Fast Company listed their most innovative companies for the year, including a top ten for innovation in financial services, companies who are building great things for their customers; new services and new platforms.

There were very few on the list I’d ever heard of so I started reading through the list and the company profiles; I started to wonder (a) how new are these companies? and (b) why is it so hard for incumbents, despite their resources, to innovate their way onto this list?

Answering that first question, here’s list of the companies in the top ten with the year they were established. Only two of the ten are more than ten years old.

Company Name Established Service Provided
Nice systems 1986 Consumer service for mobile, including within apps.
Square 2009 Send money via email.
Bitcoin 2009 Cryptocurrency, removing all the middlemen in financial services.
GiveDirectly 2008 Donate via cellphone, direct to the recipient.
Dwolla 2008 Building a better banking network and launching a credit card.
Transferwise 2011 Peer-to-peer international currency transfers.
OneID 2011 Creating a single login – no more remembering multiple passwords.
Mastercard 1966 Re-imagining the mobile-payment network with MasterPass.
Estimize 2011 Crowd-sourcing estimates on company performance, and doing better than most of the pros.
Etoro 2007 A social network for traders, lets you copy the investment of other traders.

All of these innovations take advantage of something in the digital space, some on the growing world of mobile. To be fair the banks have also been active and innovative in this space – just not at the same rate. Some of the innovations above support and use

There’s already some discussion on why it’s so hard for large companies in established industries to innovate. Even the best techniques from Silicon Valley aren’t a magic path to increasing innovation according to this HBR article. It comes down to culture; the things that make a company successful at execution at scale aren’t the things that make a company naturally great at innovation. There are companies that are able to innovate and to scale their operations, but it’s a rare combination.

Is there something about the financial sector that makes it even harder? Perhaps, some sectors (music, travel) show a similar batch of relatively young companies, but the energy sector has more than twice the number of companies over 10 years.

I think there are two things that make it harder for financial services companies to innovate. The first is the risk mindset, in theory financial services companies should be expert at assessing risk and take decisions that maximise return for an accepted risk. In my experience the growing pressure of public opinion and increasing regulation have reduced whatever appetite there was for risk since the global financial crisis. And that’s the second thing – the global financial crisis began in 2007 and during the crisis and in the years since affected financial institutions have had to focus on legal cases, restructuring, cost control and divestment. All of that left little room and few resources for innovation. It’s probably not a co-incidence that half of the companies in the top ten were started between 2007 and 2009.

It’s great that there’s innovation in finance, and many of the solutions are customer-focused either as improved service or as de-mystifying the world of finance. I hope it inspires the “old” banks; there are more opportunities for more innovation.

Postscript September 2018, all the companies are still trading under the names listed except OneID which was acquired by Neustar.

 

Image; finance via pixabay

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