Over the last 5 years that I’ve worked in data aggregation as Head of Fintech at Quovo and then at Plaid. I’ve been lucky to watch firsthand hundreds, if not thousands, of Fintechs build, pivot, and scale incredible businesses. Most of these teams start with really big ideas, but not all of them end up accomplishing their missions. Especially in the world of fintech where there’s an increased level of difficulty with regulatory constraints and legacy infrastructure, the early decisions that founders have to make about where to start and how to monetize are super important. From my time on the frontlines working with many of these companies, I’ve noticed a few trends amongst the most successful teams and I’m excited to share them in the hopes they’ll help more startups fulfill their visions and build a fairer financial system!
- Keep it simple -- at least to start. You need a clear and concise pitch. Don’t over complicate it. While talking about future roadmaps is potentially the most fun, step one is having a really clear picture of the problem you’re solving. It’s so exciting to think of new ideas and how to disrupt a market but you have to be realistic about tradeoffs and how much you can tackle at once (shout out to our Product Director who I hope will read this and smile because he often has to remind me of this as well.) You can’t build everything today. What is the one feature that your customers can’t live without? Focus is essential for early teams. You have limited resources so you need to make sure you’re picking the right things to work on. For example, if I were to start a neobank I wouldn’t immediately look to get a bank charter unless I desperately needed a charter to offer my one special feature. Focus on what will really move the needle for your customers and make your product essential to their success.
- Surround yourself with experts and trust them. You might have an amazing idea in a field you don’t know a ton about, and that’s totally okay. Ask for help! A former colleague of mine always said “people are just people” and he’s right. I’ve found that especially in the Fintech community, people want to share their knowledge and experiences. Even folks with really impressive titles are typically willing to connect, you just have to ask. There are so many pieces you need to nail to build a successful fintech company--everything from compliance to fraud prevention to KYC to AML and a whole world of payments, etc. You can’t and shouldn’t be an expert on everything. Hire great people that fill those gaps and then give them room to run. Bring on advisors with expertise in certain areas, take their advice and leverage their networks. Compliance and regulatory compliance especially can be so hard - so at Pinwheel we hired a firm to help us navigate the space and ensure we’re offering a completely compliant solution to the market!
- Choose your partners and vendors early. Many fintechs rely on a banking or custodying partner and the capabilities bundled within those systems will define what you can and can’t accomplish in the early days. It’s imperative that you set clear expectations with those major partners. Do they have acceptance rights? Will they need to approve your vendors? How many companies like yours have they worked with in the past and what has that relationship looked like? We’ve seen these unknowns add months and months to projected launch dates. While you might not have engineering bandwidth to tackle the technical aspects of certain partnerships immediately, it’s important to review the business terms and the timelines so that you don’t make assumptions about things that look easy or straightforward but end up being more complicated than you imagined.
- Treat vendors as partners. They’ve seen tons of other companies, including your competition, build off of their solution. Use them as a resource! Vendors know who is doing well and what implementations of their products perform best, so ask them for feedback. Very few services, even API-based services like Pinwheel, are actually a commodity. Using Pinwheel as an example, I’m always straightforward with clients and prospects that our service isn’t going to work perfectly 100% of the time. We rely on payroll providers and consumers to offer our service, so you need to know who you’re going to call and what’s going to happen when you find a bug or have a problem. Your vendor should be just as invested in your success as your own team is. They should be proactively flagging issues and bringing new ideas to the table around how to further add value to the partnership. Sometimes it can be something as simple as a UI improvement, other times it can be an entirely new implementation. Regardless, vendors should always be helping you solve problems, and that’s how we orient ourselves at Pinwheel.
Please reach out if you’re interested in working with us, or just have any questions or topics you’d like to chat about! I’m always excited to talk Fintech and learn about what you’re building.