It is four months since fintech ‘unicorn’ Revolut announced its intention to add commission-free trading to its banking app, in a bid to compete with Silicon Valley’s Robinhood (although, curiously, the two companies share two investors, namely Index and DST).
However, one London startup looks to be first out of the gate this side of the pond: Freetrade, founded by Adam Dodds, is officially launching today, and offers “zero-fee” stocks and ETF trading, alongside various premium paid features.
A year in the making, Freetrade has built a bona-fide “challenger broker,” including obtaining the required license from the FCA (the U.K. regulator), rather than simply partnering with an established broker as it is understood Revolut initially plans to do. This, Dodds explained on a call, has enabled the startup to plug directly into the capital markets “piping,” with as few intermediaries as possible. It means Freetrade can execute trades on its own behalf and ultimately be much more in control of its own destiny. It should also help the startup maintain a lower cost-base as the app scales.
The fintech has begun to onboard its 60,000-strong waitlist as of today, after a prolonged period in private beta. During that time, the company has run a number of private equity crowdfunding campaigns, shunning venture capital entirely. Asked why Freetrade chose not to raise VC money, Dodds says “the short answer is, we didn’t have to”.
“We got our start with a modest crowdfunding campaign for £100,000 in 2016. That was the seed that grew our community and waiting list to over 60,000 people. To date, we’ve raised over £4 million from our community to fund the business and from our point of view, there couldn’t be a better way. Our investors care so much about the business – they spread the word to everyone they know, they give us feedback on the product, and of course, they are our customers too!”.
Dodds says that many startups worry about getting the first 1,000 customers to love the product. In contrast, Freetrade “has over 3,000 [customers] that already believe in it so much they invested their own money to make it a reality”.
At launch, Freetrade lets you invest in U.K. stocks and ETFs, but will soon add U.S. stocks, too. Trades are “fee-free” if you are happy for your buy or sell trades to execute at the close of business each day. If you want to execute immediately, the startup charges a very low £1 per trade, and will soon add an all-inclusive monthly paid subscription to the app.
The idea, Dodds tells me, is to lower the price of entry so that anybody can begin putting together their own investment portfolio, no matter how small to begin with.
“The first thing to understand is that the commissions legacy stockbrokers charge are completely detached from the actual cost of making trades. They charge what they can get away with,” he says. “The lack of competition has allowed an oligopoly to settle in where all the legacy online brokers charge around £10 to make a trade.
“What we offer is a free option to start investing in real shares and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), where you don’t need to worry about any fees or commissions or timing your orders as free orders are filled at the end of the day. Or you can pay £1 for Instant orders that are filled immediately when the market is open. We’ll also offer a paid subscription tier that includes all our services, including instant execution and ISAs (tax-free account) for £10 a month”.
But how does this all compare to what Revolut has planned and how will Freetrade compete? Dodds wouldn’t be drawn on too many specifics, but reiterated that his startup has “built a new FCA-authorised financial institution from the ground up” and has now launched what he describes as the U.K.’s “first modern stockbroker”.
“Revolut seems to be burning masses of VC cash in a land grab for every vertical in fintech. I’m sure they’ll launch something to compete with us at some point, but we’re singularly focused on making the absolute best investment app out there and building a sustainable business,” he says.