big 5’ headquarters, a major innovation centre in MaRS, OSC Launch Pad (the most mature Canadian fintech Sandbox) and a large cryptocurrency community, just to name a few.
This presents a number of opportunities for American investors and entrepreneurs, especially considering the educated workforce and the low price of the Canadian dollar.
To expand to the US or not, that is the question
The realities of many growing Canadian fintech startups can appear quite grim: a small market size (remember there are only about 36 million inhabitants living in big land mass), a highly regulated financial market, and a VC space that’s comparatively small. This can create adverse conditions when it’s time to scale.
For many, the easy solution is to look for funding in the US, or expand their product/service offering south of the border (obviously a significantly larger market). Wealthsimple, arguably Canada’s leading robo-adviser, made a big splash last January by announcing its US launch, and many observers took notice. I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see other major players up north going south as well.
A few panellists, such as Thinking Capital’s CEO Jeff Mitelman, disagreed with that stance and told the audience about his experience building a profitable fintech firm from within Canada for Canadians. According to him, the local clientele has unique pain points, and one shouldn’t be too quick to go south without a solid plan.
Empathy is the new customer service
An interesting topic that was discussed was the need for empathy towards financial services consumers. Some companies in the space are serving population groups that face financial challenges, such as young people and remote communities.
In Canada, one company that understood that being friendly brings customer retention is Tangerine, a digital-first bank (part of Scotia Bank). Tangerine offers a number of accessible financial products with low fees and extensive support, and has been one of the bigger success stories in Canadian banking in the last few years.
In the US, BankMobile (a digital bank part of Customers Bank) is utilising a similar strategy, making ‘respect’ the central point of its raison d’être.
Overall, the conference was quite successful. It was unique due to its bi-national character, and it raised many interesting points. I’m definitely looking forward to future editions.
Image by Empire Startups, Shutterstock.com