5 Startup Lessons from Yodlee Co-Founder Schwark Satyavolu

“You have to be a glutton for punishment to go into this space,” a smiling Schwark Satyavolu told attendees at the most recent Ynext Incubator bootcamp. Satyavolu was, of course, having a little fun with his audience while discussing his experience in financial technology startups during the recent Founders Stories session. When it comes to his years of fintech experience, Yodlee co-founder Satyavolu has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the startup life, and he shared these stories with young entrepreneurs just starting their journey. Satyavolu, who has served at Yodlee, TrueAxis, Mastercard, Microsoft, BillShrink, Bessemer Venture Partners and, most recently, Lifelock, spoke for 30 minutes to a packed room, describing the evolution of his career from software design engineer to C-suite executive. “I started at Microsoft back when it was cool to be at Microsoft,” Satyavolu said. While working on Microsoft Project, Satyavolu became fascinated with creating web portals (think My Yahoo! or the now-defunct iGoogle) and data summarization tools. This led to his co-founding of financial data platform Yodlee in 1999. Satyavolu said his startup raised 4 times as much venture capital as expected, which brought as many headaches as it did moments of triumph. “It was a torrent of money,” Satyavolu said. “We were the early darlings of Silicon Valley back then.” What started as a web portal for a variety of interests – shopping, travel and financial information – eventually narrowed to just financial data. This was a big lesson, Satyavolu said. “We focused on fintech because customers were focusing on that,” he said, stressing the importance of remaining agile as markets change. Satyavolu said he learned five key lessons from his experience at Yodlee: 1. Funding: “One of the early measures of success was how much you raised,” he said. “It’s not a good measure. If I had to do it again, I’d raise a lot less money than we did.” 2. Sometimes, less is more: “At first, we did everything. It didn’t go as far as when we kept drilling down,” he said. “We had higher degrees of success as we reduced our footprint. There’s this rush to put features out, but the reverse worked out very well for us.” 3. Leverage your big partners: Satyavolu suggests using large financial institutions as distribution partners instead of going it alone. “It can be a longer road, but it’s a much more scalable path to success. Consumer adoption is still going to be slower and more complicated than you think,” he said. 4. Don’t be wedded to your original vision: Satyavolu said that while there are some exceptions to the rule, more often than not, you’ll find your success in completely unexpected areas and will pivot the business. 5. Markets change. Change with them: When he was developing BillShrink, a tool that used comparative financial data to educate customers on their options for cell phone and other service providers, Satyavolu said he had to unlearn a few lessons he thought he knew. “What used to work or not work might have legs today,” he said. “There’s a whole new generation of people who have no baggage about the way things used to be done. It allows new markets to form.” As he closed out the session, Satyavolu left participants with a final thought on raising money. “Raise when you can, rather than when you need to,” he said. “Raise opportunistically. There’s no motivation like impending death.”