Mark Mullen: The Innovation Interview

Mark Mullen, Co-Founder & CEO of Atom Bank shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and the future of banking.

Mark started his career in financial services in 1989 at Forward Trust Group, the finance house and leasing subsidiary of Midland Bank plc, where he spent a decade working in a number of businesses including personal finance, vehicle finance, asset finance and corporate strategy.

In 2000, he joined HSBC in London to help develop and launch its business internet banking platform, and in 2004, Mark moved to HSBC’s UK headquarters to lead marketing communications for the UK bank. He took over as Head of Marketing at first direct at the end of 2006, and between 2009 and 2011 he was the Regional Head of Marketing, MENA for HSBC Bank Middle East, working out of Dubai.

In 2011, Mark took over as Chief Executive of first direct, and his role enlarged to include leadership of the HSBC UK Contact Centres in 2013. In March 2014, Mark resigned from the HSBC Group to co-found Atom as CEO.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Innovations are ideas that improve life. That improvement can take many forms. It covers everything from fun to efficiency to cleaner, faster, more beautiful, more informative, more sustainable. Atom believes we have a license to innovate everywhere and being a bank offers no more impediment to innovation than being a pharmaceutical business, a car or plane manufacturer or a public body like Transport for London.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

Banking; retail banking has spent more than two decades being lazy and taking the market and customers for granted.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

Don’t bark at passing cars and don’t ever, ever send an e-mail in anger.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

I really have no idea.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Both. I gather most of my news on-line but I still like paper books.

What were your greatest takeaways as CEO of First Direct Bank and how did you apply those takeaways to co-founding Atom Bank?

People matter most. All ideas, all businesses, digital or physical are the expression of the people who create them. Get the people right and you have a much higher chance of achieving success.

As a digital-only bank, how will you use design and wearable technologies to stand-out from the crowd and appeal to the underbanked establishment?

We will stand-out if we are original and unique and it makes no difference whether this is about wearables or anything else. Doing something that’s ‘me too’ is a waste of time and money and it is not why we started this.

The British Bankers’ Association recently published research showing that UK-based customers conducted almost 40m mobile and internet banking transactions each week in 2014. With the formal introduction of Atom Bank, what is the bank currently forecasting in terms of the mobile transactions number per week?

I don’t know but I wouldn’t tell you if I did.

What role will cryptocurrency play in a digital-only bank if any?

None for the foreseeable future. We are seeing right now that currencies are only as strong as the commitment central banks are willing to provide to them.

What is the future of a digital-only bank and how will you position Atom Bank for that future?

I firmly believe that the future of banking is ‘digital first’ not ‘digital only’. I can’t see why banks will employ people to do your banking for you when you can do it better yourself. I really do believe that the Atom model of digital first with a highly trained team on the phone to help you sort out problems is a better model than the ‘multi-channel mess’ that exists today.

Aaron Frank: The Innovation Interview

Aaron Frank, Co-Founder & CEO of Final shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and the future of the credit card.

As a born-again fintech evangelist, Aaron manages Final’s relationships with banking partners and investors, and explores the effects of new technology on personal payments. As a former IBM’er and employee #1 at Simple Energy, Aaron built the engineering team and architecture to deliver utility data to millions of users around the country. He holds BAs from University of Maryland in Math and Physics.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Innovation is the ability to rethink the goal, not just what it is, but why it exists, and then find a better way to execute. It’s that last part that people tend to forget about, but it matters the most. If two companies come up with a similar design for a better battery, but company A builds the supply chain faster, scales faster, and gets to market in a more impactful way, you likely won’t refer to company B as the innovator. That same thing is playing out now with all the consumer hardware options designed to get rid of your fat wallet by aggregating cards – lots of similar takes on the same problem, but it’ll be the one that executes and achieves real traction that wins.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

Those most heavily bogged down by regulation – healthcare, agtech, the funding of commercial solar projects, and absolutely payments. Also, have you ever tried buying a house? Having to dig up your 1099 from 7 years ago…that process needs a fair amount of disruption.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

Listen, be humble, lead by example, and surround myself with people smarter than myself. Good business is good business.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

I built out the engineering team at my last startup- it was a group of folks I was extremely proud of and proud to work with. I’d say hiking the John Muir Trail is also up there.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Digital newspapers, paper books.

What is the future of payments and how will you position Final to benefit from the ever changing habits of consumers?

That’s a tough question – how far out into the future? Physical cards aren’t going anywhere in the next 15 years, but there’s bound to be massive improvements around security and the position of the user. Too many companies have built products for banks, not for the users of those banks.

Now, the largest generation ever only wants to use well-designed products with beautiful interfaces. It’s forcing executives to rethink where the user sits in their model. It is going to be an extremely important differentiator to watch for and B2C fintech continues the current updraft.

How did you approach underwriting the credit card debt with the issuing bank and who is the bank issuing the lines of credit?

We’re not yet divulging that partnership, but that’s exactly what it is – a partnership. We’re working together to underwrite the debt and create a risk model that sits well with everyone involved.

What has the response from executives at American Express, Discover, Mastercard and Visa been? Have they offered any helpful insight?

We have some great contacts at many of those companies, and they offer feedback all the time. As far as user experience goes, what we’re trying to do is a bit different than anything the networks have seen, so we’re pioneers in that sense.

Since each transaction uses a different credit card number, how will users sign up for recurring payments to service providers?

Thanks for asking, because It’s an important distinction to make. Users have the option of creating either a one-time use card number or a multi-use card number for all subscriptions and card-on-file relationships (think things like Netflix and Amazon). When a user goes to check out, the ability to generate a card instantly can be done either through the mobile app or browser extension.

We’re aiming to make that process seamless while keeping the actual card numbers behind the curtain. Unless you’re reading your card number over the phone, you, as a consumer, should never have to know your card number – just that you have a relationship with a merchant. We keep track of that information for you, so you’re never managing multiple card numbers. It might be more secure, but it wouldn’t be an improvement in the user experience if people had to know and manage dozens of numbers.

Is Final going to leverage existing payment networks, or is the plan to scale out “Final is Accepted Here” payment network?

There’s elegance in building a product that can provide a new experience, but doesn’t have to rebuild the wheel in the sense of infrastructure. Merchants don’t need to sign on because we’re partnering with the networks that are accepted at 99% of all merchants, online and in-person retail.

Moving Towards a Frictionless Payment Experience

As a society, our payment habits are once again changing as individuals become more comfortable with new technologies that no longer require taking their credit card out to buy goods and services.

We have come a long way since science fiction writer Edward Bellamy first wrote about the credit card concept in his 1887 novel, “Looking Backward.” While Bellamy only wrote about the idea in his forward-thinking novel, Frank McNamara, co-founder of Diners Club, was actually the first to use a “small cardboard card” to pay for dinner in 1950.

That night would turn out to change financial services forever, ushering in the beginning of the modern credit card era. Eight years later, American Express CEO Ralph Reed launched a charge card that the company was able to successfully build and scale, thanks in part to the success of its pre-existing financial services businesses. Around the same time, Joseph Williams was developing the first all-purpose credit card for Bank of America — BankAmericard — which would later evolve into Visa.

Just as forward-looking entrepreneurs and executives such as McNamara, Reed and Williams helped created the modern-day credit card system, we are now going through a new cycle of innovation. While the names of the individuals who are changing the payments industry today are different, what they have in common is a desire to create a better way to pay for goods and services.

Could the next 10 years usher in the next revolution in payments, similar to the way the 50s and 60s gave us American Express and Visa? Yes. The introduction of technologies such as PayPal, Square, Amazon Payments, Google Wallet, Facebook, Apple, Stripe and Alibaba are just the tip of the iceberg.

Square changed the way we pay for goods at small and medium-sized businesses by making it cheaper and easier to accept payments. Square’s ability to design a beautiful product and user experience is helping society move towards a frictionless payment experience.

Google is also trying to move us towards a frictionless experience with Google Wallet’s near-field communication (NFC) payment technology. While paying for goods in a store with a smartphone is innovative, it is not a truly frictionless experience. Consumers still have to reach for the smartphone in their pocket or purse, similarly to the way they would reach for their plastic credit card.

The current CEO of American Express, Ken Chenault, recently summed up his thoughts on digital wallets by saying “I’m going to tap to pay? What’s the friction that it’s really solving? What are the benefits that I’m getting? How is that helping me in my shopping journey? At the end of the day, the failure of wallets was not being focused enough on customer needs.”

Chenault has changed the perception of the brand by partnering with the best young startups to create exceptional value for card members. He predicts there will only be five platforms that matter to the future of payments — Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Alibaba — and that American Express will be embedded in all of them.

In Spain, CaixaBank has out-innovated Google for the time being by partnering with Visa to introduce the first Visa contactless wristband. The wristband eliminates the friction of paying for goods while increasing the customer’s experience. Barcelona-based CaixaBank has a long history of innovation, as the first European bank to launch a large-scale contactless card payment system in 2011.

While this move by CaixaBank and Visa was extremely smart, it is only the first step towards a truly frictionless payment experience. As Visa’s contactless wristband technology evolves and matures, I expect to see Visa follow its historic growth path by partnering with existing businesses.

MasterCard isn’t sitting still, as CEO Ajay Banga has transformed the company from a global payments company into a technology company with remarkable track record of growth. While still COO, Banga launched MasterCard Labs in 2010 with the goal of developing innovative new technologies. MasterCard’s PayPass, a contactless technology currently used by more than 2 million merchants in 63 countries.

As Visa and MasterCard move into the contactless payments technology, there is a sleeping giant that will soon be awakened — Apple. While there has been much speculation about the iWatch, there has been little if any talk of the device’s potential to change the payment industry by introducing a frictionless contactless payment system to the masses.

Apple has north of 800 million credit cards on file through iTunes, which could instantly make the iWatch a game changer if Apple offers payment capabilities. An iWatch could very well eliminate the need to carry a plastic credit card by simplifying the process of paying for goods and services.

Tap and go, without having to remove your smartphone from your pocket or purse. This is the future of a frictionless payment experience. A customer-first approach to payments that is simple, secure and easy to use is coming.

While this is the future of paying for goods and services without friction, this major change in consumer habit will not occur overnight. Instead, it will take years to fully mature until society as a whole is comfortable with a contactless payment system that is embedded into existing devices such as a watch or bracelet.

This new payment system will eliminate the friction of having to think twice about paying for goods or services.

Moving Towards a Frictionless Payment Experience is an article written by Brulte & Company Co-Founder Grayson Brulte that was originally published on General Electric Reports.

Derek Webster: The Innovation Interview

Derek Webster, Founder and CEO of CardFlight shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and the mobile payments industry.

CardFlight provides tools for mobile app developers to easily integrate in-person (card present) payments within their own iOS and Android apps and works with virtually all major payment processors. Prior to founding CardFlight, he was the Founder and CEO of LocalBonus, a credit card-linked loyalty network which rewarded consumers for purchases they make at local businesses.

Earlier, Derek was an Engagement Manager at Oliver Wyman where he led senior-level strategy projects for some of the leading global payment networks and retail banks. He was also part of the team that launched E*TRADE’s credit card business, where he personally led all product development and product marketing efforts for the group. Derek has an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a BS magna cum laude from Georgetown University.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

To me, innovation is an output and not an input. It’s about seeing an opportunity, having a unique view of how to seize that opportunity and being committed enough to see it into action despite whatever setbacks occur along the way. Innovation is not about “being right” all the time – great innovators experiment a lot which is what leads to the major breakthroughs.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

Obviously I’m a bit biased, but the financial services industry is ripe for innovation. There are plenty of valid reasons to tread cautiously – moving people’s money around electronically can and should be regulated, safe and secure. That being said, most of the incumbents are built on technology that’s older than I am, so you have to be creative about where and how to innovate because frequently you can’t just start with a clean sheet of paper and build an entire end-to-end payment system from scratch.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

Irv Grousbeck, one of my professors from business school, has a favorite refrain: “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” (The actual quote is from Sydney Harris.) With some obvious exceptions, we try to create a culture at CardFlight that encourages calculated risk-taking and trying new things without fear.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

I hope that my greatest achievement lies ahead with growing CardFlight. While we’ve already raised venture capital from top investors, built our team to 8 people and built a loyal base of initial customers, we still have a long path ahead and are serving a huge market. We’re just getting started!

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Digital, all the way. Fairly often I find myself with 50+ open browser tabs with news and blog articles that I want to read. Long flights, weekends or late nights are great for catching up on the articles I intended to read during the day but didn’t.

CardFlight could fill a gap for political campaigns and allow them to collect donations in real-time through their own custom app. Is politics an industry that CardFlight is currently exploring as a vertical and if so, what has the response been from politicians and political consultants?

It’s absolutely a vertical we can serve. We’re already in discussions with a few different companies that provide technology services to political campaigns to help their customers take credit card contributions in the field via their own mobile apps.

What were your greatest takeaways from launching E*TRADE’s credit card business and how are you applying those lessons to CardFlight?

It was great to learn about the payments industry from within a tech and product focused company. There is a lot of complexity behind the scenes whenever working with payments infrastructure – and I certainly learned a lot about that firsthand – but we were always focused on creating the best products for our customers. Even though I was at a fairly large company, there were parts of the experience that felt like being at a disruptive startup.

How do you see the payments industry evolving over the next five years and what role will CardFlight play in the consumerization of payments?

Today, 90% of credit card payments occur in face-to-face transactions. While e-commerce and other ‘card not present’ payments are growing, real life commerce isn’t going to disappear overnight. Five years from now, you’re still going to pay a lot of your experiences in person: your haircut, your co-pay at the doctor, your car repair, your dinner at a restaurant, etc.

The difference is that those merchants won’t be processing the transactions with a dumb terminal that takes a payment and does nothing more. Instead, they’ll be using the same software to take a payment as they use to manage appointment scheduling, CRM, inventory, reporting, electronic health records, etc. The people who build those solutions are our customers and we make it really easy for them to integrate mobile payments into their overall solution.

With the option of custom branded credit card readers you are opening new and potentially very lucrative markets within the sports industry. Have you held talks with any professional sports teams about integrating CardFlight into their POS systems at the stadiums?

Mobile POS is a huge opportunity at sporting events, and we already have multiple customers within the events and ticketing industry that are integrating CardFlight.

What has the response been from consumers who have used a POS system powered by CardFlight such as the ones currently used at Henry Vilas Zoo?

Our clients love it. Most of our clients have a fairly specific idea of what they want to build and the CardFlight integration is only part of what they’re building. Because we have an elegant, transparent, developer-friendly platform, a lot of our clients can integrate in a matter of hours rather than the months it would take without us. This lets our clients focus on building their product and serving their customers without the typical complexity of a payments integration.