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BankMobile Aims to Become the Uber of Banking

Jay Sidhu wants to reinvent banking like Uber has transformed the taxi business.

"We are getting back to a bank people can love," said Sidhu, who is chief executive and chairman of BankMobile, a digital-only offshoot of Customers Bank in Phoenixville, Pa.

The virtual bank will offer checking, savings and joint accounts in addition to credit lines of up to $5,000. It plans to woo millennials with the promise of no fees and high-end mobile banking features. It is counting on interchange revenue and margin from loans rather than fee income.

The launch of BankMobile last week — which the bank has been teasing since last March — marks an effort by a banking industry veteran to rewrite retail banking's business model. Sidhu, who is also the chairman and CEO of the parent company of Customers Bank, was founder, chairman and CEO of Sovereign Bancorp — now Santander Bank in Boston. His millennial daughter, Luvleen Sidhu, is BankMobile's chief strategy officer.

Jay Sidhu made the analogy between BankMobile and high-tech companies like Uber in a recent interview. Uber has been praised for disrupting the taxi industry with its easy-to-use and popular app, which lets people order a ride at the press of a button — they don’t have to use cash or a card because Uber already has their payment instructions. By the same token, many feel that the company that comes up with a really popular and easy to use banking app could disrupt the financial services industry.

One of the high-tech features that BankMobile is touting, electronic sign-up of customers, would be a major achievement if it proves successful. Several tech companies and banks are working to smooth out such processes that have long been considered arduous at best.

BankMobile is using Mitek's technology to let consumers snap their identification — like a driver's license — to sign up for banking accounts. In the U.S., this will put BankMobile ahead of the pack if its onboarding tech works as marketed.

U.S. Bank has tested out mobile-onboarding technology at a sports game, while newly formed FinLeap is also selling banks technology that is meant to improve mobile acquisitions.

At BankMobile, consumers can open accounts within about five minutes instead of the 25 minutes it takes inside the bank branch, according to the execs.

Stessa Cohen, a research director at Gartner, said BankMobile's debut points to how financial institutions are waking up to the idea of recruiting consumers through alternative channels.

Historically, banks have had security concerns around letting consumers sign up with the bank only through the mobile channels. Some argue that most people prefer to sign up in a branch anyway.

But Sidhu believes in the counterargument: it's not that people prefer banks with branches to open up accounts. Rather, he believes they have not had any other choice.

The BankMobile app — which can be accessed on tablets and desktops and is powered by Malauzai Software — also includes a number of other rarer features. The app lets people snap photos of their bills to pay them, turn their debit cards on and off for security and other reasons, and search for topics the way one does on Google. Sure, such features already exist in the market, but it would be an impressive feat to pull them all off in an app that just debuted.

One interesting wrinkle to the model is that BankMobile customers who use direct deposit will get VIP status that lets them access financial advisors for free.

"We want all customers to be VIP," Sidhu said. Of course, that is because the direct deposit will help BankMobile achieve its interchange revenue goals.

"You've got to be the principal bank," Sidhu said.

BankMobile hopes to acquire 25,000 customers in a one-year period, and 250,000 customers over a five-year-period.

Beyond marketing its product through social networks like Vine and Twitter, BankMobile plans to acquire millennials by targeting recent college graduates. Customers Bank, after all, already has relationships with 1.2 million college students through its work with Higher One Holdings, which disburses financial aid on behalf of universities and provides checking accounts.

When they graduate, BankMobile plans to target them. It also plans to form affinity relationships with organizations to help it acquire customers who live paycheck to paycheck — another target market — such as alumni associations, fraternal associations, unions and charities.

Still, customer acquisition is tough for any direct bank.

"The big challenge for new entrants is to build a brand that allows consumers to even know you are available," said Bob Hedges, a managing director at AlixPartners.

And in BankMobile's case, eliminating fee revenue from the business model raises extra questions about profitability, said Daniel Van Dyke, a mobile research specialist at Javelin Strategy & Research.

"I'm curious whether or not they can make money," Van Dyke said.

Sure, millennials tend to dislike traditional banks, but does that imply they are in favor of neobanks like Serve, BBVA's Simple, Moven and now BankMobile?

"It's a question worth asking," he said.

BankMobile also needs to compete with traditional banks like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America that allow their customers to have Internet-only experiences, said AlixPartners' Hedges.

"The real drama playing out here is: can large traditional brands bring to market Internet-only bank experiences fast enough and in a compelling enough way to head off a new entrant ever getting real traction."

Gartner's Cohen said banks need to go beyond removing fees and create digital features that help customers, say, know the best bill pay schedule or reduce credit card debt.

"That's innovative," Cohen said. "There are a lot of possibilities for digital."

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