Shaking the status quo
As customers search for better ways to manage their finances and make savings in the midst of the COVID-19 recession, the answer may be found within inclusive and forward-thinking fintechs
To say that 2020 was a transformative year would be putting it mildly. The ongoing pandemic has prompted profound changes in the way we live, work and socialise, with prolonged social distancing measures meaning that many aspects of our lives have moved online in the past 12 months. Kitchen tables now double up as desk space, meetings have been replaced by Zoom calls and Friday night drinks take place over FaceTime, instead of at the pub. When it comes to how we spend our money, too, the pandemic has pushed us towards the digital realm.
When fears of the virus first began circulating in Europe in February 2020, cash quickly fell out of favour, despite studies indicating that currency doesn’t transmit COVID-19. Shoppers were encouraged to use contactless payments wherever they could, and in the UK alone, ATM usage fell by 71 percent between early March and mid-April. When heading out to the supermarket and other essential shops, we have been ditching the cash and relying on our cards and mobile phones, instead. While in-person spending dropped during 2020, online purchases have surged, with an increased demand for goods leading to supply chain chaos and congested ports the world over.
As for banking and how we manage our money, we have also seen an accelerated shift to online services. According to a study carried out by Mastercard, 62 percent of respondents across 12 European markets said that they would be interested in switching from physical banking to digital platforms, and the company’s recent Global State of Play report also showed that 53 percent of the world’s population are using banking apps more than they were before the pandemic.
So, looking at these trends and evolving behaviours, it could be said that 2020 was the year that fintech really hit the mainstream. With the financial crunch of the pandemic taking its toll on households across the globe, it’s perhaps unsurprising that customers are looking for new ways to better manage their money in this time of crisis. If we are indeed entering a ‘new normal,’ shouldn’t we take a new approach to our finances, too?
Brave new world
The COVID-19 pandemic might have started out as a public health crisis, but it has since snowballed into something much bigger. The global economy has been plunged into a once-in-a-lifetime recession, the recovery from which seems long, slow and precarious.
We launched early quite simply because we thought we could help in light of the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic
Lockdowns have decimated livelihoods and sent unemployment rates soaring, with those who were already most vulnerable – those from poor, marginalised communities – bearing the brunt of the economic pain. And the bad news is that this is just the beginning. We have been warned that the worst is still yet to come in terms of job losses, squeezed household incomes and depressed wages as the world enters the deepest recession since World War Two.
It was this dire economic outlook that prompted Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia to launch money-saving app Snoop in April 2020 – two months ahead of schedule. Using open banking to connect to users’ bank accounts, the app then analyses customers’ spending and saving habits, identifying where they might be overpaying on their subscription packages or utility bills, for example, and offering helpful tips on where to pinch some pennies when it comes to daily, weekly and monthly spending.
“We launched early quite simply because we thought we could help in light of the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic,” Gadhia told World Finance. “That, alongside encouragement from our first beta customers, gave us the belief that we could make a difference, and that there was no time like the present to launch.” Launching remotely in the midst of a pandemic was something of a challenge for the Snoop team, but they felt compelled to get the app out to the public as soon as it was ready – to help users make the most out of their money at what they knew to be a crucial time.
Families in the UK – where Snoop is based – are on average £515 worse off per month due to the impact of COVID-19, and the British economy is expected to shrink by 11.3 percent in 2020, with recovery off the cards until at least 2022.
These precarious and uncertain times have prompted many to reassess their spending and attempt to tighten their purse strings – but it can be hard to know where you could be saving money if you don’t know where to look.
The idea behind Snoop is that it will do the hard work for you, finding the very best deals and personalised money-saving tips and putting them right in your pocket. The launch of Snoop marks something of a new chapter in Gadhia’s impressive career in finance. First training as an accountant with Ernst & Young, Ghadia was introduced to business magnate Richard Branson in 1994. Just a few short months after this fateful introduction, she helped Branson to launch Virgin Direct – which later became Virgin Money.
She spearheaded this project for over a decade, steering it through seismic events such as the financial crisis of 2008 and all of its ensuing fallout. While Virgin Money represented a more traditional bank, operating on a traditional platform, it was here that Gadhia first developed an interest in challenger banks and digital alternatives to regular financial services. Indeed, the idea for Snoop had already arisen before Gadhia left Virgin Money in 2018. Drawing on the lessons she had learned in her high-flying career to date, she decided to commit herself to Snoop in January 2019, and a little over a year later, her vision had been brought to life.
Since its launch, the app has already skyrocketed to well over 130,000 downloads, and recently raised £10m from over 1,700 investors in a successful crowdfunding campaign. Already, it would seem, the app is having the impact that its creators intended, with one particular Snoop suggestion helping residents on an estate in the UK to pursue a £75,000 rebate from their water supplier.
And with more money-saving features in the works, Snoop is just getting started on its mission to put power back in the hands of the consumer. “Our focus and core challenge now is all about momentum,” says Gadhia. “We are accelerating the build of the Snoop platform and all of the money-saving features we’d like to deliver for our customers, and helping to make more and more people better off.”
As the world around us changes, we need solutions that reflect the opportunities and demands of our ‘new normal.’ Snoop, like many of the other tech companies and start-ups making a name for themselves, has succeeded by taking a fresh approach to a traditional industry. The financial world has long been dominated by a handful of traditional banks, offering a rather unimaginative set of products and services. In recent years, however, a number of forward-thinking fintech start-ups and digital-only challenger banks have started to make significant inroads into the industry, giving customers a faster, more convenient and more personalised way of managing their money.
Looking at these trends and evolving behaviours, it could be said that 2020 was the year that fintech really hit the mainstream
With fintech existing at the intersection of finance and technology – two traditionally male-dominated industries – it is both interesting and encouraging to note that some of the most innovative and exciting companies in the fintech world of today have been founded or co-founded by women. Take Starling Bank, for example, which was founded by Anne Boden in 2014. The company made history in November 2020 by becoming the first digital challenger bank to turn a profit – leapfrogging its rival Monzo on its way to profitability. 2020 also saw Starling scoop the award for ‘Best British Bank’ for the third year in a row, marking a real milestone achievement for female-fronted fintech.
Yet the industry still has some way to go when it comes to gender equality. In the UK, female-founded fintech teams receive just one percent of all venture capital funding, and the situation is not much better in the US, where three percent of VC funding goes to female-led teams. Then there’s also the widely reported boys’ club culture in tech, and the ongoing issue of wage inequality. While there is certainly plenty of work still to be done, the disruptive nature of fintech also offers an opportunity for progress in this area – after all, when rethinking an industry as traditional as finance, surely there’s scope for these innovative companies to reconsider their approach to diversity and inclusion?
A more inclusive future
Snoop co-founder Gadhia has long been a vocal advocate of gender equality in the worlds of business and finance. Speaking on the podcast ‘Can I ask you a personal question?’ in August 2020, she described being labelled a “bloody difficult woman” by “older white men” over the course of her career, telling the show’s hosts that she, at times, felt overly criticised by her peers for taking an untraditional approach, and that this negative response had affected her mental health.
Long before COVID-19, digital banking had been heralded as the future, with traditional banks under pressure to modernise their services
Undeterred by such comments, however, Gadhia continued to push for greater inclusion at every stage of her career. While leading Virgin Money, she strove to increase the number of women in senior management roles, and sought to address the company’s gender pay gap. She was also asked to produce a report for the government, called the Gadhia review, which looked into how financial services companies could achieve a better gender balance, especially when it comes to more senior roles.
On the strength of this report – which advocated for a more inclusive culture, better management strategies and ways of encouraging flexible working – the Treasury then launched the Women in Finance Charter, which asks financial services firms to commit to a course of action to ensure a greater gender balance at top-ranking roles. In 2016, the British government awarded Gadhia the title of Women in Finance Champion in recognition of her work, and a year later, she was made a founding member of its Business Diversity and Inclusion Group. Then, in the 2019 New Year Honours list, she was made a dame for services to women in the financial services.
“What women have faced – in banking and beyond – is a slightly different yardstick to be judged by than traditional bankers,” she continued. “We are expected to behave in a certain way to be accepted. But actually, true diversity and gender equality is not about behaving the same, but being different because of the differences. We have to take that leap forward,” Gadhia said.
It’s no secret that greater diversity is better for business. Studies have shown that gender-diverse companies – particularly those with more women in senior roles – are more productive and more stable during times of crisis. While traditional financial services companies have been slow to prioritise diversity in their recruitment drives, newly established fintechs have an opportunity to shift the narrative and build gender balance into their company culture from the very start.
“I think inclusivity is important for individuals, society and the economy,” Gadhia told World Finance. “And that’s true now more than ever. After all, it’s proven that a balanced workforce, at all levels of an organisation, can drive out performance and lead to enhanced profitability. Diversity of workforce avoids the pitfalls of groupthink, drives creativity and encourages innovation. And we need men and women of all races, beliefs and capabilities to inspire that.”
Five reasons why open banking is a secure technology that can be enjoyed by both consumers and business according to Imran Gulamhuseinwala, trustee of the Open Banking Implementation Entity.1. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it is opt-in only. The default is that no one is automatically enrolled into open banking.
2. Customers are never asked for their log-in details and at no point does a third party see or have access to customers’ bank log-in details.
3. Open banking works via consent only and to experience the benefits APIs can bring, consumers must give their consent at all stages.
4. Only authorised third parties can enter the ecosystem. All parties that become authorised by the FCA must undergo a series of checks, approx 100, to ensure they are fit and proper.
5. A customer redress system is built into open banking so that complaints are heard by the whole ecosystem.
Shifting the focus
Along with focusing on gender balance within their own companies, fintech firms could also stand to benefit from ensuring that their products appeal to a gender-diverse customer base. According to Oliver Wyman, there is at least $700bn in revenue opportunity available from better serving women as customers.
Often, women are not having their financial needs met by traditional banking firms, and could be better served by fintech alternatives that offer a more personalised approach to money management. Research carried out by the management consultancy firm found that while women control two-thirds of global household spending, they are 25 percent less confident in their own financial acumen, compared with men.
The firm also discovered that women tend to feel more negatively than men do about managing their finances with traditional banks, suggesting that fintech companies have a real opportunity to tap into a dissatisfied customer base and offer innovative solutions that meet the needs of modern women. And that wouldn’t mean taking a completely gender-neutral approach, either, as evidence has shown that even supposedly unbiased strategies can, in fact, lean more towards men’s preferences and requirements when it comes to financial planning and money management.
Instead, fintechs could stand to benefit from gaining an understanding of the specific financial needs of women, and working these into their offerings – while taking care, of course, not to base their approach on outdated gender stereotypes. Already it seems, the more personal approach to money management offered by fintech apps and challenger banks has proved popular with women. A 2019 survey from the US showed that 58 percent of financial app users were women, suggesting that women are more inclined to turn to fintech solutions in order to manage their spending.
It is often darkest just before dawn
What’s more, with women hit hardest by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been a more important time for fintech companies to listen to the financial demands of women. In fact, the International Monetary Fund has warned that 30 years of gains for women’s economic opportunities could be undone by the COVID-19 downturn, with both the short-term and long-term effects of the crisis threatening to exacerbate existing gender inequalities.
A report by the University of Exeter found that women in the UK are almost twice as likely as men to have lost their job during the pandemic, while a study by the Women’s Budget Group showed that around 133,000 more women were furloughed than men during Britain’s first pandemic-enforced lockdown. Women’s wages were also dealt a harsher blow than men’s, in part because they are more likely to be working in sectors hit hardest by the crisis – such as hospitality, leisure and retail.
With the economic outlook looking rather bleak in the months to come, it’s understandable that many people – and perhaps women in particular – may be looking for new ways to make savings and financially plan for the future at this uncertain time. That’s where money-saving apps such as Snoop come in. From the comfort of their own homes, customers are able to track their spending and see where they could be making savings, with fintech apps offering a more personal and practical approach to money management – all at the touch of a button. Long gone are the days where you would have to attend an in-person meeting with a financial advisor at your bank branch. Today, all you need to manage your spending and set saving goals is an AI-powered app in your pocket. In these times of crisis, fintech could offer a valuable lifeline to those in real financial need.
The concept of open banking has quickly picked up pace and is now at various stages of adoption in countries around the world, disrupting the traditional banking industry and changing how it competes and does business.
Open banking launched in the UK in January 2018 to improve competition in financial services. Adoption was only mandatory for the nine biggest banks and building societies, but smaller newcomers also took up the gauntlet. As of 2020 there are 204 regulated open banking providers in the UK and the nation is regarded as a trailblazer, having set its own framework and API standard.
Wrote open banking into the consumer data rights law with open banking legislation passed in September 2019 by the Australian Parliament. The country’s ‘Big 4’ banks collectively control around 95 percent of the financial services market but open banking will change that.
Open banking has been slower to start in the US where it is more of an industry-led initiative in contrast to the UK where it has been driven by the Competitive Markets Authority. Some believe that it needs support from regulatory bodies in order to unlock its full potential and to encourage widespread adoption.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS) have jointly produced the finance-as-a-service API playbook to provide guidance to financial institutions, fintech players and other interested entities in developing and adopting open API architecture.
The country’s banking act was amended in June 2018 to promote open banking and although implementation was voluntary, around 130 chartered banks in Japan were expected to open their APIs by the end of 2020 with more scheduled for 2021.
While open banking is recognised as an integral part of fintech it is still considered to be in its infant stages in China with the problem of lacking universal industry standards and data security measures remaining unsolved.
Mexico & Latin America
Since 2018 Mexico has had an ambitious agenda to be at the forefront of leading open banking in the Latin America region. It is making good progress, having passed a fintech law in 2018 to set out open banking standards and requiring banks to adopt them.
In comparison to the UK, initial progress in the rest of Europe has been slow, but many countries and banks across Europe are now adopting the initiative including Germany, Luxembourg and Italy as well as pan-European payments initiative the Berlin Group, consisting of more than 40 individual banks.
The post-pandemic future
With our world undergoing so many significant transformations during the last year, there has been much conversation about whether these changes will be a permanent part of our post-pandemic future. The long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine could well provide a roadmap out of the pandemic, and while its rollout may be slow and gradual, it has provided some much-needed light at the end of the tunnel. But, if ‘normal life’ begins to resume, as we can now hope, just how ‘normal’ will it be? Will we be entering a new era, moulded and transformed by the experiences of 2020? Or will we gradually slip back into the routines and behaviours of the past? As the last year has shown, any predictions about the future are largely futile, but it is hard to imagine that the pandemic will not leave deep-rooted social, cultural and economic scars.
For years now, the world has been undergoing a digital revolution, and COVID-19 has accelerated this shift to online-first. This is particularly true when it comes to money management. Long before COVID-19, digital banking had been heralded as the future, with traditional banks under pressure to modernise their services and offer practical, personalised options for a digital age and its increasingly tech-savvy consumers.
It was clear that customers wanted quick, convenient, hyper-personalised products at the touch of a button, and if they couldn’t get that from their traditional banks, then they were happy to look elsewhere. If this was where banking was heading in the pre-pandemic world, COVID-19 has only served to hasten this digital transformation.
Technology will lead the way
According to a survey recently commissioned by Plaid, 67 percent of respondents plan to continue managing most of their finances digitally once the pandemic is over, marking a real shift in how consumers approach banking and money management. People have been seeking new solutions, with fintech adoption skyrocketing across all age groups.
“Almost 50 million UK consumers have a current account, and over 25 million people use their mobile to manage their money – a figure that’s growing quickly as a by-product of COVID-19,” says Gadhia. “Apps like Snoop can deliver consumers a better experience and save them lots of money – we’ve calculated that our app can save users an average of £1,500 per household per year. As such, I think businesses like Snoop are going to play a very big part in the way people manage their money in the future – all driven by the latest technology, hyper-personalised experiences and independence.” While many of us long for a return to the ‘old normal’ in our personal lives, at least, it seems that when it comes to our finances, these digital trends are here to stay. As the world finds its way out of a deep, dark recession in the years to come, fintech may well be fuelling its recovery – and all at the touch of a smartphone screen.