In this series, we’re doing deep-dive interviews with the founding team building RootFi. Gain insight into RootFi's start-up journey and Unified APIs from our Co-Founder and CEO, Ishwar Gogineni.
Rhea: Hi Ishwar, can you tell me about your background?
Ishwar: I’m originally from Bangalore, India. I have seen the city grow from a sleepy garden city to what it is today. I did my undergraduate at the University of Southern California, where I studied Business Administration and Mathematics, and immediately after, I did my Master of Science in Finance at Imperial College in London.
Rhea: How did you figure out what you wanted to do post-graduation?
Ishwar: In short, I didn't…
There's pressure when you go to a business school to go into investment banking and consulting. Everyone knows it’s a miserable experience. They’re just prestigious, high-paying jobs. You're crunching models on Excel, and you're creating presentations. The fruits of your labour aren't shown. And this terrified me.
At USC, I had the chance to work at an early-stage start-up. There were only 10-15 people in the team, and it gave me the chance to work in an operator role. It was incredible to see a high growth company scale week on week and rewarding to see the hard work you put in make an impact every day.
Rhea: So is that what led you to entrepreneurship?
Ishwar: It was part of the reason I found startups so exciting, but it wasn't the main reason. I come from a family of entrepreneurs over multiple generations- so entrepreneurship was always on the roadmap, just never so soon.
I graduated from Imperial in the middle of Covid, and I think Covid was the perfect opportunity for me to sort of sit back and reflect on what I wanted at that time. My classmates from college had all been working for a year or so in investment banking. And when I spoke to them, I could tell they weren't happy. They were all looking for an exit opportunity.
I was in India shortly after finishing my Master’s, and I took three months off to figure out what I wanted to do before I went back to the UK to begin job hunting. Within those first three months, I met my co-founders, Siddharth and Parth. And in just a few weeks, we launched a product, put it on the market, and got some early traction. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going back.
Rhea: Why did you choose to move back to India?
Ishwar: For me, it was about picking the right elevator to get into. India was in a pivotal moment, and I wanted to be part of its growth story - it's that simple.
Rhea: Can you tell me a little bit more about what inspires you?
Ishwar: Yeah. So a bit of backstory here. When I was in high school, for about a month and a half, I volunteered for UIDAI, the body behind Aadhaar. That was the first layer of India Stack. Since then, every time I came back to India, the digital public infrastructure has been growing at an incredible pace.
First, there was Aadhaar, then UPI, and then the other parts of the India Stack. I saw firsthand the impact Aadhaar made and then UPI made on digitising financial services in India and how it was a catalyst for innovation.
When I moved back in September of 2020, this thing called an Account Aggregator was the next layer in the India Stack. My first idea was to leverage the Account Aggregator infrastructure and see what types of products we could build on that.
The India Stack inspired my entire startup journey to date.
Rhea: Can you tell me about the first couple of products you launched?
Ishwar: Yeah, so, as you know, our startup journey has been anything but linear.
The first product we thought of was a personal finance manager - something that made sense in the context of Account Aggregator. But two main issues forced us to move away from this idea quickly. One is we weren't getting too much interest for that product. The second thing is, how do you monetise it?
After speaking to potential customers, we realised that budgeting and knowing where your money was going was not solving a problem; it was a nice-to-have feature. But what was happening with middle to low-income workers, who were our target market at the time, was that they ran out of money in the middle of the month. Not because they didn't have the money but because some sort of external event would force them to spend more than they usually do. They didn't need extra money; they just needed money to smoothen their cash flow. So that's where the idea of Klear Money came from.
We were one of the first early wage access companies in the country. While we had great early traction for this product, the unit economics of the business did not work. So after a year, we decided to shut it down, and it was brutal.
Rhea: What lessons did you learn?
Ishwar: I learnt a lot. Parth and Sid had built multiple products from the ground up, but I hadn’t. As founders, we had to reflect on what type of company we wanted to build. After Klear Money- we realised we were more interested in building B2B products because it didn't burn as much money. We were also good at B2B sales and enjoyed the process of building good business software.
We learned not to fit or force a solution into an imaginary problem. We saw this a lot in crypto and now in AI. These really exciting solutions exist, but you can’t force people to use them without understanding if there is a problem or market need.
Our next product was built around a problem we faced while building and scaling a credit product with Klear Money. So we started building a lending infrastructure or Lending as a service company that helped companies build, launch and scale credit products. We made it significantly easier to do so.
It took five months to build.
A couple of lessons here: We spent too much time building a complex solution and not enough time speaking to customers. Secondly, it's tough to build in a highly regulated space. Lastly, the market was not large enough.
This is something I could have easily figured out with some research. It took ten months to realise we had to pivot.
I wish we were faster in realising when we had to pivot in hindsight. The quicker you launch and put your product on the market, the quicker you realise if it will work. And it's ok if it's not working as long as you're learning, speaking to customers and iterating.
Rhea: How did you identify API integrations as a pain point and create RootFi?
Ishwar: We were exploring ideas in the fintech infra space. One of our customers at the time asked us to help them build ERP integrations to Tally, NetSuite, ZohoBooks, etc. They were trying to use that for their underwriting process.
As we dove deeper into the problem, we realised that accounting data could actually be used for a number of different use cases, not just lending. We went back to the market and spoke to a bunch of fintechs, lenders, and accounting automation companies and realised there was a huge problem in building these integrations, especially with accounting. It took us three weeks to launch an MVP and create a landing page. In the first month, we had 10+ customers.
Rhea: Why is it so difficult to build these B2B integrations? You said accounting was especially tough.
Ishwar: To be honest, when we started building this solution, we thought it’d be very easy.
You can break down the problem into two or three parts: Building, Maintenance, and Domain Expertise.
Integrations require a deep understanding of the systems being connected and the protocols used to connect them. This can be really time-consuming and complex.
The first integration we decided to build out was Tally. Tally does not have an API, and it's not cloud-based; at least, the version most people use isn’t. That in itself is the first major challenge.
It's possible to build maybe 1 or 2 accounting integrations in-house. But when you’re reaching 5-6 and have a growing number of platforms you’d like to integrate with, it gets really tough.
Each platform has different API formats like GraphQL, REST, and SOAP.
Each platform has a different method of authentication like HTTP, OAuth, and API Keys.
I could go on and on. The worst thing is it takes months to get permission to use the APIs from the underlying platform and can cost a lot of money! For example, a NetSuite account can cost $20-50K annually. It’s crazy!
Secondly, integrations are equally, if not more, difficult to maintain. Once an integration is built, it must be maintained and updated to keep pace with connected systems or protocol changes. In addition, your underlying code might break for an edge case you've never seen.
Third, for a category like accounting, you need expertise in the field to build integrations. Each integration uses different formatting for its data models, each data model could be called something different, and each line within each data model could be called something different, so you really need to understand accounting concepts to build a product on top of the models.
For our customers, their developers want to focus on core product competencies, not integrations. Integrations take developers away from working on their products' core features and functions. This can limit the innovation and progress of a company's products.
For example, a lender probably doesn’t have a dedicated team for building accounting API integrations. So, it's not core for them. So our hypothesis was to build a simple API-first product.
The early feedback has been fantastic, and we have found a solution that has really resonated with our early customers.
Rhea: So is that when you knew RootFi could be a sustainable business and that you’d found product market fit?
Ishwar: I think it’s a little early to say we have PMF. It’s a difficult concept to truly achieve. There's a definition by Mark Anderson: The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it, they’re pulling features out of your hands, and the part that most people forget, money is pouring in. When that happens, you know you have a true Product/Market fit.
But we have had some early indications that RootFi is on the right path. When we first launched our landing page, two things happened. One, we signed our first enterprise contract right out of the gate without a product, and we had an overwhelming amount of inbound interest. That had never happened before. Two, selling our product became a lot easier. We felt like we weren’t pushing our product down people's throats. Initial conversations led to sign-ups almost immediately. So we have great early indications, but I’m hesitant to say we’ve hit PMF until we hit certain internal metrics.
Rhea: Tell me more about the product RootFi offers
Ishwar: We have a few core features that make up our product. Our flagship feature is our Unified API. As I said before, the problem is that each platform has a different schema for reading and writing the data. So our Unified API standardises this format across all the platforms. Whether you’re reading or writing data to Tally, Zoho Books, NetSuite, Sage Intacct, or Xero, the way you read and write data is exactly the same with RootFi. So our customer’s development team can build once to our integration and then add more platforms at the click of a button. They don't have to put in any incremental effort. That’s where the Unified API is really powerful. Additionally, each platform has its own rate limits. It's hard for our customers to know how to use and maintain them. With the Unified API, we take care of that.
Rhea: Are there any limitations of the Unified API?
Ishwar: There are some limitations. We have to limit ourselves to certain data models since we’re standardising data. Say there’s a field we haven’t unified that a customer needs; they can still leverage the benefits of our other features while building integrations seamlessly. That’s where our Passthrough requests come in. Our Passthrough requests allow them to read and write data to any platform, even if we haven’t unified that data field. That’s our second core feature.
Rhea: How do the platforms you're integrating with feel about RootFi?
Ishwar: There are two camps. Some have never heard of what we do or that we exist, but the giants like NetSuite and Sage, who are familiar with our competitors, knew how this product worked and were very comfortable with it. Regardless, we haven’t had any resistance, and I don't anticipate any. After all, we help their customers work more seamlessly with their products. If anything, we’re making their product more useful. We’re not taking customers away or cannibalising their features; we’re just making their publicly available APIs more useful.
Rhea: Can you tell me about any competitors?
Ishwar: We have large, well-funded competitors in this space like Codat and Merge. But we noticed that no one was focusing on the regional-specific platforms for Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The types of accounting platforms used here are very different from those used in Europe and the US. In addition, their pricing is just not feasible for many small to mid-market companies- we solve for this gap.
Rhea: You have chosen the accounting vertical so far. What is the thought process behind the roadmap for future categories?
Ishwar: For the foreseeable future, we want to be razor-focused on business financial data. While today we are focused on accounting data, our customers need many other categories of data. It’s important for us to be cross-category. Some exciting news is that we will launch integrations in other categories this quarter. Any B2B tool that contains financial data we want to integrate with. That could be integrations with PoS companies, e-commerce marketplaces, CRM tools, and payment gateways.
Rhea: Are there some scenarios where integrating directly with one of your partners makes more sense for your customer than going through you?
Ishwar: I’m biased, so I don't think so. Even if you’re building 1 or 2 integrations, it makes more sense to me to go through RootFi. If you have the bandwidth to build a team of a product manager and two engineers and can satisfy the costs to maintain it, then it's a business decision. I would argue It will always be cheaper to partner with us. Don't use us if you don't want to save money or time.
We did have some early customers where integrations are their core competency, where it is their core product. In that scenario, one could argue that they shouldn't outsource the work.
Rhea: What's the most commonly held misconception about what RootFi does?
Ishwar: There are a couple. The most common misconception is that we’re like Zapier or a workflow automation tool like Tray.io or Workato. While customers use us to automate some workflow, they’re not businesses or Merchants using it for internal workflows like Zapier. We only work with B2B software companies and Financial Institutions.
Additionally, some people highlight the drawbacks of a Unified API. But we truly believe that a Unified API is the most secure and seamless way to integrate with other types of software companies, and our platform is built to address all the limitations of a Unified API.
Rhea: You started the company during the pandemic. Looking back, are you glad about the timing?
Ishwar: There was no better time to work on a start-up. There were no distractions, so our entire life revolved around work. We just put our heads down and built. At that point, we had no experience in building a company. It was almost a risk-free way of setting up – we had nothing to lose. We were incredibly focused; it was the best opportunity to start.
Rhea: Can you tell me a little bit about the company culture?
Ishwar: It's too early to say anything about culture, as we’re quite a small team. I don't think you can build a company culture so early on. Culture develops organically from the people in your company. Between us, three co-founders, we decided how we wanted to work and the type of company we wanted to build, and we’ve shown our culture through our own actions rather than enforcing it. We follow our own work principles and guidelines and hope it permeates through the team. I don't think you can set these arbitrary rules and force everyone to adhere to them.
Rhea: What qualities do you look for in a new member of the RootFi team? How do you screen for it?
Ishwar: When we hire engineers, we do not prioritise hiring from the most prestigious schools or companies. Instead, we focus on hiring passionate and curious engineers who are hackers by nature. People who build things in their free time, people who learn through experience.
Not necessarily work experience per se, but people who like building side projects and who are interested in technology. It goes the same way for the rest of the team. Everyone on our team, while they were studying or working, always worked on projects that showed their interests and passion. That's what we look for when we hire.
Rhea: How have your roles as cofounders changed over the past year? Have you struggled with anything as the company has grown?
Ishwar: I don't think they’ve changed. In the early days, we all tended to do every task together, which sometimes created conflict. Over time, we’ve all figured out what we’re good at and what roles suit our strengths. Now we fit into the puzzle well.
Rhea: Tell me about a difficult decision you made and what you learned from it.
Ishwar: The pivots were painful, I’m not going to lie. But when it's not working, you have to make a decision and make it quickly to move on. That's a really important lesson we learned: To launch quickly, get feedback quickly, and pull back equally quickly - basically, move fast. When you know there's a structural issue with the product or industry, you’ve identified it, and you know no matter what you do, you can't solve it, that’s the point you have to pull back and pivot.
Rhea: What are you most proud of today?
Ishwar: We’ve built a really good team that moves very quickly. We have raised a decent amount of money, and we’ve been frugal about how we spend it. We’re proud that we’ve built multiple product iterations without burning through any of the capital. I wish we could have done better on time, but we’ve learned invaluable lessons. That put us in a good position today compared to other start-up peers.
Rhea: What is the vision for RootFi in the future?
Ishwar: We have a very clear path with our product. We want to be the number one player in the world for our product category - and that is an uphill battle.
Today we beat our competitors in terms of region-specific coverage, reliability and pricing. At the end of the year, we want to be the region's number-one player, and I think we’re well-positioned to do that.