Podcast September 8, 2020

How to keep accelerating innovation through times of crisis

Falls Fintech almost didn’t happen. 

The 12-week accelerator program started on March 9th, 2020. 

By March 13th, participants had to pack up and go. But the story doesn’t end there…  

What kind of fintech entrepreneurs would let a little thing like a global pandemic stop them from innovating?

In today’s Challenger Series episode, I’m excited to be joined by 3 amazing guests involved with the accelerator program:

Nikkee Rhody, SVP, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Falls Fintech and Vice President – Product Development & Marketplace Strategies at Central Payments

Fonta Gilliam, CEO and Co-Founder at Invest Sou Sou.

Rishi Chand, Account Manager at Mastercard.

We discuss:

  • How Falls Fintech started
  • How they overcame the pandemic
  • What the post-COVID-19 future holds for fintech

Founding Falls Fintech

In early 2019, Central Payments started on their journey to create an accelerator to foster the innovation the fintech world is known for — Falls Fintech.

The idea came about as fintech after fintech came to the company to ask the same questions: 

Will you be our sponsor bank?

Will you be our program manager?

Will you help us get to market? 

“Honestly, one of the hardest things you’ll ever do as a fintech is finding a bank sponsor. It is not easy. Typically, only the big guys get to do stuff like that. And most fintechs never get there.” — Fonta Gilliam

Each member of the executive leadership at Central Payments has around 20 years of experience in payments, so it makes sense. 

But Nikkee found herself wanting to say yes — but it just wasn’t feasible. 

Many of the startups didn’t even know what BSA was, let alone how to run a compliance program. It just seemed like too heavy of a lift. 

But last year, they started looking at it differently.

Finding a way to say “yes”

What would it take to say yes?

They looked at various models: boot camps, think tanks, incubators, accelerators. 

They had some interns do market research and the last model stuck. They settled on a business model and took it to the board. 

It worked. 

They started putting out feelers to the Mastercards of the world and sought out the sponsorships and knowledge needed to support the venture. 

And they launched the program in March of this year… 

Not exactly an ideal month to open anything

Preventing Falls Fintech from falling through

After launching formally at Money 2020, Falls Fintech did all the things you would expect. 

They built brand awareness, created a mentor pool and devised a curriculum for the 12-week program. They fast-tracked the cohort and the companies arrived on March 9th…

Only to be sent home 4 days later. 

But Nikkee and her colleagues weren’t about to give up. Like the resilient fintechs they wanted to help shape, they were determined to roll up their sleeves and begin innovating. 

The companies were sent home on a Friday; by Monday, their CEOs and founders, including Fonta, were given a choice:

Revisit the program later… or find a new way to implement.

Of course, it’s no surprise which way these intrepid entrepreneurs decided to go. 

They opted to be agile and adapt. 

The strength of agility

The move paid off. 

Cohort 1 was a resounding success — Fonta, for example, is already on her way to Falls Fintech’s implementation track and will soon get to market. 

In Fonta’s estimation, the 12-week program saved the company 3 to 5 years and millions of dollars getting to market with a bank sponsor had they tried to achieve it independently. 

The program also walked her through the boring legal regulatory requirements and granular aspects that a founder so laser-focused on innovation may not get excited about — but are paramount nonetheless. 

Fonta is happy she went forward with the program, even in the midst of a crisis. 

“Part of why we saw the rise of fintech a decade ago is the big banks just can’t serve.” — Nikkee Rhody

The whole episode underscores why fintechs have taken finance by storm over the last decade and why they are thriving now. 

Their agility is unparalleled by legacy banks. And the current crisis is proving the value in this more every day. 

Now and later 

At Mastercard, Rishi has been tracking the innovation inspired — or at least accelerated — by the pandemic. 

Real-time disbursements are up. Infrastructure is being developed to deliver services at faster speeds. The fear of touching with a virus spreading has been a boon to contactless payments. 

Across the entire ecosystem and infrastructure, the pandemic is accelerating innovation. 

We’re seeing a lot of innovation on the payment side because of COVID. Things are definitely accelerating.” — Rishi Chand

And though he is sure to point out how hard predictions are with so many moving parts, Rishi sees this innovation continuing well beyond the current crisis. 

He anticipates infrastructure advancements will not be slowing down any time soon.

He also thinks we’ll start seeing more vertical integration by banks like Central Payments —  where companies will be sponsors, processors, program managers and even offer their own API platforms. 

As for fintech as a whole, the innovation will keep rolling in across a variety of segments. 

Everything from payroll to healthcare to normal consumer transactions and the entire banking payments ecosystem will continue to advance at a lightning pace.

The pandemic has demonstrated how important the agility and innovation fintech offers really is. 

And now the world knows, it won’t be slowing down anytime soon. 

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