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Why I started an app to take on the high street banks after the 2008 financial crisis

Meet Anne Boden, the woman behind Starling Bank - the £48m app-only bank providing better banking services to customers

Growing up in Wales, the daughter of a Welsh steelworker and a department store assistant, Anne Boden never imagined she would one day found a bank.

But, after the start of the 2008 financial crisis, the founder and chief executive of Starling Bank began to feel that starting a business to take on the high street was her only choice.

“Following the banking crisis that caused so much distress to so many people, the banking industry tried to put things back together again the way they were before. I knew there was a possibility of a different and better way to provide banking services to customers. And I had to do it. I had to start a bank,” Boden says.

A background in banking

Boden, 58, went straight into banking after university as a graduate trainee for Lloyds and went on to work for some of world’s best-known financial heavyweights, among them Allied Irish Banks, Royal Bank of Scotland, ABN Amro and Union Bank of Switzerland.

One of her aims in creating Starling was to build an app that would give customers the digital tools they need to manage their money, and so remove some of the anxiety associated with day-to-day money management.

To get Starling off the ground in 2014, she broke through in-built prejudices and widespread scepticism to raise funding of £48 million, one of the largest investments for a UK initiative in technology.

In the very early days before she got Starling off the ground, she could often be spotted camped out in branches of Starbucks around London, using their free Wi-Fi, putting together her plans for the bank and messaging contacts. Like many entrepreneurs before her, she had to sell a house and work for years just for love of the vision.

Today, Starling, which has a full banking license, offers mobile-only personal, joint and business current accounts and employs more than 230 people. More than 230,000 accounts have been opened at the bank, which also has a thriving payments services and banking services business.

The importance of collaboration in business

Boden knows from her own experience what it is like to work from scratch and the importance of collaboration. Starling supports small businesses and start-ups by providing free business banking but also by connecting with its business customers and sharing their stories and advice. Where appropriate, it also uses its customers as suppliers.

“Get out of the bedroom, stop Googling and start writing emails”

One of the businesses featured on Starling’s blog is Lee Garland Photography. Starling has commissioned Lee to take photographs for its website of its executive team and of other business customers, including Bloom Lettering, CH Simple Design, an structural engineering firm, Pluto travel insurance and SJB Hair & Makeup.

Starling buys from another of its customers, Nom Nom, an artisan Welsh chocolate maker. On the occasions it makes mistakes, it sweetens customers’ experience by sending them a bar.

My advice for entrepreneurs? Do the scary things first

Starling wasn’t Boden’s first business idea. “In 2005, I had this idea of starting an insurance company. I spent one month figuring out what to call it and what the branding would be. I did all the things that were totally superficial. I didn’t spend time figuring out what we were going to sell or talking to customers. I was really worried what the business card would look like, not what the insurance would be.

Read more: These 6 fintech companies are paving the way for the UK’s digital future

“Second time around, you do it different. You realise that you have to do things in the right order; you have to do the things that are scary first,” she says. “So my advice to entrepreneurs is: ‘Get out of the bedroom, stop Googling and start writing emails to people telling them you’re starting a business and asking for help – never been ashamed to ask for help’.”

Boden has learnt from experience, but also from other businesses through books such as The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. “Reading books is cheap consultancy – buy the classics,” she says. Ries advocates a scientific approach to making decisions, continuous and fast pace development and analysis of customer-feedback data.

Design your product around your customers – only the market will prove it

Learning from customers and building the product around them is incredibly important to Boden too. “Only the market will tell you if your idea is a good one so don’t take too long thinking about it, just do it,” she says.

The phrase ‘Just do it’ has been echoed by several of Starling’s business customers, many of whom say that they would have started their own business sooner if they had the confidence and encouragement to go for it.

Starting and running a business is always full of challenges. As Boden says, “you’ll have ups and downs. But the important thing is to use the downs to give you fuel and energy for your next big breakthrough.” Boden also reminds people to reflect on what they are creating and achieving: “Enjoy it – life is short.”