…I’d say surround yourself with a phenomenal team. I focused on not only hiring a really smart group of people, but I thought hard about how to genetically engineer our team. And what I mean by that is we didn’t just hire people with different skill sets than what each of us brought, but we also hired people with different personality sets. For example, some of our team members are really, really detail-oriented where others are much better at thinking about things strategically. When you match those folks up in different instances so that you can have a small team that makes happen.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aditi Shekar, CEO of Zeta.
Aditi Shekar is the CEO of Zeta, a financial technology company for modern couples. Before starting Zeta, Aditi spent 12+ years at the ground floor of two venture-backed startups (General Assembly, Guild Education) and served as Executive Director at Ashoka, a leading social entrepreneurship organization. She’s also a family finance expert at publications like Refinery29, Business Insider & Real Simple.
Thank you so much for joining us! 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?
When I’m asked why I became a fintech entrepreneur, I have to say that culturally, Indian families are more open to talking about money. One of my earliest memories is my father walking us to our local bank branch so that my brother and I could deposit some of our allowance towards our savings. And he would match anything that we deposited. I like to joke that my dad was my first and only employer matches.
That said, I never planned really to be a fintech entrepreneur. I spent the last 15 years of my life in product, edtech, and social entrepreneurship and fell into fintech because I realized I had a passion for personal finance. It began almost like a side project, learning and reading about it because I was trying to figure out my own money. I eventually found myself teaching my colleagues at General Assembly where I was head of consumer product and the online business. My colleagues were young and earning a decent income but they were struggling with trying to figure out where to put their money and how to make it work for them. I was happy to answer their questions because I love talking about money and have always felt comfortable sharing my experiences with personal finance and what I was investing in. All of this snowballed into this focus on money and especially money in relationships.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
A moment that stands out is when my partner and I moved into our first apartment in Brooklyn. We made fundamentally different incomes and I was really anxious about that. I remember sitting down and trying to figure out how to share expenses and when we Googled ideas, we were like, “huh, there’s not a whole lot about couples and finances. Speaking of “aha moments,” funnily enough, Google actually sent us to Oprah.com which gave us some really traditional advice. It was then that I realized that there was a real need for a specialized product that suited the needs of couples, not just individuals.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There were and are so many moments of struggle in starting and running a company on a day-to-day basis. There are a million things that can go right and go wrong. I was very much a solo founder and had to really force myself to be wildly disciplined to make sure that the research I was doing, the insights that I was gaining and the product that I was trying to build were things that I could actually do on my own.
I didn’t necessarily have the technical skills to build a budgeting app right off the bat. My first sort of so-called product prototype was actually a landing page that I built on a WYSIWYG editor because that was something that I could do. My second product prototype was built on Google Sheets because it was something that I knew how to use. Those early days were really hard from that point of view, trying to push a vision or an idea forward. And it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to bring out Kevin Hopkins as my co-founder and start to hire the first few members of our team that I really started to feel like we had some momentum towards what we were doing.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
When I was first starting my company, other entrepreneurs would often say “if you just don’t give up, if you keep working at it, pitching away at it, tinkering at it, you’ll find a way.” And I can’t tell you how much of that is true. There have been some really tough days at Zeta, days when you’d never have imagined the problems you’d be tasked with solving. But if you just find a way to get past that day and move on to the next day and the next day, that is what’s incredibly important.
One of my biggest strengths is a kind of stubborn persistence. I’m one of those very stubborn people who sees a brick wall and is like, “Okay, can I break this down? Can I get around it? Can I climb over it?” And that persistence is only fueled by seeing and hearing from our users. The beauty of working in personal finance is that I have a lot of opportunities to interact with our customers. And therefore, I also have the benefit of hearing how our product is, or isn’t impacting their lives. And that is incredibly fulfilling when you’re working on a mission-based company.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We stand out from our competitors because of our insight that that money is not a single-player game. There are multiple dependencies on multiple people in a household, or even in a family outside of the household, whether it’s your siblings or your parents. That’s core to our company thesis and thus has produced a very different product experience than what you might find at other financial institutions.
We also recognize that couples evolve. Every once in a while, we’ll hear from a couple that uses our Personal Finance Manager to get on the same page about their shared expenses and now they don’t need to use it quite as much because they achieved their goal of mutual financial transparency and understanding. We want couples to outgrow one of our products because they know we’re building new ones to help them on the next step of their financial journey.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
When it comes to burnout, it’s important to remind yourself that a startup is a marathon (or triathlon) and not a sprint. I believe it’s essential to build a culture where folks can take off the time that they need and feel comfortable taking care of themselves if they get sick. You don’t want your colleagues burning themselves into the ground trying to get something done. It’s better to help them balance the life that they’re trying to live along with the work that they’re trying to do.
Early on in the company, my husband and I used to go on morning dates. And I’d communicate that to my team and say like, “Hey, we’re going to be at our morning date, so I’ll be starting a little bit later.” We really enjoy taking our dogs for a walk, it’s a great way for me to clear my head, for us to spend some time together, and for me to get some exercise and fresh air, which is honestly not something that as a founder I always get to enjoy. So there’s those little things that I try to encourage across the company.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I think the true heroes of any new startup are the spouses of the founders because they take on an incredible amount of invisible work that nobody really sees. And sometimes the founder doesn’t even appreciate it because we’re so caught up in our companies and what we’re doing. Having a partner who was and is not only supportive, but also walked the walk of picking up the slack and doing that on a consistent basis for so many years has been truly special.
On the first day that we raised our friends and family round, my partner Dalmar bought me a money tree (which is an actual kind of tree). In his card to me, he wrote, “Make sure you keep this money tree thriving so your business thrives too.”
And I was like, “Oh, that’s cute, no pressure.” But then I shared that story and the team decided to name the tree Monique and adopt it as a sort of mascot. And recently during COVID, I was traveling and I actually handed over responsibility of the money tree to a different team member. We take the care and well-being of that tree very seriously!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We’ve built our base of tens of thousands of customers by building direct and personal relationships with experts in personal finance who really care about couples and money. We took the time to get to know them, went on their podcasts, and wrote articles for them. It was our way of saying, “Look, we’re excited about this space. We know you’re excited about this space. And how can we be a part of this conversation in a way that’s productive and helpful to you?” That was tremendously valuable to us because not only did some of them go on to invest in our company but they introduced us to other people who were interested in and excited about what we were doing. We get mentioned in the press quite a bit because of the nature of what we’re doing, which has been helpful and exciting.
The other thing that we found to be really valuable is that we encourage our users who said they were getting value from Zeta to share it with their friends and family. And so much of our growth has really been through word of mouth. The fact that we share the same values as our customers has helped us align with a community of people around us who are excited to share our story and share the work that we’re trying to do.
Finally, we don’t over promise anything we cannot do. I often see and then sign up for products or services that promise the world to me and then it’s a disappointing experience. We like to under promise and over deliver because our goal is to try to make the experience as delightful as possible. And that, and that’s certainly been true of the personal finance manager and, and also been true of our joint cards products we’re launching shortly!
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
Our business model is more in line of what you would typically see in a banking institution. With most banking institutions, when couples or when anyone opens an account, the institution generates money via the money that’s deposited in the account. We make money using an interchange revenue model; every time someone swipes their Zeta debit card, we make a small percent of that transaction. We will also be launching premium features in the future for folks to layer on top of the account, if they’re at all interested in signing up for that, but that will be an opt-in only.
We did consider a few different options but wanted to make sure we aligned our business model as close as humanly possible to the needs of our users. For example, often in banking, an institution makes money when their customer loses money (eg. a loan). We wanted to try to avoid competing interests so our goal remains to serve our customers well!
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.
One, you need to know what problem you are solving for and create space for the idea to evolve. You need to be very clear about that and have a very clear solution for how you’re going to make that happen. In the very early days, when we built Zeta, we realized that the problem we were solving was that some couples don’t fully combine their finances. And so we were like, “Oh, we help both you and your partner see both those personal and the shared pools of money in the same place.” What we were really surprised by was that we found that the real problem we were solving wasn’t actually that, it was improving communication for couples around their money and that there’s constant failures in that dynamic and that causes conflict in a relationship. We thought we were solving one problem, but really the problem we were solving was actually something different and actually something that was much bigger than what we had originally imagined.
No one gets it exactly right right off the bat.
Secondly, I’d say surround yourself with a phenomenal team. I focused on not only hiring a really smart group of people, but I thought hard about how to genetically engineer our team. And what I mean by that is we didn’t just hire people with different skill sets than what each of us brought, but we also hired people with different personality sets. For example, some of our team members are really, really detail-oriented where others are much better at thinking about things strategically. When you match those folks up in different instances so that you can have a small team that makes happen.
Thirdly, understand your distribution strategy. You want to be really clear about who you’re going after and how you’re going to plug yourselves in their lives. What do they read? What do they care about? Where, who, and what do they listen to? How do they like to see something or play with something or test something? We were a financial institution offering a budget manager, but we realized that we could actually be a lot more flexible in how we created value and therefore in how we acquired our users.We have tools to help couples build a budget and then we have tools to help couples figure out their money personalities. We have a digital magazine for couples to learn about love and money more broadly and email challenges that help couples think about money in the context of their own relationships. So one of the things that we’ve allowed ourselves to do is break the mold that exists in other financial institutions and think outside the box in a way that has worked well for us and worked well for companies that we admire.
Fourth, be deliberate about who you take money from. We made a very deliberate decision to bring on investors who had different socioeconomic backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds, different gender and sexual orientation backgrounds. And the reason we did that is we believed that if our cap table was diverse, our team would be more diverse. We believed it had to start at the, at the sort of very top of the org.
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. 🙂
I believe that the root of happiness is love and that manifests itself in multiple ways. It’s the family you have, the company you keep, the animals you have around you. So my movement would be all around nurturing, establishing, nurturing, and growing that love in your life so that you can be a happier person. I want Zeta to bring couples and families a sense of ease around their finances so they can spend more time enjoying their lives together.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Twitter at @aditishekar or at aditishekar.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!