Some of the biggest names in fintech—including entrepreneurs from nine of the Forbes Fintech 50—came to Carpenter Group studios last year to speak with John Siracusa for his Bank On It podcast. In addition to sharing their companies’ origin stories, fintech luminaries like Brandon Krieg, the cofounder of Stash; Jennifer Fitzgerald, cofounder and CEO of Policygenius; and Nolan Bauerle, head of research at Coindesk, offered their perspectives on topics ranging from the evolution of electronic payments to the future of blockchain. Those wide-ranging discussions yielded some important insights for anyone with a stake in the sector or pondering an investment in it. Here are a few:
Investors Are Narrowing Their Focus
In the early days of fintech, VCs spread money across a diverse group of fintech companies in hopes of hitting on a winner (or winners). With the sector maturing, “spray and pray” has been eclipsed by a more targeted approach. Investors are zeroing in on fintech firms with distinct specialties—commercial lending, foreign exchange or regulatory compliance—and with deep domain knowledge of those functions. They’re also making larger bets on a smaller number of companies whose expertise and focus align with their interests. This means ample funding is available for fintech firms that can clear the high bar set by today’s discriminating investors. To capture that funding, however, companies need to identify investors targeting the same business opportunities they are. Put simply, the most compelling pitch in the world will fall flat if it is delivered to an investor with little interest in the company’s area of focus.
Fintech Entrepreneurs Are Looking for More Than Funding
As vital as capital is to entrepreneurs, it is not the sole currency of the realm for fintech founders, who increasingly prize investors’ connections as highly as they do their war chests. Relationships with major financial institutions, Fortune 500 technology firms and established fintechs can yield strategic partnerships and other opportunities important to fledgling fintechs. This is why fintech entrepreneurs are targeting investors who can provide capital and access to the customers, suppliers, and expertise of a major financial institution like JPMorgan Chase or of an established fintech like Ondeck, an online lending company. A good example of an investor who can offer both capital and access to lucrative business opportunities is angel investor John McElvoy. Having sold his company, CreditEx, for $625 million in 2008, he has plenty of dry powder to distribute to promising fintech companies. That he sold it to the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange, means he also can help fintechs access the leadership and ecosystems of ICE and its 20-plus exchanges and clearing houses. That access is precious to fintechs targeting capital markets opportunities.
The Interests of Fintechs and Traditional Players Are Aligning
Not long ago, the conventional wisdom was that fintechs presented an existential threat to the business models of traditional banks, brokerages and asset managers. Today, it is clear that fintechs and old-line financial institutions not only can peacefully coexist, they also can advance each other’s business agendas. Fintechs, for example, are harnessing artificial intelligence, machine learning and other technology to make traditional firms’ core business functions—trading, anti-money laundering, regulatory compliance, etc.—more efficient and effective. Traditional firms, meanwhile, are investing in fintechs, if not acquiring them, to leverage their expertise and technology.
The fintechs benefiting most from these symbiotic relationships are those with a deep understanding of the operating challenges confronting the likes of Goldman Sachs, Prudential, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley. Put another way, the importance of the business processes to which traditional financial firms are applying fintech is creating opportunities for fintech companies that speak both technology and banking (or investment management, lending, etc.) This is why fintechs with strong founder pedigrees and deep domain knowledge are so highly valued by both traditional financial firms and by investors, who see opportunity in the partnership between fintechs and established financial companies.
Blockchain Needs Crypto as Much as Crypto Needs Blockchain
After the plunge in cryptocurrency prices last year, many in the business press pronounced crypto dead and recommended moving on from digital currencies to the public ledger supporting them. Blockchain was proclaimed the future—and the better investment opportunity—because it could revolutionize traditional financial firms’ trading, lending, anti-money laundering, and sales functions, among others.
Not so fast, says Coindesk’s Bauerle, who spoke with John about blockchain’s future at Coindesk’s 2018 Consensus Invest conference. In time, blockchain could be adopted by financial institutions to enhance the efficiency of key business processes, but it isn’t there yet, he says. Massive investments in blockchain infrastructure will be required to make it more than a facilitator of cryptocurrency transactions, but that investment will not happen unless cryptocurrency becomes a far more widespread investment than it is today, according to Bauerle. In other words, wider adoption of cryptocurrency translates into more blockchain “traffic,” which triggers investment in the blockchain upgrades necessary to make it relevant to more than cryptocurrency investors.
More Fintech News and Insights to Come
While it’s still early in 2019, John has lined up more than 100 interviews with fintech founders, angel investors and venture capital heavyweights. Carpenter Group will team up with John to distill and post the most important findings from his interviews, so you can stay abreast of advances in electronic payments, cryptocurrency, blockchain, the application of AI to asset management and other developments in this exciting space.