By Aisling Finn on Thursday 5 November 2020
A review of Anne Boden’s explosive new book, Banking On It.
Anne Boden made waves late last month when The Sunday Times posted the first excerpt from her book Banking On It, not because of how remarkable her storytelling was, but rather it was the first time her feud with Tom Blomfield had been fully articulated.
Over the next few years, Boden worked sporadically as an advisor for GoCardless before deciding to start her own bank and brought Blomfield on board as CTO.
It’s safe to say many expected the Boden/Blomfield split to remain fintech folklore as, historically, neither party has been keen to talk about the fallout and for that, it makes the most part of Banking On It a page-turner.
While reading, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of the story, after all, it’s a topic we haven’t been privy to in the past.
Also, while it is fascinating that Boden has given us her side of the story, that’s very much what it is—I’m sure she would have been careful to be as truthful as possible, but it’s hard to deny that we are getting the story entirely from her perspective.
From the outset, Boden paints Blomfield as an incredibly talented young entrepreneur but also incredibly distant and cold.
At their first meeting, Boden recalls how Blomfield kept “darting off in the direction of the gents” to evade her questions about GoCardless.
We later find out that this was because GoCardless was giving RBS a direct debit facility to SMEs who were too small to buy the services themselves, but the damage is done, Blomfield is presented as the antagonist in Boden’s story.
This theme of Blomfield being distant and flaky is repeated later on in the book when the pair travelled to America with Blomfield repeatedly “bailing out on meetings” and even heading back to his Airbnb on one occasion.
It’s also clear that Boden is all too keen to shed her reputation as a member of the “banking establishment” as she likes to call it.
Despite the book starting with Boden in a taxi in Dublin on her way to her first day as chief operating officer at Allied Irish Bank (AIB), not exactly a low-profile job at the time, she doesn’t dwell on the role that made her want to start her breakaway on her own.
Boden does recall feeling frustrated at the slow progress that incumbent banks were making in the way of innovation, however, we don’t get any insight into her three-decade-long career as a banker, something that inevitably would highlight just how far ahead Starling is.
Throughout the book, it’s easy to tell that, despite very much painting herself as the underdog (something which I am not disputing), Boden is incredibly well connected and respected within the banking community, a fact she doesn’t much touch upon until the afterword.
We constantly learn about early Starling employees, most of whom were also well-connected and established within banking, working for free—sometimes for as long as a year in Alan Chandler’s case (Starling’s first employee after the Blomfield coup attempt).
It’s hard to believe that high-paid executives would work entirely for free at a start-up if they didn’t truly believe it had legs and that Boden was the right vessel for the said start-up.
Undoubtedly Boden faced an incredibly steep uphill battle to not only launch her own bank, but also break stereotypes and become a formidable force in the industry. Something she has downplayed how much her well-established reputation aided her.
Now for the juicy bit.
Boden’s second book marks the first time that us mere mortals have been given a glimpse into what happened between the two fintech juggernauts.
The side of the story that we get to see paints Blomfield as a hot-headed and flaky visionary who was completely at odds with how Boden thought things needed to be done—although this isn’t evident until the Monzo co-founder suddenly quits.
In the book, Boden describes how Blomfield allegedly took great offence to her suggesting that the team needed to shift tack to focus on tasks that would get Bank Possible on track for investors and therefore cleared by the regulator sooner.
On Blomfield’s reason for resigning, Boden wrote: “He was low on detail on the reasons why, other than the fact he couldn’t work with me with my ‘reckless’ behaviour.”
“He simply couldn’t agree with my argument that we needed to swap things around to focus purely on aspects that would make us seem more investment-worthy,” she added.
The Starling founder goes on to describe how the difference of opinion on where best to focus was “the straw that appeared to break the camel’s back.”
This characterisation may have some truth to it but it does seem at odds with his achievements. Most importantly, the successful growth of Monzo into a bank with millions of users and a unicorn valuation.
After Blomfield’s dramatic exit from the team, Boden recalls a meeting with Monzo co-founder-to-be Jason Bates a week earlier where he hinted that there could be a potential coup afoot.
“There has been talk... that Tom was working on a plan to get rid of you and then me too,” Bates allegedly told Boden.
It’s hard to see how Bates could be so squarely at odds with Blomfield, given that he then left Starling, even stating: “I will not be involved with Starling if you are involved,” in his resignation email to Boden.
In the book, Boden tells how over a series of days “things started to unravel at a dizzying rate,” and it was clear that sides were being taken: “Tom had taken my place, Passion Capital was in and I was out,” Boden recalls.
Earlier in Starling’s life, Boden claims she had shot down the chance at an investment from Passion Capital owing to the fact that Passion’s co-founder Stefan Glaenzer was on the Sex Offender’s Register after he attacked a woman on the Tube.
She insisted that she wasn’t being judgemental, rather it seemed too risky under the keen glare of the regulator, which would be scrutinising every move.
Ousting Boden as Starling’s CEO was a lot harder than Blomfield had hoped, or at least that’s how it seems.
Boden had not only invested a massive amount of time in her passion project, but she had also put a huge amount of her own money into the venture.
She sold her house in Swansea and used up all her savings and while Blomfield also injected some of his own cash, it wasn’t nearly as much as Boden had personally invested.
In Banking On It Boden gives us the impression that, despite never faltering in her belief that Starling would survive when Blomfield and co left, she faltered.
“I kept thinking about what this was doing to my reputation. If Starling went under it would leave it in shreds and take away any chance of my running a new bank, or even a traditional bank, at any time in the future,” Boden wrote.
It was this ‘coming to Jesus’ moment that made Boden realise that losing control of Starling just simply wasn’t an option.
After Starling’s early employees left to start their own bank—Monzo, or Mondo as it was called at the time—what ensued was a race to the finish line for the two banks to receive the green light from the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA).
This rivalry has continued throughout both banks’ lives, with Boden trying to bury the hatchet with Blomfield and Monzo when the digital bank went through a rebrand.
“Maybe we can have some fun,” Boden declared as she bought her rival’s domain names.
While Boden may have seen this as just a bit of fun, and Starling posted a congratulatory message on the webpages on Monzo’s official launch, it may just have also been adding fuel to the fire. Monzo didn’t respond to Starling’s attempt at an in-joke, rather their silence was deafening and squarely placed them as Starling’s keenest rival and only added to the rumours of animosity even further.
Overall, Banking On It is a good read.
We are given a glimpse into one of fintech’s biggest mysteries for the first time, which makes for an enthralling read, however, it is hard to take Boden’s word as purely objective as, after all, it is just one side of an emotive story.
Until Blomfield releases a tell-all memoir we won’t know for certain what really happened in those early days of Starling, and even then, that’s a long shot.
It’s hard to deny how far Starling has come, it has been voted Best British Bank three years in a row and fares consistently well with current account switching figures.
Starling has also had a standout 2020 where others, including Monzo, have faltered, having delivered both Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans (CBILS) and Bounce Back Loans (BBLs) to tens of thousands of SMEs.
Banking On It is the story of how Boden’s dogged determination to change the way banks do things and, while it might be littered with some elements of artistic licence, it is a fascinating insight into how one woman’s vision shaped the way fintech looks today.
Starling continues to go from strength to strength and is one of the most prominent digital banks in the UK, with 1.6m personal customers and nearly 200,000 SME users, a three per cent share of the SME banking sector.