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Howard Goldstein of Mission Lane On The 5 Things You Need To Succeed In The Modern World Of Finance & Fintech

An Interview With Jason Hartman

Keep the customer experience top of mind: In today’s world, customers are looking for more from any type of company they interact with. They want things to be seamless, easy, and on demand. This is especially important for the finance industry. People should be able to understand what’s going on with their money, and be able to access it when they need it. Particularly for our customer base who may have more dynamic income streams or are dealing with high debt, speed is crucial.

As part of my series about the “How to Navigate and Succeed in the Modern World of Finance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Goldstein.

Howard Goldstein is the Head of New Product Development at Mission Lane. In this role he leverages analytics and designs innovative products to further Mission Lane’s commitment to serving the underbanked population. Before Mission Lane, Howard was a Senior Director at Capital One where he spent eight years of his career. He is a US Navy Veteran and served as the Lead Engineer at the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Headquarters. Howard earned his Master’s in Business from Harvard Business School and his undergraduate degree from Duke University.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Before joining the world of finance, I served as a Naval officer onboard nuclear submarines. It seems different from what I do now, but the aspects of teamwork and problem solving have carried into all aspects of my career. After the Navy, I worked in several roles before landing at a large bank where I spent over eight years. I enjoyed my time there and worked with a team of excellent people creating great products. One thing I noticed through my work there was that there weren’t many good options for people with less than perfect credit. That led me to Mission Lane, a fintech that uses innovative data and machine learning technology to better serve people trying to build or rebuild their credit. As Head of New Product Development, I’ve been able to play a part in creating the products that help people do just that.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

A few years into my time at the bank, I was leading a 20-person meeting with several senior executives present (some in the room, some on the phone). Halfway through the meeting, one of the senior executives on the phone went on a tangent and started taking the conversation down a rabbit hole. I was freaking out — visibly concerned about how to get the meeting back on track without overstepping. One of the senior leaders in the room — who was my boss’s boss’s boss — noticed how flustered I was getting, gave me a wave of his hand, and stepped in to redirect the conversation where it needed to go. I was so relieved and grateful to be on a team where people have your back. It reinforced the value of being in a supportive work environment with people you trust.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Mission Lane, we’ve been working on rolling out a comprehensive suite of new products to serve our customer base. We just launched new capabilities to our app for gig workers, Earn, that allow users to figure out how to make the most money and manage their finances. Earn combines data about income from all of their gigs into one easy dashboard, enabling users to make informed decisions to optimize their earnings.

Earlier this year, we also launched a Credit Builder Account, which aims to help customers who may have difficulty qualifying for traditional credit products build credit and savings by paying off a small loan.

All of our products revolve around the mission of driving a positive wedge in customer’s financial lives, without having to deal with low quality products that could hurt them in the long run with high fees and unclear terms.

Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the central focus of our discussion. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started what was its WHY, its purpose?

Mission Lane was started with the aim of serving individuals who are typically left behind by traditional financial institutions. These individuals come from many different backgrounds and financial situations and may have sub-par credit because they faced a setback or are having trouble getting started. Many banks either don’t serve these individuals at all, or offer low quality products with high fees and unfavorable terms.

We believe that suffering a setback shouldn’t preclude someone from getting access to quality financial products, and have centered our business around this idea. We use advanced data to help us underwrite more people, and for those who aren’t ready for a card, we offer products to help get them on that path. Mission Lane’s entire business focuses on using innovation and data to bring more people into the financial fold.

Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running your team?

My focus is on clear, two-way communication within my team. It’s critical to really listen to people’s ideas, and to keep an open mind when discussing new perspectives. I also find it important to give clear direction and guidance so my team knows what is needed in a given situation and how we all contribute to a common goal. This helps build trust and productive relationships where people feel valued and their opinions are respected.

As the Head of New Product Development, what is the process behind the scenes to identify the next product investment?

Our team is constantly talking to our target consumers and taking a look at vast amounts of data to build our understanding and intuition around the problems and challenges they face. We use that as the basis for brainstorming and developing solutions that have the potential to address those challenges and drive a positive wedge in consumer’s financial lives. We get excited when we find a challenge — like building credit — that affects a large portion of our target consumers and we have a product idea — like our Credit Builder Account — that we think can be way better than the other solutions in the market.

Once you have a case for product investment — what is the process from idea to product-ready?

Once we have decided to invest in a new product, our approach is pretty simple. We put together a product team and give them the resources to run as fast as they can after it. A major aspect of these resources is data — Our data teams are present in every aspect of what we do, especially new product development. It’s integral that our data experts are ingrained into these efforts from the start, so we can identify the insights we need to use and that we need to seek out in order to create the best customer experience. Their aim is to build a product that stands on its own, while ensuring it fits into our powerful ecosystem of connected products.

What would you say Mission Lane does differently than other fintechs in this space?

We’ve built our business around our advanced underwriting capabilities, which leverage data and machine learning to allow us to approve more individuals for unsecured credit cards than other institutions. The business of unsecured credit cards is data and capital intensive and requires a disciplined approach to underwriting, much more so than other financial products like debit, investing or savings.

Starting our business in this area gives us a sustainable competitive moat and the ability to more efficiently expand into other financial products, as we’ve seen with several product launches over the last year, with more in the works. All of this contributes to our end goal of creating a high quality financial product ecosystem for individuals whose needs aren’t often met.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to succeed in the modern finance industry? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Keep the customer experience top of mind: In today’s world, customers are looking for more from any type of company they interact with. They want things to be seamless, easy, and on demand. This is especially important for the finance industry. People should be able to understand what’s going on with their money, and be able to access it when they need it. Particularly for our customer base who may have more dynamic income streams or are dealing with high debt, speed is crucial.

2. Identify nontraditional data sources to tell the entire customer story: The landscape of traditional financial institutions has long relied on sources of data, like FICO, that don’t tell the whole story when it comes to a customer’s finances. We use plenty of existing data sources, but also create our own proprietary models to serve more people.

3. Look for partnerships where needed: The banking and fintech community has realized that partnerships can help bring more services to more people. We have a number of great partners such as Plaid and Peach which help power various capabilities that improve the overall customer experience.

4. Listen to your customers and don’t view them as one homogenous group: Working with the “underbanked” provides a clear window into the dangers of not recognizing the unique facets of one’s customer base. The people we serve at Mission Lane are a diverse group with unique needs — encompassing those who have faced financial setbacks, immigrants or college students just starting out, and more. It’s important to listen to them to understand exactly what they need. For example, automation is often seen as the best way to improve customer experience. But many people in our customer base aren’t fans of automation — they may be living paycheck to paycheck, and need to have a tighter control over their budgets and bill payments.

5. Adapt to changing economic landscapes: Different economic circumstances can impact customers and what they need from a financial institution. Things like the high inflation we are currently experiencing is having a huge effect, but we also need to keep track of how people live and work more generally. For example, a recent research study by Pew found that over one in 10 Americans had participated in some form of gig work. Gig workers have financial needs that are very different from those holding down 9-to-5 jobs because their income tends to be more dynamic and they aren’t paid on a traditional schedule. However, this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to credit and financial services — financial institutions simply need to adapt. This is the inspiration behind the recently launched new capabilities to our Earn app, which specifically help gig workers optimize their income.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

It all comes back to purpose. Remembering the customers we serve helps motivate me and keeps me constantly thinking about how to innovate and improve the products we offer.

Also, it might seem obvious, but remember to take time off for yourself to unplug, spend time with family, relax or discover new places. The pandemic has brought about a new way of thinking about work — in that it’s only one part of life. We can now also take advantage of remote or hybrid working situations to further improve our work life balance. I’m lucky that Mission Lane offers a “Work Where You Thrive” policy — we have great offices in Richmond and San Francisco that we can go to to collaborate with teams in person, but have the opportunity to work remotely from wherever we choose, while receiving regular stipends that help us to improve our remote working experience. It’s allowed me to stay close to my teams and the amazing work we’re doing, while having more time for myself and my family.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Something I think would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people is financial inclusion — both here in the U.S. and around the world. The average middle to upper class American, and many who work at the largest financial institutions, may have no idea that a vast amount of people simply don’t have access to many products and services, or education about how to manage their finances. It is imperative that the financial services industry work together to expand access for everyone — Whether that be with products that can serve more people, or in leading or contributing to financial education efforts. When more people are included in the economy, everyone wins.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out missionlane.com for more information about the products we’ve been rolling out. You’ll also find Junction, where we share customer stories that can inspire others, and share financial tips and insight.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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