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Main article: Europe

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Nintendo accused of illegally denying refunds on pre-orders in Europe

14:21 | 21 February

Nintendo has been accused of breaking European law by not allowing consumers to obtain refunds on pre-ordered games.

The company been singled out as the worst offender of seven major digital video games platforms that were looked at by the Norwegian Consumer Council in this investigation. Though it only praises two platforms, Origin and Steam, for having what it describes as “adequate systems” for refunding purchased video games.

The Council has written to Nintendo setting out its concerns. In the letter it flags up a term on Nintendo’s eShop regarding its cancelation policy for digital purchases where it informs consumers that “all sales are final”, and warns them to check that their systems meet download requirements prior to purchase.

The Council argues that a pre-ordered game cannot qualify for an exemption to Europe’s Consumer Rights Directive for digital content because the supply of content has not yet begun. The Directive is applicable across EU and EEA countries (such as Norway).

In a press release about its action the Council writes: “[Nintendo] plainly states that all purchases are final. According to the right of withdrawal laid down in the consumer rights directive, such terms are illegal.”

“The video game industry uses incentives such as exclusive in-game content or other rewards in order to encourage consumers to pre-order games. However, pre-ordering could result in paying a lot of money for a product that turns out to be a disappointment. For most digital video game platforms, there are no possibilities to get your money back after the release date,” it adds.

At the time of writing Nintendo had not responded to a request for comment.

Lots of other video game platforms do not come out of the Council’s survey covered in glory, either. It published a report in December criticizing other players in the space, such as Battle.net, Uplay, Playstation Store and Xbox Store, for a range of less-than-consumer-friendly routes for obtaining refunds — like requiring that buyers contact customer support.

But it’s reserving its fiercest criticism for Nintendo because the company offers no option for consumers to cancel a purchase of pre-ordered game.

The Council suggests games fans wait until they’re 100% sure they want to buy a game before locking themselves into a pre-order.

“Consumers often face complicated systems, where they have to fill out long forms or contact customer support in order to cancel their pre-orders,” it writes. “With these hurdles in mind, we discourage consumers from pre-ordering video games, unless they are 100 % sure that the game will live up to their expectations.”

 


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Tresorit adds file restore to its e2e encrypted cloud storage service

18:28 | 20 February

Europe-based cloud storage startup Tresorit, which mainly focuses on selling to small to medium size businesses, has added a file restore feature to its e2e encrypted cloud storage platform. It’s touting this as a helpful feature if you’re trying to recover from a ransomware attack.

Or, more prosaically, if you’ve accidentally deleted something.

Here’s a GIF showing the file recovery feature in action:

The file restore feature covers files stored in Tresorit’s cloud and files synced locally to a user’s devices.

Obviously, if files are only stored locally and not backed up or synced to Tresorit’s cloud there’s no fallback restoration in the event of a ransomware infection. (While files stored in Tresorit’s cloud that not synced locally would not be affected by any local ransomware infection.)

Tresorit already had a file versioning feature, which allows users to recover any previously saved versions of their files. But it says the addition of file restore helps mitigate the types of ransomware attacks that encrypt files without deleting them first.

There’s no time limitation on the file restore option. Files can always be recovered so long as
the user hasn’t confirmed permanent deletion.

Which does mean, over time, the feature may end up eating into your storage limit — at least if you don’t tidy up and fully delete files you no longer need.

“Non-permanently deleted items count towards the storage space of a user. So, it requires some ‘housekeeping’ from the user,” confirms a Tresorit spokeswoman. “But it is easy to get rid of all these deleted items that a user doesn’t need by selecting ‘Remove deleted items’.”

Also helpful: Tresorit has announced it’s doubling the amount of storage space it offers for individual plans — with its premium (aimed at individuals) and solo (freelancers and professionals) plan users now getting 200GB and 200TB respectively.

Today it’s also introduced a new basic plan which it describes as a “more capable” free version —  intended to help external collaboration between its business users and their clients or partners (who may not be Tresorit users).

Last year it launched free subscriptions for NGOs and activists for whom strong privacy is not just a nice to have. And the spokeswoman tells us more than 100,000 people are now using its tools — which includes both consumer (so some non-paying) and business users.

“Almost two-thirds of our customers are European, led by the traditionally security and privacy conscious countries like Germany and Switzerland. The next biggest European markets are the UK and the Benelux-states. The second largest region is North-America (mostly the US),” she says, adding that Europe’s incoming update to its data protection framework is also driving local uptake.

“With only a few months to go until the GDPR, we are seeing an even higher demand for secure, end-to-end encrypted online services with European data centers. A lot of smaller companies are just starting the preparation for the GDPR, and looking for secure services they can easily switch to.”

Tresorit’s zero-knowledge e2e encryption architecture means that, unlike cloud storage giants like Dropbox, it cannot decrypt and access users’ files. So it cannot be subpoenaed to hand over content data itself.

Although it can provide some user and service activity data in exchange to lawful requests — such as names, email addresses, billing details and so on. The company recently started publishing a Transparency Report to list any government data requests it receives and provide details on how it handles such requests.

“During the period covered in this (from September 24, 2013, to November 30, 2017), we received one informal request from a Swiss police authority to retain certain user data, however, as there was no official decision by Swiss authorities on this case, in the end, we didn’t hand over any data,” the spokeswoman tells us.

“As a Swiss company, Tresorit is primarily subject to Swiss jurisdiction regarding data protection and criminal procedures. Without an official decision by a Swiss cantonal or federal authority, no information can be provided to foreign requests.”

 


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Tandem launches a credit card that offers cashback and no fees when spending abroad

15:11 | 20 February

Tandem, the U.K. challenger bank that recently acquired the banking arm of the famous Harrods department store partly in order to get its banking license back on track, has launched its first banking product: a credit card that offers cashback on every purchase and no exchange fees when spending abroad.

The new card is designed to work with Tandem’s Personal Finance Manager (PFM) app, which you plug into your existing bank accounts and credit cards to get spending insights and set budgeting goals to help you better manage your money.

The challenger bank, like many other consumer-facing fintechs, wants to become your financial control centre from which it can connect to and offer financial services, either products of its own, such as the newly launched Tandem credit card, or through partnerships with other fintech startups or bigger providers. On that note, Tandem says it plans to offer a savings account in the near future.

Specifically, Tandem says its new credit card brings customers a competitive combination of cashback on all purchases (0.5 percent), no overseas transaction fees, a “market leading” exchange rate, and real time updates when you purchase.

It isn’t the only credit card of its ilk in the U.K. — there are a number of cashback-styled credit cards — although Tandem isn’t charging a monthly fee, which is certainly a draw. (Its APR of 18.9 percent isn’t the lowest on the market, however).

It also points to the startup bank’s initital “attack vector” (as Monzo’s Tom Blomfield calls each fintech’s entrance point): come for the cashback credit card and zero fees when spending abroad, and stay for the PFM and soon-to-launch savings deposit accounts.

The latter, of course, means as a licensed bank Tandem can begin lending out a portion of those deposits, which would begin to form the basis of a proven business model.

To that end, Tandem says it chose to launch with a credit card for multiple reasons. A credit card gives customers free protection on purchases over £100, so you’ll get your money back if, for example, a retailer goes bust. “On top of this, everyone needs some extra cash once in a while. Tandem want to be there when you need some money to cover an emergency cost,” says the self-described “Good Bank”.

Adds Ricky Knox, Tandem’s CEO, in a statement: “With our new banking license, our banking app and our new credit card, 2018 is going to be a great year for Tandem. We are looking forward to getting our colourful cards into the hands of customers – I can’t wait to start seeing customers tapping around town”.

 


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Facebook’s tracking of non-users ruled illegal again

15:47 | 19 February

Another blow for Facebook in Europe: Judges in Belgium have once again ruled the company broke privacy laws by deploying technology such as cookies and social plug-ins to track Internet users across the web.

Facebook uses data it collects in this way to sell targeted advertising.

The social media giant failed to make it sufficiently clear how people’s digital activity was being recorded, the court ruled.

Facebook faces fines of up to €100 million (~$124M), at a rate of €250,000 per day, if it fails to comply with the court ruling to stop tracking Belgians’ web browsing habits. It must also destroy any illegally obtained data, the court said.

Facebook expressed disappointment at the judgement and said it will appeal.

“The cookies and pixels we use are industry standard technologies and enable hundreds of thousands of businesses to grow their businesses and reach customers across the EU,” said Facebook’s VP of public policy for EMEA, Richard Allan, in a statement. “We require any business that uses our technologies to provide clear notice to end-users, and we give people the right to opt-out of having data collected on sites and apps off Facebook being used for ads.”

The privacy lawsuit dates back to 2015 when the Belgium privacy watchdog brought a civil suit against Facebook for its near invisible tracking of non-users via social plugins and the like. This followed an investigation by the agency that culminated in a highly critical report touching on many areas of Facebook’s data handling practices.

The same year, after failing to obtain adequate responses to its concerns, the Belgian Privacy Commission decided to take Facebook to court over one of them: How it deploys tracking cookies and social plug-ins on third party websites to track the Internet activity of users and non-users.

Following its usual playbook for European privacy challenges, Facebook first tried to argue the Belgian DPA had no jurisdiction over its European business, which is headquartered in Ireland. But local judges disagreed.

Subsequently, Belgian courts have twice ruled that Facebook’s use of cookies violates European privacy laws. If Facebook keeps appealing the case could end up going all the way to Europe’s supreme court, the CJEU.

The crux of the issue here is the pervasive background surveillance of Internet activity for digital ad targeting purposes which is enabled by a vast network of embedded and at times entirely invisible tracking technologies — and, specifically in this lawsuit, whether Facebook and its network of partner companies which feed data into its ad targeting system, have obtained adequate consent from their users to be so surveilled when they’re not actually using Facebook.

“Facebook collects information about us all when we surf the Internet,” explains the Belgian privacy watchdog, referring to findings from its earlier investigation of Facebook’s use of tracking technologies. “To this end, Facebook uses various technologies, such as the famous “cookies” or the “social plug-ins” (for example, the “Like” or “Share” buttons) or the “pixels” that are invisible to the naked eye. It uses them on its website but also and especially on the websites of third parties. Thus, the survey reveals that even if you have never entered the Facebook domain, Facebook is still able to follow your browsing behavior without you knowing it, let alone, without you wanting it, thanks to these invisible pixels that Facebook has placed on more than 10,000 other sites.”

Facebook claims its use of cookie tracking is transparent and argues the technology benefits Facebook users by letting it show them more relevant content. (Presumably, it would argue non-Facebook users ‘benefit’ from being shown ads targeted at their interests.) “Over recent years we have worked hard to help people understand how we use cookies to keep Facebook secure and show them relevant content. We’ve built teams of people who focus on the protection of privacy — from engineers to designers — and tools that give people choice and control,” said Allan in his response statement to the court ruling.

But given that some of these trackers are literally invisible, coupled with the at times dubious quality of ‘consents’ being gathered — say, for example, if there’s only a pre-ticked opt-in at the bottom of a lengthy and opaque set of T&Cs that actively discourage the user from reading and understanding what data of theirs is being gathered and why — there are some serious questions over the sustainability of this type of ‘pervasive background surveillance’ ad tech in the face of legal challenges and growing consumer dislike of ads that stalk them around the Internet (which has in turn fueled growth of ab-blocking technologies).

Facebook will also face a similar complaint in a lawsuit in Austria, filed by privacy campaigner and lawyer Max Schrems. In January Schrems prevailed against Facebook’s attempts to stall that privacy challenge after Europe’s top court threw out the company’s claim that his campaigning activities cancelled out his individual consumer rights. (Though the CJEU’s decision did not allow Schrems to pursue a class action style lawsuit against Facebook as he had originally hoped.)

Europe also has a major update to its data protection laws incoming in May, called the GDPR, which beefs up the enforcement of privacy rights by introducing a new system of penalties for data protection violations that can scale as high as 4% of a company’s global turnover.

GDPR means that ignoring the European Union’s fundamental right to privacy — by relying on the fact that few consumers have historically bothered to take companies to court over legal violations they may not even realize are happening — is going to get a lot more risky in just a few months’ time. (On that front, Schrems has also set up a not-for-profit to pursue strategic privacy litigation once GDPR is in place — so start stockpiling the popcorn.)

It’s also worth noting that GDPR strengthens the EU’s consent requirements for processing personal data — so it’s certainly not going to be easier for Facebook to obtain consents for this type of background tracking under the new framework. (The still being formulated ePrivacy Regulation is also relevant to cookie consent, and aims to streamline the rules across the EU.)

And indeed such tracking will necessarily become far more visible to web users, who may then be a lot less inclined to agree to being ad-stalked almost everywhere they go online primarily for Facebook’s financial benefit. (The rise of tools offering tracker blocking offers another route for irate consumers to thwart online mass surveillance by ad targeting giants.)

“We are preparing for the new General Data Protection Regulation with our lead regulator the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. We’ll comply with this new law, just as we’ve complied with existing data protection law in Europe,” added Facebook’s Allan.

It’s still not fully clear how Facebook will comply with GDPR — though it’s announced a new global privacy settings hub is incoming. It’s also running a series of data protection workshops in Europe this year, aimed at small and medium businesses — presumably to try to ensure its advertisers don’t find themselves shut out of GDPR Compliance City and on the hook for major privacy legal liabilities themselves, come May 25.

Of course Facebook’s ad business not only relies on people’s web browsing habits to fuel its targeting systems, it relies on advertisers liberally dollars pumping into it. Which is another reason consumer trust is so vital. (And it’s facing myriad challenges on that front these days.)

In a statement on its website, the Belgium Privacy Commission said it was pleased with the ruling.

“We are of course very satisfied that the court has fully followed our position. For the moment, Facebook is conducting a major advertising campaign where it shares its attachment to privacy. We hope he will put this commitment into practice,” it said. 

Featured Image: Tekke/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-ND 2.0 LICENSE

 


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Online estate agency Home Made raises £850K seed at £4.3M post-money valuation

20:56 | 16 February

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the online estate agency market was a done deal in the U.K., evidenced by a plethora of proptech startups and more established companies that help you sell your home or help you list and manage it for rent. But apparently not, if one London startup and its new backers are to be believed.

Home Made, which is focused exclusively on London lettings for properties in the £500,000-plus range, has raised £850,000 in seed funding. The round is led by private equity firm Tethys Equity and is said to give the young company a £4.3 million post-money valuation.

Home Made claims to be the only estate agency in the U.K. that offers a premium service akin to a high-end traditional estate agent — including accompanied property viewings and working until 10 pm at night, on weekends and bank holidays — for a low online fee starting at £948 +VAT.

That said, competitor Rentify also occupies a more upmarket space, but charges a monthly fee and is fully-managed and provides a ‘rent guarantee’. At the lower end are startups like Open Rent and uPad that operate more of a pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap à la carte model with various services to help you rent out your property.

Founded in 2016 by Asaf Navot, a former Bain strategy consultant and INSEAD graduate, and Nick Binnington, a former British Army Captain and LBS graduate, Home Made’s proposition is based on the premise that the letting agent model is broken: “High-street agents offer average service and extortionate fees, while online agents offered low fees, but even worse service,” says the startup.

To remedy this, Home Made claims to be a new estate agency operating model, one that is driven by data analytics and technology, with better efficiencies and lower costs. A very familar pitch, you might conclude.

In terms of tech, I’m told the company has developed a proprietary online platform that allows landlords to manage their properties from marketing to move-in. This includes full control during the marketing phase – landlords can add or remove marketing photos on the portals, write or enhance existing descriptions and change the price – and visibility of progress during tenancy progression.

“Together with the support of a dedicated account manager, this provides a level of asset management not currently available in the residential letting sector,” a Home Made spokesperson tells me.

Additional tech is being built to ensure the operations side of Home Made runs smoothly. “Serving landlords throughout London from a single hub is operationally complex, increasing exponentially as property numbers increase,” says the startup. “We overcome this by giving our sales and operations teams access to a bespoke CRM as well as proprietary planning and route optimisation tools, allowing us to provide an outstanding customer experience in a highly efficient way”.

Meanwhile, Home Made says it is on track to make £1 million in revenues in 2018, with over 1,000 properties rented. Another online agency in the space that offers a full letting-introduction service is PurpleBricks, which Home Made expects to pass next month for number of new properties listed in London.

 


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Assur.com is an insurance aggregator without all the clutter

20:31 | 16 February

French startup Assur.com lets you find and compare all sorts of insurance products without having to enter all your personal information. While insurance aggregators are nothing new, they usually ask you for your email address, phone number and more. And chances are those companies are going to spam you with offers.

But Assur.com has a different approach as you don’t have to enter any information in a text field. It’s all about browsing a well-organized database of insurance products. For now, Assur.com is focusing on the French market and French insurance products.

An insurance aggregator makes a lot of sense now that you can subscribe to insurance products without having to go to a brick-and-mortar store to sign a contract. It’s often as easy as signing up to Facebook.

The startup has categorized over 600 insurance products from dozens of companies. You can find an insurance product for your car, your home, your next trip or even a healthcare insurance.

Chances are you might care a lot about your health but not so much about your old and dusty car. There are usually three different levels of coverage for each category.

You can then click on different insurance products. You’ll be redirected to the insurer’s website and Assur.com is going to get some referral revenue.

You can feel that Assur.com is still quite young as you can’t find all the information you need. Eventually, the company wants to automate the listings as much as possible and build an AI-powered search engine for insurance products. It sounds like a promising start with an interesting vision.

 


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This autonomous 3D scanner figures out where it needs to look

03:09 | 16 February

If you need to make a 3D model of an object, there are plenty of ways to do so, but most of them are only automated to the extent that they know how to spin in circles around that object and put together a mesh. This new system from Fraunhofer does it more intelligently, getting a basic idea of the object to be scanned and planning out what motions will let it do so efficiently and comprehensively.

It takes what can be a time-consuming step out of the process in which a scan is complete and the user has to inspect it, find where it falls short (an overhanging part occluding another, for instance, or an area of greater complexity that requires closer scrutiny), and customize a new scan to make up for these lacks. Alternatively, the scanner might already have to have a 3D model loaded in order to recognize what it’s looking at and know where to focus.

Fraunhofer’s project, led by Pedro Santos at the Institute for Computer Graphics Research, aims to get it right the first time by having the system evaluate its own imagery as it goes and plan its next move.

The special thing about our system is that it scans components autonomously and in real time,” he said in a news release. It’s able to “measure any component, irrespective of its design — and you don’t have to teach it.”

This could help in creating one-off duplicates of parts the system has never seen before, like a custom-made lamp or container, or an replacement for a vintage car’s door or engine.

If you happen to be in Hanover in April, drop by Hannover Messe and try it out for yourself.

Featured Image: Fraunhofer

 


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As tech automates, Blinkist keeps its book summary service very human

01:52 | 16 February

When I first heard of Blinkist, a service that breaks down recent nonfiction books to easily digestible snippets and audio, I was afraid it would turn out to be some machine-learning-driven auto-summary thing. But in talking to co-founder Niklas Jansen at Blinkist’s headquarters in Berlin, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the company is still very much people-powered — and in fact, that may be the root of its continuing success.

The basic idea of Blinkist is to take the best of new nonfiction and condense it into pieces just a minute or two long, with entire books summed up in a series of these “blinks” totaling fifteen minutes or so. Titles are added regularly, harvested from best sellers, top ten lists, and user wishlists and suggestions.

So far, so normal. But where Blinkist tries to differentiate is in the quality of these summaries. Anyone can read a book and give you a rundown of each chapter, and there are automated summary services that will do something like that as well. But it takes someone familiar with the field and well-versed in how to communicate that information to do it well.

But wouldn’t it take a huge collection of experts, PhDs, authors, and so on to keep up with the variety of nonfiction being published? Yes it would, and building just such a collection is where Blinkist has put a great deal of its resources.

As a subscription service, it has steady revenues that it can deploy intelligently, maintaining a large network of experts whom it can call on to do the critical work of dissecting a book, picking out its important parts, and writing them up in a compelling way. But these summaries aren’t intended to be comprehensive — that’s why they’re called summaries.

“What’s important is that Blinkist is not intended to replace the book,” Jansen said. “We think of Blinkist as the bridge between no book and the book. There’s always a case why you should go on and buy the full book afterwards.” (And of course a link is provided.)

I was afraid, going in, that I would find out that Blinkist also did this for fiction, which I feel would defeat the point of reading it. After all, the idea in fiction is not to learn some core ideas and see them demonstrated or evidenced, but to experience a story — and the pacing, language, and dialogue are critical to that. Fortunately, Blinkist understands this as well, and that is the very reason the team has not attempted it. Nonfiction is just a much more logical choice.

I must admit here that I don’t read a lot of modern nonfiction — none, really. But that doesn’t mean none of these books sound interesting to me. Blinkist seems to cater to types like myself: readers with more curiosity than time.

It’s reassuring to see a modern startup relying so heavily on the human element. Blinkist costs $50 a year to start, which sure isn’t free, but you could think of it like a “feed the humanities PhDs” fund.

 


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France’s telecom regulator thinks net neutrality should also apply to devices

21:24 | 15 February

 The ARCEP just published a thorough 65-page report (embedded below) about the devices we use every day. The report says that devices give you a portion of the internet and prevent an open internet. “With net neutrality, we spend all our time cleaning pipes, but nobody is looking at faucets,” ARCEP president Sébastien Soriano told me. “Everybody assumes that the devices that… Read More

 


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Lydia raises $16.1 million to become the PayPal of mobile payments

19:21 | 15 February

French startup Lydia is raising a $16.1 million round (€13 million) led by CNP Assurances with existing investors XAnge, New Alpha AM, Oddo BHF and Groupe Duval also participating.

Lydia isn’t the first startup that wants to replace PayPal, and also probably not the last one. But it’s clear that the company is slowly becoming mainstream in France. The company first focused on Venmo-like peer-to-peer payments but is now branching out to cover all sorts of transactions.

The product roadmap is quite simple. First, Lydia grabs new users thanks to free and instant transactions to pay back your friends. And now, the company is letting you use your Lydia account to pay in store, online and more.

For instance, you can pay on Cdiscount with your Lydia account, France’s second e-commerce website behind Amazon.fr. E-commerce websites usually ask you for your phone number for the delivery. When you choose Lydia as your payment method, you receive a push notification on your phone as your Lydia account is already linked to your phone number. After unlocking the app, you can use your Lydia balance or pay with your debit card without having to enter your card information on the e-commerce website.

When you want to pay in store, you first enter the amount and show a QR code to the cashier. For instance, it works in all Franprix supermarkets in France. The cashier can use the same barcode reader as they would use to scan products.

The idea is that you’re already using your phone when you’re waiting in line. With Lydia, you don’t have to put your phone back in your pocket or bag to find a card.

But what about Apple Pay and places that don’t accept Lydia? Lydia has launched a good old plastic card that is connected to your Lydia account. You can top up your Lydia balance with your personal IBAN, activate or deactivate features in real time and more. And if you don’t want yet another card, you can just enable the virtual card and add it to Apple Pay.

Overall, Lydia processes around 1 million transactions per month, or around €25 million in monthly volume. While newer users still mostly use the peer-to-peer payment feature, older users and card users use Lydia more and more to pay businesses.

With more than a million registered users, Lydia is the leader in this space in France. The company has recently launched its product in the U.K., Ireland, Spain and Portugal. More importantly, over 2,000 people sign up to Lydia every day.

“We’ve never grown so fast,” co-founder and CEO Cyril Chiche told me. “In 2018, we’re probably going to grow more quickly than PayPal in France.”

“What’s interesting in particular is that the growth rate for transactions is higher than the user growth rate,” he added. In other words, the number of transactions per month per user is growing.

That’s an impressive growth rate for a European fintech startup. In November 2017, Revolut had around 3,000 to 3,500 signups per day. In August 2017, N26 reported 1,500 signups per day. While those numbers are outdated, it’s interesting to compare Lydia to N26 and Revolut.

And Lydia still plans to expand beyond its five current markets. Germany and Austria are next on the list, with more European countries to follow. Lydia hires native country managers who fly back and forth between the main office in Paris and those new markets.

There are now around 40 employees at Lydia. The startup plans to be working with 60 employees by the end of 2018, and 90 employees by the end of 2019. When it comes to product, Chiche told me the startup would have more to share in the coming weeks.

Disclosure: I share a personal connection with an executive at CNP Assurances.

 


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