As one of the UK’s original neobanks, Starling Bank has set a standard that many look to follow.
While it only reached official unicorn status in 2021, straggling behind the Revoluts and Monzos, the bank boasted that they were the first of its peers to break even. This year they are reporting significant profits despite challenging conditions.
“We’re a bank, so this environment is very favorable to us,” said Starling’s CEO and founder, Anne Boden, at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon this November. “We’ve been profitable monthly now for over two years.”
Where the neo-banks mentioned above have expanded internationally for some time, Starling has remained UK-centric. However, amid a market full of tech layoffs and dwindling valuations, the unicorn is going global.
Success on the international stage?
They aren’t the first unicorns to do so. N26, Revolut, and Monzo made moves into international waters some time ago. Their success has varied, requiring strategy reiterations in several cases.
Monzo, founded by a team birthed within Starling Bank, announced their expansion into the US in 2019. Partnering with an incumbent, Sutton Bank, to streamline regulatory approval, the bank withdrew its application for a license in October 2021. The decision came after being advised by regulators it would be unlikely to get accepted.
“While this isn’t the outcome we initially set out to achieve, this allows us to build and scale our early-stage product offer in the U.S. through existing partners,” a spokesperson told CNBC at the time. “There are many routes to market we’re exploring that have been successful for other market entrants who are now major players.”
The US product came out of beta in early February 2022, but founder and CEO, TS Anil, has said their main focus has shifted to their UK home market. “We’ve chosen to double down on the UK and not spread ourselves too thin,” he said at the FT banking summit last week, maintaining that the bank will be profitable in 2023 despite seeing increased losses over the past few years.
Despite complications, Monzo did relatively well compared to its competitors. German neobank, N26, retreated from the US market completely late in 2021, citing a desire to focus on its European customer base.
“It’s quite easy to build market share as a new business and a founder if you’ve got a certain amount of market momentum,” said Boden. “Fintechs normally find their home market either awful, nothing happens, or they have some momentum and start raising money. Then they decide to go international. The chemistry may not work in that new country.”
All aboard the B2B train
Starling has chosen to shift their international product to business customers, unlike other neo-banks, focusing on the software behind a digital bank.
“I founded Starling because I knew that if you had a different culture, a different technology stack- If you had technology at the leading edge- You could do incredible things,” said Boden.
“The UK market is very big. You know, it’s a big market, a profitable market. We intend to scale into the UK and be as big as the big banks in the UK. But outside the UK, we intend to sell our software.”
“Barclays Bank in the UK has been in the business of banking for small businesses for 300 years. We’ve been in it for three years and already have half the market share.”
Starling isn’t the only company that has shifted its focus to B2B.
Many are turning to B2B offerings in the increasingly challenging economic environment to weather the storm. B2B markets have increased significantly across sectors, and funding for business-facing companies has grown consistently over the past decade, many favoring the relative predictability and stability of the B2B market.
Starling is no stranger to banking-as-a-service, and their BaaS product has been live since 2018. Boden believes this strategy is critical to their future international success.
“The world is changing. There’s a big market for people like Starling to take. If the big banks are going to compete, they have to change their culture and their technology stack. We can help with that.”