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2020 will be a challenging year for challenger banks – TechCrunch

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Over the past year, startup banks have proven that they have a shot at disrupting retail banking. These challengers have amassed a war chest of funding, announced some ambitious international expansion plans and attracted millions of customers.

And yet, building a bank has proven to be even harder than building a startup in general. Retail banks aren’t willing to sit back and watch startups eat their lunch. Here’s a look back at the biggest moves of the year from challenger banks, some trends you should keep an eye on and the upcoming challenges for those startups.

A year of aggressive growth

Due to the regulatory framework and the size of the market, it is much easier to launch a challenger bank in Europe compared to anywhere else in the world. That’s why challenger banks have been thriving in Europe.

When a company gets a full banking license from the central bank of a EU country, the startup can passport its license across all EU countries and operate across the continent.

N26 raised a ton of money in 2019: last January, the Berlin-based startup announced a $300 million funding round, raising another $170 million in July. The company is now valued at $3.5 billion.

With more than 3.5 million customers in Europe, N26 announced some ambitious expansion plans. N26 is now live in the U.S. and is already planning a launch in Brazil.

Revolut has also been aggressively expanding in order to beat its competitors to new markets. In addition to its home market in the U.K., Revolut is available across Europe. In 2019, the company expanded to Singapore and Australia and currently has at least 8 million users.

While Revolut announced that it should launch in the U.S. and Canada by the end of last year, the clock ran out on that prediction. The startup has been very transparent about its expansion plans, even though it sometimes means that you have to wait months or even years before a full rollout.

For instance, Revolut announced in September 2018 that it would launch in New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan “in the coming months.” It later became “early 2019,” then “2019.” India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and the UAE have also all been mentioned at some point. In other words: launching a banking product in a new country is hard.

The U.S. is a tedious market as you have to get a license in all 50 states to operate across the country

Monzo has been doing well at home in the U.K. It has attracted 3 million customers and raised £113 million (~$144m) in funding last year from Y Combinator’s Continuity fund. It is expanding to the U.S., but the rollout has been slow.

Nubank is another well-funded challenger bank. Backed by Tencent, the startup has raised a $400 million Series F round from TCV. According to the WSJ, the startup has a valuation above $10 billion.

Originally from Brazil, Nubank expanded to Mexico and has plans to expand to Argentina.

Chime is increasingly looking like the bigger player in the U.S., recently raising a $500 million funding round and reached a valuation of $5.8 billion. It only operates in the U.S.

Starling Bank and Atom Bank only operate in the U.K. Bunq is based in Amsterdam with a product tailor-made for the Netherlands, but it accepts customers across Europe.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list as it’s becoming increasingly hard to cover all challenger banks.

Subscription-based business model

There are a few basic features that separate challenger banks from legacy retail banks. Signing up is extremely simple and only requires a mobile app. The mobile app itself is usually much more polished than traditional banking apps.

Users receive a Mastercard or Visa debit card that communicates with the company’s server for each transaction. This way, users can receive instant notifications, block and unblock their cards and turn off some features, such as foreign payments, ATM withdrawals and online transactions.

Challenger banks usually customers promise no markup fees on transactions in foreign currencies, but there are sometimes some limits on this feature.

So how do these companies make money? When you pay with your card, banks generate a tiny, tiny interchange fee of money on each transaction. It’s really small, but it could become serious revenue at scale with tens of millions or hundreds of millions of users.

Challenger banks also offer other financial services like insurance products, foreign exchange or consumer credit. Some challenger banks develop those features in house, but many of those features are actually managed by external fintech partners. Challenger banks generate a commission on those products.

But the most promising product is premium subscriptions. While challenger banks started with free accounts and low, transparent fees, they have been selling premium subscriptions for a fixed monthly fee.

Challenger banks have become a software-as-a-service industry with a freemium component

For example, Revolut offers premium accounts for €7.99 per month with higher limits, some insurance benefits that you’d expect from a premium card and access to advanced features, such as cryptocurrencies and disposable virtual cards. There’s a super premium product for €13.99 called Metal with a metal card design, cashback on card payments and access to a concierge feature.

This seems a bit counterintuitive, but premium subscriptions have been performing well, according to discussions with people working in the industry. You pay a lot in subscription fees in order to avoid small transactional fees. (And you also get a cool card.)

Challenger banks have become a software-as-a-service industry with a freemium component. It leads to a premium positioning and high expectations from customers.

Revolut’s fees top out at €13.99/month.

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Ring Car Cam leaks: This could be Amazon’s Alexa dash-cam

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Details and what appears to be an image of Ring’s upcoming Car Cam have leaked, with the connected dash cam expected to add security both when the vehicle is parked and while it’s on the move. The newest addition to Ring’s line-up was actually announced in September 2020 as part of Amazon’s big device launch, though at the time no pictures of the Car Cam hardware itself were shared.

Still, Ring’s description painted a fairly comprehensive picture of what it was intended to do. As well as tracking bumps and attempted break-ins, and notifying owners via the Ring smartphone app, it can also be used to record journeys and summon emergency services in the case of an accident being detected.

If you’re being pulled over by the police, meanwhile, saying “Alexa, I’m being pulled over” will automatically begin video and audio recording. At the same time as that’s being uploaded to the cloud, the system will send a notification to pre-selected family members to let them know the stop has taken place. Ring said there would be a physical privacy shutter, too, and a choice of WiFi or LTE connectivity. The whole thing would be $199.99, though cellular plans would be on top of that.

Since then, we’ve not heard anything more about the new dash camera. A leak on The Tape Drive, though, has revealed what it could look like, and it’s certainly an unusual design.

The camera assembly looks to be mounted on some sort of bracket, either to be positioned above the dashboard or potentially hung from above the rearview mirror. There’s presumably a fish-eye camera on both sides – only visible from one side in the render – to capture footage both inside and outside of the car.

As for functionality, ZatzNotFunny spotted a seemingly prematurely-published Ring Car Cam information document on the company’s support site. It reconfirms some of the details which Ring told us late last year, but also adds a few extra tidbits.

For example, the camera will connect via the vehicle’s data port, not just hook up to a USB or 12V outlet for power. “Ring Car Cam easily installs directly to the OBD-II port in your vehicle, located behind your steering wheel in most cars,” Ring explains. “It securely attaches to the windshield and dashboard of the car, and the cable can be neatly tucked away and out of sight.”

It’s unclear what extra data Ring might be gathering by using that approach. The OBD-II port typically grants access to various driving metrics, and though originally intended as a way for vehicle technicians to diagnose faults and issues in increasingly computerized models, has also gained traction as a way for third-party devices to tap that same stream of information. Amazon had also announced Ring Car Alarm, a cellularly-connected dongle that plugs into the ODB-II port.

The Ring Car Cam itself won’t require a subscription, though you won’t get all of the features in that case. “You can access video stored locally on the device via the Ring app when the car is within range of wifi,” the company explains. “With an optional Ring connectivity plan, you can access video from anywhere via LTE as well as advanced features like Emergency Crash Assist.”

The connectivity plan for Ring Car Cam will also unlock features like real-time tracking, to help locate a stolen vehicle.

What remains to be seen is how Ring Car Cam will fit into Ring’s existing sharing policies with police departments. The Amazon-owned company has found itself mired in controversy in recent years, after inking deals with law enforcement that saw many requests for footage from connected security cameras and video doorbells. Ring had been accused of fueling privacy infringement and supporting racial profiling.

Earlier this month, the company announced a new policy around sharing with public safety and law enforcement agencies. Moving forward, such agencies will ahem to request information or video from communities through a publicly-viewable category on Ring’s Neighbors app. This new section, “Request for Assistance,” will allow communities to see just what sort of data is being shared, Ring says.

“All Request for Assistance posts will be publicly viewable in the Neighbors feed, and logged on the agency’s public profile,” Ring explains. “This way, anyone interested in knowing more about how their police agency is using Request for Assistance posts can simply visit the agency’s profile and see the post history.”

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YouTube on iOS PiP makes it much easier to watch videos while multitasking

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YouTube is now rolling out the ability for all users to watch videos with picture-in-picture mode, which reduces the video players to a small floating screen on one’s phone or tablet. This feature won’t be limited to only premium customers as some had previously speculated, though those premium customers will get access to the PiP support first.

Android users have had access to YouTube’s picture-in-picture mode for a while; it has become increasingly useful as devices get larger, higher-resolution displays, leaving ample room for using more than one app at a time. With PiP, someone can watch a video in a small corner of their device’s display while doing something else, such as browsing social media, messaging, or playing games.

There have been concerns over recent months that YouTube wouldn’t only make its picture-in-picture mode available to paying Premium subscribers on iOS, but that’s not the case, according to confirmation given to MacRumors.

The feature is now rolling out to all iOS users in the United States, with Premium customers getting it first followed by free users ‘soon.’ Some iOS users have already had access to the YouTube picture-in-picture feature, though its availability has been touch and go with it working only sometimes.

The official support will eliminate the need to deal with difficult workarounds and buggy Safari streaming, though you may need to remain patient if you’re not a Premium user. The feature will be most useful on larger iPhone models where there’s enough screen space to watch a video in the mini player and engage in a second activity.

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Researchers say they’ve found the ideal strategy to pay off student loans

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When many people near college graduation, they begin to contemplate how they’ll deal with the student loans they’ve racked up over the past few years. The burden — which grows more substantial with every generation — can result in stress and, if not managed properly, may throw one’s life plans off track for several years. Mathematicians with the University of Colorado at Boulder may have a solution, explaining that they developed a mathematical model to explore the ideal repayment strategy.

Generally speaking, college graduates get a brief grace period after graduation during which time they aren’t required to make payments on their loans. Two different options are available once payments start: an income-based repayment strategy that involves paying a certain amount monthly based on one’s salary or simply throwing as much money at the loan as possible to pay it off in a shorter period of time.

In many cases, graduates are often advised to pay the loans off as quickly as possible if the funding amount is on the smaller side. On the flip side, graduates are typically told to take the income-based repayment option if they’ve taken out a substantial amount of funds in the form of student loans. The new study suggests a hybrid approach may be more ideal.

The mathematical model takes into account things like compounding interest rates, the income tax that may need to be paid, and more. The findings indicate that some graduates may benefit from a hybrid-style repayment approach that involves paying off as much as possible for the first several years, then switching over to an income-based repayment plan for the remainder of the balance.

The team of researchers hasn’t made their work available as a calculator for the public, but they do plan to improve it and potentially make it available to existing repayment calculators that may integrate the model. The ideal repayment method will ultimately depend on personal factors that must be accounted for, including things like anticipated salary and more.

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