Fintech founders their accomplishments, challenges, excitement, & predictions

Part three of the series

Ham Serunjogi : Cofounder & CEO of Chipper Cash is a P2P mobile cross border payments platform for people living in Africa & beyond. Founded in 2017 & based in SF.

Nicky Goulimis : Cofounder & COO of Nova Credit, a bureau that translates international credit scores into a US equivalent scores. Founded in 2016 & based in SF.

Jordan Wright : Co-founder & CEO of Atomic, a company building the infrastructure for connecting to payroll accounts. Founded in 2019 & based in Salt Lake City.

Jian Wei Gan : Cofounder & CTO of Ribbon, a company that helps homebuyers and agents make the best offer to win the home they love. Founded in 2017 & based in NYC.

Calvin Williams : Founder & CEO of Freeman Capital, an investment app that provides personalized actions to increase net worth. Founded in 2015 & based in Charlotte.

Gaurav Sharma : Cofounder & CEO of Capitalize, a platform to help people find & transfer legacy retirement accounts like 401ks. Founded in 2019 & based in NYC.

Harry Hurst : Cofounder & Co-CEO of Pipe, a financing platform for SaaS companies serving as an alternative to equity financing. Founded in 2019 & distributed.

Richie Serna : Cofounder & CEO of Finix, a payments infrastructure for companies that want to own and monetize payments. Founded in 2015 & based in SF.

Itai Damti : Cofounder & CEO of Unit, a platform that helps tech companies build financial features into their products. Founded in 2019 & based in SF.

Runik Mehrotra : Cofounder & CIO of Vise, an AI-powered investment management platform for independent advisory practices. Founded in 2016 & based in NYC.

What has been your team’s proudest accomplishment in 2020?

Jian at Ribbon : I’m proudest of the team’s resilience in 2020. The team created tremendous Q1 growth, adapted to COVID & strengthened our portfolio of homes, and then reaccelerated growth to help hundreds of families buy hundreds of millions of dollars worth of homes. We’re also proud of setting an important foundation on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in 2020 via better hiring practices, rigorous pay equity analysis with leveling & codifying what an inclusive culture means.

Calvin at Freeman : My proudest accomplishment is working with a growing team who is passionate about helping people build their net worth to close the wealth gap and seeing it all come to pass. The full vision is starting to manifest in reality with a team of folks that I love working with.  

Guarav at Capitalize : We’re proud of helping many of those laid off in the COVID crisis take control of their 401ks and roll them over quickly, rather than cash them out or forget about them. We actually accelerated the launch of our platform this summer when we saw the magnitude of job losses. Some of those early users have since become our loudest supporters, and that’s helped drive much of our substantial growth since then. At a time when folks were concerned with their finances, we’re glad to have played our small part by helping them do the right thing with their retirement accounts.

Richie at Finix : Our ability to hire, retain, and care for great talent, especially during a pandemic, has been both our proudest accomplishment in 2020 and what I look forward to most next year. Back in July of 2019, there were just about 15 Finixians in total, we’re now close to 90, and by next year we should double in size again. Expanding the team and helping folks learn and grow in their careers is one of the best things about starting a business.

Itai at Unit : The beginning of 2020 felt lonely- only me in SF and my co-founder Doron in Tel Aviv. We’re finishing the year with a live product, 9 key partnerships that got us there, a growing customer base and a fantastic team of 14. One of our clients uses us to offer important health benefits, and open enrollment rules required them to open accounts before the end of 2020. That timeline seemed impossible at first, but we worked really hard as a team and got there. We’re proud that we made a difference not only for a client, but also for individuals who get access to better healthcare in 2021.

Runik at Vise : When running a 15 person company, culture is really easy. It’s not something you have to think as much about. The culture isn’t written but is defined by the day to do interactions of everyone in the company and is felt more than communicated. At 50 people, each employee of the company spends less time with the founders and early team members. At this stage, people look to a set of principles to subscribe to. At the beginning of the year, Vise was 6 people. We will end the year at over 60 people. Building an honest company culture and hiring the right people has been our team’s proudest accomplishment.

What are you most excited about for 2021?

Ham at ChipperCash : We launched V1 of our Crypto product 2 months ago and are going to be investing heavily in that. We’re also launching our fractional stocks product, as well as our cards product. We just launched in the UK and will be announcing a few more countries soon. Most exciting for me is our suite of business products: Chipper API & Chipper Checkout. I’m excited to allow other businesses to start tapping into the power of our network and leveraging that to drive meaningful business outcomes. 

Nicky at Nova Credit : I believe 2021 is the year lending is going to grow radically, as not only the economy reopens but also as lenders have been investing in superior underwriting and analytic datasets of the back of 2020's data challenges. I'm excited for our product to unlock fair credit access for more people who've been discouraged by the credit system.

Jordan at Atomic : Our plan is to remain laser focused on our customers in 2021 and beyond. Our goal is to reduce friction for companies to onboard consumers by streamlining access to payroll data, automating direct deposit account updates, and digitizing income and employment verification processes. Our top objectives are include 1) building comprehensive coverage of employers 2) and improving conversion rates leveraging our mapping of employers to their respective payroll providers.

Harry at Pipe : We’ve been laser focused on building the most seamless way for companies of all shapes and sizes to access non-dilutive capital via our trading platform - from bootstrapped, to public and everything in between. I’m looking forward to expanding our international presence even further than we did in 2020 so we can bring our solution to as many markets as possible.

Itai at Unit : Fintech as a feature. Platforms like Unit will increase the participation in fintech dramatically. The distinction between fintech and non-fintech companies will become so irrelevant that no one will bother to ask about it anymore.

What do you believe is underestimated ?

Ham at ChipperCash : The complexity of the very many moving pieces. Due to the variability of the cultural nuances we have to be empathetic to in every country we operate. The early state of the ecosystem and infrastructure means you have to be both vertical and horizontal in many aspects of your business. These things are very hard. 

Nicky at Nova Credit : The challenge of alternative data in underwriting is not simply a challenge of access (that's certainly part of it). But more challenging is actually orchestrating datasets to prevent user fatigue/inefficiency, and then building robust analytics to make the data truly useable. 

Jordan at Atomic : One-size-fits-all data pipelines do not work to integrate with payroll providers. Though a handful of providers hold a large market share, every employer relationship is unique because they offer customizations & varying levels of self-service access to employees. By specializing in payroll, Atomic is a solution for customers to access & update payroll data without distracting resources from their core product.

Jian at Ribbon : A lot of prop-tech companies are trying to disrupt real estate agents to fix the real estate transaction. We believe the issues lie in the uncertainty that the mortgage and capital markets bring, and the structure and lack of digitization of the transaction process. There’s a reason why more than 90% of home buyers and sellers use agents, and that number has trended up, not down, in the last 10 years.

Calvin at Freeman : The biggest misunderstanding is that serving people of color means serving poor people or that black wealth does not exist. So many people focus on a negative narrative and can’t seem to imagine past what is presented in the media regarding people of color and their wealth status.

Guarav at Capitalize : People often focus on high fees or low savings rates when explaining why retirement readiness in the US is so low. What gets frequently missed, though, is how much of the problem is because our accounts (like 401ks) are tied to our employers. Every time we change jobs, we have to make a decision with our 401k - and we often make bad ones like cashing it out or leaving it behind.

Harry at Pipe : The TAM. It’s a multi-trillion-dollar market, with recurring revenues underpinning trillions of dollars in equity value and collateralized debt globally, we have a lot of work to do!

Richie at Finix : Payments is an incredibly esoteric industry. The complexity is a large part of why I love it, but it’s hard to educate the market. People just don’t understand the unit economics of one of the largest & most critical industries in the world. Industry providers purposefully work to keep the economics opaque because that’s how they make their margin. So we’ve spent the last year explaining the Payments Layer Cake to help everyone understand the ecosystem & how companies can get their slice.

Runik at Vise : AI has traditionally been characterized as “job replacing”. Silicon Valley has poured hundreds of millions into robo-advisor platforms aimed to replace financial advisors. These platforms have struggled to scale over the last 10 years. Silicon Valley continues to underestimate the role of humans in wealth management. The other big misunderstanding is the role of yearly returns as a measure of success. People gravitate to advisors who help them understand their investments & help them achieve their financial goals, not the advisors that make them the most money. If you think about it this way, it seems fairly obvious that advisors are better at this than AI. 

What has been your team’s biggest challenge ? 

Ham at ChipperCash : Building a strong company culture in a fast growing & increasingly remote company. Growing from 1 employee, to 10, and then over 100 is not easy. Doing it in the space of 12 months, with 80% of the team outside the HQ is even harder. Although the founders inspire the culture of the company, the teams are the ones that build and nurture it. We view our company culture as something that is all our responsibility and we all have a role to play in protecting it.

Nicky at Nova Credit : Our biggest challenge is focus, especially as we grow to a multi-product organization. The solution for us is being super-disciplined about decision rights, prioritisation meetings, and accountability — but really we'd love suggestions from others!

Jordan at Atomic : “Consumers don’t trust fintech companies with their paycheck.” We’ve been overwhelmed by level of demand from consumers actively trying to work with our customers as their primary deposit institution. The real roadblock is there is no standardization in payroll creating friction for consumers to update direct deposit details. One enhancement we made while building the product was in response to consumer’s search behavior and enabling a dual search of either their employer or payroll provider and leveraging our mapping to fill in the other.

Jian at Ribbon : A significant part of our product, engineering, and design team in New York have never bought a home before, but are building a product for home buyers, sellers, and agents. We’ve tackled this by leaning on a lot of our customer experience and operations teams that live in Charlotte, Houston that have deep real estate experience professionally and personally. We’ve started to create an incredibly tight feedback loop between our product and customer-facing teams. It’s always going to be a work-in-progress, especially as we grow, but it’s been very successful thus far.

Calvin at Freeman : The biggest challenge so far has been fundraising in the South, as a black founder, during COVID. Statistically, that would be a recipe for failure, but the Freeman team built a fundraising plan, reached out to targeted investors, and built new networks. As a result, we have been able to not only fundraise but nearly close our round in less than 90 days.

Guarav at Capitalize : Building a team and launching a product are challenges at the best of times, but like many others, we had to do both in a fully-remote environment this year. We’ve had to adjust our recruiting and onboarding processes. We’ve also had to find new ways to build camaraderie and sync the team in a remote way. Our solution has been overcommunicating - there’s nothing novel about it, but we’ve found that it’s helped our team feel connected and aligned.

Runik at Vise : Our team’s biggest challenge has been planning & building for scale. In 2020, we saw the acceleration of many trends. We had to hire at three times the rate we planned and extend our integrations to other custodians such as Schwab and Fidelity to support advisor demand. Being aggressive and doubling our team in Q2 of this year while most companies were in hiring freeze really paid off in the latter half of the year where we needed all hands on deck. Without these calculated risks, we would not be able to scale at the pace we are today. 

What have you changed your mind on while building your product?

Harry at Pipe : The biggest realization we’ve had as a founding team this year is that we can be more efficient with a distributed workforce. Having built centralized venture backed companies before, we didn’t plan it, but like many companies that were founded in the last year or so, we’ve had to adapt and I am now very confident that distributed talent working from wherever they want in the world is the right choice for a company like ours. 

Richie at Finix : We thought most of our customers would be more established companies with a deep payments bench. We mistakenly assumed companies would want basic payments acceptance at first & not think deeply about payments strategy until further down the road. However, we see that more & more companies want to work with us as soon as they launch because they want to have a payments strategy from Day One. We responded to this early-stage-company demand by launching Flex, our integrated payments product that supports companies just learning how to manage payments internally. Once they’ve fine-tuned their processes with payments processes with Flex, they can then seamlessly graduate to Core, our full payment facilitator platform.

Itai at Unit : I grossly underestimated the amount of capital that it takes to build a quality infrastructure company, even after we raised our seed funding a year ago. We were lucky to grow our first company (fintech B2B) to 100+ employees globally in the course of 10 years, without VC funding. This doesn’t seem possible in 2020, when client expectations are sky high, the market is so dynamic and the ecosystem is flush with capital. One thing that hasn’t changed: execution is everything.

Big thanks to everyone who participated. This is my last issue of the year!

Happy Holidays!

Previous parts of founder series :

Part One

Part Two

Previous interviews : 

Maximilian Friedrich, fintech analyst at ARK

Aditi Maliwal, Partner at Upfront Ventures

Sriram Krishnan, on-demand entertainment critic and social media product exec

Monica Desai Weiss & Bucky Moore, Investors at Kleiner Perkins

Jake Gibson & Sheel Mohnot, Cofounding Partners of Better Tomorrow Ventures

Josh Schwarzapel, early web entrepreneur & fintech executive

Charlie Deutsch, GM of Financial Services at TrueAccord

Erica Dorfman, VP of Treasury & Payments at Brex

Natasha Mascarenhas, Reporter at TechCrunch

Mary Ann Azevedo, Managing Editor of FinLedger

Jackie Vullinghs, Principal at Sydney based AirTree Ventures

Katie Perry, VP of Marketing at Public

Julia DeWahl, ex Chief of Staff at Opendoor

Jill Carlson, Principal at Slow Ventures

Biz Carson, Reporter at Protocol

Jack Altman, Cofounder & CEO of Lattice