Field notes of a FinTech Entrepreneur

Contributed By: Meera Siva,CFA

Friday, August 3, 2018, Chennai

FinTech is all the rage now; but imagine starting a fintech venture in Chennai a decade ago. In this candid, interactive session filled with laughter and sense of awe, Srikanth Meenakshi, co-founder and COO of Funds India shared his experiences as a fin-tech entrepreneur and mutual fund investing/advisory. FundsIndia.com is an online financial services platform for investors, since 2008. It manages an AUM of Rs 5,400 crores of about 2 lakh customers, pan India and for NRIs – making it the largest FinTech platform for investment services, by a large margin.

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Srikanth started his career with IBM global services and moved to a startup doing an online brokerage platform called Folio Investing. He then worked at Fannie Mae, handling securitization and capital markets. Srikanth received his MS in Computer Science from Oregon Graduate Institute, USA.

Early years

Srikanth found the problem space in 2008 based on his pain in making mutual fund and other investments, as with many entrepreneurs. “I also needed a job, having moved to India from the US”, he adds humorously. The original problem they wanted to solve was to create a financial plan for investors. But it changed to online mutual fund investing.

Srikanth noted that their venture was based on technology and this needed substantial investment in the early years. He and his co-founder had each invested INR 50 lakhs each from their savings in the venture. They had to add to this and there was always need for more money. Raising money was not easy and at one point they had come up with an exit plan – how to shut operations gracefully and continue servicing exiting investors. It did not come to that, but it was very close, he says.

He said that customer confidence, from clients who had never met the team, kept them going during difficult times. “The faith they had in sending the cheque in our name, gave a lot of validation to the idea”, he says.

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Role of research

Funds India has a strong research team to understand and analyze mutual fund investments. While the initial focus was on technology and enhancements continue, the emphasis is on research and analysis to provide the best advise to investors. Srikanth says that investment is knowledge business and domain expertise is critical. “Without that, it becomes a platform, not different from IRCTC”, he notes. In the long run, this differentiation – by creating a knowledge factory – is what will help clients to stick with Funds India.

Srikanth also highlighted the issues of an online platform in engaging with clients. “Unlike an advisor who sits across the table, we are remote and do not have opportunities to interact. So, we must find ways to be connected”, he says. “Marketing gets you customers, research keeps them”, he notes. Their customer stickiness data shows that they have been successful in this.

Funds India also does not believe in churning portfolio. “Using technology to pro-actively monitoring returns and suggesting changes may appear as service. But it is often misleading guidance”, Srikanth says.

Service options

The features in the platform are on par with or in some cases even better than global robo advisory platforms. The platform has tools to provide reports on your portfolio. This includes analysis of stock holdings in different mutual funds in your portfolio to understand overlaps. Investors can also opt for periodic review – say once in six months – of their portfolio. They can always call anytime to clarify. One recent example was when the mutual fund categories was changed by SEBI, investors had many questions and there were calls to understand.

Srikanth feels that tools such as artificial intelligence are buzzwords. There is a lot of structured data and rule-based decisions can be taken. For example, based on the profile of the customer and AUM, audience can be segmented to share messages. You need lots of data to do real big data analytics and only when you deal with unstructured data, require neural networks. “We look at technology to figure out which business pain points can be solved inside and how customer experience can be improved”, he notes.

Mistakes

The success – as measured by revenue and customer growth, funding, team – also had its share of setbacks and was despite mis-steps. Srikanth noted that they must have focused on marketing earlier. “We were a digital business; but we did not do digital marketing for nearly two years”, he says. The company also launched its app only in 2015.

“When people stop their SIP as market goes down, I feel bad that we have not educated investors”, he says.

Short quips

How did you convince your first investor to fund you?

With lots of difficulty.

Does the platform allow investments in equity, FD and other products?

Yes, but why do you need anything beyond mutual funds for retail investors?

How is it dealing with the regulator?

The forewarnings and rumors give sleepless nights. The news finally is usually not so bad.

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