“It has to fit in the box on the front”

Business banking. Who hasn’t lived or at least heard the stories? Getting a business account in the UK is a nightmare. It takes forever, the hoops you have to jump through are bureaucracy at its worse and no entrepreneur has ever come out of the battle unscathed. But it is, of course, a necessary evil for any of us starting a business.

I’ve had the pleasure of this experience four times in the past 3 years. Once I have been at arm’s length as I opened Meniga’s office in London but since Meniga is by no means a startup anymore and is well established in Iceland and Sweden already, an accountancy firm dealt with this for us so the only reason for higher blood pressure has been how outrageously long it took (tried to remember exact time frame but it seems I am repressing the trauma effectively and can not but it must have been over two months). The frustration was even greater as I had incorporated an Icelandic company I owned with a friend a mere year before that in the UK while still living in Sweden myself by using one of the company formation set-up companies and that took 6 days in total to create and 6 hours to open the account. Of these 6 hours, 5 were spent on a train to somewhere in the middle of England where this firm had their HQ, 30 mins were spent for them to drive me to and fro to the bank from the train station, 25 were spent copying documents and having coffee at said bank and exactly 5 were spent in the HSBC branch manager’s office during which he pleasantly looked at my passport and wished our new venture the greatest of luck after spending 30 seconds intently looking into the eyes of the company formation firm representative and asking him “so they’re good people who need an account to trade is that right, John?”.

That particular assistance firm was bought by a major chain and they no longer are in the market but my HSBC business account subsists. So when I needed to open a pair of others (a new venture and my consultancy) I asked them first if my history with them would mean I could get a second business account faster/easier. They did all they could not to laugh but no, being an existent client would mean nothing in a new application for another business. Neither did being a retail account holder with Santander. I take that back, it did offer me an advantage – that of the business manager in my local branch telling me in confidentiality it could take up to two months.

So I caved and entered a Metro. For the first business I was setting up we filled in the forms and then spent 30-45 minutes with a manager who asked us what seemed like silly questions about our business plan then walked out. 4 days later they called and we were given the account and card. Seemed like magic and should that have repeated with my Consultancy account, this post would have been one to maintain that good solid service where I am sold a product when I want it, not made to wait after I had to beg and threaten really does trump bad branch decor and an obsession with dogs but as you guessed already, it was not meant to be.

I waltzed in on a Friday morning with an already filled application form and asked if there was any way I could have it the next day as I am starting my first engagement very soon and I would like to have an account to be paid in. They said they can not promise it on Saturday or Sunday despite being open but by Monday I should have it. 15 minutes of typing later we hit the roadblock.

Brancher: “Mrs Blomstrom, is there any way you could write more words in this box?”

FullSizeRender (2)Me: “Excuse me?”

Brancher: “We just need more information about what you intend to do and what consultancy means”

Me: “Fair enough I suppose, can I continue on the back of the paper?”

Brancher looking stricken “The back of the form?!?”

Me: “Yes, so I write more detail. I could perchance draw a small arrow to indicate it continues on the back or say so with words for clarity’s sake? I just need more space to fit a longer text.”

Brancher: “Let me ask my manager, Ma’am”

Brancher returning 2 minutes later looking dejected “No Mrs Blomstrom, I’m sorry it all has to fit in the front box”

Me: “Fine, please print another page 6 and I’ll write smaller and fit more”

And so I did and then left the branch in the knowledge that synonyms are good and long heralded concision and brevity bad and proceeded to wait patiently till Monday when I received nothing and my three calls were met with empty promises then till Tuesday when I had barely sat down at Finextra’s Future of Money when I received this:

“To Mrs Blomstrom:

 I am currently working on opening your business account with Metro Bank but just need to obtain a little bit more information around what you specifically do as a business.  I have tried to call you but unfortunately haven’t been able to get through.

 If you could tell me a bit more information about your day to day activities.  My colleague has told me that you advise banks around their digital banking services such as mobile banking.  Is this correct?

If you could provide some information on how you do this?  Do you just advise the banks or design the products themselves? Who do you work for and how do you generate your work?

 Please don’t hesitate to call the store on the below number. I look forward to hearing from you.

Many thanks

 Will 

Metro Customer Service Representative”

Now in his defence Will is polite and we’ve all been faced with forms with a minimum number of characters and let’s admit it, Metro is keeping cost down, people are not employed to use critical thinking or look into the eyes of company formation firms to ascertain suitability. Knowing this should have seen me add even more synonyms to my previous attempt, but I’m not in a forgiving mood seeing how we’ve been talking about “Invisible banking”, “seamless delightful experiences” and “emotional contextual experiences” in Canary Wharf so I send this:

Will,

I have tried to call. I can’t speak today as l am attending an event called “Future of Money” which considering our context is ironic.
Let’s see, l filled this form in and your colleague has stated it contained “too few” words so he handed me another form to write more. No, l could not continue on the back of the form l was told, it has to be contained in the box on the front. So l crammed more words on the topic. Evidently this effort too has been deemed insufficient. 
To answer your questions below l just advise not design products. In banking we all “just advise” really. Do l design the products? No. No one does that. Not in the last 50 years. Well not if you don’t count alternative lending, P2P and blockchain technologies but I digress. The products are savings, deposits, cards, current accounts for private customers and businesses such as this one in question, etc and no on is much inclined to think of more – all we do is talk about (and if we’re lucky design) the experience on top of these products. As an example the product here is a business bank account and the experience is what l, as a customer, have to go through till that product is being sold to me. Incidentally banking is the only industry that makes buying something difficult, even painful. 
If l were consulting Metro on this experience l would have said “If the system-form that your business bank managers fill in for this product will ask for a minimum number or words, while consecutively the paper application form only offers a tiny box and no indication on desired level of detail and furthermore, no one in the bank will use their critical thinking and fill it in on behalf of the client (such as Jay in the Bromley branch does, BTW, should promote him) but keep asking them inane questions delaying an unnecessarily slow process further, the customer will become frustrated and disillusioned with the experience your bank provides which is the opposite of your intent. You must change this.”
Makes sense? 
I advise banks on a consultancy basis on how to provide their clients with compelling experiences on top of their existent products. I know about this because l have engaged with and consulted many other banks all over the world over the past few years on the same topics and l will use my personal name in the industry backed by my online presence such as Twitter and my website blog to further my personal brand and market my skills and knowledge and banks will buy these services from me.  This I believe to be my -admittedly still unproven- business plan and go-to-market strategy. 
Lastly I should outline that parts of the “not enough words” account opening adventure will feature in a new blog post on www.duenablomstrom.com which l encourage you to read if you’d like more detail still and feel free to copy&paste as much or as little of this response or really my website intro to complete this famous form of ours.
I can expect the account opening to be completed today, yes?

Best regards,
Duena Blomstrom
Knower”
If you made it this far in this long story you’ll know that it’s likely resolved, otherwise I would have had to be mad to jeopardise it by posting this and indeed it is! I am the proud owner of a business account at the time of writing this, after a mere 5 other calls the next day, a Branch Manager apologised for Will and assured me they adore me and my business, they have sent my feedback about boxes and forms to “the centre” and that the account is one mere step from being opened – a few simple questions about you guessed it…. what it is I do.
dilbert
Since many of my FinTech Mafia pundits friends have went through painful business banking account setup experiences of their own, I can only hope they’ll share those with you in either the comments here or their own posts (looking at you Jim Marous and David Brear) and together we can try to make our banker friends remember that business owners are customers too, they too deserve some semblance of pleasant customer experience while parting with their anxiety ridden cash!

What can save Banking? Experience Supermen

This post could have any of these tag lines and neither: Change. Organisations. Mammouth structures. Culture. Inertia. Banks. Extinction.

“Banks won’t cease to exist but the banking experience of today will.” – the newest sweetheart quote from the one and only Brett King.

How very true and evident it sounds to us all whether FinTech pundits or Fortran developers in the backend of a regional bank. We all know this instinctively, don’t we? The mantra of every BarCampBank since 2009 – “Banks will become nothing but rails, pipelines, like Telcos and Music giants because others are so much better and more agile at the experience”. And in banking these days we quote the mPesa’s, the Dowalla’s or Paypals and the LendingClubs to show that it’s precisely what’s happening. And that the tens, no, hundreds of accelerators and incubators are a response to how the only natural winners in this are the startups.

Last week an amazing debate happened in some occult corner of the internet between two great names that have shaped Digital Banking. It was sometimes spurred upon by a Titan – Chris Skinner and was curated and posted by yet another great name Jim Marous.

To many it felt like it was mBank vs. Moven. If we accept that’s the case was it according to the argument above also Rails vs. Experience? Not at all, mBank is experience, new distribution model and understanding-change-from-the-backend-out and it is not the kind of dinosaur bank who would be first condemned to become a mere pipe either, but for the sake of the debate that was the position that each player seemed to assume or land into most times.

First of all I will say that this entire debate, to me, focuses too frustratingly little on the backend’s role (although Michal Panowicz refers to it at times) and it does because for the most part, it isn’t where the battle will be done and the winners will be announced. While I am no fan of the regulation, security or IT infrastructure and culture scaremongering, they are the odds stacked up against the big banks winning anything and real lasting change should encompass both front and backend as it has done in mBank who can only achieve that greatness in digital because they’ve rebuilt their guts, but realistically, the change doesn’t any longer have to be sequential and start at the foundation, that is the beautiful truth of it.

The overly simplistic gist of the premise of the debate as it read to me, was “no big bank can get and act on experience-as-a-freeing-distribution-model as fast and as effective as the plethora of startups out there hence they will loose the race while start-ups will win.”

I like it. I’d like to believe that’s true as an advisor to some amazing start-ups and as an entrepreneur myself and because heaven knows, the banks can use the scare. I like it but I’m not sold.

I’m not sold because of two simple reasons – I know for a fact they “geddit” and I’ve seen what it takes to act on it being gotten – a strong advocate. A courageous doer. An Experience Superman. Nothing more.

While I’m a huge fan of Brett’s, I don’t subscribe to one word from this entire phrase in his debate on the future of banking article todayBanks as a whole can’t get past products, processes, features and channels. While a handful will survive because they have bred a culture of adaptability, they won’t thrive until they voluntarily break apart their current structures to build compelling experiences, and that is the rub – there’s not a bank in the world today that is thinking about investing in the future in that way – independently branded experiences.”

Yes they can get past that structure of thought in my experience, far past it, while little trickles down to the consumer for now, this would have been true in 2012, it isn’t so any longer – the thinking in many of the big banks today is fresh, in-the-know, ready for courageous things. And it’s not about a culture of adaptability (although it definitely helps) some times (most times) in the absence of a true culture of innovation and change what it takes is one or two Supermen who have the courage of vision to move things forward enabling their teams and sometimes their boards to rely on common sense and see consumer needs  as they should.  Lastly there are at least two banks I wish I could quote who are ready to forget all they knew and reinvent any of the parts of their process or their delivery and make it extraordinary.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 16.29.48

This feels a bit like the “Buy vs Build” 2.0. Do banks fundamentally get what it takes to be really loved by consumers? Yes, they do in fact. Reinvented models of distribution built on utterly addictive context that satisfy needs. It ain’t no Illuminati secret. Are they as fast as a start-up building those? Of course not but there are exceptions. Are they open to buy/partner/experiment with said start-ups? Absolutely. Does it take 50% of the board being replaced to see them build those paths quicker? No but it would be nice. They can and will compete. The stuck HSBC, the ever stumbling Citi and RBS, the ambivalent credit unions and building societies, they each need only one element to compete against Moven, LendingClub, and mBank – courage, they get the vision.

With the right Experience Supermen banking mountains can and will be moved in time frames that will surprise us all.

P.S. This better be right and you’d best show us your mBank 3.0 experiences in the next 12 months oh Tier 1 banks worldwide or you’d owe me the bottle of fine scotch I have ridding on this and Brett King will be laughing all the way to the… post office’s virtual branch in Starbucks.

FinTech Incubators Inflation and Courage

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 08.24.08My journey with mentoring started when I helped organise and mentor a local cohort for new businesses within the IT services space many many years ago. Not one of those 20 companies remains today. I found it sad and haven’t gotten involved again.

Over the past two years I’ve witnessed the lab/incubator/accelerator/culminator explosion and was terrified by the inflation and what it would do to the industry. At best it will slow down progress to the consumer level as banks will use them as another reason to experiment some more and do nothing of value, at worst it would clutter a space that needs nothing but clarity and will leave a lot of people broken and unemployed. Last year at this time, my outrage hadn’t hit peak yet but I was writing this after my first encounters with Level39’s famous iPad coffee machine.

The industry at the same time was ecstatic. Growth! Money! New blood! All the blood! A mere few weeks later than the article above, London was to be proclaimed the capital of FinTech and I was seen as the equivalent of the Negator from this video.

While I had met Nektarios Liolios, the Director of SBC FinTech London, around the conference block I had never spoken to him properly until my annoyance at this FinTech start-up inflation became public, but then one morning while we were both speaking at a Next Bank Asia event in Singapore, he listened to my rapid fire preconceived ideas of how broken all this was, and then smilingly, calmly, with the what I then came to admire as his hallmark wisdom and elegance, asked me to put my time where my loud mouth is and become a mentor for StartUpBootCamp.

I can’t be any more grateful that he did.

I mentored (not sure I like that term – “gave a little too passionate and forceful advice to” is maybe a better way of putting it) a few companies over the last year, both in SBC (which ended with an amazingly strong Demo Day) and in Level39, formally and informally.  Most would have done amazingly with or without me, one I’ve even invested in myself and it would be wise if it did stupendously well in particular since it’s redefining exactly how to get the most value out of each human encounter and how to grow – eRipple showed at Finovate earlier this year and was nominated as the Best New Idea by Bob’s Guide – and some, very few of these, I’ve helped in a measure or other.

Unsurprisingly maybe, the ones I feel I did most good for, aside from the ones where I spent a considerable amount of time with such as Insly, are the ones I only touched tangentially, for a meeting or two, for a “wow moment” on either side or two, and that’s why I love the 1-on-1’s at the beginning of an incubation or acceleration program.

I spent the day with Techstars London yesterday during these 1-on-1’s and aside from how I was very pleasantly surprised at the quality of their cohort and how it touches on the real themes left to sort out in FinTech on the back-end of banks not on the shinny digital front-end, it reminded me of something I learned in this mentorship journey aside from all I’ve soaked up about technology. How much I admire all who take the leap. If starting on your own is often terrifying, starting a technology company where you actually make a product for the FinTech space requires massive amounts of mad courage.

As for how many start-ups have this courage, it’s not a secret that StartUpBootCamp and Techstars are battling it out for who’s best in London and therefore by natural extrapolation in FinTech full stop and therefore encourage the volume so they raise the bar, but that’s not bad volume, that’s a good example of very healthy, very positive competition for the industry.

I’m not going soft on the topic, I still feel the inflation is ridiculous, there’s no reason to have 361* companies solving the wallet issue in 2014 or even 83 looking at identity (*hyperbolic numbers, no report to be cited) and there is even less of a reason every bank needs a -cubator of some denomination to show they care about innovation, and the process is still broken in parts, the iPad coffee machine is still slow and dispenses doubtful quality coffee and eventually the lines will still be long at the local JobCenter because of us but you know what? It’s all worth it if we’re all growing and learning more than we’ve bargained for in the process.