There is much to thank the Midland Bank for launching ‘free in credit banking’ in the mid 1980’s but perhaps, an unintended consequence was, this act that led to all current accounts feeling the same. A range of utility current accounts from an ever decreasing number of providers offering the same vanilla banking.
In early 1990 I made the most of my newly found freedom to open a bank account with which ever bank I wanted to. I worked for one of the big clearing banks at the time and having a bank account with another bank had just been permitted.
As an aside, when my friend married someone working at another bank a joint account at one of their respective banks was not permissible so they had to maintain their individual bank accounts, but at least the requirement to ask your branch manager for permission to marry had ceased.
Making the most of this newly found current account freedom I opened an account with the new telephone bank First Direct. I recall a nicely coloured cheque book cover and a smart cheque guarantee card but apart from being able to speak to someone on the phone it didn’t feel that different.
Perhaps First Direct was ahead of its time and needed the internet and mobile banking to be invented for a ‘challenger bank’ (that wasn’t even a term then) to really flex its muscles and transform banking in the UK.
During my time in a big bank’s product management function in the 1990’s it was always hard to differentiate and add value to what felt just like a utility bank current account.
Current Accounts at the time were better described by the Americans – a ‘checking account’ – as that was really all the account did.
During my time as the CEO of a UK critical national payments infrastructure I was always keen to innovate at the centre. All innovation had to be equitably available to all the scheme participants – I called this ‘utility innovation’ – and I hoped to create an environment where the users (participants) could take the ‘utility innovation’ created at the ‘centre’ and differentiate their own competitive options.
The launch of BACSTEL-IP, the smooth and hassle free Current Account Switching Service and raising payment limits within Faster Payments are three examples that immediately spring to mind. Scheme utility innovation that users (participants) of the payment schemes could use to innovate their own product offerings was my goal.
Given my interest in payments and current accounts it is no surprise that three years ago today I opened a current account with Starling Bank to see what Anne Boden’s new creation had to offer.
Starling had only been live for a week so, in honesty, it was a bit of a jump into the unknown, although I had met Anne at a conference speakers dinner in 2015 when she told me proudly ‘I’m building a bank’.
Three years later, being one of Starling Banks’s first customers was not a flash in the pan. My Starling current account is the one I use every day and a Starling Business Account was the immediate choice for a bank account when I set up my company (Northey Point Limited) in 2018.
Over the years I have lost count of the times I have been asked why I am such an advocate for Starling. The main challenge I get is the Midland Bank ‘vanilla’ challenge – ‘all current accounts are the same aren’t they?’
After a three year relationship my experience is that Starling has taken the utility elements of creating a bank (including a ‘free in credit’ charging model and common access to the full range of the UK’s payment schemes) and truly differentiated their product offering.
There were many events that occurred during my time as Bacs’ CEO that I am especially proud of. One of the proudest moments was, as the designated Admissions Official, I accepted Starlings application for direct participation in Bacs.
So, back to the question, why such an advocate for Starling?
My top ten answers:
1: Smooth and friction-less on boarding (both consumer and business accounts).
2: Great app user experience (UX).
3: Fantastic currency conversion rates.
4: Superb, responsive and knowledgeable customer service support.
5: Full banking license with FSCS protection.
6: Range of value added Market Place partnerships differentiated for both consumers and businesses.
7: Easy to use business account web portal (with value added Tool Kit functionality).
8: A debit card that often starts a conversation in a shop or restaurant.
9: Helpful and informative in app budgeting, saving (‘pots’) and spending analysis support.
10: Inclusion of card based recurring payment details alongside Direct Debit and Standing Order details within the app.
During the 2015 dinner with Anne Boden she told me the bank was going to be called ‘Starling Bank’, not being an ornithologist I pictured a small, weak insignificant bird perching on the branch of a small tree.
The Starling marketing machine introduced me to a murmuration – a word that according to the Oxford dictionary perfectly describes the rustle of thousands of pairs of wings.
This is a much better picture of what Starling have become in just three short years.
Advocacy, passion and enthusiasm for a bank brand and current account?
Who would have thought it!
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