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FINTECH - short for financial technology - has been one of the hottest buzz- words in the technology world in the last couple of years. Although there are numerous definitions of it, I call it simply the entire space of technology that can enable and facilitate financial transactions.
As such, it is an extremely vast space which could include all financial transactions including trade, loans, banking accounts, payments and transfers of all types (international, domestic, credit cards, etc), accounting, investment advisory, capital markets, risk management, wealth management, and many more.
Why is there so much interest in fintech?
Once the entire scope of fintech is understood, it is relatively easy to understand the reasons for the buzz. In my opinion, the high levels of interest are due to the following :
Anybody who has made an international money transfer or spent money overseas on a credit card or changed money with a money changer (where charges sometimes go up to 10 per cent) will vouch for the experience. I recently ended up paying over 10 per cent on an overseas credit card expense. Other examples of this perceived inefficiency include the difference between the rates for deposit and loans.
I have consciously used the word "perceived" as, undoubtedly, much of this inefficiency is a perception due to the lack of awareness among the users of services about the risks that the financial services institutions isolate the clients from (a classic case is the currency market volatility) and the costs of statutory requirements they are required to comply with. That said, there are also some genuine inefficiencies in the financial services system.
The much-publicised excesses of some banks and bankers have led to the popular sport of "bank and banker bashing", which has in an oblique sense also been responsible for the growth of fintech, in not all areas but some.
Experience in interacting with fintech entrepreneurs
Given that Singapore has become one of the most important global centres for financial services and the regional/global headquarters for many firms, the interest in fintech is only logical. It is, of course, strongly supported by the government and Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) initiatives to develop it into a key global fintech hub.
My own interest in fintech stems from my having owned several technology platforms in a long banking career. The fact that this exposure was across a wide range of businesses, including some complex ones, has given me a reasonably good understanding of a wide range of products and services. This was further augmented by a recent strategy study for a large fintech organisation and my own deep interest in technology per se. (I call myself an "app junkie".)
Since payments are a very significant space in fintech, I must also highlight that in one of my professional assignments, I undertook (with an enthusiastic young management graduate) the study of the end-to-end value chain in a cross-border credit card transaction. The objective was to identify some revenue streams which could be insourced into the institution. This involved the analysis and unravelling of a few hundred pages of an operations manual provided by one of the payment-processing network organisations.
I mention all this to establish that I do possess some credentials to ask some of the questions I ended up asking some fintech entrepreneurs whom I had the opportunity to interact with.
When I first attended a fintech event a few months back, my first impression was that I was distorting the average age in that room. Mostly, it was a group of 20-somethings, with a few like me contributing to the grey hair. It was a very high-energy and extremely invigorating atmosphere, making me wistful about the missing entrepreneurial vigour in my younger days. But given my own experience, I was able to have an informed conversation with most of the entrepreneurs (who probably saw in my grey hair the investment dollars they were seeking to fulfil their passions).
I happened to attend another event where several of these startups were making a pitch to potential investors and other stakeholders, and asked a few of them some questions which I was genuinely seeking answers to. A term I heard from several entrepreneurs was "blockchain" and how their business model was built on this new technology which aims to revolutionise the financial system. Another term that crept up in some presentations was that of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Since these were short and introductory gatherings, it was decided that I would meet some of these fintech startups at a later date.
Since then, I have been reading about blockchain and interacting with a few of them. It was then that the excitement started waning a little bit. On the basis of the answers to my questions, I developed the following impressions. (Caveat emptor, however; these are not common to all startups but generic impressions gained in my own interactions with a few startups.)
As mentioned earlier, this is not a generic observation true of all startups. Many of them are operational with revenue streams and truly solving real-life problems.
What they should be doing
I don't claim to be a technology expert, but I can claim to know a little about doing business, and financial services in particular. Hence my following advice to startups and entrepreneurs.
Answer the following questions and create a document to get clarity for yourself:
Essentially, in all the years of having been involved with business, I have learnt that finding solutions is all about asking the right questions. And these always narrow down to the core question: will anybody pay for my product or service, and why should they? So whether you are an entrepreneur or an investor or any other stakeholder, don't just get carried away by the tide. Ask the basic questions that you would ask of any other enterprise.
In conclusion, while fintech is certainly not all froth, there is definitely some. For a stakeholder, even this is best avoided at an early stage.