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Neo Financial CEO and co-founder Andrew Chau is flanked by co-founders Jeff Adamson, left, and Kris Read at their new headquarters in Calgary on February 26, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Two co-founders of Prairie startup success SkipTheDishes have launched a venture called Neo Financial, which aims to stand out in the crowded and competitive market to provide a digital alternative to the big banks.

Neo co-founders chief executive Andrew Chau and chief merchant officer Jeff Adamson – formerly senior executives at Winnipeg-based SkipTheDishes – and chief technology officer Kris Read, are readying the market launch later this year.

Their 50-person Calgary startup will launch a mobile app-based high-interest savings account and no-fee Mastercard that doubles as a loyalty card. Neo, founded 16 months ago, says thousands of prospective customers have signed onto their waiting list, while hundreds of local merchants are joining the loyalty program in the Calgary area – its first pilot market – including restaurant chain Earls.

Mr. Chau said Neo is in advanced negotiations with an unidentified Canadian bank outside of the dominant “Big Five” to provide its savings account services.

Neo hasn’t disclosed its investors except for Toronto-based Golden Ventures, a seed-stage venture-capital firm and early backer of SkipTheDishes Restaurant Services Inc. Neo is the first company to come out of Harvest Venture Builder Inc., an accelerator program for Prairies-based startups, created by Chris Simair, the former CEO of SkipTheDishes.

“You’ve basically got one of the only teams in Canada who have built a billion-dollar consumer business in one of the toughest categories now going after another multibillion-dollar segment,” said Matt Golden of Golden Ventures. “When [Neo co-founders Mr. Chau and Mr. Adamson] put their stake in the ground saying they’re coming after an industry, you have to take it seriously. They’ve shown the capacity to … create value for merchants and consumers, and coming after the banking and rewards space they think is broken for Canadians.”

SkipTheDishes was purchased in late 2016 by Britain’s Just Eat PLC for £108-million ($185.8-million). The Canadian online food-ordering and delivery service accounted for nearly 30 per cent of Just Eat’s £464.5-million in first-half revenue last year, with 4.4 million Canadian customers of SkipTheDishes ordering from 20,000-plus restaurants through its app. It was the fastest-growing segment for Just Eat prior to its merger with Dutch food delivery firm, which Just Eat shareholders approved last month.

“After building SkipTheDishes we realized if we focus on the consumer and add value for Canadians, we can build a [banking] experience that’s much more rewarding,” Mr. Chau said.

Neo’s platform will combine several elements already offered by more established market players for digitally savvy millennials through their smartphones. For example, Toronto’s Drop Technologies Inc., backed by Royal Bank of Canada, offers an upstart loyalty program, while Wealthsimple Inc., backed by Power Corp. of Canada, has a savings account option among its financial services offerings. Like Neo, many financial technology companies offer quick, seamless application processes through their apps (Neo says customers can sign up for accounts in under three minutes) and instant notifications when charges go through or customers near their credit limits.

The startup is targeting a direct-to-consumer market “that is not an easy space to enter” given high customer acquisition costs and the reluctance of Canadians to move from established institutions to alternatives, said Sean O’Connor, venture-capital fund manager with Conexius Credit Union in Saskatoon. Few fintechs have hit the scale where they become self-sustaining.

Mr. Chau said Neo is differentiating itself “around the experience on the technology side of things” with an easy user experience, including the ability to instantly cash in loyalty rewards, and by offering smaller merchants “the sophistication and personalization” of a Starbucks-like online reward program, “providing them with a way to gain access to customers, and to personalize offers and engage with them one on one.”

Neo is the second western Canadian startup founded by early SkipTheDishes alumni, after Pivot Subscriptions, an online furniture subscription service. “Think about where Waterloo would be without BlackBerry or Ottawa without Shopify,” Mr. O’Connor said. Smaller cities cannot develop into leading startup hotbeds "without successful entrepreneurs driving their growth. A lot of those really important ecosystem-building moments are coming out of the SkipTheDishes [sale].”

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