I had a run-in with Belgian fintech startup Ibanfirst and all I got was a lousy experience

Here’s to hoping that all Ibanfirst stole from me is my time

I recently moved to the UK and am in the process of setting up my business here. Quite a few of my clients are still in Austria, though. So I was looking for a way to set up a bank account in Euros to save on the painful fees that come with receiving Euros in a Sterling account.

This is how I came across Ibanfirst, a “platform for financial services” based in Belgium. They claim to offer customers an easy and cheap way to receive foreign currency payments.

On its website, Ibanfirst claims setup is fast.

I am generally open to fintech startups, having happily used Finnish startup Holvi while I was still running a business in Austria. I figured Ibanfirst would allow me to receive my income in Euros and then transfer the monies into my UK account via Transferwise. Overall, I’d save money on conversion costs without making more work for my clients, who don’t want the extra effort of wiring my fees through Transferwise. Sounds good to me.

Because I’m not generally in the habit of doing things without research, I did my due diligence. I found out that Ibanfirst is a startup that’s recently received an investment of €10m and is backed by a major Belgian bank. And when I asked around about the company in fintech circles, no red flags went up. So, I decided to trust and give this startup a shot.

Step 1: Try to get the information you need

Because I couldn’t find any information about Ibanfirst’s fees on their website, I got in touch with a sales representative. Over the course of two weeks, I talked to this person via email. We discussed the fees, which sounded good to me, and I asked some questions about the signup process:

I had a closer look at your terms and conditions, and it says a VAT number is necessary. I’m not VAT-registered and don’t have to be — will that be a problem?

I got the following reply:

About the VAT number, what is your type of company? It might be possible but I have to confirm it.

And later on:

I just got an answer and there is no problem if you want to subscribe to our platform.

So once I’d finally gotten my UTR number (the tax number identifying me as a UK sole trader) from HMRC, I decided to start the signup process proper.

Step 2: Run the gauntlet of the sign-up process

The language drop-down was useless for the signup process.

Ibanfirst has a language dropdown and has translated the website to English, but when you click on “open an account” the whole signup page, including the contract, is suddenly in French.

My first reaction: massive side-eye. But I tried not to let this perturb me and, with the help of Google Translate and my partner who speaks a bit of French, I worked my way through the signup process.

[Note: Ibanfirst has fixed this in the meantime and has made its signup available in English after I told them about this issue.]

Next, my application had to be approved. I had a short Skype call with my contact at Ibanfirst so he could take a screenshot of me with my passport to prove my identity. He also asked me to send him proof of my business and I provided him with a photo of my HMRC letter that showed my UTR number.

He said he’d get right on it and have my account set up properly. It would take a maximum of 40 hours to go through and I could expect my account info and login data by Friday. After almost two months of not being able to bill for work done, I was understandably excited about this bit of news.

Step 3: Randomly get rejected without any explanation

On Friday afternoon, though, after not having heard anything, I checked in with my contact at Ibanfirst.

I received the following reply via email:

Hi Andie,
I just got out of a meeting with my managers. Unfortunately we won’t be able to open the account, the compliance department refused the creation, they didn’t gave me more information.
Sorry for the inconvenience.
Best regards,

Wait, what?

So, after talking to me about my type of business for two weeks, after specifically checking if I needed to be a VAT-registered business, after getting a shitload of personal information from me and telling me you have everything you need for my signup — all of a sudden I’m not eligible for an account anymore?

When I asked for more information about this, I never heard back from him again.

Step 4: Wonder how screwed you are

I’ve been wondering about what actually has gone down here, what caused Ibanfirst’s random withdrawal without an explanation, and whether I should be worried.

Gosh, I hope not!

The worst-case scenario is that they are fraudulent. They have a copy of my passport, my tax number,… what can they do with this? I genuinely have no idea and I’m a tad scared to research it.

But even if nothing bad has happened here, the situation isn’t looking too good for this fintech startup, because the best case scenario is that Ibanfirst simply doesn’t know who their customers are.

They quite obviously haven’t considered how to handle sole traders or businesses in countries other than Belgium or France — and yet they are offering their service to them. I find that highly unprofessional.

They also don’t seem to know how to communicate with potential customers or how to be clear about their services and fees.

Step 5: Remember that the problem is not fintech per se

I can’t help thinking that I’d be severely put off fintech startups if Ibanfirst had been my first fintech experience.

Fortunately, I already knew Holvi, where the signup process was a smooth affair. I never doubted that my data was safe with Holvi and the team there did everything to make the process as painless as possible. [Disclaimer: I have guest-blogged for Holvi.]

I could say I wish I’d never even heard of Ibanfirst, because I wasted a shitload of my time finding out that this fintech startup was completely useless. However, at least I’m now in a position to warn people about Ibanfirst. And that’s worth something if it prevents someone from having a bad first experience with fintech and perhaps then concluding that fintech is no good.

I’m definitely not giving up on fintech as a whole. I believe the banking world is in desperate need of disruption. But more than with any other industry, fintech startups should remember that privacy needs to be of the utmost importance if they want customers to trust them.

I’m a startup consultant and copywriter. As part of my work, I help individuals and small companies figure out their positioning and branding. If you want to not make the same mistakes as Ibanfirst with regard to customer communication, please hire me to help you.

I blog only sporadically — I guess when I’m pissed off enough—, so if you enjoyed reading this, please give it a ❤ and make my day.