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17 fintech founders share their accomplishments, aspirations, excitement and predictions
A year-end founders outlook on the world of software and finance
As we get closer to 2021, I wanted to do a crowdsourced edition where fintech founders share their experience and thinking.
Introductions of founders participating in this edition :
Kristen Anderson - Founder & CEO of Catch, a portable benefits platform that helps independents take care of their tax withholding, retirement, & health insurance in one place. Based in Boston & founded in 2017.
Jennifer Spradling - Founder & Co-CEO of Freewill, a startup that provides free online estate planning and makes it easy for people to leave money to charity in their wills and trusts. Based in NYC & founded in 2017.
What are you most excited about regarding your product roadmap or growth plans for 2021?
Ema at Pave : Pave connects with fintech's existing data sources (bank aggregators, BaaS platforms, OCR financial records, payroll APIs, etc.) allowing them to retrieve detailed insights around their end customer’s cashflow and finances. We’re most excited by helping fintechs get their use cases out to market faster. We’re seeing a big push towards building tailored experiences around helping people budget, save, earn, spend, invest, or access credit. Anyone building any of these use cases requires better insight into an individual's earnings, spending, account health, and risky behaviors - that’s where we’re focusing our development efforts on. We’re excited to launch in 2021!
Adena at Divvy Homes : From a growth perspective, we’re expanding to 10 new cities bringing our market footprint to 20 overall. From a product perspective, we’re launching a brokerage business and automation to enhance the agent and customer experience.
Jaimin at Reconcile : We’ll be launching our refund management product in January 2021, finally launching publicly on the app store! Initially, we’ll help consumers track their debit and credit card refunds as well as resolve any refunds that fail to come in or post less than expected. COVID certainly accelerated e-commerce and online shopping growth, which also turbo-charged the rate of returns. Our 2021 roadmap will explore multiple features to solve more pain points around returns and refunds. Our most ambitious experiment is an instant refund advance so that consumers can immediately feel at ease - unbothered by merchants taking weeks to process their refunds.
Jayce at FarmRaise : Like so many small business owners, farmers are stretched thin! They have such limited bandwidth to deal with the finance side of their operation. Their days begin and end in the darkness and at the end of a workday, they’re absolutely exhausted. Farmers face incredible frictions - paperwork, information asymmetry, time constraints - when accessing capital and optimizing their business operations. Our team is excited to be the farmer’s best friend when it comes to farm finance are organizing unstructured financial data so that the farmer can get better access to capital and reach their profitability goals.
Kristen at Catch : We had some really exciting partnerships come together in the second half of 2020. Naturally, the first phase of a huge partnership is often about figuring out what works and exploring messaging. I’m most excited for 2021 to see some of those budding relationships develop into full integrations. We have a pretty unique value proposition, and I think we’ve finally figured out how to navigate partner needs, customer messaging, and a decent business model. Scaling is the best kind of excitement because it’s seeing your mission take hold and spread in the way you’ve been telling investors for years that it would.
Nico at Clair : Clair's most exciting product and growth plan for 2021 will be to break the two-week pay cycle for SMB hourly workers: "sign up for Clair today, get your paycheck today". Based on our existing clients, in 2021, 1 million+ employees will start having the option to self-signup for Clair on their existing Time and Attendance system (Clair's clients). That will continue to be free for employees and will accelerate our frictionless distribution. We spent 2020 focused on signing our initial clients, building a robustly compliant stack, and an experience that our users love.
Sheena at CapWay : We launch the CapWay debit cards to the public in January 2021. The release of our debit cards is step 1 to everything else in our roadmap, including micro-lending and innovative cashless solutions for the unbanked — so that is what I am most excited about for 2021.
Aditi at Zeta : Modern-day families are re-defining how they earn, spend and share money and we’re here for all of it. We’ve just launched our Joint Cards product into beta and are rolling out publicly in early 2021. We are making it more native and painless for a couple to share money together - that means no more Venmoing each other back and forth, and instead making it easy to pay bills and ease the burden of coordinating and communicating about money. Once we get the couple experience right, we want to expand beyond the nuclear family into broader familial networks (friends, parents, siblings, etc).
Roy at Bond : We’ve been very much heads down building in 2020, working very closely with our initial set of brand and bank partners. I’m very excited about introducing Bond to the world in 2021!
Karim at Ramp : Finance departments waste so much time trying to control, audit, and reconcile their expenses. We’re excited to give time back and save money! People are starting to realize (1) how much waste they can easily cut and (2) how much better their tools can be. We started with cards, and are planning to expand into other types of spend, such as reimbursements. For each type of spend, we’ll be giving companies more visibility, control, and ease of use than they’ve ever had before. Companies will be able to stop paying for slow, inefficient tools like Expensify, and instead put that money towards their actual business goals.
Laura at Alloy : In 2021, we want to expand beyond evaluating risk at the point of onboarding and allow our clients to have a continual risk rating of their customers as they continue in their lifecycle. Risk is always changing and our clients need to have an ongoing view of their customers’ behaviors and how it may affect their business.
What has been your team’s proudest accomplishment in 2020?
Dimitri at Modern Treasury : Anyone who’s survived through this year deserves a hug. I am proud our team survived and thrived, and managed to more than double in size while maintaining a strong culture and team cohesion. We never set out to be remote, but we gave up our office in April and went remote given the circumstances, and have managed to create new team routines and traditions. Supporting and growing our team is our proudest accomplishment.
Amanda at Braid : Building a shared account from scratch with a flexible debit card was our proudest accomplishment in 2020. We launched in July and we’re already starting to see unexpected behaviors emerge. People are using Braid to power small community organizations, living collectives, weekend side projects and to manage Airbnb and Etsy income. Multiplayer fintech is in its earliest phases, and many of the more prominent barriers to entry have faded over the past few years. As this excellent post from Unit describes, it’s still a complicated process to get to market, and I look forward to the next few years when it becomes even easier to build and ship new financial products.
Chris at Treasury Prime : We connect and equally support two audiences: fintech companies creating great financial services and the banks they need as partners. I’m proudest of our success in the market in 2020: we more than doubled our number of fintech customers, increased our employee base by 300%, signed three new bank partnerships, and set up a first of its kind partnership that we’ll announce in Q1. We started 2020 as an early stage startup and we’re going into 2021 as a clear leader.
Jennifer at FreeWill : Proudest accomplishment in 2020has been launching the first free revocable living trust product in California. This is a replacement to a basic will that allows our users to skip probate court — especially important to get dependents needed funds in states with long or expensive probate processes.
Olga at InterPrice : Having led multiple bond transactions for Fortune 500 companies throughout my career, I am not a stranger to collaboration amongst large financial institutions in getting a joint transaction across the finish line for large clients. But even that experience didn’t prepare me and my team for the simultaneous onboarding of these large institutions. The first time a bank was on-boarded onto our platform, our entire team stayed up late to see if this bank would push the ‘send’ button to use the platform to send data with their Fortune 500 clients. Funny enough, they didn’t and came back with “what happens after I push the ‘send’ button” questions. I am so proud of our team for onboarding some of the largest financial institutions in the world.
Billie at Daylight : Either our partnership with Visa, or going from idea to product launch in less than a year. We will have the first accounts opened by the end of December, which for a banking product is super fast.
What’s something you have changed your mind on while building your product in 2019-2020 ?
Ema at Pave : We went into 2020 with the hypothesis that cashflow insights would be most useful for fintechs building risk models. Over the summer, every subsequent conversation pulled us into seeing new use cases we hadn’t yet considered, as well as a push to integrate with new data sources we hadn’t included in our roadmap. For example, a conversation with a PM at a personal lending app started with a discussion about how insights around income stability, recurring expenditures, and disposable income trends could be used for not just modeling credit risk, but also to accelerate development of budgeting features for a PFM they’re launching, as well as for predicting overdrafts for their upcoming debit card launch.
Adena at Divvy Homes : I think the chaos of 2020 really reminded me and the team why we get up every day. Having a home has been more important than ever during COVID. We’ve really doubled down on our focus on the customer, being flexible, and trying to support them as much as possible during this challenging year.
Jaimin at Reconcile : At the start of 2020, we were wholly committed to being another personal finance app, albeit one focused on credit card reconciliation. However, we decided to become a voice-first platform after seeing the growth of voice adoption. After testing early versions with users, they were floored by being able to turn a ten-step process into a ten-second voice experience. We’re now fully committed to pioneering the financial voice assistant category — granting users an element of control, which they seek, without forcing them to do much work.
Dimitri at Modern Treasury : I’ve thought for a long time that the US will eventually have an ACH replacement that’s more like the rest of the world: payments that are instant, 24/7, available 365 days a year. In 2019 we wrote about Real Time Payments but I hadn’t seen how ready that technology is in action. We’ve now helped companies transition to doing tens of millions of dollars in RTP volume every month and it is 100% real and it works. So I got a lot more conviction about that over the past year.
Amanda at Braid : Customers are still wary of entering their online banking credentials into a new app. Plaid has been around for a number of years and is super easy to use, but the security concerns are still real for a lot of consumers.
Jayce at FarmRaise : Coming straight out of the Stanford GSB with my brain buzzing from the experiences and advice of my classmates and professors, I was pumped to apply fintech from other sectors to farming: “We are going to take best practices from other verticals and use it to unlock value for the agriculture industry! Etc.” But our conversations with farmers revealed a truth that I should have recognized long before: farmers are the true entrepreneurs, and they hold the keys to what fintech can mean for agriculture. There’s great potential to design a new platform in the agriculture vertical that not only makes farmers more profitable, but that also could be game-changing for operators in other sectors.
Kristen at Catch : I’m a product founder. I think MOST founders are. You start a company not because you’re eager to build channels of acquisition, but because you want to make something. I WISH it were true that a great, scalable, tech product is what makes a venture-backed company succeed. It just isn’t. Go-to-market is absolutely the most important part of building a massive company. For all of the information out there for designers, engineers and PMs, it feels like go-to-market is still this completely personal journey. I get why there are *some* reasons for that, but I don’t think marketing and growth folks have done nearly as good of a job of democratizing strategic insight. Most insight seems to come from VCs or observers, not operators.
Nico at Clair : The importance of immediate access to money between paychecks is greater than I originally thought. Due to COVID, paycheck-to-paycheck employees cannot wait two weeks to receive their first salary after being out of a W-2 job for many months. Speaking to 50+ employees myself, most of them currently choose to work for a business that allows them faster access to pay. Once the economy opens up, SMBs won't care to sign up for employee earned wage access to compete against the gig economy, but they will expect their existing software to offer this in an embedded version, without requiring a separate add-on or charging monthly or transaction fees as many providers currently do.
Sheena at CapWay : I changed my mind on the original strategy around building community within CapWay. I still stand firm on my belief that there need to be experiences and a human component to banking — even if digital. But with Covid and the gaps that remain in our financial system, I made some meaningful changes around how to help our users get financial assistance for the betterment of our product and those we serve.
Chris at Treasury Prime : When you start off you get a lot of opinions and suggestions, from your friends, family, investors, and customers. What I’ve learned over the last year is that the people to listen to are our customers. When we do that, we solve their problems and that’s how you build a company that matters.
Aditi at Zeta : As a product person, I was always hyper focused on the core product. But as our team has interacted with tens of thousands of couples (via a popular couples PFM we built), we've found that our users are tired/busy/overloaded and want to use products that help them reduce that cognitive load. Because of that insight, we've started to focus a lot more on the CX side. For example, we don't have a customer support team, we have a Concierge team. Sometimes they're the product themselves (helping our users find a deal on a wedding venue or sharing resources to move over their 401k) and sometimes they're a form of moral support (we've seen our fair share of break ups).
Jennifer at FreeWill : We thought remote was a bad idea, but have totally changed our view. Specifically as my teammate Frank puts it, “not being in an office takes away a lot of space for showboating/bikeshedding/salesmanship and really emphasizes letting the value of work stand up for itself.”
Karim at Ramp : I used to think that it was sufficient to just “build” the things customers say they want, but I now realize that if we only did that, we would never find novel solutions to their problems. Keith Rabois’ analogy that building a successful product is akin to producing a movie really stuck with me. “You have a script and vision first and film the movie. Then you sell tickets.” Imagine writing a storyline for a movie based on what people think should happen next! So now, while we still rely on our customers to tell us their biggest pain points, we always build the solution we believe in, even if it’s not what they asked for.
Olga at InterPrice : While talking to our customers, we not surprisingly have heard many times that they want to know more about ESG (environmental, social, and governance factors), which is relevant whether financing (“green bonds”) or operating a business. And what our clients are demanding is more more social equality from the Treasury perspective as well. I wouldn’t say we changed our mind on this, but perhaps decided to place more emphasis on the “S” part of ESG, in order to deliver greater transparency to our clients and enable them to work with minority-owned financial firms in greater capacity.
Billie at Daylight : A huge change for us has been going from a very large problem statement ‘LGBT+ people are excluded from banking’ to a more focussed one ‘LGBT+ are not preparing for their futures fast enough’ and going from generalist banking for LGBT+ people to a community-driven peer support platform that provides educational materials and LGBT+ financial coaches to our members. This came from feedback from investors and members of the LGBT+ community after it was clear we weren’t being specific enough.
What’s your prediction on what memes would be hot next year in fintech circles?
(Editor’s note : Ema was the only founder who opted into the meme question! Ty Ema! )
Ema at Pave “Fintech is for everyone” is a meme I think (I hope) will catch on by next year. Last week, my 70-year-old father and my 14-year-old niece both texted me asking if they should use a retirement banking app and a teen banking app, respectively. By next year, I think it’ll be well understood that a diverse set of entrepreneurs will build financial products geared towards every possible community or market segment. I hope that every time we see a launch, like a “bank for Hindi/Spanish/Mandarin speakers” or “App for runners now offers life insurance,” it’s followed by “fintech is for everyone” :). I also hope people don’t get fatigued by seeing these launches -- the world needs them to exist!
What do you believe would be more prevalent by the end of 2021 in the fintech landscape?
Adena at Divvy Homes : Well the end of 2021 is only a year away, so not much time for things to change :) However, I am seeing more companies that focus on financial services for the average american rather than building for Silicon Valley. I think Chime started this, but it even goes back to Nerdwallet / Credit Karma and more recently Affirm. I think this wave will continue into 2021.
Jaimin at Reconcile : An implosion of late stage neo-banks as the market becomes oversaturated and business models deteriorate. It looks like we’re already seeing signs of margin compression amongst European neo-banks due to record-low interest rates and a dramatic reduction in card spending. However, I think early stage neo-banks that verticalize a demographic, e.g. a bank for hypebeasts, will continue springing up. For these banks, I can see their business model being driven by differentiated experiences - getting access to limited edition Jordan’s if you’re in the top 10 percentile of spend/influence.
Dimitri at Modern Treasury : A lot of what we call fintech today is really just a modern take on an old-school industry, whether that be how we invest, how we borrow, how we insure ourselves, how we get healthcare, how we pay for education, how we do payroll, how we manage real estate and pay rent and buy homes, and so on. I think by the end of 2021 calling things “fintech” will be less common, or useful. It will be a bit like saying products are “software” products today.
Amanda at Braid : I am loving the explosion of financial infrastructure, and look forward to this accelerating even more in 2021. These tools, which touch everything from KYC to Card Processing to AML to compliance, will power the next wave of consumer fintech. I’m particularly excited about Alloy and VGS (partners of ours). I believe the time to market for new fintech products is going to reduce dramatically in 2021. This is a direct result of these new infrastructure companies building offerings that chip away at the regulatory and technical overhead of launching a new fintech product. As this excellent post from Unit describes, it’s still a complicated process to get to market.
Jayce at FarmRaise : It’s an exhilarating time to be in fintech because the landscape is changing so rapidly, and we all get to play a part in that narrative.Something that gets me revved up about the year ahead is the potential of stacked capital models. For years, the international development community has been pioneering models of layered capital investment: commercial, concessionary, and grant-making to make every dollar go further, especially in underserved markets. Now that we have tech tools to identify, diligence, and service projects more efficiently, I think we’re going to see more stacked capital opportunities expanding both abroad and right here in the U.S., deploying layered capital to underserved markets and populations (like farmers!).
Kristen at Catch : I think there’s going to be a reckoning in two areas next year: debit cards and short term lending. Both huge and important industries, but I think we’re about ready for a culling of the companies that lack differentiation and sustainable go to market strategies. My HOPE is that it pushes people into more nascent and less explored areas including some asset classes that have been ignored since the 70s. Call me old school but there is so much to love about annuities and variable life products that haven’t been touched by tech. I’m tired of the same old credit points, debit spend, and BNPL stuff. Thank u next. Someone show me how we make asset building sexy again. Day trading (big fan of Public) is a good start but there’s so much more here!
Nico at Clair : By the end of next year on the VC side, I predict that investors will shift their focus away from over-indexing on pure-infrastructure investments that have multiple use cases, towards specific use-case driven investments that have infrastructural moat (i.e. asking from startups: "what problems are you solving and who are you solving it for?" instead of "which part of the stack do you want to own and how many problems can you solve at once?"). Don't get me wrong, both are important and great investments but too many fintechs are trying to solve too many and similar problems at once, they then stretch themselves in the early days to solve everyone's problems and therefore don't deliver for their customers.
Sheena at CapWay : Fintech around ways to invest or convert cryptocurrency. With Facebook relaunching and rebranding their cryptocurrency Diem in early 2021 and from people’s increased interest in crypto during the (2020) pandemic, I believe we will see more fintech plays around crypto by the end of 2021.
Chris at Treasury Prime : The announcement from Stripe that they are building Stripe Treasury to offer APIs is a wakeup call to the 4500 US banks that fintechs are real clients and represent a real market worth their attention. Every bank in the US is realizing that they need an open banking API to stay relevant. I have to believe that by the end of 2021, the number of banks with APIs will have grown 10x.
Aditi at Zeta : While I think more of the world is going to embrace fintech, I’m less bullish on everyone becoming a fintech company. Fintech is a tricky competency and I think you’ll see a lot more partnerships (like Shopify/FB or Amazon/Goldman) rather than standalone plays. There’s an opportunity for strong brands to team up with neobanks to bring acquisition costs down and expand revenue for both parties (eg. what if Zeta were the fintech for all the wedding registries?)
Jennifer at FreeWill : Race to the bottom on pricing. Especially with lots of people hurting from our Covid-induced recession, the companies that help people get back on their feet with kindness and affordability will have customer loyalty for a long time. VCs flush with capital and sky high public valuations on tech companies will assist.
Roy at Bond : My prediction is that the fintech M&A consolidation race will accelerate significantly - both direct to consumer fintechs, as well as enablers such as B2B fintech infrastructure companies.
Karim at Ramp : For too long, business customers have been treated as if they loved their experience at the DMV and wished they could spend more of their day stuck in traffic. Developer, PM, and designer tools were the first to evolve, since the customers of those tools were people with the ability to create faster, smarter products. Now the rest of our tools are beginning to catch up, and that’s a trend that will only accelerate. Add to that the low interest rate environment, which nullifies the advantage of a large balance sheet, and there is really no advantage to sticking with your legacy providers if you’re a modern company.
Olga at InterPrice : Work from home has forced many companies to accelerate their technology adoption plans. As this occurs, the theme we see becoming very relevant is financial data security. We are continuously in uncharted grounds with respect to financial technology, yet expectations for data security are as high as they have ever been. Products offering innovative solutions to increasingly complex levels of financial data security have deep growth opportunities.
Billie at Daylight : I think we’ll continue to see the rise of digital community banks, with Daylight (alongside companies like Greenwood and The Tenth) leading the way to personalized banking.
Laura at Alloy : I believe that innovation in ACH might *finally* happen, after being convinced it never would. Companies like Orum give me hope that we'll finally see progress in ACH payments after years of being told by NACHA and others that faster payments were just around the corner (they never really were!).
Big thanks to every single person who participated and helped make connections!
Given the level of interest, I will do part two for this roundup soon.