For any fintech company that is just beginning to work with banks, the experience can at times be frustrating if ultimately rewarding. Banking and fintech companies are worlds apart in their perspectives. One is highly regulated and brings a risk adverse mentality to many of its decisions (guess which one that is), while the other is populated by entrepreneurial startups that fit the very definition of 21st century capitalism. One often approaches technological innovation with reticence if not outright resistance, while the other is all about technological innovation.
With such a profound difference in their basic nature, it might seem amazing that they are capable of working together, and yet there are many examples (and the numbers are growing) of banks and fintech companies cooperating to their mutual benefit. From the perspective of the fintech company, it helps to understand how most banks approach the issue of working with outside organizations, and their views on technological change in general.
“Fintech companies and banks each come with their own set of perspectives, and if you can empathize with each other, then you can marry those perspectives effectively,” says Sima Gandhi, head of business development at Plaid Technologies, a San Francisco-based fintech company that helps banks share their data with third-party apps through the development of APIs, or application programming interfaces. “Investing time to understand each other takes patience, but the returns are well worth it.”
For fintech companies, that can begin with an understanding of how many banks view technological change. Chicago-based Akouba provides financial institutions with a secure cloud-based platform for the origination of small business loans. Loan underwriting as it is still done today at most banks is a time consuming and paper intensive manual process, and Akouba’s goal is to speed up the application, decisions and administrative process by digitalizing it from beginning to end. And yet, according to Akouba CEO Chris Rentner, some banks push back at the idea of weaning their loan officers off paper. “They’re like, —Hey, you know what? We’ll just take the digital application, and we’re going to print off those forms and type the information into our old systems,’” he says. “I find it interesting that as banks are trying to buy new digital onboarding software, they don’t want the true digital engagement with a borrower.” The lesson here for fintech companies is that some banks will say they want to embrace innovation, but may limit themselves in the degree to which they will change old habits.
It’s also important to understand that the native conservatism that banks typically bring to third-party engagements is partly the result of strict regulatory requirements for vendor management, including data security. In recent years, federal regulators have become much more prescriptive in terms of how banks are expected to manage those relationships. Because in many cases, the bank would be giving the fintech company some access to its customer data, thereby creating a potential cybersecurity risk, it will most likely want to fully investigate a potential partner’s own cybersecurity program. This could very well include an onsite visit and extensive interviews with the fintech company’s information security personnel.
The federal requirements for vendor management that banks must adhere to are publicly available, so fintech companies should know them. “Don’t go into a bank trying to sell a product before you’ve gone through and collected your vendor management information, and reviewed and understood the standard that banks are being held to,” says Rentner.
The final piece of advice for fintech companies is to practice patience without sacrificing your company’s core principals. Gandhi says that successful collaboration rests on “the art of the possible.” “It’s important to remember that every problem is solvable,” she adds. “When the conversations get tough and you’re running low on patience, keep in mind that you’re both there because there’s a common goal. And you can best achieve that goal together.”
But if patience and an honest search for common ground ultimately doesn’t lead to a solution, Rentner says that fintech companies should resist making material changes to their products if they don’t believe that’s the right thing to do. Banks are slowly beginning to change as a growing number of them see the need for technological innovation, even if the pace of change is still slower than what the fintech industry wants. “Hold to your guns,” Rentner says. “Move forward, continue to sell your product. If you have enough time with a good product, you will get customers.”