Ashwin Kumar, Stripe Head of Startups for Banking-as-a-Service — On building embedded finance
In today’s episode, Andrew Janssens sits down with Ashwin Kumar, Stripe’s Head of Startups for Banking-as-a-Service. Ashwin is the former CEO and co-founder of Y Combinator-backed Sway Finance, and now helps Stripe’s customers to use their BaaS APIs to embed financial products.
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Ashwin’s startup roots help him guide fintech founders as they work with Stripe to solve complex financial problems. He’s designed products from scratch and successfully brought them to market, taught himself to code, won several hackathons to support his entrepreneurial endeavors, and was part of Y Combinator’s S16 cohort. Prior to joining Stripe in 2021, Ashwin was a data scientist for YC Startup School, a product manager/machine learning engineer at Mythic and a software engineer at Autopilot.
In this content-packed episode, Andrew and Ashwin discuss:
- Ashwin’s start in investment banking, and how its affected his career trajectory
“I actually think it’s underappreciated how important and how useful it is to work in traditional financial services to really get the lay of the land of what you want to build in FinTech and what are the gaps? Right? So, yes, I didn’t know exactly what I would do out of college, I studied finance, studied accounting, so investment banking was high on the list of very attractive careers that were out there…
In hindsight, that really laid the foundation for an understanding of how financial services work, how businesses work. I worked in M&A and helped companies IPO. And so I had a very good sense of looking at the inner workings of a company. And that is exceptionally important, not only for starting a company, but also if you’re in FinTech, to know where the gaps are, and how to solve for it.”
- Ashwin advises on the dangers of referring to your startup X for Y
“So Uber for X, or nowadays, I hear Stripe for X, or Y. And that is a very good shorthand way of describing your company, if the analogy works, because a massive issue that most entrepreneurs first-time founders have is not being able to explain their business in a very concise way that anyone can understand.
So saying that you are the Uber for dog walkers would imply a few things I can imagine what that might be: I can book a walker through your apps and marketplace, I can do everything to the phone. Where it can can backfire is mostly when you say X for Y, if the X can mean a lot of different things. So for example, “I’m the stripe for debt”. Does that mean, you are an easy to use API ? Does it mean your developer first that’s your user base? Does it mean you’re abstracting away complexity?
… It can mean a lot of different things. And so it’s really important that you hone in on the second sentence, it has to be where the stripe for X and here’s what that means.
Check out Ashwin’s blog the Startup Pitch for more insights on pitching
- Ashwin’s decision to leave traditional finance for a coding bootcamp
“On Wall Street, I kind of understood the economy runs on these tools and rails that anyone can access but that not everybody can access in practice. And so I thought, well, if I could help create that, for other companies, that’d be amazing. So if I wanted to start a company, I felt like I needed to learn how to code otherwise, I would be pretty dependent on getting technical founders to even get a prototype out.
At the time, these boot camps were starting up, and I went through Dev Bootcamp, which promised that in nine weeks, you could be a web developer. And to my surprise, it actually worked. And I went through it for nine weeks, I’d also been coding on and off since high school on my own and so pretty passionate about it. Got through the bootcamp and became an engineer…
When I told my boss at Sony, “Hey, I’m actually going to leave right now and do this crazy thing called a coding boot camp.” They were a little bit skeptical of what this was they thought maybe I was maybe I got tricked into doing this. But in hindsight, it was one of the most important experiences and formative experiences of my life. It really taught me that I could be a producer now, I could create something and not just be a consumer. And that was the basis of starting a company.”
- Ashwin’s journey through Y Combinator with Sway Finance
“And we started iterating on a lot of different ideas. We hadn’t gotten into YC, we applied three times and got in on the third time. That’s a very common thing with YC. So we knew we wanted to be in FinTech. And we wanted to solve problems for businesses and democratize access to things that enterprises had. And so what Sway was, is isolated accounting, as I said, and kind of noticed that bookkeeping and accounting for small businesses was just not really being solved, especially for modern tech companies, like SAS businesses that were starting up around me in Silicon Valley, they didn’t have a really good solution.
So we realized that with some integration work, and with some FinTech involved that we could create that. So we created an a bookkeeping startup, we were using machine learning to do a lot of the categorization. You can see it kind of marries together my financial, investment, banking start and education and these new tech tools to get started.
YC is the investor accelerator, and they accept hundreds of companies in a batch at a time… And it completely changed the trajectory. Before that we were working on the startup and thought we had a great idea talking to customers but were kind of stumbling around honestly, to figure out what does it mean, how do you actually start a company? And how do you create a product? And YC taught us all of that.
So the 12 week program, they kind of whipped us into shape and really talk about what is the minimum viable product? How do you fundraise? How do you think about hiring effectively? It made us into entrepreneurs… before we had an idea and a passion and YC made it into a business and really taught us how to do that.”
Building embedded finance with Stripe’s Banking-as-a-Service
“But the way we think about [BaaS] at Stripe is, again with AWS analogy, we have a lot of different products and baking services, that suite of products I just described work really well with the rest of our stack …I’ll give an example. There’s a company called Ambrook, which I’m really excited about. They’re building on Stripe BaaS. And they are building a financial operating system for farmers.
The founder, Mackenzie, she’s a daughter of a farm family. And she has a lot of passion around this and started off with using us to issue a debit card, or use your card and make any kind of an account for and they learned what farmers need in addition to that is bookkeeping. They want bookkeeping, they want the ability for Ambrook to go and automatically apply for grants on their behalf … Because Stripe has payments built in, they were very easily able to add Stripe Billing, Stripe tax all the different pieces of payments. ”
- How Ashwin won dozens of Hackathons (and prize money) by working backwards from the pitch
“Because when we were starting our company, and before we got into YC,whe kind of realized that we could go win prize money to fund our startup because we hadn’t had funding yet. And so we were going around the world, winning hackathons in order to fund our company, before we got into YC. And so we have to get very good at pitching. Because winning or losing determined whether you’re eating ramen or or, other food, right?
So it wasn’t life or death, but it put a lot of pressure on it. The top down method: So what’s something I learned during hackathons? I came from a business background and started and then became an engineer. And in business, you have to understand what the value proposition is of whatever you’re building, you need to entertain your customers, how do you pitch it? How do you market it? What’s the pricing that you would use on it?
I found that most of the other folks that were at the hackathons were very technical. They were your science majors and had really amazing technical work. But the pitch is what wins the hackathon. The three minute pitch, when you’re sleep deprived, is actually what will win or lose the hackathon. And so I kind of noticed, hey, the pitch is the only thing that matters, I’m just gonna write the pitch as the first step, before I build anything. And then once the pitch is in good shape, and I feel it’s compelling, then build whatever you need and pitch.”
- Ashwin’s takeaways from Money 20/20
- Ashwin’s love of stand-up comedy
- and a whole lot more!
Check out the Episode on the platform of your choice here → Spotify | Soundcloud | Apple Podcasts
About Ashwin Kumar
Ashwin is Head of Startups for Banking-as-a-Service at Stripe, where his product development, coding, and hackathon experience allows him to help founders refine their products and leverage Stripe’s digital infrastructure to deliver better experiences for their customers. When he’s not out meeting with founders, you can find him onstage, pursuing standup comedy in NYC.
About Stripe BaaS
Stripe’s banking-as-a-service APIs let fintechs build new financial tools, enable platforms to embed financial services for their customers, and empower entrepreneurs to better save, spend, and manage their money. Stripe’s easy-to-deploy BaaS APIs are interoperable with other Stripe tools like Connect and Payments, allowing founders to save time and money with a complete-off-the-shelf financial stack, all built on the same compliance architecture that supports the rest of Stripe’s product suite.
About the Author
Andrew Janssens is a second-year MBA Candidate at The Wharton School, where he is part of the Wharton FinTech Podcast team. He has a passion for the nerdy corners of financial services, venture capital, and all things FinTech. Don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, feedback, and opportunities at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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