Neobanks – Game changers, but do they really care about their customers?

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Neobanks, digital banks, challenger banks – I don’t want to get into the exact specification of how and why we classify Fintechs across this complicated taxonomy. Neobanks have gone from strength to strength in the last three years. Especially in Europe, progress has been phenomenal.

Revolut, Starling, Monzo, N26, Tide and the list goes on. But apart from a cool customer journey at onboarding, better digital banking experience, do they offer anything meaningful? Do they really care more about their customers than the traditional high street banks?

Based on the news release yesterday about Revolut launching in Australia, their customer base was set to surpass the 5 Million mark. Monzo hit 2 Million users and are growing at about 150,000 customer per month. Starling have a relatively modest customer base of 600000, and also have a reputation that their services were as good as Monzo if not better.

I think atleast some of them have grown to a scale where they can be considered as operational banks. Let us therefore quickly go through how they are doing across different aspects of digital banking.

Onboarding: This is perhaps what digital banks have all been amazing at. A few months ago, when I moved from an iPhone to an Android phone, it took me about a minute or two to move my Revolut account to the new phone. My Barclays app is still not completely set up on my new phone.

This is true if you looked at business banking accounts as well. I had to wait for weeks to get a Barclays or a HSBC business bank account, whereas opening a Tide business banking account was a breeze. This is nothing new about Neobanks – we always knew they were champions at the onboarding customer journey.

Product Offering: I have found Neobanks good at their core proposition. Revolut for example, had a phenomenal uptake for the FX card and the app they have with it. However, they have taken a narrow and a deep approach to their product offering. That’s a very startupish way of developing a proposition.

I think, it’s high time Neobanks started to cross-sell products to their clients. Their product suite has been shallow in comparison to mainstream banks. Interest rates on accounts have been lower, business bank account balances have been lower, and some of the more advanced multi-user functionalities a business bank account needs are still work in progress – and those are just a few examples in already existing products.

They have all been focusing on growth and it’s understandable why they haven’t got the breadth of product offerings. However, the execution of their core offering has been excellent. For example, the user experience on tagging and managing transactions is good on these platforms. However, integration with ATMs or services like Paypal have been missed out by some of these Neobanks.

Customer Service: This is perhaps one area that decides if Neobanks are really providing the service quality they claim. Revolut have been making headlines for several wrong reasons recently and have almost got the “Spoilt Child” tag amongst Neobanks. Monzo recently had a breakdown of systems and that caused some noise on social media. Complaints data give us a bit of a perspective of what customers feel.

With 5 Million customers Revolut had 171 FOS complaints registered

With 2 Million customers Monzo had 82 complaints registered

With 600,000 customers Starling bank had 51 complaints registered

I have seen some illogical comparisons between them and the high street banks based on the number of complaints. Some high street banks have 100,000s complaints registered with the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). But they also provide so many different product lines which the Neobanks don’t.

Therefore, it can’t be a like for like comparison. Comparisons could be at a product line level between a high street bank and a Neobank, however, I am not sure if that data is available.

With a simple AUM like calculation, Barclays at £1.13 Trillion AUM is 23 times bigger than Revolut that is £50+ Billion. Revolut’s 171 complaints feels pretty low even in that sense as 171*23 is ~4000 complaints. Although Revolut took some negative PR for its recent misadventures, the number of complaints per customer is not too different between them and the other top Neobanks.

Financial Inclusion: Let us look at some of the steps towards inclusion that the Neobanks have taken. 50% of UK bank branches have shut down in the past 30 years. However, Neobanks are creating new on the ground contacts to allow for more inclusion in a seamless way. Starling bank have partnered with Royal mail to accept cash from their customers. Monzo used paypoint in a similar manner creating over 30,000 points for customers to deposit cash.

They are also looking to be more inclusive from an age perspective. Less than 5% of Monzo’s customer base are over 60 years old, and that data can improve. Monzo, Revolut and Starling bank are all ramping up efforts to reach out to people of all age groups. This also makes commercial sense as people in their 60s generally are richer than people in their 20s.

As we can clearly see that, based on the data, Neobanks have just arrived. They have a long way to go before data can categorically drive conclusions on how well they have done (or not). With China’s Techfins piling money into the Neobanks of the west, may be it will not be long before we see Neobanks punching above their weight against high street competition.

Whether they compete with the mainstream banks is one question, but whether they will keep their culture of innovation and customer centred approach intact as they grow is yet another question.


Arunkumar Krishnakumar is a Venture Capital investor at Green Shores Capital focusing on Inclusion and a podcast host.

I have no positions or commercial relationships with the companies or people mentioned. I am not receiving compensation for this post.

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Unravelling the Unicorn Madness – as the Silicon Valley bug bites London

A Unicorn is a tech startup that has grown past $1 Billion in valuation. The term “Unicorn” to refer to these firms was first coined by Aileen Lee, a Silicon Valley investor, in 2013. Since then the count of Unicorns has increased to about 300 at the start of the year. Silicon Valley has boasted 9 of the 29 Fintech Unicorns across the world.

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This week, the news on the streets is that London would go past Silicon Valley in the Fintech Unicorns tally. London already has 7, and there are a good few companies in the pipeline raising funding to get past Silicon Valley’s 9. Let us look at the irrational exuberance of the London Fintech market and the funding it received.

London received 39% of European Venture Capital funding. The revenues of Fintech firms in London increased from $100 Million to about $230 Million in the last 12 months. Fintech in London is also the fastest growing job sector. Monzo and Tandem got headlines earlier this week due to their new funding rounds. Monzo is receiving capital from Y Combinator and a few other Silicon Valley investors, and Tandem has closed an £80 Million funding round.

However, this is just how growth has manifested itself. There are some fundamental changes to the Venture capital mindset that has caused this Unicorn madness. There are abundant sources of funding these days. The number of platforms that a tech startup can leverage to get funding is increasing on daily basis.

Incubator and accelerator programs inspired by the successes of Y Combinator, Seedcamp etc., are numerous. There are several entrepreneurs who have exited and started to give back to budding start ups as Angels. This used to be the case in Silicon Valley, and London’s entrepreneurs are no different. Over the last 12 months, I have come across atleast 20 firms that have received angel funding from founders of more established or exited tech firms.

Family Offices and even Pension funds these days make direct investments into the tech startup world. Many of them shy away from traditional Venture capital model due to the fees involved.

That has increased the flow of capital directly into private tech firms. Also, the size of late stage funds like Softbank’s fund, and Sequioa’s $8 Billion fund means, firms are adequately funded at a later stage too.

If all these options weren’t enough, in the UK, we have the EIS/SEIS schemes that offer very attractive tax benefits for investors into tech startups. Most HNIs and UHNIs are keen to ensure they utilize these tax schemes. Crowdfunding platforms help, and more recently, the ICO and STO methods of raising capital globally have had their effect as well.

Apart from these financing options, the monopoly that some of the Silicon Valley start ups have taken in their markets, is now used as a model of growth. Once the product market fit is identified, firms these days throw money at growth – crazy growth. This results in market dominance, and that itself becomes the barrier to entry for competitors.

Gone are the days where technology, business models, and even operational excellence differentiated the great from the good.

This growth often means, firms have no respect for operational excellence, or very little intent on achieving a viable business model. They only focus on growing fast, raising more at higher valuations and achieving a Unicorn status. Even VCs these days are judged based on the Unicorns in their portfolios.

This growth at any cost and irrational valuation models had caused the dot com bubble to burst about 20 years ago. And this is definitely not another “the recession is coming” post. But it is important to understand that Unicorn status doesn’t mean much anymore. For an early stage angel investor, an increase in valuation from say $2 Million pounds (when they invest) to when the firm hits $1 Billion in valuation, makes a big difference. But in the broad scheme of things, this is just an artificially created tag often used for branding.

Investors and firms riding this wave of irrational exuberance need to time their exit right. If the correction blindsides them, it may be another financial crisis. It’s sad that London’s Fintech has gone down this path that Silicon Valley firms have traveled for years. It’s superficial and doesn’t feel right.


Arunkumar Krishnakumar is a Venture Capital investor at Green Shores Capital focusing on Inclusion and a podcast host.

I have no positions or commercial relationships with the companies or people mentioned. I am not receiving compensation for this post.

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Open banking – Keep calm and saddle up for a five year run

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A year on – and that’s a big milestone for many. But in the legacy banking world, nothing gets done in a year. And it’s not surprising that open banking has been more of an introvert than we expected. Eventful or not, open banking is one of the best things that could have happened to consumers, and will eventually turn out to be a case study for other global economies to learn from.

Open banking is not just a movement to get banks to relinquish their ownership of consumer data. It is more of a data revolution to identify consumer behaviour and use data analytics to provide personalised services – not just banking services.

There are multiple stakeholders involved in the process of making the most of this data revolution. Getting a consolidated view of a customer’s financial products is perhaps a low hanging fruit.

For a consumer focused data driven use case, that is more integrated into their lifestyle, more work needs to be done on open banking data.

  • Downstream apps need to build their interfaces with banks that have opened up their APIs.
  • That will be followed by proprietary intelligence that these downstream apps will add.
  • Proprietary intelligence using machine learning, predictive analytics etc., need critical mass of data – which only builds over time. For this these firms will also need to onboard customers.
  • Customer onboarding is easily said than done – comes with serious cost of acquisition for a small firm – that happens when they have backing such initiatives from Venture capital.

Every step above takes time. It would be a few years before a real data driven use case can reach the customer and for us to start seeing some success stories. But where are banks largely, and where are the startups in the journey?

A year ago the Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) set the pace for a bunch of banks (9 of them) to open up customer data through APIs. And 12 months on, there is more noise about a lack of noise in this space. I don’t believe there is any action missing, and this is why.

Banks had to open up customer transaction data through APIs – but CMA only came up with this idea in 2016. For banks to get it, plan it, and execute the APIs within even 24 months was always an aggressive timeline. HSBC’s Connected Money app was perhaps an exception to the usual pace of banks. Barclays seems to have a similar capability as well.

However, the integration that legacy Banks have provided to downstream systems are not the most intuitive. APIs exposed by banks use apps like Yodlee (who create the plumbing for the data) who then integrate to downstream customer facing apps like Money Dashboard for example.

One quick look at the apps show that the the experience offered by legacy banks to integrate into a customer facing app are so outdated. Especially for a customer segment that are used to a frictionless Monzo like experience. That is an area where banks can definitely do better. However, most Millennials and Generation Z customers directly bank with neo-banks, so this will be less of an issue with that customer segment.

Startups are still building the intelligence to make the most of the data revolution. However, most firms that I know of that are looking to provide PFM services, lending (underwriting, brokering or credit scoring), SME loyalty, or simply cleverer product switching, are all focused on growing their customer base in search of more data volumes.

Most of the clever applications need machine learning algorithms to feed on a lot of high quality customer data. That is when their results get accurate as the machine learns from continuous feedback. Releasing half trained machine learning apps to consumers can actually result in poor customer experience and churn.

Most firms I speak to, are focused on identifying product market fit for their data driven use case this year.

Customer acquisition has to be cleverly managed to ensure there is growth in data volumes, but also the predictive analytics is accurate enough to cut down churn. Its a hard game to play.

In a recent interview Tom Blomfield, CEO of Monzo mentioned that he wasn’t afraid of legacy banks or even the Neo-banks. But he was wary of new open banking powered apps just bringing clever capabilities and acquiring customers to dwarf the likes of Monzo. Open banking will be a slow burner, it would have failed if we didn’t see some success stories in the next 5 years.


Arunkumar Krishnakumar is a Venture Capital investor at Green Shores Capital focusing on Inclusion and a podcast host.

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Monzo – London’s latest Unicorn sets sight on Global expansion

It doesn’t get bigger than Monzo and its CEO Tom Blomfield for London/UK Fintech. After grabbing headlines over the past 12 months, the end of 2018, saw Monzo achieve the status of a Fintech Unicorn.

Monzo went on Crowdcube (UK’s largest crowdfunding platform) for the funding round in 2018, when the raise of £10 Million closed in under 10 Minutes. As crazy as it sounds, and despite being sceptical about the valuation, part of me still likes to think that it was a well deserved milestone for Monzo.

The end of 2018 brought more luck to Monzo, especially to Tom Blomfield. He was awarded the prestigious OBE for his services to improving competition and driving inclusion in Financial Services. I don’t entirely agree with the financial inclusion angle, but hey, the leadership he has shown at Monzo makes him the poster child of Fintech in the UK.

“An OBE is a Queen’s honour given to an individual for a major local role in any activity such as business, charity or the public sector. OBE stands for Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire”

Monzo was founded in 2015 initially offering prepaid cards and moved on to a current account when they got a banking license in 2018. The Banking license meant that upto £85,000 of depositors money is insured by the UK’s Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

They saw tremendous growth in 2018, when they acquired ~1 Million users, but only 20% of them used Monzo as their Salaried account. The strategic direction that Monzo wants to take (to make money) would be in saving money for its customers (charge commissions), and creating financial dashboards for customers.

As they set sight on accelerating their growth at the back of their funding round in 2018, Tech Cruch recently reported that, they may be going for the US market next. Gone are the days when UK firms took a conservative approach of capturing Europe before going after the US market – which is generally considered a higher risk proposition, atleast by investors.

They have also ensured that corporate governance is taken care of as growth continues. On that note, they have managed to get Gary Hoffman as chairman. Gary is the former Barclays vice-chairman who steered Northern Rock through its emergency bailout during the financial crisis.

Amongst Neobanks in the UK, Revolut have certainly got the throne for the time being. But Monzo are in striking distance. So its onwards and upwards for Monzo and Tom. Well done and Happy New Year!!


Arunkumar Krishnakumar is a Venture Capital investor at Green Shores Capital focusing on Inclusion and a podcast host.

Get fresh daily insights from an amazing team of Fintech thought leaders around the world. Ride the Fintech wave by reading us daily in your email