What is fintech? It’s companies that blend financial services money matters with high tech, and this is the moment for that marriage. Forever banking has been a high touch sector — lots of human to human interaction — but buckle up; the sector now is riding a tech rocket to provide better services, faster and typically at a lower cost. The pandemic is the fuel for this, as more people do much of their banking digitally. Yes, the pandemic will end, but most experts now believe the changes it has brought to financial services will persevere because we have grown to plain prefer them. Why drive to an ATM to deposit a check when you can just take a photo with your phone?
Create a startup that makes our financial lives better, and it just might become a wealth machine.
Case in point: Stripe, a payments startup primarily focused on ecommerce. In mid-March, the company jumped to a $95 billion valuation and is now the “most valuable startup in the United States,” per The New York Times.
Compare that to Fiserv — a 36-year-old financial services titan with some 44,000 employees and around $15 billion in annual revenue — which had a market cap of $82.5 billion in mid-March. That’s less than Stripe, which creates tools that let businesses take payments online.
It’s worth noting that Stripe has been around since 2010, but only now has its valuation gone stratospheric. But those riches are why interest in fintechs has soared, and they come in a rainbow of shades nowadays.
Let’s take a capsule view of three different fintech startups: Nav.it, which focuses on financial health; DoubleCheck, a new toolset for lessening the damage done by an overdraft; and Breach Clarity, which scores data breaches by how truly severe they are and who is likely to be most impacted.
The range of these startups highlights the breadth of the fintech space. If it involves money and technology, it is subject to a revolution, and you can bet some computer-savvy entrepreneurs are figuring out how to build a company that becomes a venture capital favorite. Most startups fail — in fact, probably most fintech startups never actually start (that is, they never progress beyond the “talking about” stage).
The companies in this report have moved way beyond the “talking about” stage. Their stories provide a roadmap for launching a fintech that gets noticed — and, importantly, attracts funding. Will any become Stripe-like favorites? Time alone will answer that question.
Doublecheck: Taking the Pain Out of Overdraft
Joel Schwartz traces the idea that birthed DoubleCheck back to 2012 when he was working in banking, with many small business customers, and he realized that many of these businesses had huge volumes of non-sufficient fund (NSF) charges for checks they wrote that couldn’t be paid. Small businesses sometimes racked up six figures in a year’s worth of NSF charges, and then there are what Schwarz calls “ripple charges,” which are, say, payee charges for the NSF check. Ripple charges can add as much as $175 in cost for an NSF, and that’s on top of the $25 or $35 NSF fee imposed by the bank.
Schwartz figured there had to be a better way and came up with an idea. What if the customer were notified that an NSF is coming down the pike — but before the check is returned to the payee marked NSF — the customer was offered an opportunity to make the check good, with perhaps a credit card or a transfer from another institution?
A small fee could be charged for that service. Say, $20. But multiply that by literally millions of NSFs annually in the US, and suddenly, the money potential is huge.
Schwartz liked his idea, but what was the next step?
One day, a patent lawyer came into the bank to discuss his account. A light bulb went off in Schwartz’s head, and he invited the lawyer to lunch, where they discussed his NSF idea. The lawyer liked it, and he connected Schwartz with people who helped him raise $3.3 million in seed money.
DoubleCheck (the name for Schwartz’s company) now has polished software tools, it has signed a financial institution to a pilot, and it is talking with more.
Breach Clarity: Insight Into Data Hacks
Jim Van Dyke knows about startups. He built Javelin Strategy & Research, a company he co-founded, into a leading research company emphasizing serving big banks and others in financial services. In 2012, Javelin was sold to Greenwich Associates, a financial services consulting firm, where Van Dyke served as Javelin’s CEO until he left on January 1, 2016.
He was out of sight for several years but that was because he was thinking up a next act. In March 2019, he announced the founding of Breach Clarity, a firm intended to do what the name says: bring clarity to the many data breaches companies and consumers read about daily — but they typically never learn what this breach means to them, personally, and what steps, if any, they should take to protect themselves.
Van Dyke cooked up an algorithm that graded the severity of every breach, and he developed data on what actions consumers have to take after a given breach.
Van Dyke’s sales target was credit unions and banks (not direct to consumers), and the business plan was to sell a financial institution on offering Breach Clarity to its customers as a value-added perk. In the process, it just might help the financial institution dodge losses associated with breaches (banks, not consumers, pick up the tab for most breach-related losses).
Flashforward to March 2021, when Van Dyke sold Breach Clarity to identity protection firm Sontiq. Terms were not disclosed.
Asked about the sale, Van Dyke candidly noted that it was hard to get in front of potential customers in the pandemic. In the acquisition, Breach Clarity gained the sales prowess of a large player in financial services that is integrating Beach Clarity into its suite of products. Their sales force is already in front of financial institutions, and Breach Clarity gives them another service to sell.
Was that the ending and timing Van Dyke had planned? Probably not. But a startup needs to stay flexible. That’s how to survive — even thrive — in fintech.
Nav.it: Finding Financial Health
Does thinking about money stress you out? Meet Nav.it, an app designed to help users find their way to financial wellness. Nav.it promise allows you to measure and integrate money, mindfulness, and fitness data. How cool is that? What many are using three apps to accomplish, Nav.it does in one.
There’s a logic to it too: many of us spend, for instance, when we are depressed. Sometimes we spend when we feel celebratory. Sometimes we do both. Other spending just happens mindlessly — maybe there’s a $4 daily latte we didn’t realize cost us over $1,000 a year in coffee. When we practice mindfulness about our finances, such things won’t happen.
Financial wellness does not happen in isolation; it’s the product of many habits converging. This app is designed to speed up the convergence.
The idea for Nav.it, says Maia Monell, a co-founder, dates back to 2018 when it was seen as a straightforward personal financial management (PFM) tool. The market is cluttered with PFM tools, so the idea (originally developed by co-founder Erin Papworth) evolved, incorporating mindfulness and fitness.
The app has around 30,000 users, said Monell in late February.
A premium-priced version of the app ($6.99 per month subscription fee) — which offers enhanced content, including a swiping feature where a user reports how particular expenditures make them feel — is also rolling out, said Monell.
Nav.it is also exploring the possibility of selling its app as an employee benefit — and there’s an argument for why that might work. A financially stressed employee just usually is a much less efficient worker. It’s hard to focus on work when worries about paying bills are running rampant.
Investors like what they have heard about Nav.it. So far, said Monell, Nav.it has raised $1.1 million, mainly from venture capital firms. “That’s enough to get us through the year.”
Three startups with three different paths. All three are getting noticed, attracting money, and just maybe about to break through into the mainstream of financial services.
Do you have a good idea? Polish it, make it gleam, raise seed money (usually from friends, families, and assorted angel investors), polish more, and test the market. Then hit the bricks in search of VC funding (or find a buyer, as Van Dyke did). That’s the usual formula, but remember that there is no set formula.
However, there is one common step: it always starts with a problem and an idea for solving it better than anything currently on the market. Nail that, and you just may be sitting on the next Stripe.
About the Author
Robert McGarvey, a veteran journalist who has long covered startups and small businesses, created and hosts the CU2.0 Podcast for credit union and fintech executives which is at 120 episodes and counting.