Starting a bank is no small feat, especially when you’re 24 years old. And yet, this isn’t Jeremy Berger’s first rodeo, having already co-founded a peer-to-peer lending startup before.
That venture led Berger to cross paths with Vladislav Solodkiy and Igor Pesin, who were investors with fintech fund Life Sreda. After a meeting at a fintech conference in Las Vegas, Berger asked them to invest in his startup. He didn’t get the money, but he left a strong impression.
Solodkiy and Pesin told him, “We like you as an entrepreneur. If you ever come to Singapore, let’s reconnect and see what happens.” Not long after, Berger found himself in search of a different environment and challenge, so he move from the US to the city-state.
“I came here on a blind leap of faith, with no job offers on the table,” Berger tells Tech In Asia. “It was super nerve-wracking for me. In your early 20s, you can have a big risk appetite, but at the same time, you need some security and stability.”
He arrived in late 2017 and spent a couple of months navigating the ecosystem. He got some job offers, but eventually found Solodkiy and Pesin’s idea irresistible. Berger knew what his next step was going to be, and it involved small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
In Singapore, “99.9 percent of all businesses are SMEs,” while in the US, “28 million small businesses exist; they’ve been the backbone of the economy for as long as we can remember,” according to Berger.
He also cited a study from Ernst & Young which found that “99.5 percent of businesses in the G7 countries are SMEs, and 50 percent of them are underserved in terms of having access to different financial tools and banking products. It’s a global problem that we’re trying to help solve.”
As the COO of Arival Bank, Berger hopes to be part of the solution.
Arival aims to provide a banking platform that caters to SMEs, freelancers, and crypto-related firms. Traditional banks are reluctant to work with such non-traditional businesses largely because they’re unfamiliar with the potential risks.
Arival puts a heavy emphasis on building strong compliance procedures that are suited for SMEs and crypto businesses. To this end, the startup hired prominent compliance firms Promontory and DLA Piper to help develop a know-your-customer process that goes beyond what traditional banks do. Considering the “non-standard” nature of its clients, partnering with such prominent consultants helps to reassure regulators.
An open API strategy sets Arival apart. “Traditional banks don’t do a great job of delivering the best products and services all in one place or one platform. This means that these businesses are forced to go from bank to bank, fintech to fintech, to look for what they want — it’s a very chaotic experience. We’re asking the question: what if all your favorite fintechs existed on one bank?” says Berger. He hopes Arival can be a one-stop shop for all the fintech services that an SME could ever need.
The startup has identified a few key products, including lending, savings accounts, accounting services, and more. It plans to flesh out its product line with more partners. Currently, Arival is working with Mbanq, A.ID and IdentityMind.
From book to bank
Arival’s journey more or less began in October 2017, when Solodkiy published his book The First Fintech Bank’s Arival, which basically describes the concept of open API banking and how fintech firms and banks can collaborate.
He began hearing from many crypto businesses that detailed their issues with banks closing, freezing, or not even offering them accounts.
“We thought, why not build a bank?” Solodkiy says. “Initially, we thought about buying a small bank and changing its business model and technologies to serve these clients. However, we eventually realized that this wouldn’t do anything to shorten our time to market. For our goals, regulators told us that it would be easier to apply for a new license.”
What followed was a lengthy and thorough process of identifying what suitable license to apply for. Eventually, the team decided on the International Financial Entity (IFE) license in Puerto Rico, a US territory. It’s an international banking license that allows financial institutions to work with clients from all across the world, all while under the sophisticated US banking system.
“We worked diligently for five months nonstop to develop a business plan,” recalls Berger. “Hundreds of pages, covering topics such as compliance policies, risk management, go-to-market strategy, financial model, capital structure — the whole nine yards. It took us a long time to get it to the level we wanted it to be.”
Arival hopes to receive the license by 1Q’2019.
Early wins and the future
The startup is seeing some progress — it has raised US$1 million in seed funding from Based on Blockchain Fund. Thousands of businesses have reached out and signed up for the bank’s waiting list. Arival’s business model is based on transaction fees and revenue sharing with fintech partners.
Looking ahead, Arival expects to secure US$10 to 15 million in series A funding, which it aims to close by early 2019.
In the next 12 months, the bank aims to be licensed in Europe as well as expand to different markets in Asia through joint ventures or sub-licensing to a third-party.
“We have the goal of becoming a global and digital bank that can serve businesses 100 percent online from any part of the world,” says Berger.
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