This week we’re having tea with Allison Barr Allen. Allison is the COO and co-founder of Fast, a one-click login and check out startup. They recently raised a $20m Series A from Stripe and Index Ventures.
Previously, Allison was Head of Product Operations for the Money team at Uber. She is also an angel investor with Trail Run Capital.
In this episode, Allison shares:
Highlights from Series Tea with Allison Barr Allen
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Immad Akhund: You started angel investing, then left Uber and joined Fast as a co-founder. Tell us about that journey.
Allison Barr Allen: I was at Uber for five years focused on payments and financial products. I started in a Driver Operations role in Chicago. At the time, Uber had driver support centers where drivers would come almost seven days a week to get in-person support. What really struck me was that payments were incredibly important. If there was an issue with their payment or they didn’t get it on time, it was incredibly emotional for them. I believed it was such an incredibly important part of what we were doing at Uber and it was vital to get it right for the drivers.
I moved to San Francisco a little over four years ago. I ended up growing a team there to focus on product strategy and scaling and launching products. About six months ago, I joined Fast as the co-founder and COO.
Can you give a quick description of what Fast is doing?
Fast is building one-click checkout for the internet. Our goal is to be on every device, every type of browser, in every type of company.
It’s a problem that still impacts almost every company that does business online. Right now, you have a one-to-one relationship with every business you interact with. You have to create an account, enter your payment information, and it’s stored one-to-one. Our goal is to scale consumer interactions across businesses to help merchants increase conversion and make it easier to buy things online.
Why do you think that incumbent financial tools don’t serve their customers that well? What are the systemic issues that make fintech possible and finance kind of suck?
A lot of it depends on what payment methods have been built by banks and governments in different countries. A lot of countries have built this at the government level to enable faster payments than what we have in the US. Banks also have a lot of regulatory capture here.
For many banks, it’s better to keep things the way they are rather than make it better for the consumers. And they really haven’t gotten tons of pressure to improve. There are a lot of business models in Asia that we don’t have yet. I think a core reason why is that is we just don’t have this payments and identity infrastructure layer.
What’s really interesting is enabling micro-payments at scale in a way that hasn’t really been done before. Once we get to the point that our API can be released, there are a lot of innovative business models that can be built on top of this. Right now, a lot of these are being built in silos rather than at a platform level.
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You’ve made fintech investments and you’re working on a payments startup. Do you think a lot of the opportunities in fintech are at this UX/UI layer, or do you think they’re throughout the stack with payment rails or infrastructure?
From a personal interest, I’m more focused on the consumer layer. That’s where you’ve seen a lot of companies get pretty big in the past five years or so. Mercury obviously is growing really fast. You see Robinhood and others building a much better consumer-focused UI layer and building it in a way that consumers better understand.
If software and user experience is not the core focus of your business, it’s pretty hard to build that world-class experience. Obviously there are exceptions but I don’t think older banks have been particularly good at this layer.
There are now new huge incumbents like Robinhood, SoFi, Square, and Wealthfront. Are opportunities mostly captured for this new wave of fintech or do you think we’re just getting started?
I think fintech is just getting started. When I first started thinking about venture capital and angel investing, I wrote an investment thesis called Frictionless Finance. This was the spring right after crypto; Bitcoin had hit $20K and then gone back down. All these huge Bitcoin and crypto funds were getting set up and everyone was saying, “This is the future of payments and financial services.”
I’d say most of what people predicted hasn’t really happened. People did a really good job of identifying a lot of the problems: payments need to be easier, identity needs to be better, we need to remove a lot of his friction. But I’m not quite sure that crypto was the right technology because it generally needs to be done in the sphere of existing regulations and government and identity services.
When I was talking to investors about potentially investing full time, I tried to identify fintech focused investors. There weren’t a lot because there’s so much nuance in this space and you have to have an expertise to be really good.
That’s true. Whether it’s payments or lending or depository, you need to understand it. Do you think that’s leading to less companies forming in this space?
Even in my own personal life, I still see a lot of payments experiences that can be improved. We just bought our first condo in Tahoe and it’s shocking to me how manual the mortgage process is. As a person focused on payments and identity it’s just really painful.
There are also so many middlemen that take significant cuts.
I know, it’s so manual. And as a founder, thinking about B2B payments, a lot of people may not realize how much paperwork and manual payments are involved on the company building side. Even to wire investments into companies, you have to check the bank statement to confirm that the wire got received by the right person. Unless you’re having some of these experiences, you may not realize how big some of these problems are.
How do you think about organizing a company so that customer experience and design is at the forefront of the product?
We’ve thought about user experience and ease-of-use from the very beginning. Fast was founded initially when Dom saw his wife’s grandmother was unable to order groceries online. That spurred him to think about passwords and passwordless authentication and how we can make the internet easier for people to use.
As we build out our design org, we joke all the time we want Fast to be the favorite product for 70 year old grannies. Making it as easy as possible for all types of people to use the internet and buy things.
I guess it’s tempting to test with people who are younger. Have you done user testing with older people to see how they’re using it?
We don’t have a full user research org yet. But it’s how we think about fonts and simplicity and ease of use when we’re looking at designs. Making sure that it looks almost stupid simple.
I think a lot about the simplicity of products. I think it’s way harder to make a product that’s simple than one that’s more complex. As you get bigger, people are often rewarded for shipping new products or making things more complicated because they feel like they’re doing work when a lot of times it may be better for the business to reduce the number of products or reduce menu items. But when you get really big, people have their specific button or whatever so it’s easier to make things more complicated. It takes a lot of thought and work to remove things or make things more simple.
You did this video showing a hoodie instantly showing up in someone’s hand, which is kind of a consumerish angle on a B2B startup. How do you think about content and brand and how you position Fast?
We ended up hiring a full-time videographer pretty early on so we’ve been able to do a lot of cool content and videos. We’re going to think about podcasts and other things as well. Brand is really important because to build a big company, you have to have brand awareness and repeat the same message sort of over and over again so you’re top of mind when people think about a problem.
Do you still have a full time videographer?
What’s a company or product that you’ve used in the last month or two that you were really excited about.
I discovered a company called Timeline app. It’s based in the UK but it’s a wealth management dashboard for investment advisors. I’ve done a lot of research in the investment advisor and personal finance space and they have some really unique dashboards and user experience things that I haven’t really seen before.
Are you thinking about it from an investment perspective or you’d want to use it?
Probably both. I always have an investor mindset but I also do a lot of personal finance stuff; before I started investing in startups I taught myself all about the stock market. I’ve helped a lot of my family set up investment accounts and it’s a pain to log into everyone’s Vanguard account and track all this stuff. A lot of these user flows are not great to track people’s retirement assets holistically.
Have you had any good embarrassing moments while fundraising?
I don’t know if I have one. One interesting story is about meeting Stephanie Cohen from Goldman Sachs who is investing in our angel round. Dom and I were in New York and I created this insane schedule where we had 30 meetings in four days. We were back-to-back nonstop all over the city.
We were with David Haber who works at Goldman Sachs when Stephanie showed up by the elevator. David says, “This is Dom and Allison and they’re building one-click check out.” And Stephanie goes, “Just this past week I needed to buy something for my son, they didn’t have it on Amazon, so I had to buy it on this other site and it was so annoying.”. She understood it immediately which I thought was really awesome and now she’s going to angel invest.
Did she make a commitment right there in front of the elevator?
No but she got some other women from Goldman Sachs to invest as well. It’s kind of fun.
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The Mercury Team