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Steve's ITK: On background only


Steve's ITK

July 26 · Issue #63 · View online

Steve's In The Know: Thoughts from a European tech insider.

Opening thought: Can a bank charge for software?
There was a decent amount of fintech news in the last few weeks, including the launch of Monzo Plus, as the challenger bank scrambles to find new revenue streams amidst the coronavirus crisis.
Can a bank charge for software? That’s the existential question Monzo appears to be asking itself with its second — or, possibly, third — attempt at launching Monzo Plus, a premium version of its popular current account.
What’s interesting about the new new Monzo Plus is that it deviates quite a lot from the more traditional packaged bank account. Instead of bundling a number of typically up-sold products, such as travel or gadget insurance, as many banks and fintechs do, the product is much more akin to a paid-for software upgrade.
Features include third-party bank account aggregation (seeing Monzo create its own open banking connectors rather than using open banking API providers, such as TrueLayer), virtual debit cards, custom transaction categories, spreadsheet export and credit score updates.
There are a number of more traditional perks, too, such as the ability for Monzo Plus customers to earn interest on their balances of up to £2,000, discounts at partner merchants and £400 of fee-free withdrawals abroad.
However, undoubtedly, the bulk of the value is in the software features, as echoed by Monzo’s chief product officer Mike Hudack.
On trying to bring a SaaS model to consumer banking, Hudack told me he believes it is clear that there is software in the world that is worth paying for and he doesn’t see any reason why that should be different for a bank, especially one like Monzo that acts like a software company as much as it does a financial institution.
One interesting debate around the new new Monzo Plus is whether or not it fails on the challenger bank’s self-stated mission to ‘make money work for everyone,’ since only those who can afford the £5 per month get access to the new more useful money management features.
However, I don’t really have a definitive position on the ethics. Arguably, a simple monthly subscription is a much more transparent and honest business model than the opaque charges typically levied by incumbent banks, where the most indebted customers cross-subsidise ‘free’ banking for the rest. On the other hand, features, such as account aggregation – which Monzo is charging for – can be found for free in numerous products from competitors.
Of course, the best software isn’t usually about one single feature but the way they work together. In other words, the sum is greater than its parts. In this regard, your mileage with Monzo Plus may vary and I’d love to hear the experiences of ITK readers who have signed up to Monzo’s new premium offering.
Steve O'Hear
I have a joke about PRs but I can only tell you the punchline on background
Meanwhile, not content with asking one existential question – can a bank charge for software – for 24 hours at least, Monzo appeared to ask a second: could a product launch be done entirely on background?
‘On background’ is media jargon for ‘not for attribution’. In PR, it is typically used when public relations or spokespeople want to provide a journalist with additional context or background information that they, for a myriad of reasons, don’t want directly quoted or attributed to an individual at the company. A product launch isn’t usually one of them.
At Monzo’s insistence, the call with Hudack – who, incidentally, makes a very good interviewee – was initially on background only, but after a lot of moaning from me and a ring-around to other journalists, was retroactively allowed to be ‘on record’. That was encouraging to see, especially since Monzo has historically maintained good media relations and has always played it pretty straight down the line from a PR perspective. Now under new day-to-day management, let’s hope that isn’t changing.
More broadly, the reason why overuse of on background is a problem is that by definition it creates a lack of accountability. Not for attribution means the PR line being repeated isn’t tied directly to an individual. Worse still, it isn’t clear to readers where information is coming from or who is doing the spinning.
With that said, there are situations where on background serves a mutually useful purpose for journalists, sources and readers alike – a way of putting public interest information into the public domain without jeopardising the person providing it. That’s a very different use-case to company announcements.
Which is why I’m increasingly sensitive to PR people abusing the on background protocol often to the bemusement (and annoyance) of fellow journalists. American companies, such as Apple and Facebook, are likely the worst offenders, and last year Robinhood tried to announce its U.K. broker license on background, for what reason, I have no idea.
I remember the incident quite clearly, since it was a typical PR bait and switch where journalists thought they had signed up to an interview only to be asked if they would agree to the entire call being on background and therefore not for attribution.
‘Is that so no one gets fired?’ I replied.
A certain type of dry British humour doesn’t always make it across the pond intact, and my quip was met with awkward silence.
On background only, of course.
Things I wrote
Unmortgage founder’s new startup wants to make it free to sell your house
Robinhood, the stock trading app, postpones UK launch ‘indefinitely’
Plum raises $10M for its ‘smart’ money management app
(How to fix) 5 common UX mistakes in online banking
Former Atomico and SoftBank VC Carolina Brochado has joined EQT to help build its new growth fund
Former Spotify marketing exec-turned-VC Sophia Bendz on her love of early-stage investing
Direct Line Group acquires London-based insurance app Brolly
Monzo launches new Monzo Plus with software features it hopes users will want to pay for
Fraud detection startup Ravelin secures $20M Series C
Pricefx raises $65M Series C for its cloud-based pricing software
Legaltech startup Orbital Witness scores £3.3M to create a ‘universal risk rating’ for real estate
Closing thought: Should journalists write their own newsletter?
If you subscribe to Steve’s ITK, then hopefully you answered yes, although apparently the answer isn’t as clearcut as it seems. Writing for Digiday, Max Willens explores the topic, including a robust quote from your’s truly. It’s a fun piece, even if it is extremely inside baseball – not unlike this edition of ITK 🙃
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Otis 'Max' Load and the Thirteen Persons on Spotify
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