Banking Fintech

Why fintech startups think they can beat the banks

Why fintech startups think they can beat the banks. Photo by lassedesignen, Shutterstock.com
Written by Chris Skinner

Fintech startups are exploiting weaknesses, but large banks are adapting as fast as they can. The fight for the future of banking is on. Story by Chris Skinner.

There’s an old joke about the guy who’s lost driving in the countryside, who stops to ask a pedestrian how to get to the city. The pedestrian replies: “Oh, if you want to get there, I wouldn’t start from here”, and this is exactly how banks feel today. They want to get to the nirvana of new technologies, but are stuck in a spaghetti of old systems. Some call them legacy, others call them handcuffs, but whatever they are is a problem.

The problem is that old systems and legacy technologies stop the bank moving forward into the nimble and agile future on offer today, and this is exactly what fintech startups believe they can exploit, as it’s clearly a weakness for the large banks.

What we’re seeing is many new companies launching capabilities built upon the latest internet-enabled technologies. These include easy-to-use apps for customers, simple-to-add code for merchants, and open systems to allow anyone to work with them. It’s almost like banking in an apps store; hundreds of companies offering thousands of services that are simple and easy for sending and receiving money.

These companies include firms such as Stripe, a six-year-old startup that’s the preferred code for building online checkout services. Really easy to work with, the company is the chosen system for many other innovative companies, including Kickstarter and Apple Pay, and is valued at almost $10bn by the end of 2016. Not bad for a six-year-old startup. The reason why it has gained such a valuation is that it has taken something the banks make difficult – setting up online payment services – and made it incredibly easy.

Underserved markets

Similarly, there are companies that do similar things in lending, savings, investments and other specific areas of financial services based on internet technologies. These companies have names such as Zopa, Smartypig, Nutmeg, etoro, and have fun branding and cool offices. They’re very different to banks and are collectively known as fintech – financial technology startup companies. They all share many of the same attributes in terms of being young, aspirational, visionary and capable. This is why collectively they have seen investments from venture capital and other funds averaging $25bn for the last four years, according to figures published by KPMG.

However, there is a possible impasse here, as the most successful fintech firms are not replacing banks, but serving markets that were underserved. Those seeking easy investing, better access to funding, supporting small businesses and turning mobile telephones into points-of-sale, are the fintech firms that have the highest valuations and greatest success. However, none of them have replaced a bank. They’re succeeding by addressing areas that banks find difficult to serve due to cost or risk, such as lending to small businesses.

This is why it’s interesting to see almost 50 new banks launching in the UK, many of which are fintech banks. Atom, Starling, Monzo and more have bank licences from the UK regulator and considerable funding. However, they’re up against the biggest UK banks who have millions of customers, billions of funding and centuries of history.

For new players, fighting the large banks is going to be a challenge, and they will need a lot of funding to succeed. This doesn’t mean they won’t succeed, but they will need real differentiation and exceptional digital services. Even then, will customers switch? It will be interesting to find out, but the one thing the new players have from the start is fresh technologies, no legacy and unconstrained thinking.

Equally, they have no cost overheads and can therefore compete more effectively on interest rates. After all, big banks have an awful lot of branches that aren’t used much any more. In fact, it may not be attractive to their customers or the media to shut down these branches, but if they don’t, the big banks clearly cannot compete with these new digital startups, even with their millions of customers.

Therefore, the fight for the future of banking is going to be between a host of new digital players and a few large banks who find it hard to change, but are adapting as fast as they can. Interesting times indeed.

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– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Photo by lassedesignen, Shutterstock.com

About the author

Chris Skinner

Chris Skinner is an independent commentator on the financial markets through the Finanser, and chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club, which he founded in 2004. He is an author of numerous books covering everything from European regulations in banking through to the credit crisis, to the future of banking.

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