Small businesses are the Goldilocks of digital banking – corporate apps are too complex for them, but retail ones are way too simple.
A neobank, led by veterans of the retail banking innovator Simple, is looking to be their "just right" provider.
Seed aims to address the specific needs of small business owners who are often lost in the shuffle. In late October, the young startup announced it secured $5 million from investors and it expects to bring its first outside company onto the platform in the coming weeks.
The startup underscores the way technology can solve the banking industry's one-size-fits-all problem. Fintech companies have the ability to provide customized experiences, while banks can open application programming interfaces to trusted parties to create an experience the customer – small business or retail – wants, said Jesse McWaters, who leads disruption innovation in financial services at the World Economic Forum.
At the root of the call for customization is speed and ease. Customers want products that don't waste their time.
"Timeliness is enormously important," said McWaters.
Saving small businesses time was at the center of Seed's creation, its founders say.
"The number one complaint small businesses, entrepreneurs, and the folks that support them is how much time is wasted running the banking side of the operations," said Ryan Hildebrand, who co-founded Seed with Brian Merritt. "We are building the business banking platform to be a competitive advantage, not a necessary evil."
Hildebrand said small businesses have been overlooked by banks because they have been perceived as unprofitable. Also, they are hard to segment and acquire.
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"That has changed recently with the Internet, big data, and the explosion of software-as-a-solution," he said.
Indeed, Seed's planned entrance is the latest example in a slow but growing interest in addressing the digital needs of small business customers.
PNC Bank partnered with Bill.com in 2014 to expand its digital small business tools. MutualOne Bank has used tech from Digital Insight to customize its online banking for small businesses customers to have tailored features. And Somerset Trust Company in Somerset, Pa. is working with Malauzai Software to introduce a mobile banking app aimed at small businesses next year.
Seed's app and website is striving to simplify the experience of sending and receiving ACH payments, wires, bill pay, online check sending and international payments, said Hildebrand in an interview. Seed also plans to offer card products in addition to letting products the owner may wish to curate into a dashboard simple to do, like accounting software.
"I'm building a banking service that I would want to use," he said.
Seed, which has staff in San Francisco and Portland, is in fact its own first customer. Its target market is new businesses that are online-savvy.
Small business owners are often relegated to retail products, because other options are too complex. But they also may require customizations that could affect something as important as security. For instance, a small business owner may want entitlements so that they can let others transact without giving away their credentials.
Creating a customized small business experience is riddled with challenges, including wooing small businesses onto newer platforms. For instance, small businesses often masquerade as retail customers, because such accounts have smaller fees for tasks like remote deposit capture.
And small businesses will inevitably have diverse needs, said Patricia Hines, a senior analyst within Celent's banking practice.
Some will need credit card readers. Others will need payroll services. Revenues or number of employees, which are common measures in defining small businesses, alone won't determine the features a company needs either. A wine shop owner could have five employees but still require foreign exchange because he imports wines directly, for example, Hines said.
Also, creating a way for a small business to open an account online has added onboarding complexities. Increasing the speed and efficiency of onboarding retail customers is something that has yet to be solved for, while onboarding a small business requires banks to mine added documents like a business license.
Seed says it will collect the least amount of data possible from the customer like their company name and employer identification number. Then, it will use a variety of online data providers and its own systems to collect and verify other data to open an account. It will collect signatures via the mobile app, identification via the camera and documents via web or mobile app.
But like Simple and other neobanks, Seed will rely on bank partners to hold customers' deposits. Already, the startup has signed an undisclosed institution partner and it hopes to form more bank partnerships. The longer-term goal is to expand into other products like lending.
In taking on a digital-first deposit account before extending credit, its approach is different from banks and startups alike. But Hildebrand sees the route as the logical path.
"Every business needs a bank account, while only a fraction need lending," said Hildebrand in an email. "The ideal way to lend to a customer is to own the deposit relationship and associated customer information and data."
Banks often view the small business relationship beginning with loans rather than deposits. Such is the case for Somerset Trust Company, for example, said John Gill, chief operating officer and risk officer
But eventually, banks will need to enhance the experience of all their products to stay competitive and achieve greater wallet share. So just as lenders are increasingly trying to compete on ease and speed, they will also need to up the ante on their digital banking app experiences.
That's why Somerset is working with Malauzai on an app geared toward small business owners — its core customer that is defined by $5 million in revenue or less.
The forthcoming app, which will include entitlements so owners can grant employees permission to make a payment, is seen as a way to free on-the-go owners from needing to punch in numbers on a PC.
"Small businesses have been somewhat forgotten or lost," Gill said, adding that the new app "will give them more flexibility in how they set up and manage their accounts."