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‘We knew banking apps are the least deleted on people’s phones’: Sensibill’s Corey Gross

  • Understanding spending data is still a hard nut to crack.
  • Sensibill provides tools to users and their banks to feed decision making and advice.
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‘We knew banking apps are the least deleted on people’s phones’: Sensibill’s Corey Gross

The world of personal financial management is undergoing a change. Standalone applications are incorporating more banking functionality, getting into money movement and not just advice, to have a bigger impact. Banks and financial institutions are being more thoughtful about launching their own tools to help their customers.

That’s where Sensibill comes in. It works with firms like JPMorgan Chase to much smaller institutions to help their customers make sense of their finances. Using SKU-level data, Sensibill is also helping the institutions themselves understand their customers better. The firm just launched the Sensibill Platform. 

Sensibill CEO and co-founder Corey Gross is my guest today on the podcast. 

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The following excerpts were edited for clarity.

What Sensibill does

We provide financial tools to banking customers in partnership with their financial institutions. So everything from spend management, receipt management, expense management -- all embedded within mobile and online banking applications. We've worked with more than 60 million customers through more than 100 institutions, ranging as big as JPMorgan Chase, to as small as your local credit unions and community bank in Canada, the US and the UK.

Where the name came from

The honest-to-god story behind the name Sensibill came when I was in bed with a list of various plays on words on my laptop. And my wife just said, 'just call it sensibill and be done with it.' It wasn't even on the list; she just blurted it out, and I shrugged my shoulders and said, well, that's as good as any I'm going to come up with. And that was it.

Working with banks

From day one, we were going to be the type of fintech that would collaborate and partner with financial institutions rather than be a standalone tool. I had seen the Mint.coms of the world. I had seen a number of financial applications that were being built and their scale and scope of what they could do was always very limited. And to me, I felt like this was a massive problem: people's financial wellness and the disenfranchisement of certain people with particular political and social economic status and their access to financial services.

So I thought that in order to reach the biggest possible population, it would have to come in partnership with institutions that already had the reach of hundreds of millions of customers. We knew that banking apps were the least deleted on people's phones, whereas these financial management apps were very often deleted because it was so easy to be frustrated with them or not get the use out of them.

Getting first customers

Everyone kind of looks at me as this big bank whisperer. Everyone saw our releases with Royal Bank of Canada and Scotiabank and TD, and thought that that just happened. It was kind of right place, right time. We knew some good people at the banks here in Canada. Also, most of our venture capital companies were arms of financial institutions here: RBC Ventures and TD. And so we had made good connections in the venture community, and they were excited about what we're doing.

We got introductions to people who are working on that next phase of mobile banking with mobile wallets and whatnot, and they thought that expense and digital receipt management paired nicely with it. We had good conversations, and before we knew it, we had LOIs and pilots. We kind of rode that to credibility.

Feedback loop

In the early days, this was really about pairing what we had with mobile wallet solutions. We always had that George Costanza wallet in mind. The early Google Wallet had a commercial of that Seinfeld episode with George pulling an offer off of a lamppost and he tried to fit it in his wallet. It exploded and everything flies everywhere. I was just kind of like banging my leg and saying, you know, damn, that was our thing.

What we were inspired by and where we got a lot of feedback from customers was, hey, I want you to take the loyalty cards, the offers, the punch cards, the receipts, the credit cards, get them out of this physical wallet and put it on my mobile phone. We always tried to think about what the best possible experience was for helping people manage their finances. What if their wallet can talk to them and tell them how much money was actually in there? What are the implications of spending on their financial health?

So those are the types of pilots we ran. We were fortunate to get good feedback from those customers. And it really informed our midterm roadmap of building really effective financial management tools that people would use in the context of their payments.

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Banks getting users to use the apps

Getting people to use personal financial tools is the $100 million question for every financial institution that partners with one of these fintechs that promises great engagement with the next widget. It's a challenge. What we did was approach it as a partnership. There's not going to be a silver bullet to this stuff. We know that financial management at certain financial institutions has like a 3% uptake. And then we know that companies that would be able to really nail this with the right partner have been able to get it to like 20%, 30%, and 40%.

And so what that tells me is that it really depends on the willingness of the partner to align on a marketing calendar of events that we can trigger to get people to do this stuff. You're going to open up your mobile banking app, and if it takes you four or five clicks to find the receipt manager or the spend manager, you're probably going to be a lot less likely to count on it than if you open up your app and there it gives you instant insight and education that helps inform how to live a better, healthier financial life.

It's partially about marketing and communication to the customers, knowing what communications are most effective to the customer base. And then, the experience: how long does it take for you to get value? That's not any different principle than with any other app that you've downloaded.

PFMs via banks versus standalones

For a lot of the customers that use Sensibill for expense and receipt management, their biggest competitor to us was a manila folder and graph paper. We were helping entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, and consultants. Then we moved to a much more seasoned, digitally savvy, mobile savvy crowd, and the bank was the first step towards educating them that there were better tools available to them.

In terms of who we think that we compete with for our customers, we are not quite a pure play PFM. We don't see ourselves completely at odds with the Yodlees or the Personetics of the world. I think some of our tools are very complementary -- we get to item-level information from receipts which tells you how much is spent in the grocery category. We can feed data into those PFMs. So, we don't see them as competitors.

There's going to be a class of user that's going to go off and feel more comfortable using a Mint.com. But I think that we speak to the people who like to entrust all their financial data with institutions and get a little bit skittish whenever a third party app asks them to log into their bank account on their behalf. So in that way, I think we cater to a more privacy centric user.

The evolving bank client

I think there's definitely more of an interest now on helping people solve for financial wellness issues. We get a lot more in the way of collaboration for how we communicate this message to customers. There's a greater willingness now to use Sensibill as a way our bank clients understand their customers more deeply. We're less a point solution as a financial tool, but now more of a platform for helping understand customer needs. We can get far more granular -- one of the things that we did with some of our early customers was say, hey, we can use our data to determine whether there are businesses and entrepreneurs and independent contractors hiding within personal banking. And would that be interesting to you, major bank?

Once we showed them the data, they said, well, if we have even a modest conversion rate, something that we use for most of our campaigns, we could see a major uplift in revenue, not just on the business banking and small business side, but we might be able to help build longer lasting relationships with these folks than we would have had we just been speaking to them like they were some kind of personal banking customer.

I think the story has evolved to where that is such a big part of what we offer now today: revealing the truth about bank customers' needs and wants and intentions.

The Sensibill Platform

Historically, most people just pegged us as the digital receipts guys or the receipt management guys. And receipt management would also feed into expense management, but on the business banking side, we said, yeah, we are that. But what we've always been able to do is say we can get to such granular levels of data from the receipts that customers capture, we could offer a much more comprehensive spend management tool and data that gets extracted from that spend management tool that might be able to feed into other personal financial management services that banks offer.

We announced Spend Manager, which still does contains receipt capture and receipt management functionality. But we offer people more insights out of the box, based on what we're learning about their spend, and what we're inferring about their needs. And that data isn't just exclusive to our interfaces -- it's data that can feed into existing products and services that the banks already have today. So it is a comprehensive spend management solution.

Then we have Spend Insights, which basically takes a lot of this knowledge that we've accumulated, so that we can better segment customer needs across entire financial institutions' populations. Spend Insights informs how you might be able to best communicate with those customers based on what their unique needs are. So we might be able to infer based on a customer buying baby formula or diapers at a rate that they never might have before that they are a new parent. And that obviously changes the dialogue that you have with that customer based on their life stage.

Spend Manager and Spend Insights are two of the first formal products that come from the Sensibill Platform. Think of Sensibill Platform as a platform that enables the creation of these financial tools on the user facing side, but on the back end of this, allows all of that knowledge, all that data that we accumulate to be fed into existing and potentially new use cases for SKU level data. We're excited.

Data sharing

Philosophically, we don't want to share XYZ Bank's data with Fintech 123. That's not who we are, because we truly believe in the security and the secure and private nature of the relationship between customer and the financial institution that they entrust. We never want to violate that. We see this as a layer that a third party can use to build new experiences, independent of financial institutions -- I don't want to say pilot for SKU level data, but that's a good way to imagine it. And for a financial institution that right now is partnering with more and more fintechs to power different aspects of the banking experience than ever, we provide a platform for all those fintechs to tap into and use independent of just simply the core or the transaction logs that usually fuel a lot of these personal financial management type use cases.

Financial institutions

There's no better validation or credibility that we can learn from than the types of partners that we've been able to work with so far. We're fortunate that we have evangelists at the multinational trillion dollar banking level, and we have super evangelists at $100 million to $500 million banks or credit unions. We have more turnkey solutions available on day one for smaller institutions now. We don't have to rely on them to have an ML team or data science team staffed up to take advantage of this stuff. They can get to work on day one. They get to benefit from the shared knowledge that we've been able to accumulate from banks that have tens of millions of customers.

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