Looking for Great FinTech Ideas

A fundamental truth about banking today: individuals along with business owners have more choices than ever before in terms of where, when and how they bank. So a big challenge — and dare I suggest, opportunity — for leadership teams at financial institutions of all sizes equates to aligning services and product mixes to suit core customers’ interests and expectations.

By Al Dominick // @aldominick

Sometimes, the temptation to simply copy, paste and quote Bank Director’s editor, Jack Milligan, is too much for me to resist. Recently, Jack made the case that the distinction between a bank and a non-bank has become increasingly meaningless.  In his convincing words:

“The financial service marketplace in the United States has been has crowded with nonbank companies that have competed fiercely with traditional banks for decades. But we seem to be in a particularly fecund period now. Empowered by advances in technology and data analysis, and funded by institutional investors who think they might offer a better play on growth in the U.S. economy than traditional banks, we’re seeing the emergence of a new class of financial technology – or fintech – companies that are taking dead aim at the consumer and small business lending markets that have been banking industry staples for decades.”

Truth-be-told, the fact he successfully employed a word like ‘fecund’ had me hunting down the meaning (*it means fertile).  As a result, that particular paragraph stuck in my mind… a fact worth sharing as it ties into a recent Capgemini World Retail Banking Report that I devoured on a tremendously turbulent, white-knuckling flight from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans this morning (one with a “minor” delay in Montgomery, AL thanks to this morning’s wild weather).

Detailing a stagnating customer experience, the consultancy’s comprehensive study draws attention “to the pressing problem of the middle- and back-office — two areas of the bank that have not kept pace with the digital transformation occurring in the front-office. Plagued by under-investment, the middle- and back-offices are falling short of the high level of support found in the more advanced front-offices, creating a disjointed customer experience and impeding the industry’s ability to attract, retain, and delight customers.”

Per Evan Bakker for Business Insider, the entirety of the 35-page report suggests “banks are facing two significant business threats. First, customer acquisition costs will increase as existing customers are less likely to refer their bank to others. Second, banks will lose revenue as customers leave for competitors and existing customers buy fewer products. The fact that negative sentiment is global and isn’t limited to a particular type of customer activity points to an industry wide problem. Global dissatisfaction with banks is likely a result of internal problems with products and services as well as the growing number of non-bank providers of competing products and services.”

While dealing with attacks from aggressive, non-bank competitors is certainly not a new phenomenon for traditional banks, I have taken a personal interest in those FinTech companies looking to support (and not compete with) financial institutions.  So as I set up shop at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans through Wednesday for our annual Bank Board Growth & Innovation conference, let me shine the spotlight on eight companies that may help address some of the challenges I just mentioned. While certainly just the tip of the FinTech iceberg, each company brings something interesting to the table:

As unregulated competition heats up, bank CEOs and their teams need to continue to seek ways to not just stay relevant but to stand out.  While a number of banks seek to extend their footprint and franchise value through acquisition, many more aspire to build the bank internally. Some show organic growth as they build their base of core deposits and expand their customer relationships; others see the value of collaborating with FinTech companies.  To see what’s being written and said here in New Orleans, I invite you to follow @bankdirector, @aldominick + #BDGrow15.

The Fight for Relevancy

I’m sure it is really simple for those not invested in the future of banking to write that CEOs, their boards and executive teams should cut branches and full-time employees to make their banks more efficient.  But I’m of the belief that you can’t save your way to long-term profitability and viability — and not everyone can be like Capital One and reinvent their business model from digital to analog on the fly.

Last October, Richard Fairbank, the Chairman and CEO of Capital One, expressed the following opinion on an earnings call: “Ultimately, the winners in banking will have the capabilities of a world-class software company. Most of the leverage and most of our investment is in building the foundational underpinnings and talent model of a great digital company. To succeed in a digital world (you) can’t just bolt digital capabilities onto the side of an analog business.”  Now, I am a big believer that many banks have immediate opportunities to expand what banking means to individual and business customers. Heck, I wrote as much to open a special supplement to Bank Director magazine that highlights a number of interesting technologies that have re-shaped the fortunes of banks across the U.S.  As you can see in the graphic above (produced for and by our team), the intersection of financial services with technology tools is immense.

Nonetheless, the interaction, communication, coordination and decision-making in regulated banks is vastly different than those of an up-and-coming technology company.  No matter how much both sides want to work with the other (to gain access to a wider customer footprint, to incorporate emerging technologies, etc.), the barriers to both entry and innovation are high.

Keep in mind that there has been an enormous shift in asset concentration and customer loyalty during the past two decades. Today, the ten biggest banks in the U.S. now have more assets than all of the other institutions combined. Concurrently, major consumer brands such as Apple and Google have emerged as significant non-bank competitors while “upstarts” like LendingClub and OnDeck jockey to provide loans to traditional bank customers.

So to stay both relevant and competitive, I believe a bank’s leadership team needs to develop a culture of disciplined growth that encourages creativity and yes, risk taking.  For a leadership team, this requires a combination of knowledge, skill and courage — all things we designed our annual Bank Board Growth & Innovation Conference at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans to provide (*fwiw, this is a complement to our annual M&A conference — Acquire or Be Acquired).

In the coming days, I’ll be looking at how the processes of interaction, communication, coordination and decision-making in a regulated bank are vastly different than those of a tech firm.  Cleary, the fight for relevancy is on in the banking space… and to see what’s being written and said, I invite you to follow @bankdirector, @aldominick + #BDGrow15.

Finding That Competitive (FinTech) Edge

On a flight to Boston yesterday morning, I found myself reading various research and analyst reports about forces effecting change on the banking community.  As Bruce Livesay, executive vice president and chief information officer for First Horizon National Corp. in Memphis, Tennessee recently shared with our team, “you can’t have a discussion about banking without having a discussion about technology.”  As such, today’s piece about finding your FinTech edge.

A simple truth with a profound impact: the interaction, communication, coordination and decision-making in a large, regulated bank is vastly different than those of an up-and-coming FinTech company.  No matter how much both sides want to work with the other (to gain access to a wider customer footprint, to incorporate emerging technologies, etc.), the barriers to both entry and innovation are high.  Still, the need for institutions to better target customer segments while rolling out product offerings that differentiate and cross-sell naturally intersect with the use of technology.

Over the past few months, I’ve looked at nine technology companies that I think are doing interesting work (you can find write ups here, here and here).  As I go deeper into this space, I realize defining the FinTech sector might prove as elusive as understanding the genesis of each company’s name.  Still, let me take a crack at it and define “FinTech” as those financial technology companies that sell or enable:

  • Acquisition & engagement tools
  • Mobile payments offerings
  • Lending options
  • Security products
  • Wealth management support
  • Analytics
  • Money transfers
  • Asset management
  • Automated planning / advice

Regardless of the FinTech companies populating each product line, it is clear that the cumulative effect is a transformation of the fabric of the financial industry.   As I read in a recent Deloitte report (2015 Banking Industry Outlook), FinTech applies not just to customer-facing activities, but also to “internal processes, including balance sheet management, risk, and compliance.”  Moreover, learning from non-bank technology firms and establishing partnerships is fait accompli for most bank executives and board members today.

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As I’ve shared in the past, I am a big believer that many banks of all sizes have immediate opportunities to expand what banking means to individual and business customers.  If you’re curious for examples on what’s working — and why, take a look at this special supplement to Bank Director magazine that highlights a number of interesting technologies that have re-shaped the fortunes of various community banks.  For more on the board’s role in oversight of this important sector, take a look at our Editor, Jack Milligan’s, white paper on the topic.

Focused on Financial Analytics

When it comes to tapping the creativity and ingenuity of the financial technology sector, I think this equation says it best.

For me, the term “big data” jumped the shark a few years ago.  Much like investment bankers shelved their  “wave of consolidation” pitch, I remain hopeful that the clichéd data term gives way to something more appropriate, descriptive and dare I say agile?  Nonetheless, the concept of sifting through massive amounts of structured and unstructured information to identify meaningful insights is nothing to scoff at.  Truth-be-told, it has interested me since my time at Computech, a leader in agile and lean application software development and IT operations & maintenance that was recently acquired by NCI.

Figuring out discrete patterns to better prepare for the future is huge business — and I continue to see the largest financial institutions in the U.S. making investments in financial analytics.  I was reminded of this drive to leverage new technologies while re-reading my notes from a Q&A session I had with BNY Mellon’s head of Strategy and Innovation last September at our FinTech day at NASDAQ.  There, I made note of three companies — KenshoDiscern and ClearStory — that had the potential to transform part of the financial sector.  FinTech Focused.001With said notes in hand, I dove a deeper into each company’s background and offerings, finding all three bring interesting new models and technologies to bear on automating and enhancing the investment research process.  So as I’ve done with past posts (Three FinTech Companies I’m Keen On and Spotlight on FinTech), let me share a little about each one:

  • Kensho is pioneering “real-time statistical computing systems and scalable analytics architectures — the next-generation of improvements to the global financial system.”  Backed by Goldman Sachs and Google Ventures, and with clients that range from Wall Street’s global banks to several of the best performing hedge funds, think of the 2013 startup as a “Siri-style service for investors, analysts and traders” (h/t to the FT for the comparison).
  • In the interest of fair disclosure, all three of my siblings have worked for investment management firms, so they may buckle at Discern’s description of “conventional” investment research relying “on solo analysts armed with narrow expertise, simple tools and a personal network of resources. Nonetheless, it’s an important juxtaposition when you look at what its data aggregation platform offers.  If you agree with their assertion that the “earlier one becomes aware of a risk or opportunity, the less it costs” the more attracted you might be to this SF-based company.
  • Finally, the data intelligence company ClearStory works with financial institutions on collaborative research and customer acquisition analysis.  Their premise is to both speed and simplify the cycle of research across distributed teams, including “accessing, merging, analyzing files and a variety of external data sources.”  As they share, “competitiveness on the front lines of business is dictated by the speed of data access and the quality of informed decision-making.”

Personally, it is very interesting to learn about, and subsequently watch, companies like these these spur transformation. If you are game to share your thoughts on FinTechs worth watching, feel free to comment below — or via twitter, I’m @AlDominick, about those companies and offerings you find compelling.

Spotlight on FinTech

If forced to pick but one industry that serves as a catalyst for growth and change in the banking space, my answer is “FinTech.” As NJ-based ConnectOne Bank’s CEO, Frank Sorrentino, opined late last week, “financial institutions today operate in a constant state of reevaluation… at the same time, low interest rates and a brand new tech-driven consumer landscape have further contributed to the paradigm shift we’re experiencing in banking.” After I shared “Three FinTech Companies I’m Keen On,” I was asked who else I am taking note of in the financial technology sector; hence today’s spotlight on three additional companies.

Yodlee_logo.svg

The fabric of the banking industry continues to evolve as new technology players emerge in our marketplace.  With banks of all sizes continuing to implement innovative technologies to grow their organizations, companies like Yodlee have emerged “at  the heart of a new digital financial ecosystem.”  The NASDAQ-listed company counts 9 of the 15 largest U.S. banks as customers along with “hundreds of Internet services companies.”  These companies subscribe to the Yodlee platform to power personalized financial apps and services for millions of consumers.  With thousands of data sources and a unique, cloud platform, Yodlee aspires to transform “the distribution of financial services.” It also looks to redefine customer engagement with products like its personal financial management (PFM) service, which pulls together all of a customer’s financial information from multiple accounts.

web-Logo-Malauzai@2x

Now, technology in the financial world encompasses a broad spectrum of tools. For most officers and directors, I have found conversations about what’s happening in this space naturally incites interest in mobile banking.  So let me turn my focus to Malauzai, a company I first learned of while talking with Jay Sidhu (*Jay is the former CEO of Sovereign where he grew the organization from an IPO value of $12 million to the 17th largest banking institution in the US… he is now CEO of the very successful Customer’s Bank).  This past spring, he talked about the benefits of working with the company that was formed in 2009 to “participate in the mobile banking revolution.”  Malauzai works with about 320 community banks and credit unions across the country, providing the tools needed to connect to a customer through smartphone applications.  Specifically, the company builds mobile banking “SmartApps” that run across mobile platforms (e.g. Apple and Android) and several types of devices from smart phones to tablets.

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Certainly, many FinTech companies have a laser-like focus on individual customer needs.  Case-in-point, Openfolio, a startup that “brings the principles and power of social networks – openness, connectivity, collective intelligence – to the world of personal investing” (h/t to Brooks and Gareth at FinTech Collective for sharing their story).  Openfolio’s premise: in our sharing economy, people will divulge investing ideas and “portfolios, in percentage terms, within their networks.”  Accordingly, Openfolio provides a place where investors share insights and ideas, and watch how others put them into action. As they say, “we all learn from each other’s successes (and mistakes).”  As reported in TechCrunch, the company doesn’t reveal dollar amounts folks have invested, preferring to reveal how much weight different categories have in an investor’s portfolio to reveal information about markets.

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Personally, it is very interesting to watch companies such as these spur transformation.  If you are game to share your thoughts on FinTechs worth watching, feel free to comment below about those companies and offerings you find compelling.

Three FinTech Companies I’m Keen On

It seems not a day goes by where I’m not coming across a story about Venmo.  Maybe I should thank holiday shoppers; more specifically, friends or family member that go in on a joint present for someone.  Rather than accept an IOU, the social payments company has made story titles like “Cash is For Losers!” en vogue by allowing its users to settle debts without cash or check.  So the company’s success had me exploring the world of FinTech and other companies worth taking a look at.  Here are three I’m keen on along with a short overview on what they offer.

wealthfront-logo-e1396828112845

Wealthfront is an automated investment service with over $1 billion in client assets.  The Palo Alto-based company manages a “diversified, continually rebalanced portfolio of index funds” on behalf of its clients.” Their proposition: “Wealthfront takes the guesswork out of sound, long-term investing through effortless automation. Wealthfront manages a personalized online investment account for you that is fully diversified and periodically rebalanced – accessible anytime and anywhere from your desktop, tablet or phone.” For an individual, their service premise is quite attractive, given “the consistent and overwhelming research that proves index funds significantly outperform an actively managed portfolio.”

Unknown

I wrote about Kabbage last year (A Pop Quiz on the Future of Banking) as a platform for online merchants to borrow working capital. Per Time’s Business & Money site, “Kabbage financing resembles a line of credit in that customers only pay for what they use, but it isn’t a loan and doesn’t require merchants to use their personal assets as collateral. Rather, as with a business factor, a Kabbage financing is structured as a cash advance against future sales.”

dwolla-logo

Dwolla is a payment network that allows any business or person to send, request and accept money. As they say, they are “not like those other big payment companies that rely on plastic cards and charge hefty fees.” Instead, the company built its own network that “securely connects to your bank account and allows you to move money for just $0.25 per transaction, or free for transactions $10 or less.”

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I’m on record with my feelings that bank leaders have real and immediate opportunities to expand what banking means to individual and business customers by offering services that go beyond a traditional business model.  These three companies provide alternatives to traditional lines of business, and are just a few of the many that are working to create a “newer” normal for individuals and businesses.  If you are interested to share your thoughts on FinTechs worth watching, feel free to comment below about those companies you find compelling.

This Week in Pictures

As our editor, Jack Milligan, writes in How One Large Bank Fosters Innovation, “conventional wisdom holds that banks are not very good at innovation — and large banks, with their entrenched bureaucracies and clumsy legacy systems, are probably worst of all. It might then come as a surprise that Bank of New York Mellon Corp. has run a highly successful innovation program that has made a meaningful contribution to the bank’s profitability, and also manages to get most of the company’s 10,000 employees involved in the process.”

Earlier this week, I shared how Declan Denehan, BNY Mellon’s managing director for strategy and innovation, provided his thoughts on staying relevant while engaging with the “startup ecosystem” during Monday’s FinTech Day.  Jack’s article offers a great summation of Declan’s perspectives — and for today’s post, I simply wanted to recap the event as a whole.  The fun for our team started well before the doors opened at 9:00; however, FinTech day kicked off with:

  • A number of video shoots in the NASDAQ studio that we will post to BankDirector.com;
  • Continued with a live-streamed discussion focused on innovation with Declan and me; and
  • Wrapped up with a closing bell ceremony and a lot of great company logos rotating on the exchange’s video board in Times Square.

FinTech Day, a collaboration between Bank Director and NASDAQ OMXattracted over 40 participants from 30 financial technology companies.  For those of you that joined us, I am pleased to share the link to the official photo gallery from the ceremony.  We are happy to send over any that you’d like as our way of saying thank you for joining us.  Simply leave a comment below, reach out via LinkedIn or Twitter and let me know what you’d like.  Below, some of the pictures in the gallery…

Before wishing everyone an Aloha Friday, let me thank the entire Bank Director team — and in particular, Kelsey Weaver, Laura Schield, Michelle King, Mika Moser, Jack Milligan and Joan Susie — for your efforts to make the day a success.  Each of you contributed something special and for that, I am very appreciative and already getting excited for next year (dare we call it FinTech 2.0)!

Size Matters – and Other Banking Notes From the Bay Area

The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco
Walking up to the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco

Last week, Lexington, Virginia… this week, San Francisco, California… next week, Chicago, Illinois.  Yes, conference season is back and in full swing.  I’m not looking for sympathy; heck, for the past few days, I’ve set up shop in Nob Hill (at the sublime Ritz-Carlton) to lead our Western Peer Exchange.  Traveling like this, and spending time with a number of interesting CEOs, Chairmen, executives and board members, is why I love my job.  What follows are three observations from my time here in NorCal that I’m excited to share.

(1) On Wednesday, I took a short drive up to San Mateo to learn more about Kony, a company that specializes in meeting multi-channel application needs.  I have written about customer demands for “convenient” banking services in past posts — e.g. Know Thy Customer –and will not try to hide my interest in FinTech success stories.  Learning how their retail banking unit works with financial institutions to deliver a “unified and personalized app experience” proved an inspiring start to my trip.  Consequently, our Associate Publisher and I talked non-stop about the rapid evolution and adoption of technologies after we wrapped things up and drove back towards San Francisco.  We agreed that consumer expectations, relative to how banks should be serving them, continues to challenge many strategically. To this end, Kony may be worth a look for those curious about opportunities inherent in today’s mobile technology.  Indeed, their team will host a webinar that features our old friend Brett King to examine such possibilities.

(2) When it comes to banks, size matters.  To wit, bigger banks benefit from their ability to spread fixed costs over a larger pool of earning assets.  According to Steve Hovde, an investment banker and one of the sponsors of our event, “too big to fail banks have only gotten bigger.”  He observed that the top 15 institutions have grown by nearly 55% over the past six years.  Wells Fargo, in particular, has grown 199% since ’06.  With more than 90% of the banking companies nationwide operating with assets of less than $1 billion, it is inevitable that consolidation will be concentrated at the community bank level.  However, as yesterday’s conversations once again proved, size doesn’t always trump smarts.  I said it yesterday and will write it again today.  Our industry is no longer a big vs. small story; rather, it is a smart vs. stupid one.

(3) That said, “nobody has told banks in the northwestern U.S. that bank M&A is in the doldrums.”  According to the American Banker, two deals were announced and another terminated after the markets closed Wednesday.  Naturally, this should put pressure on banks in the region to keep buying each other.  Here in San Francisco, the one being discussed was Heritage Financial’s combination with Washington Banking Co.  According to The News Tribune, this is “very much a merger between equals, similar in size, culture and how each does business.”  Now, the impetus behind ‘strategic affiliations’ (don’t call them mergers of equals) comes down to creating value through cost cuts and wringing out efficiencies.  The thinking, at least during cocktails last night, was that deals like these happen to build value for the next few years in order to sell at higher multiples.  Certainly, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.  In a few months at our Acquire or Be Acquired conference, I anticipate it generating quite a few opinions.

Aloha Friday!

Disrupt (or die trying)

Georgia peaches...
Georgia peaches…

If you’ve been on this site before, you probably recognize a pattern to my writing. Each Friday, I share three things I heard, learned or saw during the week.  In past posts, I’ve penned a number of “disruptive” stories that ranged from Brett King’s perspectives on banks (“Does Banking Need a Re-boot”) to John Cantarella’s on Time Inc.’s digital strategies (“Dass de Thing”).  So it should come as no surprise that I furiously began writing today’s column on a flight home from Atlanta on Wednesday evening.  I’d just spent several hours in the offices of the William Mills Agency, one of the nation’s preeminent financial public relations and marketing firms, and left inspired.  What follows are just three of the many Fintech companies the agency represents that are doing some pretty cool things.  IMHO, banks of all sizes might pay attention to these tech companies if they want to disrupt the status quo rather than have their status quo disrupted.

(1) In Bank Director’s home town of Nashville, TN resides the corporate marketing team for CSI, a leading provider of end-to-end technology solutions.  The public company delivers core processing, managed services, mobile and Internet solutions, payments processing along with print and electronic distribution & regulatory compliance solutions to financial institutions.  I like their resource center, but really appreciate their blog that highlights myriad client success stories.  For instance, “How One Bank “does” Social Media Right” shines a light on First Kentucky’s one and only social media strategy.  To wit: not a word about CSI’s involvement with the bank in favor of why the bank decided not to sell things to its social fans and followers.  A “fun and light” client example that shows a more intimate side of the bank vis-a-vis one of their preferred service providers.

(2) For many financial institutions, the gap between the strategy set by the board and subsequent execution can be quite wide.  As Steve Hovde (an investment banker and regular speaker at some of our larger events) shared with us, “bankers are conservative by nature, and the credit crisis served as a stark reminder why they should be. Still, many banks—particularly smaller, community banks—are reluctant to take advantage of strategic opportunities that could significantly enhance shareholder value.” So when First Midwest Bank (a not-so-small $9 billion institution based in Illinois) needed to measure product and customer profitability to support pricing and product offering decisions with accurate contribution margin results, I learned they turned to Axiom EPM.  The company, a provider of financial planning and performance management software, affords “visibility into profitability across the organization.” If you’re keen to learn how First Midwest analyzes profitability at their bank, you might take a look at this on-demand video.

(3) To wrap things up, let me pose a question: how fast would you switch to a different bank if you were the victim of online banking fraud?  Before you answer below (hint, hint), can you guess the percentage of your peers that would immediately?  From a banker’s perspective, such cyber risk poses a real threat to a business model.  Having worked in the IT space for 5+ years, I was curious if its possible to offer online and mobile banking with no possibility of this happening to a customer… ever.  Entersekt, a South African company with designs on the U.S. market, believes it is.  According to a few of the good folks at William Mills, the folks there are the pioneers in transaction authentication.  That is, the company “harnesses the power of electronic certificate technology with the convenience of mobile phones” to provide financial institutions and their customers with full protection from online banking fraud.  Authenticating millions of transactions globally, none of Entersekt’s clients have experienced a successful phishing attack on their systems since implementing the company’s technology.  A pretty impressive accomplishment, and nice way for me to wrap up this week’s column.

Aloha Friday!

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