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Q&A: Talking fintech with Venrock partner Brian Ascher

13 Jun

This post was originally published in PitchBook

Can you tell me your view on fintech and why it’s so important?

The financial services sector is enormous and spans a variety of trillion and multi-hundred billion dollar markets from mortgages and loans, to investments, payments, insurance, and several others. Finance is an intangible concept so well suited to digital technology, yet traditionally financial services have been delivered through massive brick and mortar networks with armies of people and paper intensive processes. Fintech can provide financial services more efficiently through direct to consumer online channels as well as remove the expensive middlemen that take a heavy toll in terms of fees and commissions ultimately born by the consumers, whether those consumers realize it or not. This increased efficiency and transparency means the elimination of mispricing so that consumers pay fairer prices for better services and results, a major reason why online lending and digital wealth management have exploded over the last five years. Cost and waste comes out of the system and benefits both the consumer and the disruptor.

Banks have started to invest in their own fintech apps and services to counter startups entering the space. How will fintech startups continue to compete with large banks?

Financial service markets are generally not winner-take-all (or even “most”) the way they are in social networks, search, or eCommerce. I think we will see some huge fintech companies created that will thrive as large independent companies. But traditional banks, investment companies, and insurance carriers are not going away; instead they are already starting to adapt to the digital consumer and are experimenting with new delivery models to attract Millennial customers. There are also plenty of software companies that want to sell white label technology to financial institutions, and there are FIs that will build good solutions in-house. And of course the incumbents will continue to acquire startups for the teams, skillsets and technology. I believe we will also see more hybrid offerings that blend digital offerings with human service advisors to provide the consumer with the best of both worlds. A great example of melding digital tools with more traditional human interaction is Personal Capital, a Venrock portfolio company. They have found a way to scale the provision of dedicated advisors to clients when they want them, but also give those clients and massive numbers of free users best in class digital tools to stay on track with their personal financial management.

Speaking of portfolio companies, what are some of the criteria you look for in startups when investing in fintech?

Fintech entrepreneurs need a blend of the maverick disruptor mentality balanced with an appreciation for the regulatory compliance, security requirements, transparency and privacy requirements that goes along with handling people’s money. Fintech entrepreneurs often come from outside the financial industry but hire industry expertise into key roles. Other things we look for are a clear business model, ideally one that corrects a mispricing in the market and offers a very different value proposition, and brand experience versus the incumbent FIs.

The growth of fintech has been almost astronomical, largely in part to the amount of VC that has been invested in the space. Can fintech continue the growth we have seen, even if there’s a downturn in venture investing?

We are already seeing VC investments in fintech cool down a bit, especially in online lending where cheap loan capital has become more scarce, consumer acquisition costs have risen due to the huge number of startups funded over the past few years, and there is a sense that the big winners are already out on the field. Investment Management (aka Robo Advisors) may be next in this progression. Insurance is getting a lot of VC investment right now. I still believe that we are early in terms of consumer adoption of fintech and there is massive growth ahead for the industry as a whole.

How has the SEC been able to keep up with the growth of fintech? Is it moving swiftly enough to make sure regulations are put in place before something major happens, or is there a general lack of oversight at the moment?

It’s not just the SEC, but also Federal bank regulators, state regulators, the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), and a host of others. They certainly have their hands full with the sheer number of companies that are emerging and the pace of innovation, but there is plenty of scrutiny. Enough penalties have been levied and examples made that entrepreneurs are generally investing in compliance and seeking to play by the rules. These are very complex operations and rules, so inevitably there will be minor non-compliance incidents here and there, but I don’t see systemic intentional violations nor a lack of oversight.

Cybersecurity is a major concern these days and seems to end up in the headlines with a major breach far too often. Are security concerns seen to be a roadblock in the mass adoption of fintech?

The biggest breaches that have come to light have been across a wide range of traditional retailers, legacy financial institutions, and even large public internet companies. The reality is that fintech startups are not the juiciest targets since they are tiny compared to incumbent FIs. I think security is an issue that every single company has to contend with, even if you are a mostly brick and mortar retailer that accepts credit cards. Fintech startups need to build trusted brands to overcome cybersecurity fears, but also just to get consumers to trust that they are legitimate companies that will provide good service at fair and transparent prices.

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10 Rules For Disruptors In The Financial Services Industry

20 Mar

Having worked in the FinTech space many years ago, invested in the space for over a decade, and met with hundreds of talented teams in this area, I have observed the following ten traits among the most successful companies:

Rule #1: Unlock Economic Value   Most traditional financial service firms have invested heavily in branch networks that create expensive cost structures which result in higher prices to customers. Mass-marketing channels and poor customer segmentation also result in higher costs and marketing expenses which translate to higher prices. Online-only financial services can unlock significant economic value and pass this along to consumers. Lending Club offers borrowers better rates and more credit than they can get from traditional banks, while offering lenders better rates of return than they can get from savings accounts or CDs. SoFi is disrupting the world of student loans with better rates to student borrowers and superior returns to alumni lenders relative to comparable fixed income investment opportunities.

Rule #2: Champion the Consumer   Consumers are disenchanted and distrustful of existing financial institutions. Let’s take this historic opportunity to champion their interests and build brands deserving of their love. The team at Simple has envisioned a new online banking experience that puts the consumer first via transparency, simplicity and accessibility. Its blog reads like a manifesto for consumer-friendly financial service delivery. LearnVest is another company on a consumer-first mission to “empower people everywhere to take control of their money.” Its low-cost pricing model is clear and free of conflicts of interest that are rampant in the financial sector.  There is plenty of margin to be made in championing the consumer. The speed at which consumer sentiment spreads online these days creates an opportunity to become the Zappos or Virgin Airlines of financial services in relatively short order.

Rule #3: Serve The Underserved  In my last post explaining why the FinTech revolution is only just getting started, I described how the global credit crunch left whole segments of consumers and small businesses abandoned.  Some segments at the bottom of the economic ladder have never really been served by traditional FIs in the first place. Greendot was one of the pioneers of the reloadable prepaid cards bringing the convenience of card-based paying online and offline to those who lacked access to credit cards or even bank accounts. Boom Financial is providing mobile to mobile international money transfer at unprecedented low rates and ultra-convenience from the US to poorly served markets across Latin America and the Caribbean, and eventually globally.   No need for a bank account, a computer, or even a trip downtown to dodgy money transfer agent locations.

Rule #4: Remember the “Service” in Financial Service  Just because you are building an online financial service does not mean that your service is only delivered by computer servers.  When dealing with money matters many people want to speak to a live person from time to time or at least have this as an option just in case. Personal Capital delivers a high tech and high touch wealth management service via powerful financial aggregation and self-service analysis tools, but also provides live financial advisors for clients who want help in constructing and maintaining a diversified and balanced portfolio. These advisors are reachable via phone, email, or Facetime video chat.  As a rule of thumb every FinTech company should provide a toll-free phone number no more than one click from your homepage.

Rule #5: Put a Face on It  Chuck SchwabKen FisherJohn BogleRic Edelman.  These stock market titans may have very different investment styles but they knew that consumers want to see the person to whom they are entrusting their money and as a result they each plastered their face and viewpoints all over their marketing materials, websites, and prolific publications. If your startup wants consumers to entrust you with their nest eggs, you ought to be willing to show your face too. This means full bios of the management team, with pictures, and clear location for your company as well as numerous ways to be contacted. It’s also a good idea to make sure that your management team have detailed LinkedIn profiles and that a Google search for any of them will yield results that would comfort a consumer.

Rule #6: Be a Financial Institution, not a vendor  The real money in FinTech isn’t in generating leads for FIs or displaying ads for them. That can be a nice business, but the real margin is in making loans, investing assets, insuring assets, or settling transactions. In just a few years Wonga has a become a massive online lender in the UK by instantly underwriting and dynamically pricing short term loans. Financial Engines and a new crop of online investment advisors make and manage investment recommendations for their clients.  You do not need to become a chartered bank or an investment custodian as there are plenty of partners that can provide this behind the scenes, but if you can brave the regulatory complexity and develop the technology and skills to underwrite and/or advise exceptionally well, the opportunities are huge.

Rule #7: Use Technology Creatively  The incumbents have scale, brand history, brick and mortar presence, and armies of lawyers and lobbyists. If FinTech startups are going to disrupt the incumbents, you will need to work magic with your technology. How clever of Square to use the humble but ubiquitous audio port on smart phones to transmit data from their swipe dongle and for using GPS and the camera/photo album to make everyone feel like a familiar local when using Square Wallet.  MetroMile is a FinTech revolutionary disrupting the auto insurance market by offering pay per mile insurance so that low mileage drivers do not overpay and subsidize high mileage drives who tend to have more claims.  They do this via a GPS enabled device that plugs into your car’s OBD-II diagnostic port and transmits data via cellular data networks in real-time.  Start-ups playing in the Bitcoin ecosystem such as Coinbase and BitPay are certainly at the vanguard of creative use of technology and are tapping in to the mistrust of central banks and fiat currencies felt by a growing number citizens around the world who trust open technologies more than they do governments and banks.

Rule #8: Create Big Data Learning Loops  Of all the technologies that will disrupt financial services, Big Data is likely the most powerful. There has never been more data available about consumers and their money, and incumbent algorithms like Fair Isaac’s FICO scores leave most of these gold nuggets lying on the ground. Today’s technology entrepreneurs like those at BillfloatZestCash, and Billguard are bringing Google-like data processing technologies and online financial and social data to underwrite, advise and transact in a much smarter way. Once these companies reach enough scale such that their algorithms can learn and improve based on the results of their own past decisions, a very powerful network effect kicks in that makes them tough to catch by copycats who lack the scale and history.

Rule #9:  Beware the Tactical vs. Strategic Conundrum  One challenge when it comes to financial services is that the truly strategic and important financial decisions that will impact a person’s financial life in the long run, such as savings rate, investment diversification and asset allocation, tend to be activities that are infrequent or easily ignored.  Activities that are frequent and cannot be ignored, like paying the bills or filing tax returns, tend to be less strategic and have inherently less margin in them for FinTech providers. Real thought needs to go into how you can provide strategic, life changing services wrapped in an experience that enables you to stay top of mind with consumers so that you are the chosen one when such decisions get made. Likewise, if you provide a low margin but high frequency services like payments you must find a way to retain customers for long enough to pay multiples of your customer acquisition cost.

Rule #10: Make it Beautiful, Take it To Go  A medical Explanation of Benefit is possibly the only statement uglier and more obtuse than a typical financial statement.  Incumbent FI websites are not much better and over the past ten years many large FIs have heavily prioritized expansion of their branch networks over innovating and improving their online presence.  As a FinTech startups  you have the golden opportunity to redefine design and user experience around money matters and daresay make it fun for consumers to interact with their finances.  Mint really set the standard when it comes to user experience and beautiful design, while PageOnce pioneered mobile financial account aggregation and bill payment.  To deliver a world class consumer finance experience online today one needs to offer a product that looks, feels, and functions world class across web, mobile and tablet.

There has never been a better time to be a FinTech revolutionary, and hopefully these rules for revolutionaries provide some actionable insights for those seeking to make money in the money business.

Why The Financial Technology Revolution Is Only Just Getting Started

20 Mar

OccupyWallSt

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 WongaBillfloat, 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 SquareXoom, Kiva, Bill.comPayCycleOutRight, 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.