David Brear, the bearded, hoodie-clad consultant broadly known as the guru of the London fintech world, struck a victorious tone when he and UK high street lender, RBS, first launched Mettle — its new digital business platform. 

“We launched a bank today. Boom”, he said on Twitter, at the time serving as Mettle’s interim chief executive.

But, behind the scenes, the project was under strain, according to half a dozen people interviewed by Sifted.

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Just a month later, in December 2018, Brear left Mettle in a cloud of recriminations, amid a clash of cultures between Brear’s startup ethos and that of a 300-year-old, risk-averse corporate. 

Today, one year on from Brear’s departure, RBS-insiders accuse Brear and his 11:FS consultancy of being a mere “hype-machine” with loose engineering expertise. Meanwhile, 11:FS sympathisers speak of a stultifying and anti-innovation corporate culture within RBS.

Away from the mud-slinging, these tensions speak to the strains that large financial corporates can face when trying to build new products with a startup mentality (Mettle operates from a WeWork and its managers don jeans to work). 

It also highlights a specific challenge for RBS, which has been more aggressive than its UK peers in building stand-alone digital units.

Mettle is one such experiment, driven by RBS’s sister bank NatWest to defend against the challenge of digital SME bank Starling, which wants to better serve Britain’s 6m small businesses. Meanwhile, Bó, RBS’s app-only retail bank launched last month to take on the consumer battle against Monzo and N26.

But reports are already circulating that Bó is set to lose its chief executive Mark Bailie. Mettle is on its third chief executive in just over a year. RBS also invested in digital current account Loot in 2018, only to see it fall into administration six months later.

What does this mean for RBS’s digital future?

Brear, the cool voice of fintech

According to people close to Mettle, in mid-2017 Brear was brought in alongside global tech consultancy Capco to kick Mettle off.

For 14 months Brear led a team of engineers to build an early test app for Mettle, trialled by several hundred customers. 

From the outside things were going well. RBS’s Alison Rose (now its chief executive) even appeared on 11:FS’s podcast in 2018, crediting 11:FS as “amazing partners” and “experts” in their field.

 

Brear’s LinkedIn

But weeks later Brear’s tenure ended. Sources close to both sides suggest a culture clash was at the heart.

For his part, Brear argues that 11:FS was put into a strange position by operating as joint-partners with Capco. This was not the kind of lean startup approach he was used to. “We were working in a sort-of threesome with Capco and NatWest. And the incentives of those three parties were quite different. That makes the tension there constantly on what objective is what,” he told Sifted.

However, two people close to Mettle say that 11:FS overpromised on its pitch, recalling RBS executives furious at the consultants’ inadequate focus on security.

“We were worried about a data breach [within the app],” one insider told Sifted.

In other words, the bank’s “rule-based”, security-first approach jarred with 11:FS’s “funky” fintech approach and its main focus on interface-design, says a former Mettle employee.  

“[11:FS] were a hype machine. They weren’t engineers… The app needed a lot of work for a market launch,” they suggested. “It’s laughable they take credit for building Mettle now.”

It’s unclear what exactly triggered the end of the relationship, but in December 2018 Brear left Mettle — according to one eyewitness, after a final showdown. Chris Geldard then took over the reins, having led the original pitch as Capco’s managing partner. 

Neither RBS nor Geldard would comment on Brear’s departure, but Geldard suggested the transition was abrupt.

“They landed me in quickly and just said, ‘right run it from here’,” he told Sifted. He soon began the search for a longer-term replacement in Marieke Flament.

Brear disputes that, suggesting his “handover with Chris was [over] months”. 

“We left Mettle in a good place,” Brear noted.

Fintech innovation, the corporate way

One year on, Mettle has launched a public pilot version; employing fee-free, pre-paid cards while a full payment system is built. 

That arguably puts its progress in line with the likes of competitor digital bank, Starling, which was a little over three years old when it launched its beta (pre-release) app, as well as HSBC’s digital business app, Kinetic.

Marieke Flament, Mettle’s newest chief executive, is naturally upbeat about the future of Mettle, but she acknowledges there are issues with operating as a startup within a bank (as 11:FS did).

“The biggest challenge is probably that they’re two different cultures, Mettle and RBS… Our way of working is more like a tech company than a bank.”

That’s somewhat at odds with RBS’s “process-driven” approach to risk and compliance, she notes, which is ultimately mission-critical.

“We are held to a very high standard [by] ‘the mothership’… so the question is how can you grow sustainably. It’s not growth at all costs,” before adding that the company still “moves very quickly. Surprisingly quickly”.

Marieke Flament, Mettle’s newest chief executive in the company’s WeWork office.

Specifically, Mettle is backed and managed by the RBS Ventures team, sitting inside its so-called “portfolio” with something akin to a founder-investor relationship (where the investor has a majority hold on the board and technological oversight). 

“There’s a healthy tension there,” Flament jokes.

Still, for all its issues, this relationship gives Mettle an advantage. The 90-person-strong project has access to a giant small and medium-enterprise customer base, the NatWest brand, and a major loan book — giving it an instant revenue stream and lending services. 

Unlike its digital competitors Tide and Coconut, it also won’t have to use sparse time and resources to fundraise.

Building a bank within a bank

Perhaps most striking is that Mettle is not expected to be revolutionary. Ambitions for user numbers are modest (“in the low thousands” by 2021, according to an executive). 

So it’s about the bigger picture, says Andy Ellis, the head of RBS Ventures, which ultimately means defending against the newcomers.

“I don’t have to worry about that question [of profitability]… You wouldn’t look at it [Mettle] as a standalone… it’s not something we worry about, as long as we’re making money for the rest of the bank.”

As a “flanker brand”, sitting outside the bank’s core infrastructure, Ellis insists Mettle’s individual success is not life or death.  

An early example of Mettle adverts

But for all the luxury of being cushioned by a big bank, Mettle’s challenges so far hint at the broader issues of building fintechs, which are inherently experimental, within famously reticent financial institutions.

Anne Boden, a former RBS employee and now chief executive at Starling, argues big banks can suffocate true fintech innovation.

“I came from that world… if I thought I was going to be able to create that I would have done,” Boden told Sifted last year. “It’s very difficult to replicate the energy and technology of a startup.”

The nature of banking innovation also means executives fail to fully invest mentally in side projects, according to a former Lloyds exec. 

“That’s why they give these things a separate brand. If they want to close it without lasting embarrassment, they can,” they explained.

Now, with Bó’s leadership uncertain, Mettle will be watched with ever closer scrutiny. But can either project help to improve the survival rate of corporate innovation, and the pioneers who lead them? 

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Just left 11:fs
Just left 11:fs

In these difficult times, people instinctively know what is the right and wrong decision for staff and clients.

Cultures are tested and good leaders lead while others (see sport direct and Wetherspoons) revert to self serving type.

David, stop being a Wetherspoon, this crisis is not about you.

Nick
Nick

So Foundry has finally fallen. No surprise as even before I left 11:FS (over 6 months ago) it was struggling for market traction and the code quality was questionable.

Leda G is a loss though – thoughtful, a good leader and challenging.

I fear this and other recent redundancies and management departures could lead to a ‘death spiral’ for 11:fs. Buyer departments in large banks will now have them on a watch list as ‘operationally vulnerable’ due to speed and relative scale of shrinkage. Hard to come back from.

Bore of Brear
Bore of Brear

The recent overly defensive posturing by 11:FS, over a couple of minor news articles, is very telling. They’re trying to control the narrative before they’re exposed as just a small boutique consultancy and a niche podcast offering. The idea (‘their‘ idea) that they are a threat to big banks and consultancies is laughable. Except they believe it, which just makes it very sad indeed. Sorry guys – you’re still very much just a mediocre podcast still!

James
James

I know for a fact 11FS are suffering right now.

20% of staff were furloughed over email and everyone else is taking a pay cut for next 4 months.

No comment from Mr Brear though.

Sam
Sam

David has just fired his Head of HR with immediate effect. Clearly something is up

Jason w
Jason w

it’s also amusing how Chris Skinner portrays his blog as independent journalism but spends the whole time talking up the book of 11:FS and their partners

James Spencer
James Spencer

Talk is cheap and easy. That is what Skinner does. The likes of Skinner have not built anything in their lives and simply don’t understand business. 11FS appear to built around old contacts and marketing hype. I haven’t seen any useful or good work from them. Everyone trying to be a “thought leader” these days. Even my cat is a “thought leader”, don’t you know.

Lucy B
Lucy B

11:FS have been vociferous in calling out banks and consultancies for their failings and “not getting it”. But I’m not convinced they have a clue themselves about “Getting S*** Done” in the real world of FS….. What experience do they have apart from pontificating on a podcast and posting on twitter all day? It’s a big red flag that the company has more people working in marketing than in engineering!! Thanks for calling out this BS. I’m sick and tired of having this “guru” trash the work many of us have been doing for years when they have NO track… Read more »

Sunshine
Sunshine

Sooooo true! Influencers And evangelists of f**k all

DavidJ
DavidJ

So if 11:FS aren’t very good who should we use to help us design and build a new digital consumer prop in a small bank ??

Fintech Outsider
Fintech Outsider

Tough one, none are perfect but you do have options.

If you want an end-to-end solution Deloitte’s Alpha platform is at the front of the pack

For good design led thinking try Idean

And for build probably go with a big house that is not too expensive but won’t let you down so try Endava or CapCo, then quickly find you own engineers.

Having said all that I doubt there will be much new activity over the few months anyway so negotiate well if you do still have budget ….good luck and let us know how you get on.

Ladeeeda
Ladeeeda

There are endless lists of legit companies that are busy building actual things rather than just talking, that aren’t big 4 or McKinsey

MikeP
MikeP

Do some research, there are hundreds of similar firms who don’t try and trade off an over leveraged and tired brand.

Previous 11:fs employee
Previous 11:fs employee

Skinner is an investor in 11:FS; Brear doesn’t draw boundaries between his media and consulting business. Shameless conflicts !

Try and get references from: @[email protected]@BankofCyprus

Mind you, David is a middle-aged, bald man who dyes his beard and has done a good job in convincing large banks (and himself) that he’s some kind of visionary genius. He’ll probably sell his business to some traditional consultancy that knows no better. Oh well, ‘A fool and his money….’ and all that. Good luck to him.

Fintech Outsider
Fintech Outsider

Meow !!! I’ve always enjoyed the lush dark beard. My illusions are now shattered.

Theo
Theo

And now 11:FS Foundry is killed, which is not surprising, as I always thought their dreams of being a core banking provider (from scratch) was foolish. Brear makes out this is due to the last 6 months. No. This was just a terrible idea from the beginning.

Media Hype Machine
Media Hype Machine

11:FS is nothing more than a media hype machine. There must be questions now on whether the firm can survive this downturn at such a key stage of its growth.

Tony
Tony

You called it right… they’re still shrinking fast and if banks don’t need digital transformation from them right now when will they…?!

Previous employee
Previous employee

I am a former 11FS employee. This is not the first instance of a project that was under delivered with a very unhappy bank. The way it was handled by management at 11FS also was highly unprofessional. Probably the most embarrassing moment in my career.

Sunshine
Sunshine

*see Cyprus

Florence B
Florence B

It’s pretty obvious in hindsight that 11:FS were mainly interested in promoting their own brand and had very little to offer in terms of deep industry knowledge or engineering capabilities

Current employee
Current employee

Mettle is a sinking ship… Awful culture that became even worse with the new CEO. Time to shut down

Current Management
Current Management

Please leave your overpriced Macbook, iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods on your desk on the way out of the office.

Current employee
Current employee

Classic example of the atmosphere at Mettle nowadays

Dharmesh Mistry
Dharmesh Mistry

Better banking is the safe approach to digital. However this is a crowded market which includes both traditional banks that are digitising and challengers and spin-offs like Bo.

I think experience driven banks will start to take away key pockets of banking, Coconut manages the experience of being a contractor, where as Tide is simply “better banking” for SME’s… though I think Tide is lagging in features…

Former Employee At Mettle
Former Employee At Mettle

This article is total nonsense. The atmosphere has been toxic at Mettle since the 11fs team left not because of them. The management from RBS have been continually lied to since that point. I’ve seen this first hand Capco doing everything they can to just take money from RBS bringing in people for roles that were not needed. I joined as contractor to 11FS in the engineering team. Quickly it was clear that the two organisations had very very different agendas being in Mettle. The customer was at the heart of the programme at the beginning and after the 11fs… Read more »

Late to this
Late to this

Having been at Mettle early on and having left in the last 5 months this article is total horse s#!t. From talking to the team still at Mettle this article is a mix of a competitive consultancy stocking up nonsense encouraging lies to be told about their involvement in something, a puppet interim CEO being spiteful to 11fs a company that he is now publicly trying to make a competitor to. The culture of mettle was totally decimated when 11fs left the project. We have continually seen the best people be replaced by people with little or not experience and… Read more »

Freelance journo
Freelance journo

‘Oh hello Mr.Brear, we’ve been expecting you….’ 😂😂😂

Fintech Outsider
Fintech Outsider

LOL – hilarious observation. I was at an event a couple of months ago and David used the term ‘horse sh*t’ a few times !!! There’s been a whiff around 11:fs in the market for some time now but what a saga. Delicious. 1. Sifted – backed by a credible institution but looking for readership gets a slightly tawdry tale -that is probably not uncommon in consulting – and releases a scoop (must do better once you have large readership guys. tut tut) 2. 11:FS – putting out fake feedback, supported by a suspiciously large number of thumbs up (and… Read more »

Tim Smith
Tim Smith

Come on, he’s not the only person in the world to say horsesh*t

11:FS employee
11:FS employee

True. But he comes out with more horsesh*t than anyone else 🤣