The Occupy Wall Street protestors are gone (for now), but the real revolution against banking is still taking place at breathtaking speed, thanks to a new breed of technology entrepreneurs. The financial services industry, long protected by complex regulations, high barriers to entry and economies of scale, is ripe for disruption. Here’s my take on the macro environment, how consumer attitudes are changing and why technology and available talent make now the best time to challenge the status quo.
Global credit markets clamped shut in late 2008 and froze entire sectors of consumer credit. Mortgages became less available, millions of credit cards were revoked, lines of credit dried up, and banks essentially abandoned the small business and student loan markets. This left tens of millions of households in the position of “underbanked” (have jobs and bank accounts, but little to no credit) and the “unbanked” (no traditional banking relationship at all.) This credit crunch fueled demand for startups like Wonga, Billfloat, and OnDeck Capital to establish themselves and grow rapidly, and the reloadable prepaid card market pioneered by GreenDot and NetSpend soared. While credit has eased for certain segments in certain markets, there are still big opportunities to fill credit voids, especially at the lower end of the market.
The last few years have seen significant changes in banking, payment, tax, investment and financial disclosure regulations. While complex legislation such as the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is hardly intended to unleash entrepreneurial innovation, and virtually no single person can comprehend it in entirety, it does contain hundreds of provisions that restrict incumbent business practices, and typically when there is change and complexity there are new opportunities for those that can move quickest and are least encumbered by legacy. Other regulations such as the Check 21 Act which paved the way for paperless remote deposit of checks, and the JOBS Act crowd funding provision are examples of technologically and entrepreneurially progressive laws that create opportunities for entrepreneurs and tech companies. Inspired by the success of pioneers such as microfinance site Kiva and crowd funding sites like KickStarter and indiegogo, I expect that once the JOBS Act is fully enacted and allows for equity investments by unaccredited investors we will see a surge of specialized crowd funding sites with great positive impact on deserving individuals and new ventures.
Within a few weeks of Occupy Wall Street in Sept 2011, protests had spread to over 600 U.S. communities (Occupy Maui anyone?), hundreds of international cities (did I see you at Occupy Ulaanbaatar Mongolia?), and every continent except Antarctica. Regardless of what you think of such protests, it is safe to say that as a whole we are more skeptical and distrustful of financial institutions than virtually any other industry. Clay Shirky’s term “confuseopoly”, in which incumbent institutions overload consumers with information and (sometimes intentional) complexity in order to make it hard for them to truly understand costs and make informed decisions, is unfortunately a very apt term for the traditional financial services industry. There is thus a crying need for new service providers who truly champion consumers’ best interests and create brands based on transparency, fairness, and doing right by their customers. Going one step further, peer-to-peer models and online lending circles enable the traditional practice of individuals helping one another without a traditional bank in the middle, but with a technology enabled matchmaker in the middle. Perhaps the ultimate example of bypassing the mistrusted incumbents is the recent acceleration in the use of Bitcoin, a digital currency not controlled by any nation or central bank but by servers and open source cryptograpy.
As a Product Manager for Quicken back in 1995 I remember sweating through focus groups with consumers shaking with fear at the notion of online banking. Today it is second nature to view our bank balances or transfer funds on our smartphone while standing in line for a latte. And while Blippy may have found the outer limit of our willingness to share personal financial data (for now), there is no doubt that “social” will continue to impact financial services, as evidenced by social investing companies eToro and Covestor. You can bet it will be startups that innovate around social and the incumbents who mock, then dismiss, then grope to catch up by imitating.
I think we will look back in 20 years and view the smartphone as a technical innovation on par with the jet plane, antibiotics, container shipping, and the microprocessor. While the ever improving processing power and always-on broadband connectivity of the smartphone are the core assets, it has been interesting to see such widespread capabilities as the camera, GPS, and even audio jack used as hooks for new FinTech solutions. While there are over a billion smartphones worldwide, the ubiquity of SMS service on virtually all mobile phones means that billions more citizens have mobile access to financial services 24×7 no matter how far they live from physical branches. Cloud and Big Data processing capabilities are further fueling innovation in financial technology typified by the myriad startups eschewing FICO scores in favor of new proprietary scoring algorithms that leverage the exponential growth in data available to forecast credit worthiness.
Financial institutions have long employed armies of developers to maintain their complex back office systems but until recently the majority of these developers worked in programming languages such as COBOL which have little applicability to startups. While COBOL has not gone away at the banks, more and more of the technical staff spend their time programming new features and interfaces in modern languages and web application frameworks that provide highly applicable and transferable skills to startups only too happy to hire them for their technical training and domain experience. In addition, successful FinTech companies from the early days of the internet such as Intuit and PayPal have graduated experienced leaders who have gone on to start or play pivotal roles in the next generation of FinTech startups such as Square, Xoom, Kiva, Bill.com, PayCycle, OutRight, Billfloat, and Personal Capital.
These are just some of the reasons now is a great time for financial technology startups and why venture capital is flooding in to the sector. In my next post I will offer some suggestions for FinTech revolutionaries.