Has Britain found its niche in the dotcom 2.0 boom? The growing number of financial technology businesses that are based in the UK but successful in the global marketplace suggests it just might have done – and rightly so, given its importance as a financial services hub.
In 2012 alone, British companies won a 30 per cent share of the total global investment in financial techology firms – picking up $3bn (£1.8bn) of the $11bn invested in the sector around the world. That dominance is reflected in the FinTech 50, a new listing of 50 leading European finance companies that are driven by new technology – more than half its members are British businesses.
It provides a fascinating snapshot of a new generation of businesses that have the potential to make life very difficult for conventional financial services companies.
They include some companies with which many people will already be familiar: Zopa, the world’s first peer-to-peer lender, makes the cut; so does payday loan company Wonga (you may not like the business, but there is no denying its success).
However, the listing includes a number of businesses that have yet to achieve a great deal of profile, but which have enormous potential. There is Abundance Generation, which is applying the principles of crowdfunding to enable investors to put as little as £5 a time into renewable energy projects all around the UK; and Digital Shadows, which is already working with some of the world’s biggest banks to protect them from cyber attack and data leakage.
These businesses share one thing in common: they started life as explorations of what a particular technology can do, rather than as an attempt to solve a traditional business problem.
Wonga is a classic example. The company’s business model depends almost entirely on the quality of the algorithms it uses. It is a technology that could just as well be used in many other businesses – and already is – but Wonga chose to apply it in the payday lending sector.
All of the businesses in the FinTech 50 are doing something similar. Their work is made possible by advances in areas such as cloud computing, big data, software-as-a-service and 3G and 4G mobile telephony networks.
Many of these small but growing businesses have the potential to be disruptive in the industry niches they occupy – they’re not only new kids on the block but kids who are capable of changing the very nature of the block. Zopa is a good example. It matches people looking to earn a return on their savings with people prepared to pay interest on a loan. Now that’s possible, who needs a bank?
This is why established businesses have so much to fear from the FinTech 50. In one sense, it’s worrying for the UK, which has come to depend so heavily on traditional financial services businesses.
Still, we can at least take comfort from the fact that so many of these disruptors are home-grown.