Meet Catalyst Fund’s Venture-Builders

Catalyst Fund bets on talent to deliver tailored technical assistance

Maelis Carraro
Apr 18 · 6 min read

Catalyst Fund’s tailored venture-building support puts the weight of BFA’s deep expertise in inclusive fintech to work for startups through hands-on technical assistance.

Getting paired with the right expert at the right time is a key strength of the Catalyst Fund acceleration model. As the landscape report found, most accelerators provide startups with generic capacity building support or perhaps mentorship from generalist consultants who do not have sectoral, product, or local expertise. In contrast, Catalyst Fund parachutes in fintech experts with deep expertise in product design, software development, and the local market, depending on the assessed need of the business. Together and in sequence, these experts deliver a package of technical services that is tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of the startup’s team.

Photo courtesy: Paygo Energy, A Catalyst Fund Company

The Catalyst Fund team starts by assessing where the startup is on its product market fit journey, and develops a plan for next steps. Then, the startups are matched with the BFA experts who can best solve their most pressing challenges, putting them on the path toward investment and growth.

These experts ensure that the startups put resources where they are most needed, instead of wasting time and focus on the myriad of issues that they inevitably face. This focused allocation of resources and strategic problem solving derisks startups for investment down the road.

The process starts by assessing the startups’ needs and identifying their most urgent challenges. As a former entrepreneur and manager of Catalyst Fund, I believe Catalyst Fund’s key strength is solving startups’ most stressful challenge: talent.

At Catalyst Fund, we see entrepreneurs going through the growing pains of early-stage business over and over again. One of the biggest challenges is finding the right talent with the skills a founder needs, from designers to developers, data engineers, coders, or marketers. Through Catalyst Fund we deploy talent that responds to and resolves the specific gaps of the startup’s existing team at the moment they need it most.

At Catalyst Fund, we see entrepreneurs going through the growing pains of early-stage business over and over again.

Not all entrepreneurs are the same, yet we tend to see recurring profiles among our startup leaders and CEOs that need support for similar specialists. Here we introduce some of Catalyst Fund’s talented venture-builders and how they get the job done.

The CEO may be a savvy business leader with financial skills who needs help making tech decisions.

Experienced business executives often have solid management skills and know how to build financial models, but they may lack a deep understanding of software and hardware product. This type of leader needs technical assistance developing the fintech solution and ensuring product market fit.

Leaf found themselves in this situation when Catalyst Fund’s engineer and product manager, Javi, arrived in 2018. Javi knows software development, product design, and data analytics and has previously worked for inclusive fintech startups in Mexico. He essentially stepped in as an interim CTO to create the MVPs, design the product architecture, build a product roadmap, and create a dashboard to improve performance tracking. Once the essential elements were in place, Javi trained the startup team to takeover, ensuring a smooth handover between Catalyst Fund and the Leaf leadership team.

Javier Linares

I become a new member of their team, an interim CTO that helps decide which technology to invest in, and when. Sometimes you find that startups invest thousands of dollars in a solution that might not fit their needs, or that they don’t even need advanced technology yet. But we don’t just stop there, we actually prototype and implement solutions; for example, payment integrations with mobile money providers, or a set of tools and apps that are used by their internal teams for sales or customer support. I get so engaged with the startups, that sometimes I forget I belong to Catalyst!

If the CEO is a technologist who has led high-potential tech startups, she may lack design and UX expertise.

Some founders have deep technical knowledge and a vast set of tools and tricks to draw from, but they do not have a profound understanding of customers’ needs or of investors’ interests. These leaders need help with product design and user research, and training on how to pitch to investors.

Sebas is Catalyst Fund’s design magician who helps startups in this situation. With a background in human-centered design, he conducts in-depth user research to ideate, design, and prototype solutions and designs better user experiences (UX). Recently, Sebas helped Hover, a Catalyst Fund startup that enables USSD integration in Android apps, conduct a usability assessment and re-design of their default interface and permissions flow (UI) to increase uptake among cash-in cash-out agents, and showcase through a “demonstration project” the value-add of Hover’s integration among potential partners.

Sebastian Barrera

Today, the right design can mean wonderous things for a company, and the reverse is often disastrous. I help companies always keep their customers at the heart of product design so that every tweak to the product or any new feature that is introduced helps make the user experience for the low-income customer better and smoother!

Imagine a CEO who is a serial entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, but lacks experience in East Africa.

In some cases, entrepreneurs have a solution they have developed and are looking for a market where it might have a positive impact. In these cases, the entrepreneur can run and grow the business, but lacks local intelligence and professional networks.

Anne is one of Catalyst Fund’s market experts in East Africa, a promising region for many fintech companies given the high levels of smartphone penetration and dominance of mobile money. Anne is a skilled field researcher with experience in implementing the Financial Diaries methodology, which establishes a comprehensive picture of the financial inflows and outflows of low-income earners by gathering data on income, consumption, savings, lending, and investments. She has a deep understanding of the financial lives of low-income customers as well as their preferences and habits that she leverages to inform the design of products and to create trust in digital financial services to drive uptake. Moreover, Anne owns 10 mobile money agencies and is a fintech stakeholder in her own right!

I help startups understand the nuances of the market by conducting face-to-face interviews with the end-users. Involving the end-users to gather ideas, identify opportunities, and articulate requirements and preferences get startups one step closer to product market fit.

Betting on Talent

Javi, Sebas, Anne, and 50 other specialists like them are the experts from BFA that make the Catalyst Fund venture building program work. They help startups improve their products and services through research and experiments, and ensure that the products will work for low-income people. Catalyst Fund bets on talent — not the latest software, not splashy marketing, and not fancy powerpoint presentations. We know it is the right people, engaging at the right time, that will truly help companies succeed.

Photo Courtesy: Leaf, A Catalyst Fund Company

Even if you cannot have a Catalyst Fund venture builder at your organization, you can learn from their experiences and insights. Their work is captured and transformed into practical tools and resources for fintech entrepreneurs around the world!

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Catalyst Fund specializes in early-stage venture building targeting low-income customers in emerging markets, and fosters learning for the ecosystem to unlock capital and spur innovation for financial inclusion. Managed by BFA, the program was founded in 2016 with the support of the Gates Foundation and JPMorgan Chase & Co. The fund draws on BFA’s expertise from 12 years of using finance to create solutions for low-income people in emerging markets.

Finance for Life

BFA specializes in using finance to create solutions for low-income people around the world. We bring deep expertise in customer insights, business strategy, inclusive fintech, policy and ecosystem development to enable the next billions to strive for better lives.

Maelis Carraro

Written by

Helping inclusive fintech startups and financial institutions create innovative solutions for emerging markets' consumers @bfaglobal.com and @catalyst-fund.org

Finance for Life

BFA specializes in using finance to create solutions for low-income people around the world. We bring deep expertise in customer insights, business strategy, inclusive fintech, policy and ecosystem development to enable the next billions to strive for better lives.