Do Your Research Before Changing the World

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Shivani Siroya knows what it means to do your research. The Santa Monica based entrepreneur made sure she knew what she was dealing with before making the jump to pursue her dream full-time, conducting over 4,000 interviews with potential users and reaching out to 1,500 advisors to solicit feedback on her business plan.

While many entrepreneurs start companies to solve a problem they feel uniquely equipped to solve, Siroya took a different approach. Wanting to tackle the issue around credit access and unequal access to capital in these markets, she worked backwards to make herself the ideal person to solve it. With Inventure, Siroya and her team are giving micro-business owners a way to build credit through mobile technology, working hands-on with these users to rethink credit and, ultimately, change the world.

How did you get your start?

I started out in investment banking doing traditional equity research, but there was just something about it that didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t want to be analyzing companies selling diet drugs; I wanted to work with companies doing something with impact.

I found myself drawn to this idea that we don’t all start from the same place. Everyone isn’t given the same resources — and that impacts our ability to succeed. My whole family is from India, so I found myself thinking about solutions for bringing people out of poverty by getting them the funds they needed to start a business. With Inventure, we’re using technology to give people credit in some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

I started thinking of new ways to give capital to a business. If it was given in the right way, and the entrepreneur had the right skills, they could grow the business. Additionally, we needed some type of data trail to get those businesses from the micro-credit environment then into a formal banking environment. I wanted to close that gap.

From there, I got my master’s in econometrics and health economics to better understand systems, then went to work at the UN Population Fund. There, I had the opportunity to work directly with micro-business owners in nine different countries across West Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and India. This helped me understand how micro-credit was impacting their quality of life.

Afterwards, while working full-time at Citigroup, I conducted around 4,000 interviews and realized that the two things that these micro-business owners were missing were:

I realized what was missing was essentially a credit score. After the UN I went to work at Citigroup and I started to think through how I could solve this problem. How could I gather the data needed? What did these customers have? I started chiseling away at this idea and eventually arrived at the idea for Inventure.

Inventure collects data using mobile tech, provides real-time credit scoring, and enables micro-business owners to get credit when they need it. We’ve tried to change the entire value chain of lending. When we gather data, we’re developing a credit score for our customer, then providing customers with a loan they can use to grow their business or improve their lives.

How did you know when it was time to make the leap to work full-time on Inventure?

There was a moment in 2012, when I was still full-time at Citigroup and elbows deep working on Inventure, when my manager took me aside and said, “I think you have another job.”

It was definitely a wakeup call for me. I was waking up every day around 5:30 AM to work on Inventure, working a full day doing investment banking, then getting back to Inventure until late into the night. But, it didn’t phase me because I was so excited about our work. When that manager took me aside, I realized that this was something real and recognized.

But, I didn’t immediately quit. I got an opportunity to take a sabbatical and work on it full time. Two weeks in, I realized how much more I was getting done and took that next leap.

How did you prepare for that leap?

I was really prepared. I have a phenomenal advisor and mentor, Elizabeth “Beezer” Clarkson. When I talked to her about wanting to quit my job, she gave me the best piece of advice: not to quit my job until I had six month’s worth of rent in the bank. It let me pursue my idea fully with no external pressure. By the time I was ready, I had also amassed a small community of other people who I could ask for advice and feedback.

How did you build that support system?

It’s hard to get plugged into a community. It takes a lot of effort. So, I did a kind of intense thing: I messaged 1,500 people on LinkedIn. I knew I wanted to talk to everyone and anyone who could help me build this thing to solve this problem. I didn’t think of it as getting advice, I just really wanted these people’s input on my business and what I was trying to do. Turns out, asking for advice is not threatening to other people. It’s the best way to actually get to know someone as well — and you might even find something in common with them along the way.

While a lot of founders start companies because they see a problem they are uniquely skilled to solve, it sounds like you found the problem that you wanted to solve then made yourself the perfect person to solve it.

Totally. I look back the opportunity I had to do all those interviews — all 4,000 of them; that really allowed me to understand how people in emerging markets were living their daily lives. How did they spend their money? Where did that money go within the economy and how did it come back to them? How many customers did they have? There’s no way I could be doing what I’m doing now had I not had that opportunity. The research was the building blocks to the solution.

How do you use technology in your product now?

We think of the product not just as an app, but as an experience. It’s not financial services, it’s financial experiences. We’re trying to rebuild financial services and build these better habits. We want people to think of us more like a friend, someone who is there for them, as opposed to this institution.

For example, when we want to send our customers a reminder to repay their loan, we don’t constantly bombard them with notifications when they don’t have any money in their bank account. Instead, we give them a reminder the minute we see a deposit hit their account. More than 80% of people actually paid us the minute they got that reminder.

We have an Android app that works on any device and gathers data around our users’ lives. We are able to bring in historical financial transactions, location data, social network data, demographic data, and GSM data — prepaid, postpaid phone data — to develop a unique credit score.

What I learned from all of the research I was doing was that while a lot of these users can look volatile or erratic in terms of spending power and income, they’re really dependable and consistent. They’re doing all these different things that make them really credit-worthy. If we took a traditional banking approach to this, we wouldn’t be able to see that, but with this phone data we’re actually able to get that insight into what their story is.

How do you see your solution changing as these markets change?

I think our solution will continue to evolve as technology changes. When we started, we gathered data using text messaging and voice technology, but now that smartphones are prevalent in emerging markets, we’ve built an app for Android. I’m not sure where technology will go next, but we will always adapt it to make Inventure easier for customers to use. The fact that we can seamlessly gather data means that our customers don’t have to constantly change their behavior and input all this data themselves.

What would you recommend others do to better understand their customers?

Experiment. You can put up a landing page and quickly get results. You can put up a Facebook ad and understand whether people even have a demand for your product. Even small companies now have the resources to do these kinds of tests, so they should be starting to think a little more downstream and at over-looked customers. Because those customers are online. They are definitely already reachable.

I was in a training session in Kenya with one of our older products, working with this guy named William. I’m walking him through how to use SMS to set it up, working with the app, and when we’re all done, he tells me he understands the product, would totally use it, but wishes there was an app — whipping out a second phone, a smart phone.

I was like, “Dude, I just spent like an hour with you, and you never showed me that you even had another phone.” And he said, “Well, you never asked.” Now, every time we do a training session I have everyone hold up all the devices they own. After months of doing this, we realized that our customers have transitioned. And we need to transition with them.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out who is looking to change the world?

The only thing I can ever say to people is: Do your research! Hopefully, you’re not just starting a business because you want to start a company, or make a ton of money. Find a problem that you can be excited about to solve for the long-term. That’s the thing.