c30 March 2015

Renny Popoola

2015 has seen lots of noise around the emergence of new challenger banks in the UK with much being said about the potential for emerging firms to take on the big players and provide a credible alternative for consumers. The outlook for the sector looks promising. Whilst Metro bank was the first business to obtain a full banking licence in 150 years, 6 new banks have been authorised since 2013 and dozens more on the pipeline.

Clearly, the industry is aching for a game-changer. A company, firm or idea that reinvents the way the public engages with firms and delivers banking and financial services to customers that is relevant and accessible.

We have seen such game changers disrupt the leisure industry (AirBnb, Housetrip), transport (ZipVan, Uber), communications (WhatsApp, Skype), entertainment, (Netflix) and to some extent health (Myfitnesspal, Fitbit). Most have become leaders in their own sphere paving the way for a new wave of brands to offer a traditional service with a modern twist.

With systemic changes occurring in many other industries, it does raise the question- what will be the financial industry’s uBer?

The digital age has completely revamped most spheres of our life in an enormous way. But, the impact on how we bank, invest, insure and save has been relatively minor. Whilst the concept of financial advice has undergone some change with comparison sites and online forums, many other facets of financial services have yet to experience their digital awakening.

This is surprising considering that we’re repeatedly reminded about customer dissatisfaction with financial services.  The fact remains, barriers to entry are significantly high despite the regulators’ efforts to encourage innovation and competition. Obtaining authorisation is more often than not a long and expensive process.

Historically, disruptive financial brands have tended to be spin offs or marketing exercises from the larger players. For example, whilst Sheila’s Wheels innovated how insurance could be marketed, it was part of the HBOS group. Even firstdirect, regularly heralded as a game changer in the UK banking sector due to its reputation for customer service, is owned by HSBC.

It’s not a surprise that innovation within the financial industry comes mainly from established players, but it does highlight the difficulty for outsiders to reinvent the market. To some extent, the increased regulatory and capital requirements placed on financial services providers for consumer protection is the biggest hurdle to true innovation in the sector.

What we are beginning to see are individuals, once part of the establishment, looking to shake up the industry.  We’ve seen Nutmeg founded by former stockbrocker Nick Hungerford,  offering an accessible alternative for wealth management, and Stockopedia started by a former investment manager, allowing DIY investors to beat the banks.  With the recent shake up of the pensions industry, such alternative investment services are likely to experience increased demand.

In banking, new players like Atom Bank, Starling and Fidor aim to capture market share through offering digital services. Again, what unites these brands are founders with significant experience with the big players exploring gaps in the market to innovate.

Financial services are still some way off from experiencing its version of Amazon, completely turning the industry on its head. There is a possibility, because of the risk involved within the sector, that it will never experience such upheaval. What is increasingly evident is that if such digital innovation is to happen, it most likely will from within- be it an experienced individual who wants to change the status quo or even a traditional firm with new ideas on offering financial services.