“Work-life balance is particularly important when you are a founder”, With Douglas Brown and Lori Shao of Finli

Work-life balance is particularly important when you are a founder. For me, if my home life is not stable, nothing else is stable. When things are stable at home, I have more patience when dealing with my team and challenges, and it allows me to be strategic and focused. It’s important to find your center […]

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Work-life balance is particularly important when you are a founder. For me, if my home life is not stable, nothing else is stable. When things are stable at home, I have more patience when dealing with my team and challenges, and it allows me to be strategic and focused. It’s important to find your center and realize what is truly important to you. For me, that is my family.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lori Shao, founder and CEO of Finli, a payment software that provides integrated financial solutions for neighborhood schools and enrichment programs. As a fintech industry veteran and mother of two children, Lori recognized the value neighborhood schools and studios brought to her family but noticed many of these small businesses were running on antiquated systems. Finli launched in 2019 through Techstars LA’s accelerator program and continues to evolve its capabilities to service family-centric businesses.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am a first-generation immigrant who’s father passed away unexpectedly while attending college in Florida. I was left to care for my disabled mother in China and flew back and forth to care for her. After I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles with the intention of finding a stable job so I could be financially secure and care for my mother here in the United States.

When I arrived, I had nothing more than a backpack filled with clothes, a student credit card and an air mattress. I found a room to rent in a mostly Chinese American neighborhood and every day, I would go to the local library to mass apply for jobs. I got into finance because Wells Fargo happened to be the first company to offer me a job. I took it without any knowledge of banking and haven’t looked back since.

Once I got into the industry, I started learning how financial tools and access to technology could change the trajectory of someone’s life for the better. The more I learned about financial technology, the more I loved it and that passion propelled me to where I am now.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Launching Finli was my first foray into entrepreneurship and it was a moment of personal and professional discovery. Prior to Finli, I had never created a product nor been in a position to fundraise. I didn’t grow up in an entrepreneurial environment and when I was getting started, I felt very intimidated by the VCs I was meeting. We couldn’t have been more opposite with life experiences and cultural backgrounds. Getting them to see the value in me and in Finli was challenging to say the least.

I’ll never forget, during one of my first meetings with a VC, a managing partner cut me off during my pitch to demand that I stop talking and proceeded to tell me how I should present. To say I was mortified is an understatement. I had never been talked to in such a manner, let alone in front of a room of mostly white, mostly male colleagues. The experience forced me to look within to find a sense of self and to find my voice. I realized that I was the expert for the problem I was trying to solve. I learned to not let people’s words or actions deter me from my mission to help small businesses and families who are far often overlooked in the fintech industry.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One story that comes to mind is when I was being interviewed for a podcast. I was overly-confident in my ability to wing the interview and lacked preparation, despite the show providing questions in advance. The overall interview went well, but as we neared the end, the host asked about my favorite book and I completely blanked. I promise, I read a lot, but nothing came to mind. So instead, I said, “I really enjoy watching mukbang videos” (videos of people eating). In hindsight, I think the response was pretty funny and my answer was authentic, but in the moment, I was horrified and learned a good lesson, which is to prepare for any situation.

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?

We launched Finli shortly before COVID-19 impacted our livelihood. Our customers are neighborhood schools and studios that are open for daycare or after-school programs. These small businesses risked closing their doors for good so we quickly pivoted to create Finli Classes, an online platform for our small business owners to continue teaching their classes virtually to wider audiences. In a few short months, we signed on over 100 studios across the country on our platform and hearing testimonials about how we saved their businesses really fueled us to keep going.

Additionally, a few months ago, I had to raise more capital for Finli. It was a difficult time, but seeing the impact we were making on the community and seeing my internal team feel secure in their personal and professional lives pushed me to continue pitching. Sure, if I was a one woman show, I would have considered going back to corporate America, but I’m not. I have a team and customers depending on me and my ability to steer this ship.

Thankfully, I found an amazing VC partner who aligned in Finli’s values and we were able to secure the capital needed.

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 about that?

There are so many people to thank for my success, but if I had to choose, I really want to highlight two people.

The first is my husband. He is also an entrepreneur and has a demanding job, but now, while we are in this COVID-19 era, I’m working on Finli around the clock. I’m grateful that he has stepped in to do double duty as a parent for our young children and as a caretaker for my elderly mother. He does all of this because he wants to alleviate some of the burden from my shoulders and clear the path for me to do what I want to do. None of my success would be possible without my supportive partner.

Secondly, I need to recognize my first investor, Arjan Schütte from Core Innovation Capital. When you launch a startup, it is very difficult to raise money initially because you don’t have any data to prove your idea is solid. While many investors had shown interest in Finli and my vision, no one committed, until I met Arjan. He really took the time to get to know me as a person before diving into my vision and goals for Finli. Arjan believed in me enough to invest. Other investors shortly followed.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have a sticky note on my desk that says, “Just Do It” by Nike.

It’s human nature to doubt things. The more we know, the more we talk ourselves out of something. However, you won’t know if you’ll succeed at something until you actually try, and even if you fail, you will learn lessons along the way. For those of us who want to wield change, we have to have the audacity to challenge the standard. It took me 17 years to quit my corporate job as an Executive Director at JP Morgan to start Finli, but I did it and now my prior career is a distant memory.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Finli is the only fintech startup dedicated to supporting small family-centric businesses like neighborhood martial arts, dance and art studios. Finli lifts the administrative burden of invoice-chasing, splitting payments, enrollment, scheduling, etc. off of businesses in education and enrichment. By streamlining the process between parents and educators, Finli lets the educators focus on what they do best.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are a SaaS (Software as a Service) platform with a heart. We don’t stop at the transaction level. We take time to understand what is truly important to these small businesses, which are their clients. We are the only fintech solution solely dedicated to family-centric small businesses.

One of our long-standing customers is Wushu Unlimited, a family-run martial arts and after school program. Their margins are thin and overhead substantial. The husband teaches karate, while his wife manages the books. Whenever she finds an hour a month to reconcile, if the outstanding balance is 300 dollars or less, she just lets it go. This was because it was near impossible to track and justify the charges, coupled with the reality that talking about money with these families can be extremely awkward. These costs start adding up and for a small business operating on such small margins, this could be detrimental to their operation.

The intangible value Finli adds is taking these business owners out of the money conversation so they can continue being an extension of these families and educate their children without having to chase down checks. In addition to our platform, which streamlines payment and organizes customers, we take on following up on outstanding payments. That burden is now lifted from the small business owners so they can continue having a positive relationship with their clients that is focused on the enrichment of their children.

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

Recently, we’ve been approached by a few family-centric platforms who are potentially interested in incorporating Finli’s payment technology into their existing environment. We are excited to see where these conversations go and hope we can provide an integrated payment infrastructure that will help many more family-centric businesses.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I’m not satisfied with the status quo of women in tech. In a male-dominated industry, women lack the capital to move forward. There are so few female entrepreneurs, especially those in my age range. It’s not because we lack ideas or education. People assume that because we balance our entrepreneurial careers with our families, we are not as capable to lead compared to our male counterparts. We need to shift our mindset. In tech, my age group is the most equipped to build a well-thought out business model because we are experienced.

I believe we can change the narrative around women in tech. In order to do that, we need more successful female startup entrepreneurs who will in turn, become investors that champion more female entrepreneurs.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

The lack of female funders and lack in diversity is a big challenge for women in tech. We have to work harder to convince VCs we are not a risk and we are valuable. This environment can lead to burnout, self doubt and a lack of funding, which we need to continue operating. I often find myself in a room with white male VCs who are trying to understand the value of Finli, and while I have been fortunate enough to partner with empathetic male funders, they are few and far between. If there were more female VCs who were parents and who come from different backgrounds, they could potentially see a spark in me and in other women who are like me.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

In order to boost growth and “restart your engines”, I recommend simply talking to people. Each person can teach you something or at least offer a different perspective. After conversations with my peers, I feel re-energized and often come away with learning something new.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Find a team who believes in your mission. I am very fortunate to have my founding team members who truly believe in making a positive difference in the lives of others. For me, it is important to have a team that is not solely motivated by compensation and benefits, but the bigger picture of what we are trying to solve.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

I can’t stress this enough — you should know your customers and know what they care about. For Finli, we have a very targeted clientele and we are intentional in our approach. If we can get them on a demo, there’s a high chance they will convert into a customer.

We have a customer who is a martial arts business owner and instructor at Koval Taekwondo and Self Defense who is incredibly passionate about teaching his craft. When COVID-19 hit, he started to use Finli Classes to teach online classes and then realized that he could use Finli to manage his business and payments. The worst part of his job he says is asking students and parents if they have paid their dues, he wants to focus on their improvements in Taekwondo rather than chasing his clients to see if they’ve paid, so Finli took that on for him.

Our customers are so talented and they make a big impact on the communities they serve. Most got into teaching because they are passionate about their craft and want to share that with others. They don’t realize how they can get bogged down by other administrative responsibilities that are important when it comes to running a business. Finli steps in to help them with that so they can focus on what they are truly passionate about.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

  1. Test usability — Before we roll anything out, we always interview a sample group consisting of our current customers or businesses similar to our customers. We let them use the interface without providing counsel and ask them to provide feedback.
  2. Cold calls — We try different pitches when cold calling. Hearing directly from customers about their pain points, helps us refine our approach to customer acquisition.
  3. Customer service — We make it easy for customers to provide us with real time feedback and we make sure to answer questions as they come through to ensure a positive experience. We manage google analytics to see where people get stuck and spend the most time on our platform and we come up with solutions.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

Knowing your customers, their pain points and how to address them will help with attrition. Before signing on with Finli, many of our customers are operating on thin margins, using antiquated billing systems and wanting to keep their clients happy.

Finli is a low-cost intuitive platform that addresses all of these needs and more. We are one of the most, if not the most affordable payment software for family-centric businesses. Our technology and interface makes it easy for small business owners and their clients to manage bills. We alleviate the time spent on administrative duties so small business owners can continue to diligently service their clients. And for those small businesses who are looking to digitize and grow their audience, we have Finli Classes, an online platform we created because of COVID-19. With Finli Classes, small businesses can sign up at no cost to them and continue teaching virtually.

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 create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Hire people who are smarter than you
    As a founder, you feel the need to do everything yourself, but there are things you can and should offload. Once I hired my COO, he really took the reins to make sure the day-to-day was covered while I went out to strategize the direction of Finli and pitch new investors. The more responsibilities I offloaded to him, the more I was able to breathe.He was able to look at our entire operation with a clear, focused lens, clean up our inefficiencies and take us to the next level.
  2. Take care of your mental and physical health
    For me, moving my body helps me reset my mentally. I have a routine where I walk my dog twice a day. I cherish these moments because it is the only time I can get some fresh air and take the time to do something for myself.
  3. You’re always a student
    The more you learn, the more you feel like you know nothing. There’s an abundance of knowledge you can always learn and it doesn’t have to be related to your career. I constantly enroll myself in experiences that I think could be interesting, like language classes for example. I love learning about different cultures. It is exciting to know the world is so grand and there is a wealth of opportunities for people to explore.
  4. Work-life balance
    Work-life balance is particularly important when you are a founder. For me, if my home life is not stable, nothing else is stable. When things are stable at home, I have more patience when dealing with my team and challenges, and it allows me to be strategic and focused. It’s important to find your center and realize what is truly important to you. For me, that is my family.
  5. Have a good mentorship and network of people who understand you professionally
    Find people who you can speak with candidly and share vulnerabilities. I’m grateful to have found a group of female founder peers who are also mothers navigating the startup life. We share our struggles and successes when dealing with sales, growth, funding, all while juggling our home lives. Our weekly meetings bring me balance. Without them, I would feel alone.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

Thinking of the current social climate, I would love to inspire a movement that encourages people to reach out and talk to a stranger. Just reach out, have a conversation with someone who has a different background, upbringing, career, etc. There is so much we can learn about ourselves and learn from those around us. Right now, there seems to be a lack of understanding, so being open-minded to the experiences of others can help us find a common thread (like food!) and bring down the many barriers around us. Find a stranger and get to know one another.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

If there was one person I could sit down with for a meal, it would be Bill Gates. We all know Bill as someone who is powerful and successful, not only in business, but also in philanthropy. However, I would love to talk to him about the impact Melinda Gates has had on his life. The value of women is underestimated, so to be able to hear about the challenges he’s faced and how Melinda helped him through those times would for me, further validate the power of a strong woman.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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