Should Fintech Startups Seek Success Lower in the Stack?

© Can Stock Photo / NitrPayments company Dwolla recently surprised much of the fintech world by announcing it was stepping back from the consumer business to focus on its B2B, API-based model. Or maybe it wasn’t so surprising.

It’s no secret it’s hard to scale fintech companies — unless consumers are rich, money isn’t fun, and people don’t share money problems with friends. (Citigroup addressed this with a new campaign called “Let’s face money.”) This means the traditional startup model of spreading virally among friends is unlikely for fintech companies, though there are exceptions (Venmo).

The Dwolla move was no surprise to Doug Nielson, senior vice president of innovation research and development at U.S. Bank. Nielson noted that he has seen — most recently at Money2020, but also earlier in the year — a change in the rhetoric of startups. “A year ago, it was all about tearing down the banking structure,” he told Bank Innovation. “This year, the theme is more about collaboration and partnerships.”

Times are good for banks to engage with fintech startups, Nielson said, and the example of Dwolla shows that startups might want to look “deeper in the stack for your solutions.” This would mean that in partnerships, the banks retain the customer experience while fintechs contribute more behind the scenes.

But startups shouldn’t be so quick to give up front-end experience, said Steven Ramirez, CEO of the data science consultancy Beyond the Arc. “Fintech companies have demonstrated that they can meet (previously unidentified) consumer needs by transforming the customer experience,” he wrote to Bank Innovation. “The ‘tech’ part of fintech is critical, but not sufficient to deliver real innovation. You also need great design and UX — and a rethinking of what consumers are really trying to accomplish.”

He pointed to the example of Motif Investing, which has innovated on the front and backends. “The way they enable theme-based and crowd-sourced portfolios is really revolutionary,” he said.

Though banks are the largest investors in fintech, the investment community remains interested in innovations to the front-end, customer-facing experience, which may determine how and why startups develop as they do.

Ryan Falvey, managing director of the financial solutions lab at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, said, “I definitely believe that front end consumer innovation remains the most valuable part of the banking stack. Innovations in design, branding and distribution remain challenging for incumbents and represent an area of significant opportunity for new entrants.”

Falvey also pointed out that the great difficulty of building consumer experiences also means that companies that do it well, become extremely valuable. But opportunities remain in the stack as well, and advances there can significantly improve the customer experience. “Two examples that I would point to in our existing portfolio are Scratch: a loan servicer, and EarnUp: a debt management platform,” Falvey said. “Both of these businesses are targeting relatively staid parts of the financial services industry, but bringing insights from consumer tech to the solution.”

Matt Harris, managing director of Bain Capital Ventures, also believes young companies should not be afraid of taking on the problems with customer experience. “While I think banks will continue to play a central role in payments and lending (as with broker/dealers in investing, insurance carriers in insurance, etc), there are things that tech-enabled and entrepreneur-led companies will do better than they will,” he wrote to Bank Innovation. “Customer experience is surely one of those things.”

Funding for fintech may be slowing, but it’s still healthy, and it appears opportunities still remain up front, around the back, and in-between.

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