Holvi is banking on Ireland’s community of entrepreneurs, makers and doers

10 Jul 2014

Johan Lorenzen, CEO, Holvi

Holvi, the online bank account for entrepreneurs, makers and doers, is readying its launch into the Irish market next month and is on the hunt for pilot users and a local team.

In May, we reported that Finnish banking start-up Holvi had been granted regulatory approval to spread across Europe, with plans already in progress to launch in selected markets. These plans are already in motion in Austria, and the brand is seeking pilot users in Ireland ahead of a full launch in the country later this year.

Founded in 2011 in Helsinki, Holvi brings modern technology and user experience to banking and is authorised for operations as a payment institution across Europe by the Financial Supervisory Authority of Finland. Through its online bank account, Holvi users can collect online payments, manage expenses and keep track of their finances in real-time.

A natural step towards Ireland

Last year, Holvi’s team paid a visit to Ireland to scope out the market and host a Build A Bank workshop. What struck Krista Kaupinnen, then a community manager for Holvi, was the continued use of cheques in Irish payments – something that’s considered a retro novelty in her native Finland.

However, Elina Räsänen, Holvi’s market entry manager for Ireland, is confident Irish people can be tempted away from their chequebooks – particularly the tech-savvy early adopters.

“Cheques are still alive and kicking, but I think that the start-up community in Ireland and the micro-entrepreneurs are precisely the group who are already adjusting to new methods, and they are, I think, very keen on using new technology,” she said.

Holvi online bank account

Holvi’s simple user interface

With a population of 300,000 SMEs and a vivid start-up community, Ireland – and, particularly, Dublin – is a perfect spot for Holvi. Of course, it also helps to be an English-speaking country in the Eurozone.

“Our product can be relatively easy to adjust to Ireland,” said Räsänen. “It’s quite a strong technology and innovation hub within Europe, so it’s kind of a natural step for us to start.”

Holvi’s so confident in Dublin’s tech-savvy community that it’s also tapping into its talent pool. Last month, the company held an Open House event at The Digital Hub, Dublin, seeking to recruit Irish software, operations and marketing professionals for the local team.

Making banking more desirable

Holvi is setting up partnerships and getting ready to start its pilot project in Ireland. In Austria, its first market outside Finland, the pilot programme is already off the ground and the start-up is on schedule to launch there fully in mid-August.

In Ireland, Räsänen plans to have a pilot programme up and running by this time, with a view to launching the service in full in October.

Räsänen describes the service as an online bank account with added features that are constantly improving. It was built built for makers and doers, micro-entrepreneurs, sports clubs, event planners and freelancers as a replacement for traditional banking, which cuts out the middleman and offers more flexibility.

Holvi can be used to build an online shop or manage invoices and payments, all with a simple, user-friendly interface. “Holvi offers financial understanding. We believe understanding leads to fun,” said Räsänen.

“Money management is often seen as complicated, boring or bureaucratic, and the financial side of any project is often seen as a necessary evil. By making financial information easier to access and understand, Holvi aims to change managing finances to something you look forward to,” she added.

Holvi online bank account

Holvi for mobile devices

At the helm of this disruptive banking service is CEO Johan Lorenzen. Lorenzen has a background working in the banking industry and has long felt it’s in need of a shake-up.

“Everything’s so locked down, there’s no innovation happening, and customer acquisition is ridiculously expensive,” he said.

“There was a decade of good technology and a decade of good customer acquisition that just hasn’t made it into banking. The old, basic elements that we know and love from good consumer web services just haven’t made it in there yet.”

Lorenzen had intentions to build a bank for the next century, but he had yet to find the right team to fulfil this vision. When he eventually found Holvi, it was agreed that the timing was right, the regulation was in place and the customers were ready for a change in banking. He joined the company in November last year with the ambition to build the largest pan-European digital bank.

Building a better bank account

The problem Lorenzen sees with traditional banking is that the banks only make money if their customers have high assets or high liability. “Basically, if you have a lot of debt or you have a large fortune, then you are a very good banking customer,” he said.

This system just doesn’t work for those in the creative, and increasingly digital, economy. Freelancers, contractors, designers; all of the people who sell skills, hours and services; sole businesspeople whose primary assets are their brain and their laptop – these are the people who are incompatible with traditional banking models.

Statistics suggest this is a rising tide of people, too. “More and more people are becoming independent, self-employed and the segment – if you look at Europe – is enormous. Seventeen per cent of the population is officially working in a micro-business in some way, either as freelancers or contractors or independent people,” said Lorenzen.

The biggest challenge in building a bank for any community, though, is fostering a trustworthy reputation. You are dealing with people’s livelihoods, after all. “There is a huge trust aspect in getting people over the barrier to actually trust us with their money,” Lorenzen said.

For Holvi, being up-front with users is core to its philosophy. “There’s no hidden fees, no hidden agendas, and we are extremely transparent about how we do things and what it is we want to do,” said Lorenzen.

It helps, of course, that Holvi doesn’t have 10 years of legacy branding, technology or customer acquisition to contend with. It’s a fresh idea starting anew in a space where traditional operators are struggling to adapt.

“We are doing a much better bank account for usability and from a product perspective,” said Lorenzen. “We don’t really subscribe that much to old-world thinking that a better bank account is just a place where you dump your money and it provides a little bit of interest.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.