There’s an old joke about the guy who’s lost driving in the countryside and 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.”
This is exactly how many traditional 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 systems, others call them handcuffs, but either way they are an impediment to innovation.Old legacy technologies stop the bank from moving forward into the nimble and agile future on offer today, and this is exactly what fintech start-up banks believe they can exploit as it is clearly a weakness for the large banks.
Not all fintech companies compete with banks. In fact, most of them are actually working with banks to help them adopt new 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 other fintech companies to work with them.It is almost like banking in an app store:Hundreds of companies offering thousands of services for sending and receiving money that are simple and easy to use.One such company is Stripe, a six-year-old start-up that is the preferred code for building online checkout services.Stripe is really easy to work with and has developed the chosen system for many other innovative companies including Kickstarter and Apple Pay, and was valued at almost $10 billion by the end of 2016. The reason why Stripe has gained such a high valuation is that it has taken something the banks make difficult—setting up online payment services—and made it incredibly easy.
There are companies that do similar things in lending, savings, investments and other specific areas of financial services based upon internet technologies.These companies have names like Zopa, SmartyPig, Nutmeg and eToro. They all have fun branding and cool offices, and 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 $25 billion for the last four years, according to data published by Ernst & Young.
However, there is a possible impasse here, as the most successful fintech firms are not replacing banks, but serving markets that are under-served. Fintech firms with the highest valuations and greatest success are those that focus on making it easier to invest, provide better access to funding, support small businesses or turn the mobile phone into a point-of-sale device.However, none of them have replaced a bank.They are succeeding by addressing areas that banks find difficult to serve due to cost or risk.
This is why it is interesting today that of the almost 50 new banks that have been launched recently in the U.K., many of them are fintech banks.Atom, Starling, Monzo and others have banking licenses and considerable funding.However, they are up against the country’s biggest banks that have millions of customers, deep funding pockets 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 does not mean they won’t succeed, but they will need real differentiation and exceptional digital services to win out.Even then, will customers switch?It will be interesting to find out, but the one advantage the new players do have from the start is fresh technology and unconstrained thinking.Equally, they have no cost overheads and therefore can compete more effectively on interest rates.Until they begin to seriously rationalize all of that high cost physical infrastructure, the big banks clearly cannot compete with these new digital start-ups, even with their millions of customers.
Therefore, the fight for the future of banking is going to be an interesting one between a host of new digital players and a few large banks that find it hard to change.Interesting times indeed.