Accion Venture Lab’s mission is to support early-stage fintech startups in scaling innovations that enable underserved customers to access better and cheaper financial services. We work closely with the CEOs and management teams of these companies and are able to understand their day-to-day challenges. So in addition to providing them with much-needed capital, we also provide support in other non-monetary ways. One is bringing our CEOs together as peers to trade stories and share the solutions they’ve learned on their individual journeys.
In June 2017, 40 executives from the companies we work with around the world gathered in The Hague, Netherlands. Startup founders face a journey of “figuring things out” (which is much less sexy than coming up with a great idea) with limited resources (funding, staff, business connections…). It’s a long road and it takes a village to make it through. Our recent CEO Forum was such a village.
Building a community of leaders
This was our second CEO Forum (the first took place in London in 2014). We would like to thank FMO, the Dutch Development Bank, for their support in hosting and organizing the event, in collaboration with Quona Capital. CGAP, sponsor of the 2014 Forum, was again a major supporter, joined by the New Venture Fund, Catalyst Fund, Citi Inclusive Finance, Rabobank, and Triodos.
The participating entrepreneurs represented pre-seed, seed, and growth-stage startups that cover a variety of financial inclusion themes and models, from credit building and rehabilitation services to agricultural input financing.
The Venture Lab team ran a pre-event survey to identify the most pressing challenges and issues to discuss. We then sorted the most commonly mentioned issues into three broad categories: Delivering value to customers, leading a growing team, and fundraising.
Below are a few key takeaways from the discussions that took place at the Forum:
Delivering value to customers
Innovating from 0 to 2.0 and beyond
The power of startups lies in their ability to identify a consumer problem and come up with an innovative solution. CEOs discussed key questions around product and service innovation such as: How do you look at existing products and think about how to make them even better? What does your customer discovery process look like? How do you design and test a new innovation? Here are some of the insights shared:
- A product should solve a real problem for customers. Therefore it’s key to have a human-centered design approach that places our target customers at the center of the design, innovation, and implementation processes.
- User experience is not just about an app or a website itself, it’s the whole way a customer experiences the service or product, from point of purchase to using, renewing, and possibly even leaving.
- Strong leadership and CEO-Board alignment are critical to creating a culture of design and innovation throughout the organization; design can’t sit alone in any one function or area.
The CEOs exchanged insights and tips on identifying, understanding, and engaging with target customers. Some of the key takeaways that we gathered were:
- Startups targeting individual customers need a strong value proposition for target customers’ specific needs and should focus on niches that allow for low-cost acquisition strategies. Marketing partnerships with strategic partners (such as telecom businesses for mobile phone-based services) can enable scale, low-cost structure, and brand association.
- Startups targeting business customers face notoriously long enterprise sale cycles, which can be somewhat inversely related to market size. Companies need to set a clearly defined expectation: Set minimum revenue targets, get a product person to sit with the new customers early on, provide an implementation toolbox, consider a softer sell to set client expectations, ensure and maintain direct communication channels.
Leading a growing team
The CEOs discussed ways they can strengthen their leadership skills to maximize the well being of their businesses, and employees. Insights included:
- Company culture is a product of how management reacts to challenges. Startups are often very task-oriented and anxious to scale. It’s necessary to step back, reflect on the journey so far, and think about the bigger picture.
- Startup leaders need to give employees the tools and resources they need to execute their responsibilities. Coach and develop others in order to build trust when delegating tasks.
Sourcing and attracting the right people is every CEO’s number one responsibility and number one challenge. Some effective strategies discussed were:
- Startups need to provide a differentiated mission and employee value proposition (EVP). This helps compensate for offering lower salaries than larger, more established institutions. A strong and compelling EVP is important for employee retention and engagement.
- When hiring, ensuring cultural fit is first and foremost. Link EVP to customer experience to drive performance and ensure that there’s a clear performance feedback process.
Attracting new investors and raising money is a never-ending process for a startup CEO. In emerging markets, raising money can be difficult as next round equity investors aren’t always easy to identify. CEOs discussed insights on the funding landscape, as well as how to be smart and strategic in the selection of the raise target, timing, and valuation according to their growth stage, and walked away with a couple of key takeaways:
- Attracting new investors and raising money is a never-ending process for a startup CEO. In emerging markets, raising money can be difficult, as next-round equity investors aren’t always easy to identify. CEOs discussed insights on the funding landscape, as well as how to be smart and strategic in the selection of the raise target, timing, and valuation according to their growth stage.
- Companies seeking to raise series A capital face a shift in investors’ expectations as they exit the seed stage. Common series A expectations include an emphasis on sustainable scalability, quality of credit, and having the right team in place to execute.
- For companies looking to raise a Series B, having the right investor come in is more crucial than ever. Companies need to be clear on their objectives before entering the round. The incoming investor should fit the company and should provide room to actually run the business.
At the end of the Forum, we ran another quick survey and discussion on what the future holds for fintech for inclusion. Participants voted that artificial intelligence for data analytics and customer engagement, and open API are the key enabling technologies for driving innovation for inclusion. Participants also underlined that connectivity is fundamental to scaling these innovations.
We were encouraged to receive feedback from participating CEOs that they found great benefit from being among peers “in the same boat.” One CEO mentioned that he was pleasantly surprised (stunned!) and energized by the sheer wealth of creativity represented at the event.
Following the CEO Forum, we held a Fintech for Inclusion Global Summit, where the CEOs had the opportunity to showcase their companies’ innovations to over 200 investors, entrepreneurs, funders, and other field builders in the space. Stay tuned for our recap of this event!