Who made it into the Forbes Fintech 50?

The Forbes Fintech 50 2019 reveals that although the crypto markets may be going through a frosty period, investment in the growth of fintech businesses surged in 2018. As Forbes reports, total investment reached $55 billion in 2018, double that of the previous year. The Forbes list of the top 50 finteches also shows that the businesses themselves are getting bigger, with 19 of the 50 firms valued at, or in excess of, $1 billion.

This is only the fourth time that Forbes has published this list and it’s pleasing to see that there are 20 startups that have made the cut for the first time. It is also interesting to see that the sector showing a strong growth in startups is that of payments services, particularly those focused on providing a service to the unbanked. In the case of the USA these people are typically migrants without a US credit history, or people who live hand to mouth on a wage paid weekly. The lack of access to banking and payment facilities is a greater problem in developing countries, but let’s not forget it happens in the first world as well.

Exchanges dominate

There are few surprises at the top of the list, as many of the names are familiar: Axoni, Bitfury, Circle, Coinbase, Gemini and Ripple are all headline makers. Bitfury is the only non-US based of this top six: it is based in Amsterdam. It started off as a bitcoin mining outfit, but then launched its own blockchain plus software designed to help U.S. law-enforcement and others investigate illicit activity using bitcoin. It has a valuation of $1 billion plus and received more than $150 million from Korelya Capital, Macquarie Capital, Dentsu & others.

Axoni may be less famliar than say Coinbase, Circle or Ripple. It uses blockchain-based smart contracts to overhaul the back office of the world’s biggest derivative markets. It received funding from Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and others to the tune of $59 million.

Circle, with a valuation of $3 billion and Coinbase with a valuation of $8 billion are big hitters; they even sometimes work together. Last year they partnered to launch a stablecoin USDC — a crypto asset using the ethereum blockchain and backed by US dollars.

Payments services present in big numbers

Payments services make up 25% of the Top 50 list. The Forbes list is skewed towards US companies, but it is notable that in the payments sector, it includes Transferwise, a UK registered company, widely used by Europeans when they need to transfer large sums of money across borders. Other payments services listed include Bolt, which is the ‘smallest’ with a valuation of only $20 million, whereas Stripe is one of the largest with a valuation of $685 million.

Forbes predicts that the leaders in the blockchain sphere will stop trying to outrun each other in 2019 and will instead start seeking partnerships within the mainstream world of finance.

Amazon and Google are spoilt brats

Amazon has in recent months been named as the ‘monster’ responsible for killing off high street retail businesses. It’s so convenient, especially if you use the Prime service, and if you have Alexa as well, you barely need to stir from your armchair. The firm is so invaluable to our daily lives that it has become the most valuable public company worldwide, and that makes it very powerful.

The battle over streaming services

Then there is Google, another giant company. Amazon is already in a war with Google over streaming services. Some time ago, Amazon banned any streaming service from its Amazon store, because they competed with Amazon’s own streaming hardware. The reason it gave was this; it was to avoid “customer confusion.”

In an email, Amazon said: “Over the last three years, Prime Video has become an important part of Prim. It’s important that the streaming media players we sell interact well with Prime Video in order to avoid customer confusion.”

A game of tit-for-tat

Of course this led to a tit-for-tat response that escalated in 2017. For example, YouTube blocked the availability of its videos on Amazon’s Echo Show hardware, saying that this move was purely due to a “broken user experience.”

Amazon’s response was to ban more Google products from its site, by adding the Google Nest hardware to its blacklisted products.

Amazon also managed to find a workaround for its Echo Show users ho wanted to use YouTube, but Google managed to block that. YouTube then informed owners of Amazon’s Fire TV products that YouTube would no longer work on that hardware either. Basically, the feud hit rock bottom, because now customers experienced a broken experience on whichever platform they tried to use.

Google issued this statement: “”​We’ve been trying to reach agreement with Amazon to give consumers access to each other’s products and services. But Amazon doesn’t carry Google products like Chromecast and Google Home, doesn’t make Prime Video available for Google Cast users, and last month stopped selling some of Nest’s latest products. Given this lack of reciprocity, we are no longer supporting YouTube on Echo Show and FireTV. We hope we can reach an agreement to resolve these issues soon.”

A playground tiff

Doesn’t it remind you of a playground tiff at a kindergarten? Rather than setlle the issue like two professional companies, they have indulged in a massive spat that leaves customers — the very people that are most important to them –wondering where else they can get a similar service from. They also showed that companies as powerful as they are can simply “eliminate integral functionality” when they feel like it, which demonstrates to consumers that they don’t really own what they have purchased. And how has the consumer responded? By continuing to use both these services and pushing them towards even greater domination, all for the sake of convenience. Surely there is a lesson to be learnt here?

Which would you bet on: John McAfee becoming US president, or eating his d**k on TV?

For many years when most people heard the name ‘McAfee’ the software that protected your computer from malware, viruses and Trojans came to mind. But, John McAfee, the man behind the anti-virus software business has given us an entirely different image to conjure up when the name is mentioned.

Who knew that the Anti-Virus King was such a maverick and such an enthusiastic user of Twitter? His announcement this week that he plans to run for President in the 2020 presidential campaign is not a great surprise, and if constant Twitter use is a qualification for the job (the current POTUS seems to think it is) then he might be a shoo in.

Not that John McAfee can actually step foot in the USA. He has fled the country and is sending out messages from his boat, which is somewhere in international waters so that the Internal Revenue Service can’t touch him. He hasn’t filed a tax return in years, so it’s no surprised that the IRS have come after him, especially since he keeps boasting about it. McAfee certainly doesn’t seem to have grasped the concept of ‘going under the radar’.

What else do we know about the man? Well, he’s a cryptocurrency fanatic to start with and he has made a lot of noise in the crypto world and attracted a large swathe of followers. He also has a fairly interesting backstory, including the fact that he was born in the UK, not the USA. His parent moved to Roanoke, Virginia when he was young and his father committed suicide when McAfee was 15.

His career in computing started after he took a job at a firm that coded punch-card systems. He then worked at a few Silicon Valley firms until the first major virus in PCs emerged and that’s when he started his anti-virus company. The company soon became one of the biggest of its type, but McAfee decided to retire in 1994 and keep a low profile.

His shares in the company netted him $100 million and he seemed set for a comfortable future, however in 2008, the financial collapse that affected the whole world also hit McAfee hard and he lost around 96% of his fortune.

And this is when he starts to reveal his maverick nature to a wider audience. He moved to Belize, but started to think he was being followed, and lost his connection with society for a while. He also had to flee the country in 2012 when he became a person of interest in a murder case that involved the death of his neighbour. He was then arrested in Guatemala for illegal entry and repatriated to the USA. And that’s when his love affair with crypto started.

In 2015 he started the Cyber Party and made his first attempt to run for president. He also got involved with MGT Technologies, a rather mysterious firm that was producing games, providing cybersecurity services and manufacturing some drugs. It’s an odd mix that gives off a strong smell of dodginess. He left her to become fully embroiled in the bitcoin world; the leading cryptocurrency being his favourite. He’s made numerous predictions, perhaps most famously his tweet that if bitcoin didn’t reach $1 million by the end of 2020 “I will eat my dick.” Which will happen first: will McAfee become president or will we see him cannibalise himself on Squawk Box at the beginning of 2021?

Challenger banks are on the rise

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Challenger banks, neobanks, whatever you want to call them, have been making significant in-roads in the banking sector and are attracting large chunks of venture capital investment says KPMG. There are some subtle differences between the two: challenger banks are often established firms that compete with larger financial institutions, while neobanks tend to be completely digital and favour operating via mobile devices, but the difference between them is somewhat blurred. What they do share in common is this: “these banks don’t carry the weight of legacy technology, so they can leapfrog over traditional infrastructure and disrupt the status quo.”

Two of the most prominent – Monzo and Atom Bank—raised $93 million and $140 million respectively last year. Starling Bank, which is ‘digital-only’ is raising a further $54 million in a new funding round. These are all British startups by the way.

Why are so many challenger banks British?

The chief reason for the fact that so many challenger banks are UK-based is this: Britain isn’t as saturated with big banks and their branches as the US, so there is more opportunity for non-traditional financial institutions. Furthermore, the UK was an early adopter of digital banking, dating back to the dotcom era of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Basically, the UK has had a head start in this financial area, although it would be a mistake to think that challenger banks are a UK-only phenomenon.

Challenger banks worldwide

There are currently about 100 challenger banks worldwide: Brazil has Banco Original and Nubank, while Germany is home to SolarisBank and N26 and in Asia there is MyBank, WeBank, Timo, Jibun, K Bank and Kakao.

What advantage do challenger banks have?

They don’t have a legacy system and because most of them don’t offer a full suite of banking services they don’t have to operate within such tough regulatory environments. This means they have more freedom and flexibility, which in turn allows them to develop their customer base faster, especially in developing countries where bank branches are more rare than in the west.

What services do challenger banks offer?

Their focus is usually on niche products rather than trying to provide all the services that the big banks provide. For example, customers can open a current account with a relatively high rate of return and get loans, but they may have to go elsewhere for services such as credit cards, mortgages and wealth management. Some of the challenger banks do have banking licences, although not all follow this model.

Although challenger banks are on the rise, the old guard hasn’t disappeared just yet, and the traditional banks are aware of the threat the challengers pose and are preparing for battle. The traditional banks have the advantage of a large and well-establish customer base and strong branding that promotes trust. The challenger banks will have to earn trust. That will most likely come from the millennial generation over the next decade, because they are the group that have lost trust in the banks their parents use, and this is the audience that challenger banks will need to court if they are to become an established sector in banking.