My very first experience of the new wave of neo banking was a chat bot that plugged in to my bank account via Facebook Messenger. It was nowhere near as slick as Plum, but it was cool. The concept opened my eyes to new ways to manage my finances and in turn that started a domino effect, pushing me to rethink who I have my current account, my pension, my savings and even my mortgage with. Fast forward three years and here we are.
Elise Nunn is Head of Operations at Plum and has been with them over a year and a half, building the teams, processes, relationships and support services that have allowed Plum to serve their customers and celebrate impressive growth along the way.
I enjoyed chatting to Elise so much that we had to do it twice. In actual fact, the SD card corrupted and I lost everything – so a big thank you to Elise for taking extra time to retrace our steps.
Can you briefly explain for the benefit of newcomers what Plum is and how it works?
Plum is the first AI-powered chatbot to be launched in the UK. We assist customers holistically with their finances. Plum connects to the user’s bank account and ingests data. The AI automatically puts money aside at regular intervals, spotting and swapping out rip-off bills on the way. It can then help customers grow their saved money.
Plum is your lifelong financial friend, so first it’ll get to know a customer’s financial situation, help build a saving buffer, and then it’ll give the opportunity to invest some or all of their savings into risk-based or thematic funds. Wherever on the financial ladder they lie, Plum can graduate them to the next step.
What’s your goal as a company?
Our goal as a company is to build the best full-stack financial solution in the world, so that customers don’t need to look anywhere else. If they want to know their bank balances and where they spent their money, want to save money, want to grow that money, want to check for better energy deals, then check Plum. Until now, having a person looking after your money has only really been available for the rich. We want to bring this to whoever needs it.
What’s the working environment like at Plum?
We’re passionate about what we do, and it’s an inclusive place for ideas and innovation. We have goal-based teams that we call ‘squads’, and these are cross-functional. So instead of having separate departments like marketing, operations or tech that are silo-ed, we have teams that are set around a mission. For example, one of our squads is set around making Plum the best engine in the world for ensuring people aren’t getting ripped off. Then, we work together, with developers, data scientists, product managers, marketing and so on, to ensure we get as close to this goal, and its associated key results, as possible. This means that not only are we super focused on a customer-based mission, but we’re constantly iterating and evolving our process as a function of the variety of knowledge and skills within our teams.
Talk to us about your expansion to Greece and what that hopes to achieve for Plum as a business and for your users too.
Sure. In September last year, Plum opened its second office in Greece. We’ve now got just under ten developers working in Athens. Our founders are from Cyprus and know the Athens tech scene very well, so we decided that a second engineering office there made sense.
Plum is a full-stack product and we’re constantly interacting, listening to and learning from our user base. This means we need a strong army of product-focused people ready to build and change the product quickly. For now, Plum is UK-only, but we’ve set our sights on a few European countries when it comes to future expansion.
KYC, AML, regulation, and Open Banking in general — has this been a fairly painless process to go through? Do you think these regulations come from a good place and make fintech a productive place to be?
I do think these regulations come from a good place, yes. I actually think the CMA, FCA and so on have done a lot of work into looking at banking behaviour in general, in particular the behaviour of incumbents, or high street banks (for example the Strategic Review of Retail Banking Business Models done by the FCA, which in part, looks at the unfair treatment of customers around overdraft fees). This has also in part been driven by the rise of financial apps and neo-banks challenging the way we as a society view banking.
Open Banking and PSD2 were born out of a need for banks to pass back control of personal data to the consumer; after all, it’s not for an often opaque structure to decide who I share my data with and for what. Equally, this hasn’t and still isn’t a painless process. Screen scraping was never a sustainable solution and did need to move over, but it’s not just as simple as ‘building APIs’. There’s a tonne of testing, and in part there’s been a realisation that initial technical standards set may not have been good enough for the needs of third parties – it’s uncharted territory for banks, and for us. Aggregators like TrueLayer, who work closely with the banks and bring these APIs together for third-parties, make the transition smoother, but it’s nuanced, long, and we’re still not out of the woodwork.
Plum are about three years old. Talk to us about growing pains you’ve had, if any, and what you’ve implemented in terms of automation to do what we call ‘make the boat go faster’?
I don't think that there’s been one ‘breaking-point’ moment. Like any business that's trying to grow, we have challenges. How do you prioritise when there are 15 of you and 25 things that you want to build? There’s a lot of process-driven and structural stuff. I think building a company and splitting that company into mission-oriented teams has really set our focus in the right places. Everybody has a part to play in the success.
Similarly, you need to learn to understand what’s the next, correct thing to build. You need to have one ear constantly listening to the customer. Customer value and business-value should not be disparate, as what brings value to your business should first and foremost be what brings value to your customers, and vice versa. Having solid feedback loops with your customer base is paramount.
Lastly, working in an agile manner and focusing on quick, frequent releases, so that once you’ve decided what’s the next correct thing to build for users, you can put it out there, test the water and iterate rapidly. This works well for us. You don’t want to spend six months building something to find out you need to go back and unpick your machine – learning early on in super important.
Plum, Monzo, Starling, Loot, PensionBee (everyone we’ve spoken to so far, really) are heavily geared towards helping people save, helping people manage their money. What’s the hardest part of saving for most people right now?
I think there are two parts to the saving problem.
Firstly, in a country like the UK where monthly outgoings make up a high proportion of income, we’re all focused on the short-term. It can be hard to think about saving for your future when you’re paying off a loan with a bad APR, for example. We’ve heard a lot about the term ‘scarcity’ in behavioural economics. I think getting the balance between autonomy, education and empowerment right is an interesting one to solve: there are lots of apps which like to point a finger at you because you ‘spent coffee on Pret’. I think that’s condescending and you need to be careful not to become too paternalistic.
Plum uses automation so that even when you don’t have time to think about your financial future, something else is, whether that’s building you a buffer, helping you grow your money, or getting you off that extortionate NPower bill that’s costing you £300 too much a year.
Secondly, there's a cohort of people that don't have much money to save, or who can't save yet, and if you really want to help people, you’ve got to bear that in mind. Solving the saving problem for somebody who earns above median income but is bad with their money is very different to someone who is on low income, and paying a 499% APR on a payday loan they took out because their boiler broke down. And so in the latter, the solution may not be to even save (yet); it may be to save on their bills first. Perhaps help them consolidate debt or switch them off killer loans. It’s a really nuanced picture and one size does not fit all.
A part of your role is understanding what users want when it comes to your product. How do you go about gathering that feedback?
We do a wide variety of things. We take input from contacts on customer support, from our huge community on Facebook and social. We have a huge depth of data as to how users organically engage with our product. On top of this, every member of the team is engaged with measuring the user impact of work shipped, from PMs, to the engineers building the products.
And then there’s spending time with users to understand whether they’re building the right thing in the right way (user testing) or finding out more broadly what they want. We have a ‘Plum Pizza Party’ every quarter where we invite Plumsters to come and chat with the team and eat pizza, of course.
Once you have all these touchpoints for customer data, you need a common understanding of what this data means and a process to organise it and revisit it periodically.
I think we also need to understand the social context that we operate in. There’s a lot of buzz about tech and AI and so on—sure, because it’s enormously powerful—but ensuring you build a team that understands who your users are within a wider social context is also super powerful when it comes to building the right thing.
Keep an eye open for Tech Tales №6. We'll be chatting to the COO at a digital bank who have found their advantage by targeting a particular demographic of customers with a specific need.
Looking for a previous Tech Tales?
Tech Tales №1: Megan Caywood, Chief Platform Officer, Starling Bank
Tech Tales №2: Jonathan Lister Parsons, CTO, PensionBee
Tech Tales №3: Josh Hart, CTO, yulife
Tech Tales №4: Edmund Greaves, Deputy Editor, Moneywise