Payday loan company Wonga is on the rocks, much to the delight of some onlookers who say that the company unscrupulously took advantage of those in financial trouble.
It’s easy to forget that a decade ago, Wonga was seen by some as a refreshing challenger to the staid world of traditional bank lending. Its service was online and convenient and avoided the entrenched lenders. Iit was one of the first of what we might now see as a fintech startup. It wasn’t that long ago that it was looking like a unicorn in the making.
Now, crushed under the weight of bad press and a tough clampdown by regulators, it is struggling. It has had a £10 million emergency cash injection, but for a company that was once riding the crest of a fintech wave, its fortunes have certainly changed.
Wonga does seem to be a significant outlier though. Some of the better known fintech companies, whether consumer or business to business, are evangelised about by their users in a way that out of place in the serious world of pounds and pence.
Personal finance apps like Monzo are growing at absurd rates, and, anecdotally at least, users seem to have only praise for their services.
Smart apps like Cleo have changed the game for some. Integrating directly into the social media and messaging services that so many of us use, these types of apps help take us away from tiresome hours checking statements.
And it’s not just in the western world where non-traditional finance is taking hold. M-Pesa is wildly popular in Kenya and Tanzania, where it helps more than 24 million people transfer money, access loans and get access to micro-financing through their phones, in societies where cash is still the predominant form of currency.
The Value of Value
It’s not only consumer fintech products that are taking the world by storm. Many of the world’s most profitable fintech startups work behind the scenes, helping businesses small and large process money in a more efficient, smarter and often cheaper way. One source puts Stripe, a company that lets any business accept credit cards, as the world’s most valuable startup.
Credit Karma, meanwhile, has moved into the digital credit assessment space, with some seeing the company’s success as a direct response to Equifax’s cybersecurity woes.
A theme that emerges when looking at these startups is a desire to shake up the status quo. That means that business models and consumer financial services that have existed for centuries in some cases are being drastically and rapidly changed.
The common thread is that all of these products and services put more power in the hand of the user, whether through an entirely new way of doing things or a more transparent and convenient way of performing a traditional service.
It may seem to many that fintechs are taking over the world, but banks are, of course, still business behemoths and a lot can be learned from them. They are also themselves home to serious innovation – obvious to the 22 million people in the UK who use mobile banking.
What should be clear is that brick and mortar banks and feisty fintechs can learn from each other, both in the business and technology departments.
Wonga’s woes may present a lesson to fintechs, showing that having a disruptive product doesn’t guarantee you success; having a solid business model that serves your customers is the key to long-term growth. And the rise-and-rise of fintechs can teach banks a few things on the power of innovation and a great tech team.
With the pace of change in the finance industry, working in these organisations is certainly going to be an adventure. One thing remains certain: the way we deal with our wonga has changed for good.