Rented rooms and realizations: creating community in banking

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Realizations in Rented Spaces

On a Saturday morning nine months ago, I stepped into a small office space that was being rented by the hour. The walls and tables were covered in paper with questions and drawings scrawled across them. I was there for a focus group for a new app. I knew it had something to do with mobile banking, but was otherwise oblivious to what the next two hours would cover.

The CEO and founder, Colin Walsh, welcomed me and the other participants and then jumped right into explaining that he and his team were trying to build a modern bank. From there, he outlined his assessment of the shortcomings of the current banking industry, highlighting a disconnect between the banking needs of my generation and the unwillingness of major banks to prioritize meeting these needs.

“Quickly, I realized I was not making the most of my money nor was my bank actively helping me get there.”

As Colin started running through specific examples, it really began to hit home and I silently started to answer some of the questions:

  • When was the last time I went to a bank branch? I had no idea.
  • When was the last time I went to a bank to get financial help? Well, never.
  • How did I keep track of my spending? I occasionally checked my transaction history online, but that was basically it.
  • How did I plan for my financial goals? I had the general goal of saving for grad school, but I didn’t really have a plan other than trying to minimize spending on things like going out to eat and saving what was leftover.

Quickly, I realized I was not making the most of my money nor was my bank actively helping me get there. I wasn’t even sure where my bank’s nearest branch was. On top of that, when would I have the time to schedule an appointment with a banker? Between work, errands, and trying (i.e. usually failing) to go to the gym, my time was spread thin as it was. Most of all, who was going to hold me accountable? Was my banker going to text me to make sure I was following our plan? I began to pay even closer attention to Colin, waiting to hear Varo’s proposed solution.

Image credit: Atlas Green

An innovative solution built together

The answer: a fully functioning bank that uses artificial intelligence to provide personalized financial coaching–all at the touch of a finger. In Varo, Colin was aiming to build a mobile bank that would provide a comprehensive range of banking services, from a basic debit card account to loan consolidation. Not only this, but it would have a chat bot that leveraged the latest in artificial intelligence and machine learning in order to help me set financial goals and provide personalized insights into how to best reach those goals. In short, Varo would hopefully solve all the shortcomings of my current banking relationship. It sounded too good to be true. And it was, kind of.

“Colin was asking us to help create Varo–an opportunity I welcomed enthusiastically.”

Colin explained that Varo was only a month old. At this point, Varo was just the ideas scribbled  on the large pieces of paper covering the room when I walked in. From there, Colin explained that they needed our help to make Varo a reality. They knew building Varo from the top down would not produce a bank that adequately met the needs of today’s generation nor solve the problems they were trying to address. So, it was our job to analyze the proposed designs and recommend how Varo should evolve. Colin was asking us to help create Varo–an opportunity I welcomed enthusiastically.

Collaboration, from start to finish

Fast forward to today and much has changed at Varo. Gone are the hand-drawn designs and lists of proposed product features. In their place is our nearly complete Alpha product. The Varo team has evolved rapidly as well, and I now luckily count myself as a member. I joined as Varo’s Community Manager several months after that first focus group. Now, I am responsible for ensuring that the same spirit of customer collaboration that drew me to the company remains at the center of Varo’s development.

“The same spirit of customer collaboration that drew me to the company remains at the center of Varo’s development”

To this end, Varo has a 200 member strong advisory panel. I work with its members regularly to garner their feedback and promote their vision of how Varo’s products can best help them gain better control of their financial lives. It is my responsibility to serve as a voice of our customers to the Varo team so that we can ensure our continued growth is rooted in our customers’ financial well-being. At times, that means shaping the language and tone of our chat bot; other times it means ensuring that our lending team better understands the type of lending products that would best address our customers’ needs.

Image credit: Mathias Jensen

Coming full circle

Two weeks ago, I again found myself in a rented space with Colin. It was for Varo’s latest Advisory Panel meetup, but this time I was running the event, not participating (funny how that works out). During the meetup, we gave a live demo of our app and solicited feedback from the audience on functionality and design. After, we broke out into several group exercises that focused on designing a single aspect of the Varo experience, such as brand messaging or bot interactions. This process allowed our customer advisors to collaborate directly with the Varo team and to ensure their voices were heard in Varo’s development process.

“This collaboration is what drew me to become part of the Varo team”

These meetups are just one of the many ways we are working with our customers. This collaboration is what drew me to become part of the Varo team and is fundamental to how we plan, design, and grow. It’s my hope that I can bring that moment of clarity and excitement about collaborating with Varo that I experienced in that first focus group to you.

If you have any questions about getting involved with the Advisory Panel, feel free to contact me at abernhart@varomoney.com or visit us at varomoney.com and sign up for Early Access to our Beta today. I look forward to seeing you at our next event!

Header Image credit: Crew