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X4 Technology’s Jemima Mann spoke to Keith Vander Leest, Payments Director of the financial services company Cross River, who shared the importance of staying ahead of the innovation curve and his biggest learns from the past 12 months.

Cross River merges the expertise and traditional services of a bank with the forward-thinking offerings of a technology company, enabling its partners to deliver responsible financial solutions to empower consumers.

What has been your biggest learning curve over the last 12 months?

The biggest learning curve for us as a payments team has been our newest product – Real-Time Payments. We built out the product over 12 months ago, and in the past year, we’ve learnt that RTP doesn’t have the capabilities we thought it would from an equivalent to an ACH credit or debit. We’ve had to work with a lot of our clients to figure out how they can use the RTP request for pay. It’s been a bit of a learning curve and our team has come up with different solutions to leverage both RTP, ACH and push to card rails; VisaDirect and MasterCard Send.

At Cross River, we act as consultants and work with clients so they understand the pros and cons of various payments rails, and try to make all our different payment rails available to our clients so they have multiple options. We’re built to work with our partners, and help them scale.

How important is it to stay ahead of the innovation curve with new products in the payments space?

It’s very important as I think about how payments space is changing. The pandemic forced through some changes, leading to more electronic payments and fewer in-person and cash payments. We’re constantly trying to understand new payment rails as they become available and how they fit into our stack of offerings. For me, I’m excited about the demand we’re seeing for payments technology in the international payments space on the B2B side. There’s a lot of archaic forms of payment such as paper cheques within the B2B side, so within the payment processes there is room for innovation.

Cross River combines technology and banking to power brands like Affirm, Coinbase, Upstart, Upgrade, and Stripe. How have changes in consumer behaviour affected Cross River?

On the consumer side, I think there are niche industries, such as insurance, that have archaic forms of payment processes. Historically, consumers were less comfortable sharing their bank account details with a merchant, but were more comfortable sharing their card details owing to the protections card networks offer consumers. Today, we are seeing Gen Z and millennials more comfortable with sharing their account info and more wary of credit card debt.

More than 6 billion people are expected to use digital payments by 2023. What do you see being the industry’s biggest future trends and will they change the types of skills needed?

I think of crypto in two different ways; crypto as an asset and crypto as a payment tool. Cross River has been working and supporting crypto for a long time and we will continue to do so. In regards to crypto, our mission is to bring crypto to the next billion people. When we think about crypto in payments, there’s lots of opportunities on the international side as it’s not tied to any specific geographical location or currency. I think crypto adoption right now is where internet adoption was in the late 90’s and early 2000s, and I think there will be a fall out of the number of crypto companies, but adoption will continue to increase. It’s interesting as the adoption of crypto has been higher in developing countries, which I think goes to show that where there’s less of a stable currency, there is a higher need for an alternative to government currencies.

In terms of skills, the knowledge of old payments and banking will still be important, but there will be a greater emphasis on the knowledge of technology. At Cross River, we’re looking for people who have experience with international payment rails that exist outside of the US, on the B2B and consumer side.

With the number of new competitors like Revolut and Curve rapidly growing, what are the biggest challenges you face when competing for top talent?

International payment expertise is important, and the ability to learn – a growth mindset. Cross River is uniquely positioned, as we sometimes compete with fintechs, but then also partner with them. When it comes to competing against other banks, we have an advantage with our technology. We’ve built our own bank core, it’s all API first and very few other banks have this available, so we have a differentiated offering.

In terms of other fintechs, we’re not going head-to-head with them because we’re providing that last mile connection to the Federal Reserve or to the card networks. We are the bottom layer in the tech stack; the foundation of the fintech value chain. We’re not going directly to end users, whether they are businesses or consumers, we don’t build the user interface, everything is API driven. Everything we do in payments is through partnerships.

How do you make culture important in the WFH age?

From a cultural perspective, we’re growing really fast. We’re still in start-up mode, and we’re building and enhancing a lot of the scalable processes as we grow. There are several of us who are in the office almost every day, but we’ve hired across the country so it’s very much a mix of in-person and remote. The team has got together a few times if everyone is comfortable with it – it’s work hard, play hard.

What key lessons have you learned in your time in the industry?

I’m really enjoying being in a smaller organisation as it is nimble and we can make fast decisions. I joined the payments industry in 2005, where there was talk of a movement away from paper cheques and cash, towards electronic payments. This is a secular trend that is still continuing, with certain technologies having the capability to be adopted faster, with others taking longer to be rolled out into the marketplace.

I think the pace of change will continue to increase, especially with the globalisation of payments.