Virgin Money P2P Lending on the Cover of Fortune Small Business

Jeff Bezos may have grabbed the cover of Newsweek for the latest high-tech gadget, the Amazon Kindle, but that's old hat for him. The bigger news in online banking circles is Richard Branson gracing the cover of the December/January issue of Fortune Small Business (click on the inset to read the magazine online). His smiling mug is shown tossing hundred-dollar bills out of a teller cage. 

The reason: Virgin Money USA (previously Circle Lending) is one of six new products/services the magazine included in its annual "The Next Little Thing for 2008" series. To be part of the article, the innovation must be coming from a "small business," although I'm not sure Virgin qualifies as small anymore.

The 1.5 page story discusses the Business Builder "friends and family" loans that Virgin will administer for a one-time cost of $199 to $299 plus $9 per payment. The company says it plans to offer a business loan product later in 2008 or 2009 that will match outside money to the original friends and family loan, provided it's been paid on time. 

Could 2008 be the year of person-to-person lending? Given Branson's track record, there's a good chance the relatively unknown service will take off next year.   

Note:

1. According to my recollection. 

American Express Plum Card Update

As promised in its teaser print buy, American Express delivered my Plum Card invitation in the wee hours Monday morning (2:06 AM Pacific time, see screenshot below). The message, with my first and last name in the salutation, was short and sweet and directed me back to the main website to apply at <plumcard.com>.

It's all first class work, but the generic call-to-action surprised me a bit since I'd put my name on the "wait list" last week (see post here). I expected a more personalized invitation and link. The website doesn't appear to recognize me either (see screenshot below).

Email Invitation (1 Nov 2007)

American Express email invite for Plum Card 

Plum Card homepage (5 Nov. 2007)

American Express Plum Card homepage

Advanta Creates Social Network Around Small Business Innovation: Ideablob

I don't know how I missed this one, but Advanta, a major credit card issuer with 1.2 million small business customers, launched a new Web 2.0 microsite on Sept. 24 at the high-tech DEMOfall conference (press release here). Just being there amongst the digerati was a coup for the card issuer, but they did much better, managing to come home with a coveted DemoGod Peoples Choice trophy at the conference.

The Web 2.0-laden site is called ideablob, and it's a place where entrepreneurs, inventors, and anyone else can post their business idea and compete for the monthly $10,000 prizes (contest rules here).

One month after launch, the site is generating a fair amount of activity. The eight October finalists showcased on the homepage (see below) have received the following: 

  • 691 total votes (must be registered to vote, can vote on more than one idea)
  • 216 total comments (must be registered to comment)
  • 10,300 total views (anyone can view the idea)

Traffic to the site should grow rapidly once word of the $10k prize circulates. That's a large incentive for the millions of Internet users who think they have a better idea. 

Advanta, which uses fairly subdued branding on the site (see small "inspired by Advanta" under the main ideablob logo), is positioned to gain in three ways:

  • By associating its brand with innovation, social networks, and a Web 2.0 attitude
  • Assuming a good viral kick, and $10k/mo should do it, the site could generate leads more cost effectively than through other channels
  • Publicity in blogs and traditional media

Bank of America launched a good business networking site recently, but without the fun of the $10,000 in prize money (see previous coverage here).

Advanta's ideablob main page (25 Oct 2007)

An idea page

First Look: Bank of America’s New Networking Site — Small Business Online Community

In the past 10 years, we've seen dozens of bank-powered sites targeting small businesses. Citibank ran one for a few years called Bizzed. Back then, they were called "portals." Now, they are "social networks." But the purpose remains the same: Create a destination site for business owners to learn how to run their business better while reinforcing the bank brand as small business savvy.

In general, it's a good idea. But it's extremely difficult to get traction with small business owners who usually lack the time and/or interest to read extensively about how to run their business (note 1).

Bank of America's effort, Small Business Online Community, tries to get around the attention problem by creating forums where specific questions and answers can be posted (press release here). Again, not a new concept, but probably the best way to get something like this off the ground.

Analysis
I registered (see note 2) and spent a few minutes poking around the site. In addition to the forum, the site includes columns by business experts and reader-submitted stories. It will be interesting to see if the so-called user-generated content in the latter category is all self-serving promotions from the small business participants, or meaningful perspectives that allow conversations to begin.

The well-designed site, with Web 2.0 touches, is off to a good start from a registration standpoint. This morning alone (as of noon Eastern time), 300 new members had signed up. They may all be bankers in disguise, but it's still far more than I would have expected.

Other than the small "powered by" link in the upper right corner, the site doesn't appear to have any direct involvement from the bank. Frankly, I'd like to see bank officers weighing in on the financial topics, as long as they take a consultative approach and disclose their affiliation. But I understand the bank's initial restraint.

Note:

1. However, entrepreneurs in the research phase, what is sometimes called "pre startup," often devour reams of material. And since they are often highly interested in financing opportunities, a bank-sponsored site could gain their attention.  

2. A couple nitpicks:

  • Usernames are case sensitive; a twist that tripped me up when trying to log in the first time. The bank should remove that stipulation, especially in a less security-sensitive application such as this.
  • Lots of the material is available as RSS feeds, but other than the little orange icon, it's not very obvious how to subscribe via RSS or email. 

Bank of America Integrates Small Business Financial Services into Microsoft’s Startup Center

It's extremely difficult to win the transaction accounts of small businesses. By the time you know of their existence, they already have their bank accounts in place. And most small businesses are too busy to bother switching accounts to save a few bucks a month, or even to get better products or services.  

One way to grab market share is to find businesses when they are in the pre-startup phase, before they've set up banking accounts. In pre-startup, the prospective business owner is in pure research mode, spending little or no cash. To find these businesses, you need to offer online information that startups value and can find at your site, such as new-business planning advice. Then entice the owner to establish bank accounts with a package of services that appeal to a new business owner.

Bank of America is on the right track with its sponsorship of Microsoft's new Startup Center <startupcenter.com>. It's more like a product placement than a "banner ad" sponsorship. The BofA logo is never even seen in the main content area.

However, the bank's content is tightly integrated throughout, especially in the Finances area. For instance, if a business owner wants to "set up a checking account," the links to detailed information such as "compare now," "get a recommendation," and "get a business check card" all link directly to content housed on Bank of America's website (see screenshot below).

MasterCard is also a primary sponsor, but its content is less integrated. The third core sponsor is Startup Nation.

Microsoft Startup Center Finance section

Analysis
It makes sense for Bank of America to be involved in Microsoft's Startup Center, a  beautifully designed tool all decked out in "Web 2.0" colors and graphics. The content seems appropriate and useful for a startup. However, it will be a challenge for the area to gain traction with actual startups, who are unlikely to be looking to Microsoft for assistance, unless they are software developers.

But you don't have to be a mega-bank or mega-software company to provide valuable services to startups. Financial institutions can partner with local professional service firms such as accountants, consultants, and attorneys, to create content for startups such as Webinars, and in-person seminars. A well-priced package of banking services, positioned and priced for startups, will help you grab new business in the startup sector.

Examples of startup products and services at financial institutions:

For more information, see our Online Banking Report on Small and Microbusiness Online Banking (here). Thanks to Payments News for the link.

Internet Banking Pioneer Chip Mahan Takes the Helm of Banking Startup Targeting the Pet Care Industry

 

I first met Chip Mahan in 1995 when he was at the helm of Cardinal Bancshares and about to launch the first Internet-only bank in the world, Security First Network Bank. That effort eventually spawned S1 Corporation, now a leading banking tech company, with a half-billion market cap. 

Unfortunately, the Internet bank was sold off and eventually shuttered by Royal Bank, in a move I've never quite understood. Why would you take the pioneering brand name in one of the hottest sectors of the last 25 years and just close it down? Royal didn't even bother spending the $9/yr to keep the domain name <sfnb.com>, now a generic link site. 

After his stint at the helm of S1 ended in October, Chip is back in the banking business taking the reins of startup Live Oak Banking Company. The Wilmington, NC-based company is still in formation. But it recently passed a regulatory milestone, raising $8 million in capital from fewer than 10 investors (see note 1, 2). David Lucht, who worked with Mahan as a credit officer for Cardinal Bancshares, is the Live Oak's President.

Live Oak was recently profiled in the local business press (here), and will apparently specialize in lending to veterinarian practices and kennels. 

While a number of banks target health care practices including veterinarians, none appear to be aggressive online marketers with the possible exception of Bank of America, which is the only mainstream financial institutions using Google to market vet practice loans (note 3).  Also, BB&T's Vine Street Financial lists vet practices on its menu of commercial health care lending services (see inset).

With Mahan at the helm, its almost certain their will be a web-based component to the bank's strategy. This is the long-tail of lending at work, targeting a highly specific area that needs a national focus in order to create enough volume to survive. Eventually, we expect to see national lenders targeting hundreds, if not thousands, of business niches online.

For more information on small business strategies, refer to Online Banking Report #107/108 (here).

——–

Notes:

1. It looks like the company may have registered the URL <liveoakbanking.com> as their URL, but its not currently live and the registration info is unlisted.

2. Here's what the North Carolina banking commission has listed for the company:

  • Required capitalization: $8 million
  • Prospective employees: 15
  • Address: 2605 Iron Gate Dr., Wilmington
  • Principals: James "Chip" Mahan, CEO; David Lucht, president
  • Focus: Business lending to vets, kennels and children's day care operations

3. Source: Google search, 14 June 2007, from Seattle IP address, 2 PM PDT

Remote Deposit Sightings: Wall Street Journal & PNC Bank

It takes a long time before a new process or technology becomes "conventional wisdom," something that is accepted at face value without questioning its pros and cons. While we are still years away from that happening with remote deposit technology, at least the mainstream press has picked up on its benefits, one of the first steps towards mass adoption.

The latest example was in today's Wall Street Journal special Small Business section. In "Branching Out," a general article on banks' growing interest in small businesses, author David Enrich prefaced an Aite Group "levels the playing field" quote with this (p. R6):  

Remote deposit makes it less important to select a bank based on its location or number of branches–which many big banks tout as a key selling point.

Analysis
The key take-away here is that banks should make sure remote deposit services are prominently featured in checking/cash management offers aimed at attracting new business clients. 

Google search on remote deposit capture CLICK TO ENLARGE For example, PNC Bank is currently running a remote deposit promotion with a free scanner for customers who sign up before the end of April (see landing page screenshot below). The service is powered by Bankserv (PNC data sheet here;

The promotion is well-placed on Google, with the fourth-highest AdWords placement giving PNC the top-right slot (see inset).

However, neither the promotion or remote deposit are mentioned on the bank's main business checking account marketing page (see second screenshot below). We like the promotion, the first we've seen advertising a free scanner via Google, but the bank seems to be missing the chance to grab new accounts with the freebie.  

PNC Bank landing page from Google search on "remote deposit capture"
(Seattle IP address, 19 March 2007, 9 AM PDT)

PNC Bank landing page from Google search on "remote deposit capture"

PNC Bank main business checking page (19 March 2007)

PNC Bank main business checking page (19 March 2007)

Digital Insight Now Officially Part of Intuit

Link to Digital Insight website Intuit's $1.3 billion acquisition of Digital Insight closed yesterday, marking the beginning of a new era of innovation in small business online banking (previous coverage here). It's a market that's been underserved for years (see Online Banking Report'sSmall- and Microbusiness Online Banking, #107/108).

Intuit, which has iPod-like domination of small business accounting and bookkeeping via Quicken and QuickBooks, can now leverage the software relationship into the banking relationship.  The bloggers at Intuit's QuickBooks team-blog expanded on that theme here, discussing their goal of integrating electronic invoicing and payments into the bank site:

Why the purchase? One reason is to try to sell functionality of our record-keeping software as a service through banks, letting small businesses create, send, and get paid for invoices, all online at a bank's site. With millions of QuickBooks customers, we think we have some insight into small business' needs…. We learned from our tax return business how quickly packaged software can move to a Web service. Last year, for the first time, more people used the online version of our Turbo Tax Web service than the desktop version.

This is not necessarily bad for financial institutions. In fact, it probably levels the playing field for the smaller banks and credit unions that are the core of the DI client base. Through integration into Intuit's accounting products, smaller banks will be able to offer sophisticated small business solutions that equal or surpass what Bank of America or Wells Fargo offers today.

Remote Deposit Capture is Virtually Invisible at Google

Remote deposit capture is one of the most significant new technologies to hit online business banking since, well, online banking. According to Celent, 60 of the largest 100 banks, including 20 of the top 25, now offer it. In addition, hundreds of smaller community banks now offer it.

So why can't I find it through Google? (see note 1)

For two years I've been coveting the service and waiting for my bank to offer it to small businesses such as ours. I'm still waiting.

Today, I happened to see it mentioned on the homepage of a local community bank here, First Mutual Bank (see screenshot below).

First Mutual Bank showcases remote deposit capture on homepage CLICK TO ENLARGE

Not wanting the hassle of moving my account relationship, especially to a bank on the other side of Lake Washington (a major traffic hassle), I tried a little Googling to see what other banks in the area might have it. 

It fails to show up in the organic results, and only two banks, Wells Fargo and Main Street Bank <mstreetbank.com> are advertising on "remote deposit capture" and the shorter "remote deposits." Main Street Bank is located out of state and Wells Fargo, while just up the street from my office, appears to target its remote capture to larger businesses. I'd be willing to pay $20 to $30 a month for it, but I'm guessing that's not even close to the Wells Fargo commercial customer price.   

Action items (see note 2)

  1. If you offer remote deposit capture, make sure you have a dedicated page touting the features and benefits.
  2. On the dedicated page, make sure you use the term "remote deposit capture" in addition to any cute name you've branded it with. That will help users find it on search results.
  3. Market it through Google and other search engines. At this point, it doesn't appear that there's much competition for ads, meaning your cost per click should be low.
  4. Create a landing page that captures leads for your business banking officers. Check out Wells Fargo's approach at https://www.wellsfargo.com/com/boc_campaign
    (see screenshot below)

Wells Fargo landing page for its Google ad under "remote deposit capture" CLICK TO ENLARGE

Notes:

  1. I am searching from a Seattle IP address. In other markets, there may be financial institutions using Google to market remote deposit services.
  2. We will post an additional article on remote deposit marketing later today

Intuit’s Billion-Dollar Online Banking Play

Intuit merger graphic on its fi.intuit.com website Intuit's bold move to purchase online banking pioneer Digital Insight came as a surprise, both to analysts and shareholders. Reactions were mixed, with shares drifting downward after the 8 AM EST announcement Thursday, ending the week off 3% (see chart here; Intuit presentation on the acquisition here).

Although the software developer has made a few forays into selling bank technology, including owning a bill payment processor in the mid-90s, it has generally stayed focused on packaged software for consumers and small businesses.

Just two weeks ago, I met with Intuit execs at the coming out party for its financial institution services unit at the China Grill down the hall from BAI's Retail Delivery Conference in Las Vegas. They were excited about several new services built on the Teknowledge unit purchased last year (see previous post here).

Analysis
Only time will tell whether the acquisition makes sense for Intuit. It's a savvy company that understands the personal finance space as well as anyone, so I tend to believe they know what they are doing.

Regardless of what it does for Intuit's share price, the merger is bound to shake up the online banking product offerings at banks and credit unions, especially for smaller businesses, the Quicken and QuickBooks crowd.

In September, we published a report predicting significant growth in personal finance functionality in online banking services (see Note 1). This merger should further accelerate that growth. As Intuit integrates Quicken, TurboTax, and QuickBooks features into the Digital Insight line, other platform providers will feel pressured to keep up.

This is good news for U.S. consumers who've generally NOT been able to enjoy the benefits of tightly integrated personal finance and online banking.

End Notes:

(1) See Online Banking Report #130/131, Personal Finance Features for Online Banking: Why MySpendingReport Trumps Free Bill Pay