Where’s the big money going in Europe? On money itself

Where are the big opportunities? Data, mobile, cloud and retail all continue to be hotter than Ryan Gosling — but cast your eyes across Europe, and it’s clear that financial technology is where the action is.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s physical payment services like Payleven or iZettle, or virtual processors like Paymill or GoCardless. Digital money is where a huge amount of energy and investment is going right now. And it’s big money too: just before Christmas the Russian search giant Yandex (s yndx) sold its payment service to Sberbank for $60 million.

Why is it happening now?

It’s no surprise that financial technology is loved by investors, manys of whom harbor a quantlike obsession with money manipulation. Many feel like payments are safe ground: after all, internet companies have a notoriously louche relationship with profit, but if money is your product then you’ve already solved part of the problem of monetization. That’s no doubt a big reason that the Samwer brothers started up both Payleven and Paymill to attack the payments stack from two different directions.

But I suspect the cultural mood is important too. We’re living through tough times: the economies of the West undone by their own hubris, the Euro rocking on its heels. Retreating to money management is appealing for investors, but the sense of risk means it’s also more appealing to a certain sort of entrepreneur right now.

Take London’s fast-moving financial sector: it’s helping the shakeup of banking through refugees starting businesses, like Transferwise and GoCardless. As the UK’s Independent noted last year, many young bankers are turning to the startup world instead of staying suited up.

Young graduates have eschewed their pin-striped destiny in the Square Mile in favour of the alternative working lifestyle of the internet start-up – but are building dynamic companies based on their specialist knowledge of business.

[MarketInvoice‘s] Charles Delingpole, 29, set up the company after leaving his job as a mergers and acquisitions specialist at the investment bank JP Morgan. His partners are Anil Stocker, 28, who formerly worked at the collapsed Lehman Brothers, and Ilya Kondrashov, 26, who was at Goldman Sachs.

But there’s another big reason that Europe is turning to financial startups right now: inaction from the power players in the US.

Fast-growing names like Square and Stripe are making waves in the American market, but for their own reasons have not yet stretched out across the Atlantic. Some — Braintree for example — have made the leap, but in the meantime many of those sprouting up are clones of, copies of or at the very least “inspired by” their American cousins. They’ve spotted an opportunity that the innovators can’t move into (even it means they have to go into battle with each other instead.

The waiting game

Jack Dorsey and Angela Merkel (courtesy of Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert)Square’s Jack Dorsey may already have European politicians on speed dial, thanks in part to Twitter’s influence, but there is an argument that it is wise for the US companies to hold fire, rather than rush headlong into European expansion.

Services that require people to change behaviors require a lot of effort, and a lot of capital: and changing the minds of a whole continent is a tough thing to do. Square, for example, could wait for European copycats to fight among themselves, open the doors for them, and then move in to take the market — either by purchasing the winner (if they are strong) or crushing them (if they are not).

And in the end that may be the smart thing to do, because money is one of the most socially complex and awkward of all the things Europeans squabble about. Attitudes to money vary so wildly, it’s impossible to see a single player winning easily. Of course, you’ve got those inside the Eurozone and those outside, but that’s just one small part of the matrix. In Britain and France, for example, paying by card is the norm; in Germany and Russia, for various reasons, cash remains king. Oh, and then you’ve got those trying to turn NFC into a thing (it’s not a thing).

Whatever Europe’s financial startups choose to do, becoming the one service to rule them all will be hard. The continent’s approach to money is a mess in more ways than one. A vibrant, exciting, mess with a ton of opportunities, yes — but still a mess all the same.