By now, Monzo is nothing new, with its luminous coral bank cards a common feature of many wallets. The result of a crowdfunding campaign, the smartphone-only “challenger” bank has gained an almost cult-like following, with the waiting list for cards reaching 50,000 people at its highest.

Simply put, Monzo is a bank without any physical branches. It allows customers to track purchases in real-time, use their card abroad for free, and freeze cards if stolen, all from an app.

Speaking at a Q&A organised by shared workspaces company WeWork, Monzo’s head of marketing and community Tristan Thomas gave his take on disruptive technology; how the company is competing with big banks and how it is tackling data breaches.

Monzo is disrupting traditional banking

Thomas believes that Monzo is challenging the traditional banking model, with the aim of making financial education more accessible. Recently, the company launched an initiative aimed at helping the ‘unbanked’: those in the UK without bank accounts, including refugees.

“Part of our mission is make finances simpler for everybody. We live in a world where money is this really scary thing for most people and you only check it once a month when you close your eyes and check your bank statement and worry about how much money you’ve spent. One of the things we’re trying to do is demystify that,” he said

“How can you make financial education easier for everybody as part of your day-to-day banking needs? We want to make access to finance include everybody, not just those who’ve got easy access to documentation. There are about  2 million people in the UK who don’t have a bank account and one of our aims is to try and reach all of those people as well.”

The importance of community

Another way the company sets itself apart from traditional retail banks is its community building efforts. Monzo claims that word-of-mouth referrals are the source of 80% of new customer growth, with the bank giving customers ‘golden tickets’ to give to friends to allow them to skip the waiting list.

“We have this community of customers, we try and involve customers as much as possible in what we do. We have an online forum with 30,000 people in and they are both our biggest supporters and our biggest critics,” he said.

“It’s hugely valuable. Bringing people into what we’re doing is the best way for them to then share it with their friends and tell everyone. It’s a win for us as a company because we can grow really fast, and it’s a win for customers as you can have control and influence over your bank, which is not something you can say often.”

Taking on the traditional banking system

Thomas does not shy away from criticising traditional banks, saying that their models do not allow for the same level of personalisation as digital banking.

“[Money] affects your mental health, your physical health, it can take you out of society totally. And I think technology can help make money an enabler for everybody, whether you have a lot or a little,” he explained.

“We’re stuck with capitalism for now, and so helping people with their money is going to be hugely beneficial. And I think tech will unlock that in a way that you just can’t do when you’re talking about big banks with legacy systems.

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“Everybody’s needs are different, and you can’t provide that on traditional banking systems and traditional banking processes and I think you can provide that with technology.”

When asked if Monzo hoped to replace ‘big banks’, Thomas said: “I hope we don’t exist alongside. it would be nice to get rid of [big banks].”

Data can help prevent security breaches

Thomas also voiced opinions on the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, saying that alternatives to the main social media giants are needed.

“I think we need alternatives. Part of it is that people don’t understand, but also part of it is that Facebook gives you this incredible service in return for your data. Until you have an alternative that the case, and it’s the same with Twitter and Google,” he said.

“The benefits of it are that they’re free, and that they are giving it to the world’s population, and access to information in general is a good thing. So you then weigh those benefits up with the costs.

“We need to find an alternative to that. We need to find an alternative to connecting people, an alternative to Google and Facebook that doesn’t steal your data. Until there is, no one’s going to change.”

Spotting the Ticketmaster breach first

The company has itself had a more direct involvement with data breaches. It recently emerged that Monzo alerted Ticketmaster of a potential malicious software breach, in which tens of thousands of Ticketmaster customers had their personal information leaked, back in February.

“A couple of weeks ago Ticketmaster announced they were hacked. We have 800,000 customers so we’re now at the scale where we can start to see patterns in data much earlier on,” explained.

“So back in February or March we started to see increased numbers of cards that were being used fraudulently, and when we went back and looked at all of those cards we could see one merchant was used for all of them, which was Ticketmaster. That gives you some pretty clear evidence that Ticketmaster had been breached.

“We then got one more piece of evidence which was that one of those cards that was attempted to be used fraudulently used the incorrect expiry date. And when we looked back, that card had been declined by Ticketmaster a few months before because the date was wrong. That narrowed it down to there only being one option: Ticketmaster. Unfortunately they didn’t act in time and took much longer.”

Thomas said that the data generated by Monzo could help identify future security breaches.

“That to me is really exciting; you can start to see this happen really early on across the whole world and you can protect customers in times where companies will not necessarily do that.”