In this series, we’re doing deep-dive interviews with our founding team. In our third edition of Founding Team Stories, get to know our COO and Co-Founder, Sidharth Rao, as he takes us through his journey and how he’s building RootFi.

Rhea: Hey, Sid. Can you tell me a little bit about your background and education?

Sidharth: Sure. So I grew up in Bangalore and I went to an international school. When I was 18 years old, I moved to the UK, where I did my undergrad and master's at the University of Edinburgh. I mainly studied economics and business. After that, I came back to Bangalore to check out the startup ecosystem and worked at an ed-tech company for a little bit.

Rhea: Did you always know you wanted to be in startups and pursue entrepreneurship?

Sidharth: I guess I didn't know I wanted to be in a startup or tech specifically. My dad is a businessman and I think I have also always liked the idea of building something that I could call my own. *laughs* I also don't particularly like being answerable to other people, so that could also be a factor.

Rhea: So would you say your dad inspires you?

Sidharth: My dad? Yeah, I would say both my parents inspire me in their own way, though that may be a cliché answer. I honestly think what motivates me is my drive, which I found very late, to be honest. It's not something I truly had in high school or college. And I think once I started to find that drive that came from within, that's that's really when things started to look up.

Rhea: Amazing. You mentioned you worked at an edtech start-up before founding RootFi. What lessons did you learn there?

Sidharth: So, like I said, after finishing my master's degree, I decided to return to Bangalore for a few years. I wanted to explore the startup ecosystem, and I found a role in a relatively new ed-tech startup. They were just launching their B2C application, and I joined about six months before the launch to help them with it. I was there for about 10 months after the launch, and during that time, I helped them get from zero to 50,000 downloads. It was a great experience, but it also made it clear to me that ed-tech was not my area of interest. I learned a lot about startups in general while working there, but I realized that ed-tech was not where I wanted to be long-term.

Rhea: So how did you land on the fintech and the B2B space?

Sidharth: I wouldn't say that I knew specifically. It just so happened that when I met Ishwar and started speaking to him, he was so passionate about the Fintech space and he knew all about the infrastructure that they were building in India. In India, we have a really great foundation in terms of fintech infrastructure, right? It starts with UPI, then we have account aggregation, the entire India stack and it's, even comparing it at a global level, it’s really well done. So I saw how passionate he was about being able to build something on top of that, and I think that's when I started to get more into it and started researching a lot more, understanding what could be built on top. Yeah, that's how I came to fintech. It was more his passion for me. I was still in this headspace of "it's not ed-tech," but I do want to build something, right? So, that definitely helped me decide what it could be.

In terms of B2B versus B2C, that was more of a natural progression. When we started in the fintech space three years ago, our initial product was a B2C product. That never really went live, but that we ideated and spent a couple of months just researching and working on was a personal finance manager, and that would have been B2C. Through iterations, it progressed and led us here. From that, we developed the Earned Wage Access product, which was B2B2C. So, that was step two. While we were doing the Earned Wage Access product, we realized that we could do the lending infrastructure that powers guys like the Earned Wage Access provider and that then became B2B. We realized we were more comfortable in this space also because we also like to keep our team lean and focused. Having to service a million different customers is a lot more time-consuming and requires a lot more resources than having to service, say, a hundred businesses.

Rhea: All right, so it sounds like you've, not say taken steps back, but you moved further back along the Fintech pipeline- moving from a B2C product, then into a B2B2C and then moving further up the chain.

Sidharth: Yup, we’ve moved from being the company that interfaces with the end customer to the company that powers that company or essentially acts like that company's back end. Yeah, like I said, while the very base level foundations are being built well, like UPI, Account Aggregator, when we started initially kind of being the business that would interface and service with the end customer in that role, we realized that some of the systems and tools that we required to operate effectively, easily and focus on our competence were not being done that well. And so, we saw the opportunity to take a step back and say, Hey, you know what? Let's power 50 or 100 businesses trying to do cool and innovative things like us, rather than be one business struggling to do something cool and innovative. We can build the back-end systems that will allow 50 of us to thrive. That was the kind of logic.

Rhea: That makes a lot of sense. How did you end up landing on B2B accounting integrations?

Sidharth: So, I think that B2B integrations and accounting integrations, everything for us has been quite organic. We have pivoted, I guess you could call it, three and a half times in three years. So it's been a bit of a roller coaster, but I would say all of our pivots have come very organically. And there are lessons we've learned from each pivot that led us to where we're at today, and I'm a lot more comfortable with where we're at today, for sure. When we were working on the lending infrastructure, we were solving the problem of business loans. At this point, we were providing a loan management system as well as working on the credit writing part of it. So we were talking to one of our customers, and we were discussing how they were underwriting their business customers for the loans. We started to think about questions like- What data does one use to underwrite businesses? Where is this data? How easily accessible it is? That's what got the ball rolling on accounting integrations.

Rhea: RootFi works with sensitive financial data, and I know you made sure RootFi became ISO-Certified, GDPR and SOC 2 compliant. Can you tell me why? How do you feel about data security?

Sidharth: As I said, we run quite a lean team with most of our members working on the technical side of things. So me and, a few others, including you, Ishwar, and Tushar, handle everything non-technical. In speaking to our first few customers, we realized because they handle their customers’ sensitive financial data, it's not only our customers who have to be comfortable with RootFi but also the end customers who share their data through our platform. This was a common theme that popped up very early on with every potential client we spoke to. Secondly, being a tech product, we always wanted to have a global outlook from day one. This includes developed markets like Europe and the US, as well as Southeast Asia and the UAE. Every region has its own set of security rules and certifications, such as SOC 2 for Europe and ISO in India and Southeast Asia. Since every potential customer brought up security as a point of concern, I realized we had to get these certifications done early on to eliminate future blockers.

Rhea: Don’t companies typically get these security certifications at a later stage?

Sidharth: That is true, but we could see that it was a huge point of concern and a blocker for every single customer. Internally, we wanted to optimize our onboarding and eliminate potential blockers. We knew it would require about three months of effort, but it would make future conversations smoother and more frictionless. That’s when I decided to put my head down and get our security compliance done. Something people don’t realize, and this would be a piece of advice for other tech startups as well— It's much easier to implement these rules when you have fewer employees and then maintain the rules as you grow rather than implement them for the first time when you have hundreds or thousands of employees. That would be a lot more complicated.

Rhea: That’s great advice. You spoke a little bit about your role as COO. Can you tell me what your role is today? How has your role changed?

Sidharth: To be honest with you, I don't have one specific role. Like I said, we like to run a lean ship at this stage and we like to let our tech team focus on the product. So my role shifts depending on our quarterly goals. For example, when our goal was to get security and compliance done, I spent most of my day for a couple of months working on all the certifications. Another aspect of my role is not exactly a product manager, but I work closely with the tech team to test new integrations and features and ensure a good user experience. I also keep in touch with our clients to understand their requirements and improve our product. I work as a link between our engineering team and our customers and also work on our company's strategy, bringing that back to the engineers and executing it. Finally, I do sales. I reach out to founders of other startups or product managers for sales, but also so they can try out our product and we can get feedback, so we can keep optimizing our experience.

Rhea: Great! That sounds like a lot to juggle. What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

Sidharth: I would say that at the start, or initially, the most challenging part is learning to let go of certain aspects, not because of a lack of trust. I actually trust everyone in our team to a very high degree, but it was still difficult to accept that I don't have to know what's happening in every single part of the business. In most aspects, I do but for example, with marketing, SEO, and content, since you and Tushar have joined, I don't have to worry about it on a day-to-day basis. I know you guys will catch me up at the end of the week or whenever it's required. Initially, it was difficult to let go and put it out of my mind.

Rhea: That’s good to hear! What parts of your job do you find most rewarding?

Sidharth: I think initially the most rewarding feeling was when we built something and had the first customer use it and say, "Okay, this is adding real value to me." But over time, it has switched to seeing the results of working closely with the tech team— our engineers. Our team is young, and many have joined us as freshers, right out of college. I have watched them grow with us, and one of the most rewarding things is when I feel like I have taught them something or they have learned from me. That's a really nice feeling. I’ve learned a lot from the team as well, but watching them grow has been great.

Rhea: That’s great to hear! What lessons have you learned building RootFi?

Sidharth: Mmm, that's a tough question because it's everything involving starting a company. And I don't even mean what we're gonna build and give to the customers. I mean, just registering and incorporating a company, and setting up a bank account is not straightforward. So there's all that learning and then there's also the learning in terms of the product or what you're giving your customers. Honestly, I would say my biggest learning is that if you want to build something, you don't have to know everything beforehand. A lot of the time you can get started with something and you just learn as you go. You just learn along the way and that's been. My biggest learning is it's okay to learn along the way because that's what we did from day one. You know, Ishwar and I would be on Google being like “Okay. How do you do this? How do you hire your first engineer?” So yeah, the biggest lesson is to be comfortable to learn along the way.

Rhea: Could you tell me a little bit about life outside of work? Anything hobbies that you know help you be a better co-founder?

Sidharth: I have a bunch of hobbies outside of work, and outside of fintech and startups in general. Work is a huge area of interest to me, but I'm the type of person who requires more of a balance. I've always been hugely into sports, and that's something that I still pursue today. I also like to cook a little bit and play a few video games. However, I would say that the number one thing for me is sports. In terms of how that spills over into work and building a startup, I would say it's immensely helpful. From a very young age, around five years old, I learned how to work with a team, cooperate, communicate, and develop leadership skills and think on my feet. These are things that have definitely carried over and helped me in building RootFi right to this day.

Rhea: You mentioned you’ve built RootFi as a lean start-up. Is that what you’d call your start-up philosophy?

Sidharth: Not particularly, it's not that I don't agree with spending money to grow. I do think that makes a lot of sense, but I would say there's just a time and place for it. And we co-founders believe in staying lean until we're certain we have that product-market fit. So if we're all 100% sure that we have product-market fit, I'm happy to spend more money on say marketing or new hires. But until that point in time, yes, I do believe it's one of our philosophies to stay lean.

Another one of our big philosophies, which I think applies to me and probably to Ishwar as well, since we both come from traditional family business backgrounds, is that economic profitability from the start is important to keep in mind and that’s what we are more comfortable with. So those are a couple of my philosophies.

Rhea: You spoke about the pivots you made. Do you have any regrets or things you’d like to change looking back at RootFi’s journey?

Sidharth: So in terms of the pivots, I have no regrets because honestly without those pivots, we would not have found and thought of the idea that we landed on today, in terms of the B2B integrations, you know, every single pivot like I said, our journey has been extremely organic in terms of the pivot. So you know when you're doing the personal Finance manager and we were speaking to potential customers. We realized that credit for low-income employees was a problem which let us to earned wage access, where we found the back-end systems were not all that great for working with the lending institution, which led us to the lending infrastructure which then the business lending situation led us to where we're at today. So no regrets and a whole lot of learning, but the one regret I would have very early on. Luckily, this is a product that we never went to market with, but my only regret would be using a dev shop and my advice to any start-up that wants to be considered a tech startup is, do not ever use a dev shop.

Rhea: Great! Any other advice would you give to those dreaming of being a start-up founder?

Sidharth: *laughs* I don't know. If it's something you want to do and have a genuine interest in, then it's really important to go for it. I didn't know I was going to become a startup founder at 23 or build a fintech startup. I didn’t wake up one day saying “Hey, I’m going to build a fintech company.” But if you have a genuine interest and you're ready to learn along the way, you can do it, nothing is stopping you. With how the world works today, you don't have to quit your job immediately. You can keep working and slowly build your startup on the side. I think that's a really beautiful thing.

Rhea: Anything else you’d like to share?

Sidharth:  No, that’s it. If anyone reading this, knows of or is working at an expense management company, looking to automate your accounting, business lending, or more, get in touch with us and we can help you guys!

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