A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
How can we improve the quality of financial services, reduce their costs, and deliver them at scale to underserved customers globally? That was the topic that brought together more than 250 investors, entrepreneurs, bankers, regulators and industry leaders from around the world for the 2019 Fintech for Inclusion Summit.
But before the Summit even got started, we at Accion Venture Lab and our partners gathered about 50 fintech for inclusion CEOs — and only the CEOs — for two days of more intimate and tactical conversations. The group included individuals running companies in markets from Colombia to Indonesia, providing products from consumer lending to microinsurance, and building businesses with funding from Seed Stage to Series C. But they are all focused on figuring out how to use catalytic technology to serve the billions globally who have been left out of the financial system.
Our conversations went in multiple directions: idealized, lofty discussions about how to promote financial inclusion and provide families and businesses with the tools they need to build better lives, and honest, unvarnished dialogue on the mundane, day-to-day challenges of running startups. It’s not often that CEOs get to meet their peers: ours used the unique opportunity to share the lessons they had learned when it comes to navigating and negotiating common pitfalls.
Every CEO of every startup faces entrepreneurial challenges, and the lessons ours have learned are valuable for new or would-be entrepreneurs encountering similar obstacles. Yes, our CEOs face particularly daunting issues, including a highly competitive sector, opaque regulations and tight margins. But despite differences in their geography or sector, they all also have to contend with core subjects that any CEO should care about—team building, acquiring customers, leveraging partners to scale and raising capital. It’s impossible to share everything we learned over those two days, but here are a few practical tips that jumped out, directly from the CEOs, Zagat-style:
Build Your Team for the Short-Term First
Before the Forum, we surveyed CEOs on their biggest challenges. The most consistent answer was team building, with two-thirds of entrepreneurs saying that “human capital is restricting scale.” As one CEO said, hiring is “the only thing that gets harder as the business grows.” Some CEOs had very practical solutions. One suggested trying “short-term probationary placements for key employees.” You only really know how a person works with your culture once they are involved, and “setting expectations up front around a three- or six- month probationary period” can help ensure you have the right candidate and you don’t waste a lot of time. When it comes to recruiters, one CEO noted that the “best recruiters get it right 75 percent of the time and a company can fire 25 percent of the team.”
Mix Online and Offline Experiences for Customer Acquisition
Another big topic of discussion was customer acquisition; of course, all companies need customers to survive, and this is particularly challenging for financial services in developing markets. While many of our companies manage digital platforms and acquire customers online, they also understand the importance of maintaining an offline presence when serving truly ignored and marginalized customers. Setting up a branch office (even if it’s thinly-staffed), putting up a sign, or having a face-to-face meeting, can all help “build trust and credibility for a primarily digital business.” One CEO noted that offline acquisition actually made “online acquisition cheaper and quicker.” Alternatively, some companies discussed their strategy of starting purely offline as a path to moving online eventually. Ultimately, all CEOs agreed in the value of “diversifying acquisition strategies upfront” and “testing frequently to see what works.
Make Partnerships a Win-Win
All of our CEOs are leading early stage fintech companies that, at some point, will need to leverage partnerships with larger, better-established organizations to scale. Our CEOs were clear that partnering is imperative for scale, but you must approach those partnerships with caution, being aware of the “highly unequal power dynamics” between startups and larger organizations. Multiple CEOs voiced the same practical tip—if you want a strategic partnership, you need strategic buy-in from the top level, and “getting [senior leadership] bought into the vision is key.” That means “learning to speak the language using their KPIs” and talking at a macro market level. Of course, while top-level buy-in is necessary, startups also need “business unit leaders to be bought in because they ultimately execute on the partnerships.” CEOs advise that you “don’t compete with unit leaders”; instead you need to make it a “win-win.” When it comes to exclusivity, CEOs cautioned that startups also should push back on exclusivity even though “many partners will ask for it.” Alternatively, make the exclusivity dependent on pre-determined milestones, so that “your survival isn’t dependent on their execution.”
Build Relationships Before Fundraising
Fundraising is a core challenge for all startups, wherever they are, and our CEOs are no exception. We heard CEOs share practical tips around being sure to “build relationships well before a fundraise” and always “having a one-liner that will get investors excited about the business.”
While their markets and products may be diverse, the challenges that our CEOs face very much overlap. When these leaders have a chance to sit together and share lessons, their companies — and their customers — will benefit.