A throwback to the world’s first pure online bank

In 2001 online bank 20Twenty was launched with a totally new focus on customers: Christo Davel, who is also the creator of 22seven.

SIMON BROWN: I’m chatting now with Christo Davel, founder of 22seven, also the founder of 20Twenty, a bank [formed] back in 2001. Christo, I appreciate the early morning. Back in 2001, when you launched 20Twenty, I was a client. I don’t record the fee structure. I remember it was online only. I remember it felt like we were living on the cutting edge, back in the early days of the internet. It was heady days back then. We’d just got ADSL and it felt like we could do almost anything, I suppose.

CHRISTO DAVEL: [Chuckling] Simon, good morning. We’re giving our ages away. That’s 20 years ago – and you’re right. We did think we could change the world.

SIMON BROWN: That’s the problem that we’ve run into because all these new banks are coming now. I’m not dissing the new banks, they’re doing great – Discovery Bank, TymeBank, Michael Jordaan, and his colleagues with Bank Zero. They are all trumpeting the fact that they’re online-only, they’re trumpeting the app only. I keep on thinking, hang on, you did that 20 years ago. Have we not seen any progress in banking in two decades?

CHRISTO DAVEL: Well, I think it’s a bit of an unfair question because, as we just ran the list. Twenty years ago, I remember telling people we launched 20Twenty between 9/11 and the first bursting of the dotcom bubble. That was before social media. Facebook launched in 2004, I think, and then became big only in 2008. The iPhone was launched in 2007. We didn’t have the Cloud or anything like that. So online literally was new, the Web was new, the internet was new. 

To compare what we could do then with what the new starter banks are capable of doing now is interesting because I think our obsession about doing what’s right for the customer is what gave us such loyal fans 20 years ago.

SIMON BROWN: That was it. As I said, we had internet banking in 2001. It was a little bit clunky. It worked. I remember that there was an Absa client in Durbanville whose keypad was hacked and her account was hacked – and suddenly no one wanted to do it. You came along and said, you know what, forget branches – (we are) not going to do that. We are going to be online only. It was a little scary, but in a couple of years, it worked because of course you used the Saambou licence, and then two years later Saambou hit the wall and that took you out.

CHRISTO DAVEL: Exactly.

SIMON BROWN: But it did work as a concept. It was a functionally viable and, frankly, exciting concept which, as it said on the sticker, enabled us to bank.

CHRISTO DAVEL: Yes, it was. It still brings back fond memories. You mentioned Saambou going into curatorship. As I said, that was prior to social media. But customers found a way that they could talk to each other on what I think we called a ‘customer forum’; they kept each other going. There were these loyalty clubs. I think there were three or four loyalty clubs that formed, completely without our intervention, just to make sure that 20Twenty could survive. 

I like to believe that it influenced the late John (Louw), the curator. That was a shame. He was such a guy, man. He kept us alive until we could sell 20Twenty to Standard Chartered Bank. It was about the customers just rallying around the bank. It was amazing to see.

SIMON BROWN: Yes, customers loving banks. I remember we had a braai when it went down, a sort of memorial braai in a sense, down in KZN. I suppose that focus was on customers, which was completely new. It was totally online. That was also completely new, (but) what we’ve seen in the two decades since. 

Perhaps it was unfair to say that the banks haven’t progressed. I suspect a lot of what’s happening in banking has probably been the back-office processes, the ability, the SnapScans, and the like which have come along.

CHRISTO DAVEL: Hmm. Well, I think one way of comparing this is I was blessed with the most amazing team around us. I think I had just turned 40 and you were so idealistic and young. This internet came along and we had this army of people that just believed in it. Then one of the beautiful people on the team said, we are rolling almost like there’s a money fairy that needs to know what I want before I want it, that needs to understand my entire life story and predict when I’ll have a problem. 

So it was more a cultural mindset that drove the development of the product. The fact that we used the internet was just because we saw that as the future. We were completely idealistic. So if you then ask if the big banks and the new incumbents have done that, that is an interesting question, because I think that’s who will be successful among the new guys. Are they really relevant for the customer when the customer needs something? When she has a need for something, then they must be there, not because they are the sexy brand or sexy technology.

SIMON BROWN: I take your point. It’s that front end, and that ability to engage and to preempt what the customer is looking for. Often it’s really simple stuff. But we need it.

We’ll leave that there. That’s Christo Davel, as I said the founder of 22seven. Perhaps more excitingly the founder of 20Twenty – the first pure online bank in the world, launched in 2001. Christo, I appreciate the time. You, sir, are a legend.

Listen to Friday’s full MoneywebNOW podcast here.

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All this navel gazing and humble bragging.

Why not mention how badly the online-only ‘clients’ were treated when saambou (lol) went under. I remember students frantically leaving movies and clubs as the sms’s came in. The queues around block for the atms. The students who went without access to THEIR money for weeks. Not able to transact. Why not talk about that?

The way those people were treated reflects in the hesitancy you still see in your country to commit to anything that does not have at least some physical presence.

But hey, let’s not ask awkward questions in puff pieces.

I can still remember 20Twenty.
The best Internet bank for its time.

It was so sad to see them go.

I had an account. Not a good idea.

End of comments.

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