“We don’t believe in automations in customer service. Our customer service lines are answered by human beings”
After a very traditional past in banking, Francisco and his two partners, Rafael and Eugenio, opted to combine technology in investments with personalized attention to their clients. The result is a regulated fintech, which today successfully merges the best of two worlds, the established and the disruptive. In this edition of Meet the C-Level we learn about the entrepreneurial path that Francisco has transitioned to create SoyFocus.
By SIMALCO Brandlink
Some say that life begins at 40. And others that at 40 an existential crisis occurs. And it seems that this number has been key in the life of Francisco Errandonea -married, two children, industrial civil engineer from the University of Chile-because his fintech venture registered a 40% return in one of his three funds during 2021.
The platform that combines simple language with a low commission fee, starts the year with positive numbers. It was born with the idea of educating Chileans on financial issues and democratizing investments, allowing anyone to invest online, in a simple and personalized way.
– How did you get started and why in that field?
I spent many years working at the Santander Group, starting out as an analyst after graduating from the university, and from then I grew until I became general manager of the stock exchange, a position I held for nearly three years until I decided to change the course of my life
– This happened just when you turned 40, the age when many people do things like buying an expensive sports car…
The truth is that for a while I had been wanting to create something of my own. In fact, with a group of friends we would get together once a week in a rather amateurish way and make plans, but nothing worked out, because I think that nothing really works if one does not put all their effort into what one does. But also, being in a good job prevents you from going any further.
Also, I began to see that there were several things changing the industry in which I was working: cryptocurrencies appeared and there were many topics that combined technology and finance, which seemed interesting to me to explore, but I did not have the time to do it seriously with a formal job. So, I decided to fully study what was going on and see if there was any opportunity to make something of my own. Also, my motivations were not to be left behind and I had this feeling that I did not want to retire and think that I had never tried something different.
– How did you come to put it all together with your partners?
While I was thinking about everything, I ran into one of my current partners, Rafael, and we realized that we shared the same idea and then Eugenio arrived, also very interested in the issue that we thought was not resolved, which is how one provides financial services to regular people, who are not of high or very high net worth. The three of us had met in the Santander group and Rafael was also a classmate at the university.
But SoyFocus did not start like it is today. It began more in relation to cryptocurrencies, but then we began to doubt on the idea, because cryptocurrencies seemed to have heights that did not make much sense to us and I had heard about these robotic investors, so we decided to address the issue of helping people with their investments and savings. This was almost three years ago.
– So, you just created a robo-advisor or robotic counselor for investment, with Artificial Intelligence?
I did. I mean, I learned about programming at school, and I decided to refresh my knowledge, I updated myself, took a course in artificial intelligence and mathematics and developed the first robot that was our foundation. Today the robot is being perfected, but then we realized that the issue of building a company goes beyond any choice of portfolio. A company like this has challenges in commercial, legal, people and development areas. But yes, we started with that idea, with the development of this robot, that was the original idea of the project.
– Your industry is quite regulated. How was that process of starting from scratch?
The project had a long incubation process, mainly because it took us a long time to obtain regulatory approvals.
Then we went for funding- and once we raised the initial capital, we requested authorization from the CMF (Chilean Financial Market Commission). The truth, regulation is neither cheap nor easy. We spent months with hired people who could not operate, because we did not have the regulatory seal of approval. It was longer than we expected because they also changed the authorization process right in the middle of our process, which took about nine months and our first day receiving clients in formal terms was until October 18, 2019.
– That date is very important in Chile because the following day the “social outbreak” occurred.
Yes, but the good thing is that over time it turned out to be super powerful, as we quickly had to adapt to make the company work remotely.
– In many ways, in Chile it is said that the outbreak was a kind of preparation for what happened later, with the pandemic.
We already had technology people working outside of Santiago and some outside of Chile. So, both the October event and the pandemic caught us in relatively good shape because we had the ability to work from anywhere in the world.
Having said that, the truth is that we felt that we had been very unlucky. But on the other hand, I think there are opportunities. I think that for us, both the social outbreak and the pandemic allowed us to move forward quickly, because we lost our fear of doing things technologically. It was challenging, but we finally managed to pull it off.
– How was putting together the team, how was the process?
One of the things about moving from a large company to a new smaller one is that the large company makes a series of things rather invisible. In our case, being the founders, we had to do all the recruiting ourselves, from the selection, the whole process and we had to generate practices, a series of things at the beginning that weren’t so simple.
And the other issue is that we are a company where more than half of the people are technological and there is a big demand for developers and people related to technology that did affect us at one point.
Today we have a very good team, Latin American professionals, working from different countries and thus we have managed to solve this deficit. In general, in Chile it is not that there is a deficit of people working in technology, but rather that the demand has risen so much that the number of developers in in the country is simply not enough and that is an issue that I think will prevail for a long time. But today we at least have reasonably complete teams for the challenges laying ahead.
A PATH OF IT´S OWN
Francisco Errandonea explains that his greatest difficulties were not only in defining the legal and work model for his fintech. There was also the whole process of raising capital – they have had three rounds to date – and acceleration. None of those stages where the typical startup stages. Again, because of their history in banking.
They reached out to the networks they already knew from their time in Santander We analyzed quite a bit the issue of entering to Corfo (the Chilean government incubator) or accelerators; the problem with that is that applying requires a lot of work, too. So, we decided either we go that route, or we leverage our work experience to produce it. And in that work experience were the networks that we, the three partners, worked with during our fifteen years in relevant financial institutions. And there was a lot of conversation there, getting together with people, listening to their advice, that also helped the process of raising capital.
– Anyway, did you suffer a little in that stage of raising capital, was it very difficult?
It is not a simple process, although I believe that in our case, we managed to raise a significant amount compared to starting with nothing. But it is a process that is emotionally very difficult to manage and it’s very peculiar because, as a rule, either everyone funds you or nobody does (….) So, you must convince one person and then the others will follow, like a domino. Besides, emotionally it is super difficult to handle, because your brain somehow becomes your worst enemy and one day you feel that your idea is terrible and the other day that it is magnificent, and you also meet many people with very good intentions who say they are interested in the project and then never come back.
– But you did it, you got the funding…
One day the stars aligned, and we raised the capital with great people. But basically, the whole process is less glamorous than it seems, there is a lot of suffering.
– Who are your main investors today?
We have quite a few: there is the Claro group of Matías Claro and Jorge Claro, who were the former owners of the soccer channel. There is also the GTD group, there is Taram, which is a VC fund, plus Antonio Gil, former general manager of Moneda, and Max Israel, director of the Atton hotels, plus family and friends. I would say that we have a very entertaining group of people who trusted us and continue to trust SoyFocus.
THE HUMAN TOUCH
– In practice, you are fintech, but you chose to go down the path of being regulated like any traditional financial company. That’s hard when you’re small and new.
It’s because I believe that it is the standard that one should have. I have always said that when one handles money from third parties in this industry, in general, it is believed that this money is a mere number in an Excel spreadsheet, but it is not: it is money that our clients left aside. They trusted us with their savings and that money represents hours of work, we hold their dreams. So, any mistake from us is much more expensive than for a delivery company that sends you mayonnaise when you wanted mustard.
We have been asked many times if the fintech bill which is under discussion in Parliament will affect us, but it won’t because we are a fintech that operates under the same rules as traditional competitors–but at the same time we are a fintech because a bigger part of our team are developers, because we do not have physical branches, so, we work online but under the rules of the banking industry.
One of your funds returned over 40% in 2021. Did you expect those results?
When you look at the numbers, 2021 was a pretty good year for global investment. What surprised us is that we got high profitability unlike the rest of the industry, and I don’t think that can happen every year but it should happen in the long term, because we have two characteristics: we charge much less than the industry on average and on the other hand, we have a form of investment based on this robot, which is not affected by emotions in decision-making. In general, bad investment decisions have a lot to do with emotions and although it is difficult for us to follow it to the t, it helps a lot at the end.
– But 2020 and 2021 have been irregular years…
In March of 2020 the world looked very negative in general. Many of my friends just wanted to sell, liquidate, as a norm we didn’t move much our investments and the economy started to improve as well and that helped us to be super disciplined. I believe that nobody in this industry can predict the market. On the other hand, when the stock markets went up a lot, we didn’t change our strategy either, investing in stocks that rocketed, which is a very typical mistake, instead we have remained relatively constant, but that profitability above 40% signaled a good year although irregular, but we do believe that we are going to continue producing higher for longer periods than our competitors.
– How do you see the recovery in 2022?
I believe that this scenario is much better than a year ago, which was an economy that was going to take many years to recover. Now what we see is that we must live with the consequences of the short-term measures taken in pandemics, because a series of instruments were injected so that the economy, ‘the sick’, would be saved. An issue that is making noise lately is the Ukraine situation, that needs to be looked at in more detail because it can destroy this recovery worldwide, especially through the increase in fuel prices, but I’m optimistic. I think we are much better off today than we thought we would be in March 2020.
– How is the connection with clients? Since you said that you don’t have offices, but you said that you are aware people are trusting you with their dreams
That for us is vital, we do not believe in automation in customer service, we have human beings answering clients, we have a chat and an email on the page that are answered by people and many times we have people who, for example, have asked us to see our offices, we have done a couple of tours, we make video calls, we are very close. We respond in less than a minute and a half to the questions our clients do… and for us it is a fundamental focus because that is where we are different. We listen, serve, and respond, but the only difference with a bank is that we have no branches, but we serve in the same way or in a better way that any bank would do, and it is the reason that most clients have come to us: when they move from a traditional institution to ours is because we take care of them very well. There are no silly questions here, we are super transparent, and we respond in a timely manner to everything that people ask us, because as I said before our customers are not numbers on a spreadsheet.
– Are there any plans to grow outside Chile? To which markets?
We want to open operations in a second country, hopefully during the first part of the year, but we are looking at various alternatives. The issue, again, is that given the industry we are in, the regulatory issue is a thorn that must be remove. So, we are looking at alternatives.
– What other aspirations does SoyFocus have for the coming years?
We are expanding the scope of the company towards financial health, in fact that was the reason why we created the company, which is financial health, it is much more than savings, it also has to do with handling your debt. In Chile there is a lot of unfamiliarity about debt products and many people use credit cards for projects that they are going to pay in a couple of months, which is very expensive. And we are in the verge of launching a product associated with companies, to help their workers improve their financial health.a.
– So, everything is linked to providing financial services to more people, more democratically?
That is what motivates us, being able to advise. The big difference in customer service in the Chilean financial industry, especially in the world of people, is not necessarily the lower commissions, the big difference is that people require advice. No one can dedicate a whole day to do accounts or compare credits in the computer, those are difficult rather boring processes, and we want to help the with that, we want to provide the level of services that, for example, a person has in private banking…we wish to be able to provide that set of services, that counseling and that support to people, regardless of the amount they save. Our goal is to level-up the field by advising people, not that a doctor must need to learn finances, that makes no sense.
– Do you think that Chile is now a good country for entrepreneurs to flourish?
Chile has had a series of companies that have been leaders, and we see that other companies are moving towards that path, which is a kind of wave of entrepreneurship that this country did not have for a long time. It is true that the country is in a process of expression, regarding how we are going to conduct ourselves in the coming years [because of the new Constitution that is being discussed], but that process must be left to follow its course. I believe that today, unlike in the past, there is much more social acceptance, more tools, and forms of financing in Chile for entrepreneurship and this is only going to grow, regardless of the more structural discussion that the country is having. I don´t see this wave of entrepreneurship that Chile has seen changing radically in the following years.