How I Got Into Fintech, part 6
So Much to Learn
In 2015 I started getting hungry again.
It had been 10 years since I graduated from university and made my way into the work market. Since then I’d worked in my home country and overseas. I worked in corporate, startup and agency environments. It was the right decision to return to London after my world tour but I knew that it was only a matter of time until I started getting antsy feet again and started daydreaming about my next adventure.
Ten years earlier, coincidently, a couple of other people also embarked on an adventure of their own, one which would eventually embrace many more people. Mills and Sinx, childhood friends and design enthusiasts, founded UsTwo, the studio of “dreamers and doers” where I was currently working.
Their hard work and vision inspired me, and made me wonder if I too should surrender to my entrepreneurial itch. I didn’t have the experience or skills to help create an UsTwo Lisbon, or the maturity to take on the responsibility of a business of my own, but there were other options: I could become self-employed – a middle step towards becoming an employer – and muscle my way up from there.
The more my girlfriend Anna and I talked about it, the more it seemed to make sense. We had no debts, no student loans or mortgages to pay. We were starting to talk about having children together but nothing in the horizon just yet, so no real danger of being unable to provide for our family. I enjoyed sound physical health and mental focus, and the London job market was full of opportunities.
In a nutshell, the financial risks felt minimal and the learning opportunities immense. So in September 2015 I resigned from UsTwo and become an independent contractor – a “freelancer”.
Probably the hardest part of it all was leaving UsTwo and the people I admired there, but once I came to terms with that, the whole thing didn’t sound any more scary than heading out to the other corner of the world all by myself. (Which honestly did scare the sh%t out of me at the time and cost me quite a few sleepless nights, and the same thing this time around.)
In a way, that’s what I feel I’ve become again: a traveller. An outsider with an inquisitive eye. And the last few months have been nothing short of an adventure in their own right, with many more exciting episodes to come.
Although I remain available to any industry I can meaningfully contribute, I must confess that fintech is still the sweetheart of my design eyes. The banking world has been autistically detached from the real world and its impact on society for a long time and is now finally experiencing a revival of sorts, one based on service, greater transparency and empowerment to us common folks.
Maybe I am a romantic. But this is one “revolution” I’d like to be a part of.
This also means that London is still the best place where I could find myself right now – technologists, creatives, investors and regulators, everyone seems to be just a few tube stops away from one another, a geographic advantage unmatched in any other city in the world.
Of course, that’s not to say that London is a walk in the park and everything is rosey for either financial services, the tech scene or the end-users. There’s a lot of work to be done. But improving some aspects of the financial world doesn’t really require you to reinvent the wheel, or a tremendous amount of capital – plain old common sense will do just fine.
For instance, last November one of the institutions I bank with, HSBC, pulled out a series of humorous pranks on myself and a client of mine.
First, one day I tried to withdraw money from an ATM and my debit card was not working. The next week, I tried to transfer some money to my ISA savings account, and the site wouldn’t let me. And the week after that, the client I was working with (who also banks with HSBC) claimed they had already paid the invoice but the money just wouldn’t show up on my statement, and we couldn’t figure out why.
So I gave HSBC customer support a phone call – several calls, actually. And truth being stranger than fiction, here’s what had happened:
Of the dozen letters HSBC sends to my home on a monthly basis, one had for whatever reason been returned to the sender, which caused HSBC to (can I even use this word?) panic and block my debit card without giving me any warning.
Because I hadn’t transferred any money to my ISA savings account for some months, HSBC decided to freeze that account without telling me about it.
And for whatever reason that escapes both me and my client, HSBC flagged their invoice payment as a fraudulent transaction and decided to cancel it without notifying anybody.
The morale of the story? If you’ve taken some action which potentially creates a stressful situation for your users, triggers anxiety in their relationship with money or promotes distrust on yourself as their financial services provider – even if you did it only to protect their interests – then please, let them know beforehand.
If being pre-emptive isn’t an option due to some technical constraints, then at least be proactive about it and give your customer a phone call as soon as you can to let them know what is going on. Otherwise you’re just giving the impression you have no idea what you’re doing, or worse – that you don’t care.
Again, it’s not rocket science. But I can’t really complain, as at least I can still laugh a bit about it. Others have experienced much more annoying situations than these.
And at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter if the story is about this or that bank, because all of the established banks are struggling with the same user (customer?) experience and process difficulties – which is probably why people have such a hard time differentiating one bank from the other and don’t bother switching banks that often.
If some aspects of financial services easily relate to basic common sense and understanding of the human nature, other areas still puzzle me tremendously, despite my ongoing attempts to grasp their true usefulness to the world. Fractional-reserve banking and the commercial creation of money, for instance, are still topics that both fascinate me and elude me.
I see certain peer-to-peer loan business such as Zopa and FundingCircle rely solely on their users’ “actual” money to provide loans, and wonder why is that not the same with the high street banks? But the truth is that if I deposit £10 into my bank, then that bank is automatically and legally able to lend out up to several times fold that amount, even though they only “have” my £10, thus creating money literally out of thin air.
As if money wasn’t virtual enough already! I know there is still so much for me to learn, but the more I study about economy and finances, the more it sometimes feels to me like it’s some sort of gigantic video game. A game where it’s very hard to tell the difference between a feature and a bug, or distinguish between the top players, the game designers and the hacker community.
But that, as they say, is a story for another day.