Greece: how a turbulent decade gave birth to fintech innovation

 

With more or less guaranteed sunshine and azure seas, Greece is renowned throughout Europe as a go-to holiday destination. But the country’s enviable warm weather is perhaps in marked contrast to the storms that have buffeted the economy in the past decade. Things are looking promising though, and turbulent times are giving way to a new era of opportunity, with innovators seeking to revolutionise the way Greeks manage their finances.

Marqeta spoke to Woli* CEO Vasilis Zoupas and finloup’s* Antonis Prentzas and Marios Noutsos to find out more about how the Greek fintech scene is evolving and what their businesses are aiming to achieve in this rebuilding economy.

Tell us a bit about what you’re doing to support innovation in Greece?

Antonis and Marios: At finloup, we’re bringing buy now, pay later to the Greek market and the aim is to help consumers access credit fairly for everyday smaller items, simply using their debit cards. By partnering with merchants, we offer up to four monthly instalments on purchases with the first being made at the point of sale, and no fees to the consumer. We also use algorithms to assess each consumer’s ability to repay and this is based on their income and consistency of regular payments for things like household bills. This gives us a more reliable picture of a person’s creditworthiness without relying on traditional scoring methods, which might not be so favourable to the applicant.

Vasilis: Woli is a prepaid Mastercard card and app for children and young people aged between 10 and 18 years old, supported by an app controlled by a parent or guardian. The product enables youngsters to track their spending and gain insights into their activity, as well as earn money for chores. The aim is to help the next generation acquire financial literacy as it comes of age. We’re also part of both Visa and Mastercard’s innovation programme in Central and Eastern Europe (“CEE”) that aims to drive investment in the region and accelerate innovation. Some really interesting fintechs are coming through and we’re confident some of today’s startups will become regional and international players.

You mentioned Mastercard – how are the card schemes supporting innovation in Greece?

Vasilis: Last year, we took part in the Mastercard Fintech Day which attracted businesses from across the CEE region to learn more about partnership development and compete for a position at Start Path, Mastercard’s international fintech accelerator programme. Woli was delighted to win a position on the programme.

Antonis and Marios: finloup was also represented at the event and it shows that both Mastercard and indeed Visa are active in looking for promising startups to collaborate with within Greece. It’s a sign that innovation is taking off and I think in the coming months we’ll be seeking to work more closely with a major card scheme too.

Greece attracted global media attention for its economic challenges during the 2010s. How have things progressed since then?

Vasilis: The country went through a very tough time after capital controls were introduced in 2015. Many loans had to be written off in order to move forward and this touched all of Greece’s major banks. Withdrawal limits of 60 euros were applied and queues for ATMs were immense. An unforeseen consequence of this was the boost to card issuance, because lots of people ordered additional cards to increase the amount they could withdraw. The Greeks used to love cash but now many favour cards.

Since capital controls ended, the state has pushed digital payments in a bid to bring more transparency into the economy. Part of this involved obligating retail businesses to install POS terminals, which in turn has driven a sharp increase in card acceptance. In fact, there are very few businesses that are exempt from offering card payments via a POS terminal now.

This all means that the economy has begun moving from cash- to card-based quite quickly, all born out of the crisis and big regulatory changes. Most cards, however, are debit, with credit cards taking up just a 15% share of the market. We’re yet to really embrace concepts like buy now, pay later but I’m sure it will come.

Marios: During the financial meltdown, Greece had something like 100 billion euros’ worth of non-performing loans across both B2B and B2C. I was working for a financial consultancy at the time and saw firsthand how the loans were rationalised as external private equity and banks came in to help the country overcome the problem.

As Antonis says, these days a lot of people still don’t have access to credit and part of that is related to the way credit tends to be offered – with compound interest. Some feel the current system is excessively harsh on people making late payments. It’s something we’re trying to tackle at finloup by offering no-fee installment loans to consumers. For this reason, we fall outside regulation. In fact, buy now, pay later isn’t regulated in Greece, making us similar to many other countries in that respect.

Tell us a bit about the banking landscape in Greece and how it’s evolved, please.

Vasilis: There are four banks that share the largest part of the market, as a result of various mergers and consolidations. These are big-name institutions and are very much integrated into Greek society and share some overlap of accounts across various products. In addition to a number of smaller cooperative banks there are a number of new players, whose role in the ecosystem is still emerging or is at least focused on specific industries. The banks, along with POS terminal providers, have done a really good job of getting cards out to the population, and deploying machines across all parts of the country very quickly. And there’s been fierce competition among terminal providers, which has brought costs down for both consumers and merchants.

Antonis: In the past two years, the pandemic has really moved things forward. I would say there was complacency about innovation among some of the bigger organisations. But COVID-19 has created an urgency for businesses to go through a digital transformation. They’re recognising that the market we’ve been working in is growing fast. Online merchants have realised that those who offer installment plans are often able to increase their conversion rates. As Marios points out, we’re also starting to see exciting global investment in Greek innovation. Just recently, JP Morgan acquired a major stake in Viva Wallet*, making it our first local fintech unicorn. This is really encouraging news about the local innovation scene and I’m sure we’re going to see more of this, because the appetite for developing digital financial products is taking off in a big way.

What are the aims for your businesses in the coming 12 months?

Antonis: Naturally, we’re looking to continue growing and scaling in our home market but we’re also looking at helping merchants who work with us to sell to other members of the EU, using open banking. It’s a great example of how a piece of regulation is actually supporting innovation and business growth as opposed to standing in the way. We are also interested in expanding into other Balkan markets, as these share many similarities with Greece.

Vasilis: We’ve just raised €700k in a seed round and we’re going to use this to grow our product offering, expand our team and enter new markets. During 2022 we want to add many exciting new features to our app. The aim here is to improve young people’s experience of banking, while making everyday payments, such as transfers between friends, gifts from relatives and many more functions, even more seamless. We also want to develop our Athens core team, in order to take advantage of the fact that the city is gradually emerging as a significant regional fintech hub. Over the next three years, we want Woli to be one of the leading youth banking apps in the European market, helping many youngsters and teens to build solid financial management habits before they face the challenges of adulthood.

* Woli, finloup, and Viva Wallet are not current Marqeta customers. Marqeta may not offer all of the products and services discussed in this blog post.
** The views and opinions of third parties summarised in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Marqeta. Marqeta has not independently verified the information and data provided by those third parties and makes no representations as to the accuracy of such information or data.