FinTech Australia Road Show

This week I had hoped to blog about the latest FinTech Australia Road Show in Melbourne – unfortunately, COVID-19 intervened, and the event has been postponed.

So instead, here is my personal quick take on recent developments in the local FinTech scene:

A tale of 2 neobanks

Maybe Australia isn’t ready for challenger banks, despite the early interest and apparent market demand. Xinja* has decided to give back its banking license, having spent a ton of money on obtaining it in the first place. It couldn’t sustain savings and deposit accounts (even in a low-interest rate environment) without sufficient regulatory capital, the funding for which has failed to materialise; and without deposits, Xinja couldn’t offer loans. There is talk of launching a US share-trading app instead (à la Robinhood) but given the recent shenanigans with Wall Street Bets, Reddit, hedge funds and GameStop day traders I don’t suppose the regulatory path to market will be that easy. Xinja looks like it’s done.

Meanwhile, NAB has just announced that it is acquiring the shares in 86 400 that it does not already own, in order to merge it with NAB’s digital brand, Ubank. Which further suggests neobanks can’t survive on their own in the Australian market, with the dominant and regulatory protected cartel of the Big 4. (My good friend Alan Tsen has described this latest transaction as a turducken….)

Other challenger brands in Australia are having to take different approaches: Up is piggybacking off Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s ADI license; Volt describes itself as a BaaS provider (“banking as a service”); Judo is focused on business banking; and the UK’s Revolut is bringing a mix of credit cards, payment solutions and forex services (including crypto), rather than transaction banking. Meanwhile, another BaaS from the UK, Railsbank is currently recruiting locally for a GM to leads its Australian roll-out.

Finally, despite some concerns about the BNPL sector (“buy now, pay later”), Afterpay is partnering with Westpac‘s BaaS platform to offer banking services to its customers.

Whither the Big 4?

Speaking of which, what are the Big 4 doing in the broader sphere of FinTech?

Despite (or because of?) buying a neobank, NAB has apparently closed down the Labs part of NAB Ventures, the often-mentioned, but largely silent startup incubator. CBA has created X15, a similar FinTech ventures platform with the ambitious goal of launching 25 businesses in 5 years (I seem to recall NAB Ventures once had a similar mandate?). Westpac‘s own FinTech fund, Reinventure is expected to do well out of the forthcoming Coinbase IPO; so much so that Reinventure is planning to decouple from Westpac, and launch a new fund focused on DeFi opportunities. ANZ has been putting out some commentary on its ANZi platform for FinTech innovation and partnerships – but its remit is limited to trade finance, home ownership and open data, and it is being very coy as to what specific bets they are making. Ho hum.

Did somebody mention crypto?

In case you hadn’t realised, we are experiencing something of a bull market in crypto.

Coinspot just announced they have 1,000,000 customers. Raiz Invest has launched its retail savings portfolio product with a 5% allocation to Bitcoin. Other funds like Every Capital are planning similar retail offerings. Luno is advertising on Melbourne’s tram shelters. And the Australian division of eToro is talking up DeFi. Game on!

Next week: Transition – post-pandemic career moves

* Declaration of interest – the author participated in the Xinja equity crowd-sale a few years ago

My Four Years in Crypto

It’s four years since I began my career in Blockchain, crypto and digital assets. (I can’t claim to be an early adopter, although this blog first mentioned Bitcoin in 2013.) My knowledge on the topic was quite rudimentary at the time, and it was like jumping in at the deep end when I joined the small team at Brave New Coin. Apart from the 3 co-founders, there were 3 other core team members already on-board, so I was lucky 7.

My professional career has mainly been in law, publishing and financial services, plus a range of consulting, contract and freelance roles across various sectors. My point of entry into crypto was my experience with Standard & Poor’s and Thomson Reuters in market data, indices, analytics, content, research and portfolio tools – the basis of Brave New Coin’s business, and therefore an appropriate fit with my experience and skills set.

In the past four years, I have been privileged to witness at close hand the market exuberance of 2017 (fuelled by the ICO phenomenon and the incredible bull market), the regulatory backlash of 2018, the crypto winter of 2018-19, and the stop-start messages coming from regulators, markets, institutional investors, central banks and major corporations.

Getting to grips with some of the technical and other idiosyncrasies has been a steep learning curve – but I have tried to adopt a dual approach to expanding my own understanding. First, focus on the major components before getting to far into the weeds on any particular area of technical detail; second, create a personal framework of analogous concepts, and identify practical metaphors that you can also easily explain to others – self-education is critical to personal survival, but sharing knowledge is the path to wider adoption.

It’s also important to maintain an anchor based on your original point of entry – not only does that become a constant point of reference, it also enables you to build areas of personal expertise and domain knowledge. So, while many early proponents and adopters were drawn to crypto because of their underlying belief in Libertarianism, or their fascination with cryptography, or their distrust of centralised banking systems, my own points of reference continue to be around financial services (asset origination, tokenisation, digital wealth management), market data (indices, industry standards, benchmarks), regulations and analytics. While I am an advocate for Blockchain technology, I am not a hardcore technologist, but I realise that it will take time for issues such as scaling, interoperability and mass adoption to be fully resolved.

At the very least, a great deal of that market experience (especially driven by the decentralized, project-intensive and ICO-related activity of 2016-18) has demonstrated the following truths about Blockchain technolgy:

1. This is a new model of capital formation – just as companies no longer have a monopoly on human capital, banks and traditional intermediaries no longer have a monopoly on raising financial capital

2. This is a new means of asset creation, wealth distribution and market access – backed by Blockchain solutions, crypto is the first asset class that was retail first, in a distributed/decentralized bottom-up approach to issuance

3.This is a new platform for commerce – whether via tokenomics, network incentives, value transfer, smart contracts or programmed scarcity

4. This represents a paradigm shift in governance models – via the use of decentralized, autonomous, trustless, consensus and incentive-based operating structures and decision-making systems

5. This introduces new principles of distribution – assets are consumed closer to the source of value creation (fewer intermediaries and rent seekers)

6. But, it is not (and should never be) the solution for everything

Given what is happening at the moment around the COVID 19 pandemic, Blockchain, crypto and digital assets will prove to be perfect solutions to a number of problems such as: establishing the provenance of medicines; identity verification; managing supply chain logistics; enabling the distribution of assets; computing power for scientific modelling and testing; and providing alternatives to cash.

Next week: Social Distancing in Victorian Melbourne…

 

Crypto House Auction

Earlier this month, through my work with Brave New Coin, I was lucky enough to attend the first live property auction to be conducted in cryptocurrency. Although the property was passed in on the day, the event generated enough interest and PR value that it will surely be only a matter of time before more large ticket assets are transacted in this way.

Image sourced from LJ Hooker

Let’s not forget that it’s nearly 9 years since Laszlo Hanyecz paid 10,000 BTC for two pizzas (then valued at about US$41).

Although we may not yet be paying for our morning espresso with Bitcoin, a growing number of merchants are enabling customers to pay for goods and services with crypto, via payment platforms and intermediaries such as Living Room of Satoshi, and TravelbyBit. And services such as Coin Loft and CoinJar make it easier to buy and sell the most popular cryptocurrencies without having to set up accounts on multiple exchanges.

Meanwhile, the house in Casuarina, on the northern coast of New South Wales, was passed in at 457 BTC (A$3.4m). The property was listed by LJ Hooker, and the auction was facilitated by TrigonX and Nuyen, while Brave New Coin supplied real-time market data convert the crypto bids to Australian dollars.

Next week: Demo Day #1 – Startupbootcamp

 

FinTech Fund Raising

In the wake of the Banking Royal Commission, will FinTech startups capture market share from the brands that are on the nose with customers? And will these upstarts manage to attract the necessary funding to challenge the deep pockets and huge balance sheets of the incumbents? This was the underlying theme of a recent panel discussion hosted by Next Money Melbourne.

The panel comprised:

Nick Baker from NAB Ventures, typically investing $1m-$5m in Seed to Series C rounds, self-styled strategic investor with a particular focus on RegTech, Data and Data Security, and AI/Deep Learning

Ben Hensman from Square Peg Capital, writing cheques of $1.5m-$15m into Series A onwards, more of a financial investor, mainly in businesses starting to scale. Sees that the industry is ripe for disruption because of the mismatch between profit pools and capital pools, compared to the size of the economy.

Alan Tsen an Angel investor, making personal investments of $10k-$25k, mostly into teams/founders that he knows personally and has had an opportunity to see the business evolve fairly close up.

Key topics included:

Open banking – Will this be the game-changer that many people think it will? Are the banks being dragged kicking and screaming to open up their customer databases? What will be the main opportunities for FinTech startups? While customers often express an intention to switch banks, the reality is that few actually do. In part because current processes make it relatively difficult (hence the current Open banking initiative, which will later be extended to utilities); in part because there is little to no differentiation between the major banks (in products, costs and service). Also, it seems that banks are quietly getting on with the task in hand, given that resistance is futile. My personal view is that banks may have a significant role to play as custodians or guardians of our financial and personal data (“data fiduciaries”) rather than directly managing our financial assets. For example, when it comes to managing the personal private keys to our digital wallets, who would we most trust to hold a “back up of last resort” – probably our banks, because even though we may love to hate them, we still place an enormous amount of trust in them.

Full stack financial solutions – Within FinTech, the panel identified different options between full stack startups, compared to those that focus on either the funding layer (sourcing and origination), tech layer, and the CX layer.

Neo-banks – Welcome source of potential competition, but face huge challenges in customer acquisition, brand awareness and maintaining regulatory capital requirements.

Unbundling the banks – Seen as a likely outcome from the Royal Commission, given that we have already seen the major banks largely exit the wealth management and advice business. But the challenge for FinTech startups will be in developing specific products that match and exceed current offerings, without adding transactional friction etc.

Identifying Strong FinTech Teams – There needs to be evidence of deep domain expertise, plus experience of business scaling. Sometimes it’s a fine balance between naivety and experience, and outsiders versus insiders – bringing transferable external experience (especially with a view to disrupting and challenging the status quo) can easily trump incumbent complacency.

Funding Models – While most VC funding is in the form of equity, some VCs offer “venture debt” (based on achieving milestones) which can be converted to equity, but while it can lead to founder’s equity dilution, it may represent a lower cost of initial capital for startups. The panel mentioned the so-called “Dutch model” (because it has been used by Dutch pension funds) that local mortgage company Athena has brought to the market. Rather than seeking wholesale funding or warehouse financing to back their home loan business, Athena allows institutional investors such as superannuation funds, to lend direct to homeowners. This means that the funds receive more of the mortgage interest margin than if they were investing in RMBS issued by the banks and mortgage originators. Athena is mainly geared towards refinancing existing mortgages, rather than new loans, but also offers a new approach to mortgage servicing and administration.

Generally, VCs prefer simpler structures rather than, say, funding milestones, because of the risk of misaligned goals, and the impact this may have on subsequent price rounds. There are some models that create a level of optionality for founders, and others which are royalty-based, or which use a form of securitisation against future cash flows.

Meanwhile, the panel were generally not in favour of IPOs, mainly due to the additional regulatory, compliance and reporting obligations of being a public company. So it would seem their favoured exit strategy is either a trade sale or a merger, or acquisition by a private equity fund or institutional investor.

Next week: Crypto House Auction