Embracing The Struggle: What Running A Fintech Startup Taught Me About Life

Embracing The Struggle:

What Running A Fintech Startup Taught Me About Life

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When I turned 30, I felt like I knew everything I needed to know about life. I made my fair share of mistakes in my twenties so now it was time to take what I learned and build the perfect life. As both a Harvard University and Wharton Business School graduate, I felt like I truly knew what my limits were. My alma maters prepared me for life in a big way but starting a Fintech company would prove to test the limits that I thought I knew all so well.

I came up with the idea for BankMobile after feeling frustrated at how the current banking system ran. I remember waiting in line for over 20 minutes to open my first bank account and thought “how ridiculous is it that in today’s age I have to wait so long to give someone else my money.” Add to the fact that banks were charging so much fees, I became motivated to try to revolutionize this antiquated industry.

My dad, Jay Sidhu is a banking industry veteran with over 40 years of experience and when I came to him with the idea of starting an all-digital, financially empowering bank, he thought it was a great. Immediately we began to assemble a world-class team and started to work on turning this idea into a reality. After we conducted market research and crowd-sourced ideas on how to build the product we began developing the technology needed to create a branchless bank.

I don’t want to make it sound as if it was an easy task but once we launched, we were met with open arms by those who felt the same frustrations that I did just two years back. BankMobile, has now become the largest and fastest growing digital bank in the country. We launched under our parent company Customers Bank in January 2015 with the goal of landing 25,000 accounts in our first year. By the end of 2015, we had surpassed that goal with nearly 100,000 customers.

At first, people thought we were crazy for wanting to start a completely digital, no-brand, low-fee bank but after a year in business and nearly 100,000 plus customers banking with us, a lot of the naysayers became our biggest supporters—and I was OK with that. My goal was to be recognized for the real impact that we would have on the financial lives of Americans, so being the underdog or under the radar was a good position to be in. It meant that I can focus on what we were building and not be distracted until we achieve it.

As we continued to build, many digital-only neobanks were gaining a lot of attention in the marketplace because of their technology and innovation, but most of them often struggled with customer acquisition. We struggled for a short time as well trying to figure out our direct to consumer strategy but then we figured out the secret sauce… distribution partners and white label banking. Instead of acquiring customers at the current expensive acquisition cost of $300-$500 per customer, we decided to figure out a way to partner and license our technology to those who had a built-in customer base who were also in need of banking services. This was the major reason why we decided to acquire the student checking account and refund management disbursement businesses from Higher One Holdings of New Haven, CT. This deal allowed us to go from nearly 100,000 customers to approximately 1.7 M almost overnight. This gave us the advantage to build relationships with college students who may not have deeply rooted banking relationships yet in order for us to show them a “wow” experience and create a customer for life. You can imagine how this rapid growth could come with its many challenges and it is in those challenges that I learned more about myself and about life.

You Must Always Stay Positive

As the Co-founder, President, and Chief Strategy Officer of BankMobile, I am responsible for leading over 220 employees through many aspects of our business. As a millennial woman leading a company in a male dominated industry, I would be remised if I didn’t say that I am challenged daily. Without getting into specifics, challenges come from every direction, some are avoidable and others are not. Despite that I realize that as the leader I must always have the right attitude in order to effectively lead the team. My goal is to keep my team motivated during the good times and the bad in order to continue to grow the company and meet our objectives. At the same time, I must keep the energy levels up. Because work is a place where many people spend most of their time, it is important that I foster an environment that is fun to be around. We are all human so it is important to find a balance between productivity and having fun. I know that if the team feels happy, upbeat and passionate about what they are doing, then chances are they will give their absolute best at building our brand. They are going to be the ones that hang in there when the going gets tough. Many times the business can become overwhelming but keeping the vision in mind keeps us focused.

This is exactly what happens in life. You set out on a mission and as the mission gets closer to completion an obstacle or setback may try to stop you but the important part is to never give up. Understand that the good, the bad, and the ugly are all working for your greater good. Daisaku Ikeda, a Buddhist leader I admire, once said “Those who never give up in defeat, who possess an invincible spirit, are never gloomy or downcast. Be positive and undefeated. Always hold your head up high, look to the future, be self-assured, challenging everything confidently and positively with an invincible spirit.” This has been the philosophy that I have adapted as a business owner but also have been transferring this ideology towards life as well.

Be Honest and Transparent

Prior to running a Fintech company, my experience in corporate America wasn’t really fulfilling. The environment was very rigid and my assignments were becoming mundane. I realized that some of the leadership were putting on a façade and tried to portray themselves as something that they really weren’t. I vowed that when I became a leader that I would be true to myself and the team by being honest and transparent. At first, it was easier said than done. Everyone didn’t really appreciate my honesty and candor, so I began to pull back a little in order to not ruffle any feathers. Eventually, I realized that by doing this, I was hurting the business because as a startup you have to be able to take swift action if something isn’t working. As a leader, my team expects me to be 100 percent authentically me. I need to be open and honest even when I’m sometimes flawed. By putting it all on the table, I gain the trust and buy-in that I need from the team in order to push our business forward. It makes me human and allows my team to know what to expect of me on a consistent basis.

I realize that this is also true in life. Many times, you may try to wear a mask with your friends, family or significant others, in an attempt to spare feelings or not seem too harsh but the truth of the matter is that those relationships require unconditional love. If you are not free to be who you really are then why even bother in a relationship. This reminds me of a quote that my childhood mentor used to say, which I now apply in my business and in life… “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those that matter don’t mind.” –Dr. Suess

Be Comfortable Delegating

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.” This profound and powerful truth is what makes the difference between long-term success and failure. Sure we always hear and know about the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos of the world, but best believe that there are hundreds of thousands of people behind these men and their brands that allowed them to have the success they have had.

When I think about my experience at BankMobile, it is our powerful team that moves our business forward daily: whether it is our highly experienced and passionate refund disbursement team in New Haven, CT, our world-class top-notch technology team in Lancaster, PA, or our forward-thinking strategy team in New York. All of these teams are what makes us who we are.

As the leader, it is impossible to be everywhere all the time so I have to trust my team to perform at their best. Being able to delegate can be the difference between enjoying what you do and dreading it because you are taking on too much.

Prior to running this company, I was mainly an individual contributor in my professional life. I knew the importance of a team, but I ultimately took full responsibility for only my actions not that of my team. Now I realize that the onus of building an effective team and relationship is on everyone. In business and in life I can’t just step back and only focus on what I am doing, I also have to be willing and able to delegate responsibility to others in the relationship. Delegation isn’t about telling people what to do but more about relaying our shared vision and trusting that the team will execute on those ideas that bring the vision to life. Instead of trying to stretch yourself thin, identify the strengths of the people your work with and capitalize on them. Find out what people are passionate about, align that passion with the overall business or life objective, then allow that passion to guide effectiveness and productivity.

Luvleen and Semith. Photo Courtesy of Millennial Magazine
Always Trust Your Intuition

Lastly, running a Fintech company taught me that you must always trust your intuition. So far in my journey, I have made many mistakes and I am sure I will make some more. The key isn’t if you will make mistakes but whether you will learn from them and use them to move your company (or life) forward.

The truth is that whether it’s in business or life there really isn’t a roadmap to success. Yes, there will be some best practices and conventional wisdom that you should follow, but life and a startup company are uncharted waters. The decisions you decide to make have to feel good to you in order for you to stay true to yourself. You have a natural guidance system that will tell you when you are going in the right or wrong direction. Trust that system and be confident that your decision will be the best thing for the company, no matter how unpopular that decision is at the time.

Luvleen Sidhu

Luvleen was recently named President of the bank, one of the few women to hold this title in the industry. BankMobile became part of the Top 25 Banks in the country and continues to grow exponentially today.

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