11 October 2017

Tom Blomfield: The quiet coder turned enemy of the big banks

Monzo’s founder has combined Silicon Valley zeal with a predilection for publicity to position himself as digital banking’s consumer champion. Will he pull it off?

Monzo is hiring. Monzo, it seems, is always hiring; the newly-licensed UK bank is arguably the hottest startup in London right now.

‘We’re working to become the Google or Facebook of banking,’ runs the job ad. It’s the kind of extraordinarily ambitious statement Monzo’s co-founder, CEO and pied-piper-in-chief Tom Blomfield makes on a regular basis.

Blomfield is the man who must simultaneously instil in customers, financial regulators, and investors a sense that Monzo is both a rock-solid bank and something much more thrilling.

His formula seems to be working. People are keen to work for Monzo, investors want to invest, and the neon pink Monzo card has somehow become a coveted object even outside coder circles.

The hacker and the hacks

For a bank CEO, Blomfield spends an outrageous amount of time talking to journalists. It’s not unusual for him to clock up two interviews per day, he says. Spreading the good word about how the banking sector is set to be wobbled seems like his favourite pastime.

‘It feels like we are at a tipping point where the entire industry is teetering on the edge of a cliff and it is about to give way,’ Blomfield told Techworld in 2015.

And yet, for all his column inches and podcast minutes, Blomfield is not your typical, brashly confident CEO. He is a softly spoken coder. He built the site for Boso (an eBay for students) while at Oxford University, and then became technical co-founder at direct debit startup Go Cardless. Nor is that the only way he’s an unusual public face. At 31, he still projects a boyish but sensible image – all while shouldering the responsibility of selling Monzo as the business that will transform consumer banking.

Masterminding the hype  

Blomfield appears to have mastered the way publicity works. A huge chunk of Monzo’s 200,000 users voluntarily talk about it, and new features are trickled out to keep chins wagging. It’s a tech startup that others follow closely (whether they want it to succeed or fail), and equity crowdfunding’s darling – last year it banked the fastest ever raise on Crowdcube (£1m in 96 seconds), followed by a raise of £2.5m this February, which attracted a record-breaking 6,500 investors.

‘Let’s be honest – he doesn’t need to do this,’ admits Luke Lang, Crowdcube founder. ‘Passion Capital [Monzo’s VC investor] would’ve put in another million.’

About a year ago, Blomfield significantly stepped up the time he spent on PR. ‘It was pretty conscious,’ he says. ‘We don’t pay anything for marketing really, or do much-paid advertising. That’s why I spend half my time on it.’

Often, he plays the role of the consumer champion. ‘I’ve stood up as an individual and said, “I’m a frustrated bank customer, I bank with Natwest and I feel like I’m stuck in an abusive relationship”,’ he says, using one of his go-to metaphors. He speaks at fintech events. He’s been on Newsnight. And he makes regular visits to corporate offices. ‘We take 100 or so cards to Transferwise or Sky or Facebook, and the secret is actually it’s a really great recruiting tool,’ he says. ‘We wait about a week, and we get a flood of applicants.’

Seeing a billion

Blomfield is clearly good at selling his vision within London’s tech bubble. Whether he can sell Monzo further afield is another matter.

The question is, what lies behind the hype? Rival banks, both digital and on the high street, are all waiting for Blomfield and his company to be properly examined.

Ignore the noise and, critics say, Monzo is right now a very well-designed app that lets users split bills (with other Monzo users), track spending, and take out cash abroad at good rates with a kooky charge card. For a massive chunk of people outside of the early-adopter network, that’s far from enough to entice them to download the app, let alone leave their trustworthy, if frustrating, high-street bank.

‘On the front of our investor deck it says “Monzo will be a financial control centre for a billion people around the world”,’ says Blomfield.

‘If we grow at 3.5% per week, which is less than we’re currently growing, we’ll reach a billion users in 2023,’ he continues, spinning his water bottle. ‘I did the maths last week.’

Such bare-faced ambition is fascinating, as is the steady conviction with which it’s explained. Blomfield has a habit of looking off and upwards when he’s thinking. It’s like he’s acting the part of the visionary – or perhaps that’s really what they do.

Monzo says it aims to be a ‘bank the size of Facebook’. ‘When I say that to people they laugh,’ says Tristan Thomas, Monzo’s head of marketing and community. ‘When [Blomfield] says it to people they believe him.’

Blomfield’s confidence is clearly compelling.

Outlandish ambition

It’s telling that Blomfield was the first founder who VC firm Passion invested in twice. ‘They certainly believe in Tom and think he’s great,’ says Matt Robinson, one of Blomfield’s co-founders at Go Cardless (and another founder who Passion has invested in twice).

‘We went to them and said, “Look, we’re thinking of starting a bank, and we need some money”,’ says Blomfield. ‘And they said, “How much?” At such an early stage it has to be about the founder and the investor because there is no traction, no market.’

It’s a very self-assured statement.

Yet Monzo wasn’t an entirely novel idea. Blomfield isn’t allowed to talk about why he left his role as chief technical officer at what is today one of Monzo’s chief rivals, Starling, the bank founded by Anne Boden in 2015 and where Blomfield worked prior to launching Monzo. There were reports of rifts and tension at the time. Whether that stemmed from diverging strategies or a desire from Blomfield to run his own venture is unknown.

But he claims hunger to assume the CEO role wasn’t what made him leave Go Cardless in 2013. ‘Go Cardless is a great business, but I sat down and thought, “Do I really want to be running this for the next 5 or 10 years?” And I thought, “Not really”.’

Instead, with Monzo, a consumer-facing tech company, Blomfield can do something much more public – and potentially much bigger. ‘We’re talking years in the future, and we probably won’t get there… but I think to be able to have a huge impact on the world for what you’ve built and then take an amount of wealth and use it to cure malaria or something… that’s pretty cool.’

If such outlandish ambition seems terribly un-British, that’s because it is. Blomfield’s been through YCombinator and soaked up its values. Even his staff seem to be under the influence: ‘Most people come at a problem and say, “Okay, how do we solve it? This is what we’ve done in the past.” Tom and Jonas [Huckestein, Monzo CTO] attack it from first principles,’ says Thomas. ‘[They ask] what’s the root cause of this problem? And how can we attack it in a different way?’

It’s all classic Silicon Valley lingo.

Mathematical mindset

That scientific approach isn’t new. Blomfield’s university law tutor, Nick Barber, remembers him as a thoughtful, focused student: ‘If you asked him a question he would think about it carefully, and give an answer that exactly answered [it].’

At Monzo, that precision shows itself in the tech, the roadmap, the speed of execution, and even people management. ‘He’s super direct,’ says Thomas. ‘He’s not someone who is going to mince around words just to be polite.’

‘Tom’s greatest strength is that he’s an incredible doer,’ adds Robinson. ‘When something needs to be done, Tom doesn’t muck around.’ He recalls a time at Go Cardless when the three founders were writing a list of potential bank partners. ‘Tom hadn’t said anything in 30 seconds, and then he was on the phone, saying, “Hello, is that the RBS team?”’

‘That’s amazing; it can save a lot of time. [But] it can be impulsive.’

Recently, Blomfield’s started talking about Monzo developing into a marketplace where users can find other fintech startups to buy insurance, take out loans and earn brand loyalty points. ‘It’s definitely the 20-year vision,’ he says, but that doesn’t stop him meeting with other startups frequently.

‘I love new things, new ideas. [I’ll] have a meeting with a startup that wants to build on our API and I go, “This is amazing, I want to help with this,” and I go to our team [and say] “How can we help these guys?” And they go, “Are you kidding me? We set our quarterly priorities, and that’s explicitly not a priority”.’

‘I miss being hands-on – writing the code, being able to put your headphones on for 12 hours and have a new feature,’ he admits. ‘I really love the process of making something grow from scratch.’

Robinson thinks Monzo’s far from the last company Blomfield will start: ‘He’s going to build three to five more business in his lifetime, and one of them’s going to be a breakout success.’

Is that business Monzo?

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