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How many customers do fintechs really have?
Fintechs regularly provide updates on how many customers they have. Motivations for doing so are varied — garnering headlines, proving naysayers wrong, or right, keeping investors happy and so on. More interestingly, they also have a variety of definitions of “customer” that are not always clear.
Each of these firms is reporting a different number
It’s clear that different fintech propositions will attract different customer numbers. For the foreseeable future, neobanks and bank-replacement services will have fewer customers than cryptocurrency exchanges purely because most people already have a bank account, while the buying and selling of cryptocurrency is a new activity for most. That said, it’s worth digging into the terminology of some of these firms to show that even when products are comparable, customer numbers often aren’t. Starling’s terminology is quite specific, it refers to people that have opened current accounts with the bank rather than “customers” which could result in questions over how many of the total number were users of its merchant and payment services. Similarly, Monzo and N26 are referring to people who hold accounts in which they store at least some money, the same goes for Chime. Revolut on the other hand is referring to people that have accounts, but whether they are using that account for money transfer, cryptocurrency services or as a pseudo bank account remains somewhat unclear.
Are they helpful?
That depends on your perspective, taken in isolation the answer is pretty conclusively no. The same is true of “like for like” comparisons. While both Starling and Monzo provide the number of customers with current accounts, as a measure of which is doing better the number alone is not useful. Context helps, at Monzo ”more than 45% of customers [are] putting at least £500 a month into their accounts” CEO Tom Blomfield recently said in an interview with the FT. At Starling, 60% of customers are using their accounts at least once a month with an average of £900 in deposits. (As a point of note, most large UK high street banks define an “active” customer as one who has used their account in the last three months.) This added context indicates that these neobanks’ customers are at least as active as those of legacy players. Monzo’s choice of metric, along with the knowledge it doesn’t offer interest on deposits, offers evidence that customers are using their accounts for day-to-day transactions. Similarly, Square Cash’s figure is the number of “active customers”, defined as those that either received or sent money using Cash app that month, meaning customers who have accounts but do not use them are not counted. In Coinbase’s case, it’s known that despite having a similar number of accounts to investment powerhouse Fidelity, it manages a much, much smaller volume of assets. However, even this additional information doesn’t really provide a great deal of insight into how and when customers are engaging with these fintechs and using their products.
Why does it matter?
Again, that depends on your perspective. At their most basic, these numbers show that fintechs are getting customers to sign up. For the neobanks, that’s more impressive as it requires a would-be customer to dedicate some time and effort to submitting ID documents and completing other KYC checks such as recording a video selfie or chatting to a customer service agent via videolink. But by and large, the only people who find such metrics useful are the media. For these firms’ investors and their legacy competitors, financial metrics such as how much it costs to acquire each customer (i.e. marketing spend, cash incentives), to maintain each account, and how much revenue each customer generates are much more interesting. Investors are looking to see that companies are operating in a way that will lead to healthy exit valuations when the time comes. Older, bigger institutions are looking to see if the promise of entirely new tech stacks, a complete lack of branches, and new ways of working are paying off for the newcomers. What really matters is, are these companies’ business models sustainable? For now, we can only speculate. Even for those firms that offer a great deal of information on their financials the future is still not certain. They may yet shift their focus to react to changes in the market or data gleaned from the customers they already have. All those of us on the outside can do is seize what metrics we can, analyse the data, and gaze into our crystal balls. You can read Sarah’s research reports and see user journey video and images from leading financial services brands here. This article was first posted on Forbes.com where you can find more articles contributed by Sarah Kocianski in the near future.