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Banks need to strike the right balance for digital transformation

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Every financial institution is looking to digital transformation to meet rising customer expectations for speed and convenience, lower its operating cost, and fend off competition, including from tech companies moving into financial services. Some are spending over 10% of yearly revenue on technology investments, according to Bloomberg. “This is a huge investment and most financial institutions cannot support this for the long term,” says Michael Fei, SME banking CEO at OneConnect Financial Technology, an associate of Ping An Insurance.

The covid-19 pandemic has revealed how even financial institutions that considered themselves digitally advanced are, in reality, still wedded to analog processes along the chain of processing.

“For many financial institutions, this has been a wake-up call,” says Fei. “In the past, many had thought that if they have an online portal and a mobile application then that’s enough. But now they’ve realized it’s not. Some banks have online portals and mobile apps where you can apply for loans, but they still need to send items to the customer and carry out on-site inspection before they can process the loans, which hasn’t been possible during covid. Banks have had to reshape and redesign the whole process of their lending products.”

Banks have also realized their lack of truly deep customer knowledge, which is crucial to inform responsible and flexible decisions during an economic downturn as customer needs rapidly change.  

“Now that everything is digital, financial institutions are realizing how little they knew their customers,” says Tan Bin Ru, chief executive officer for Southeast Asia at OneConnect Financial Technology. “Customer hyper-personalization tools, to understand what products to offer, have been acknowledged conceptually for a long time but not implemented—now banks are moving towards it and really getting tools to do it.” Traditional banks that were not previously utilizing alternative datasets now want to integrate them more into secure lending, Tan says.

The power of partnerships

Banks have increasingly understood they need outside help to execute their digital transformation agenda. “Banks usually have very rigid systems and procedures,” says Fei. “For instance, if you want to launch a new product you have to follow the process, and it takes at least six months. In the age of digitalization, this doesn’t work, as customers want things immediately. This has put huge pressure on these financial institutions to build agile operations and systems to be able to respond to the needs of their customers.”

But the number of tech companies pushing into financial services can be overwhelming and not all of them have domain expertise, which can lead to misguided attempts to apply new technologies everywhere. Without experience of financial services, tech companies may also underestimate the trade-offs involved in deploying certain digital tools. 

OneConnect combines expertise in digital technology with deep knowledge of banking. Fei, who has past experience working at HSBC China and Bank of Langfang, a Chinese commercial bank, describes one partnership with a Chinese national bank to reimagine its customer service center as an illustration of why banking experience matters in digital reform. The lender was looking to transform a 6,000-person call center toward a more intelligent, AI-enabled approach with greater use of automation. But automating customer services must be done carefully; customers will not appreciate being handed off to a robot for certain sensitive or urgent inquiries where a human counterpart is desired.  

OneConnect built a knowledge map with the bank, to understand and anticipate what problem a customer is trying to solve with a given query, and then understanding when and where to apply automation versus human support. “This required extensive understanding of the business and the industry, which many technology companies do not have,” he says. “You need that, to know when to intervene, what should be done by robotics and what should be a human being. Many tech companies cannot offer this.”

Rather than advocating digital transformation across the board, OneConnect works to get the right balance between customization and integration, and to appreciate that banks are looking for a blend, or omnichannel approach. “Our banking customers, and their customers, want to be offline for certain things, and online for others; they want that flexibility,” says Tan.

A second partnership problem banks face is the sheer number of technology vendors and startups, which can be overwhelming and complicate their digital transformation journey. It is unclear which fintechs will survive and which will not; startups might offer an appealing technology, but if their underlying business model proves unviable, or they cannot raise sufficient funding to support their expansion, or they pivot to a new direction, a bank is exposed.

In many cases, banks take on many different fintechs because no single startup can manage the breadth of their needs, or because the bank wants to diversify its risk. “Since the digital journey is such a long process, a lot of banks feel they need to look at 15 to 20 fintechs to piece together their journey, but the more players they have, the more risk there is,” says Tan.

OneConnect solves both problemsan overly complicated vendor network and the risk of working with fledgling tech companies—by offering a broad sweep of turnkey solutions, with the commercial scale and security that customers can rely on. Typically, a bank will chart its desired journey and up to 80% of those solutions can be provided by OneConnect, says Tan. The company, publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, also draws on over 30 years of experience in financial services of its parent company, Ping An, described by The Economist as a window into the future of finance. “No other traditional financial-services group in the world comes close to rivaling Ping An’s ability to develop technologies and deploy them at such a scale,” the magazine recently wrote.

OneConnect: The journey so far

OneConnect has built a broad business in China, serving all of its major banks, 99% of its city commercial banks, and 53% of insurance companies. But its footprint is increasingly global, with over 50 international customers in more than 15 markets, including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Abu Dhabi.

The company has built new technology solutions to enhance pricing accuracy, such as an alternative data, AI-based credit scoring model for a credit bureau in Indonesia, and supported Malaysian banks to develop user-friendly apps, digital portals, and onboarding. It is leveraging image recognition, a core enabler of “insur-tech” that allows insurers to quickly assess damage claims and pay out to eligible beneficiaries. OneConnect has partnered with Swiss Re, a European insurer, to develop a digital end-to-end solution for motor claims handling, based on AI-based image recognition and advanced data analytics. The tool can analyze photos of vehicle damage, identify repair needs and costs within minutes, offer cash payments, and even offer value-added services, like directing drivers to a repair garage.

OneConnect is also helping build the fintech ecosystem by working with governments, regulators, and stakeholders. It is working with Singapore’s blockchain association to build the skills, literacy, and talent pool needed to enable innovation and has partnered with Abu Dhabi Global Market, a financial center in the United Arab Emirates, to support the development of a “digital lab,” a sandbox for fintechs to collaborate and develop their innovations.   

Working closely with its partners at home and abroad, OneConnect is helping the finance industry move swiftly into the digital era by leveraging the right tools at the right time, benefiting customers and finance institutions alike by widening access to services and lowering costs.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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Snowflake latest enterprise company to feel Wall Street’s wrath after good quarter

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Snowflake reported earnings this week, and the results look strong with revenue more than doubling year-over-year.

However, while the company’s fourth quarter revenue rose 117% to $190.5 million, it apparently wasn’t good enough for investors, who have sent the company’s stock tumbling since it reported Wednesday after the bell.

It was similar to the reaction that Salesforce received from Wall Street last week after it announced a positive earnings report. Snowflake’s stock closed down around 4% today, a recovery compared to its midday lows when it was off nearly 12%.

Why the declines? Wall Street’s reaction to earnings can lean more on what a company will do next more than its most recent results. But Snowflake’s guidance for its current quarter appeared strong as well, with a predicted $195 million to $200 million in revenue, numbers in line with analysts’ expectations.

Sounds good, right? Apparently being in line with analyst expectations isn’t good enough for investors for certain companies. You see, it didn’t exceed the stated expectations, so the results must be bad. I am not sure how meeting expectations is as good as a miss, but there you are.

It’s worth noting of course that tech stocks have taken a beating so far in 2021. And as my colleague Alex Wilhelm reported this morning, that trend only got worse this week. Consider that the tech-heavy Nasdaq is down 11.4% from its 52-week high, so perhaps investors are flogging everyone and Snowflake is merely caught up in the punishment.

Snowflake CEO Frank Slootman pointed out in the earnings call this week that Snowflake is well positioned, something proven by the fact that his company has removed the data limitations of on-prem infrastructure. The beauty of the cloud is limitless resources, and that forces the company to help customers manage consumption instead of usage, an evolution that works in Snowflake’s favor.

“The big change in paradigm is that historically in on-premise data centers, people have to manage capacity. And now they don’t manage capacity anymore, but they need to manage consumption. And that’s a new thing for — not for everybody but for most people — and people that are in the public cloud. I have gotten used to the notion of consumption obviously because it applies equally to the infrastructure clouds,” Slootman said in the earnings call.

Snowflake has to manage expectations, something that translated into a dozen customers paying $5 million or more per month to Snowflake. That’s a nice chunk of change by any measure. It’s also clear that while there is a clear tilt toward the cloud, the amount of data that has been moved there is still a small percentage of overall enterprise workloads, meaning there is lots of growth opportunity for Snowflake.

What’s more, Snowflake executives pointed out that there is a significant ramp up time for customers as they shift data into the Snowflake data lake, but before they push the consumption button. That means that as long as customers continue to move data onto Snowflake’s platform, they will pay more over time, even if it will take time for new clients to get started.

So why is Snowflake’s quarterly percentage growth not expanding? Well, as a company gets to the size of Snowflake, it gets harder to maintain those gaudy percentage growth numbers as the law of large numbers begins to kick in.

I’m not here to tell Wall Street investors how to do their job, anymore than I would expect them to tell me how to do mine. But when you look at the company’s overall financial picture, the amount of untapped cloud potential and the nature of Snowflake’s approach to billing, it’s hard not to be positive about this company’s outlook, regardless of the reaction of investors in the short term.

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A first look at Coursera’s S-1 filing

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After TechCrunch broke the news yesterday that Coursera was planning to file its S-1 today, the edtech company officially dropped the document Friday evening.

Coursera was last valued at $2.4 billion by the private markets, when it most recently raised a Series F round in October 2020 that was worth $130 million.

Coursera’s S-1 filing offers a glimpse into the finances of how an edtech company, accelerated by the pandemic, performed over the past year. It paints a picture of growth, albeit one that came at steep expense.

Revenue

In 2020, Coursera saw $293.5 million in revenue. That’s a roughly 59% increase from the year prior when the company recorded $184.4 million in top line. During that same period, Coursera posted a net loss of nearly $67 million, up 46% from the previous year’s $46.7 million net deficit.

Notably the company had roughly the same noncash, share-based compensation expenses in both years. Even if we allow the company to judge its profitability on an adjusted EBITDA basis, Coursera’s losses still rose from 2019 to 2020, expanding from $26.9 million to $39.8 million.

To understand the difference between net losses and adjusted losses it’s worth unpacking the EBITDA acronym. Standing for “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization,” EBITDA strips out some nonoperating costs to give investors a possible better picture of the continuing health of a business, without getting caught up in accounting nuance. Adjusted EBITDA takes the concept one step further, also removing the noncash cost of share-based compensation, and in an even more cheeky move, in this case also deducts “payroll tax expense related to stock-based activities” as well.

For our purposes, even when we grade Coursera’s profitability on a very polite curve it still winds up generating stiff losses. Indeed, the company’s adjusted EBITDA as a percentage of revenue — a way of determining profitability in contrast to revenue — barely improved from a 2019 result of -15% to -14% in 2020.

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The owner of Anki’s assets plans to relaunch Cozmo and Vector this year

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Good robots don’t die — they just have their assets sold off to the highest bidder. Digital Dream Labs was there to sweep up IP in the wake of Anki’s premature implosion, back in 2019. The Pittsburgh-based edtech company had initially planned to relaunch Vector and Cozmo at some point in 2020, launching a Kickstarter campaign in March of last year.

The company eventually raised $1.8 million on the crowdfunding site, and today announced plans to deliver on the overdue relaunch, courtesy of a new distributor.

“There is a tremendous demand for these robots,” CEO Jacob Hanchar said in a release. “This partnership will complement the work our teams are already doing to relaunch these products and will ensure that Cozmo and Vector are on shelves for the holidays.”

I don’t doubt that a lot of folks are looking to get their hands on the robots. Cozmo, in particular, was well-received, and sold reasonably well — but ultimately (and in spite of a lot of funding), the company couldn’t avoid the fate that’s befallen many a robotics startup.

It will be fascinating to see how these machines look when they’re reintroduced. Anki invested tremendous resources into bringing them to life, including the hiring of ex-Pixar and DreamWorks staff to make the robots more lifelike. A lot of thought went into giving the robots a distinct personality, whereas, for instance, Vector’s new owners are making the robot open-source. Cozmo, meanwhile, will have programmable functionality through the company’s app.

It could certainly be an interesting play for the STEM market that companies like Sphero are approaching. It has become a fairly crowded space, but at least Anki’s new owners are building on top of a solid foundation, with the fascinating and emotionally complex toy robots their predecessors created.

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