Wanted: People from ‘strong company cultures’

Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli

Companies don’t often tell you their job search is focused on bankers with technology and operations backgrounds who built high-growth lenders 30 years ago. But that’s the case with Acorns, a company with more than $1 billion in assets under management (most of it in spare change) and a mission to “look after the financial best interests of the up-and-coming, beginning with the empowering step of micro-investing.” Longtime Delaware banking executive Hugh Tamassia joined Acorns in January as chief technology officer and is looking for 30-50 people to help the company scale its business now that the company has more than 5 million account holders. He sat down with DBT Editor Peter Osborne to talk about the task ahead.


What interested you about joining Acorns? As a parent, I could really get my arms around the mission. Most people need to learn how to save and spend better. Sixty nine percent (69 percent) of Americans don’t have a $1,000 emergency fund. Financial-services companies provide products to customers. This company has a mission and our products are just our vehicle for making that happen. We are creating a habit of saving, which if you stick with it over a long period of time, has really great results.

What is it about the people who worked at MBNA, First USA, and JPMorgan a decade or two ago that interests you in hiring them for Acorns here in and Wilmington? The financial services companies that I worked for had strong positive company cultures. MBNA, for example, was intensely focused on customer satisfaction and the customer experience. I don’t think that culture ever left Wilmington. We have highly skilled financial services talent here in Delaware that has that cultural disposition for understanding what customers need. It’s a good match for Acorns and what we need right now for our company to grow. If you ever walked into an MBNA building, there were quotes on the walls. Everything you did every day was focused on the customer. And people would break out into cold sweats if the phone rang more than twice.

What’s the first thing you’re focusing on? Our products are constantly expanding, and I want to make sure that we maintain a good pace of surrounding customers with more and more products that help them save and spend better. We make it easy. We work with a secure connection with your bank to analyze your transactions and figure out which ones we should round up. Then we go ahead and pull that amount from your bank and invest it onto a vehicle that you choose.

What’s the biggest challenge Acorns faces in 2019? We’re at a stage where people know about us. We need to scale our platforms, scale how we operate, and scale our products. At the end of the day, we are responsible for people’s hard-earned money. In addition to giving them new ways of investing and saving responsibly, we’ve got to treat their money with care, as any financial
services institution does.

What lessons did you take from previous roles that will help you here? Use my experience to create a compelling strategy that’s simple to understand. Then constantly reinforce the important things we need to do every day to get there. Promise my team that I won’t distract them from that mission until we get there and we’re ready to move on to something new. I’ve worked with great financial services companies like JPMorgan and MBNA that were good at focus. They picked a couple things and understood what was required to accomplish them. They measured their progress really well, and they were relentless about accomplishing those things before they moved on to something else. I think those lessons can translate to a [young] company like Acorns.

The media has described Acorns as a “game changer for millennials” who need to start saving and investing at an early age. But you’ve described your target audience throughout this interview as “up-and-coming” and said it reflects a broader demographic segment. Can you elaborate? We make big decisions small and we make it easy for anyone to grow their wealth. We’re mobile-centric, you can get started in minutes, and the process of saving money every week, in small increments, happens behind the scenes. That’s attractive for millennials when you make it that simple. But, that’s not exclusive to millennials. There are 182 million Americans who make less than $100,000 per year. Almost 75 percent of Americans say they would go without internet, coffee, or “Game of Thrones” final season for $1,000. We have five different portfolios that run the range from conservative to aggressive
and meet the needs of all age groups.

What does success look like for you in 2019 and beyond? We’re going to make our Spend product even more compelling with major improvements to our products this year. Along the way, we’re bringing on at least 350,000 new accounts. That’s a lot of new scale onto the platform. We just broke 5 million investment accounts in February, and that was a big milestone for us. I need my team to prove that we have a platform that no matter what we add, we’re never affecting the customer experience and our front-end experience is a lot more reactive and a lot quicker. Go faster, but do it better, right? When we do have a problem, we want to reduce the amount of time it takes to fix it. Then when we have a really, big problem, I want to make sure it never ever, ever happens again.

How is it different doing a C-Level technology job at Acorns vs. one of your former companies? If I grabbed any of my engineering managers from JP Morgan, they would come in and be like, “Yeah, duh, this is how we ran the place.” I think what’s interesting is that for a company like Acorns, these things are not so obvious. It gets back to this theme of, “What’s so attractive about the talent in Wilmington?” When I’m talking to people about coming onboard, walking through the technology stack is one of the selling points. Technology people with a financial-services background look at our platform and the development
that we’re doing, and find it attractive
to do something modern.

You’ve moved a few times in your career between consulting and corporate. How difficult is that? As a consultant, I liked having the freedom to decide how you’re going to spend your day. On the downside you’re always searching for new business. For people like me who are more mission driven than task driven, I like to see things through to conclusion. It hurts when you don’t get the opportunity to do that. But one of the great things about consulting is it opens your eyes a little bit about maybe how you could be doing things different in your day even when you go back to going full time.

Tell me about a leadership technique you like to use? There’s a common software development technique in agile development called the Daily Standup where people talk about what they’re doing and the barriers they’re facing. It’s emotionally important for people to hear other people making progress. It helps you progress. If something’s in your way, say it out loud because someone around that room might be able to help you.

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