Banks need to be bolder to win

Two weeks ago I told you about Sallie Krawcheck’s keynote address at the Empire Startups Fintech conference in New York as part of Fintech Week NYC. If you didn’t get to it yet, here it is.

The day after the Empire Startups event, I attended the FinXTech Annual Summit at the Nasdaq MarketSite. The day was mostly panel discussions with startups, banks (including yours truly), and VCs, with much more focus on how banks should think about technology/partnering compared to the startup-focused Empire Startups event.

One of my favorite panels was with Ryan Gilbert of Propel Venture Partners (the sole-LP fund for BBVA) and Gregg Schoenberg of Wescott Capital. One of the first topics was the distinction between the “fin” and the “tech” in fintech.

Gregg argued that the big banks are not technology companies, despite how they may try to brand themselves. While it sounds really cool to say, and they are really good at using technology to deliver financial services, they aren’t really tech companies until they make the majority of their revenue from selling software.

Ryan agreed, saying that just because a bank buys a lot of software doesn’t make them a tech company — you have to be building it yourself.

Ryan’s Propel Venture Partners isn’t restricted to only invest in financial service-focused technology companies. Their mandate allows them to invest in any technology that is also applicable to financial services — for example, their portfolio companies include Brave, a web browser (with a payments system), and Docusign, best known for facilitating electronic signatures.

Ryan advised banks executives to be broad consumers of technology in order to understand the customer experience and how customer expectations transfer over to the banking experience. However, he did have a word of warning for those banks who are trying to get caught up with electronic banking:

“If you are trying to digitize your banking, it’s too late. We are already shifting to voice.”

However, both Ryan and Gregg acknowledged that it can be difficult for banks to be very innovative. Gregg noted that today’s shareholder climate does not leave much room for error, and making radical changes to a bank will be a battle. For any chance of success, bank executives must spend time with their shareholders and move past short-term financial results to focus on the long-term vision of the bank.

With a perspective that includes being a fintech startup founder (now Chairman) and serving on the board of a community bank, Ryan believes banks need to be more bold in their visions and actions.

To create and achieve the vision, Ryan recommends small autonomous teams inside of banks in order to make meaningful progress. The team should understand technology well and be empowered to drive change in the organization. In addition, they should have the ability to spend money to support the vision and drive the needed change, but with true accountability for the results.

While the examples today are relatively few and far between in the community bank world, the message was heard loud and clear for the banks I talked to at the FinXTech conference. Expect to see more banks, both small and large, building, buying, and investing in technology and startups to make the bold steps required to stand out in a world where it is easy to be left behind.