This year’s headwinds have meant many large firms have paused or even reversed plans for global expansion to shore up their core markets but the looming spectre of Brexit may also have prompted a number of firms to exit the UK (at least that’s what some of them said).
Every fintech startup dreams of worldwide domination, by way of helping people with their finances. It’s one of the keys to success in raising large funds from venture capital: how globally scalable is the idea? But reality is such that a pandemic can put a spanner in the works of global expansion and of course there is also the small issue of the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Plenty of fintechs have continued to expand their operations into new countries in 2020, of course, such as Railsbank, which pursued an expansion of its operations in the US and Asia. Transferwise too scored a banking license in Australia. Freetrade also expressed its plans for a crack at the European market while Getsafe launched into the UK. However, many others also pulled back.
In this article, we take a look at the firms that have had to put their plans on ice or scrap them all together for the UK during 2020.
German neo bank N26 has been among the keenest to look overseas for growth but, just before the pandemic hit the headlines, it pulled out of one of the most vibrant fintech markets the UK.
“With the UK now having left the European Union, we will in due course be unable to operate in the UK with our European banking license. As a result, we will be leaving the UK and closing all accounts in the coming months."
“Looking ahead, we see ideal conditions for innovation and industry disruption in harmonized markets across Europe, alongside huge potential in large single markets like the US and others. We will naturally continue to focus on growing within the European Union, building our presence in the US, and developing our products further for customers around the world.”
The motivations of the move were questioned, not least by your correspondent, as to the veracity of the claim.
Was the digital banking market over-saturated with competitions or had N26 simply failed to hit a running start? Or, was the budding global pandemic starting to show itself?
US-based Robinhood was another high profile unicorn to ditch the UK from its expansionary plans. The digital wealth platform confirmed its UK launch plans back in November 2019.
As exclusively revealed by AltFi, however, it pushed back its plans to launch in Q1 2020 initially and then, several months later said that it would not be launching at all into the UK, at least for the time being.
Robinhood said in a letter to its waitlist that it wanted to focus on its core business in the US.
“We’re saddened to share that we’ve made the difficult decision to postpone our UK launch indefinitely. We'll be closing our waitlist and taking down our UK website shortly.”The world has changed a lot over the past several months and we’re adapting with it. On a company level, we’ve come to recognise that our efforts are currently best spent on strengthening our core business in the US and making further investments in our foundational systems.”
“Since we announced our intent to launch in the UK, we’ve been fueled by your excitement for Robinhood and humbled by your response. We’re sorry that we cannot deliver the product we promised you this year.”
“Although our global expansion plans are on hold for now, we will continue our work to democratise finance for all and we look forward to the day when we can bring this mission to the UK.”
The company has grown fast through in 2020 though thanks to a surge of interest from retail investors looking to buy into the crash in equities markets.
Finish fintech banking app Holvi quit the UK after just six months this year. The company, which was acquired by BBVA in 2016, had little in the way of staff in the UK but had made a bold statement of its plans at the start of 2020.
“There’s very little any of us know about Brexit, but the one thing that is certain is that there are almost 6m small businesses in the UK who need help with their finances,” he said in January.
Later in the year in August, it seemed to get cold feet and announced it was shutting shop in a blog post.
“The UK is a challenging market – and at the beginning of the year, we were ready to meet this challenge head-on. But the world has changed a lot in 2020, and with change come shifting priorities. Coronavirus has disrupted market conditions and added a new layer of complexity. When you factor in the UK's uncertain regulatory landscape, the waters become even less clear.”
Holvi is now, it says, concentrating on its core markets of Finland and Germany.
French banking challenger, Lydia has just raised $86m, France’s biggest fintech round to date. But it shocked its UK customers with its own plan to depart the UK, as exclusively revealed by AltFi in August.
In a message to users, it avoided offering a full explanation of the decision but cited that ‘local constraints’ were preventing its continued existence in Europe’s fintech capital.
“As a European player, we have to adapt to local constraints and unfortunately the UK will no longer enable us to offer an optimal service. We, therefore, decided to end our operations in the UK on October 3rd,” the message said.
Founded in 2013, the Paris-based app has become very popular in its home market where it has four million users and a 30 per cent market share among French millennials.
Just to show it’s not a one-way street, take Funding Circle’s movements in 2020. It didn’t pull out of the UK, of course, but rather streamlined much of its global operations. The SME lender is one of the oldest fintechs in the UK and one of the only alternative lenders to pursue a bold plan to expand globally.
Outside of its UK base, its global plans included an operation in the US and a large continental European operation focusing on Germany and The Netherlands, having bought local rival Zencap in 2015. The latter two countries, however, saw a wave of c.125 redundancies at Funding Circle's local operations in March of this year as the business revealed an £84m loss for 2019.
Funding Circle has not fully pulled out of the markets though. It instead of offering marketplace loans directly is working alongside local banks in Berlin and Amsterdam, it told Reuters at the time.
As part of its cost-cutting, it also cut 85 jobs in the US in July. The year has been a productive one overall for Funding Circle though. It became a significant lender of government-backed loans to SMEs during the pandemic and struck a £300m deal with Starling Bank to use some of the digital bank’s £4bn of deposits.