The Prime View had the privilege to speak with Roberto Arnetoli, a distinguished businessman, former CTO of Prosper, co-founder at Credimi and Fairfield Marketplace Fintech companies.
Roberto, during your career, you have been a part of several companies. Can you talk about your career progression and your role in building new organizations?
Since the early 1990s, I have worked in various companies in the IT segment across Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US. I initially moved to the UK for three months to improve my English and stayed there for over ten years. The life-changing moment was a senior position at Capital One Bank in Nottingham, UK. The bank was building its presence in Europe, and my business unit was responsible for extending operations to Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. Working at Capital One, I realized that I wanted to do new stuff, create new things, and not constrain some of the things that more traditional large corporations have to deal with.
Capital One also linked to another key event in my life. Later on, one of the founders of Capital One, an investor and a board member of Prosper.com, offered me a role at the company. I did not hesitate for a second; I took it. That is how I landed in the US. I joined Prosper with dual responsibility as Executive VP of Technology and Operations.
The company grew relatively fast and went from zero to over 2 billion dollars in personal loans. I stayed there for about four years.
After Prosper, I joined Western Union, and there I had a few roles and was responsible for Big Data and Data Science. My love for data and analytics attracted me there, and I had many exciting experiences.
Co-Founder at Credimi and Fairfield Marketplace, former CTO at Prosper
I moved back to Italy, setting up with a co-founder and CTO, a fintech company called Credimi, a very successful startup in the invoice advancing business. My main project is yet another startup, another fintech, but different—a marketplace for debt collection that is just about to launch.
Can you tell us more about this experience working in larger organizations like Capital One and Western Union? How would you compare that with smaller ones in terms of readiness to innovate?
I think in both, you can innovate. You should innovate; there is no other option. While being ready to innovate and transform business, startups and enterprises face different challenges. It is reasonably easy to get energized in startups and get excited about the new things you want to do.
One of the challenges for startups often is keeping it practical. I saw some startups that were potentially to have great results, but they failed because they could not bring the ideas to something tangible.
The second challenge is that you have to do everything and wear multiple hats. Large organizations have advantages, can surely benefit from their organizational structure, and experienced practical resources. On the contrary, in a startup, you need to put your head around many ‘less exciting’ things like regulations, accounting, finding an office, and many more. Why is that a challenge? Because in startups, you tend to see more often than not younger people, fueled by great ideas but having little or no experience in operational things.
The good news is that now startup incubators take away that pain and make a business launch easier by staying focused on innovating and creating.
If and when possible, I would suggest any startup to collaborate with the services company, which can help by taking away operational tasks from them.
Innovation processes on the enterprise side are generally slower-moving and more cautious about everything. Anything that you want to do, change, and innovate takes more time. Even if you are creating a new product unlinked to the current business, it is still challenging. There are dependencies like compliance, security, and brand management.
Big enterprises aware of these limitations create innovation labs or separate business units and usually shield them by taking away the pain of day-to-day operations. All you need is to make. Creativity within large organizations that do not do so can become very quickly very difficult.
Financial services have lagged most other industries on the innovation curve due to regulation and industry-wide minimal risk tolerance. How do these factors impact the way FinTech companies can innovate?
Regulations definitely can be challenging and time-consuming. While important, they are often taking away your focus from creativity and innovation.
As an example, at Credimi, being a startup in FinTech, we had to go through heavy banking and financial regulations and apply for a license from the Bank of Italy to launch the business. In getting this license, it was not easy even to convince them that we should not have necessarily needed our physical servers but that we could safely and more efficiently use Amazon AWS.
Regulation is something that you have to deal with and can sometimes stop you. What can you do to lighten the process? My suggestion would be to partner with somebody who can bring the necessary knowledge and connections to your business.
Try to look around and see what is already there or what other, similar startups have already done—no need to start from scratch or reinvent the wheel every time.
What would you say the major trends in FinTech are going to be in the next decade?
In terms of FinTech, there is a clear trend of more and more companies focusing on payment methods. The trend is to make it easy for people to do transactions, and the easier you do your transaction, the safer you do it, the more successful your business will be.
This trend will continue at least for the next decade. Many more companies will appear in that area. In Italy, we have a large company called Telepass that has established its business across Europe for highway payments, toll payments. They became a payment processor because within the same token and the same device; you can pay for several things, not just highway or parking fees.
Credimi is in invoice advancing, and my new company, Fairfield, is in debt collection. I am sure there are many other areas where you can transform financial operations.
I know you are CTO at Fairfield Marketplace right now and think it would be interesting to talk about the company as it has an innovative and fresh idea. However, I realize that the product is not delivered yet, so I am unsure whether you are ready to disclose any details about it right away?
At Fairfield Marketplace, we create a marketplace where a collection agency can directly talk to what we call credit owners. We are streamlining the process, which currently in Italy is still very manual and very paper-based. I am afraid I will not be able to tell you much more. We should be launching in the next few weeks, so hopefully, you would be able to learn more soon.
How can an effective leader drive innovation?
Innovation is about looking around, thinking about how to apply existing things to my business or my industry. Innovation does not necessarily mean creating something that does not exist.
To me, innovation is sometimes doing things in a novel way that perhaps already exists in other markets.
So again, in the case of Fairfield Marketplace, this is certainly an innovation to debt collection but is not new in general.
You are very busy. What are your secrets to managing several projects simultaneously?
There is no specific recipe for being productive or efficient. It is true that I work a lot and do different things. Right now, alongside Fairfield, I do consult.
In business, you have to be able to delegate. Delegating does not merely mean asking people to do things for you but to let people do things by themselves. That part usually brings many challenges. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to control every aspect and every task execution.
Control is specifically true for startups. You would find many strong people there who find it difficult to admit that they cannot do everything themselves and rely on other people. What can you do here? You could try to put yourself in the mindset where people around you bring more creativity and more innovation to your business. Not necessarily, a hundred percent the way you see it, but the bright side of delegating is a new way of doing things.
Another helpful thing is to surround yourself with people that can be independent. I prefer to have a team where people take ownership of what they are working on. Sometimes tools and methodologies, if they apply in the wrong way, can become more limiting. We have to try not to over-control innovation. Innovation needs to be free.
Due to technological advancements in the past decade, some sub-industries have appeared, e.g., fintech, ad tech, edu-tech, etc. In your opinion, what industries will have the highest growth in the next 3-5 years?
To me, the two sectors have plenty of opportunities to be empowered by technology. These are agriculture and logistics.
Despite the unfortunate situation with Covid-19 we find ourselves in, the world population is growing, and we will have serious issues with food shortage. Here technology advancements applied to agriculture can be very advantageous. My family already does some small experiments in the domain. My wife is in the agro-business; she produces olive oil. We believe that technology can take away some of the manual work and improve the way things are organized by using data and replacing human decisions, human expertise, and empowering human action by adding a layer of analytics.
Very few realize the AgroTech industry’s potential as this idea of technology bringing innovation to crop fields is not yet on the business radars.
The second industry with immense opportunities for innovation is transportation and logistics. Transportation, especially in situations like global lockdown, brings ultimate value to an array of businesses. That is the area that I am ready to bet.
There is strong competition in the Cloud world between Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure. Google Cloud Platform evolves rapidly and holds a strong third place. Who do you think will be the winner of the race in 5 years?
I can tell you my preference based on many projects. I do believe that Amazon is ahead now. Amazon AWS allows me to be freer by taking away the burden of managing certain services while still allowing me to use my software or my solution preference. On the contrary, once you enter Microsoft Azure, you are a little bit stuck with their solutions and their product.
Just one example, on top of my head, if you use queues, you can use Amazon’s service SQS, but you can also use MQ, which is more of a market standard. So you are less stuck with using their services. Amazon is doing a tremendous job by creating more and more tools and services that could push or inspire innovation. You do not necessarily need to be innovative in technology. You have to be very aware of what is happening.
Roberto, thank you for taking the time to speak with The Prime View and share your expert insights. I believe our readers will find them both interesting and useful.
Stay tuned for the next interviews!