In the second of this week's interviews with firms who were winners of our Nordic Connection Festival, I spoke with Siam Choudhury, Co-founder and CEO of Pliance, an anti-money laundering solution.
To begin with Siam, tell me a bit about what you guys get up to and what the company is all about…
Sure. Pliance is a solution to automate anti-money laundering (AML) processes. We essentially help companies, primarily in the financial sector, to make the process of complying with anti-money laundering regulation simpler and easier. That includes screening their customers and doing so in a manner that takes less time, is integrated with their own customer relationship management and admin tools, so that it becomes less of a manual process. As a result, more focus can be put on core business, finding new customers, developing new features and not so much on these very repetitive manual tasks of complying with AML.
AML compliance onboarding has been a tough nugget to crack for many years because it’s all about identity. Are you doing something different to what everyone has tried before?
We’re not focusing much on identity. We focus much more on the manual and tedious steps that companies have been following for years. We’ve seen that there is a huge digitalisation journey for companies to make if they are to automate these areas, and this requires a lot of these processes to be made digital first, such as the initial screening process for example. It’s generally a relatively inefficient way of doing it today. You ask the customer for their details, but then you have to rely on whether or not the customer knows they are politically exposed for example. That’s a something most customers don’t know. From a legislation perspective, it’s not necessarily the customer’s responsibility to know their status. It’s the financial institution’s responsibility to find out. So, those kinds of things have been very manual and take a lot of time. The first step is to just get a lot of those processes digitalised and into a process that can be made efficient and automated and recurring. After that, you can build on top of that digital process to get better at the other AML things that need doing, such as transaction monitoring or identifying potentially suspicious behaviours.
By way of background, is the company formed by people who are steeped in AML compliance regulation or are you guys technologists or a mixture of both?
A little mixture of both. I have experience as a Product Manager from FinTech and know the product side of having to balance what I wanted to build for my product with the compliance requirements that also take up a lot of development resources. My co-founders are developers, who have worked within banking and finance and AML solutions. They saw that there are better ways of building these solutions that are much more secure and can be used either by modern FinTech companies, who need modern infrastructure to build upon, or for more established financial companies, who are realising that they need to take a development and efficiency-focused approach to improving their back office. This means they cannot just rely on buying off-the-shelf solutions or continue to do it manually.
So, your target is both traditional banks and new FinTech start-ups?
Yes, I would say our focus right now is on companies with financial licences who have AML needs and that have a need to work with technical platforms, such as APIs. Initially, when we started two-and-a-half years ago, that was almost only FinTech companies in that sense. We’ve seen that broadening to what we call more traditional companies becoming more tech-aware and tech-heavy. Our vision is that long term, that distinction won’t need to be made anymore between FinTech start-ups and traditional financial companies.
When you look at money laundering, there’s trillions of dollars that are laundered through the financial system because the physical checks and physical documentation don’t work. The more and more we digitalise and automate the process of transactions, I guess the more and more we can minimise that exposure.
Yes, that’s kind of our vision. So, when you’re not spending all your time repeating these tedious manual processes, you can put a lot more effort into finding the actual sources of money laundering or financial crime. When you’re not focusing 100% on just staying compliant on the minimum level, then you can start looking at how your service is potentially used for money laundering, and what you can do to stop it. A lot of the legislation is very risk based. You take a risk-based approach from how criminals could use your platform but, if you’re busy just staying afloat doing the bare minimum, you’re never going to get there. That’s part of what we see which is just the importance of digitalising. Getting to a good baseline is important as, once you get there, you can do even more interesting work around financial crime.
Now everyone I talk to, when we talk about this subject, we bring up distributed ledger technology and blockchain. What’s your view on that space?
We actually use blockchain for part of our product. Primarily when it comes to logging the activities that our clients or our customers are performing. One aspect that we also saw was that there’s a lot of insecurity around how to report the screening that you’re supposed to have completed and when that is supposed to happen. So, we use blockchain technology from a reporting perspective then, at any point in time, our customers can say ‘hey, here’s a log of all the activity that we did that shows that we performed screenings that we’re supposed to’. In other words, it’s a secure method of reporting either internally, for an internal audit, or externally, for an FCA inspection for example.
If you’re looking long-term, what do you think will be the way in which the industry will do AML in the long-term future?
That’s really interesting. That’s the stuff that we’re hoping that by digitalising, we’ll see a lot more innovation taking place. Today is a lot of focus on rules-based processes, which means that you have to know all the rules. I think there needs to be a lot more information sharing, in terms of how money is laundered and of methods criminals are using so that, as a financial community, we can take a more joined-up approach. That is not like today, where everybody kind of looks at what can we see today in our platform or in our own area. There are so many aspects where parts of, or steps of, the money laundering process takes place in very different products. Where layering takes place in one type of product or another. If you only look at that perspective from that type of company, it would be really hard to see whether that kind of behaviour is part of money laundering or not. I see a huge opportunity when everybody is on much more of a similar technical basis, so we can take the next approach of seeing how we can work together to find these methodologies and typologies and adapt them together.
I’d love to agree with you, although unfortunately I’ve been around for a while and every bank loves to bake their own cookies so they’re not very good at sharing.
I think that’s a challenge. It is also one way where start-ups or more modern and sharing-focused companies take the first steps and show that it works. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a long time, but we will see steady progress going forward. We have also seen a lot more of that in the last few years than if we go back further.
Is there anything that I’ve missed?
It’s super interesting to see how companies are working together and trying to find ways of resolving this relatively huge problem. It’s going to take a lot of people working together to really tackle the problem head on together versus everybody doing it on their own. I think part of that is looking at the relatively unsexy back office focused AML work, where very little innovation has happened. I think people can start seeing that there’s a benefit in that, both from an AML compliance perspective – you can make it more efficient, simpler, cheaper – and that when you do that, your entire business becomes leaner. It’s no longer a bottleneck to customer growth. You can have a thorough AML process without it being a bottleneck. As more companies see that, that will drive adaptation of AML services rapidly and creates better innovations there.
Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...