Adam Kenney is Chief Product Officer at Numerated, which helps banks and credit unions transform how they lend to businesses.
Chad talks with Adam about what institutional banks and credit unions are like as a market and customers and what sales cycles look like, going from 17 to more than 130 customers quickly, and the scaling challenges they faced, and how the pandemic affected them as a company.
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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel, and with me, today is Adam Kenney, Chief Product Officer at Numerated, which helps banks and credit unions transform how they lend to businesses. Adam, thanks so much for joining me.
ADAM: Thank you, Chad. Thanks for having me.
CHAD: Let's dive into Numerated a little bit more. How do you help banks and credit unions lend to businesses?
ADAM: I think we're in the middle of what is a pretty meaningful transformation in terms of how businesses are expecting to get access to credit. Really what they want is something that is fast, easy, convenient, largely driven off of the change that has happened in the retail space over the last 10 to 15 years. And in many ways, business lending is still catching up to that, and so our focus is doing that. It's helping the banks and credit unions really change how they interact with their business customers. We use a combination of data and great experiences to make that process as seamless as possible.
We've been noted to, using the combination of data and technology, help banks increase the number of loans that they can do with their existing staff by as much as fourfold. We are also noted for inventing what we like to refer to as the three-minute business loan. It's one of the things we were written up on in the Wall Street Journal back in our days in Eastern Labs, where we've been able to get businesses from the point of application all the way to a funded loan in less than three minutes. And that's a process that historically has taken as long as three weeks.
And so really excited by the ways that we're able to really help change how banks themselves can look at their operations. But more than anything, it's how banks are able to rethink and change how they interact with businesses and help the businesses in your communities grow and get access to the credit that they need.
CHAD: So from a digital product perspective, there's a piece of a product there that banks are actually taking on and white-labeling that provides a lending experience for their clients, right?
ADAM: That's correct. I mean, we're a cloud-based SaaS system. But you're right; they branded as their own. And so if you're going to Eastern Bank's website and clicking through and ultimately going through the application process with us, it's going to look and feel like it's just Eastern's website. And all of the interactions that you have with Eastern or any of our customers are going to feel that way as well. So yes, it is a white-label solution that we sell to the banks, and they provide to their customers.
CHAD: The actual banking industry is not one that I've had a lot of experience in. And so I'm curious what institutional banks, credit unions, that kind of thing what they're like as a market or as customers and what the sales cycle looks like and those kinds of things.
ADAM: It's about as varied as an industry can get, I'll tell you that. [laughs] You have to remember that banks and credit unions can be as small as having a few hundred million dollars in assets, maybe as small as 100 million. And in some of our customers' cases, they're de novo banks, and they're just getting started. And they range up to multiple billions of dollars in assets. And so, these are organizations that scale dramatically. Each of them have their own problems.
They're also going to be made up of very different tech-minded individuals. You're going to have some smaller institutions that are basically managing a book of business that's been a book of business for close to a century and are interested in how technology can make them more efficient. But they are not the technologists that you and I would be used to working with on a day-to-day basis. And then, of course, you have people like ourselves who are really trying to, from inside the bank, change what banking is to their customers. And so, it's a very diverse industry in terms of what they're looking to accomplish.
We've even come up with recently this framework around how we think about and really talk to our customers about how they transform and the levels of transformation that they can go through. And for us, it's essentially a four-level transformation starting with very small and pointed technology innovations that allow them to drive innovation in very fragmented bits and pieces, for lack of a better term, up to and including they're going to transform everything or become a digital bank. And you can imagine there are lots of stops along the way in terms of where a bank is and where they want to end up as part of their strategy.
CHAD: From a product perspective and managing change, do you get a lot of custom features from individual, either clients or potential clients? And how do you manage that if you do?
ADAM: The way I think about it is that we certainly get a lot of requests from our customers, and every customer likes to think that they are different and unique. In reality, there's a strong theme to almost all of the requests that we get. And personally, I think that's part of what our job is as a product leader is to really understand how to create themes out of the individual requests and provide a platform back to the market that addresses as many of those in a more holistic way and drives value across not just the individual asks but across all of the customers. And so yeah, there's some uniqueness. And certainly, we need to provide a platform that allows for that.
So as an example, every bank has a slightly different view into how they want their credit policy to work and be implemented, but the framework around how you make credit decisions, how I get data into the platform. How do I create a credit matrix? And how do I then decide the exact offer terms to drive out of that? Like, that's a standard capability. And so we're innovating on that based on the individual features, but it's really not with an eye towards providing a specific custom feature to individual customers. It's more providing a flexible platform that allows them to configure the nuance but in a general theme that's going to help them be a better business.
CHAD: So in the U.S., we had a specific program launched, PPP loans, in the pandemic to help support businesses. And I know thoughtbot we participated in that and went through that process. I don't think our bank was using Numerated. But I know that the bank really maybe...because they weren't using Numerated, [laughs] they needed to bring together an entirely new application interface very, very quickly in order to be able to take our application to that. And I think that Numerated was right there at the start of that.
CHAD: Talk about something custom maybe quickly.
CHAD: What did pulling that together look like?
ADAM: So maybe to take a step back if I could first and just paint a picture for you because you're right, it was kind of a unique and incredible period of time. We were fortunate in our line of work because we are all about helping banks transform how they lend to businesses. We had the base platform already built and established that allowed businesses to apply for loans on our platform. Even before the pandemic, we were one of the leading technology platforms for processing SBA loans. So we were uniquely positioned for the opportunity as it results to PPP.
At the start of the pandemic, we had approximately 17 customers using our platform. Fast forward six months later, we had 135. And so, to your point around there were a large number of institutions looking for a new application solution overnight, I think that shows you how aggressively banks needed a solution. And there was an opportunity for us to offer our platform to be that.
I think the other thing to recognize as part of the backdrop anyway is this was a crazy time if you think back to where we were in the pandemic. No one knew what life was going to look like in a week. And most businesses, especially smaller ones, didn't know if they were going to have a business. And so for us, that also provided the opportunity and maybe a little bit of the confidence in saying, "You know, we have nothing to lose. We're well-positioned. And what else are we going to do? Because it's not like people are making other loans for the next couple of months. Let's just go own this".
And so I think it was the combination of us making that recognition, having a really good base platform that had familiarity with the SBA, had familiarity with business lending, and with a team that then could really acutely focus on solving this one problem for as many customers as possible. And by the way, have the emotional impact of not only helping banks but knowing that we're basically helping hundreds of thousands of businesses stay afloat through probably the craziest time in our country's history. And so that's really what got us going.
And then there was a ton of work to your point around customization around building out the platform. But the one thing we've tried to do from the beginning is hold true to some of the foundational vision that I mentioned earlier. Like, we don't want to be in the business of custom software. That's not a winning proposition for us or our customers. And so, as much as it was maybe hard at times, throughout PPP, we were always thinking about okay, so we have to make these changes to support this crazy never-before-seen lending program.
But how can we do it in a way that's going to set us up to serve the businesses in a year or two when this whole pandemic thing is over? Because PPP is not going to last forever, but our customers are. The businesses are still going to need credit. So whatever we're doing as much as possible, let's be building a foundation that gets us well beyond PPP. And so we were using it as really a catalyst to build a bigger business even while we were helping customers through the pandemic.
CHAD: One of the things that I really appreciated, and I have an outside perspective on it, but I really...and people can always do better.
ADAM: Yes. [laughs]
CHAD: But I thought it was one of the rare circumstances where everyone realized the urgency of the situation: government, banks, everybody. And there was a real willingness to realize, well, we've got to do something. If we try to figure it out all right now, it's going to take too long. So let's just do something, and we'll work out the details later. And so I think there was a willingness, and from a product perspective, my guess would be that allowed you to work iteratively too.
ADAM: It did. It was [laughs], I think in some ways a blessing and a curse.
ADAM: Because I can tell you that the number of times my team would get a set of new capabilities, which listen, were great for the customers. It made everything better for the businesses that needed help, so I would never want it any other way. But the number of times that those new capabilities were announced by the SBA on a Friday night and were expected to be live on Monday morning, let's just say it was more frequent than I would ever like to relive. [laughs]
And I can remember, especially going into the second round of PPP, it just so happened that all that was happening between Thanksgiving and Christmas in a year where all families wanted to do was spend time with each other after a crazy year had gone by. But we didn't get that luxury, unfortunately. We had a job to do, and that was to make sure that we were ready for the next round. And so it did come with a lot of cost in terms of we had to work really hard to make it happen.
But to your point, it allowed us to iterate. And I give the government credit, too, particularly the SBA. They could have, for example, just launched the program and then launched more money into it and stood still, but they didn't do that. To your comment, they had to get live as quick as possible. And so that first round of PPP, there were more technology hiccups. The SBA had some volume constraints. They couldn't really handle the performance. We ended up having to govern our application submissions because otherwise, the SBA couldn't handle it.
There were other challenges in terms of how we were validating data. But that got better month by month. And certainly, by the time we got to the forgiveness part of the process and then the next round of PPP the following winter, they actually invested in completely ripping out their legacy API and providing us in the tech community a modern RESTful interface that was much easier, much more performant. And so, even though the volume got even crazier as we went through the program, it actually became easier for us to deliver.
The first round, we were literally working around the clock because the SBA was having issues. We couldn't get enough documents through DocuSign and whatever else. We did, I want to say, close to 3 times the volume in the next round a year later but at about 15% of the energy because we had just improved that much in less than a year. And it wasn't just Numerated; it was Numerated working with our partners in government and elsewhere to just get the process that much smoother for our customers.
CHAD: Were there things that you needed to do at Numerated? I mean, to go from 17 customers to more than 130 that quickly, I assume that there were some scaling challenges for you along the way.
ADAM: There was. And I will say this: we were blessed to have a really good technical infrastructure in place that allowed us to scale on the infrastructure side without a ton of problems. We were able to essentially stand up new environments in our infrastructure relatively quickly and easily and even handle the peak volume of PPP, which was exponentially higher than anything we had ever done on the platform. That was not a problem for us. Where we had to scale is in two areas, one from a technical standpoint was how we were interacting with our technical partners.
I mentioned already the need to govern how we were submitting applications to the SBA. We worked very closely with DocuSign to essentially put rate caps on how many documents we were generating at any given time and essentially spread the volume because none of us had dealt with that or dealt with that kind of volume before. And that's where we had technical challenges were in the interfaces and working with partners to make sure everything lined up well. So that was one area, got through it pretty well. And ultimately, like I said, for the second round, we were smooth sailing.
The other area to your point around standing up all the banks was how we implemented the customers. Our typical implementation cycles going into the pandemic were multiple months. We had to stand up all over the PPP banks in less than two weeks. And so that took a combination of...I'll call it technical delivery. So we essentially created a cookie-cutter deployment and then used a deployment strategy to push that to all of the new customers all at once that we didn't have before. And we were able to create that relatively quickly.
The other was we had to take a much harder stance with our customers than we had ever done around look; everyone's getting the same thing. It's government-mandated anyway, but it's going to be exactly the same. And other than the white-labeling that we, of course, gave everybody, you might want slightly different process around the workflow, around the approval.
You're going to have to take the same thing that everybody else is because we just don't have time to configure the nuance across 100 banks. And so luckily, to your earlier comment around, everybody just realized we were in this unique time, we do what we have to do, and we got through it. Our banks were very willing to do that. But that was the other change we had to do to really see this scale through.
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CHAD: If you're comfortable talking about architecture a little bit, do you have a shared sort of platform that everyone is on? Or, for each of the customers you have, do they have their own instance?
ADAM: So we've made the decision, mostly because of our regulated industry; we felt like it was safer, so each customer gets their own database. We do keep everyone's data completely isolated to protect their information and give them the utmost confidence that it is protected. But we have a shared application layer. And so, our web servers are shared multi-tenant instances. And so it's essentially a combined environment where we're both sharing some resources but then also deploying individual databases and then the configuration because outside of PPP, it is unique bank by bank. And so, the configuration gets deployed within each bank's individual environment.
CHAD: Cool. I've worked on systems like that before, and they can certainly present...especially when you need to scale them quickly, and you've got a lot of new customers being added. You better hope that it's been automated. [laughs]
ADAM: Yes. And luckily, we had a good amount of automation in place during PPP or even going into it, I should say, but of course, PPP stretched that. And so we've just continued to get better and better as a couple of years have gone by.
CHAD: So the second PPP came through. It's in the forgiveness period now, so that's winding down. So Numerated were at that point you alluded to earlier, which is when you were doing PPP, you realized it's not going to be around forever. Let's lay the groundwork now to help customers in the future. We're sort of at that point now, right?
CHAD: So what does that look like for you?
ADAM: So it's essentially expanding the portfolio of loans that our customers can leverage our platform to execute. And maybe to say that better, if you look back prior to PPP, we got our start with small small business lending. And what I mean by that is loans under $250,000 that can be highly automated. That's where Numerated got its start working with Eastern first 15 customers, saw the value in getting extreme efficiency and delivering essentially capital to their businesses in a number of days instead of weeks.
That's what we were great at, very similar to what PPP was, by the way, which was getting money to people in a number of hours in some cases. But we knew that that was never the vision for what we wanted to be or what our banks needed in the business banking segment. Ultimately, they want that same level of use efficiency experience for all of their business loans. But in order to support that, there are a number of capabilities that we needed to build into our platform to handle that.
Underwriting gets increasingly complicated when you are underwriting loans at 500,000, a million, or $5 million. The businesses get more complicated. The collateral gets more complicated. The entire process just becomes more sophisticated. But that's what banks want, and by the way, that's what businesses want. They don't want to have a great experience when they're a little bit smaller, and they've taken out a $100,000 loan and then have the experience be crap two years later when they come back, and they've taken out a million-dollar loan. And so, that has always been our vision.
We've had the fortune of being able to do really well on PPP and essentially just accelerate that vision. And so that's what we're working on right now is really building a loan origination system that allows our customers to transform how they lend to businesses in entirety. We have been building out all of the sophistication I mentioned around underwriting.
We have recently acquired a company called Fincura based out of the Boston area. They automate spreading. If you're not familiar with what spreading is, it basically takes either paper or PDF versions of a bank's financial statements, and it turns them into really critical financial ratios that help banks understand the creditworthiness and the risk associated with the business. So you can imagine what that is.
It's taking OCR, technology, AI, and basically taking what were PDFs and converting them into scores that can then be used to automate and drive efficiency in the credit decision, again, all part of being able to then really transform how banks are doing all of their business lending. But that's what we're working on now, converting all of the PPP customers to use the non-PPP, for lack of a better phrase, parts of the platform and really helping them change how their businesses look at them in terms of the opportunity to access credit.
CHAD: So I think it's probably worth noting you made the decision to join Numerated right before the pandemic hit.
ADAM: That's correct.
CHAD: And so you joined when?
ADAM: My last day at my previous company happened to be the day we closed the office due to the pandemic. I had obviously made the decision prior to that. But then, my first day on the job at Numerated was the second day of PPP. So essentially, you know, call it a week after everybody had gone home for what became the better part of the next year to two years.
CHAD: So I assume making a decision to join a new company, you're going to be the chief product officer. You've had a lot of conversations about what the vision is and what you're going to do. And you're going into a business where hey, there are 17 customers, and we're going to scale. But you probably didn't guess what was going to happen ended up happening.
ADAM: No. [laughs]
CHAD: So I imagine like part of your vision for what you were going to do both as a company and as an individual must have gotten put on hold.
ADAM: It's funny, yes and no. So I will say no to your lead in there. There were certainly times before I started where I was calling Dan our founder and CEO. And I was probing him and pushing him like, is this still a thing? [laughs] Are we really going to go do this? Not realizing what PPP was and really what it was going to mean for our business. So there was that period of time where I wasn't sure. I knew it was going to be different, but I didn't know what that meant yet.
Once I understood what was happening and what we were doing, I actually never felt like it was putting anything on hold. And I can come back to the fact that it put some elements of our business on hold. But for me and why I joined and the vision I had, I was coming to help the team really expand what the platform could do for banks and their business customers and to accelerate the number of ways we could help. I have prior experience working at Capital One and Pegasystems with a lot of the systems and the processes that we were helping to reinvent at Numerated.
And so, my vision was always to come and build off of those past experiences and accelerate what we were doing in this specific small business segment. PPP, in a lot of ways, just accelerated that. It took what would have probably been three to five years’ worth of market adoption in terms of understanding what digital transformation was going to look like, getting customers fully comfortable with a more digital experience, getting comfortable with a more data-driven approach to decision-making. And the pandemic forced all of that to happen in weeks.
CHAD: Well, people couldn't even go into the bank to turn in their paperwork. It had to be done remotely. The staff wasn't there either.
ADAM: And the staff no longer could look at paper financial statements because they couldn't get paper financial statements. And so everything changed overnight. One of our customers has told us at multiple customer events since he's like, "You guys, you let the rabbit out of the hat, and it's not going back." It just changed overnight what was happening in the industry. And then, for us, it gave us all of this extra opportunity to invest and invest more in what we wanted to go do.
Our team, when I joined, was about 40 to 45 people. Our team now is 145 people. And our engineering team went from a little over 20 to just under 60. So we have exponentially changed the rate in which we're innovating and going after things. And so, for me, it's just accelerated and made things more exciting. The one other comment I'll make in terms of putting things on hold it did put some elements of the business on hold because every one of our customers stopped thinking about what I'll call traditional business lending and focused 100% for the better part of 18 months on getting through the pandemic.
And even once PPP was done, there was another six to nine months where banks were trying to figure out, are we really out of the pandemic? Are we ready to start lending the way we used to? Do we need to rethink risk? Because these businesses are all different now than they were two years ago. The things that made a business risky two years ago are different now.
And so there was also a little bit of a hangover as our customers internalized within their own walls what it meant to get back into lending. And so, it did put some elements of that on hold. We were fortunate, though, that we grew so much through PPP. And we actually kept adding what I'll call core customers, not just PPP customers, during that period that our growth actually accelerated. And it's been really good for us.
CHAD: That's great. You mentioned the team growth that you've had. Different companies are organized in different ways. As Chief Product Officer, where do you sit within the organization and relative to the engineering team?
ADAM: So at Numerated, my responsibility includes all of the product management as well as the engineering organization. So I'm responsible with my teams for everything from initial product strategy, the product design. I have all of the UX and design team as well as then all of the execution, the delivery of the platform as well.
CHAD: So does that mean that there's VP of engineering in your organization or some sort of person like that that's working closely with you?
ADAM: Sort of. So I have...basically, it divides more at the director level. So I have a couple of VPs that work for me that have a combination of product and engineering, both experience, expertise, and responsibility. But then their teams have product managers, and then we have directors of engineering that then manage their individuals from teams. I also have a group of former bankers. They're product managers but act as consultants to those organizations. And that's where we get all of our industry expertise. They've worked with the SBA. They've worked in credit offices, and they really help to influence the product roadmap across those teams as well.
CHAD: So the entire engineering structure also being under the chief Product Officer, I would say that and correct me if I'm wrong, I think that's probably not how the majority of companies organize it. Do you agree with that?
ADAM: I have seen both, but I would agree that it is not the majority.
CHAD: I would say if there is a majority, and I agree, I've seen both too, but you might have a CTO and then VP of engineering. And so, the engineering organization goes all the way up to the C-level. And then there's a Chief Product Officer. And here's the product management and product underneath them. Was this an intentional choice from the beginning as you scaled out the team for you to have it all live under you?
ADAM: It was intentional. I will give my personal view on it. I think that as we continue to evolve as technology companies, one of the hardest things for us to achieve is alignment around vision and purpose. And that drives a level of focus that I think maximizes the ability to move the business forward. And based on that premise, the places where I've seen things work the best is when there is a focal point across product and engineering within specialization underneath. Because it drives, I think, the best alignment across the organization.
I will acknowledge, however, that finding leaders that can actually operate effectively in that combined role is extremely difficult because you need people that have a high degree of engineering experience so that they actually know how to build for quality, build for scale, even for things that don't immediately impact the bottom line while having enough business acumen to understand the demands of the business and how to balance those priorities against what we need to grow the business at the same time.
And so, it does create a little bit of a snowflake challenge. I cannot find or replace those roles as we grow and scale nearly as quickly as I can in a divided organization. But I have found that it does help me drive clarity of priorities and purpose and ultimately focus in the organization versus the places I've worked where that hasn't been the case.
CHAD: So I guess given that, then I assume you're hiring. [laughs]
ADAM: We are always hiring. [laughs] We are definitely in growth mode. And we are looking for great people that can help us to build a platform and really transform how our customers are thinking about how they lend to their businesses.
CHAD: Well, I agree. I think there are different structures then that can achieve it. And also, a lot of it comes down to the people but that alignment and that understanding of design, and product, and development or engineering. And ideally, people and all of those skill sets and all those teams who get it and can balance those different priorities with the business is really important, and that alignment of vision. And so there are probably different structures to get it, but that's what you're aiming for. And I think that the structure that you've set up is one which is very helpful to getting that alignment.
ADAM: Agreed. Agreed. I think that while we're on the topic of the team and the culture we're trying to build out, I'll maybe use that as a way to share a few more things that we're really driving towards. You can imagine a company that has scaled the way we have and continues to grow. That presents some other organizational challenges as well. One of my firm beliefs is the fastest way to scale is to create really strong, empowered, decentralized teams. That, again, gets back to the whole vision and focus thing. They have to be rowing in the same direction. But they have to be really independent in the day-to-day.
And so we've really spent a lot of time over the last, I would say, year and a half shifting to that kind of a model to where each of the teams is really embracing what their individual accountabilities are. They are really focused on how they're delivering success for the business and are able to make a lot of the day-to-day decisions. But then it falls to management, leadership, myself to make sure that when they make those decisions, they understand the context in which we're trying to drive the business so that we can do as much as we can as fast as we can but in a way that's high quality and delivers value.
CHAD: Awesome. Well, I sincerely wish you all the best in that. I really appreciate you stopping by and sharing. Thank you.
ADAM: Yeah, my pleasure. I appreciate the time, and good to get to know you a little bit, Chad.
CHAD: If folks want to find out more, maybe apply, follow along with you; where are all the places that they can do that?
ADAM: Yeah, sure. So numerated.com is where they can go and learn more about the business, and they can learn more about where we're hiring. People should check me out on LinkedIn. That's probably where I'm the most active these days. And feel free to message me as well. I'll also give you my email address if anybody wants to reach out. It's pretty simple. It's firstname.lastname@example.org. Whether it's opinions, thoughts, or reactions to anything that I've shared today, or you just want to build a relationship, I'd love to hear from people and get to know you a little bit better.
CHAD: Wonderful. You can find links to all those things, probably not Adam’s email address, in the show notes.
CHAD: We want to protect him from those spam crawlers. But you can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for the episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at email@example.com. And you can find me on Twitter at @cpytel.
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