A Houston founder shares an analysis of relationship banking, the pros and cons of digital banking competition, and an outlook of digital banking inroads to develop relationship banking. Photo courtesy

After our doctor and our child’s school, a bank is an institution with which we share the relationship that is most personal and vital to our well-being in this world. Some might put a good vet third, but other than that, no private entity is more responsible for escorting us to a healthier and happier outcome over the course of our lives.

The bank vault is a traditional symbol of security and prosperity, and not just for our pennies. We safeguard possessions in banks that are so important we don’t even trust keeping them in our own houses. Wills, birth certificates, and the precious family heirlooms of countless families are held in safety deposit boxes behind those giant vault doors, and banks have been the traditional guardians not only of our wealth but our identity and future as well.

The importance of relationship banking

Faith and confidence in our banks is so fundamental to the customer relationship that it has evolved into a unique and otherwise unthinkable arrangement for any good capitalist in a healthy marketplace: banks pay us to be their customers. Imagine a doctor offering you $20 for trusting them to give you a colonoscopy and you’re on the road to understanding the sacrosanct union between bank and customer.

In fact, this trust is so deeply anchored in the American psyche that a new generation of digital banking companies has sprung up on the idea that it doesn’t need to exist in physical reality. The fintech industry has exploded in the last decade, and today, over 75 percent of Americans are engaged in online banking in one form or another. Every single one of those 200 million customers are taking for granted that they will be well served, despite having no personal guidance through any of the financial products and services that these online entities provide.

Benefits of fostering relationships with banking customers

In the late 90s and early 2000s brick-and-mortar banks realized that greater personalized care for their customers was going to be a critical point of competition. The in-person experience is an opportunity to offer advice and incentives for a wide range of products and financial management assistance. It’s rooted in an incredibly simple axiom that is taking hold in every aspect of modern society: everyone benefits if we all get along better.

There’s a lot of statistical traction behind this theory. Customers who report they are “financially healthy” are down 20 percent over the last year, which means people are looking for guidance. 73 percent of customers who visit a local bank branch report having a personal relationship with their bank, while only 53 percent say the same of their digital institution. Most importantly, although many digital banks are offering similar products and services to their real-world counterparts, customer engagement remains very low.

It starts with your products

The truth is, today’s bank customers still want that same personal relationship their great-grandparents had before they engage with deeper financial products and services. They believe it makes them more financially successful, and confirm that human connections and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand.

Products that are Challenging for Digital Markets

Residential mortgages, for example, are an $18 trillion dollar industry that deals in durations longer than most digital banking services have even existed. The perception of continuity and stability is highly valued by clients in the mortgage relationship. Today, most customers feel that only comes with a handshake and a smile from an employee who has to fit in a meeting before they pick their kids up from school.

While digital firms have proven themselves capable of offering savings and checking services, most have fallen flat on the mortgage front because of the premium on personal relationships. Loyalty is the reward for time, service, and shared experience, and financial institutions that cannot provide that package for their customers are never going to access a deeper and more meaningful portfolio of services.

Finding Well-suited Products for Digital Finance

The message for the digital finance world is as clear as it is pressing. The future of the industry will revolve around more personalized experiences, interactions, and long-term products. At the same time, the American public has embraced digital banking, and we are looking at a new generation of bank users who may never walk through a branch door in their life.

In order to compete, the digital industry will need to identify and develop a range of long-term products and services that make sense for customers in today’s environment. Mortgages may be out of the question, but the safety deposit box holds great promise for industry in-roads. Optimal services for deeper, more personal customer engagement include things like:

  • Legacy and estate planning
  • Will preparation and safeguarding
  • Preservation of cherished photos and videos
  • Important personal data storage


Because these things are product-based, they are well suited to the digital ecosystem. The cryptocurrency industry and modern online banking have solidified consumer confidence in the digital bank vault, and there is a great deal of faith in the perpetuity of electronic documents and storage.

The IRS estimates that upwards of 90 percent of Americans are E-filing their taxes and that only comes with a widespread belief that our highly sensitive information can and will be preserved and protected by digital architecture.

Secure your future

Digital banking firms that want to thrive in the upcoming decades are going to need to innovate in long-term financial planning products that bring their customers into a closer, more personal relationship with them.

The finance world will continue to change and develop, but the hopes, fears, and dreams of people trying to build and secure a better future for themselves and their children will remain the same for tomorrow’s customers as they were for their parents and grandparents.

It is up to the digital finance industry to adapt and develop to provide the customers of today—and tomorrow— with these invaluable services and securities.

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Emily Cisek is the founder and CEO of The Postage, a tech-enabled, easy-to-use estate planning tool.

The new savings program will help customers “at a time when low rates, high inflation, and market volatility are top of mind.” Getty Images

Houston fintech startup launches high-yield savings program

More Money

Houston-based fintech startup Save has teamed up with Stamford, Connecticut-based Webster Bank to offer a high-yield savings program.

Through Save’s Savetech platform, customers will be able to open savings accounts from Webster Bank. Save expects the annual percentage yield (APY) for the savings accounts to range from 1.5 percent to 7.7 percent. Those rates aren’t guaranteed, though. As of mid-May, the typical interest rate for a U.S. savings account was 0.07 percent.

The new program is able to potentially surpass the national interest rate by investing customers’ money in a diversified portfolio of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) representing stocks, bonds, real estate, and commodities based on each customer’s investment strategy. Save is an investment adviser registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Customers’ deposits are held in Webster Bank savings accounts that are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) up to the current limit, which is $250,000 per depositor, per FDIC-insured bank, per ownership category.

Michael Nelskyla, founder and CEO of Save, says the new savings program will help customers “at a time when low rates, high inflation, and market volatility are top of mind.”

“Save is on a mission to change the way people build wealth,” says Adam Watts, president and chief operating officer of Save, which was founded in 2018. “Our Savetech platform can fundamentally change how people save.”

In 2020, Save teamed up with Boston-based Radius Bank to offer an FDIC-insured consumer checking account and the Save Debit Invest debit card for customers of the Savetech platform.

Earlier this year, Save unveiled a partnership with Visa for the Save Wealth credit card. Instead of offering traditional rewards like points or cash back, the card delivers an average investment return of 6.04 percent on every dollar spent. The card’s annual fee is $750, which is one of the highest annual fees among all credit cards.

Holders of the Save Wealth card can potentially reap greater rewards with purchases from Save-aligned brands like Amazon, Apple, Peloton, Samsung, SoulCycle, Tesla, and Whole Foods.

“Our company was founded by a team of experienced investors, technology, and quantitative experts from UBS, Goldman Sachs, and NASA, with the goal of transforming the way that people save money,” Nelskyla says. “We believe in helping people earn a substantial return on their savings with a sophisticatedly designed investment portfolio, backed by the safety of FDIC insurance.”

Today, Save has more than 25,000 customers.

DonateStock, a Houston fintech company that simplifies the stock donation process, has officially launched. Image courtesy of DonateStock

Impact-driven Houston fintech startup officially launches after successful beta

it's go time

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Two Houston entrepreneurs have launched an app that makes transfering funds to Africa seamless and safe. Screenshot via AiDEMONEY's Facebook page

Impact-driven Houston fintech startup emerges to streamline international remittance

money transfer tech

Africans living abroad send over $40 billion back to their home country annually — yet the process continues to be expensive, fraud-ridden, and complicated. A new Houston-area startup has a solution.

AiDEMONEY, based in Katy, has launched a money transfer app for mobile devices. The app enables digital transfers from the United States to five African countries: Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria

"International remittance has always been about people living in diaspora wanting to share their success with people back home," says Uzoma Eze, AiDEMONEY co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "By replacing profit as the point of the spear, we're helping Africans fund Africa and, ultimately, rewriting our motherland's story."

Eze co-founded the company with Felix Akompi, a fellow member of Houston's African diaspora community and the company's COO

The app, which is already available on the App Store and Google Play, focuses on blockchain-powered security and instant transfers. The company also designed the platform with a "give back" model that builds a stronger Africa.

With every transaction fee, users are funding progress in Africa. A portion of customer transaction fees to nonprofits in education and literacy, women's empowerment, and healthcare. Currently, AiDEMONEY partners with the Lagos Food Bank Initiative, Shalom Sickle Cell Foundation, Sharing Smiles Initiative, and Jenny Uzo Foundation.

"We're creating a superhighway for tens of billions in USD to flow from one part of the world to another," Eze says. "When you have the right people with the right vision, that capital tills the ground—tilling out profit, social advancement and a stronger Africa."

Doing Money Remittance Better | AiDEMONEY, The African Diaspora's Money Transfer App www.youtube.com

Houston-based HighRadius has launched a new platform. Photo via Getty Images

Houston unicorn fintech company launches new B2B education platform

biz support

Houston-based HighRadius — which recently hit $1 billion valuation, reaching unicorn status — has launched a new learning platform.

Highako Academy by HighRadius, launched the platform to help credit and collections teams build certain skills faster. Highako features over 650 expert-led videos, community forums, and resources. The new on-the-job training platform, which announced its launch this week, is used by more than 2,800 companies, according to a press release.

"Our customers have asked us for an online self-service learning platform, and that led us to launch highako.com as a beta platform last year," says HighRadius COO Urvish Vashi in the release. "With 10,000+ users on the platform and a vibrant partner ecosystem consisting of credit groups, collection agencies, attorneys and industry associations, we see this echoing a larger trend of millennials and Gen Z gravitating towards microlearning platforms."

In honor of the launch of Highako Academy, the organization has announced plans for Credit SkillCon '21, a lunch-and-learn event from June 16 to July 20. The 53 live workshops, panel discussions, and on-demand sessions will focus on topics including negotiations, credit risk assessment, bankruptcy litigation, collections strategy and more. .

"We continually hear from members about wanting more and different educational options," says Jon Flora, president and CEO of NACM Business Credit Service. "The last year has changed much about how we answer this call, and now we have a solution. We are the first NACM affiliate to partner with Highako Academy."

HighRadius and its AI-powered SaaS technology, which streamlines accounts-receivable and cash-management processes, are growing fast. The company, which processes over $2.23 trillion in receivables transactions annually, per the release, raised $300 million in March. At the time of that raise, HighRadius, founded in 2006, employed more than 1,000 people around the world — and was hiring.

"Our goal has always been to build a long-lasting business that outlasts all of us," Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, said in the news release. "I look forward to working with [our] high-quality, long-term investors, who share a common vision of transforming the office of the CFO using a combination of artificial intelligence built on top of connected-finance workspaces and embedded analytics."

This Houston-based couple used their own experience of paying down consumer debt to launch a new company. Image courtesy of SpenDebt

Houston fintech startup selected for award-winning program

big start

Kiley and Ty'Lisha Summers once found themselves nearly $100,000 in debt; now, they have a goal of owning a $100 million company. The Houston-based couple used their own experience of paying down consumer debt to launch SpenDebt, a SaaS payment solution chosen for the Mastercard Start Path program.

You could say debt is ubiquitous in the United States. A 2015 report by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 80 percent of American households have some form of debt. "As we started sharing our story, we realized that there were so many people who were just like us but didn't know what to do," explains Ty'Lisha, co-founder of SpenDebt.

SpenDebt's model relies on the simple truth: everyone spends money. The company, which is available as a phone app or web service, securely links to the user's bank account and allows you to designate a predetermined micropayment to be deducted at every transaction. The micropayments are then applied monthly to the debt of the user's choice, whether it be lofty student loans or a monthly car payment.

"God gave my husband the vision to start SpenDebt to help people help themselves," she says. Kiley even decided to share his concept Mastercard, but the idea was too early to gain anything other than the corporation's intrigue.

After two years of development and a subsequent year of beta testing, SpenDebt launched its commercialized product in 2019. The Summers applied to Mastercard Start Path, a highly competitive startup engagement program multiple times before being accepted into its 2021 cohort of six scaling startups.

"To finally get the 'yes,' it just made it full circle," says Ty'Lisha. "It's a game changer for SpenDebt."

Ty'Lisha Summers is the co-founder of SpenDebt. Photo courtesy

Fintech is a multibillion-dollar industry, and financial apps have become the darlings of venture capitalism. According to a SpenDebt release, companies that have participated in Start Path have gone on to raise more than $3 billion in post-program capital. Even while investor budgets were trimmed during the pandemic, Fintech companies garnered $44 billion in investments — a 14 percent increase since 2019, reports Finextra.

From the New Statesman to the Raconteur, media outlets and pundits have explored the saturation of the fintech sector. Ty'Lisha is confident that SpenDebt is different from its competitors.

"What's unique is that we give our customers 100 percent control on defining what that micropayment is, unlike our competition where it is strictly just round-up," she explains. The average SpenDebt user has set a $1.70 micropayment, but the co-founders have seen payments set at anything from 50 cents to $25 per transaction.

Initiatives like Bank of America's Keep the Change rounds up each transaction to the nearest dollar amount, then puts that money into a savings account for you to pay your debt off — or not. McKinsey & Company survey reports that more than 50 percent of US consumers expect to spend extra as COVID-19 restrictions relax, with higher-income millennials intending to spend the most. According to CNBC, Gen Z shoppers are also predicted to spend big on niceties like clothing and travel.

Though no app can automate personal discipline, SpenDebt can help you pay down debt and build financial literacy.

"With SpenDebt, once you tell us where you want that payment to go, that's where it's going," explains Ty'Lisha. When the micropayments are deducted from your account, SpenDebt holds onto your accrued payments and sends them monthly to the creditor of your choice. Ty'Lisha notes the service can be canceled or put on hold.

NBC News reported that 46 percent of Americans wiped out their emergency funds in 2020 as they shuffled to make ends meet. States around the country, including Texas, even enacted moratoriums on utility shut-offs in response to the pandemic. In some industries, "businesses went from collecting full payments from people to not collecting anything" or accepting partial payments, she explains.

The pandemic highlighted an opportunity for SpenDebt to partner with enterprises to offer creative solutions for payments that help customers pay off existing debt while helping businesses collect "something versus nothing."

As SpenDebt includes enterprises in its long-term growth strategy, the company founders have also pledged to work with nonprofits.

For the Summerses, SpenDebt's mission surpasses their desire to live a debt-free life. "As a part of our debt-free journey, we couldn't help but become more well-versed in finances. We were on a quest to make our money work for us versus the other way around," shares Ty'Lisha.

As Black business owners, Kiley and Ty'Lisha want to focus on building generational wealth for their family's future and help SpenDebt users do the same. "We like to say that we want all of the generational curses that may have been passed down to us to stop with us, and to start creating generational wealth for our future," she explains.

"[Debt] doesn't just address the middle class; there are so many people across the spectrum in debt," says Ty'Lisha. "A lot of times, the low-to-moderate income communities get overlooked," she continues.

SpenDebt is a preferred partner of United Way of Greater Houston and recently penned a partnership with Impact Hub Houston — an incubator with a mission to empower entrepreneurs and small businesses to take on issues like sustainability, gender equality, and economic growth.

SpenDebt hopes to capture its first enterprise customer during its six-month StartPath program and hopes to one day become a $100 billion company. "The resources, the network, the knowledge that we're getting from Mastercard and their network, the exposure that we're getting—it's going to be huge," says Ty'Lisha.

Of the many goals for SpenDebt's future, she wants the company to be "a solution for communities that may have been overlooked."

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University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.