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THE good news is that advances in financial technology, or fintech, are going to improve customers lives. The bad news is a lot of investors are going to lose money while it happens.
With a record US$98bil (RM409bil) invested in the first half of 2021 alone, taking the total to in excess of US$1 trillion (RM4.17 trillion) over the past decade, the amounts involved are stunning.
Despite some amazing companies many fintechs are poor investments, beset by serious flaws in their business models and operational performance. We are in an era of immense technological change, but cheap money and the need for growth has blinded many investors to the risks.
Investors need to first focus on the basic product. The key question is what problem the fintech firm is trying to solve? Does it add value to customers and is the product better than its competitors? Surprisingly, I have seen a lot of fintechs where these basic questions seem not to have been asked.
A good example is the myriad of blockchain companies, with many trying to find a problem that can fit their perceived solution. Their products might be technically sophisticated, but are they enough for customers to switch?
The wider problem is that many firms lack a viable strategy. Rapid product rollouts, a slick user interface or innovative technology are often cited as key competitive advantages, but these are not strategies in themselves. Neither is lower cost. In many cases the competition could also reduce its pricing, thereby crushing returns.
How long could firms like the money-transfer firm Wise Plc or Revolut Ltd survive if a major incumbent such as HSBC Holdings Plc started a price war by offering the same foreign-exchange rates?
A poor fundamental strategy is common and can often be detected by firms entering “Red Ocean” markets. A Red Ocean is an existing market with lots of competition. Usually, the returns are determined by market forces and disrupting these can be extremely difficult. Unless you are doing business in a very different way, you are going to be hostage to these same forces and see disappointing returns.
Hence the lacklustre performance of European challenger banks like Metro Bank PLC, Monzo Bank Ltd or Peter Thiel-backed N26 GmbH should come as no surprise. They were doing nothing fundamentally different than the incumbents. As Thiel said, most firms fail because they fail to escape the competition.
By contrast, “Blue Ocean” strategies are overlooked. A Blue Ocean is one where there is a lack of competition and an opportunity to create new demand. A Blue Ocean strategy could start in a niche of an existing market but expand or even create a completely new market. This is often where true disruptors are born. The best example is Amazon.com Inc, which started in selling books and expanding into new markets such as cloud computing.