When Simple appointed David Hijirida as CEO in November 2018, the Amazon alum was excited to get back to his banking roots, the industry where he’d first cut his teeth.
Now, a year into his role, Hijirida is just as excited as he was day one about the mission, vision and potential of Simple to make a tangible difference in customer’s lives, and how they interact with - and understand - their money. Hear more from Hijirida below.
What excites you about being at the helm of Simple?
I took a break from the retail banking over 12 years ago because I was frustrated with how banks treated customers. I often contemplated returning, because I loved the idea of educating and helping people save for their dreams and goals. I’ve worked in very large companies for most of my career, so I knew if I returned, it would be a smaller, mission-based company.
When I was offered the CEO position at Simple, it was the perfect time in my life to apply the tools and leadership experience I gained at Amazon and my early banking career on this really hard problem: how to create a profitable and scalable online banking platform without compromising its mission, vision, and values. Simple was, after all, the pioneer in the online banking space, and its mission to “help people feel confident with their money” combined with its unique people culture was right in line with my personal values.
I also came in with eyes wide open. Over the past few years Simple has gone through a lot of organizational changes and we slowed down our innovation. Getting Simple’s momentum back is a big challenge, especially with competition that is well funded and catching up, potential macroeconomic headwinds, and the heavy lifting of aligning our people and activities to iterate quickly on new customer experiences. I am super energized by the challenge to innovate for Simple’s customers and fight for our mission.
In 2014, BBVA USA’s parent company, BBVA, acquired Simple, a Portland-based fintech company.
Simple has seen a lot of changes over the last 12 to 18 months, from people to products. What should customers know about those changes and your goals for the next 12 months?
I believe the largest changes have been internal, on the people side. In full transparency, we were not great at planning and execution so our people, processes, and technology grew too large and complex. We have started to learn how to unwind the complexity and, in many ways, get closer to our startup roots. While we still have a ways to go, we are already seeing green shoots and testing ideas faster.
In the last nine months we rolled out Protected Goals, our high interest deposit account, for Shared Accounts, paper checks for all customers (that one was stuck in beta for over a year), and improvements to our onboarding and our budgeting user experience. Most recently we tested our first round up savings rules and our first self-service feature to dispute a transaction; both features were rolled out to customers within three months of testing. Our developers championed experiments such as Siri integration and “Dark mode” UX settings for all users.
It’s hard to say exactly what we will be working on 12 months from now, because we reprioritize frequently based on customer data and feedback. However, I’m most excited by our focus on shortening the time it takes to test, learn, and then roll out new customer experiences.
Your immediate background is at Amazon - a company that has completely changed the retail landscape. How will your background contribute to your efforts at Simple, itself a company that wants to change the banking landscape?
I am grateful to have been at Amazon for 12 years, and leaving was a very hard decision. However, the attraction to tackle the challenger banking landscape with Simple was irresistible. And there are quite a few ideas and learnings from my past experience that I am bringing with me to Simple. Two big ones are:
Culture beats strategy over the long term.
It’s hard to predict the future when the banking and fintech industries change so quickly, so for me, building a learning culture where we test, learn and execute fast is more valuable than being exactly right about what our future products may look like. Some things don’t change, of course! People always want to feel secure and confident with their money; they are always strapped for time; and they want a good deal. We will hang on to those concepts, but our roadmap will pivot based on data. This can be a difficult concept for people who want a lot more certainty.
We need to think more like scientists.
As we head toward uncharted territories, we need to be objective, get used to asking each other hard questions, and be willing to walk away from long standing beliefs, even projects, based on data and customer behavior. Our egos should not be tied up in proving our own ideas correct, rather we should leverage data to promote the best ones. Indeed some of the most impactful ideas are found when we find exceptions to long-held beliefs - this is true in science as well as business.
Simple has no physical branches, offering a FDIC-insured checking account (backed by BBVA USA) built to help customers save money and engage in smart spending with built-in budgeting tools.
This year, 2019, marks a full decade since Simple launched. In that time, there have been quite a few neobanks that have come on the scene and are challenging Simple’s digital model. What makes Simple different and relevant today?
I tend to not focus on competitors. I find that most of the time when companies are worrying about competitors, it’s because they don’t understand their customers, and they use competitors as a proxy for the customer.
Customers tell us that Simple’s unique strengths lie within our integrated and automated budgeting and banking experience with Goals, Expenses, Safe-to-Spend, and money movement Rules. After a decade, we have a wonderfully dedicated group of customers that really value our budgeting software. We hear from them all the time - they have gotten out of debt, they don’t have to worry about what they can afford or can not afford to spend anymore, and they are demanding more core banking products and tools. As of today, they have created over 6.5 million goals, expenses, and emergency funds.
Customers are equally as positive about our customer service. We are walking the fine line of providing more automation, but still keeping humans as accessible as possible when customers just want to talk to someone. Managing your money is not just a rational exercise, it’s an emotional one too. And we want to be there to hold your hand if you need it.
After a decade, we also have a very valuable asset that is often overlooked: the lessons learned from all of our mistakes. With the right learning mindset, our treasure trove of experiences, both mistakes and successes, are a huge asset. That is something that you just can’t buy. We are leveraging all these lessons learned to move faster and improve our customer experience.
It’s been nearly a year since you were named as Simple’s CEO. Looking back over the past 11 months, what have you been most proud of and what has been your biggest lesson?
I am very proud of the people who work at Simple. In my first four months I met one on one with nearly everyone in the company. I asked each of them why they joined Simple and what keeps them here; nearly all said it was our mission to help people feel confident with their money, and it’s very rare to find that commitment in a company.
I’m also proud of our leaders, managers, and individuals who are stepping up to make some of the hard decisions instead of kicking the can down the road. This includes the decision to deprecate Bill Pay, which was a very difficult decision, but it was based on customer data and our tradeoffs across our future roadmap. We also made the decision to charge for paper checks, and it was the first time that Simple has charged customers for anything.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that changing culture is difficult and time consuming. We’re still in the thick of it, but I can now feel a momentum building.
What is your vision for the future of Simple?
Over the long term, our primary value to customers will come from our “software layer” of financial management tools that interact with the banking products, combining the experience of banking and financial management into a single experience. By leveraging third party APIs, like BBVA’s Open Platform, for the commodity banking products, we will be able to focus more and more of our time and resources on innovation in the software and UX layer.
If we are doing this right, we will see a feedback loop, or a flywheel, where our budgeting tools become more useful for customers when they add more banking products, and as our customers use our budgeting tools to save more and feel more confident, their need for new financial products will grow. Through this process, we are working to become the most customer-centric financial services provider while delivering on our mission to help our customers feel confident with their money.
To learn more about Simple's banking account and its online budgeting features, click here.