I enjoy all my guests on Barefoot Innovation, but if someone forced me to choose my favorite episodes, this one would be on the list. It’s partly because my guests, the co-founders of Bee, were so fun to talk with, and so thoughtful. And it’s also because they are addressing one of the objections people raise to fintech – the notion that it’s only for millennials.
Bee was founded in June of 2015 by Vinay Patel and brothers Max and Alex Grasner as an outgrowth of One Financial Holdings, a 'venture-backed laboratory for innovation in retail financial services'. In pioneering an innovative capital-light model using pop-up kiosks and street teams to sign up customers in-person, Bee is able to offer top quality financial services at a significantly lower cost than traditional brick-and-mortar bank branches. Bee is specifically targeting the lack of quality services for low-and moderate-income underserved people (although my guests point out that 'underserved' and 'underbanked' are not words people use to describe themselves). The product is intended to function as an alternative to checking accounts, structured as a prepaid card paired with a mobile app. Bee partners with Community Federal Savings Bank to offer alternatives to checking and savings accounts to its customers in New York and California.
Part of what makes this interesting is Bee’s specific hybrid model of personal touch and high tech. They’re trying to put the human beings where customers need them the most – in explaining and opening the account. And then they’re trying to drive down costs overall by not providing branches and tellers for routine functions. Bee’s team goes in person into underserved neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and they set up eye-catching mobile kiosks, which they compare to food trucks. They get people interested and then help them through a thorough process of thinking through their needs; opening an account; setting up and learning to use the app; and then, often, letting the new customer stay on to take advantage of the Bee wifi hotspot.
The in-person signup process also helps guard against money laundering, since people are seen face-to-face.
I think you’ll be fascinated by Max and Vinay’s insights into these consumers, including their huge financial savvy -- how thoroughly they know their money situations, and how they optimize their spending on their phones (and the challenges of working with such a wide array of phones that may be old or broken). Vinay and Max talk about their customers’ worries about both pricing uncertainties and payment delays (issues that are being tackled by other innovators as well).
One repeated theme is the company’s commitment to treating these customers with respect by providing a product that is obviously high-quality, right down to the thickness of the card, and providing a truly fantastic user experience on the app. They say customers often take selfies with the Bee team, at the end of setting up an account.
Bee’s CEO, Vinay Patel, has a joint law degree and MBA from NYU. He spent 5 years teaching at NYU Business school and at Columbia Public Policy Business School. He then moved on to McKinsey and Co. as a consultant to banks and government.
Max Gasner has a background as an investment stock broker on Wall street from 2007 – part of what motivated this work. He has also worked in the Bay area at an AI company - Prior Knowledge, and then moved on to a tech company which eventually morphed into Salesforce.
We recorded this episode several months ago. Since then the company has grown. It also won national recognition in New Orleans in June at the Emerge Conference, as one of the winners of the Financial Solutions Lab competition run by the Center for Financial Services Innovation and funded by JPMorgan Chase.
Max and Vinay are eloquent on the need for regulators to allow space for robust innovation – just one startup might create the 10X breakthrough that can change people’s lives. They’re also thoughtful on their commitment to earning compelling returns for their investors, including Blumberg Capital, Fenway Summer Ventures and AXA Strategy Ventures. They aim to do this with their unique formula of delivering personal attention and high value to a huge, largely untapped market, at very low cost.
Enjoy my conversation with Bee.
More Links and Information
- One Financial Holdings Blog
- Bee card website and access to kiosk locator
- CFSI research on consumer financial health and the financial situations of underserved families
- Blumberg Capital
- Fenway Summer Ventures
- AXA Strategy Ventures
- My blog post on CFSI’s research on underserved consumers, “Underserved and Underestimated”
More about Vinay
Prior to Bee, Vinay spent five years at McKinsey & Company, where he advised leaders of US banks and public sector organizations on executing large-scale IT modernization programs. Vinay is a faculty member at both NYU Stern School of Business and Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, where he has taught courses on Enterprise Strategy, Game Theory, and Data Visualization. Vinay holds a J.D. and an M.B.A from NYU, and a B.A. with honors in Economics from the University of Chicago. He is happily married and lives in Brooklyn.
More about Max
Prior to Bee, Max built and sold a machine learning company to Salesforce.com and traded equities in NY and London. Max holds a B.A. in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he graduated after spending two years at Deep Springs College. He lives in West Oakland.
More about Bee
Bee is a financial technology startup built on the principle that all Americans deserve convenient, high quality retail financial services. Bee has pioneered an innovative capital-light model using pop-up street teams and kiosks to sign up customers in-person for financial services at significantly lower cost than with traditional brick-and-mortar bank branches. Bee partners with Community Federal Savings Bank to offer alternatives to checking and savings accounts to its customers in New York and California. Bee has ambitious plans to expand its product offering and geographic footprint over the coming years.
Its major investors are Blumberg Capital, AXA Strategic Ventures, T5 Capital, Fenway Summer Ventures, and Western Technology Investment
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