The latest British invasion: mobile-only Starling Bank

The all-mobile Starling Bank launched in beta last week. Yet as the architect of a high-tech, branchless bank, Starling CEO Anne Boden is no Silicon Valley denizen, but a former insider to the conventional banking industry.

Starting as a computer programmer at 21, Boden rose to senior levels in British and Irish banking. Yet the more she explored her industry, the more roadblocks she encountered to innovating how customers use—and might even enjoy—bank services.

Frustrated by what she saw as corporate risk aversion and the very real multi-million costs of transforming complex legacy systems, Boden took a year to travel the world and consult with FinTech experts. She listened and learned. And as she did, Starling took shape.

BAI Banking Strategies spoke with Boden to learn more about how her British upstart seeks to fill a banking niche through a portal that literally fits in the palm of your hand.

BAI: Where did the name come from? Why Starling? 

Anne Boden: Our team liked the concept of a star: It best represents energy, power, light, strength and life. The “-ling” is symbolic of newness, growth and the future.

BAI: Where and when did the idea for Starling Bank come to you?

Boden: Starling was born of necessity. After the financial crisis, the world had changed. People had changed. But banking had not. I was up to date on what technology offered and customers demanded, having spent 30 years in banking and working my way up to becoming COO and CIO at some of the world’s biggest international banks. I also spent time working in FinTech, which led me to realize how difficult it would be for the big banks to really change.

BAI: How did your former employers react to your ideas? Why leave?

Boden: I left banking because I had to. The system wasn’t going to change from the inside. And customers need a bank that is very different from those on offer—one that fits with their lives and gives them real perspective on their money.

However, I’m very sympathetic towards the traditional banks. They’re built of layer upon layer of technology—systems upon systems—and to truly revolutionize, to move to a new, nimbler, more efficient system, would take a lot of courage. It would mean pressing the button. And no one wants to be responsible for that in case something goes awry.

BAI: What exactly does Starling hope to offer?

Boden: We’re a bank for any one who lives their life through their mobile—who listens to their music through their phone, does their shopping through apps, who wants their bank to be as simple and accessible as their social media. We are a fully licensed bank. And a Starling account is a current account. This is our focus.

You can spend, budget, and set savings goals all from within the app; along with a bank card, everything from payments to savings can be done within it, with sophisticated security functions and global positioning. The power is literally in the hands of the user.

We’re also developing a marketplace platform based on open APIs. This means Starling can sit at the center of a financial ecosystem, helping connect customers to the best banking and financial products on the market. We won’t try to sell anything: just help customers see the best options.

BAI: What have been the greatest challenges in starting a new kind of bank?

Boden: In order to gain a banking licence, there are quite understandably a huge amount of hoops to jump through. Regulation has made it possible, but it’s still an extensive and time-consuming process. When we were granted our license in July 2016, it was a huge and wonderful achievement.

BAI: Who would you consider Starling’s top three competitors and why? 

Boden: The real challenge isn’t really with banks—old or new. Until recently, the only difference between major banks has been the color of the carpet but with new challengers such as Metro, neo-banks such as Tandem and Atom, and next-gen banks such as ourselves, consumers finally have choice. But statistically speaking, U.K. consumers are more likely to divorce than to move banks.

BAI: How will you attract and retain loyal customers?

Boden: Banks need to stop talking about “customer acquisition.” Build a great product that really answers a need. Ensure you’re clear and straightforward about what you do and don’t do. This will bring people to you. And that’s what we intend.

ANNE BODEN_resized
Starling Bank CEO Anne Boden

Caitlin Kelly, winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor, is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and a former reporter for the Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News.