This is the ninth article in our Winners of WealthTech series, where I interview people who have made their mark in wealth management technology with a track record of innovation and success.
Check out my previous interviews with Angela Pecoraro, CEO of Advicent, Eric Clarke, CEO of Orion Advisor, Bill Capuzzi, CEO of Apex Clearing, Lori Hardwick, President of Advisor Innovation Labs, Cheryl Nash, President of Fiserv Investment Services, Stuart DePina, President of Envestnet | Tamarac, Bill Crager, President of Envestnet and Aaron Klein, CEO of Riskalyze.
The feedback on this series has been overwhelming! If you have a suggestion for someone you would like to see interviewed here, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m excited to present our next Winner of Wealthtech, Anil Arora, CEO, Envestnet | Yodlee. Anil is an experienced software executive who has been working in technology and consumer marketing for more than 30 years. He has held the chief executive position at Yodlee since 2000.
Under his leadership, Yodlee has been a disruptive catalyst for innovation in the financial services industry and has collaborated with leading institutions, entrepreneurs, and fintech developers to build and distribute data-driven financial apps used by millions of consumers and small businesses around the world.
Anil served as Chairman of the Board at Yodlee, Inc. from March 2014 until November 2015, when it was acquired by Envestnet, Inc.. He has been a Vice Chairman of Envestnet since 2015. Prior to Yodlee, Anil served as Senior VP and Global Chief Marketing Officer at Gateway, where he led its Internet initiatives. Prior to Gateway, he served as VP of Marketing and Strategy at Pillsbury.
He also serves on several advisory boards including the TD Ameritrade Advisor Panel, Rydex Financial Services Advisory Board, Operating Committee of Your Silver Bullet, NorthStar Financial Services Group and Constellation Trust Company.
What was the driver behind your decision to join Yodlee?
I spent the first 15 years of my career in the mass market, selling widely available products to everybody, such as Kraft Foods. What Gateway taught me is the world is changing because technology is enabling greater personalization, like the example we just went through. I can sell you a computer that is completely based on your needs and a five-minute conversation. Four days later, you get this computer that is personalized for you.
The genesis for Yodlee was born out of that same core concept, which is “why is it that financial services aren’t customized for each user?” Regardless of your financial position, we all have exactly the same experience in logging into our banks online, and assessing brokerages, wealth management or credit card activity. There is no recognition that each of us has a different set of priorities, a different set of issues, a different set of values and, a different set of behaviors.
What we’ve been able to do is provide some of that personalization by saying it’s not one size fits all. We can understand the data across all of your accounts that you have. People typically have an average of 15 accounts and based on that intelligence and info, we can then create very personalized experiences.
What is the story behind the name Yodlee?
Our founders were originally from India. There’s a popular Indian song that goes Junglee-junglee Yodlee-yodlee. A serial entrepreneur named Rakesh Mathur founded a company called Junglee, which was a very successful and was acquired back in 1998 by Amazon.com as part of their e-commerce software group. Some of the people from Junglee decided to start a new company and they liked the progression of the song so they took the name Yodlee.
What has been the biggest insight in your career?
I was reflecting upon 33 years in the workforce after I got out of business school, and I said, “What is the one single thing that has influenced me the most and has been my biggest insight, my biggest learning?” I keep coming back to the same fundamental thought, which is no matter what industry you are in, we have to deeply and comprehensively understand what the needs and wishes or problems are with the end user, the end consumer, the client, if you may, of that service.
That’s where it all has to start. Do we completely understand our clients? Part of that was influenced by my early days in the consumer packaged goods industry at companies like Kraft and General Mills. It was reinforced when I went to Gateway Computers and this notion of you can deeply, deeply understand what customers need. Then your strategy flows from that. Your vision flows from that. Your product flows from that. That’s the key insight that I’ve had.
CI: I didn’t know that you were at Gateway. I bought a Gateway computer.
AA: Did you? In the black and white spotted box?
CI: Exactly! It was a great little computer. I bought it for my in-laws’. It was a blazingly fast Pentium 386 SX-16 (current CPUs are probably 20,000 times more powerful than that, but I bought it in 1992, so it’s understandable).
AA: That’s a great example, because at that time, there were standardized PC models. You could buy an IBM or a Compaq or whatever, but they didn’t really focus in on what the customer wanted. What we realized at Gateway was that each customer had a different set of needs. When you called up and said, “I want a computer,” we said, “Before you talk about a computer, tell us about yourself. Who are you buying the computer for? Oh, you’re buying it for your son. How old is your son? Is he going to use it for gaming or is he going to use it for educations purposes?”
That let us personalize the hardware and software to fit your needs. That’s a great example of understanding the customer and I think that’s what we’re trying to do now with current financial services technology.
What’s become more important to you in the past few years and what’s become less important to you?
What’s become less important is the software and the hardware. In my Gateway days, a lot of value add came from coming up with better, faster, cheaper hardware speeds and feeds and bits and bytes. The last decade or so, has been all about “let’s show you yet another way”, a beautiful application and more software and functionality. I’ve seen more spending and budgeting pie charts and floating charts and bubble charts than I care to imagine. I think there’s diminishing value on that end. I think where the value creation is now going to come is in the data and the intelligence.
The part that I’m seeing less important is “are you building the world’s greatest software?” This is not because I don’t think software’s isn’t important. I think it’s hugely important. I just think it’s becoming less of a differentiator. The real value creation is coming from the intelligence and the data.
How do you stay motivated to keep innovating?
I stay motivated by looking at the problem we’re trying to solve and check every once in a while as to how we’re tracking against that. I can see that clients are so overwhelmed and stressed out mainly due to their financial well-being. 65% of clients say their financial well-being keeps them awake at night versus only 33% who say it’s their physical health.
What is it that we collectively can do to change this? I think a lot of it has to do with simplifying and integrating, but most of all I think it’s taking the data and generating insights and actionable intelligence.
We’re making a difference. I don’t think the traditional players have innovated as fast as they could. I was struck by the survey I saw on LinkedIn that said globally there are 6,500 Internet companies that have come out with new innovations. Back in 2000 there were two or three.
There’s tens of billions of dollars in funding that have gone into this as well. There are a lot of people trying to crack the code. Today, according to the same study, one out of every two clients who has a bank account also uses fintech services and 25% of those who have a bank account are using three fintech services.
I think you’re beginning to see very innovative products and a sampling of which can be seen in the Yodlee incubator program, though we’re in the very early stages of making this truly simple. It goes back to more deeply rooted issues. Bill Crager talks about it starting with education. At our universities, we teach people a lot of esoteric subjects, but we teach them nothing on how to manage their financial lives. They come out into the world unprepared to understand the basics. It starts there, but we as a technology company and data company can do more to address that. I think that we have barely begun to move the needle.
What’s your morning routine?
My wife’s a therapist, so she has really synthesized for me the importance of mindfulness. After I wake up, the first 15 minutes or so I just make myself a cup of tea the old fashioned way. Before I touch any technology stimuli or information, typically my laptop, I just sit there and clear my mind for a very short period of time.
CI: Is that a form a meditation?
You know, the meditation I did when I was very young, solidified a set of principles that were important to me. There’s about five of them that I repeat every morning. They’re very simplistic and almost childlike, such as “I want to be the best I can be today”. Then, I shave and I think about that principle for a few seconds, along with a few others I have. It’s very simple, but I find that it works for me.
What are you passionate about?
What I passionately believe is that you get out of life what you put into it. For those who’ve known me since I was in high school, they’ll tell you that I’ve always been very focused. Whatever I touch, I get very deeply involved in.
I also belong to Young Presidents of Organizations (YPO), which is a peer group of CEOs that’s probably the premier CEO peer group organization in the world. I don’t know what the member statistics are, but I believe it has about 15-20,000 CEOs who collectively manage 15% of the world’s businesses. I joined it, but I also became chapter chair and I’ve worked at state and regional events. If I’m going to do it, I’m going all in!
What do you think of when you hear the word successful?
I had a very fortunate set of experiences when I first got out of business school working at Kraft. I got lucky in that I worked for a series of leaders, one after the other: Bob Eckert, who went on to be CEO of Mattel; Rick Lenny who was the CEO at Hershey; and Betsy Holden was the first female CEO of Kraft.
What they taught me is success is all about winning. I think it’s a very insightful thought because you could say success is about experience. You could say success is about growth, but in the business world, looking just within that context, effort is nice but results need to happen. Winning is what I think of when I think about success.
What bad advice do you hear people giving out most often?
Well, I think the one thing that’s a big challenge for some companies in Silicon Valley is that it’s a big challenge for some companies widely regarded as the cradle of innovation. On the other hand, I think you have a culture of “get success and make a lot of money very fast”. Sometimes the focus on making a lot of money leads to higher employee turnover. The average tenure in Silicon Valley is, I believe 18 months.
I don’t know how much you can truly impact a company in 18 months. I’ve worked for three or four companies over 33 years. I think that’s the wrong advice, which is just chase financial gain. I think it leads to a bunch of short term decisions, which is creating companies that are unstable. This is another reason that I have been at Yodlee for 17 or 18 years. If all I was doing was chasing a financial outcome, I wouldn’t have stayed here so long.
What we tried to do is create a company with real, profitable revenuesand growth. That’s a whole different thing than what happens in many firms in Silicon Valley.
Who was the biggest influence on you during the early part of your career?
I think it was a string of managers that I worked for, the Bob Eckerts and Betsy Holdens of the world. I’m a big believer that we as individuals end up being an amalgamation of all the people we either work for or know. We pick up bits and pieces of the people we spend time with. I feel great that I was so lucky that I picked up a little bit of Bob Eckert (who joined a private equity firm a few years ago) and a little bit of Rick Lenny and a little bit of Betsy Holden. Each one of them taught me several things.
An insight that I still practice until today is about making important decisions, which I think can be made in two ways. What we are trained in business school to do is be very analytical, analyze the pluses and minuses, pros and cons. I remember 32 years ago, Betsy Holden saying to me, “When you’re making really important decisions, stop for a moment and flip it around. Instead of looking forwards, look backwards. Pretend that you’re in your rocking chair. You’re 85 years old. What do you wish you would have done?”
Interestingly, nearly half the time you might come up with a different answer when you look back because you’re taking a much longer time perspective than when I’m looking forward. A simple example, the people who have influenced me and how they’ve shaped who I am.
CI: I’ve heard that told another way where they’ll talk to people who are 100 and ask them what they regret. They haven’t regretted doing something. They regret not doing something, not taking chances.
AA: I’ve read that a lot myself, yeah.
What book have you gifted most often?
You know, I haven’t really given books out as gifts. I was a voracious reader when I was younger, I read multiple books every week. Perhaps one of the things I haven’t done as well lately is that I don’t read as much. I’m probably reading right now one or two books every quarter, which is much, much less than I was reading before. I love the books I’m reading. I read a lot of different areas of interest. I’m a big fan of Carl Sagan — I’ve read every one of his books. I also read a lot of books by Stephen Hawkings in astrophysics.
I also love historical fiction such as Season of the Witch, by David Talbot. Which is a history of San Francisco. The city used to be very conservative and very religious. The population was primarily immigrants, Irish and Italian, mostly Catholic. When you think of San Francisco today and you think, “How did that happen?,” this book lays it out.
How do you maintain your entrepreneurial spirit?
It’s a big challenge. When I joined Yodlee, I had worked in larger companieslike Kraft and General Mills. Gateway was what I’d call a mid-sized company.
Then I hit age 40 and I said, “You know, I’ve done very well in corporate America, but I don’t want to be 85 or 100 years old saying, “Should have, could have, didn’t do it though.” That takes a leap of faith. I took a leap of faith and I joined Yodlee. I was not a founder and the company had been founded a few weeks prior to my joining. I had gotten to know a lot of the VPs.
I though, “I have no skills for a startup company,” but I felt the personalization potential and ended up at Yodlee. We had less than 10 employees then. Today in the Yodlee division within Envestnet, we have 1,200 plus employees.
I learned that a startup is more difficult than being in corporate America because there’s no safety net. You’re performing aerial stunts, acrobatics. In corporate America, there’s always a safety net. In startups there’s not and you have moments where you feel like, “Oh, my God. This thing is going to be done by tomorrow.” The highs are higher. The lows are lower.
All the bureaucracy that exists in large corporations doesn’t exist at a startup which is how you can get things done fast. You can make changes overnight — the speed of it, the simplicity of decision making. Then as you grow, you start realizing you need some processes. Your question is still incredibly important because I don’t think it’s an either/or.
I think it’s finding the right balance for where you are in your life journey, or a company’s life journey, and it has to evolve a little bit at a time. If you reach a certain scale and have no processes, you’re going to fail. If you get to a certain scale and lose that entrepreneurial spirit, you’re going to fail. One of the two or three things that keep me up at the moment, always have to do with wondering if we have the right balance, and how do we maintain that balance?
The way I try and achieve thisis something I’ve done for at least 10 years, without exception (except when we went public). Every quarter I take my executive team offsite for two days. The reason is that it’s like a marriage, you’ve got to work at it. We spend the first day not talking business at all. We just talk about ourselves and the team, what are we learning about, what are we doing. The second day we get into business. By doing that every three months, we constantly ask ourselves that question, and the opinions vary.
Then we get into debates. Some people will say, “I think we’ve crossed that line. We’ve become too bureaucratic,” and others will say, “Oh, my God. We need some process.” Then we sit there and we have discussions. But we ask the questionsat leastonce a quarter for the full day. That’s what kept us, I think, in the right balance.
What message would you send to your 25 or 30 year old self?
I think it goes back to what you said about your people who hit 100 years old and then look back. When I came out of business school, I had a fairly predictable career path: getting my MBA, then going to work for a large company. Looking back, I wish that I had leaned into doing things like a startup earlier, following my passion earlier and taking more risk because now I’ve come around to thinking more about experiences. Yeah, I may have failed once or twice, but I was so intent on not failing, having that perfect track record, and in hindsight, I should have leaned more into, perhaps, doing some of the things I did later.