Investing in stocks and shares is a specialist business, and one the team at commission-free trading app Freetrade has spent the past two years lowering the barriers of entry to, with the help of Google’s public cloud platform.
Specifically, the firm is focused on making stockbroking accessible to individual investors by allowing them to participate in stockmarket trades for a relatively low outlay through an app on their smartphone, either to make their savings go a little bit further or to invest in brands they like.
“The share dealing space was very incumbent dominated. There were no challengers, basically, so we decided to build the first challenger because we all wanted to invest, and actually ended up investing in different services, but we found them all to be very clunky and very expensive,” Freetrade co-founder and chief marketing officer, Viktor Nebehaj, tells Computer Weekly.
He came on board after the company’s CEO, Adam Dodds, listed Freetrade on the Crowdcube website, where startups can advertise their business ideas with aim of finding backers.
“I withdrew from my bank account as much money as I could and basically pledged to the campaign, and it turned out I was the first person who invested more than £1,000 pounds who wasn’t a friend or family member,” says Nebehaj.
This initial investment led to a conversation with ex-KPMG auditor Dodds about Nebehaj joining the firm to head up its marketing efforts, which included the creation of regular newsletters about what the company was up to. These missives soon caught the eye of then Snapchat engineering manager, Ian Fuller.
He joined the company as chief technology officer (CTO) and co-founder in July 2018, attracted by the prospect of getting the chance to disrupt an industry by bringing to market an app designed to make stockbroking more inclusive and accessible to a wider range of people.
“It was attractive for me because I am not an investor, and I’ve learned a lot over the past couple years, starting my investment journey,” says Fuller. “A lot of the other platforms are very uninviting if you’re new to the space, and especially uninviting if you’re not a white male in a suit.”
Born in the cloud
With its unique selling point established from the get-go, the company also knew the tech stack underpinning the app would have to run in the public cloud to ensure the firm had the agility and scale needed to realise its growth ambitions.
The firm carried out an assessment of the public cloud market’s major players, and decided to setup shop within the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) for a number of different reasons, with one of the major ones being ease of use.
During the early days of Freetrade, Fuller’s tech team was made up of just two other engineers, meaning the company needed a platform that its team could pick up and start using with relative ease.
“We wanted to be serverless, although we did do some initial work on Kubernetes,” says Fuller. “When you have a small team, GCP is kind of batteries included, has strong documentation, and there is less rope to hang yourself with.”
To emphasise this point, he contrasts the GCP user experience with an earlier foray of his into using the Amazon Web Services (AWS) serverless compute platform, Lambda.
“I did some initial work with Lambdas on AWS, and it had this quirk that if you didn’t increase the memory, you didn’t get a faster CPU, and that was hidden at the end of 30-page forum at the time,” he says.
“Google tend to wait before putting out the finished products on their platform, which does mean in some instances that that they can be behind [with bringing new features to market]. But if you’re a small team, there’s no margin for error because this is a fast-moving space with a lot of pressure.
“We have very high growth targets, and we needed to do our best in getting something out that definitely worked and didn’t paint us into a corner, which is what we get with GCP,” he says.
As Fuller previously alluded to, the initial infrastructure underpinning the early iterations of the Freetrade app depended on services run with the Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), which is a managed service that makes it easier for organisations to automate the deployment and scaling of containerised apps.
However, as the company geared up for the beta launch of its app, it switched out GKE for a couple of other Google offerings, namely its mobile app development platform Firebase and its event-driven serverless computing platform, Cloud Functions.
The deployment of the latter is credited by Freetrade with enabling its app to cope with the influx in users it received when its beta testing paved the way for its official Android app to go-live in April 2019, which saw its subscriber base increase to 10,000 people.
Initially, Freetrade’s apps were powered by third-party tools and technologies, but the company had ambitions to bring more the app development side of things in-house.
Its engineering team was growing in size, and – at the start of 2019 – there was already a “couple of people working away quietly” on the development of Freetrade’s own online brokerage platform, Invest, alongside the continued work on its mobile apps.
This, in turn, created a requirement for tooling that would help the engineering team manage their workload, not to mention the increasing complexity of their development workflows, with greater ease.
To aid this, the organisation made use of Google’s Cloud Composer offering, which is a fully managed workflow orchestration service that enables users to author, schedule and monitor multiple software development pipelines.
This particular offering came into its own, says Fuller, as the organisation sought to balance the growth of its engineering team along with the need to simplify the management of their development workloads, while – at the same time – coping with the steady influx of new users to its platform.
“We’ve grown quite a lot, and I think people would be pretty impressed by what we’ve done with such a small team, given we have a team of 17 or 18 now. We have our own investment platform [running] in house and we have a full stack offering,” he says.
By making use of Google’s serverless offerings and the range of fully managed cloud services within its portfolio, that – in turn – has enabled Fuller to build everything it has with a lean engineering team.
“What we’ve tried to do is keep the team really talented and small so we can do a good job and don’t get caught out a later stage by trying to grow too quickly,” he adds.
By the time the Invest platform went live in December 2019, Freetrade’s user base has swelled from 10,000 to 100,000 individuals. And the decision to bring the development of its own offerings in-house is credited with reducing Freetrade’s operational overheads.
It is has also been instrumental in ensuring Freetrade can respond to user feedback quickly and make changes to its offerings without being beholden to the timelines its third-party providers might be working to.
Where next for Freetrade?
With the company now firmly ensconced in the Google Cloud, and with its apps and the Invest platform up and running, generating revenue is top of mind for the company, says Fuller.
“We need to make money. It’s not been front of mind, as we’ve worked toward going out there and getting as many customers as we could,” he adds.
To this end, the company is working to bring a number of new services to market in the next couple of months, including a premium account that will offer paid-for accounts additional investment options.
Also under development is functionality that will enable users to buy fractional shares in US companies, and it also has plans to roll out its services across more of Europe too.
“If you go into the app right now and try to buy an Amazon share, it will cost you a lot of money – say around $1,800. In the next couple of weeks, you’ll be able to go in to the app and buy £10 of that share, and that’s going to be a big undertaking for us,” he says.
“We’re leveraging a third party to provide some of that support, but we’re simultaneously building a platform which means we can work with several providers in future. For example, looking further ahead we can go into Europe, so we’re trying to build a platform to support that.”
At the same time, the company has to ensure it is remaining true to Freetrade’s founding objective, says Fuller, in that it services must remain simple to use and as assessable as possible.
“Our mission is to get everyone investing, and obviously that’s going to take some time, but that is where we’re heading and that is the goal,” he adds.