“THERE IS A big wave approaching,” says Colm Lyon, founder and chief executive of Fire.com. “We know it’s coming, we just don’t know how far away from the shore it is.”
Lyon, who graduated with a BComm from UCD in 1985, is used to catching big waves. In 2015, he sold Realex Payments for €115m. Now, with payments and financial services company Fire, he is hoping to build something even bigger.
The wave he talks about is the cashless economy – but not just living without notes and coins, but a whole ecosystem of businesses and services with frictionless, mobile-facilitated payments at their core.
Paying electronically, Lyons says, is a faster, safer way of doing business that will unlock new opportunities as it collapses the traditional walls of commerce and payments. “It’s a beautiful way to pay and it’s a superb way to get paid,” he says. “These are really fundamental improvements in the underlying infrastructure and the underlying attributes of how payments are going to work into the future.”
Around the world, and in Ireland, the numbers tell their own story. Emerging Asian countries are expected to see non- cash transactions grow by 29 per cent by next year; electronic payments make up 80 per cent of transactions in Sweden. Between February and May of this year alone, there was a seven per cent increase in the number of contactless payments per day in Ireland, with 19.1 million occurring every day.
On the ground, this is driving growth for businesses like Colin Barry’s. The UCD Business alumnus is founder of Brite Mobility, an e-scooter and e-bike sharing platform, aimed at making modern cities quickly and easily navigable for its users.
Barry knows all about rapid change. His family’s company, MotorPark, was the oldest Ford dealer in Europe, and had contracts with BMW and Mitsubishi as well. But by the end of 2018, the Barrys knew change was coming. The business was sold to Joe Duffy and Sheils Motors, and two years later, Barry is still in transport – but now, it’s a fundamentally different movement.
“We can’t run this business without being online, without it being an app. It’s not possible. Online apps bring an ability to create a networked, social, easy-to-use way of accessing transport devices or vehicles,” he says. “At it’s core, it’s about a service that allows you to find the device, start the device, travel on it, and pay for the trip, all done on your phone.”
For several years, the cashless economy has been growing at a steady pace, with the Covid-19 pandemic now locking in and accelerating this dynamic.
What will this future look like?
The explosion of the cashless economy has ushered in a new set of challenges for operators and regulators
A New Frontier
Experts in the field, like UCD graduate Laura Flood, a partner with PwC and a Council Member of the Fintech and Payments Association of Ireland, say that the move towards a cashless society is fuelled by several overlapping and reinforcing trends.
For Flood, it is “primarily driven by advances in technology, the development of new and innovative efficient payment solutions, and consumer preferences”.
“Speed, convenience and reducing the risk of theft of physical cash are also some of the key reasons we are seeing a marked reduction in cash transactions,” she says. Her work brings her into contact with the whole range of financial services companies making sense of this shift, from major domestic and international banks to “fintechs” – or financial technology companies – looking to disrupt their bigger, older brothers in the pillar lenders. The success of these interlopers goes a long way to explaining what is valued, and valuable, in this new economy.
Katherine Farrell has worked in communications with Web Summit since completing her BComm International at UCD in 2015, and that has brought her into contact with the firms trying to break new ground in the space. Fintech firms that have been attending Web Summit, and its sister conference Collision, have been “growing immensely” in recent months, she says, “purely by recognising what customers want in their financial journeys: access, speed, price and security.”
So-called “digital social payment” companies like Revolut, AliPay and Venmo “remove barriers such as paying in cash, forgetting to pay your pal, and owing someone money. They’re instant, so when friends are sitting having dinner they can immediately split a bill with far less hassle.”
On the ground, the last few years have seen rapid change. Counterintuitively, when he moved to Silicon Valley in 2011, Ger Dwyer found the digital infrastructure around him to be outdated and archaic.
The UCD BComm alumnus joined Google from Eircom in 2006, and now is chief financial officer of Waymo, the search giant’s driverless car venture. But, when he arrived to take up his new role at Mountain View, phone networks were frustrating, the traditional taxi network was “maddening”, and even as late as 2016, paying for services with Google Pay on his phone was “so awkward”.
In a few short years, that scene has been transformed by services like Google Pay and companies like Uber. When someone is leaving the office, the whip-around is done on Google Pay, not in an envelope, while a circle of Irish tech executives in Silicon Valley swap tips on the best currency exchange apps and services to use to circumvent the significant charges imposed by traditional banks. All this, Dwyer explains, has been accelerated by Covid-19, as consumer behaviours changed in ways that cut out the middle man and cut down on interactions. His wife, he says, now buys seafood directly from fishermen using digital wallet Venmo.
“That trend has been ongoing, the rise of the apps-based economy has certainly accelerated it, and now the pandemic is going to accelerate it even more.”
It’s a view shared by UCD alumnus Patrick Waldron, chief executive of international payments firm Planet. The company grew out of Galway- headquartered financial services firm Fintrax, which began life as a processor of VAT refunds for tourists. It now serves 400,000 merchants and manages transactions worth tens of billions every year. Recently, a sale worth up to €1.98bn was rumoured.
Pre-pandemic, around 70 per cent of customers wanted VAT refunds in cash. This has now plummeted to less than 20 per cent, Waldron says. And he is betting that this change will be permanent. “Once people get used to this type of behaviour, it tends to be sustained. I would think, without Covid-19, it would have taken another four or five years to make that change,” he says.
RISK AND RESPONSIBILITY
With rapid expansion, growing risk and responsibility comes along with a growing opportunity. The explosion of the cashless economy has ushered in a new set of challenges for operators and regulators, and risks to be recognised and managed by consumers.
Patrick Waldron says there is an onus on companies to be aware of emerging threats. “I would not underestimate the challenges for companies in making sure that they’re protected from cyber attacks, because we’ve seen a big increase in attacks in that area,” he says.
During the crisis, Waldron has seen more organised criminal elements involved in these incursions.
“In order to move to a fully cashless society, the financial sector’s digital products and services would need to allow for full participation by all members of society and enhance financial inclusion … ”
Web Summit’s Katherine Farrell says that while the 2008 financial crash caused many to lose trust in traditional financial services, and indirectly led to the rise of digital banks and decentralised digital currencies, the companies that win in the next phase of finance must be primed for risk.
“While customers demand convenience and speed from fintechs, security, safety from fraud, and privacy, are also major priorities. This is still an issue that hangs over massive payment companies such as PayPal, who dominate so many payment points across their portfolio,” she says.
Fintechs have enjoyed a windfall of customers during Covid-19, but “people are now being forced to use these payment systems, because we don’t have many other alternatives. It’s making consumers ask: ‘Are the same checks and balances in place with these larger payment companies?’
Where once there was a fear of the physical theft of cash, PwC’s Laura Flood says that fear has been transferred to online fraud and scams.
Flood also believes there is a need to ensure all members of society, not just tech-savvy digital natives, are catered for and have access to these new services and resources.“In order to move to a fully cashless society, the financial sector’s digital products and services would need to allow for full participation by all members of society and enhance financial inclusion with evidence-based design and transparency at the heart of progress in this area.”
These responsibilities aren’t just for companies and consumers to worry about. “For regulators, a world without cash presents some significant considerations,” says Flood. Designing monetary policy for stability and financial regulation as the use of cash declines and new innovations emerge will be a defining challenge for regulators.
“A number of forces, including these, have resulted in the concept of a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) being widely explored by many Central Banks around the world to complement or replace traditional currencies. A recent Bank for International Settlements survey showed that more than 80 per cent of the 66 banks surveyed were working on CBDC, though many in an exploratory or ‘analytical’ phase,” says Flood.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs in the area say not all areas of banking and lending will easily make the switch online. UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School alumna, Alison Fearon, formerly of Merrill nch and Goldman Sachs, last year founded Switcheroo.ie, which digitises the mortgage application process. “Payments of €50 or less are easy and low risk but other services are complicated and require advice,” she says.
“Financial services is rightly a highly regulated industry where advice for many areas is critical and will unlikely be digitised for some time. How comfortable would you be making the biggest financial decision of your life on the back of interacting with a chatbot?”
Technology, Fearon says, has an increasing role to play “but it needs to be considered and with the interest of the customer in mind, not digitisation for the sake of technology deployment.”
A BRAVE NEW WORLD
If these challenges can be bested, entrepreneurs in the sector – and consumers – can look forward to a radically changed and improved vista, with traditional lenders vulnerable to losing large swathes of their traditional markets to agile and fast-moving usurpers.
Katherine Farrell relates the experiences of two fintech innovators who have appeared at Web Summit in recent years. Revolut’s founder and CEO, Nikolay Storonsky, was at Web Summit in 2019. He said it would take 14 committees to approve one of his ideas at Credit Suisse, and two years to get one product to market. Anne Boden, chief executive of digital-only lender Starling Bank, says what would have taken years to build out in a legacy bank can be processed and shipped in weeks at a so-called “neobank”.
Colm Lyon is now largely focused on the UK, where he is on the Payments Products and Services board of trade industry body UK Finance, and the open banking future steering committee.
Lyon says the changes afoot now will collapse the traditional walls of commerce and payments. Soon, he says, consumers will be able to scan a real-life ad for a product on their phone, and pay directly through their banking app in a way that means their details will never have to be shared with a vendor.
“This is an electronic payment of monumental difference to what we have had before, because it’s cheaper for the retailer to accept that payment, it’s faster, it’s almost real time … there’s little or no fraud because I authenticate myself to my bank or to my account provider who is responsible for that and the retailer is not responsible for it,” he says. He calls it “open banking”.
PwC’s Laura Flood agrees. “Open finance is seen by many as the next stage of payment innovation and is based on the principle that the data supplied by and created on behalf of financial services customers are owned and controlled by those customers.”
Customers who consent to sharing data could be offered tailored products and services, including highly targeted quotations and personal financial management tools, as well as alternative creditworthiness assessments, according to Flood. “Open finance will present a significant opportunity for those seeking to develop innovative new services for products including mortgages, savings, pensions and insurance.”
TEXT: Jack Horgan-Jones