What UK FinTech can learn from SXSW 2016

I’ve recently been at this year’s South by South West (SXSW), or ‘south by’ as it is referred to by the locals.

Although popularly known as one of the world’s largest music and film festivals, it also brings together technologists, entrepreneurs, creatives and marketers at SXSW Interactive.

My company, FinTech startup Ormsby Street, was selected to attend SXSW by UKTI as one of its Tech Ambassadors.

London’s rise to its current position as one of the main global FinTech hubs over the past years or so, has been well-documented, yet for all the undoubted successes, there is still much to learn. The bigger FinTech startups still in the main originate from the US, so what is done differently in the US to the UK and what can UK FinTech startups learn from their US counterparts on show at SXSW?

FinTech at SXSW

This was the second year we have been at SXSW, and I noticed a small but dedicated focus on FinTech compared to 2015. FinTech was everywhere this year. I attended the ‘Payment and Fintech’ section of the SXSW Startup Accelerator, which saw Chroma, a ‘new stock market for the small business economy’ win and also a similar event focused on ‘Banking and Fintech’.

A lot of FinTech solutions are focussing on moving money around – be that through novel payment systems using mobiles or the web, or international transfers. This is prime territory for innovation and an area where banks lag behind what technology can achieve because they’re using older systems.

The other area where banking is out of whack with society, is in that of trust – this was a major theme across SXSW. Trust is the real currency of banking, but the standards and the processes that banks use are very different from those that we use in the rest of our lives. For most purposes, your phone number or your social media account are enough to identify you, but for good reason this isn’t the case in banking and so innovators are trying to find a middle way on this debate between security and convenience.

Security vs Convenience

This debate was happening all across SXSW and was one of the one themes in Barack Obama’s keynote speech. I was lucky enough to get my name pulled out of the hat to attend this, and while the President didn’t comment on the current FBI and Apple case directly, he did put forward the argument that authorities need access to data on electronic devices because the ‘dangers are real’.

He outlined his commitment to strong encryption but also discussed how smartphones and other electronic devices are designed as such that data on them is permanently locked away. What are the implications if authorities are looking to catch child pornographers or disrupt terrorist plots? Weighty issues, but the challenge of balancing encryption, security and convenience is one that almost every FinTech startup must address at some stage in their development, and it’s no doubt out of concern for its own recent startup: “Apple Pay” that Apple is making a big deal of this issue.

Products, not companies

FinTech remains a really hot topic because the experience we all have with personal banking and with business finance – paper forms, signatures and face to face conversations – is all rooted in the age of paper and therefore ripe for innovation.

Yet much of the innovation at SXSW has been around product, not the companies behind them. Most of the big business here (and there is a lot) is looking for a product that will address a gap in their own offering, rather than looking to acquire a company which would remain in any way self contained.

What this means for the FinTech startups involved, is that they must make something that truly disrupts and they must be open to collaboration and partnerships with multiple big businesses at an early stage. If a new FinTech product is only of moderate convenience, then its days will be numbered before it’s snapped up by one bank or another, and while a acquisition may be the end goal for many FinTech startups, only those who can forge partnerships with multiple major banks are likely to find the route to longer term independent growth.

Finally, something that became clear from a number of sources across SXSW, is that FinTech startups face a tougher regulatory battle than those in other sectors. Every startup should plan to scale from the moment they launch, but anyone doing so in such a highly regulated market such as FinTech needs to be certain of what they doing – get it wrong and the entire business can stall.

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