SoFi buying Zenbanx either signals the first Mega NeoBank or a unicorn losing the plot

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SoFi became famous for raising $1 billion in Q3 of 2015. Unicorn valuation is big club (with more hype than reality as we said during the mega hype phase at the end of 2014), but a unicorn round (raising $1 billion in a single round)  is a very elite club. We normally only see unicorn rounds in China, where the investors are big companies rather than funds. This story also has a China twist, read on for that.

SoFi timed their $1 billion raise perfectly in late 2015 when Fintech was still in Wave 1 (the “this is revolutionary” wave as defined in this post). Since then Market Place Lending (MPL) hit some problems that dragged down the whole Fintech market and we went through Wave 2, when the conventional wisdom was that entrepreneurs should knock politely on the doors of the incumbent banks because they control the pace of change.

The news that SoFi was buying Zenbanx signals that SoFi has no plans to knock politely on the doors of the incumbents – they want to compete head on with the banks.

This could mean we are witnessing the birth of a Mega NeoBank. Or it could mean we are witnessing a company that raised too much during the hype cycle and is now losing the plot. This is post shines a light on that question. The answer will reveal a lot about the state of the Fintech market as well as the specific fate of SoFi.

This post will cover

  • What do Zenbanx do?
  • Who funded Zenbanx?
  • What comparable events help with analysis?
  • The TenCent China part of the story
  • Our take

What do Zenbanx do?

In the words of Mike Cagney, CEO of SoFi, when announcing the deal, Zenbax offers a “mobile banking account that lets people save, send and spend in multiple currencies.”

Save, send and spend has a nice ring to it. It describes quite simply why we use a bank. Oh and borrow and that is what SoFi already enables.

Two key things about this:

  • This is not just a Current/Checking account, covered by some payment license and using a pre-paid mobile wallet. It is also a Deposit account which as per the Zenbanx FAQ is FDIC insured. That is a big deal for a Market Place Lender like SoFi. It means they can get a low cost of capital. This looks like a head to head competitor for the Goldman Sachs Marcus service.
  • It is a multi-currency account. It will be interesting to see what SoFi does with this. It may simply remain a cross border money transfer service to American customers; SoFi is totally focused on the American today. Or they may use it at some stage to go global.

Who Funded Zenbanx

Crunchbase does not show the Zenbanx investor. Possibly it was changed post acquisition. So we went to CB Insights and found three Seed Investors:

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  • DCM is a classic Silicon Valley VC.
  • TenCent is the T in BAT (more on them later).
  • Recruit Strategic Partners is less well known. They come from Japan but invest globally. They are a 100% subsidiary of Recruit Holdings, a diversified company that began in the 1960s as an advertising agency that specialized in university newspapers.

What comparable events help with analysis?

  • BBVA acquisition of Simple in 2014. BBVA paid $117mn in 2014 and has since taken impairment charges but claims to be happy with the deal and to continue investing. The great results of a digital bank incubated by an incumbent such as ING (see interview here) indicates that they could be successful.

The TenCent China part of the story

TenCent was a Seed Investor in Zenbanx. In December, Zenbanx announced how they are using WeChat to offer what they call “conversational banking”.  Expect Facebook to be paying close attention as they figure how to monetize that $19bn WhatsApp deal. Alibaba is already the dragon in the room with their acquisition of MoneyGram.

The long-awaited move of GAFA and BAT into payments is happening now.

Our take

Banking is a service business not a winner takes all network effects business (see this post for more on that theme).

So we expect a number of full stack global Neobanks to be successful. So both N26 and SoFi can be success stories, albeit with different strategies. As can Neobanks incubated within an incumbent such as BBVA and ING. Whether the starting point is a VC backed startup or a legacy bank, the end game is the same. This is the convergence thesis we first outlined here.

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