Anne Boden takes flight with Starling Bank

FusionWire, 2015.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 12.36.43Anne Boden takes flight with Starling Bank

At the heart of the new mobile-only Starling Bank is Anne Boden, whose experience and conviction may just be the thing to create a brand new current account.

Anne Boden isn’t starting a bank – she’s starting a revolution. At least that’s how she’ll make you feel after spending an hour in her company, discussing the next-generation Starling Bank in her animated and energetic manner. This is a mobile-only bank, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and Boden will tell you all about it. Or more precisely, the CEO will ask you questions about your bank experience to make you realise that you’re not happy with it, not one bit – you just haven’t been able to articulate it before, because you didn’t realise it could be any other way.

We’re sitting in Starling’s offices, currently found in the duller parts of Clerkenwell behind a door with no sign. The bank is still in startup mode, says Boden, who started Starling in January 2014. They won’t provide details about funding, but right now they’re building their stack and getting a banking licence, with the launch set for next year. But before we get to that, I have to ask – why is Boden doing this? She’s had almost 30 years’ experience in banking, working herself up the ladder in a number of household names before becoming Chief Operating Officer at Allied Irish Bank. Life must have been pretty comfortable?

Boden looks at me for a moment before bursting into laughter, thrilled. “You’re the first to actually ask this!” She thinks for a bit. “Somebody said to me, ‘You’re trying to prove that the current model is broken and it’s possible to do something really different.’ A lot of people have this concept, but I have the execution capability,” asserts Boden. To put this in context she takes me back to the beginning, to after she’d graduated from computer science and chemistry at Swansea and joined Lloyd’s Bank in the early 1980s. “I was in a branch for a couple of months, doing my traineeship. Then I became one of the architects of the CHAPS system. I went to Standard Chartered and was Head of IT and Operations. I became a consultant, I did an MBA, I went front-of-office. I joined UBS and went to Zürich. I went into a big insurance company and started doing lots of work with boards. I went to work for ABN Amro Bank as head of transaction banking for EMEA, and joined RBS [when it] bought ABN Amro. Then the financial crisis happened.”

The reason Boden is telling me all this is partially to illustrate how she has a lot of experience in an industry that’s rich with rules and tradition. But the world changed after the financial crisis, and Boden realised this when she would go and give advice to RBS clients: “I was in a big corporation, running thousands of people and billions in budgets, but [here were these] start-ups, creating huge amounts of customer value for hundreds of thousands. This shocked me! I realised I was learning more from them than they were learning from me.”

New ways of thinking about banking
Boden spent a year talking to people all around the world about what they were doing post-crisis, and what was happening in technology. She joined Allied Irish Bank after their bailout and successfully applied several of the things she’d learned there. “But there were things I couldn’t do. I spent my summer holiday in 2013 going around the world, talking to big banks. And I came to the conclusion that everybody had the same problem: they were moving transactions from branches onto mobiles, but the technology wasn’t coping with how people were using it.” So once Christmas rolled around, Boden had made a decision: the only way to really fix things was to start from scratch. There were three factors making this possible, she says: the regulation for getting a banking licence had changed; people were ready to do much more banking on their phones; and the technology was there to enable it.

But, I ask, did she do this because she wanted to, or did she feel there was genuinely no other way? “All of a sudden, it was as if all these forces were coming together. There was nothing else I could do. I could see the problems big banks had, I could see that technology was enabling it, that the regulations had changed. And I could do it!” She laughs. Other people had the idea too, she adds, but it’s not a simple thing to do: “You have to be able to run a bank, to start a bank. You also need to be creative and have courage. So I thought to myself, ‘I want to do this’.”

Back in the present day, Starling Bank has finished its architecture, its big picture plans, and is working on the “detailed discussions” about functionality. The app exists, confirms Boden, but she hesitates when I ask if I can see it: “We haven’t really shown anybody our app!” She looks at me for a moment, before deciding to show me a little bit. She opens the app on her phone, talking me through the quick sign-up process. She lists a number of things the app can do, many of which are intriguing – but it’s still kept under wraps so let’s just say the app will have lots of links to other parts of your life, to help you plan and organise.

“You shouldn’t be asking people what they want from their banks, because it doesn’t get the right answers. So instead you ask, ‘Would you mind talking about the accounts you have and how you use them?’ […] People are trying to find ways around the system,” says Boden, explaining how people will do things like move cash around to avoid getting stung with fees. “What we’re trying to do, is solve people’s everyday problems with money.” Take how we’re used to being charged when direct debits bounce: “But Google doesn’t charge you when they reject spam. It’s a transaction, so why should you be charged?” She looks at me, clearly knowing what I’m thinking: that this comparison makes sense, yet it’s not at all how we’re used to thinking about banking.

The start-from-scratch advantage
While it’s clear that Starling wants to make technology work for people, rather than the other way around, I still can’t help but wonder: why can’t the existing banks do this? “Okay. You have all these things available in the rest of your life, so why don’t they exist in banks?” The problem, says Boden, is that standard banks are serving multiple customer groups, selling not just current accounts but also savings, loans and mortgages. All these systems are interconnected, and they’ve been consolidated over many years.” So the typical bank will have, say, 30-40,000 different systems,” says Boden, adding how one major bank has 60 systems just for payments.

Replacing all these systems is vastly expensive and time-consuming, explains Boden, with very few banks having taken the plunge. Because the risk is significant: “People expect a banking system to work 24/7, so there’s no tolerance for it not working.” Then there’s the fact that it’s taken half a dozen years for the few banks who’ve dared the transition. “So instead of replacing the system, they keep adding. And it gets worse and worse and worse.”

It’s certainly not impossible for a major bank to solve its technology problem, says Boden: “But it’s much easier to start fresh.” Having no customers to convert is the best as well as the worst thing about that, but Boden doesn’t seem too fazed by the looming task of having to convince people to change their current accounts: “We’re focusing on people who live their lives on their mobile and are focused on getting the best technology in all walks of life.” There’ll be a phone help line, plus an arrangement for that one time a year when you need to pay in a cheque, but Starling isn’t chasing people who want to spend a lot of time in branches. Not to mention that most people don’t go into branches to deal with their current account, says Boden – they do so to deal with other banking products like loans or mortgages. Starling won’t do any of that, partially because Boden doesn’t really think the cross-selling model is viable anymore: “We believe the majority of people are quite self-directed now. In the old model, you sold a current account and then you tried to sell lots of other products. But we think people are a little more sophisticated now, making up their own minds.”

That also means Starling has no need to own its customer data: “We believe the customer’s data is their own, and shouldn’t be used to cross-sell other products.” Bank data and how it should be used is a big topic right now: “But shouldn’t it be all about helping you manage your financial affairs?” This is an interesting point of view, especially as Starling’s app will let people link their bank account to lots of other personal information across the internet. “We’re working on how people can have the convenience of that linkage, but with the security of being a bank.”

Making Starling feel genuinely different is a key motivating force for Boden, who finds there’s no real difference between the existing High Street banks: “But if there was something really inspiring that was different, it would apply to a certain segment of the population. If you can focus on what people really want – that’s the difference.” You can see how this model could potentially become popular with people in the street, but what does her old industry colleagues think of her bold new venture? “Oh, what do they think?” Boden pauses for a moment. “I’d spent the last ten years trying to convince everybody that the current model is sustainable. That we could just carry on, go through the crisis and come out the other side and nothing would change. I came to the conclusion that wasn’t possible. People are changed! People are not tolerant of banks anymore. They’re angry.” Technology and regulation have changed too, she adds, so it’s time to change the banks: “You have to be highly relevant to your customers. Otherwise, you cease to exist.”