Updating the Crisis Playbook

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2020 has been a trying year for most of us. Between the pandemic, recession, and election, there was plenty to keep us preoccupied. But as Thanksgiving approaches — and as I’m stuck in self-imposed quarantine — I have found myself searching even more about all we have to be thankful for this year, as opposed to prior “normal” years. One of the bright spots in my year was working with Wharton FinTech, and in particular hearing from our incredibly diverse, successful, and compassionate speakers. In this article, I take a look back at the advice from speakers, to uncover lessons learned from the pandemic and prepare for whatever the future has in store.

Lessons Learned For…

Consumers:

Get on the fintech bandwagon

Over the summer, Plaid conducted a study with The Harris Poll to determine if fintech trends were truly accelerating, as was expected. Their results, which Plaid’s Head of Policy John Pitts shared, were staggering:

  • 59% of the population is using more apps to manage their money than before the pandemic
  • 69% of users said fintech was a lifeline for them during the pandemic
  • 73% of users said they preferred fintech over their traditional financial services tools

Clearly, fintech adoption, as evident in even these testing times, is here to stay. One trend I am particularly excited about is the use of cash flow for underwriting, as opposed to credit scores. Coming out of the pandemic, many consumers, especially minority groups, immigrants, and those living in banking deserts, could see their credit scores take a disproportionate hit. These users should look for fintechs that only require proof of cash flow to extend credit, like Petal, which raised another $55M in series C funding in September.

Choose Loyal Companies

Many fintechs see the pandemic as an opportunity to prove they care about their customers’ economic well-being. Whether it’s advances on federal stimulus, adjusting loan repayments, digital food vouchers for the customers most in need, or even free food and child-care products, countless fintechs are active in their communities during these trying times. Work with them.

Startups:

Few people advised startups more succinctly than Anu Shultes, CEO of Lendup: “Take care of employees, take care of customers, conserve cash”. In the episode, Anu explains her task of keeping doors open for customers, while also providing flexibility for employees. Instead of re-iterating, I’ll dive into some of the other learnings our speakers highlighted.

Culture is your backbone

Per Nubank CEO Daniel Velez, the culture of a company is built in the first 6 months with its first 10–15 employees. During the pandemic, companies with well-defined cultures saw their employees rally around a collective mission. Nubank believes in putting customers first. For them, the pandemic is an opportunity to show their authenticity, as they worked within the community to provide food and child-care products to those who needed it. The company also saw employee engagement scores rise ~10%. Overall, companies with the strongest and most well-defined corporate cultures consistently had a bedrock of social capital to tap into during the most trying times of the year. As Adolfo Babatz, Founder and CEO of Clip said, “culture always beats strategy”.

First impressions matter even more in a crisis

Stuart Sopp, CEO of Current, pointed out in June that many VCs were playing a “wait and see” game when it came to making new investments, the primary concern being their inability to meet startups in person. We heard numerous examples of VCs looking to make new investments but getting frustrated with the difficulty of building new relationships. Edith Yeung, General Partner at Race Capital, shared a particularly memorable example of a zoom-and-drive pitch. Unfortunately for many startups, raising new capital during the pandemic was nearly impossible. First impressions always matter when fund-raising, but if you were one of the lucky few with an opportunity to raise capital during the pandemic, your first impression was make-or-break. Partially due to this information misalignment, Race Capital noticed a 30% dip in early-stage fintech valuations. On the flip side, many VCs doubled down on existing investments that they considered to be “mission-critical”. When looking for an early-stage VC, consider asking yourself if this company would double down on you when the going gets tough.

Use an objective evaluation in the hiring process

Many companies were already moving away from a more traditional subjective interview process, but not being able to meet candidates in person made the importance of objective criteria even more apparent. For more information on improving interviews, check out this NYT article by Adam Grant.

VCs:

Diversify globally

VCs that had operations in Asia saw this pandemic coming earlier than others. Both Race Capital and Citi Ventures felt that their investments in Asia gave them a head start preparing for the pandemic. Not only did diversification accelerate learnings from the pandemic, but dLocal CEO and Founder Sebastian Kanovich also saw emerging markets, from Mexico to Bangladesh, become more relevant as they were forced to adopt digital solutions.

Be a stabilizing force

Maelis Carraro, Director of Catalyst Fund, recognized early on that companies within her diverse portfolio are being impacted differently from the pandemic. She and her team brought investors and portfolio companies together to share notes and learn from one another on how to navigate the crisis. Vanessa Colella, head of Citi Ventures, summarized this role of VCs well, highlighting the importance of avoiding “knee-jerk” reactions and, instead, creating stability for their portfolio companies, whether through managerial expertise, cash infusions, or thought leadership.

Stay alert for accelerated ESG investing (or lead the way)

Throughout the year, several startups noticed that the pandemic forced companies to take a broader view of capitalism, whether by taking care of their customers, or via ESG (environment, social, and corporate governance) investing. Sebastian Ceria, CEO of Qontigo, expects that sustainability will be an accelerated trend coming out of the pandemic, including not only climate-based initiatives but also those focused on diversity and social responsibility. Daniel Velez seems to agree, stating “I think the post-pandemic world will have companies embracing a much broader view of capitalism, of taking care of their societies, taking care of their environment”. Vanessa Colella stated that Citi Ventures looks for places with technology, behavioral, and cultural change before investing. Perhaps this crisis will open all three doors for ESG investing.

Conclusion:

Monica Engel, Co-Founder & Partner at Quonoa Capital, said it best, “financial services is a lever to affect change”. During these last nine months, the opportunity gap in the U.S. and around the world has been painfully clear. Many fintech companies aim to be part of the solution. With the disruption caused by the pandemic, perhaps the best trend being accelerated is the digitization and commoditization of financial services around the world. In these shifting times, our experts remind us of the values we can use to ground ourselves and the burgeoning fintech industry: company culture, diversification, agility, and adaptability. And for that, I find myself thankful.

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