A storm of probes, alleged misdemeanours, and reports of a toxic working culture has gathered over the UK fintech company Revolut, as the once fresh face of the finance world starts to look much like the old guard.
Revolut’s growth has been staggering. The company claims to have attracted more than four million users, who enjoy its ultra-low rates on international spending, cash withdrawals, and transfers alongside a slick, user-friendly app.
The company was founded in 2015 by Vlad Yatsenko and Nikolay Storonsky, both exiles from the world of high finance. Last year, the company’s valuation shot up from $350 million to $1.7 billion.
Revolut is the first of the young, exciting financial startups that has attracted real criticism and regulatory scrutiny.
In January of this year, the company faced criticism over its largest ad campaign, which ran in the London Underground’s OOH poster network, featuring proprietary data on user spending habits – “To the 12,750 people who’ve ordered a single takeaway on Valentine’s day, you ok, hun?” one read. The ads drew instant accusations that they plagiarised a previous Spotify campaign that that had used user listening habits in pretty much the same way.
While Spotify were reluctant to follow through with any complaints, the Financial Conduct Authority were alerted to claims of falsified data by the Advertising Standards Authority, the Financial Times reported. In the ads, Revolut claimed, for instance, that 11,867 customers had bought a vegan sausage roll. Like other banks, Revolut is only able to see the amount of individual transactions at the merchant level, not what the money is being spent on. Asked about the numbers, a Revolut media spokesperson confirmed that the numbers were “just made up.”
Ronit Ghose, global head of banking research at Citi, noted the slippery slope onto which Revolut had stepped, especially in the nascent fintech space. “People will use you because you’re cool and cheap,” he said. “But if you take liberties with the truth, then it is going to hurt your trust factor.”
Other stories cast the startup in a similar light to the brutal machinery of big banks. A Telegraph story alleged that the company had switched off an automated system designed to block suspicious transactions, effectively providing a loophole for money launderers. The company swiftly reported the suspected activity to UK authorities, according to Reuters.
Despite an innovative app and a UX focus that traditional banks have struggled to catch up with, Revolut has also been scrutinised for its aggressive workplace culture. “I can’t see how work-life balance will help you to build a start up,” CEO, Nikolay Storonsky told the Financial Times last year. Already, former executives were questioning its sustainability. A year later, a WIRED feature exposed problematic business practices. For instance, interviewees for the position of business development manager were asked to try to recruit as many users to the company in 7 days, with “200 or more sign ups… a very strong indication” of progression.
Revolut had previously attracted comparisons with other UK fintechs like Monzo and Starling, though it does not yet offer some of their key banking products.
The question surrounding the company now is about whether it will be able to clean up its culture and begin to play by the rules. Finance is a sector in which the incumbents’ bad name offers significant rewards, but only if challengers can offer something that works for consumers, while offering a new face. Culture is as much inward as outward, and Revolut will have to move quickly to stop this perception spreading. It will have to improve.