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Interview: Elise Nunn, Head of Operations at Plum Fintech

Livia Thimotheo
Reading Time:
19 minutes


Can you tell me a bit about Plum?

Plum is your financial assistant for life. You connect your bank account and our AI analyses your transactions, and uses this data to help you understand, manage and grow your finances. There are three main pillars to Plum:

1 - Savings: with auto-savings, our AI crunches all of your data and uses that information to put the right amount of money aside for you every 4-5 days. Overtime, you accrue a good pot of savings. We’re also looking at smart triggers for saving more: when you get paid for example.

2 - Investments, which we released last year: once you have your pot of savings you can decide to grow your money in some or all  of the funds that we have. You can invest risk-based, or thematically. So if you're interested in the giants such as Apple, you can choose to invest in companies like them. If you want to invest from an ethical standpoint, you can do that too.

3 - Monitoring and saving on your bills: our AI sees your transactions. We can see if you're getting ripped off, too. A good example of that would be on your energy bill. 80% of people are on a bad tariff, most likely with one of the big six - they were probably lured in with a teaser tariff and then moved onto a standard variable tariff. We can detect that and in this case, offer the possibility to switch to a better product within Plum itself.

Until now, having a person looking after your money has only really been available for the rich and this is kind of bringing back capacity to whoever wants to use.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, what you do at Plum, your background?

Before I came to Plum I was at Deliveroo for just over two years. I worked in various operational capacities, for example, heading up the support team for the UK and working with outsourcing partners in the Philippines to provide a streamlined service. Just over a year and a half ago, I went from food delivery to fintech.

Deliveroo was extremely interesting to work on and of course grew super super quickly. But I'm not that committed to the cause of convenience food. Whereas savings is a really big problem for a lot of people and that compelled me to move. A year and a half ago I joined the club as Head of Operations and I’ve been working in that capacity ever since. I also do a bit of Product Management on the side for one of our squads.

As a business we are kind of split up into what we call ‘squads’. We have teams of engineers, designers, data analysts and a PM, who work together towards an objective. It might be to build the best switching engine in the market, or to work bringing the world of investments and capital growth to a broad range of people. At the moment I'm product managing the former.


There's been an explosion in financial management apps since Open Banking. Why do you think Plum is going to stand out?

So there are two types of new technology that we've seen as a result of Open Banking:

1-  Neobanks like the Monzos and Revoluts...the cool-coloured cards that people are carrying around lately.

2 - Other apps that help you look at your spend and visualise where you put your money to make it very easy for you to manage your spending.

The full stack solution. This is where we sit. What differentiates us: we sit on top of your banks and we aggregate that data manage your entire financial landscape, be that savings, growing those savings, enabling you to save more by switching bad products to good ones, and so on.

If you look at other providers they might focus on savings or they might focus on investing your spare cash. With Plum, we bring all of those different facets of your financial life together to offer what I’d call a full stack solution. Saving your money first and then once you have a pot of cash, enabling you to kind of grow more in the long term and build up larger amounts of cash for your future. And then on the side Plum acts as your second pair of eyes making sure that you're not being ripped off. So it's bringing all of these different elements together and using the data to provide a holistic solution. That sort of life time value and long-term financial journey doesn’t really exist right now.

I think another difference is the tone. Quite a lot of the financial apps follow your every spending move: “You spent this much on coffee”, “your balance just went below this” etc. These are solutions which are quite individualistic and place quite a lot of onus on the individual to shape up. Whilst in some circumstances this is true, there are other forces shaping people’s financial situation. I think Plum’s automated saving algorithm is the perfect solution to that: it takes away the worry about simply does it - no slap on the back of the hand because you spent X or Y - we’re busy, stressed, humans and quite often understandably focused on the short-term.

Who are your main competitors?

It’s actually changed over our lifetime so far. I guess our main competitor in the past has been Cleo. People think of us as a chatbot and Cleo is also a chatbot, they do savings and provide insights too. There was a time when that was all Plum did, but now we’ve added more elements to the product. Equally, you have the likes of Chip or Money Box who are trying to help you save money on the side by rounding up expenditure. There’s overlap but ultimately the missions and ultimate solutions are quite different. And then, there’s the neo-banks who are also bringing fair banking to the people and making money simple - Plum sits on top of these banks as a full stack financial solution - we’re not just holding your money, we’re saving it, investing it, switching it.


The user interacts with Plum via the Facebook chat, yes? But Facebook had a popularity hit recently. How has that impacted on Plum and how did you deal with it?

Facebook had some pretty bad press. I think I have two main points:

1 - We do have a chat thread through which people can interact with the bot. We also have what we call webviews which also live inside Facebook. What is happening within the webviews is hosted by our servers and Facebook is ‘blind’ to any of the stuff that's happening within these screens.

Then again from a brand perspective, when people are saying bad things about Facebook we’re ultimately associated with that. One of the main things for us was that we were already strongly toying with the idea of building an app. Some people really love the chatbot and don't want to download another app. It's just something alongside  what they use already. Then again other people, before the bad Facebook press, wanted an app anyway. So it kind of gave us the impetus to start building this second available application to use Plum - ultimately we just heard our users. We'll build them sort of in parallel so people can choose what's right for them. So, if they just want to download the app, they can go ahead and do that.

2 -  We’ve been very clear about what we are using your data for. So from the moment that someone signs up we say what is it that we're going to do and how we’re going to do it. Ultimately, every user should know exactly why they're signing up from the get go.

You guys use AI to learn about people’s behaviour and every time I interview people using machine learning they tell me something very interesting they learnt from people's behaviour. I find it fascinating. Have you guys found anything interesting in particular from the Plum users?

Yes. We have a lot of data. We have a lot of interesting insights around engagement. There are a lot of people building these financial products in the market. But one thing that we're starting to realise is that even if you have a solution or if you think that you can bring extra value somewhere by saving money for instance, if it's not at the right trigger-point, people won't necessarily act on it.

There's a cohort of new fintechs that are helping people sort out their finances and it's easy to be paternalistic and say “I think this is the right thing for you” or “you should do this”. But if you don't first of all educate and explain why it's important, as well as reach out to the user at the right time, much of the learnings are lost. As a business we're learning a lot about how to engage people on these matters. You know, it depends on the product type as well.

So if you're reaching out to someone about investments a lot of people haven't had exposure to that up until now. So: educating them around that topic, throwing away all of the jargon that usually keeps people off these kind of products and introducing them to that in an easy way. Bringing these products to people in a manner that engages them is actually quite difficult and it requires different methods of doing so. That's a big part of our learning over the last few months.

Another tidbit after having our investments product live for quite a while, is that we’ve looked at who our investors are versus who the people are using our savings product. The investments here at the moment are largely male-dominated and we don’t do male-specific targeting. So it's just kind of what we've seen as an organic response to that product being available, which is very interesting for multiple reasons: both at a product and social level. How can we introduce it so other types of people want to use it?


What was the most interesting thing that you’ve learnt personally in this transition from working with food and now working with finance?

I've always been an operational person. So the role and the requirements didn’t change that much. I streamlined processes and I’m doing the same here. Making sure the experience from sign up onwards is as smooth as possible. There are other large blocks like managing the transition to Open Banking, changes due to GDPR and so on.

One thing that I’ve taken away from working here is how customer-focused the business is. I'm not saying Deliveroo doesn't care about their customers. But it's just been a very different experience. Everything decision is tied to the user. Even when we talk about revenue and how we want to make our business a sustainable business. The value we get should not be disparate from the value of the user. If the users sees and is getting value from our product, then that will in time create value for us. Those things are not separate and that seems obvious.

If you look at more traditional banks, you have these transactional commodities contained within the current account - overdrafts and so on and so forth - you also have charges for transactions, bouncebacks, late fees and the like. Sure, I guess the value is that the user is being given money. Yet, when you add the way fee-structures and charges are implemented, you have to ask yourself the question: is this really for the user? If I’m close to my overdraft and I accidentally buy something for £3, that transaction, if it bounces back, may cost me £12. This is really perverse if you think about it.

If you nail your understanding of the customer then as a business I think you'll do much better - and hiring around that principle as well. So making sure that whilst young people might have the right skills set, do they really-really-really-really care about what you're trying to solve? And if they do care about the mission then you know you're much more likely to build this organism of people who tie everything back to the value that we're bringing the user. Any successful business has to develop that. This has stuck out to me a lot more here.

Food delivery is exciting, but I can walk to Tesco, it’s not that dramatic. Whereas helping people, you know, if their boiler breaks to be able to cover that, rather than getting a payday loan or something is really valuable. So it's a really exciting thing to work for.

What was the biggest challenge that Plum had to deal with? How did they overcome that?

I don't think that's been one ‘breaking-point’ moment. Like any business that's trying to grow, we have similar challenges. How do you prioritize when there are 15 of you and 25 things that you want to build? That's not unique. Another thing that we’re still learning is that our solution has a broad reach and anyone can save money. You know, some people might be saving from scratch. Some people might be saving on top of what they already have saved. It’s a huge market. Then, how do you reach these specific subsets of people? As a business we’ve really had to delve into understanding who our users really are and what kind of profiles they have.

One interesting thing we've kind of been working on is the concept that perhaps one ‘Plum’ isn't the solution. We could eventually have ten Plum experiences, or characters: if I'm a user who signs up and I'm constantly in overdraft, getting transactional charges, I’ve got bad loans etc, my ‘Plum’ should help me in a different manner. “Let’s start by accruing some savings... pay off the overdraft” and so on. You're not going to tell these people to invest straight away because that’s not the priority. But then you might have other people who already have some savings but they want to save more and grow that money and that journey looks very different to the former.

It's very interesting and exciting to see how you can tailor this experience and then tailor the way you engage with your users depending on the situational factors around their finances.  


And what’s in Plum’s future? I know there is a lot, but if you could pick one thing?

I mentioned the app and changing the ways people can use our product. So we started with iOS then we’ll do Android. We are building up the third kind of pillar of the product which is helping people save money on what we call ‘regulars’. So any form of committed spend, bills like energy or insurance. At the moment we can detect them and we’re switching some products, like energy. We want to build out our switching engine. And then seeing how we can help people who are in more negative credit situations. First helping them consolidate loans, helping them get out of their overdraft. Another big thing that we want to do is expand internationally. So one of the big things this year is moving outside of the UK. Currently to use Plum you need a UK bank account, so we're looking at taking our first steps in Europe. So that's another big milestone that we'll be looking to hit this year as well.

How do you imagine banking in ten years?

I assume from an ethical standpoint it will become a lot fairer and we’ve seen this sort of transition already. Changes like Open Banking, PSP2 - these were kind of born out of these novel tech solutions which leverage customer data for their financial well-being. The data doesn't belong just to the bank, but it's actually the user’s data and they can give that data to who they decide, which is very empowering. That'll help the whole ecosystem become a lot fairer. For a very long-time, the consumer hasn’t had much choice, so banks have been able to pass the costs of their bureaucracy and back-office onto the customer. These new companies are finding smarter ways to do stuff and less of this cost will be passed onto the user and the experience will be better in that respect.

Another thing is that we'll move away from simply the visualisation of spend and basic money movement. We've gotten to this place where we're helping users get a bird's eye view of their finances. We'll get to more interesting territory. I haven’t got the answers to these questions yet, but how autonomous do we want these products to be? Because if I think X or Y is the right financial solution for someone, do I want to just do it? Maybe I'll tell them and then do it for them. Alternatively, do I want to empower them to do it themselves, easily, via a slick platform? When you start having this technology that can just do all this stuff, where do you decide to position yourself? There are interesting questions around autonomy here.


What tip would you give to incumbents to adapt to this new era?

It comes back to the customer. If Barclays starts to look at how people are using - and want to use - their product, they will start uncovering answers that would help them move in the right direction. Until now they've been able to be complacent because they were in such a good position. An abysmal 4% of people switch banks a year for example, which is tiny. For a long time they’ve been in this position where they can keep their customers without doing much to entice them, because there’s nowhere else to go.

But as other companies are finding smarter, leaner ways to build things they can’t rely on that anymore. They have to really understand what it is that customers want from banking. I mean, I'm sure they also have a wealth of data...and they have a lot of customers. So there is in some respects lots of possibilities to uncover very exciting things about how people want banking to be. It will be interesting to see how these things pan out.

On that note, I've read something somewhere that if you look at the boards of big banks a very small proportion actually come from technological backgrounds. So I guess how can you lead the business in the right direction, which will inevitably be more technological, data driven without this brain-power? You need a transition of the type of human capital in these places to drive the change as well.

Yes, how are they going to have the vision?

So I guess that probably one thing they have to look at: who they've even got in the business, steering the business. If you look at Plum and other businesses like Plum, I'd say like 80%, 90% of people have worked in this fast-paced, tech-driven  environment before. They have invaluable experience that they want to bring forward within Plum. Victor, our CEO, spent years leading the initial growth of Transferwise, which changed the way we transact, and that’s astronomically important knowledge to have within Plum, for example.


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Pictures by Judit Toth

Livia Thimotheo

Livia is a UX Designer at Dock9. She's worked in digital products in the financial sector including applications, websites and chatbots. The Design of Everyday Things was her first design book and it completely changed the way she sees the world.