Tired of paying bank fees? Even more tired of disputing them because they just don’t seem fair?
That was the thinking behind Harvest Platform, which left little room for the imagination between a metaphor for crop collection and “reaping” the return of bank fees. We all work for that money, so why not?
Grit Daily caught up with founder and CEO Nami Baral to get a better look at how her tools
might be able to claw back funds from — right or wrong — one of the most reviled industries.
- For those of us uninitiated, what does Harvest do?
Harvest Platform identifies negotiable bank fees and gets refunds for users automatically using artificial intelligence.
80% of the American population lives paycheck to paycheck. This segment of the population experiences many kinds of financial stress, one of which is excessive bank fees. Many of these fees are negotiable, but consumers do not feel comfortable negotiating with banks for various reasons. Our technology identifies what fees are negotiable, and automatically starts negotiating to get refunds back for consumers.
- You’ve had your own entrepreneurial ventures in the past. Share those.
Before starting Harvest, I was leading the Revenue Partnerships team at Twitter’s Exchange. I joined Twitter pre-IPO through the acquisition of another early stage startup, MoPub. As one of the earliest employees at MoPub, I was in charge of scaling its Real Time Bidding platform.
Harvest is not my first entrepreneurial venture. Prior to Harvest, I built a mobile app studio that
produced several gaming and AR/VR products. When I was in college, I co-founded a non-profit that incubated social entrepreneurship projects from university students in the Caucusus. The program ran successfully for several years before we gave the reins to a new generation of social impact entrepreneurs.
- You’re picking on banks. What’s so wrong with banking fees? Don’t they need to make money, too?
Yes, banks need to make money as well. However, bank fees have swollen in the past ten years, especially as banks have come to rely on fees as a profitable source of revenue in low interest-rate environments after the financial crisis. Intentional or not, several bank processes (for example, resequencing) are designed to maximize the amount of fees charged to customers. The majority of such fees are charged in the form of expensive overdraft fees, insufficient fund fees and late fees, which tend to disproportionately affect Americans that are economically disadvantaged in the first place.
We realized the pain inflicted by such fees when we were building a different product. When we started Harvest, we had set out to build a behavioral investment platform. In the process of testing the product among our early customers, we realized that many users had fees that were abnormal. For example, late fees charged to credit cards on autopay, overdraft fees charged to customers who had not opted in to overdraft protection, and so on.
We realized that we could actually help our customers better by alerting them to such fees and negotiating refunds from the bank. We are helping consumers and they are our main focus, but there is a positive externality to the banks as well. In today’s extremely competitive landscape where banks are facing risks from challenger banks, refunding fees back to customers helps them reduce customer attrition, increase customer satisfaction rates and also helps avoid regulatory pressure due to customer complaints.
- What makes a bank fee “negotiable”?
Negotiability depends on several factors, for example, category of fee, application of consumer protection regulations, user’s transactional relationship with the bank and an understanding of the bank’s competitive landscape.
- Have you met anyone who hasn’t had a bad experience with a bank?
Not really, but there are variations in which people have had bad experiences with their banks. With large, traditional banks, the dissatisfaction is extremely high. Our customers share their stories with us when they use our product, and we have realized just how drastic of an impact some of these fees can make for customers. We have seen some customers rack up thousands of dollars of debt in bank fees in a single month. How do you ever come out of the poverty traps such fees create? You can only imagine how painful the situation must be for such users.
- Which banks are the worst offenders. Name them.
The usual suspects – Wells Fargo, Chase, Bank of America, TD Bank and PNC Bank to name just a few.
- Won’t cryptocurrencies wipe out all these banks anyway?
A scenario in which banks will be completely wiped out is interesting to think about, but if that ever happens, it’s a long while away. Crypto is going through a period of transformation and a lot will have to change before cryptocurrencies can truly change the relationship between banks and their consumers.
The more likely situation is unbundling of banks due to alternatives that provide more consumer friendly services and automate different parts of consumers’ financial lives, something that traditional banks have not been doing much of. We think that products and services that can help reduce financial stress for consumers will come out on top, and that’s ingrained into our mission. We are starting with bank fees and reducing fee related stress first, and our next product in the roadmap will help consumers manage their credit card debt better, gradually helping consumers live simpler, stress free financial lives with the help of automation and artificial intelligence.