How I got into FinTech
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
The most common question asked during my book tour is why I wrote my book Gangsta Vision. I've extensively written about this in my blog posts and the book.
The second most popular question was, "why and how did you transition to FinTech?". There are a few paragraphs about it in the book. However, upon reflection, I thought there was more to be said here, so here I am writing about it.
Life before FinTech.
For the first decade of my career, I spent my time at companies such as comScore, Walmart.com, AdTruth (Experian), Mintigo (Anaplan), and Reputation.com.
Across all those companies, I strictly focused on building enterprise software that served the advertising and marketing verticals. I learned to create products that transformed how marketers used, manipulated, and monetized data. We used various techniques to accomplish the industry's digital transformation, from user flow optimization, recommendation algorithms, and information/interface design.
I'm thankful for having spent a decade in the industry. It helped me become a subject matter expert in the field of marketing SaaS, exposed to the entire B2B lifecycle and the go-to-market enablement of such products. I also got the time to work on my craft as I transitioned from individual contributor to people manager and leader.
In the book's last section, I refer to the need to switch out of this industry because I'd been in it too long, and I didn't feel I was adding sufficient value or delight to the average internet user.
I just needed a job
In early 2017, a few months after my daughter was born, my wife's maternity leave ran out. We could not find childcare centers, and my partner and I were immigrants - we didn't have any local family to support us.
It was clear that I needed to step up to take care of my little one. Because I was getting tired of MarTech made this decision a little easier.
I took the opportunity to get out of the workforce and care for my child. I didn't have anything particular in mind for what was next. I was interested in hardware technologies, particularly robotics. But I was open to all sorts of opportunities out there.
I wasn't looking for roles in FinTech; honestly, I didn't know what it was then.
When I was returning from one of my scheduled regular stroller walks in the Redwood Regional Park, I received a call from the hiring manager at Marqeta, Dave White.
Dave explained to me what the company was doing, the kind of problems they were solving for customers, and the potential of how Marqeta could transform credit cards as we knew them. Finally, Dave told me the story of how DoorDash used the JIT technology to eliminate fraud and grow the dasher business unit exponentially.
I had only applied to Marqeta. After all, they were hiring a Product Manager in Oakland. Location mattered quite a bit as I wanted to be close to my daughter's childcare when she started in June.
After the conversation with Dave, I was very interested. So I started reading voraciously about this industry. Of course, I had heard of Stripe and Paypal, but I didn't know much outside that. And many of these "FinTech" companies did innovative things, from Neobanks to the infrastructure providers unbundling banks by the API-fication of financial services.
At that time, there was much noise about PSD2. I was already aware of it because it came right after GDPR, which changed privacy policies for EU users online. So I was familiar with how some of these laws changed our product strategy overnight.
A thread that kept coming back to me during my research in preparation for the interview was the concept of "open banking." The idea that a technology company could build a bank differently from the ground up fascinated me.
One of the companies I came across was Root, a South African tech company that created APIs that could build a bank from scratch using their platform.
I needed to learn, and I felt that joining the Marqeta team would be an excellent opportunity to understand how the infrastructure behind cards worked and the nuts and bolts of the payments ecosystem.
After my final round with Dave Matter, CPO of Marqeta at the time, he infected me with his vision for the industry, and I was convinced that I wanted to learn at this company.
Over the next three years, I would go on to own the Developer Experience team at Marqeta, relaunch their website and developer platform and launch their data reporting API.
Throughout this time at Marqeta, I worked closely with the compliance team and was able to learn about the "non-tech" components of building a FinTech. Understanding the tech and compliance side is what I have learned is most critical for founders as their company matures.
After about three years at Marqeta, the itch to get back into building banking infrastructure came back strong. Marqeta had chosen to expand the banking infrastructure platform through partnerships.
As the Developer Experience team leader, I started to wonder -- if I were to build my startup, what kind of FinTech super app would I create?
Being an immigrant, I found many banking services out of reach in my early years in the United States. What if I could build a consumer Neobank targeted specifically to foreign high-skilled workers in the United States? They could easily send money home through the app using a peer-to-peer wallet. They could also provide subsidiary cards to care for parents back home. It seemed like a simple idea, but it was not the case.
"The infrastructure to build this doesn't exist today, and I don't think it will exist in even five or ten years from now,"
-- Shamir Karkal, founder of Sila, when I met him for the first time at the Cambrian Venture Meetup in June 2019. at Promontory's offices in SF.
During this session, I loved hearing Shamir's story of founding Simple on the Wharton FinTech podcast, why he did it, and all the challenges he faced in building the first neobank in the US.
I mulled on this idea more and concluded that Shamir was right. I agreed that this infrastructure didn't exist, and the barrier to entry was still high in building embedded finance products for US consumers.
In early 2020, while visiting Dave Matter at his Point72 offices, we discussed ideas for companies that could be transformational. For example, we talked about building the "AWS for FinTech." It intrigued me. If I couldn't make the consumer neobank for immigrants, maybe I could build the platform to power other innovators like me.
As I was out there pitching this concept to potential co-founders and investors, I was informed of a San Francisco-based startup called Bond Financial Technologies. Bond had already raised significant venture financing and assembled a solid team to solve the exact problem I was interested in.
I had a few options on the table, and I could start my own infrastructure company, work at Bond, or join one of the other companies actively recruiting me for a product leadership job.
Navigating my career after loss
On the morning of Friday, March 6, 2020, I woke up to see several calls I had missed from my brother Mavisha. When I called him back, he informed me that my mother had passed away that morning.
I booked a flight to Colombo within a few hours and made it home for the funeral. While in Sri Lanka, I felt I needed to keep my mind occupied. I committed to the interviewing process and made it through to all the final rounds.
As Sri Lanka was shutting down due to the first wave of COVID-19, I boarded the last flight out of the country.
When I returned to Oakland, I felt I didn't have the energy for solo entrepreneurship. However, I still wanted to do the best work of my life, and I certainly wanted to be productive with my team and find a place to put my creativity to work as the world was locking down.
I took the job at Bond, and for the next year or so, I dedicated myself to lowering the barrier to entry so more FinTech innovators could build great products.
Of course, the itch for entrepreneurship returned, another story for a different post.
Thanks for reading, and until next time,