Posted on Leave a comment

Spotlight on Siva Narendra, CEO of Tyfone and Week-End Urban Farmer

PART ONE: Life Story and Experiences

What’s your current position and can you give me a brief overview of what it is you do in your work?

I am one of the Founders of Tyfone and CEO of the company which means I get to do all the things no one else wants to do. It’s important for me to define our purpose and why we exist and the value we bring to the ecosystem. Our purpose is to fill the gap between most consumers wanting money in community minded financial institutions, but they see digital services are done better by big banks. By filling this purposeful gap with innovative digital technologies with a great user experience we enable credit unions to compete with the big banks even in the digital domain.

What would you say most motivates you to do what you do? What are you most excited or passionate about?

A couple of things. From a market vantage point, we believe there is a place for big banks. The bigger you are, the faster you grow; however, that doesn’t tell the whole story. We want to really look at retail consumer needs and we know that community minded financial institutions are very necessary to serve retail consumers. From a technology vantage point, digital banking is where innovation happens, and it moves fast. What is true today is not true tomorrow and learning is a passion for me. When your brain hurts, it’s fun! So, both the market need and technology pace motivates me.

I want to hear the story of how you came to work with credit unions. What attracted you to work for Tyfone?

That’s a really good question. When we started the company almost 18 years ago, we knew mobile devices would be important. I was at Intel and we were looking at Moore’s law and we knew smartphones would become commonplace. We decided to focus on mobile payments initially and realized that it is a highly consolidated market and breaking into that “club” is non-trivial. So, it was out of necessity that we ended up working with smaller institutions and it was clear we were going to do something that was exciting. Most of the founders were credit union members and so it was a natural that we would end up serving them. We started with one Bay Area CU and slowly grew. The first client was Star One Credit Union in Silicon Valley. The members of this high-tech credit union expected a good user experience. Digital features are easy to build quickly, but relationships take time and we found that good communication with our customers has kept us relevant and an attractive place to work!

Now if we can go even further back, where did you grow up and what was it like living there? Where did you go to school?

I grew up in India. My dad was a freedom fighter and a professor. I was the youngest of six and education was super important growing up. I saw my dad retire in his 80s but still writing books and researching. So learning was an ongoing matter. I went to a small high school in India and then moved to the US to get my Masters at Syracuse, and obtained my PhD from MIT in Cambridge.

Who were your mentors along the way? People who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life? Tell me about them.

I have had amazing professional mentors from advisors and teachers all my life. But for me it’s always been my family. My mom taught me the art of learning and my dad had an extreme passion for learning. My siblings are equally important. As the youngest child with a big age difference, growing up I got advice from two parents and five siblings. Well over half my life now my guide and best friend has been my wife. And of course, now I get advice from my daughter, as she is getting ready to go to college.

Siva Narendra, CEO and week-end urban farmer

Finally, can you share something interesting about you that would surprise our readers? It can be anything, a hobby, an adventure, sports, the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you. 

I like drawing and I wanted to be an artist. My dad was a professor of linguistics and always enjoyed creation and art, but my siblings convinced me I would not make any money being an artist. I would get in trouble in school because I would be doodling in my notebook all the time. We used to joke that I was an outstanding student because I was often sent OUT STANDING in my classroom. My dad was relatively well known, and some of my teachers were students of my dad, so the news would spread fast, and it would get back home. 

PART TWO: The Business Story

Tell me the story of how your CUSO/Company was created – the early days. Tell me about some of the memorable characters in the history, some that brought your story color, drama, comedy, conflict?

It was becoming clear that as internet standardized communications value moved up the stack to computing and Intel benefited from it. Intel was a great company to work for. But with smartphones, computing was getting standardized, and I was struggling to see how does one move up the value chain to software when inventions I was passionate about were predominantly in hardware? So long story short, we decided inventions must be in the hardware, but value addition and margins can be in software. It led us to build fascinating businesses including payments and security that have now spun out of Tyfone and we focus on digital banking to serve the purpose I mentioned earlier. These pivots were not without challenges – from convincing shareholders to dealing with large market incumbents kept us up at night – all in a good way. I am thankful to my founding partners for a shared vision and partnership in steering us here. More exciting days ahead!

What were the key relationships that mattered most? What were the key sources of support or resistance you encountered?

From my own personal view – no one could possibly do this without family support in a field that is both highly structured from the banking point of view and rapidly evolving from a digital point of view. My daughter was barely a year old when we started. My in-laws moved from Maine to Portland, Oregon so I could live at work. Professionally speaking, our stakeholders – employees, customers, and investors alike gave us an opportunity to find the right fit for the market. That has ultimately been our secret sauce. If any of these stakeholders disagreed with what we are doing, it would have stifled our ability to pivot, innovate, and create value.

What have been the greatest successes in your opinion?

The core unit has stuck together. The co-founders, leadership, and early employees have all been supportive from the beginning. Keeping the team together has been key for us. It would not have been possible without the partnership between founders and key employees.

PART THREE: Reflections and Lessons

If you could start your CUSO/Company all over again, would you do anything differently? Why and what would you do?

Probably not. I am sure we could have fine-tuned things better. Ultimately where we are might have happened sooner, but we have found our purpose and hopefully our customers agree we are staying true to that purpose.

Finally, when you think of the future for credit unions, what gives you hope and what makes you concerned?

Fintech and bigtech plays by different rules and are a real threat to credit unions. These tech companies are not regulated, and they are chipping away at credit union’s services. They are taking away the revenue side by creating payment and loan products, leaving credit unions to cover the cost side of deposits. In addition, the economic status this past year due to the pandemic, has resulted in stimulus money that has come into people’s hands, people are not spending it, and loan utilization has dropped. This means there are more deposits that cost money and lesser loans that bring in revenues for credit unions. As a result, credit unions are all needing to find a way to manage through this situation of lowered return on assets, while at the same time continue to be threatened and distracted resolving issues around increased competition with bigtech and fintech alike. The threat is concerning, which could really change this industry and the benefit it brings to retail consumers.

Our renewed purpose now is to help build technology that will allow community minded financial institutions to compete with big banks as well as bigtech. When we talk to our customers about this, they are embracing this challenge wholeheartedly and that give me hope!