Challenger bank Bella to promote pay-it-forward mentality

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Bella, a startup with a new banking app, is introducing a slate of features designed to promote compassion and good karma.

The digital bank, which will launch on Nov. 30, offers the usual no-fee deposit accounts that are hallmarks of challenger banks. It will also feature a Karma Account for each customer, inspired by the Italian tradition of caffè sospeso, where you cover someone else’s cup of coffee when buying your own. Users can choose to deposit up to $20, and the money will be randomly sent to another user as a surprise gift.

Bella will randomly bestow cash-back rewards of 5% to 200%, up to $2,000, on customers’ everyday purchases during the first four weeks post-launch. This $1 million effort is part of its marketing budget.

“Our crazy mission is to inject love, beauty and empathy into the banking industry,” Angelo D'Alessandro, Bella's co-founder and CEO, said in a press release.

Angelo D'Alessandro, co-founder and CEO of Bella
Angelo D'Alessandro, Bella's CEO, spent 20 years working in the banking industry in Italy before moving to New York and launching the startup with LivePerson.

The checking and savings accounts allow for some customization. With checking, customers can add hashtags and photos to transactions to make them easier to organize. With the savings account, users can set up their own automatic transfer rules, such as sending $100 a month to a certain account, or choose to use the unconventional rules Bella will suggest, such as transferring a set amount on every sunny day in their city.

Deposits are held with nbkc bank in Overland Park, Kan., and are insured for up to $5 million because of the $1.1 billion-asset bank’s partnership with deposit network provider StoneCastle.

Navigating the app will also feel different. Instead of a traditional menu of options, the app, powered by AI firm LivePerson, has a conversational interface. Customers will type in search terms and the software will interpret their intents. For instance, if a customer wants to send money and starts typing an S, the app will list different actions that start with that letter. The customer will then converse with the platform to transfer money to the appropriate person. (If needed, users can type in “human” or “help” to reach a real person.)

“When we started, we didn’t know if removing the menu from the app would work or not,” D’Alessandro said in an interview. “But the first data we’re getting from family and friends shows the conversational experience is very intuitive.”

The family and friends beta test included nearly 1,000 people. D’Alessandro said the waitlist contains thousands of people.

D’Alessandro previously spent 20 years working in the banking industry in Italy, where he founded a digital bank called buddybank in 2018 based on the New York-based LivePerson’s conversational platform. D’Alessandro, who moved to New York two years ago, is launching Bella in partnership with LivePerson.

At some point after launch, Bella will experiment with another, uniquely generous form of customer service. The idea is, if customers need a sum of money to help in an emergency — say, filling their gas tank — they can call a customer service agent and be granted the funds outright, no payback necessary.

“We won’t promote it at the beginning like other products because we want to learn and understand who our customers are,” D’Alessandro said.

Initially, D’Alessandro plans to make money from interchange fees and deposit interest. Eventually, he would like Bella to make more money from services such as serving as a one-stop-shop for a user to research, book and pay for a workout class.

“We believe in the idea of trusting people,” he said. “Very soon we’ll see if this works or if it was just a dream.”

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