At least once a week I hear the reply: ‘Oh, I’m not Fintech’. These people usually work at a large bank or a technology company that was established before 2008. Further discussion reveals that they are involved in projects to update business models, introduce new technology, or to find someplace to introduce digital processes in a previously fragmented and legacy system. That identity ‘Fintech’ is not for them – or was never offered as an option. That, I feel, is a crime and lies at the heart of why financial services, as a whole industry, has found it so difficult to evolve and innovate in any manner faster than a snail’s pace.
When I started in this industry we called that strange space between data, information, technology and financial services, quite simply ‘financial technology’. (We also used the shorter term ‘Fintech’ in the 90s, but I have told that story before do not need to retell it now). But as we entered an age of smart phones, APIs, better technology and a massive distrust in the entire financial services industry – new companies started appearing to make better, to fix and yes, disrupt the established status quo. Fintech emerged, not as shorthand for ‘financial technology’ but to label a narrow group of companies and people who were brighter, fresher and cooler than the suited and booted who populate the halls of incumbent banks.
This new Fintech ‘tribe’ built companies, digital-first from the outset. They didn’t have to deal with old programming, creaking legacy systems and bloated bureaucracy. They built products fast, tailored for specific customer groups and viewed regulations as barriers to jump over rather than compliance requirements to consider. What happened next was interesting.
Some cool companies were established. Banks and incumbent financial institutions began to, at least, acknowledge a need to change, to update, to evolve. More payments companies than was ever needed by any consumer anywhere were founded – and many failed (usually when the reality of what global, payments infrastructure is like hits the fantasy of the startup dream like a ton of bricks.) Banks improved, a bit. New banks hit the high street, open banking directives were introduced and a tiny bit more competition was added to the environment. Disruption it was not. But as anyone who has worked in financial services for longer than five minutes knows, you take small victories where you can.
Who is missing from this story? Who made a passing glance at the Fintech tribe, saw no invite was offered, and thought ‘there is no place there for me?’ Where are the people who spent a decade in working groups mapping out the Single Euro Payments Area? Those who know where the chewing gum and duct tape needed to patch up those silo’ed, legacy systems are kept? The teams that worked for years and years and years to get ‘emerging technology’ like cloud embraced by organisations whose birthday candles number in the triple digits? Those that laugh and say: ‘I’m not Fintech’, while they’re mixing the cement that serves as the foundation of a global financial services ecosystem.
Now, I know, many people in this industry use the word ‘tribe’ as a label of belonging. It can be a lonely place being a person who wants to challenge the status quo, push for change and champion progress. Finding solidarity with those who share your views and will support your causes is a case for joy. I am not knocking ‘tribe’ in this context.
However, I have an innate aversion to anything exclusive, the narrow segregation of ‘us and them’. It lends itself to a mindset of ‘I am cool, I am smart, I know better because I belong to ‘this tribe’, while you ‘the other’, part of the problem possessing no knowledge, no experience that can be of any use to me’. It smacks of ‘we wear pink on Tuesdays, you can’t sit here’ mindset and I have zero respect for anyone who fails to find a place at the lunch table for those who are hungry.
Those who fail to include, even those we disagree with, is choosing to be blind to the bigger picture. You will fail to anticipate a problem, and you will have fewer tools at your disposal to fix it. If your boat has sprung a leak, and you only engage with the people handing out the cocktails on the lido deck, your boat will sink and Kate Winslet will have nabbed all the available rafts.
Keeping with my love of imagery and metaphors – we now arrive at the point of this post. The Fintech Big Tent – the theme of the Fintech Talents Festival 2021.
All are welcomed in the Fintech Big Tent – this is not a tribe or a club or an exclusive gathering of minds who all think alike. This is a festival of ideas and questions of culture and of tech.
Those that work at banks, financial institutions, work to build new Fintech companies or strive to evolve established tech providers in the space. If your goal, your desire, your wish is to make financial services better – for everyone – you are welcomed in the Big Fintech Tent.
And that is what really matters.