An exercise in radical candor

Quona Capital and Accion Venture Lab’s 2020 Inclusive Fintech Leadership Series

By Kristin Sadler

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Every 18 months, Quona Capital partners with Accion Venture Lab to host a closed-door forum for the leaders of the 50+ early and growth-stage fintech companies from our portfolios to exchange ideas on market trends, new business opportunities, and common business challenges. We entered 2020 eager to host another successful CEO Forum in June, but with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were forced to adjust our plans.

We pivoted quickly to identify the best way to help portfolio CEOs learn and connect with each other in spite of peak Zoom fatigue. The result? A short series of four virtual sessions that covered a variety of topics of greatest interest to our portfolio companies. Here are some highlights from each session:

Building and Managing Remote Teams

With many companies operating remotely for the first time due to the pandemic, we asked Jason Warner, CTO of GitHub, and Aditya Narula, Head of Operations at Stripe, to share their experiences across years of building and leading remote-friendly teams of various disciplines, shapes, and sizes. Some takeaways:

  • Remote work provides greater access to talent by expanding the talent pool beyond a specific location. Both Jason and Aditya, whose companies are each headquartered in San Francisco, noted that they’ve been able to find great talent without needing to “sell” an employee on uprooting themselves from their current home city.
  • Remote work can maximize productivity if leveraged properly. Teams can be more distributed across time zones, which enables more available time for developer teams to work on products and for sales/customer support organizations to be based adjacent to their customer time zones.
  • Even for organizations with remote inclinations or remote set-ups prior to the pandemic, this is not a normal remote time. For leaders who were used to working closely with their teams, approaches to leading, building teams, and hiring have all had to adapt. Adi added, “things don’t feel the same, because they’re not the same.”

Building and managing effective remote teams requires:

  • Taking a long-term view when hiring, and hiring for empathy. “We look for people who seek to understand someone, not for someone who seeks to be understood,” said Jason. Asking questions around someone’s situational awareness (e.g., understanding a previous customer’s needs and priorities outside of the business transaction) can help a hiring manager understand a candidate’s relationship-building skills.
  • Over-communication and clear lines of responsibility, especially from leadership — but without abusing increased access and communication channels.
  • Vulnerability from leadership. The worst habits of leaders can be amplified in remote settings. Awareness and transparency go a long way in building trust in teams.

Deepening vs. Broadening Product Offerings

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Ken Lin, Founder and CEO of Credit Karma, and Matt Harris, partner at Bain Capital Ventures, shared their perspectives on how leaders should explore the next frontier of fintech product offerings. A few learnings from that session:

  • There’s been a fundamental shift in fintech. With “Fintech 1.0” came a wave of founders digitizing and streamlining traditional financial services, but not fundamentally changing them (e.g., Chime, Robinhood, LendingClub, OnDeck). Founders executed on Fintech 1.0 by either competing with or enabling incumbents. Now, software companies are becoming financial services companies, offering a deep, data-rich product to their customers that enable them to leverage that connectivity to cross-sell financial services in a way that’s hugely value-added and disruptive to the incumbents. Matt added:

“Financial services are now the cake, not the frosting — no longer a nice to have.”

  • The 2008 recession hit just one quarter after Credit Karma’s launch. This is a crisis that profoundly shaped Credit Karma and reminds Ken to some extent of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Ken’s main focus during the recession turned to staying in the game. “If you run out of money, the game is over.”

His key takeaways:

  • Run lean: Ken focused on running Credit Karma efficiently, keeping his team to a staff of 5 for about 3 years, and contracting out the rest.
  • Focus on unit economics and the product: Unit economics are a key driver for getting through recessions, and Ken views his team’s focus on getting qualitative feedback from Credit Karma users as crucial.
  • Caution is key in fundraising: Despite being pressed for cash and struggling to fundraise, Ken and his team refused the only term sheet they had at the time because it had egregious terms. “One of the toughest decisions was saying no,” he admits now. After 100+ “no’s” from investors, Credit Karma acquired funding from fintech investor QED with good terms that were “fundamentally transformative.”

And some tips from Matt and Ken on approaching diversification:

  • Building trust takes time. Ken advised going deep in one vertical to have something that’s unique and defensible before moving into other verticals.
  • Focus on your “North Star.” What is your purpose? Diversification should be a deliberate step towards this goal.
  • Diversification requires a deep, software-enabled connection to your customer. You need defensible, durable relationships to diversify. Companies that have harnessed profit pools of financial services to augment the need for software revenue are going to be the winners.
  • Recognize your recency bias. Remember that the large, ubiquitous companies out there (Google, Amazon, etc.) started focused on one thing and leveraged data to expand.

Leadership in Challenging Times

Jerry Colonna, Founder and CEO of Reboot, an executive coaching and leadership development firm, led our company leaders in a session designed to create an environment of transparency and reflection. This session produced some valuable conversations and a few important highlights:

  • The session started by asking CEOs about their biggest challenges and sacrifices they’ve faced as leaders. The most common answers: work/life balance; team dynamics; delegating; health; money/financial stability.
  • There’s a common belief system that leaders are “expected” to be strong and perfect, and vulnerability connotes weakness. But the real learning and strength as a leader comes from when leaders can let go of needing to be the strongest, most faultless person in the room.
  • A key tool for successful leaders is radical self-inquiry. It’s important to ask questions like: “Who do I want to be as a leader? How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want? How are my actions (and inactions) shaping my company?”
  • Jerry suggested that leaders do regular check-ins with their teams. He uses a framework he calls “red/yellow/green,” asking people to categorize their current state of mind based on those three levels.
  • After breaking the participants up into small groups, we found similar themes that come out of every in-person CEO Forum: The shared experience of being an emerging markets fintech founder, especially this year during a pandemic, means that Quona and Venture Lab CEOs are consistently facing similar personal and professional challenges, opportunities and decisions. Connecting with peers in this group brings tangible value to the portfolio.

Fundraising in a Pandemic

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The final session of the series featured two Quona portfolio company leaders — Sergio Furio, founder and CEO of Creditas, and Lizzie Chapman, co-founder and CEO of ZestMoney — as they shared their perspectives on the current state of fundraising:

Fundraising is a two-way street. Based on early interactions with investors, founders should categorize investors (high-touch; low-touch; no-touch) and engage with them accordingly. “You can save yourselves a lot of time and heartache by applying common sense to fundraising,” said Lizzie.

Approach fundraising in a structured way. Fundraising is time-consuming and arduous. After a long Series B fundraise, Lizzie advised participating companies to put together a proper fundraising process and timeline to ease the burden. Sergio noted that, as your company grows, you both have more progress and data to share with investors and you will have identified how you can improve the fundraising process.

Virtual due diligence requires different preparation. Most investors are continuing to run virtual due diligence due to travel restrictions. Sergio just went through this process, and advises anyone in a similar position to:

  • Choose your virtual communications platform well. Technical challenges can derail a conversation.
  • Be authentic. If investors haven’t had a chance to meet you and your team in-person yet, they’re trying to get a sense of who you are.
  • Manage your current investors. In a virtual due diligence world, new investors are increasingly relying on references from existing investors.
  • Be prepared with higher-quality slides. Sergio found that virtual due diligence meant more productive time spent in meetings with investors, and that virtual platforms were more conducive to detailed, analytical slides than in-person meetings.

Take advantage of due diligence learnings. Sergio acknowledged that though due diligence can be stressful, the conversations he had with investors, particularly during the business diligence process, helped shape Creditas’ strategy. “Those questions from investors are the ones that make you grow faster and better,” said Sergio. Both leaders added that one of the often overlooked keys to getting value out of these conversations is just listening and shutting down the urge to respond and defend your business.

In a year like no other, we hope that sharing these learnings from our industry and portfolio helps fintech leaders navigate the road ahead.

Note: Our partners at Accion Venture Lab have published a more extensive look into effective remote due diligence processes, which is downloadable here. A version of this blog post also appears on Accion’s blog.

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Quona Capital is a venture firm specializing in financial technology for inclusion in emerging markets. Learn more at quona.com.

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