Duncan Crawford: Why it’s good to talk

Hedge Magazine, June 2017. Original article p38-40.

Duncan Crawford, Head of Hedge Fund Sales in the Prime Services Division at Societe Generale Corporate & Investment Banking 

The formal atmosphere of Societe Generale’s East London offices strikes a sharp contrast to the folksy Spitalfields Market downstairs. Duncan Crawford looks right at home under the tall ceilings in his elegantly patterned tie and monogrammed cufflinks, although the sharp look is offset by a slight sunburn – he’s just come back from Cervinia: “We skied in Switzerland for good snow, and crossed the Italian border for delicious food.”    

Crawford knows how to get the best out of the options available. Officially he’s the Global Head of Hedge Fund Sales in the Prime Services Division at Societe Generale Corporate & Investment Banking – what this means is that he’s is a connector of people. Crawford describes it as being “a marketplace of information between investors and managers”, as his team works with investors to find the best additions to their portfolio. This doesn’t sound too remarkable until he describes how they’re going about it; the indices aren’t monthly but daily for one – the Societe Generale CTA Index now contains 17 years of futures trading data. The goal is for the coverage to become universal: “Our aim is to be able to report on 100% of the strategies that are out there within any particular strategy,” Crawford explains in his calm and soft-spoken manner.

The success of this ambitious goal depends on sophisticated technology, as masses of information is constantly uploaded into databases to produce custom client updates. But still, this is very much an interpersonal industry; in fact, their manager events are smaller than those of the competition, says Crawford: “It’s a very collegiate atmosphere. Our flagship event is over three days, and by the end, everyone’s spent quality time with everyone.”

It’s certainly exclusive, nods Crawford. “You might say we’re entrepreneurial because of our time horizon: it’s very much long-term. … Our oldest clients go back over 20 years. It’s a partnership arrangement, rather than a client-broker relationship.” The investors range from large sovereign wealth funds, to small family offices and sophisticated investors who have been allocating to hedge funds for over 30 years to pension funds who are just now starting to do so. The watershed event that changed this was the credit crunch: “Very few investors actually allocated to CTAs [Commodity Trading Advisors] prior to 2008; it was mostly long short equity hedge funds and relative value strategies that offered very high sharpes over short periods of time. These strategies were largely hurt badly in ‘08, whereas CTAs shot the lights out.” In recent years, Crawford has seen an improved appreciation of the place CTAs can have in more general portfolios: “You’re now seeing some of the slower-moving pension funds starting to allocate significant amounts of money to that space. A number of them are doing it for portfolio protection reasons, which arguably is a good reason to allocate to a CTA.”  

As investors in greater numbers have woken up to the potential of this market, numerous low-fee alternatives have surfaced to vie for their interest. “Investors across the board, for the last few years, have been focusing on one main thing: fees. “Only alternative beta products have amassed huge amounts of money lately. Though the concern about these managers is whether in a period of stress, are they going to provide what investors are hoping for? If they’re a simple trend-follower, it could be a binary result.” Crawford is referring to the fact that trend followers are long equity markets when they are going up, so in the event of a crash they’ll lose money until they’ve managed to turn their positions around to short, which doesn’t happen overnight. But Crawford isn’t entirely negative on this new focus on fees, as it’s resulted in fresh conversations about what exactly investors are getting for their money. “If you’ve only got a flat fee, it’s in the manager’s interest simply to raise assets and performance becomes irrelevant,” says Crawford; with performance-based fees, the interests of the manager and the investor are better aligned.  


Crawford grew up on a farm in Scotland. “I love the countryside. I love Scotland. I thought, I’ll come down to London and make my fortune in two years, and then I’ll go back to Scotland.” He laughs – that didn’t quite go as planned. Crawford studied agriculture and food marketing at Newcastle University – it’s a business degree, he notes, but yes, it was something of a left-field choice. “My view of university was always that it was meant to be good fun and not a time of particular hard work. It was a time of networking and making friends.” The hard work came later, Crawford adds: “But to be a broker is also to be a good networker.”

After graduating, Crawford went to live in Germany for year. This was in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “A friend’s father was in Berlin, working for the Army radio. He said, ‘Come to Berlin, it’s where everyone wants to be!’ So I did.” It was a very exciting time: “There were a lot of different people visiting Berlin. The city was overcome with East Germans, so there was no way I was going to get a job when I didn’t speak German. There was lots of bands coming to play – I saw the Grateful Dead. It was a lot of fun.”

One of the people who Crawford met in Berlin was the wife of the managing director of the Zurich office of Fimat, who encouraged him to apply for a job at the company’s London office. Crawford did this – but not before he’d stayed in Germany long enough to learn the language. Joining Fimat led to a remarkably long run at what’s technically been a single employment; Fimat, and Newedge which came about in 2008, were both part-owned Societe Generale subsidiaries, before Newedge was taken in-house in 2014. “4th November 1991 is my start date at Societe Generale as far as HR is concerned,” Crawford laughs. “It was, for me, one evolution from Fimat and Newedge through to Societe Generale.”

This variety is probably what’s held Crawford’s attention through a decades-long career at the same company. Fimat was “one of the smallest futures brokers in the world” when he started, with a pretty flat management structure. Newedge brought about “the opportunity to do pretty much what we wanted” – so if he had an idea he could run with it. This was how Crawford and his boss Philippe Teilhard de Chardin decided to carve out a hedge fund-focused business in 1996, by separating the pure futures execution for banks and institutions and a group that serviced asset managers in equity options they referred to as equity derivatives, from the Prime Brokerage team, which focused on both hedge funds and investors. “My view back then was, ‘If I had any money … I’d want to give it to a hedge fund manager.’ As far as I was concerned, they were the brightest fund managers on the street. It seemed like a no-brainer: this is the business we should concentrate on. So that’s what we did.”

Building Fimat and Newedge felt to an extent like he was building his own businesses, says Crawford – it’s a different world now, being part of a major bank. “There’s a lot more opportunities in Societe Generale than there was as purely Newedge. We’ve inherited their equity finance business – one of the biggest equity finance businesses on the street – and that’s enabled us to really start developing our equity PB [Prime Brokerage] business. … Now, the ambition is to become much bigger in the non-managed futures space. We wouldn’t have been able to do that if we weren’t in Societe Generale.”

So does Crawford still think hedge funds are attracting the world’s best and the brightest? “I think they are,” he says, nodding. “But the brightest kids have more opportunities in the tech world now. It depends how you’re put together, how your brain works. I think the entrepreneurial money in the hedge fund industry has largely been made.” The industry is entering a later stage now, says Crawford, with lots of consolidation, and smaller managers looking to join the big names. “It’s partly forced by regulation and the increased cost of entry; but also because there is less opportunity to develop new strategies.”

Crawford lives in Suffolk with his wife Helena and their three kids, who’re just entering their teens. “We have four cows and a calf, who was born a week ago. I do a bit of farming on the side. I have a horse and the kids have ponies, so we ride.” The circle of life lessons have been covered – the family eats the meat they raise: “We’ve had pigs, which the kids loved, so we were concerned there may be issues when we came to eating them. But they thought they were the tastiest sausages they’d ever eaten,” he laughs. The animals and the garden take up a lot of Crawford’s time – he likes doing practical things with his hands: “Being outside in the countryside is very refreshing.” Working with people is also Crawford’s favourite part about the job: “Understanding more what managers are doing and their strategies, and to be able to help investors achieve their goals in life. It’s very satisfying to be part of a success story.”

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Cafes of Trondheim, Norway

Suitcase, September 2014. Original article

Cafes of Trondheim

It feels more like a town, Trondheim, with its colourful wooden buildings lining the cosy downtown area between the river and the fjord. But Trondheim is the third biggest city in Norway, bringing plenty of charm to the task of being the key metropolis for the country’s central region. Far enough north to get the aurora borealis, and almost far enough to get the midnight sun, Trondheim makes a the perfect city to go for a wander. Here are some great places to stop for coffee.

Dromedar Kaffebar, Nordre gate 2. 

This is the pride and joy of the Trondheim coffee scene. The café on Nordre is the second site for this small local chain, established in 1997 when two young men decided to open “a proper coffee house” in Trondheim. The success of this pledge has been verified time and again, as Dromedar keeps excelling in national competitions for barista arts. The intention for this branch, as well as the ones that followed, was to be a place for locals to meet, and this remains the case today. So whether you’re after a an unpretentious space to have a chat, or you just really want a decent brew, Dromedar will sort you out.

Baklandet Skydsstasjon, Øvre Bakklandet 33. 

Don’t miss Skydsstasjonen – this place is really something to write home about. The coffee and food is good, sure, but the Bakklandet neighbourhood is the true gem of the city. But Skydsstasjonen is worth a stop for the interior alone, whether you go for the fish soup or the herring platter. Or maybe just a coffee and a piece of that Daim bar ice cream cake? In any case, it looks like it’s been decorated by a Norwegian grandma, full of amazing Scandie retro artefacts and some pretty amazing embroidered cushions. The building itself stems from the 1700s, with a long history for selling all sorts of goods including hats and milk, and of course being a travel stop, as the name now illustrates.

Kaffebrenneriet, Dronningens gate 9. 

With 20 kinds of coffee beans, Kaffebrenneriet is a welcome addition to the Trondheim coffee scene. The Oslo-based roastery opened its first Trondheim branch in a beautiful art nouveau building on the main shopping stretch, lovingly restored with furniture and photographs in the original style. Downstairs you can get food too, or have a scoop or two of ice cream that’s made on site: flavours include espresso and cappuccino, or course. Because at Kaffebrenneriet, it’s really all on the coffee: the company claims to serve the best brew in the country. Brave souls should try “Tors Hammer” on the espresso menu, named for the Norse god Thor and his hammer-wielding antics.

Choco Boco, Olav Tryggvasons gate 29.

Adding this café to the list represents a bit of a risk. Choco Boco is a longstanding favourite in the Trondheim café scene, but a visit in early September found the doors closed in anticipation of a major overhaul. While the results of this change remains a factor unknown, what is certain is that Choco Boco has always been a really great place: get a coffee and read the paper in the morning, pop in for a quick sandwich or salad at lunch, and get a glass of wine there in the evening. Fingers crossed that these features have been preserved once it re-opens.

Cafe Bare Blåbær, Innherredsveien 16.

Make time for a detour to the Nedre Elvehavn neighbourhood, where this café manages to be both cozy and roomy at the same time. The outdoor seating area has a great view of the beautifully restored harbour, which is now full of bars, restaurants and shops. Locals have taken a shine to Nedre Elvehavn, and if you go there in the summer during the long, sunny evenings you’ll see why. While serving coffee and cakes during the day, Bare Blåbær turns into something more of a bar at night, making it a great place to kick back any time of day. After all, the name, “just blueberries”, is something the Norwegians say when something’s no trouble at all.

Just talking about the weather

Lionheart Magazine, February 2017.


Just talking about the weather

“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” (Samuel Johnson)

White sunshine is pouring down from a cold blue sky today, creating a rare moment of picture perfect autumn, the kind you see in postcards. The light hits the trees, covered in yellow and orange leaves – it’s so bright they’re glowing. I’m a summer child and the prospect of winter scares me, but right now the autumn is putting on a show, and it’s spectacular.

I feel bright today too, because the weather affects me far more than is reasonable. In the summer I’m happy, basking in the heat and the sun, grateful every day for the sweetness of it. In the winter it’s the opposite, although it’s not the cold that bothers me – it’s the absence of light. The grey January sun becomes a metaphor for my mood: not quite enough, stretched too thin. It’s always been like that for me, but in 2003 it was the worst: I’d just moved to London after finishing university and the city was too big, the rent was too high, the world was coming in too fast, and it was too damn dark outside. In winter, hibernation instinct takes over, and all you can do is wait.

eliasson2I don’t remember much from that winter, but there’s one thing that stands out. At the Tate Modern, in the central cavern that is the Turbine Hall, was an installation by the artist Olafur Eliasson. It was very simple: a sun-shape mounted on the wall, filling the gigantic space with yellow light and a fine mist. The mono-frequency lights, similar to those used in old-fashioned streetlights, meant you could see only three colours: yellow, black and white. The ceiling was covered in mirrors, which meant that when people walked into the space and looked around, very often they would lie down.

All through that winter I would go down to the Tate several times a week on my lunchbreak, just to sit in the sun. It might be gloomy as hell outside, but for half an hour it felt like the world was a place with light in it, and that I would find a way to make London agree with me. Now it’s 13 years later and my life is no longer something I feel the need to get away from, but I still think about that magical sunscape every single winter.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Olafur Eliasson’s Tate installation has been hailed as one of the most successful uses of the Turbine Hall to date. Eliasson called it ‘The Weather Project’, in recognition of how weather becomes our most immediate experience of nature in an urban landscape. “The weather has been so fundamental to shaping our society that one can argue that every aspect of life – economical, political, technical, cultural, emotional – is linked to or derived from it,” Eliasson wrote in the project catalogue. “Over the centuries, defending ourselves from the weather has proved even more important than protecting ourselves from each other in the form of war and violence. If you cannot withstand the weather, you cannot survive.”

Ahead of the exhibition, Eliasson asked people questions about the weather, including whether they thought the idea of the weather in society is based on nature or culture? 53% said nature – 47% said culture. As they teach you in meditation: there may be clouds in the sky, but the trick is to remember that above them is always a blue sky.

The light always comes back after the dead of winter and we survive it, every time. It can be difficult to remember in the depths of it, but in 2003 it was easy because there was summer on tap at the Tate. How amazing was that sun! How warm and reassuring. How it felt like a promise that things would change.


Jean-Jacques Duhot: The blue sky thinker

Hedge Magazine, December 2016. Original article p38-40

Jean-Jacques Duhot, Chief Investment Officer and Managing Partner of Arctic Blue Capital


An Inuksuk is a human shape built from stone, used by Canadian native peoples to aid navigation across the tundra. The Inuksuk is also the symbol for Arctic Blue Capital, whose name is a Canadian inspiration, says Jean-Jacques Duhot, a Frenchman in London. The inspiration came after a friend brought him to Nunavut, at the very northern edge of Canada. “You can only go there in cargo planes. We go there and the sky was super crisp blue. The temperature was minus 47C. … On the plane, I started writing about it. That’s why I decided to call the company Arctic Blue, in memory of that incredible blue.”

London is the opposite of crisp on the day of our meeting, sporting that particular mix of hot and muggy that’s typical at the end of a British summer. But the Chief Investment Officer and Managing Partner doesn’t seem bothered by the sweaty weather, looking very much the part in a charcoal suit and classic white shirt. His cheerful demeanor is complemented by simple specs and quiff of grey hair, as the financier comes across as a man who’s not only passionate about his work, but also interested in the world and other people.

We’re sitting in the Mayfair offices shared between systematic macro hedge fund Arctic Blue and Stable Asset Management, the parent who seeded the firm in June 2014. It’s a good deal for Duhot: the housekeeping is taken care of, including regulatory compliance, broker relations, marketing, roadshows, and so on. That means Duhot and his team can get on with the business of “printing numbers”. The approach is purely systematic, explains Duhot, his perfect English underscored by a crisp French accent. I ask the CIO to provide some more details – the company website is literally a single page that says “email us”. Arctic Blue takes takes a mid-to long-term horizon on investments and the company’s commodities-focused systematic approach has outperformed its peers, says Duhot, “doing well, but slightly underperforming our historical average”. But, he adds, this is the case for all strategies and asset classes: “I think that’s the global impact of zero or negative interest rates on the entire structure of returns. We’re not in the same world anymore. That is very clear.”

The new world seems to be open to Arctic Blue, though – the current assets under management figure is $150m, up from $65m in the first quarter. The fundraising has gone well, confirms Duhot, but that’s on the back of steady effort. “We have people who’ve been looking at us for two years, who’re just investing now.” Duhot says he initially underestimated this prudence, although he expects AUM to reach $250m this autumn as the pipeline delivers. Part of the reason it’s taking time is that investors wanted to see if Duhot, and his fellow ex-Millennium Capital Partners cohort, could perform as effectively as a small operation. Then there’s the fact that taking a shot on a new name is always more risky than staying with the same old: “I think investors have a bit of a herd-type behavior.”

2016 is likely to be a pivotal year for systematic investing, asserts Duhot. “I think people are ready. … People have had conversation with friends in Europe, North America and Asia, and are really starting to think that this time it’s not cyclical, it’s structural. Algorithm- or systematic trading is taking over.” This realisation comes on the back of low interest rates, says Duhot, coupled with more indirect influences: “In the US, Uber is putting cars with no drivers on the road. It’s [in same vein as] robot vacuum cleaners. Well, what about funds run purely with computers?” Duhot believes the machines will take over: “The traditional economics don’t work anymore. We know this from the fact that we’ve never seen such high level of economic intervention by central banks and governments.”


screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-13-29-04Arctic Blue marks the beginning of a new path for Duhot, one he is clearly enthusiastic about as it adds the “entrepreneurial dimension” he felt was lacking after 25 years in the markets. “I discovered myself as something of a salesman. I was ignoring this [before], viewing my screens and doing my thing.” Now, Duhot’s job involves creating a product, selling the story, and having more involved relationships. “I love having five, ten, fifteen meetings with one investor, because we know that at twenty, he will be on board. He did his due diligence.”

Duhot grew up in the Champagne region of France, moving to Paris at 17 to study law and international relations. “When I was a kid I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot, but then I got glasses so it was game over.” He laughs. A summer internship at the Paris stock exchange was a formative experience: “I decided that’s what I would like to do, because it brings the economics, the international relationships, the macro picture – but also some excitement.” Duhot spent his first 14 years in the industry at Societe Generale, during which he was given the offer to attended the Kellogg School of Management. He was 33 when he went back to the books: “I thought wow, it could only broaden my spectrum. It was a great opportunity. … I was trying to better understand the linkage between markets. I’m very interested in the big picture. I’ve never been interested in the little details of rates, value, arbitrage, this little thing versus that little thing. For me it’s more about the big picture and trying to understand the complexity.”

Duhot’s view started to truly extend beyond France while he worked in Hong Kong. “When you are at Societe Generale in Paris, you think you’re king of the world. Then you go to Hong Kong and you [realise] France is quite small, and the Franc is a very small currency. Maybe you should look at other things!” Duhot started to trade on American and Japanese markets, but it was difficult to keep track of the 24-hour activity. “I started to try and code some of my trading rules. I had no programming expertise, so I start to learn.” Duhot was working in London by this time, overseeing 17 traders. “I was interested in them as individuals. How are they taking risks? Are they patient? Rigorous or laid back? Are they looking at the big picture or are they specialised on some little discrepancy? I looked at some guys who were very good, and some who were not that good. I thought, in the perfect world they would be replaced with machines. That would be the most efficient world.”

Duhot stopped short of telling his staff about his scheming to get rid of them, but he did become convinced of one thing: human nature gets in the way of optimal trading, and a machine would be far more rational. Yes, he includes himself in this, he assures me. “I thought, I need to reinvent myself toward maybe the only asset class that will [always] respond to supply and demand: energy, agricultural, and so on. How about applying my rules to that?”

The algorithm experiment started in Canada, where Duhot worked at Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, but it’s the same strain that carries through to Arctic Blue today. Duhot is quick to point out he wouldn’t have been able to develop this system without help; Philippe Bareges, his Head of Quantitative Analysis and colleague of eight years, has been instrumental. But Arctic Blue is very much a culmination of Duhot’s personal experience, I suggest – he’s basically selling investors on his own history. “Yes, absolutely. That’s my journey, that’s where I’ve end up. That’s the recipe. That’s the sauce.”


Duhot (49) is happily ensconced in London now, even though his three kids, currently studying in France, all speak English with a Canadian accent. Duhot likes London for being “super international” – part of this stems from the fact that the Frenchman decided to move away from the “froggy valley” of Kensington. He lives in Brixton now: “It has some good vibes. I like it very much. I also discovered the South Bank after ignoring it for years, and it’s full of life and interesting people.” He’s equally enthusiastic about the international food scene in London: the kitchens of Sri Lanka and Vietnam are recent favourites – not French food though, as his mother cooks better. Duhot also enjoys Brixton eateries like Franco Manca – sometimes he’ll just stay in Brixton Village for the weekend, enjoying all the little local places. There are these tacos, for £1.50: “The taco is done in front of you, like this,” says Duhot, gesticulating. “You eat it off a piece of cardboard.”

Duhot talks about London like a natural Londoner, I suggest: he’s found his favourite spots away from zone 1. Duhot nods – he prefers Battersea Park to Hyde Park. London lets you enjoy some greenery without having to drive for hours, he adds – you can’t do that in Manhattan. Primrose Hill is a good spot to go running too – Duhot laces up three times a week. The only thing about London that may not be ideal is how his name, Jean-Jacques, is a mountful for the Anglo-Saxon speaker. “All the Asians and Americans say JJ,” says Duhot, telling me how once, in Japan, he got a fax addressed to Mr Jean Jacket. His kids are still dining out on that, he laughs. “But the jean jacket story told me: we’re going to go with JJ.“

Richard Law, CEO of GB Group

The Megabuyte Interview: Richard Law

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 13.38.58Richard Law is calling from the back of a taxi, currently moving through the streets of London towards Euston station. Law is on his way home to Manchester: “The capital of the Northern Powerhouse, as it was.” Law may have announced his upcoming retirement, but the CEO of identity data specialist GB Group is still very much a busy man. But what’s it like to be in charge, while also having one foot out the door?

While the captain of the good ship GB Group is changing, the course has been set, asserts Law. “GBG has always had a five-year planning cycle. We started 12 months ago on what we call VOS 2020 – Vision, Objectives and Strategies to 2020. I don’t want to sound as though it’s inflexible, but it’s a process we go through. [It’s] a clear strategy to internationalise all our product lines, establish presence on all six continents, grow our business to £300m in revenue by the financial year March 2020, and have 1,500 people in the business helping us do that.”

It’s a good plan, says Law: ”The new leader will bring different skillsets and a different approach, which will enhance it.” So no, being on the final stretch hasn’t changed his approach to the job: “Not at all.” One element to Law’s confidence is making sure the plan lives within the company, as opposed to just in the boss’s head: “We’re probably working together a bit more closely than we would have done historically, but it’s amazingly seamless. … I’m not going anywhere until the handover is done. I’m pretty flexible on that.”

Law first joined GBG in 1995 as finance director, taking over as CEO in late 2001. Lauded as a key architect of his company’s success during 14 years at the helm, does he find himself thinking about that thing called legacy? “I’m very proud of what the business has achieved. Though I really believe that I may have been the conductor, but I wasn’t responsible for the concerto! I’ve always believed that you come up with a vision and you share it, and you encourage people to embrace that vision and have a very clear plan.” The VOS master plan has been around ever since Law took over, he says, and it’s based on his big picture ideas of how businesses would embrace the internet:

“The plan, which was literally on the back of a sheet of A4, was this: there will be huge amounts of data, and we need to negotiate access to all of that data. Then there will be a need for intelligence, which will be extracted by search-, match-, analyse- and score- algorithms and software programmes. That’s effectively what we’ve done, and that hasn’t changed in 14 years. The only thing that’s changed is the amount of data available, and the number of applications we’ve delivered.” This trend is only going to continue, asserts Law: “I think intelligence will be much more important in the future, but the bar is going to be set higher. We see that, and we understand that.”

The trust business
Everything Law says about how GBG is run is underscored by what he highlights as his key business lesson: teamwork really is key to success. “Lots of people talk about [harnessing the value of the team] and it’s almost flippant, but it’s very, very difficult to do. You have to have an absolute commitment to it.” For example, Law is the only person in the entire company who can approve a compromise agreement to someone leaving, and he’s only done this two or three times in 14 years:

“My observation is that a compromise agreement is the business equivalent of taking someone outside and shooting them. There’s no due process. … It’s always the wrong answer to take the easy option without understanding why you got the problem in the first place. Not always, but often, when when a manager says a person is disruptive or ineffective, it’s because the manager is ineffective.” Not cutting corners is key to building trust in a business, says Law – this is what it means to “build engagement through communicating”. GBG measures its success on this front every six months, using the Gallup Q12 employee engagement survey: “[Strong engagement] generates huge discretionary efforts, commitment and loyalty. … Those small things are really, really influential [to success].”

Not that every move Law’s ever made has been one harmonious melody. Law remembers when he’d just taken over as CEO, having inherited a loss-making company with a £5m market cap and a single product: “I had to convince the board to back me on a £3m investment, out of a total cash balance of £5m, to develop a totally new product based on the concept that companies were going to embrace the internet within the business environment.” This went against all the surveys: GBG’s customers said they were too concerned with security to be interested in such things. “But at some stage, if you’re going to disrupt things, you have to ignore what the crowd is telling you. That’s how you steal the march and make an impact.”

Law turned out to be right, although he says this was a very unpleasant time for him, “because I do believe everyone should be treated with respect”. The business was losing money and had to be rationalised before things could move forward, “but that was very difficult for me, personally.” So what was it that made him so sure that this was the right move for GBG? “It was an instinct, and some particular real life examples that convinced me. The first was Holly and Jessica, the Soham girls murdered by a janitor who should never have been working at the school.” Criminal records in the UK weren’t joined up back then, says Law – every police force had their own records. School was delayed that autumn as everyone across the country was re-checked, and GBG helped with some of that work. Law realised that data consolidation, and proper search engines, would be key to solving the problem of security verification. “Now, 14 years later, we can check criminal records of anyone in the United Kingdom. We can’t yet check the record of someone who’s come into the country from Poland – but we will.”

From the coalface
Law has arrived at Euston station, but we can keep talking, Law says over the train announcements. Law tells me how he grew up in Barnsley in Yorkshire, and left school to become a coal miner at age 17. “When my grandfather joined the industry there were 1.2 million coal miners. When my father joined there were half a million miners. When I joined there were 200,000, and now there are none. That’s the way things went,” Law says, matter-of-factly.

Though Law remembers the coalface experience fondly: “The reason the coal is there is because it was a forest, now a mile below ground. It was preserved more than 450 million years ago, and I’m the first person to stand where those living things were, all that time ago. I just fell in love with it.” Law won a scholarship from British Coal to study mining engineering at Imperial College, a fact he’s still proud of: “My dad talked about Imperial College and the Royal School of Mines as something he really wished he’d done. He spoke in awe about it, and it captured my imagination. … So I did my A levels at night school, and won the scholarship.”

Law went on to work in mining all over the world for eight years afterwards, but the mining recession in the 1980s made advancement difficult. So he decided to move sideways: “I joined Ernst & Young, as probably one of the oldest articled clerks they’ve had, and qualified as a chartered accountant.” After a stint in corporate finance, Law became finance director of his first tech company, Phonelink: “It had a very entrepreneurial Chief Executive, who I was really taken with. So I joined him.”

Law (56) is married to Ceris – they met at Ernst & Young, where she still works. They have two teenage boys, who’ll still come with their parents when they go on their many trips around the world – it’s all about picking the right activities, says Law: “We don’t go to just one place and stay there. … One [trip] was going ranching, and then riding across Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota.” Law was recently in Seville: “I love history, and understanding how things have ended up being as they are. We’re going through political upheaval at the moment, but when you look at Seville, which was Roman, Muslim, and Christian influence, what we’re going through is an infinitesimal blip on the radar of history.”

A busy retirement
Law’s retirement isn’t going to be about sticking pins in a world map, though. “My mum is quite ill at the moment. My sisters and I have all decided we’re giving up full-time work and spend quality time with mum.” That’s the principal reason for Law’s retirement, and it’s a hard-learned lesson: “I was made CEO of GBG in December 2001. My dad was diagnosed with cancer the following April and they thought he had about six months. He died in May. I saw him quite frequently but … I thought I had time.”

Law plans to work part time, assembling a portfolio of chairmanships and investments. He already has two businesses on his docket: car finance specialist Zuto, and consumer behaviour tech outfit RealityMind. “They’re both run by vibrant, young entrepreneurs, where the principal theme is using intelligence to automate and disrupt.”

As Law’s train is speeding north to Manchester, it’s fitting the conversation comes back round to the so-called Northern Powerhouse – the need for which Law believes is spot on: “Part of the reason we didn’t call the [Brexit] referendum correctly is that we don’t really understand what’s going on in Barnsley, Sheffield, Sunderland, Middlesbrough.” The last deep coal mine closed in January, Law points out – there’s a need for skilled jobs and wealth creation to fill the void. “I do think there’s a phenomenal opportunity for whoever runs the country in the future, irrespective of political persuasion, to get this rebalanced. We can only do it through technology. We’re not manufacturers anymore.” Manchester could well be the tech capital of not just the UK, but also of Europe, concludes Law: “I think that would keep me pretty busy too.”

Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern

Litro Magazine, July 2016. Original article.

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s sense of home

The Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective is at the Tate Modern, London, until 30th October 2016.

“I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said. Right now, the Tate Modern’s retrospective of the pioneering modernist may well present you with art unlike what anyone has shown you. Because after spending an afternoon in O’Keeffe’s company at the Tate, I can’t help but think that for a reasonably well-known name, O’Keeffe is vastly underrated. She’s been unfairly pigeon-holed as that desert lady with the flowers, but her work is so much broader than that. You may expect this show to be great – but it is in fact wonderful. Like O’Keeffe said after seeing New Mexico for the first time: “Well! Well! Well! … This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!”

Those famous flowers kick things off – there’s one in the Tate’s poster and that’s what will get you through the door. And by all means: the flowers have earned their fame because they’re stunning, no doubt about it – they’re so much more beautiful on canvas than they appear in reproductions. The colour play is exquisite and the curves are masterful – everything O’Keeffe does has these incredible subtle colours and curves – and it’s delicious. Sweetly pink, white and turquoise in ‘Music – Pink and Blue No 1’. More white and mint green in ‘Abstraction White Rose’. But in ‘Grey Lines with Black Blue and Yellow’ it’s not subtle anymore: the soft pink is contrasted with bold yellow, blue, pink.

This is also where it gets a little tricky, as O’Keeffe steadfastly maintained throughout her life that if we’re seeing anything sexual in her flower paintings, that’s on us, not her: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.” Fair enough. But once it’s been suggested that those petals could also be vaginas, it’s very difficult to stop seeing it. Did she deny this interpretation because of the times? ‘Grey Lines with Black Blue and Yellow’ was painted in 1923. But part of the Tate’s intention with this exhibition is to “dispel the clichés that persist” around O’Keeffe’s work, so we should probably give her the benefit of the doubt. If the artist claims a flower is just a flower, who am I to say otherwise?

The flowers are very beautiful though, regardless of interpretation. They feel overwhelming, maybe because they’re so big and up close.There’s something unapologetic about them, but at the same time, they’re simply pretty. Maybe that’s why they feel so radical: the notion that you can take something so delicate and lovely, something as passive as a flower, and make it look so powerful. If passivity – let’s go ahead and call it femininity – is considered a lesser state now, it certainly was a hundred years ago, around the time these paintings were created. But it was lazy to read O’Keeffe’s art based on her gender back then, and it’s even lazier now. O’Keeffe put it this way: “I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me. … You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.” O’Keeffe creates a world inside each flower, and invite us to get lost in there – but she never quite tells us what the flower means to her. We may be having our own experiences with her work, but she’s completely in control.

This feeling continues into the next section of the Tate show, which has photographs of O’Keeffe by her husband, Arthur Stieglitz. There’s O’Keeffe’s face, her torso, her breasts, hands, arms. There’s O’Keeffe staring into the camera, the photo cropped defiantly low across her naked chest. But in the photos, O’Keeffe doesn’t look defiant at all – she just comes across as someone who knows exactly what she wants. Looking at ‘White Iris”, the flower is so soft in white, pink and just a little green; if we see something in there – passivity, defiance, whatever – that’s on us. O’Keeffe simply meets your eye and makes you really, really look.

O’Keeffe moves on from flowers after she came to New Mexico – they’re rare in the desert – but she still examines the details of her surrounding with the same close, loving gaze. Her knack for curves is applied to the mountains and the mesas, except now the colours are saturated: the red clay and the blue stone, and then, the adobe buildings in soft brown, pale grey. Just like with the petals, O’Keeffe creates layers, and the same happens with the skeletons. O’Keeffe paints the bones so lovingly against the pale blue sky or the pink sands that they appear far more romantic than any of those flowers ever did. It takes a moment to realise just how artfully she’s recreated the shades of white of the bone – her technical mastery has become secondary to the sheer interestingness of her work.

O’Keeffe’s paintings of the desert landscape around Ghost Ranch, her first New Mexico home, are less flashy than the flowers and the skulls, but every bit as remarkable. Those curves are now perfected: the sides of the mesas, the rise of the mountains, the cutaway rock-sides. The shades of pink in ‘Red and Yellow Cliffs’ – dusty rose, pale salmon, buttery peach, gold, muddy greens – you could drown in those colours. O’Keeffe discovered a sense of home when she came to New Mexico: ‘As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It’s something that’s in the air – it’s different.’ She loved New Mexico, and the feeling pours off the paintings.

This is where O’Keeffe really dives into exploring layers. In the Black Place and the White Place series she paints the exact same things over and over, varying the colours or the style. That’s what it’s like to look at something over and over: there’s always something else there, because you’re a little different every time. The experience of standing still is very much an exercise in change. The paintings of the door of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home are the highlight of this joy of repetition – she’s really making us look closely now, just like the flowers, except now she’s giving us even less to work with: just a plain brown wall and a black door, barely any sky at all.

But this time she provides a hint about the world she’s hidden inside all those layers. ‘My Last Door’ is a black square on white, that’s pretty much it, but it took her two years to complete. She loved that house – you can feel her reaching for that feeling, striving to articulate it on canvas in its glorious, plain, untamable state. All the way through O’Keeffe’s work there’s a sense of her chasing down experience, hidden in the curves of the petals and the bones and the mountains – there are worlds to be discovered everywhere, if only you look close enough. But never is it clearer than with O’Keeffe’s repetition of that plain door, over and over: home is a feeling, and love is a place.

Un-precious skins

Published July 2016 in The Debrief (now part of Grazia).

Meet the people who turn the tattoo needle on themselves

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When Piper Chapman, anti-heroine of ‘Orange is the New Black’, tattooed herself at the end of last season, she’d learned it the hard way: if you want it done right, do it yourself. “Cliché my ass,” she muttered, grinning through the pain of etching onto herself the infinity symbol she’d previously been mocked for wanting.

There are lots of reasons why someone might choose to turn the tattoo needle on themselves, but regardless of their motivations, it’s always a very personal experience. If you’re the one pushing the ink, you can’t look away and wait for it to be over. You have to sit there, repeating the action maybe for several hours – you are in full control of creating the mark that will stay on your skin for life.

katherineKatherine Coffey, 36, first tattooed herself when she was 22, while at university in London. The two banners on her feet read ‘Heroes’ and ‘Villains’, a play on the old-school standard of having opposite phrases on your knuckles. “Plus I’m a big Beach Boys fan!” Katherine, a graphic designer, still loves her foot tattoos: “I find them just as valid as so-called ‘real’ tattoos. I’m someone who spends a lot of money on tattoos, and travels a long way to get them done by specific artists – I take it seriously. But at the same time, I don’t actually take it that seriously!”

Katherine, who describes herself as “fairly covered” in ink, says going to a tattoo parlour is more about getting someone else’s art on your skin. Doing it yourself, however, is how you get exactly what you want. “With many of the professional tattoos I’ve got, I’ve often thought I’d have done it a little differently. I’m a fussy customer!” She laughs. “So [doing it yourself] is also about being in control of your own body, and having the final say in what you look like. … The experience of marking yourself is definitely more empowering than going to someone else and asking them to do it for you.”

Before embarking on her DIY tattoo project, Katherine sought advice from someone who’d done it already. But it was still a bit of trial and error: “I got some fine sewing needles and wrapped them tightly with thread, and used graphic pen ink. That worked really well. … I went over the tattoos maybe three times.” The tattoos look pretty good for home-made ones, but Katherine says she never intended them to look perfect. “I’ve always thought, I don’t care if anyone ever sees this tattoo, I’m not doing it for anyone else’s benefit. It’s a personal thing, and I want this on me.”

theaFor Thea Dery, 20, the process of inking her own skin became something of a meditation. “It was satisfying to do it, like how people knit or draw as a relaxing experience. Once you get past the pain it’s a repetitive, satisfying process.” Thea, who’s currently living in Chile as part of her Spanish university studies, was 18 when she put an eye on her finger – it’s currently her only tattoo. She’s interested in getting more formal work done in the future, but that would need careful consideration.

Thea made sure she knew how to tattoo herself safely: she used calligraphy ink, sterilised needles, antiseptic wipes, and gloves. But the actual design of her DIY ink was impulsive: “It was a spur of the moment decision to do it. My friends had gone away that weekend and I was alone, watching a movie. I figured that since I had the materials I should try it out, just a little one on my finger.”

Thea says it did hurt, at least in the beginning: “But it quickly became numb, as you have to keep poking at the same spot. … I poked for almost two hours straight, just to get this tiny thing.” The tattoo is rough, says Thea, and she wouldn’t consider it well done. “But it still makes me happy to look at it. The process of pushing the ink into my skin was an important experience about making a permanent decision about my body.”


19% of Britons and 24% of Americans have tattoos, according to a 2015 YouGov survey – permanent ink is no longer all that controversial. But historically, this is a very recent development. In her book, ‘Bodies of Subversion’, researcher Margot Mifflin explains how tattoos have swung back and forth from favour:

“No form of skin modification is as layered with meaning as tattooing, especially for women. Tattooed women of the 19th- and early 20th centuries flouted Victorian ideals of feminine purity and decorum,” writes Mifflin in the 2013 edition of her book. “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains, and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies – and why.”

The current tattoo revival stems back to the 1970s, when Janis Joplin became one of the first women to openly display ink. Mifflin describes this as the start of overturning the unsavoury image of tattoos, which was previously considered the purview of aggressive men and sexually available women. These stigmas are now thankfully outdated, as today’s tattoos are associated more with self-expression, as well as an act for claiming your body as your own to do with as you please. The latter is especially true when it comes to the rough stick-n-poke tattoos people give themselves in their bedrooms.


cassandra1For Cassandra Sherlock, 24, one of the key points to doing her own ink is that skin doesn’t have to be that precious – she’s even let other people practice on her. “I’ve rejected this idea that it has to be a big deal about what your tattoos mean. Just because it’s permanent doesn’t mean it can’t be something goofy or fun, or something you saw and thought, ‘That looks cool, I want it.’”

Cassandra, a video editor and animator who lives in Indiana, has six home-made tattoos out of about 19 total. “I started off doing these small geometric shapes. The first one was an X. I have these small circles, little moons, some dots … I have two cats that I’m proud that I did myself. The two beets are more intricate. Those are the only ones with colour.” Asked why she chose to do it herself, Cassandra laughs: “I was broke!” And also: “I was a little bored, and I wanted more tattoos.”

Some of Cassandra’s DIY tattoos are stick-n-poke, but she’s also used a tattoo gun she bought on the internet. She doesn’t necessarily think it’s any more risky to do tattoos at home: “I’ve seen people go to shops and get nasty infections.” Cassandra recommends buying professional tattoo needles and ink from a reputable shop – it’s not that expensive. Her homemade tattoos are important to her, says Cassandra – precisely because she did them herself: “My [self-tattooing phase] wasn’t necessarily a great time in my life, but I was proud of these things i made. They’re always going to be a reminder of that.”

mike1For Mike Marcus, 43, the stick-n-poke tattoos on his wrist have also become reminders of a unique moment. “They’re the molecular structures of tryptamine and phenethylamine,” says Mike. He did them four years ago, using sterile tattoo needles and Indian ink: “I’d finished a big relationship, and some business entanglements. I was in between chapters in my life.”

When people ask what the molecules represent, Mike’s answer depends on the situation: “One thing you can say is that those molecules are like the operating system of consciousness.” In more relaxed company, Mike will fill the rest of the story: “I used to be into psychedelics.” As Mike now runs a microbrewery in Manchester, he doesn’t have time for that anymore. “But I like the tattoos. They’re individual. [What they represent] isn’t really a part of my life now, but they’re a landmark.”

By this logic, tattoos become a map of your life, says Mike: “They make an indelible mark, so you can’t just move on from that part of your life and pretend you didn’t experience it.” If he were to get any more ink, Mike says he’d definitely be the one to do it: “Tattoos are a really personal thing. … Apart from exceptional circumstances like the Holocaust, anyone who’s got a tattoo has imposed it upon themselves. If you’re going to do that, you might as well do it yourself.”

Ian Churchill, CEO of BigHand

The Megabuyte Interview: Ian Churchill

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 10.32.19BigHand’s London offices sit just across the street from the Crossbones Garden, the recently prettified Medieval burial ground for prostitutes and paupers. Ian Churchill isn’t familiar with the history, but he only joined BigHand in November – there’s been more pressing matters than local sightseeing. But Borough Market is a vibrant area to work in, the CEO tells me as we walk through the office, decorated in BigHand blues and repetitions of the phrase “Make Big Happen”. The meeting room has a view of the Shard, and also, of employees playing ping pong outside: “We’ve got a great atmosphere here.”

Digital workflow developer and consultancy BigHand is best known for its dictation software, used by 80% of the UK’s 200 largest law firms. But this is more than a fancy dictaphone outfit. “The way we see it, we’re enabling fee earners to become more efficient,” says Churchill, tieless in a suit and subtle leaf-patterned shirt. “Law firms are increasingly centralising their back office functions. Our heritage is dictation, but we’ve branching out into more task delegation.”

Client-led innovation
This development is partially inspired by what Churchill calls client-led innovation, as users were bending the solution to transfer things other than voice files. “We work closely with our clients to meet their needs. We’re focused around the attorney and the back office interface, streamlining it and making it more efficient.” Law firms are keen to lower their ratio of support cost to revenue, explains Churchill; essentially they want to reduce the number of people needed to transcribe documents. This means BigHand is working on improving speech recognition software, and yes, the software works – if you’re prepared to train it:

“But we’ve found that lawyers are not prepared to train a speech recognition engine. I don’t think I’d be prepared to train it; I’m not patient enough!” He laughs – the problem is we all mumble a little. The untrained software brings back a 90% accurate text, says Churchill, and the training happens when you edit and correct the text. I ask if full automation of dictation is the ultimate goal: “It’s one of the things we’re working on,” says Churchill, adding that working with clients on product development has also led to better integration of document management systems. For example, lawyers in the UK and Australia are required to keep records of every meeting, but these documents are only needed if there’s a dispute. So 90% accuracy may actually be enough: “Because it creates a word document, it becomes searchable. We retain the speech file as well, so if they ever need to go back and get it 100% right, they have both pieces. But this strips out a massive amount of transcription work.”

Outside of the legal profession, medical consultants are the most dictation-prone. BigHand’s healthcare business works with a number of NHS Foundation Trusts, for which transcription represent a significant expense. “From a product development focus, we’re going to continue to be very close to our clients, and continue to develop products with them to solve their business issues,” says Churchill. He lists recent developments in task delegation and capacity management: “The feedback we’re currently getting is that it’s difficult to understand the peaks and troughs of work within teams. So we’re working with law firms to build a tool so they can do that.”

A high level of customer satisfaction, along with exciting new products and a stable financial base, were key reasons why Churchill opted to join BigHand last November. “You start to get a feel for the organisation as you go through an interview process, and it just felt like a really nice place to work. Five months in, I still think it’s a great place to work.”

Turnaround lessons
Churchill (47) grew up in Cornwall, and studied Accountancy, Finance and Economics at the University of Essex. “I went straight to KPMG from university. I’d qualified as a Chartered Accountant in Bristol and had a summer job with KPMG, and got a recommendation. One of the things I’ve benefited from throughout my career is doing a good job, and therefore being recommended for my next role. People ask me, ‘How do you progress?’ – I’ve always tried to make by bosses’ lives easier.”

But Churchill wasn’t always a top performer. “In Cornwall, in the seventies, I was taught to read phonetically. It really didn’t work for me. I was a poor reader, to the extent I failed my English O level.” Although Churchill passed on his second go, he remembers the moment at KPMG “like it was yesterday”, when he’d written a two-page document misspelling “acquisition” every time. “I remember sitting there, watching the partner circling the word ‘acquisition’ throughout this letter, and almost feeling myself physically shrink.” But never again: Churchill polished up his spelling and punctuation after that. “That taught me that I have to keep learning. You have to keep getting better. I learn from everyone, everyone in the organisation, and everyone I meet. That’s really important to me.”

After KPMG came five years at Vodafone, followed by Northgate Information Solutions where Churchill ended up as Managing Director of the justice business. He moved on to Capita in 2007, where held a number of directorships. It’s a very professional IT sector specialist CV. Was there a conscious drive to progress to the CEO seat? Churchill won’t quite go along with this: “You know, at times I have to pinch myself to believe I’ve got this job, because I’m so enthused by it. I suppose my ambition has grown as I’ve seen the opportunity.”

Churchill cites a certain business turnaround as a significant lesson in management: “I learned a lot, particularly around people’s motivation. The link between having motivated staff and satisfied customers came through strongly. The business had lost touch with its customers, and customer satisfaction was declining rapidly. That strongly drove employee dissatisfaction, because they didn’t feel the business was treating its customers appropriately.” Not everyone made it through the turnaround, says Churchill, but the people who did were the ones with the “greatest passion”: “They really drove the change.”

The trick to nurturing a company through this kind of change, says Churchill, is to find the people who actually want it to happen, regardless of what level they’re at. “I ran with a very simple message: we’re going to improve customer satisfaction. In its widest context, [that means] we’re going to send them the right bills, we’re going to deliver software that works, and when the software breaks we’re going to support it in a courteous manner. … That had a resonance and people got behind it, … and the business flourished as a consequence.”

Learning every day
Churchill lives on the edge of the Cotswolds with his wife Kathryn, a northerner. Kathryn recently purchased a dog – Churchill shows me a photo of an extremely black “goldendoodle” mix. He likes the dog, he’s quick to say, it’s just that he didn’t want daily responsibility for one. “As soon as it got rainy, my wife went, ‘It’s your turn to walk the dog!’ Oh no.” He laughs – it’s definitely her dog. But it’s an outdoorsy family: Churchill spends a lot of time with their two teenage boys – one does rugby, the other triathlons – both play cricket. The whole family skis, and Churchill cycles a lot.

Churchill’s wife is a teacher, as well as both parents-in-law: “I developed school software for eight years, but obviously, if you’re not a teacher you know nothing about education!” Churchill laughs. Back in Cornwall, his parents ran their own grocery business, but he thinks they’re surprised at where he’s ended up: “I think people were less pushy in the eighties. Certainly both my parents encouraged me to do the best I could, and were very supportive of me going to university.” But why are they surprised? Churchill thinks about it. “I don’t know. I grew up in a small village in Cornwall, you know. Probably in their eyes, a country boy.”

What this alleged country boy wants to do now, is continue to grow BigHand: “Make it as successful as we can, working with the team, whether that’s three, five, or seven years.” Then he’ll see – he’s only just started, and he’s enjoying the journey: “Loving it. Really loving it.” We’re wrapping up by this point, and I tell the CEO I’m going to have a look at the Crossbones Garden, which was a paved lot the last time I saw it. Churchill comes along for a wander, and points out the Boot & Flogger – that’s the pub where he was first introduced to the BigHand management team. The sign on the BigHand building says Union Hall – Churchill doesn’t know the history, but he emails me later: the building was opened in 1782 as a meeting house for justices of the County of Surrey. You learn something every day.

Meet Moven, the non-disruptive challenger bank

FusionWire, June 2016.


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Meet Moven, the non-disruptive challenger bank

Is it actually necessary for challenger banks to re-invent the wheel? No, says Alex Sion, co-founder of Moven. We went to New York to learn how Moven is making waves in the US as a next generation bank that doesn’t actually hold money.

What if, instead of building an app-focused bank, you built a great banking app that could be used by anyone, regardless of where their accounts are?

That’s what Moven has done. Alex Sion, co-founder and Managing Director, is the first to admit that Moven is technically more of a customer experience startup than a bank – but even so, the Moven experience is an impressive imitation of a bank. After linking up their existing accounts, US customers use the Moven app to manage all their money, and even spend it with a Moven-branded bank card. “Moven is structured as a programme manager that sits on top of a bank,” says Sion. “Basically, we orchestrate the banking experience.”

I’ve met the Moven co-founder in New York, in a non-descript Midtown office building across the street from Madison Square Garden. Inside, the office very much looks the part of a startup, down to Sion’s company hoodie with “Spend, Save & Live” written across the chest. 47 people work for Moven right now, says Sion, who co-founded the company alongside Brett King in 2012.

“We always had a vision that the future of banking was going to be an app. But that’s different from saying that banks need apps,” says Sion. To explain what he means by this, Sion points out how banking apps are different from other apps because you need to have the product before the app is any good to you. You wouldn’t download the HSBC banking app unless you already bank with them – what would be the point? This, the Moven founders thought, needed to change:

“If banking is to become an app, the app needs to have a value proposition just like every other app.” He lists them off: “This is the app that helps me find restaurants. This is the app that helps me buy clothes. This is the app that helps me play music. So we thought, the value proposition of banking in the future is: this is the app that helps me build better spending habits. This is the app that guides me to save, and helps me to buy the stuff I want in smart ways.”

The commerce link
This is the reason why Moven is more about the experience of banking, rather than the nuts and bolts of holding money. The fact that customers don’t have to leave their old banks to join Moven means the company is less of a disruptor to the established financial providers. But this also means Moven has sidestepped what’s arguably a fundamental tenant of banking. To date, Moven has raised over $24 million in funding, most recently in a $12 million round led by Route 66 Ventures in October. Does Sion think the fact that Moven doesn’t hold the money could become a drawback as the company grows?

Sion admits this issue is something they think about, especially now that the fintech startup landscape is maturing. Four years ago, any kind of new bank was a bold move, but that’s a long time ago in the startup world: “People are pursuing the same ideas now, but in more aggressive ways.” But Sion is quick to add that the fundamental idea behind Moven is sound: “[When we launched,] we believed the important part was the experience layer – banking itself would remain largely the same.”

If you ask people what banking is, says Sion, they’ll say it’s a place that holds money securely, moves it about, and gives yield and credit. “We believed banking products weren’t going to transform that much. What was dramatically going to change, was how people experience money. … What you needed to do, was build an experience layer that would tightly connect to the infrastructure of money. That would be the redefinition of banking. You don’t require a charter to do that.”

This is an interesting approach to the task of building a challenger bank: the idea that you don’t need to build from scratch, as the new banking experience can sit on top of the existing system. It also negotiates a fundamental problem faced by challenger banks: that people are notoriously reluctant (or too lazy) to move current accounts. “The challenge with fintech, and neobanking in general, is that it’s hard to underestimate centuries of history when it comes to the sensitive of money. Habits aren’t going to change overnight. But what is changing rapidly, is behaviors toward commerce,” says Sion. “For us, that had nothing to do with banking.”

The fact that people are experiencing commerce in new ways, via the likes of Amazon and eBay on mobile phones, means we’re expecting the same levels of ease from banking, says Sion – but banks haven’t stepped up to fill that gap: “To me, that gap is the threat and the opportunity that we can solve. There’s the massive behavioral shift that’s central to how consumers engage with their money.”

A visual approach
So what does this solution look like? Sion opens the Moven app on his phone, and swipes around while explaining how it works. The app is surprisingly simple-looking, using visuals to monitor spending (green means on budget, red means having gone over), and to motivate to reach savings goals (tap three times to “break the glass” and access the cash). “We simplified it as wants versus needs. Wants are discretionary items. Needs are non-discretionary. It’s colour-coded.” Sion taps into the restaurant category. “Here’s my dining out: I’m $404 above typical. If I want to see why, I can see that was because of Mother’s Day. I could dive in deep.”

The app also lets Sion see what he’s spent on his American Express card, as Moven becomes a hub for everything to do with spending money. But the home screen on the app isn’t your usual current and savings account balances, because Moven doesn’t focus on accounts – it focuses on behaviour: “This is organised around a vision: this is the app that helps me build better spending habits, and guides me to save and buy something I want.”

The lifestyle element of Moven starts from the moment Sion enters the app: he doesn’t actually have to log in. “I’ve enabled it to recognise the ID on my phone. We did that because there are very few lifestyle apps on your phone that require you to log in every time.” Banks take a black and white approach, says Sion: either you’re logged in and can access everything, or you’re outside and can see nothing. With Moven, you can look at basic information without a password, only requiring one when it comes to doing things like transferring funds.

Global ambition
Moven has started moving beyond the US, currently operating in New Zealand in partnership with Westpac, and in Canada in collaboration with TD Bank. Moven in Canada operates as TD My Spend, a companion app to TD Bank’s regular app. “It’s like Facebook and Facebook Messenger: they are separate apps, but they’re completely integrated.” Yes, they’re considering the UK, says Sion: “Commerce and its behaviors do not discriminate by geography. We have very ambitious plans to drive growth. … We’re poised, in this calendar year, to break a million people using the Moven experience.”

Over the coming year, Moven’s plans are to continue to expand its partnerships with banks: “We’ve got a healthy pipeline of opportunities to do that, and to expand by geography.” On the consumer side, it’s all about broadening the product line: “We started out with a basic focus on what consumers would consider spending, and we now monitor savings habits too. Further out – I don’t like to use the word credit, because credit is just spending. Spending money I don’t have, basically! But we’re going to continue down the expansion pipeline, to the point where we’re full-service. You’ll soon be able to get every experience from us that you currently get from a full-service retail banking operation.”