We’re kicking off a new series here on the podcast called Blocks. In this series, we’re turning to entrepreneurs and professionals who are building the next generation of financial services leaders to understand better how they did it. How did they start with a big audacious idea and execute on it? What were the techniques and tools they used to take their businesses to the next level?
We want to drill down and understand the building blocks of their business — from their first target audience, to building the tech, to acquiring customers, making partnerships and expanding internationally.
Our first guest is MoneyLion’s founder and CEO ,Dee Choubey. MoneyLion’s roots were in personal finance management and the firm rode its early success into AN expansion into lending and then general banking services. Dee discusses how he determined what would be his initial target audience and where the opportunity was to serve them. We talk about how important this early focus is and how it helps serve the business as it grows.
How a banker gets into challenger banking
I spent 12 years in investment banking prior to starting MoneyLion. I had a front row seat to the evolution of all the new business models in consumer finance — in the US and across the world. What we saw from the early 2000s through the LBO boom in the mid 2000s to the financial crisis, we had one clear observation: the digital transformation happening in Silicon Valley was going to come to banking and we wanted to have a role in creating the customer acquisition and retention platform for the future.
We were always thinking of what a bank looks like 10, 20, 30 years in the future. We always had the idea that the bank should be a lifestyle play and not just a rote bank account or investment product. It should be a community, something people belong to, and ultimately, something that allows them to spend less time with their finances.
The initial target audience
We wanted to target consumers who were otherwise unbanked or underbanked by the existing ecosystem. One of the big insights we’ve had is that financial stress doesn’t discriminate. You can be a millionaire in New York or San Francisco and still be under severe financial stress. You may have a very high earning capability but you could have something in your past that isn’t congruent with how a bank underwrites a credit product.
Honing the value proposition
We wanted to be a player in the data space — one of our strengths of the company was our expertise in analytics. Our CTO is a preeminent expert in machine learning, doing it since the 1990s. We wanted to bring data science to untangle financial stress for everyone. We wanted to use the data of behavior to make underwriting decisions but that that wasn’t enough. You have to offer a direct to consumer product. In our case, we started off writing loans as a beachhead to building the digital bank.
Consumers were rebuilding from the black swan event of 2007-2008 and their personal P&Ls and balance sheets were recovering. Our ability to capture that userbase that was financially stressed yet recovering enabled us to build our large userbase that you see today.
Staying true to the target through data
All of our expansion comes down to what we see in our data. We see the need for certain financial products from certain segments — when we see a critical mass of it, we’ll think about expanding and offering the solution either through third parties or, in extreme cases, offering it ourselves.
If you look at our evolution, for the first three years, we were a monoline lending company. We learned how to lend money and convince consumers to pay us back. We started integrating financial advice and planning to the consumers we were lending to. The big insight we made was that consumers are generally ok nine months of the year. If they can save a little bit during those nine months, they actually create collateral that we can use to lower the cost of lending to them during the three months of the year that financial shocks occur in American households.
Sometimes during the summer or the holidays that American families go through massive financial stress. That’s where we wanted to make sure that our financial products were available to our customers. The data has really guided us how we have added orthogonal products to our product set.
Moving beyond the original customer
And as we’ve done that, the customer segment has expanded. When we launchd our financial planning and investment management capabilities, it was really geared toward the consumer with nine months of decent financial performance and three months of financial stress. We started attracting a segment that was just interested in investing. We started learning from their behavior. A year later, we realized the confluence of these two segments really needs a next generation banking solution where we eliminate the business model of inertia.
The average consumer spends $97 every six months in bank fees — whether it’s NSF, overdraft, or commission. The top 10 banks charge hundreds of millions of dollars of fees each year. So much of bank marketcap is supported by this fee stream. We believe this fee stream is worth targeting with more transparency, better technology, and more use of machine learning. That’s how the business has evolved over time.
How important was it to focus on your initial audience?
I think our focus on relieving financial stress has been consistent over the years. For 90 million Americans who self-identify as being financially stressed, we think the market is large. If you’re someone with anything variable, we’re the solution for that customer. Anyone in the gig economy — freelancers, Uber drivers — their variability in earnings doesn’t sit inside a traditional bank. Included in this group are high earners with variability in their savings and investment rate.
Communicating with the target audience
We’re always focused on this idea that getting paid and saving for the three months where there is a deficit creates a big mental mindshare on many of our members. Having a conversation around financial literacy and what you can do to prepare for your financial future — people have complex relationships with their financial lives.
Many times people avoid it because it’s hard. From a product perspective, we’ve included probably every theory from behavioral economics to help effect behavioral change. We’re seeing from outcomes that MoneyLion members improve their credit scores by 40 points, they’re wealthier, their savings rates get higher. Our product strategy really coalesces around alleviating financial stress.
Our messaging is all about community. We want our members to know they’re not all alone. Americans have never worked harder. If you think about past generations, the ones that built our infrastructure — we’re working harder and longer than even them. The community contributes their data into insights to help individuals with their decisions and goals. The community messaging really resonates and it’s why we’re seeing success in our user growth.