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Cobalt uses Blockchain tech to process FX trades

It was around this time last year when I first started looking into blockchain technology and its capabilities. Even though blockchain technology was initially developed to accommodate Bitcoin transactions, my personal interest has been much more in its potential to act as “shared ledgers” for a wide variety of transactions or ‘contracts’ (see Fig. 1-2 below):

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Fig. 1 – High level outline of smart contracts via shared ledgers – Taken from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/492972/gs-16-1-distributed-ledger-technology.pdf

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Fig. 2 – High level outline of distributed ledger technology – Taken from: http://www.thegeniusworks.com/2016/02/blockchain-from-geeky-bitcoin-technology-to-a-revolution-in-everyday-processes/

In the past year, I’ve seen a lot of initiatives and companies pop up in the shared ledger space. I’ve looked at the likes of Abra, Ripple and R3. London based Fintech startup Cobalt is another promising player in the shared ledger arena. Andy Coyne, Cobalt’s Co-Founder and CEO, explains the problems that Cobalt is looking to solve:

“The speed at which trades are executed between participants across every corner of the globe has altered on a scale that previously seemed unimaginable, while competitiveness has increased and costs related to market access and execution have shrunk.

In contrast with execution technology, associated post-trade infrastructure has failed to keep pace. Legacy systems and practises being used to support these processes have changed little since their inception; they are now so inefficient and unfit for purpose that they introduce risk and unnecessary cost, having a serious impact on trading institutions’ profitability. This comes at a time when there is a move away from revenue to a real focus on true profitability.

The root cause is a glaring mismatch, where back office processes that evolved to support profitable voice and proprietary trading of 25 years ago are failing to support high volume, low margin electronic trading.

This is exemplified by the huge degree of unnecessary replication. A single transaction executed in today’s trading environment creates multiple records for buyer, seller, broker, clearer and third parties, introducing inconsistencies throughout lifecycle events such as affirmation, netting, allocations and confirmation, through to trade finality and nostro reconciliation. This hugely increases the probability of creating discrepancies, caused by multiple system hand-offs, normalisation and reconciliations. High frequency trading firms are particularly vulnerable, incurring huge costs for high volumes of low value tickets.”

Fig. 3 – Andy Coyne, Co-Founder and CEO of Cobalt on his company’s mission – Taken from: http://www.cobaltdl.com/blockchain/

In short, Cobalt are trying to remove any inefficiencies and unnecessary (operational) costs or risks related to the processing of foreign exchange (‘FX’) trades. Using the blockchain and its shared ledger functionality, Cobalt aims to simplify the way in which foreign exchange transactions are being processed. Instead of creating multiple records for one and the same transaction, Colbalt creates a single view. It this thus looks to significantly reduce the number of system hand-offs and reconciliations for one transaction, typically inherent in current processing of FX trades by legacy systems.

Cobalt’s focus is predominantly on the “post-trade” phase, and the risks and costs currently associated with this phase (see Fig. 4 below):

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Fig. 4 – Potential benefits of Blockchain for capital markets – Taken from: http://www.oliverwyman.com/content/dam/oliver-wyman/global/en/2016/feb/BlockChain-In-Capital-Markets.pdf

Main learning point: By providing a single view of a transaction between multiple parties, Cobalt aims to significantly increase the transparency of FX trades and remove complex back-end systems and processes i.e. banking legacy systems.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-banks-forex-blockchain-citigroup-idUSKBN14413A
  2. http://uk.businessinsider.com/citi-invests-in-foreign-exchange-blockchain-startup-cobalt-dl-2016-12
  3. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/492972/gs-16-1-distributed-ledger-technology.pdf
  4. http://www.chyp.com/sharing-ledgers/
  5. http://www.thegeniusworks.com/2016/02/blockchain-from-geeky-bitcoin-technology-to-a-revolution-in-everyday-processes/
  6. http://www.cobaltdl.com/blockchain/
  7. http://www.fxweek.com/fx-week/news/2475678/first-commercial-dl-solution-to-handle-14bn-daily-transactions
  8. http://financefeeds.com/this-is-not-a-noise-this-is-serious/
  9. http://cobaltdl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Blockchain.pdf
  10. http://www.oliverwyman.com/content/dam/oliver-wyman/global/en/2016/feb/BlockChain-In-Capital-Markets.pdf

 

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2017 in FinTech, Startups, Technology

 

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App review: Cleo

I wrote about virtual assistants a few weeks ago, which made me realise that I hadn’t yet explored Cleo in more detail. Cleo is a virtual assistant that I believe can help me save money. However, my knowledge of Cleo ends there, so let’s have a closer look at Cleo and its onboarding process:

  1. How did Cleo come to my attention? – I came across Cleo a few months ago as I was looking at so-called ‘robo advisers’ like Betterment and Nutmeg.
  2. My quick summary of Cleo (before using it)? – When you search for Cleo, Google will tell you that it’s an “Intelligent assistant that helps you save money”. I therefore expect a virtual assistant that will give me a better view of my expenses and gives me tips on how to spend less. I expect an app that’s highly personalised, aiming to making saving fun. I guess a bit similar to Qapital, an app that I reviewed a few months ago.
  3. How does Cleo explain itself in the first minute? – I like how how the homepage of https://meetcleo.com/ talks about Cleo being “The simplest way to manage your money” (see Fig. 1 below). The page also mentions “bank level security” although I must admit that I’m not entirely sure what that means in the context of Cleo.
  4. Getting started, what’s the process like (1)? – Cleo’s onboarding process feels very intuitive and easy, particularly the part where Cleo syncs with my bank account (see Fig. 3 below). The messaging about how Cleo will treat my current account data instills trust and is clear, even to the point where I get a text from Cleo to say that banks are a bit slow when it comes to synching (see Fig. 8 below). However, when I’m asked to set my monthly income, I’m not sure what purpose this will serve and how I’ll benefit from sharing this data with Cleo (see Fig. 4 below).
  5. Getting started, what’s the process like (2)? – The simplicity of the onboarding process is reinforced by the text messages that I’m getting from Cleo on my mobile whilst onboarding on my laptop (see Fig. 8 below).
  6. Did Cleo deliver on my expectations (1) – After completing my onboarding with Cleo, I get a pretty comprehensive overview of my bills and spending (see Fig. 7 below). Perhaps I hadn’t fully set my own expectations when signing up with Cleo, but I’m left with a faint feeling of disappointment, expecting to receive more insights around my spending patterns or be able to ask Cleo specific questions about my balance. For example, when I ask Cleo about how to best increase my balance, she refers me to the generic balance call to action which she’d shared with me 3 seconds prior in the same exchange on Facebook Messenger (see Fig. 10 below).
  7. Did Cleo deliver on my expectations (2) – Some of the machine learning parts that underpin Cleo feel like they’re working pretty well, and getting started with Cleo felt very seamless and self-explanatory. I’m, however, keen to see how Cleo will develop further over the coming months, in becoming truly ‘intelligent’ about my spending habits and ways for me to save money.

 

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Fig. 1 – Screenshot of the homepage of https://meetcleo.com/

 

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Fig. 2 – Screenshot of the first step of the Cleo sign-up flow

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Fig. 3 – Screenshot of the second step of the Cleo sign-up flow

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Fig. 4 – Syncing a bank account with Cleo

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Fig. 5 – Screenshot of setting a monthly income in Cleo

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Fig. 6 – Screenshots of the workflow around adding bills

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Fig. 7 – Screenshot of the ‘outputs’ of the info entered into Cleo

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Fig. 8 – Text updates from Cleo throughout the onboarding process

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Fig. 9 – Chat message from Barney, CEO and Co-Founder of Cleo

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Fig. 10 – Chatting with Cleo through Facebook Messenger

 
 

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App review: Zuora

One of the product areas I’m keen to learn more about is billing; understanding how small businesses go about (recurring) billing. A few years ago, I used Recurly to power subscription management and payments for a music streaming service. I’ve now discovered Zuora, who aspire to “turn your customers into subscribers.”

“The world subscribed” – I really like Zuora’s vision – “the world subscribed” – and its 9 keys to building a subscription based business (see Fig. 2 below). Zuora aims to make managing subscription payments as intuitive as possible. For example, when I look at the info that Zuora provides on a specific customer account, it feels clear and clean, enabling the user to digest key account information at a glance (see Fig. 3 below).

Part of an ecosystem – The thing I like best about Zuora is the numerous integrations it has with partners and marketplace apps. As a result, Zuora users can integrate easily with payment gateways such as Adyen and link with accounting software packages such as QuickBooks. Similarly, there’s a whole host of apps and plug-ins that Zuora users can choose from.

Main learning point: Even though subscription management / billing forms the core of Zuora’s value proposition, I feel that there’s much more to it: helping people run their business operations as efficiently as possible. I don’t know whether the people at Zuora would agree with me on this vision, but I believe that, especially through it’s 3rd party integrations, Zuora can support its users more widely in their day-to-day operations.

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Zuora’s “Quotes” overview – Taken from: https://www.getapp.com/finance-accounting-software/a/zuora/

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Fig. 2 – Zuora’s 9 keys to building a subscription based business – Taken from: https://www.zuora.com/vision/the-9-keys/

  1. Price – Find your sweet spot. Dynamically adjusting pricing and packaging is the surest way to attract and retain customers, and multiply the value of your relationships.
  2. Acquire – Boost subscription rates with tools like flexible promotions, integrated quoting and multi-channel commerce.
  3. Bill – Subscriptions mean more invoices and more payments. Automatically generate fast, accurate bills and deliver them online.
  4. Collect – Get paid. Collect payments instantly through automated and manual channels, while maximising completed transactions and minimising write-offs.
  5. Nurture – Build beautiful relationships. Keep your customers engaged and happy. Seamlessly manage rapidly changing upgrades, conversions, renewals and other orders.
  6. Account – Measure everything. Twice. Zuora plugs straight into your accounting software and General Ledger. Register subscription and process deferred revenue with ease.
  7. Measure – No paper, no worries. Analytics make forecasting, accounting close and audits a breeze. Plus, it gives you the right insight your subscribers, so you can make smarter decisions.
  8. Iterate – Try something new every day. Subscriptions can involve complex customer relationships. Zuora lets you iterate and test what’s working with just a couple of clicks.
  9. Scale – Get growing. Zuora is built on a secure, scalable technology infrastructure. So wherever you start out, we’ll keep the system running as you grow.
Fig. 3 –  Screenshot of Zuora’s “Customer Accounts” page – Taken from: https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/zuora#/entity
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Related links for further learning:
  1. https://www.boomi.com/solutions/zuora/
  2. https://www.zuora.com/product/partners/
  3. https://connect.zuora.com/appstore/apps
  4. http://fortune.com/2014/06/10/10-questions-tien-tzuo-founder-and-ceo-zuora/
  5. http://www.forbes.com/sites/edmundingham/2015/10/13/why-own-anything-anymore-zuora-founder-explains-rise-of-subscription-economy-at-subscribed-ldn/#735812d65a49
  6. http://blog.servicerocket.com/podcasts/episode-7
  7. https://www.zendesk.com/customer/zuora/
  8. https://medium.com/the-mission/the-greatest-sales-deck-ive-ever-seen-4f4ef3391ba0#.xbezrudzi
 

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Varo Money and its focus on the banking – customer relationship

Varo Money is a US based Fintech startup that provides mobile banking and personal financial management services. We’ve seen mobile banks launching in various forms left right and centre over the last two years; think N26 in Germany, Simple in the US and Monzo in the UK, just to name a few. I’m keen to explore Varo more and learn more about its focus on personal financial management and building an ongoing relationship with its customers.

I listened to a podcast interview with Colin Walsh – CEO and Co-Founder of Varo – recently, in which he outlined as Varo’s core proposition and its main points of differentiation:

  • Next generation of consumers – In the interview, Colin explains how Varo sees the so-called generation of ‘millennials’ as a white space, currently not addressed well by existing banks. Varo aims to provide these target customers with an easy way to manage their accounts, but also focuses on providing them with financial guidance on how to manage their money.
  • Mobile first – Given that Varo targets ‘millennials’, Colin made a point of explaining that Varo’s customer experience needs to be intuitive and mobile first, since this has become the standard for millennial users. He describes this mobile first approach as a key differentiator for Varo, along with “delivering meaningful insights to customers.”
  • Relationship focus – Varo is all about “earning the relationship with the customer.” This means gathering customer data so that Varo can advise customers better and deepening the relationship with the customer by addressing their needs. This doesn’t make Varo any different to any other banks in my opinion, but it will be interesting to see how Varo will design an experience tailored to the needs of its customers. I liked Colin’s point about using data to enhance customer relationships, and I wonder how Varo will build this ‘customer understanding’ into its experience.
  • Goal-based – Similar to Qapital, Varo is all about helping its customers reach certain financial goals and outcomes. For example, if you want to save money for a big expenditure, Varo is looking to create an experience which will make it easier to set related goals and manage your money accordingly (see Fig. 1 below). I like how Varo enables users to have a single view of their money across a number of accounts (Fig. 2 below).
  • Underpinned by partnerships – Like many Fintech startups, Varo partners with a number of established third parties to provide the components of their platform. Varo is partnering with companies like Galileo (payment processing) and Socure (identity verification) who, as Colin explains, “things they do very well at scale” and will help with Varo’s speed to market. Varo configures these existing technologies in order to not have the reinvent the wheel. Instead, Varo wants to focus its efforts more on a human-centered approach to design and experience, providing customers with insights to help deepening relationships with them (see Fig. 3 and 4 below).

Main learning point: For a company that hasn’t even yet released its product into Beta, Varo has done a good job in creating a buzz around its proposition and its services. With so many new banking platforms popping up, it will be interesting to see how Varo will differentiate itself and establishes a critical mass of US customers and, as Colin says will become “a credible alternative to a traditional bank account.”

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Varo’s goal-setting functionality – Taken from: http://www.varomoney.com/whatisvaro.php#2

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Fig. 2 – Screenshot of Varo’s ability to provide a single view of all their accounts – Taken from: http://www.varomoney.com/whatisvaro.php#2

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Fig. 2 – Screenshot of Varo’s card functionality – Taken from: http://www.varomoney.com/whatisvaro.php#2 

 

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Fig. 4 – Screenshot of “V”, providing insights to customers – Taken from: http://www.varomoney.com/whatisvaro.php#3

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Related links for further learning:

  1. https://soundcloud.com/wft
  2. https://blog.varomoney.com/2016/10/05/from-toasters-to-mobile-banking-moving-to-better-experiences-and-better-outcomes/#more-775
  3. http://www.wsj.com/articles/silicon-valley-looks-at-something-new-starting-a-bank-1462146047
  4. http://www.varomoney.com/data/Varo-Bancorp-Partnership-Announcement-2016.pdf
  5. https://www.sofi.com/
  6. https://www.prosper.com/
  7. https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/varo-money#/entity
 

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Lending revisited: Bond Street

Bond Street lends to small businesses that might typically struggle to get a loan from traditional banks. In a recent talk on a MIT Fintech course that I was doing, David Haber – Bond Street’s CEO/Founder – mentioned how Bond Street saw a clear niche in the market for small business loans and acted on it. Haber encountered a problem that seemed pretty common for early stage, online small businesses: banks or other financial services offering small loans for short durations at high rates. To resolve this problem, Bond Street offers loans range between $50k-$500k, for as long as 1-3 years and with rates starting at 6% (see Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Loan size, rate and terms comparison between Bond Street and other small business lenders – Taken from: https://bondstreet.com/

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Fig. 2 – Overview of Bond Street positioning – Taken from: https://bondstreet.com/blog/an-introduction-to-small-business-financing/

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In the MIT talk, Haber mentioned that OnDeck – a direct competitor of Bond Street – offers small business loans for an average amount of $35k, 10 months’ duration and charges of 40% Annual Percentage Rate (‘APR’). Bond Street competes on rate and speed, but as Haber explained, the business is very focused on “offering more value beyond the economics of a loan, since capital is essentially a commodity.”

Haber then explained that technology allows Bond Street to not just innovate on the loan transaction itself, but to provide a great customer experience on either side of the transaction. For example, by offering a borrower data about similar size businesses, the borrower can then make a better informed decision about taking up a loan.

Fig. 3 – Screenshot of Bond Street online loan application form – Taken from: https://www.nav.com/blog/376-decoding-a-loan-offer-from-bondstreet-4788/

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Haber mentioned one other thing which really resonated with me: “building an ecosystem around your business.”  By, for example, leveraging data on an entrepreneur across a network of (similar) entrepreneurs, Bond Street and others can really help people grow their businesses. This doesn’t mean committing data violations, but using data to build an ongoing relationship with one’s customers, and being able to warn them about potential risks or suggest new market opportunities.

A great example is how easy Bond Street makes it for its customers to link to their accounting packages (see Fig. 4 below). I see this is a simple but good example of creating an ecosystem where data is combined in such a way that people and business can derive tangible benefits from it. Through linking to your accounting package as part of the loan application process, businesses save a lot of precious time and effort, since they no longer have to manually input all kinds of financial data.

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of Bond Street’s functionality which links to one’s accounting software – Taken from: https://www.nav.com/blog/376-decoding-a-loan-offer-from-bondstreet-4788/

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Main learning point: Even though lending isn’t a new proposition, I really like what Bond Street are doing when it comes to offering loans to small businesses. It has carved out a specific market niche – small, early stage businesses – that it targets with a compelling proposition and an intuitive customer experience to match.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.thebalance.com/what-does-apr-mean-315004
  2. https://bondstreet.com/blog/category/resources/
  3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2015/06/18/6616/
  4. http://www.peeriq.com/p2p-explosion-business-models-may-change-risks-still-need-managed/
  5. https://bondstreet.com/blog/an-introduction-to-small-business-financing/
  6. https://bondstreet.com/blog/a-beginners-guide-to-cloud-based-accounting-software-ii/
  7. https://www.fundera.com/blog/2016/06/01/application-process-works-bond-street
  8. https://angel.co/bond-street
  9. https://www.nav.com/blog/376-decoding-a-loan-offer-from-bondstreet-4788/
  10. https://www.fundera.com/blog/2016/06/01/application-process-works-bond-street

 

 

 

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App review: Abra

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The main reason why I’m excited about Abra – a US-based peer-to-peer payments startup – is that people become tellers or ‘human ATMs’ who expense cash at hand to the recipient. The Philippines is a key target market for Abra, and it facilitates seamless payments between residents of the US and the Philippines.

Recent stats show that about two-thirds of the adult Philippine population is still unbanked. Currently, Filipinos will have to go to a local exchange ‘business’ (often a one-man band or small operation that does foreign exchange as one of its activities), fill out paper forms to send or receive money abroad. This can be very time-consuming, costly or unreliable.

Abra’s mission is to change all this and make cross-border peer-to-peer payments as easy and seamless as possible. This is how they do it:

  1. Deposit money into the Abra app – Users can deposit money into the Abra app either via a linked bank account, or by using Abra’s network of Abra Tellers, which are like human ATM machines (see Fig. 1 below). Each Teller will set their own fee with the customer, after which the Teller and the customer will meet up in person to accept a cash deposit and credit the customer’s account with funds (or vice versa, if the user wants to cash out) (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Convert into Bitcoins – After a user’s account is credited with the necessary funds, the money is instantly converted to bitcoin behind the scenes, but still denominated in a traditional currency. What I like about Abra is that it doesn’t really talk that much on its website or its other comms about using bitcoins to underpin these payments. Abra, however, does use bitcoins and shared ledgers to facilitate peer-to-peer transactions without the need for an intermediary.
  3. Send and withdraw money – Customers can use the Abra app to send and withdraw money, or buy things online where Abra is accepted by the seller. The company generates revenue by charging a .25 percent fee to a customer upon transacting with an Abra Teller.
  4. You don’t need a bank account – One of the key upsides of Abra in my opinion, is that you don’t need to have a bank account to do a transaction through the platform. Competitors like Simple and Venmo still require users to add their bank accounts, whereas Abra let’s people transact without the need for a bank account.

Main learning: I’m really excited about innovations like Abra; using bitcoins and blockchain technology to solve a real-world problem and enabling unbanked people transact easily and cheaply.

Fig. 1 – Add money through Abra – Taken from: http://fintechranking.com/2015/03/05/why-we-started-abra/

 

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Fig. 2 – Finding and engaging with Abra Tellers – Taken from: https://techcrunch.com/2015/09/10/abra-raises-12m-in-series-a-funding-for-its-bitcoin-based-remittance-service/ 

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Related links for further learning: 

  1. https://www.goabra.com/
  2. https://www.goabra.com/blog/were-live-in-the-us-and-other-updates/
  3. http://www.coindesk.com/abra-remittance-app-us-launch/
  4. https://www.finextra.com/pressarticle/65114/bitcoin-remittance-app-from-abra-goes-live-in-the-us
  5. http://uk.businessinsider.com/mobile-payment-company-abra-launches-with-blockchain-technology-in-us-2016-6
  6. http://techcrunch.com/2015/09/10/abra-raises-12m-in-series-a-funding-for-its-bitcoin-based-remittance-service/
  7. https://www.reddit.com/r/Buttcoin/comments/4qq794/can_someone_explain_to_me_how_abra_tellers_are/
  8. https://www.mybanktracker.com/news/new-startup-to-be-uber-of-banks-abra-turns-everyday-people-into-atms
  9. http://money.cnn.com/2015/06/08/technology/abra-bank/
 

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App review: PayKey

I recently came across PayKey and have been intrigued since in the combination between banking and social media. PayKey’s vision is “to make payments in all social chat possible.” To this end, PayKey provides a secure payment keyboard which people can use when they’re in a social network of choice (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Twitter, etc. – see Fig. 1 below).

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Fig. 1 – PayKey Startup Pitch at the Mobile Monetisation Summit 2015 – Taken from: http://www.slideshare.net/IsraelMobileSummit/paykey-startup-pitch-at-the-mobile-moentization-summit-2015-startup-contest

The first step is for users to include payment functions in your keyboard.

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As soon, as you’ve included the payment capability, you start the payment flow within the messaging service. This enables you to pay to any people within your social network on the messenger service of choice.

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The penultimate step involves choosing an account to send to a contact, setting limits that work for you.

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Once you authorise the payment, the specified amount will be sent. The authentication that takes place here is one of the critical components of PayKey. PayKey is linked to existing bank payment systems, which means no changes to their current security practices. In addition, users can also choose a unique identifier (e.g. Twitter account detail) to connect with their bank account, making it easier to connect with your bank account.

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Main learning point: Companies like PayKey are making the experience around making payments a lot more intuitive. Instead of relying on customers to go where their banks are, PayKey enables customers to connect with banks where a lot of their daily interactions already take place – social networks and messenger apps. Don’t be surprised if Facebook launches a very similar service soon!

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.cbronline.com/news/verticals/finance/fintech-profile-paykey-enables-payments-within-any-social-network-4857108
  2. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/wired-money-2016-startup-stage-digital-banks
  3. http://www.centrodeinnovacionbbva.com/en/blogs/blog-talents/post/paykey-proposition-tailored-help-banks-remain-competitive-current
  4. https://www.paykey.me/#/vision
 
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Posted by on September 20, 2016 in FinTech, Mobile, Online Trends, Social Media, Startups

 

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