Digital Innovators: Q&A with Starling Bank chief executive Anne Boden

Anne Boden
Starling Bank is revolutionising the relationship between people and their money. (Source: Getty)

Starling Bank is a fully-regulated bank and mobile-only current account which launched last year.

Last year Starling Bank was identified as one of 50 of the freshest and most inspiring digital companies using technology and innovation to shake up their sectors in our Digital Innovators Power List. Following a public vote and after careful consideration by supporting partners and judges, it was named as one of the top 10 Digital Innovators. Later this year two of these companies will be identified as a "life changer" or a "market transformer".

Chief executive Anne Boden tells us her long-term vision for the company and gives us insight into why it's one of the UK's leading digital innovators.

Talk me through the business. What sparked the idea? How do you compete with other players/what sets you apart?

After three decades spent working in senior leaderships roles across some of the world’s biggest financial institutions, I started to realise that unlike many other industries, banks were failing to keep up with the emerging possibilities of technology – and were suffering because of it.

It was during my tenure as COO of Allied Irish Banks that I started to realise that in order for the banking industry to start delivering a truly great customer experience, it needed a shot of real innovation. It became clear that traditional banks were still struggling on many levels, restrained by legacy systems and infrastructure and trying to fix the problems of the past rather than looking to the future. I decided that instead of trying to fix an antiquated, broken system, I’d have to start from the ground up, uniting finance with groundbreaking technology that had never before been applied to banking. In short, I’d need to do what had previously been thought to be impossible: build a whole new kind of bank.

I began to recognise how uniting finance with the world’s best technology could have a transformative effect on the relationship between people and their money – and how it could potentially revolutionise the banking industry. The result was Starling – a fully regulated bank and mobile-only current account with zero branches and a clean, intuitive app featuring smart money management tools.

How has your company grown in the past few years? What are the most crucial things you have done to grow it?

We’ve come a very long way in a short amount of time! We launched in early 2014, raised funding in 2015, gained our banking licence in 2016 and launched into the app stores as the UK first current account from a new digital bank in 2017. As you’d imagine, as a bank we’re highly regulated and the hurdles to jump through are always extremely high. We have to reach the standard whereby our customers' balances are protected up to £85,000 by the FSCS, and our regulatory process only really completed in July 2017.

Growing a successful product and brand is a process – and it takes time. From the early days spent crafting those layers of infrastructure that any new product needs to grow, to time spent building and refining a company culture that that people (both customers and employees) can really believe and invest in – it really does take a village. Part of that village is definitely the early adopters, too – that initial band of loyal customers who help the product develop in the early days and spread the word about the brand and its values. We certainly owe a lot to our own community.

Where do you hope to be in a year/two years? What is your long-term vision for the business?

We’re currently in the high-growth phase of our business, and we anticipate being in profit by the end of 2019. This year, one of our main priorities is the introduction of our business banking offering; we’ll soon be delivering a great business account that will help other businesses to grow and prosper.

We’ll also be expanding across Europe, first into Ireland and then into other European countries where the UK has good connectivity. France and Germany will be the first targets beyond Ireland, owing to their large populations and stronger demand for accounts in both Sterling and Euros.

Longer term we intend to be the natural choice for customers across Europe who are in search of a banking provider that’s not anchored in the traditions of the past.

How do you see the state of the market in which your business operates? What are the biggest challenges you will face in the coming years and how do you hope to overcome them?

At the moment, the retail banking industry is going through substantial regulatory change with the advent of PSD2 and Open Banking. Implementing these changes successfully could lead to customers owning their data and feeling empowered by the ability to create a financial marketplace, all from their phone – but get it wrong, and customers will feel threatened and adrift in a potentially threatening environment.

I am hugely positive about the advent of Open Banking – for both Starling and the banking industry as a collective. Just as PSD1 brought new and interesting eMoney businesses into the industry, PSD2 will encourage connection between innovative companies whilst fostering a vibrant ecosystem that’s focused on the customer (and will eventually be copied in time by the incumbent banks!).

We at Starling have fostered a culture of constant innovation and velocity of innovation. We are not a one off good idea.

How important is innovation to your business? How do you engender a culture of forward thinking and creativity with your staff?

At Starling, our aim has always been to build the UK’s – in fact, Europe’s – first 100 per cent digital current account. Innovation is at the heart of what we do, and we’re trying to break the banking mould by addressing its issues through pioneering new technologies, whilst constantly rethinking and subverting the traditional legacy bank structure in order to build something better.

Starling also employs people from all backgrounds, with skills as varied as art, engineering and accountancy, and we structure our company in a smart and agile way, creating sets of problem-solving teams rather than traditional ‘departments’ (for example, our Chief Information Officer is currently leading our marketing and creative efforts!). We like to keep things fresh, and that means creating a unique cross-section of skills and experience so that we never stagnate or rest on our laurels.

What is it about your company that makes it one of the UK’s leading digital innovators?

Solving ‘big’ problems is at the heart of true innovation, and at Starling we believe that we’re building a product that can truly transform people’s relationship with their money, and change banking forever. At the heart of Starling’s mission is a desire to tackle one of the most difficult and emotionally impactful problems people face in their everyday lives – their own financial health. For a product to be genuinely innovative, I believe that it has to be solving something that will benefit society on a macro scale – it has to genuinely break new ground and dare to go where no-one has before. At Starling, we’re proud to say we’re doing just that.

Look out for the next Q&A with FiveAI, another top 10 Digital Innovator, on 22 February 2018.

Related articles