Banks Won’t Eat Challengers’ Dog Food But That’s Not Who’s Coming For Their Lunch

<Reproduced with kind permission from Forbes>

The Bubble of Banking

“Get out of the building” was such trendy advice a few years ago and now everyone is barricaded in their building.

Being told to look at other industries elicited many a gratuitous Silicon Valley excursions from bankers around the world which were invariably sprung on by lofty aspirations of doing the same things as the champions only to be drowned by seemingly reassuring remarks on how that simply doesn’t apply to banking. 

These days those trips are rarer and rarer which is a blessing and a curse.

Is it maybe that we don’t get out so that we don’t see how far behind we are digital user experience wise?

What’s most concerning is that traditional banks are not the only ones inside the bubble anymore but challengers are heading that was as well.

It’s nothing short of tragic to see some of them having but moments ago left their privileged first-principles design position and having now gotten utterly stuck in whatever they produced, often so blinded by the reality of day-to-day operations that instead of their current offering being a first pit stop at the end of a design sprint it becomes their main offering.

There is no doubt that it’s understandable – for challengers day-to-day doesn’t only involve running a bank which is what incumbents cite doing with such sacrifice but running a small business that needs to show its worth under extreme scrutiny as well. It’s tough.

A tale of two different tragedies – the challengers having to make a start-up thrive and the bankers having to budge an almost impenetrable mass of legacy tech and legacy culture. None an enviable position. None poised to build any lasting wins for the consumer.

Where are my MoneyMomentsTM

No one wanted challengers in the UK to succeed more than me. Over the years I’ve penned a couple of open letters which aimed to keep the snark level low and the constructive advice level high. Granted, a lofty goal for me, but my delivery shouldn’t have obscured the main message a plea for them to build solid technology pillars, take aggregation seriously, buy or build extremely capable categorization and data capabilities and above all, forget about banking products as they know them and design from scratch for addictive money moments.

Needless to say and not to burst the bubble of our newly enthused American friends who celebrate the announced imminent import of some of those propositions this week, none of that happened.

If you unpack most challengers today, they are rapidly building legacy of their own both in technology and in the way they are building the organization, having skipped steps and cut corners in their hurry to put out an app with some pleasing design accompanied by the best looking card they can think of and greater a sin still, with the exception of the unrealised promise of the budding challengers who aspire to become platforms, gave us precisely the same thing high street banks did.

Not a MoneyMoment in sight. How do l know they aren’t building any? Well ask yourself, with all the permissions every app ever asks for, why hasn’t any challenger asked to read your health data or at least your Calendar or your TripIt information? How are they to build integrated, contextual experienced when their transactional data is largely untouched and unaugmented with meaning and their data from other sources inexistent?

They aren’t. Truth is it’s not necessarily more likely that they will start doing so any sooner than the next NatWest app update. 

License to snooze

It’s a lot grimmer for the success of the challengers than we have collectively hoped for in the industry with advocates faith diminishing and mass adoption lacking but does that mean that incumbents should breathe a sigh of relief and carry on with JP Nicols’ trademarked “innovation theaters” and ever stronger “business prevention” departments?

Only if they’re ready to be out of the game because the extinction threat doesn’t come from colorful cards and incrementally better digital apps but entirely new ways of interacting with finances that will insidiously and mercifully insert themselves in our every day digital lives through buying behaviour and relevant advice and the guys who can and will provide this only have to click to make it happen.

SME Banking Hasn’t Been Challenged – my BSTER (Blood, Sweat and Tears Empirical Report)

“This time it will be different”

So I needed a new business account.

3 years after my brush with an aneurysm caused by Metro’s form boxes demands which was so painful it even made it in the book , I found myself actually giddy at the thought of seeing the magic of functional FinTech in action and showing it to my business partner who hadn’t been part of my first journey.

Our new trendy accountants -bless their hearts- had suggested Tide and in fairness that added to their cool factor and was one of the reasons why I decided we would go with them. I did have some reservations, as about a year ago, I had test-set-up a Tide account and gingerly added the details to an invoice I sent to a bank and when I realized that a substantial payment just didn’t show up and they had it returned to them ages later so I had them use the normal path and presumed Tide were simply too young, likely in Beta and just finding their feet so this was an one-off glitch.

Seeing how a substantial amount of water had run down the Thames meanwhile and they’ve gained momentum, things must have changed, I thought, so they were my first port of call.

On second thought…

Having sailed through the authentication piece I was pleased to see how quick their API returned the results from Companies house and helpfully suggested our company so we were on a roll. A very short one as the next screen asked me to confirm the two directors of the company and when I’ve done so they proceeded to helpfully ask for her address. Her UK address.

Not that she has one. Not that she claimed she has one when the company was set up in the Companies House! Knowing how moaning to them about incomplete API calls won’t help I proceeded to try and lie to them that she lives at the company address. No dice, it didn’t map the datafield. We were now stuck. Eventually I texted them and uploaded her passport AND driving license and then they told me they are getting it checked.


To which I received a canned “everyone is different, we are working hard, give us 72 hours” response which felt utterly outrageous at this time so we decided we’re done and will instead go with someone who was actually the absolute FinTech darling of Julia, my business partner over the last two years– Revolut.

As the decision hit, I was having coffee with Devie Mohan, so I thought who better than a well-respected analyst to witness the magic of FinTech onboarding.

We sailed through the first two screens while I was explaining to her how Tide managed to get stuck and how they weren’t able to verify her address and shortly realised that Revolut had the same issue of lack of data but an amazingly elegant way to handle it – they said they needed more data but offered to email Julia to ensure she verifies herself. An obvious coup ensuring they get another sign-up AND can talk to the director directly.


Incidentally, the fact that I later discovered none of the other competitors implemented this incredibly elegant and intelligent solution just reveals a sad fact: they never saw it, never did any onboarding with Revolut themselves.

With little else left to do but wait for Julia and Revolut to get together, Devie and I mused over the various fees and whether or not the 25 GBP a month for the basic account is not a bit too much and we returned to our coffees and more pressing FinTech gossip.

Meanwhile, in the land of “no, can’t do”…

 Now with my appetite for non-Tide well and truly whetted and Revolut having me in limbo I decided I would systematically try the remaining options so I found the first list of Challenger SMEs I could find and started going through the list.

With Starling at least the pain was swift – after a few glitzy screens that got my heart racing with the promise of the most awesome free and functional account they frankly admitted they basically do sole traders only and can’t support multiple directorship. Same goes for Coconut. Sure, business accounts but only if you’re a freelancer, otherwise we should take our limited needs (ha!) elsewhere.

Monese let me “register my interest” while Monzo claims no interest in business banking at all.

With CountingUp I got stuck in an endless loop of trying to deal with two different directors and kept sending me back to the login screen in the app and while I enjoy a Beta-app challenge and normally would try my best “spot the developer-FU and try to work around the coding” game this time I was not amused.

I then fiddled with Anna – which I initially thought was a dumb name till I realized they acronym-ed “Absolutely No Nonsense Admin” which gave me the warm and fuzzies because let’s face it, who in banking doesn’t love a good acronym? Aside from how I found their graphics are a bit too cutesy – will everyone take kindly to this piglet face representation?- I made the mistake to register with the company where I am sole director and after having been through the pain of being asked for 2 different ID documents and a bill with my address on it I couldn’t be bothered to even try our two directors limited so the comparison isn’t perchance fair but I’ve included what I know nonetheless.


While all of this was unfolding –and make no mistake about it, no unfolding was instant and straight forward as it said on the flashy press releases- Revolut had managed to open our account and we were nothing if not over the moon. Only clear glitch – neither Julia nor I could escape the prison of having previously logged in as private Revolut customers in the app on our phones so we sign up with our brand new business account, and after a fair amount of deleting and reinstalling we each started messaging them (in the app, on Facebook and and on Twitter) for ideas on how to sign out of the personal and sign into the business.

Seeing how no one was answering our multiple queries (and even when they later did, it was so flippant that it broke Julia’s die-hard-Revolut –early-adopter heart!) I thought the race was still on and returned to Tide where compliance had managed to vet the documents and there was now an account! Success!

Or was it? As soon as I sent the details to one of our team and asked them to upload them to the invoice template I realized I had no IBAN/BIC or SWIFT code to add so I got back to them and then they broke my heart like this:


A package came in the mail yesterday though and it was delightful indeed. Now I have this beautiful card the useless-to-me Tide account and no faith they will be getting back to me any time in the next century.

I gave up after this and gave in. We are now Revolut business customers. I’d like to say that’s because they were the best but really it’s because they were the only ones who showed up at all.

BSTER – Blood, Sweat and Tears Empirical Report

This is what I’ve learned and if it saves even one limited, international directors company (oh the design-for-Brexit jokes!) from the pain of trying challengers or if, even better, makes any of these guys step-up then it was worth it.

Digital Onboarding using only ID and Face YES YES YES
Mobile App Existence YES YES YES YES
Accounts for Ltd vs. Sole Trader YES YES YES ?
Multiple Directorship support YES YES YES ?
Non-UK Director address YES YES ? ?
Monthly Usage Fee (aka Expensive) YES ?
Clear Communication of Features YES YES
Facial Recognition YES YES YES YES YES
Upload of Picture for Onboarding (i.e. instead of live camera access)
Easy log-in (i.e. Touch ID) YES YES YES YES
International Transfers YES ? ? ?
Speed of Account Opening YES ?
Customer Service YES ? YES
Connection to Xero or FreeAgent YES YES ? YES ?

I could tell you what went wrong with each of those steps. Where their authentication provider was poor, where the prioritisation of features was appalling, where there was no user testing, where API calls were impotent, why organisationally their customer service is crippled et cetera, but these are just excuses in 2018 and after all the hype and promise of the user centricity FinTech in general and UK Challengers in particular should bring.

Looking at the above and considering that after all this pain and suffering I only have ONE (hopefully “functional” – we have yet to see the test amounts we set over arrive) account that can take international payments that we could add to an invoice as I write this, Revolut wins the SME banking race hands-down.

Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 06.19.31

While they were rather horrid Customer Service wise, I accept they may –wrongly- presume I’m part of a some FinTech influencer clique or other and intent on disparaging them, so that would have added to their lack of promptness in answering me so it’s possible that they would be far less painful to deal with, to others.

Ironically, a while back I was headhunted for a leadership position in one of the banks above and in my chat to the board I said something about how I would like to see the budget for “people-back-up until AI and experience deliver” and they didn’t like that much at all, they said it doesn’t belong in my acquisition strategy presentation. Uh well.

This banking was very emotional indeed

Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 06.18.43

How did it make me feel?

Frustrated, fearful, concerned, burdened, unsafe.

All that and I’m not your average consumer, I want it to work out, I want to find the way around the lack of testing or the app interaction error, I’m a technologically savvy and hell-bent-on-getting-in user. Is that who we should design for though? Am I Customer 0? Would every other company director have the same patience and drive?

This is why we can’t have nice things

Sadly, I have a feeling that because these companies are still small and fairly defensive, this won’t be taken as constructive criticism but bad PR, but I look at it as efficiency: sending them each a long email with suggestions and complaints wouldn’t have gotten me or their Backlog prioritisation anywhere much, and would have also not let other new users go and try it for themselves.

So there you go banking, free user testing and publicity with a very restrained dash of snark considering. You’re welcome.

Now I can only hope these challengers don’t release my frustrated 5 am selfies in retaliation!