Building a cloud-powered company: Insight from the world of fintech
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Building a cloud-powered company: Insight from the world of fintech

Jessica Twentyman

Toby Young, CTO of Ebury, outlines how the fintech start-up’s wall-to-wall adoption of cloud is supporting its ambition to disintermediate major banks.

Fintech start-ups are making their presence felt right across the finance sector. They’re on a mission to unseat established providers by using technology in innovative ways. And they may be on the verge of succeeding, according to a report from the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The report’s lead author, Jesse McWaters, writes: “Banks and insurers realize an Uber moment may finally be coming to their sector as they face disruptive start-ups that can deploy online platforms, work with small capital bases and make strategic use of data to acquire customers and drive revenue at a fast pace.”

Many also have substantial financial backing. Last year, funding to VC-backed fintech companies hit an all-time high of $13.8 billion, more than double the 2014 total, according to figures from global accountancy firm KPMG.

London-based Ebury, which claims to be one of the best-funded fintech companies in Europe with a total investment of more than $110 million, believes that vital to its assault on industry incumbents is a commitment to run its entire operation from the cloud — an approach that provides invaluable lessons to other companies as they build networks of interdependent cloud services.

The company’s platform enables small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) to trade globally in faster, more cost-efficient ways by helping them collect money from international customers, move cash to and from regional subsidiaries and manage their currency exposure.

Toby-Young
Toby Young, CTO, Ebury
When it comes to deploying online platforms and exploiting data for better business results, Toby Young has some key insights. As CTO, he’s responsible for defining and implementing the enterprise architecture that enables Ebury to provide new services but he also fulfills a CIO role as part of his remit to build teams and systems that scale as the business accelerates.
Cloud zealot

At the heart of his approach is a laser-sharp focus on cloud technologies. “I rage against having any hardware, any infrastructure for us to manage. So we’re completely cloud based, to the point where we’re even getting rid of PCs.”

Most of Ebury’s 350 employees now use Chromebox thin clients to serve up a mix of web applications and Google personal productivity tools. Meanwhile, the software that underpins the company’s core services for payments, currency risk management and business lending — all developed in-house — runs on the secure public cloud infrastructure.

And when it comes to more horizontal business processes and, in particular, the technology needed to acquire new customers and service existing ones, Ebury relies on a stack of applications from Salesforce.com, along with third-party add-ons for specific tasks. These include Cirrus Insight for tracking marketing emails, HubSpot for nurturing leads and SuMo for gamification of the sales process. The company’s customer services operations run on NewVoiceMedia for VoIP services and Zendesk for tracking customer issues through to resolution.
Centralizing data

Young outlines how the cloud-only philosophy has also been carried through to Ebury’s approach to data analytics. As the WEF report suggests, much of the disruptive potential of today’s fintech start-ups will be derived from their ability to understand customers better and deliver highly personalised services faster. Young admits that, when he joined Ebury in September 2014, the company was hampered by the fact that users were working with ”multiple versions of the truth“ and the inevitable data hygiene problems that arise from a disjointed approach.

He explains how that has moved on considerably in the past two years. “What we wanted was a cloud-based venue to centralize data, to provide a ‘golden copy’ of all the data we hold and let our people access that to make decisions.”

“We need to disintermediate the banks — that’s what our customers need — and why we’re absolutely obsessed that everything is cloud.”

Last year, the company implemented a cloud-based data analysis platform from Birst, which brings data into a single location for analysis from its bespoke transactional applications, Salesforce.com implementation and telephony services.

Today, Ebury staff can access reports and metrics from a Birst window that sits directly in Salesforce.com, applying the CRM platform’s permissioning model. So Ebury business unit managers, for example, can query and analyze data directly relevant to their role — but nothing beyond. Young and his team are now working on ways to expose customer-specific data to the company’s individual clients, through Ebury’s online banking platforms.

When it comes to more heavy-duty big data analytics, the data model Ebury uses in Birst is directly linked to a data warehouse created on the AWS Redshift platform. This ‘two-tier’ analysis architecture supports day-to-day use and enables Ebury’s data scientists to undertake more complex analyses on raw data drawn from public and company sources in languages such as R and Python.
The speed of innovation

The reliance on cloud is what makes it possible for Ebury to innovate faster, Young claims. “We need to disintermediate the banks, because that’s what our customers need,” he says. Many SMEs are tied into a particular bank. As a result, they feel they have to use its foreign exchange, borrowing and international funds transfer services — often with charges inflated to reflect the smaller size of the business. Ebury, he says, challenges that with a combination of expertise and a faster and less costly set of services.

“This is a big opportunity, but we need to move fast in innovation terms in order to exploit it,” says Young. “That’s why we’re absolutely obsessed that everything is cloud. We don’t want to deploy highly skilled resources on general day-to-day management of ‘stuff.’ It’s entirely wasteful and won’t help us at all in our wider mission.”

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