Why Social Purpose fintechs will fail

I am a service designer with a background in UX, UI, and graphic design. I have 7 years of working experience, and I have been working in fintech for most of it. I am currently the director of FlexTogether, the social purpose arm of fintech Flex. I have worked for 3 different organizations that have tried or are currently trying to give vulnerable communities the financial services they deserve. This article is only about my general experience as a person working in the fintech industry, I am not referring to any one person specifically. I clarify this to substantiate the following statement.

I sincerely believe that fintechs with a social purpose will fail.

Why?

One reason — money. They are working in a rigged game where success is measured purely by numbers. User impact is only spoken about in order to increase profitability. Vulnerable communities are seen as target markets that need to be exploited, spoken about in an almost alien manner by middle-class people that have never truly felt what being poor is. I 100% put myself in this group. Most importantly — this double standard in fintech’s services muddles the goal of the business. Makes it slow, hard to understand, hard to sell.

Our business models are not made to create social impact. Our biased positionality as makers in the world is not acknowledged. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we can do something about it.

About our business models and how people work in them

Right now, as a founder in our current economic system, your best bet is to work for years to create a business you truly believe in, with the sole purpose of raising ‘capital’ — investor talk for ‘huge piles of cash’. Capital brings talent, time, opportunity to put your idea into the world. With each new round of investment, you let go of a piece of your business. Best case scenario? You develop a sexy ‘exit strategy’, where you eventually sell your business and have earned enough money throughout the process to compensate for late nights, jobs missed, and stress gained.

Investors will take care of the rest. Investors which, quite rightly, want to see the famous ROI (return of investment). They have given you money with the condition that you will give it back, with interest. If they look for numbers, you have to give them more numbers. Tit for extra tat. Sounds fair enough, right?

And throughout all of this, let’s be honest, you’re probably white. Probably a cisgender straight male. Probably have an expensive degree. This would not be a problem, except that if you don’t acknowledge how that changes your view of the world, you will probably only make things for other cisgender, straight males with expensive degrees. That is, your investors. So all in all, it all works out ok for you. You manage to get investment.

Small disclaimer here — privilege doesn’t make you ‘bad’. It makes you blind. That can make you ‘bad’. Most fintechs I’ve worked for are full of wonderful people with the utmost best intentions, who really believed that what they were doing was worthwhile because they were helping people. It’s that blindness that causes issues.

That same blindness means that at no point throughout this process, anyone has bothered to ask these vulnerable communities what they want. What they need. So you roll out this wonderful business you have worked so hard for and we get the Ever Given in the Suez Canal Part II. Stuck and struggling, with the world and your pushy investors watching.

Here is where the cynicism ends.

I sincerely believe that fintechs with a social purpose will fail. But we have to try anyways. Try better, try different, try harder.

Why we have to try and try different

Because people in vulnerable communities are not usually in positions of power. Not usually with the connections or capital to wake up one day and say — ‘I am going to build a fintech app’.

I make a reference to these types of resources (capital, connections, and power) very specifically. There is a tacit understanding of people working in policy, financial institutions, high street banking… that people without money are mindless. If you give them money they spend it recklessly, they can’t manage themselves or their lives and therefore cannot be trusted. In fact. In fact, low income people are more likely to know their balance down to the penny and know how properly manage it, because pennies matter to them (Fintech for All, 2020; EPA report 2021).

If this is not enough, my experience working with Flex, black young people with no resources, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrants proves the complete opposite. They are that same ambitious, driven bank manager— without capital, connections, or power.

Fine, but how?

How do we make things different then? How do we do right by the people we make things for whilst still surviving in a capitalist, profit-driven industry when we have to earn money too? Learn from Flex.

Full disclaimer — I work at Flex. Is this going to promote the business I work for? Yes and no. It is still founded by people with privilege, myself included, and we have a long way of learning ahead of us. Having said that, the idea for Flex is based on their own financial, real-life struggles. And in my experience so far, they are willing to share their connections, power, and capital with communities that don’t have it. Yes, in the exchange of a viable business. I can’t in good conscience promote the results of discrimination that puts some people in a good, stable life, and not others. I do however believe that change comes quicker and faster from the people with power. Flex has a ‘new’ way of working and a ‘new’ mindset (for the fintech industry). That, I will yell about until I’m sore. It is not perfect, but it is trying. Trying different, and trying better. So here it goes.

Learn these two things from Flex

Firstly, use co-design. It has many other different names. Co-creation, co-production, participatory design, human-centered design, user-centered design, sometimes even just ‘design’. I will avoid designer jargon and simply say that it all just means one thing:

You do not make things for yourself. So involve who are actually making it for. Not your investors, but your communities.

There is an actual methodology attached to it. Steps to follow, a set structure, and specific ways of working. In fact, there are many, and not all of them ‘design-led’. Community organizers for example have a saying ‘those that are closer to the pain are closer to the solution’. Here is a good reading list about it. When you apply it to a profit-driven industry it reads like this:

If you solve a real need by involving the communities you work with, they will use your product. Because it will be their product. If you fake a need and hope for the best, you will fail, and your investors will eat you up.

Secondly — it has a new business model. Flex has acknowledged that as a fintech, it cannot have a social impact. So it’s created what we are calling a ‘social arm’, FlexTogether.

FlexTogether only does social impact. It works with communities, co-creates products, gives knowledge and power to communities, works with charities and other ethically-led businesses. Some of the work we do is paid for, some isn’t, but it always has value. Yes, even financial value, because at the very least, we learn about who our product is for. We also make sure that all of that influence and learnings are taken back to the money-making fintech. That then will drive the product development of the app.

Venn diagram where communities, flex together and flex money overlap in an exchange between wants and needs and data.

That’s it. That’s the solution. Assume you don’t have the answers and ask for them. I know. Crazy.

I cannot under any circumstance take credit for Flex. But I can honestly say that it is the first time working at a fintech where I believe it will help people, and might just succeed.

Learn more about Flex here.

Learn more about FlexTogether here.

If you want to pitch co-design to your business, here is a presentation we use. Contact me at @FlexerKas on Twitter for any questions.

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