Is Revolut Still a Good Thing?

You may remember that a few years ago I wrote a positive review of Revolut, the fintech startup that provides payment cards with stored value and no foreign transaction fees. I have been using it for a long time by now, and had mostly stood by that review, until the second half of last year, where things started to appear more complicated. Given the current flurry of stories on the company, from silly advertising shenanigans to uncovering of poisonous working conditions, I thought it would be a good time to write some more up to date words, as I don’t think I can recommend Revolut as much as I did before anymore.

First of all, I started feeling uneasy recommending Revolut since they started down the path of selling cryptocurrencies as an added-value feature. I hold a personal belief that participating in the trading of Bitcoin and other similar “currencies” is unethical (see Thomas’s rant on the topic), and I don’t like being associated with companies focusing on them. I have looked the other way for a while, though, because I knew that using the words “cryptocurrency” and “blockchain” make money appear out of nowhere for most startups, even when there’s no rhyme or reason for it. I just had a bad taste in my mouth for this.

The problem is that Revolut, even when I had the Premium version, built something very cool, but a bit rough around the edges. And as a customer, it is annoying to see them jumping the shark onto cryptocurrencies, instead of making location-based security actually reliable, implementing 3DSecure/VBV integrations, or finding a way to get a proper banking license and FSCS insurance (all of which would be requirements for me and most people to use Revolut as a replacement for high-street banking).

Instead, what we see is that Revolut is adding “features” trying to upsell you into their premium services. This is not entirely bad, because you need paying customers to run a business. Unfortunately my impression is that they offered and offer so much on their free tier, that they are tackling on random stuff that has nothing to do with banking itself, just to get people to sign up for their Premium and Metal tiers.

As an aside, I still don’t understand this trend of providing heavy (“18g” as they boast some companies) metal cards. The last thing I want from a credit card is to be heavy, as I barely even want to have to take it out. I’m all in favour of the trend of not embossing the name and number, preferring to print it on the back, but it does not need to be metal for it. Indeed, Curve (that I’ll get again in a moment) did exactly that.

We’ve just come back from a trip to the Continent, and what we did notice that Revolut tried to upsell us medical and travel insurance at every change of country (even when we just connected flights through third countries). This is not just annoying as we’re not interested in it (we’re European citizens, visiting European countries, and work provides both of us with a basic travel insurance), but it’s also annoying because it makes use of the location information, which I provide for the security feature, for marketing. Similarly, I recently had more notifications about them trying to upsell me Metal than actual transactions.

For a while, I actually did pay for the Premium service. Mostly under the idea of “putting my money where my mouth is”, that is to make sure that the company could keep operating a service I loved. Unfortunately it turned out a bad idea: not just because Revolut cannot replace a high street bank in the UK (no FSCS to protect your account, no BACS direct debits, etc), but also because the Premium “perks” were not something I cared about, and the dedicated service team was still useless when it came to even telling me the top-up limits when I changed the card I used for top-up.

If you already have two physical cards (and paid for it), you need to pay to replace one of them with a Premium card, if you so wish (but it gains nothing but a different colour, so I never did that). The unlimited exchange is not particularly useful when you already don’t reach the free tier’s spend, and the ATM limits is only useful if you plan to actually use cash, which I really try not to. The one interesting feature that is advertised for Premium customers, but as far as I can tell is also present as a one-off charge for non-Premium one, is the disposable virtual card, that changes PAN every time you use it. But even that is not as secure as it looks, as I’m told that vendors are still able to charge again a disposable card that already changed number.

Okay admittedly there’s the travel and medical insurance, but as I said earlier, I get a better travel medical insurance from work (and probably there’ s better out there) and a credit card such as American Express would provide a better baggage/flight insurance. This is very subjective of course, it’s well possible that for other people, with other employers, and in other countries, these insurances are actually worth it.

Speaking of circumstances, I think I might not have felt so strongly against Revolut if I was still in Ireland. Not just because they seem to have implemented SEPA DD Core support, so you can actually use it to pay your bills there, but also because the alternatives of high street banking there are significantly worse than here.

In London, I now settled on Santander as my primary bank, both for the current account and for a 0% foreign transaction fee credit card, their All-in-One Credit Card. These come to £5 per month for the account, and another £3 per month for the credit card (compare against Revolut’s premium at £6.99 and Metal tier at £12.99), and while the free foreign ATMs withdrawal are limited to Santander’s own network (limiting the countries you can use them on), this is a full-featured, FSCS-insured account, with cashback, retailer offers, and active interest on the current account’s deposit. If you don’t want (or can’t afford) a credit card, Metro Bank offers 0% foreign transaction fee for European transactions on their free accounts’ debit cards. And I’m sure that other banks have similar arrangements all over the place. Basically, the UK has a significantly wider range of offers, that make Revolut less necessary than in Ireland.

But even for Ireland, and for other countries that do not have such a selection of high-street banks, Curve – that I complained about before – decided to change their target marketing a bit, now offering a “front” for any Visa and MasterCard card to provide 0% foreign transaction fee, with their premium option existing to raise the limit of monthly transactions. That would have been something awesome to have when I lived in Dublin, to keep getting Tesco points, while not paying the 1.75% of foreign transaction fee on their credit card. (If you are interested to try that, my referral code is BG2G3).

Both Curve and Revolut have a Metal card with which they provide cashback. In the case of the former, these are retailers-limited, and I can only assume they are based on some third party’s selection of perks, as the retailers are pretty much the same that Santander and Lloyd’s provide retailers offers for. Revolut instead provides cashback on all spend, 0.1% on European spend, and 1% for non-European spend (although there does not seem to be an obvious definition of Europe on their marketing material, I assume it’s deep into the terms of service).

While cashback is always a nice bonus, it only makes sense if you can break even on the cost of one’s service by spending. With Revolut Metal, that would be an astounding £13k (thirteen thousands pound) per month in European spend, or £1299 of non-European spend. I do know some extremely frequent travellers to the States or Asia that would be able to spend the latter, but that’s more of an exception than a rule. And if you can spend the former, you probably can get more than that in interest by keeping the money in an active-interest current account, and paying with a normal credit card.

For comparison, Santander’s card I linked above costs £3/month (you don’t even need their bank account). It has 0% foreign transaction fee on all spend. And a cashback of 0.5% (five times Revolut’s European cashback) on all spend. It takes only £600 a month to break even, and that’s without counting additional retailer offers, or additional perks from their current accounts.

And even if you look at American Express (which is never considered a cheap option) and their cashback options, the numbers are significantly different. Their Platinum cashsback card is £25 per year, and includes a better travel insurance, 1% cashback on all spend to £10k and 1.25% over that. Plus retailers offers and supplementary cards for the family. Although be warned if you want to go down that road, that American Express charges you 2.99% foreign transaction fees, for every single one of their cards in the UK.

I was going to take a detour talking about foreign transaction fees, but I will leave it for another post, because it’s a lot of content, and a lot of explanation to be done there.

So the final words of this post are: I’m not sure I trust Revolut anymore. They seem to be taking “marketing risks” to get people to pay for services, but at the same time there’s very little value in their paid services. I don’t think that the company will be able to sustain the current trajectory without venture capital money, and I find scary the idea of relying on a VC-funded pseudo-bank for my own money.

Update (2019-03-27): just a few days after I wrote this blog post, I received two email from Revolut, with widely different content, that I think merit a bit of description, thus why this update.

The latest email is an announcement of new details (new sort code and account number) for their GBP accounts. This is effectively a change in intermediary bank that maintains the GBP account proxies for Revolut. Nothing particularly eventful in by itself, but there are a few notable things. The announcement is declared “great news” for their customers, but it also highlight yet another feature that high street banking would have, and Revolut lacks: redirections.

When you switch bank account with a high street bank, the bank will take care of moving standing orders, direct debits, automatic salary payments, and redirect any transfer to the old bank account to the new one. Revolut is instead telling all the customers that they have to deal with all the required changes of both payment and transfer. Not just that, but they don’t appear to guarantee any specific grace period in which both accounts would exist: they say that the new details will appear in the app before May 22nd, which is when the old account will stop working:

⚠️ Your old account details will stop working from the 22nd May 2019. 

Salaries and standing orders 

If you receive your salary into your Revolut account, you’ll need to send your new account details to your employer before the 22nd May. Again, we’ll let you know as soon as they arrive. 

For standing orders from your external bank to your Revolut account, you’ll need to update your bank with your new details before 22nd May. For recurring payments set up from your Revolut account to another bank, you don’t need to do anything. 

Revolut email arrived on 2019-03-27

To give you an idea of time frame involved, the company I work for freezes the salary payment details around the 5th of the month for payments on the 25th. This means that if the new details arrive after 5th of May, and you’re paid monthly, you may be unable to receive the salary. Hopefully, the old accounts would just reject the transfer, but even in that case, retrieving the missing salary can easily take two weeks, which for a number of people would be a significant risk.

For comparison, the previous email I received just twenty hours before, also from Revolut, had as subject «👕Should we release Revolut merch?». This is a company that just before announcing a significant disruption of service, that a high street bank would never subject their customers to, asks whether you would like to wear their brand around, making yourself not just a product, but a walking billboard.

Book Review: Getting More

It has been a while since I wrote my last book review and it was not exactly a great one, so I’ll try to improve on this by writing a few reviews over the next month or so. After all what better gift for geeks than books?

I have had the pleasure to read Getting More last October, as part of a work training. It’s a book about negotiation, and makes a point multiple times to detach that from the idea of it being manipulation, even though it’s probably up to you to see whether the distinction is clear enough for you. The author, Prof. Stuart Diamond, runs a negotiation course at Wharton, in Pennsylvania, and got famous with this.

I was expecting the book to be hogwash, as many other business books, and especially so as many materials I’ve been given before at courses (before my current job though). Turned out that the book is not bad at all and I actually found it enjoyable, even though a bit repetitive — but repetita iuvant as they say; the repetition is there to make you see the point, not just for the sake of being there.

The main objective of the book is to provide you with process and tools to use during negotiation, big-time business deals and everyday transactions alike. It also includes example on how to use this with your significant other and children, but I’ll admit I just skipped over them altogether as they are not useful to me (I’m single and I don’t even see my nephew enough to care about dealing with children.)

It was a very interesting read to me because, while I knew I’m not exactly a cold-minded person especially when frustrated, I found that some of the tools described I’ve been using, for a long time, without even knowing about their existence. For example, when I interviewed for my current job, my first on-site interviewer arrived with a NERV sticker on his laptop — we spent a few minutes talking about anime, and not only that reassured me a lot about the day, – you have no idea how stressed I was, as I even caught a fever the day before the interview! – it also built an “instantaneous” connection with someone who did indeed become a colleague. I would think it might have added to his patience for my thicker than usual accent that day, too.

Between anecdotes and explanations, the book has another underlying theme: be real. This is the main point of difference between negotiation and manipulation as seen from the book. In the more mundane case of dealing with stores, hotels and airlines, you have two main examples of using the techniques, to get compensated for something negative that happened, whether or not it was in control of the other party, and otherwise to ask penalties waived when you did something incorrect, unintentionally. It would be tempted to cause something negative and ask for compensation even if everything was perfect — that would be manipulation, and it’s unlikely to work very well unless you’re a good -actor- liar, and rather makes it worse for the rest of the world.

The book invites you to keep exercising the tools daily — I have been trying but it’s definitely not easy especially if you’re not an extrovert by nature. It takes practice and, especially at the beginning, more time than it would be worth: arguing half an hour for a fifteen euro discount somewhere is not really worth it to me, but on the other hand practice makes perfect and the processes to apply for small and big transactions the same. I have indeed been able to get some ~$100 back at the Holiday Inn I’ve stayed at in San Francisco.

I have got my set of reserves on using the methods described on the book – it sometimes feels manipulative and relying on implicit privilege – but on the other hand, Prof. Diamond points out multiple time that the methods works best when both parties know about them, so spreading the word about the book is a good idea, and telling people explicitly what you’re doing is the best strategy.

Indeed, I felt that I would have gotten better from Tesco just last week, if they had read the book and applied the same methods. A delivery was missed, and that was fine, but then the store went incommunicado for over ten hours instead of calling me right away to reschedule, and the guy who called me lied on the order going to be new the day after. They gave me some €25 back straight on the card — which is okay for me, but it was not really in their best interest, as I could have walked away with the money and gone to a different store. I asked them if they could offer me some months of their DeliverySaver (think Amazon Prime for groceries) for free.

Yes, the DeliverySaver subscription would have had a much higher value (€7.5/month), but it would be actually cheaper to them (as I live in an apartment complex, that they delivery to daily anyway, the delivery costs are much lower than that), and it would have “forced” me to come back to them, rather than going to a competitor such as SuperValu. As it turns out, I’ve decided to stick with Tesco, mostly because I have their credit card and it is thus still convenient to stay a customer. But I do think they could have made a better deal for themselves.

At any rate, the book is worth a read and the techniques are not completely worthless, even though difficult to pull off without being a jerk. It requires knowing a lot about a system to do so, but again this is something that is up to the people reading the book.

Who does the anti-corporatism feeling serve?

I have, as a Free Software developer and enthusiast, a particular dislike for the anti-corporate websites, and the general anti-corporate feeling that seems to transpire from some of the communities that form around so-called “Free Software Advocates”. You probably know that already if you read me frequently.

In the past few days I have been again in open contrast with those trying to spread “hyperboles” which I’d sincerely call “sensationalistic name-calling”. Similarly to another point this started with one statement by Carlo Piana, who asked to stop calling “piracy” what actually is unauthorised copy. I do agree with his rational that it shouldn’t be called that way, but I’m a pragmatic, I live in this world, and like it or not, the word “piracy” as synonym for “unauthorised copy” is an unfortunate reality. Given that, you have two choice:

  • keep trying to get people to use the “right term” ever and ever — the so-called GNU/Linux method;
  • use their own weapons against them and (as I suggested) call piracy the disregard for copyleft licenses like the GNU GPL (note my use of words here: copyleft licenses; disregarding MIT and BSD is definitely much harder and yet they are Free Software licenses).

As I said I’m a pragmatic so it’s nothing new that I’d go with the second choice. But too many people either still think they can change the world with negative activism, or at least they pretend to, and suggested to call everything proprietary as piracy…. facepalm moment gals and guys.

I still think that most, if not all, of the people involved in anti-corporatism who pretend to care for Free Software, have no idea of what kind of effort is needed to create and maintain Free Software. Sure they might not want to be paid to do what they do, and they might have a different kind of job, so that they can do their job without “dirtying their hands” with proprietary software and proprietary vendors, but most of us, write software for a living, and usually the money come not from writing just pure Free Software — you rather have to compromise.

This does not mean that there is no business case for Free Software; we do know that a number of companies out there do Free Software mainly and can make money and pay developers to do their work, but they don’t make enough money to pay all of the people out there without at least partly compromising, leaving part of their business logic out of Free Software. Nokia and Intel, Sun before and Oracle both before and now, Canonical and RedHat, SuSE and even Apple… they all do lots of contributions to Free Software and yet their main business varies widely, just in a couple of case being mainly Free Software! Google, Yahoo and Facebook also work on Free Software, publish new, pay for maintenance of already present… yet they are not even software houses mostly (or originally).

If Free Software would require people not to be employed by companies producing any kind of proprietary software, the number of developers would be much, much reduced. Not everyone lives alone, many have a family to maintain, some have further complications, most don’t live like a hippy like Richard Stallman seems happy to. So what’s the solution? A few people, including the FSF last I checked, insist that if Free Software won’t pay for your living you can get another job, or settle for a lower wage.. but again, that is not always possible!

Do these activists put their money where their mouth is? I sincerely doubt so, as they most likely have no idea of how people sustain themselves in this environment while still keeping working on Free Software. I’ll try to give you myself as an example, but I’m sure there are situations that are more complex than mine (and quite a few that are easier, but that’s beside the point).

I don’t have to pay a rent, I’m lucky, but I’m still not working for myself alone, as I live with my mother and she’s not working. I have bills to pay each months, unhelped, that comprise phones, Internet and power, all three of which are needed for my Free Software work, as well as my “daily job” and my general living. I have obviously to buy food and general home supplies, and at the same time I have hardware to maintain, again for all the three cases. I have had a few health troubles, and I still have to both keep myself in check and be ready in case something else happens to me. I could do without entertainment expenses, but that would most likely burn myself out so I count those as an actual need as well.

In all of this, how much of the money I get is derived directly from Free Software? I’ll be honest: in the past five years, donations would probably have covered three or four months of basic need, without any saving. And mostly, that is covered by a handful of regular contributors. And before you tell me I should feel ashamed for having said this, I wish to say that I’m still very thankful to everybody who ever sent me something, be it a five euros donation, a flattr click, a book, a hardware component, or a more consistent money donation. Thank you all! Those are the things that let me keep doing what I do, as I feel it’s important for somebody.

I have written a few articles for LWN, but even that only covered a part of what I needed; the main reason is that being a non-native speaker, the time I need to write a proper article is disproportionate, again this is not to say that LWN does not pay properly – they actually pay nicely – it’s my own trouble not to be able to make a proper living from that. I actually tried finding a magazine in Italy that I could be paid to write for, getting rid of the language barrier, but the only one who ever published something (and the first article was an unpaid try) was the Italian edition of Linux Journal that has stopped publishing a couple of months later. Oh and by the way, this kind of work is also considered “proprietary work” as articles, and most books, are as far as I know not usually licensed under Creative Commons or otherwise Free licenses.

So if my pure Free Software work is not paying for bills or anything, nor my writing about it is, what am I to do? I considered for a while getting a job at the nearest Mediaworld (the Italian name for the German chain Mediamarkt), selling consumer electronics. I could do that, but then I wouldn’t probably be willing to contribute to Free Software in my spare time. What I actually do instead is, I work for companies that either make proprietary software (web software, firmware, or whatever else) or that commercialise Free Software (sorta, that’s the case for LScube for the most part). When I do, though, it often ends up with me working at least on the side for Gentoo, or Free Software in general.

I have already described my method a few months ago, I would like to say that a lot of my work on Ruby ebuilds in Portage has been done on paid time for some of my work, and the presence of gdbserver in the tree is due to a customer of mine having migrated to a Gentoo-based build system (to replace buildroot), and gdbserver was to be loaded in their firmware. A lot of the documentation I wrote also is related to that, as is my maintaining of Amazon EC2 software, …

And before this can be mistaken.. I have received more than a few job offers to do Free Software work. Most I had to turn down, either because they required me to go too much out of my way, or because of bad timing (I’m even currently in the mid of something). I also turned down Google, repeatedly, because I have no intention to ever come to USA because of my health trouble. The best offer I had was from a very well known Rails-based hosting company, I was actually very interested in the position and would have accepted even a lower wage than what I was offered, especially because Gentoo was well part of my responsibilities, but they never followed through; twice.

So anyway, what has all of this to do with the original statement, and my problem with anti-corporatism? Well, as I said most of my customers are using Free Software for developing appliances and software whose business logic is still proprietary. It’s better than nothing in the fact that they are still giving me money to keep doing what I’ve done in the past five years and counting. But at the same time, they are wary about Free Software, if they were to (like a few already do) think that Free Software is either too amateurish, or is trying to undermine their very existence entirely, they might decide that their money should not be spent on furthering those ideas.

And nothing is more dangerous than that, because if there is something that Free Software in general needs more, is competent people being paid to work mainly on Free Software. And the money often is in the hands of those companies that you’re scaring away with your “Fight da man” attitude; the same companies that Microsoft did their best to spread FUD to, regarding Linux and the Free Software and Open Source movements. I’d be surprised if there is nobody in Microsoft’s offices right now that is gloating, to see how the so-called “Advocates” are doing their best to isolate Free Software from the money it needs.

Ah yes and I was forgetting to say: if you don’t think that money is important for Free Software… take a hitch and don’t even try commenting, I will be deleting such inane and naïf comments.

Summer of Code: is it all about the money?

This is the text of a mail I sent earlier today to gentoo-dev mailing list:

I know this is going to stir up quite some discussion, but I do think
it’s worth trying requesting it at least.

In the past two years we had quite a few applications from students that
were already full-fledged Gentoo developers. I sincerely would like that
this year we put as a rule that Gentoo developers cannot partecipate in
Summer of Code as students for Gentoo.

I’m not asking to penalise Gentoo developers are students. But I
sincerely think the main goal of Summer of Code is to allow new people
to enter the scene of Free Software, to understand how Free Software
projects work and so on. Gentoo Developers are already pretty well
“inside” this world.

I think it should be a self-made decision to abstain from applying as a
student for what you already partecipate in, but as such concerns don’t
seem to be widespread (at least as the last two years shown), I’m asking
for a formal decision to all the developers. If that is requested, I’m
even willing to bring this in front of the council.

Gentoo’s ranks are quite reduced nowadays, and a few persons have shown
conerns about our current recruiting methods being able to judge clearly
technical and social skills, as well as the time one is ready to pour
into the project. I think SoC could be used as a pretty good recruiting
method: as you are going to work quite a bit with the student, you can
easily judge availability and technical and social skills. Leaving SoC
applications open to developers means wasting this opportunity.

There are many other organisations partecipating, I think it would be
quite feasible for Gentoo developers wanting to be a student SoC to
choose another one, in which they are not involved already. Yes it’s
easier for them to do something for Gentoo as they are already
contributing, but that is not the point of Summer of Code, the point is
to introduce new people into projects, not giving money to people to do
what they already do.

And just to take a stance, even if this request is to be rejected, I’m
not going to mentor a student that is already a Gentoo developer, for
sure.

So to be clear, I’m not trying to look down to anybody, I don’t even
want to stop people from being paid for their work. I just wish that we
can focus this opportunity to improve the Gentoo project as a whole.

I knew it wasn’t going to be accepted unanimously, but I sincerely thought it was more based on personal views rather than focusing on the “who get the money” idea.

And this makes me wonder, is it all about the money?

When I heard about Summer of Code the first time, I was still a student myself, but I didn’t even consider it, because I was already a free software developer. Not successful (I don’t consider myself successful even now), but a free software developer nonetheless.

I think Summer of Code is of great value for students with no real-world development experience. During the summer, when they have no classes to study for, they can find a job, not much for the money, but more to get some real world experience. Rather than going in a software company that is half empty because of summer, needing someone to keep track of the simple bugs that come during the time, they can enter the Free Software scene, mentored by already active Free Software developers.

I think the choice should be already appealing on its own, the money would just be an extra incentive so that, for instance, the parents can’t say they are not doing anything to bring back at least some money.

I sincerely can’t see how does it make any sense to rely on this money for who needs it, and would otherwise need to move some time from Gentoo to a day job. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel very much empathy for those who has to use spend more time on the day job rather than Gentoo, I am one of them, but we’re talking about students here.

If one can afford to be a student nine months an year without having a job, it’s not for the three months during the summer that he has to focus more on the day job than on Gentoo. Either one can afford to study and work (not paid) on Gentoo all year long, or has to be doing a dayjob the rest of the year too, thus is more free during summer. I can’t understand how it can be possible that “magically” by giving someone €3000 (which is not much a big sum for most people, I’d say), they can stop needing a dayjob for three months, focus more on Gentoo, and then resume the school.

It might work as “extra” money, and it might be quite appealing. But then, can one just make a little more effort, take a pause from Gentoo if he needs to, and choose a different project to be a student of during Summer of Code? Learning to work in a different environment, which is one of the goals of SoC after all.

Or is it just a matter of getting money easily, doing something you would have done already?