Book Review Challenger Banks Europe

BANKING ON IT Book Review: Anne Boden’s Quest to Create Starling Bank

It’s impossible to escape the reach of digital banks nowadays. With so many to choose from, all offering fun coloured debit cards and contemporary interfaces, these banks deliver a multitude of features you’d never get near to from your traditional high street bank. A decade ago this wasn’t the case. And though a few had come before elsewhere, Starling Bank was founded in 2014 and was the UK’s first digital-only bank.

starling bank
Anne Boden, CEO Starling Bank

BANKING ON IT is the first-hand account of one woman’s quest to rebuild Britain’s banking system, starting from the ground up. It tells the story of how Anne Boden planned to disrupt an entire industry and create what she thought was the perfect bank. After spending an extensive career in the banking sector, Boden turned her life upside down by quitting her job and heading out on her own trying to achieve what few had already with nothing but a computer and her life savings, declaring “No one can label you a failure when what you’re trying to do is audacious.” 

The book doesn’t waste any time in launching you into the captivating history behind Starling Banks founding. The first page starts with a taxi ride to Boden’s former workplace, Allied Irish Banks, in Dublin in 2012, just as Ireland is experiencing the worst of the fallout from the global credit crunch. It’s this period of time that inspires Boden to branch out and start her own bank, as though the crash had caused banks to fall from grace in the public eye, their executives hadn’t learnt any lessons, with Boden deciding she was going to change everything. 

One can really admire her determination in trying to create a new bank when consumer confidence in them was at an all-time low. Boden left her job as COO at AIB in December 2013 and set off on her own journey that would eventually end up with a banking app with over 1.8 million customer accounts named Best British Bank at the British Bank Awards for three years in a row. 

The book shares various facets of Starlings journey, starting with the original difficulties of even getting off the ground as well as Boden’s mammoth task to find funding for her venture. The book details the many, many meetings she undertook, taking her all across America as well as the UK on her quest to find backers. It’s no secret that starting a bank takes a lot of cash, and even before she’d even really started Boden had already racked up around £1 million in contingency fees to companies helping with the license applications.

Ultimately one of the more gripping sections of the book, and arguably the most tumultuous time in Starlings lifespan, was Boden’s “rivalry” with Tom Blomfield. The previous CEO of Monzo Bank before stepping down earlier this year, it’s a fairly well-known fact that Blomfield was originally on Team Starling as the CTO before trying, and then failing to organise a coup. This feud was well publicised at the time and continues to be now despite both parties being previously reluctant to discuss it. But here Boden offers her viewpoint of the whole affair, starting right from the very beginning of when she met Blomfield at a networking event. 

Of course, BANKING ON IT only gives one viewpoint of the situation, and though Boden’s side of the story is quite the page-turner, it may not necessarily have all the facts. Whether Tom Blomfield will bring out a Monzo autobiography remains to be seen, and we may never learn his perspective of things. However, getting insight into a situation the media have only speculated about is definitely one of the bigger draws of the book. 

What was interesting was Boden’s initial giving into the coup; the book details how she saw no other choice but to hand in her resignation and hand the reigns of her banking baby over to Blomfield and her executives who sided with him. However, after a pep talk from a tech entrepreneur friend, she took back her bank, losing most of her staff in the process. As the chapter is titled, she was literally the last woman standing. 

After starting from scratch a second time, Boden’s journey eventually started to pick up the pace. She hired a new team and eventually managed to secure funding from Harald McPike, gaining their banking license and launching the bank into the world. The book gives a whistle-stop tour of their beta phase, detailing how they would swap branded gloves at rugby matches in exchange for downloads and waiting for the make or break app store reviews to trickle in, jumping to the present day with an afterword on the banks’ Covid efforts. Declaring that Starling won’t be the only “bank that does” Boden ends the book on a humbling note, stating how Starling needs to be ready to meet the competition after opening up the sector and showing what’s possible. 

The banking industry is often all the range in popular media, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Boden’s story dramatised on Netflix or the BBC in the near future. Not only is it an entertaining look at how someone even starts a bank, but it is full of the ups and downs and suspenseful twists and turns you’d expect from a blockbuster read. Part autobiography part business book, Boden’s story is certainly interesting and gives great insight into the industry in less than 300 pages. 

This book really makes a fascinating read and one that will appeal to everyone, not just those interested in fintech or the financial industry. Whether you take inspiration from a fifty-something woman dominating a field full young men or merely just enjoy the trials and tribulations that come from trying to create a financial institution, BANKING ON IT should be top of your reading list. 

Author

  • Polly is a journalist, content creator and general opinion holder from North Wales. She has written for a number of publications, usually hovering around the topics of fintech, tech, lifestyle and body positivity.

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