Startup bank Number26 just raised $40 million from 'Asia's answer to Warren Buffett'

Number 26 foundersNumber 26Number26 founders Maximilian Tayenthal, left, and Valentin Stalf.

Number26, a German digital-only bank designed for smartphones, has raised $40 million (£27.2 million) from investors including Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing.

Ka-Shing’s investment firm Horizon Ventures led the Series B investment into fast-growing Number26.

Billionaire Ka-Shing, dubbed “Asia’s answer to Warren Buffett” by the New York Times, is one of China’s richest men and made his money through manufacturing and property, before branching out into shipping, retail, and tech investment.

Number26 cofounder and CEO Valentin Stalf told Business Insider: “Li Ka-Shing is obviously someone who can be with us over a couple of rounds. Retail banking is a very big market so it was very important for us to bring some investors on board who can stay with the company not just for this round but for our long-term vision.”

Boston-based venture capital fund Battery Ventures also took part in the funding round, as did Robert Gentz, David Schneider, and Rubin Ritter, the three founders of German e-commerce giant Zalando.

Stalf said having the Zalando team on board is “great for us as a founding team because it gives us the opportunity to profit from what they have gone through, from launching a company in a garage to being one of the biggest e-commerce companies in Europe and going to IPO. They all have experience that is maybe 5-10 years ahead of us.”

Existing investors also took part in the round, including Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures, Earlybird Ventures, and Redalpine Ventures. [Disclosure: BI’s parent company Axel Springer has a small stake in Number26 via its Accelerator “Axel Springer Plug and Play.”]

‘Our goal is to build a completely mobile bank’

The funding round, which was rumoured in the German press, brings the total raised by the startup to $53 million (£36.1 million). Number26 says in the release announcing the raise that it now has 200,000 customers — 40,000 more than 2 months ago when BI interviewed cofounder Valetin Stalf. Stalf told BI the bank is signing up 500 to 1,000 new customers each day.

Li ka-shingStanford University, FlickrLi Ka-Shing, who Stalf says can be a long-term backer for Number26.

Number26, which employs 140 people, is one of a number of so-called “neobanks” popping up across Europe — app-only, data-heavy banks or quasi-banks tailored for the smartphone generation. Others include Mondo, Starling, Atom, Tandem, and Lunar Way.

Stalf told BI: “Our goal is to build a completely mobile bank that is easy to use for everyone. In more detail, we very much focus on building a fintech hub. We try to bring together the unbundling that’s happening all around finch and give people access to all the products that are happening around finch while having a banking account with us.

Stalf told BI in April that Number26 plans to make money by becoming a financial platform that will let other fintech companies sell their products to its customers on a revenue share basis. The company has already done a deal with TransferWise for international payments.

Stalf told BI this week: “You’ve seen that when we launch with TransferWise but we’ve got some things coming up on the investment side and the savings side. The longterm vision is to create a very lean bank with the most modern technology. We want to have a very lean balance sheet because if you build a platform you obviously don’t need to have the balance sheet yourself. You have partners who take care of the products.”

Number26 CFO Maximilian Tayenthal says in the release announcing the new investment that it “has fundamentally transformed the traditional banking model.”

‘What we take away from the account cancelling is we have to be more transparent’

But despite its promises of innovation, Number26 recently made headlines for the wrong reasons after closing several hundred customer accounts with little explanation. The startup then admitted the closures were in part to do with excessive ATM withdrawals by German customers. Number26 offers free withdrawals but incurs a cost when people take money out in Germany.

Number26Number26A shot of Number26’s app in action.

Stalf told BI: “First of all, I’m obviously sad we had to cancel a couple of accounts but to put it in perspective it was less than 0.2% of our customer base.

“What we take away from the account cancelling in general is we have to be more transparent and open in general with users in terms of how they should use the product and how it’s not to be used. That’s what we’re working on the fair usage policy which is coming out in a few weeks and gives users clear boundaries as to how to use the product.

Horizon Ventures’ Frances Kang says in the release:

“We are excited to join Number26 to lead the innovation in retail banking and play an important role to create the bank of tomorrow. Bringing transparency and focusing on an intuitive banking experience will set them apart, so we look forward to their success and to being part of their global growth in the future.”

I’ve been questioning whether startups that have low margin models or give away their product for free such as Number26 can ever be profitable, as have some in the industry. But Stalf told BI his startup “has the chance to be profitable next year, if we want, depending on growth.”

He adds: “In general if you’re referring to the business model, it’s much leaner and has more upside if you have a leaner balance sheet. It gives you much more freedom because you have to put much less profit forward for your investors because you have much less equity.”

Stalf says the $40 million funding will go towards marketing and international expansion. Number26 currently operates across Germany, Austria, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Slovakia, and Spain.

The UK market is “very, very interesting,” Stalf says, but adds Number26 will not make a decision on expansion here until September and the EU referendum result will affect the judgment. If the startup does decide to launch her, Stafl expects a launch “before the end of the year.”

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