Fail Forward Fast: Credit Union Lessons from the Fintech World

There are a lot of fads that deserve to be forgotten. Fidget spinners are one example. The mannequin challenge and Harlem Shake videos are others.

Let’s not get started on eating Tide Pods.

But some trends show us that there are other ways of accomplishing goals. Sometimes, hopping on a trend is less about fitting in, and more about finding a better way of doing things. Without trends, we wouldn’t have text messaging, YouTube tutorials, or ridesharing apps.

Here are a few things that credit unions can learn from the fintechs with whom we partner (and against whom we compete).

1. Push the Pace

Did you know that Amazon makes a software change roughly every 11 seconds? That’s about 8,000 changes per day.

Granted, technology changes are one of Amazon’s core competencies, but still—that’s a lot of changes.

Amazon is helping countless startups, fintechs, researchers, and individual users embrace machine learning, natural language processing, cloud hosting, and more. These kinds of technologies could drastically disrupt our industry (as well as many others).

Meanwhile, many credit unions still aren’t on the cloud.

At what point should credit unions consider these technologies an existential threat?

Well, that depends. If your credit union doesn’t trust new technology and wants to stick with the old-fashioned, tried-and-true way of doing things, then you should consider emerging technologies and software changes a threat now.

However, if you’re an early adopter of innovative technologies and software changes, then the future holds a lot of promise.

2. Understand Trends

Remember all that nonsense about fidget spinners and Tide Pods? Sure, they were obnoxious, but they revealed something incredible:

People are willing to try things.

One of the more interesting trends that has emerged in the last decade is the pop-up business model. Pop-ups are essentially strategically-deployed short-term shops. Pop-up retail shops see higher sales than online stores. Restaurant and bar pop-ups pave the way for new brick-and-mortar establishments.

South Bay Credit Union decided to hop on the trend: we set up a branch for $2,300, and we’re using it to reach new members, provide another location for existing members, and help people near our pop-up location better understand their finances and financial options.

It’s a risk, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take.

Understanding trends means a lot more than hopping on bandwagons, though. Understanding trends also means being engaged with new developments and changing regulations.

Most importantly, understanding trends means understanding members. Listening to member needs is critical to the future of credit unions. It’s the credit union’s job to give its members what they want (within reason, of course). Often, adopting emerging technologies or rethinking old strategies is the best way to make that happen.

3. Think Like a Fintech

Again, within reason. Here’s why: 90% of startups fail.

The reasons for that are various, of course. Sometimes it’s a bad product. Sometimes it’s lack of money. Sometimes their competitors just get there first. Sometimes the development cycle takes too long, or the scope of the project gradually expands, hogging resources.

Nevertheless, many startups make it. The ones that make it share several attributes that allow them to overcome obstacles or changes in direction, like prioritizing agile processes and hosting hackathons.

Here are a few of the most common attributes of great fintechs and startups:

  • They have a great product
  • They don’t ignore things—they actively listen and seek out feedback
  • They work on the business not in the business (minutiae of the day-to-day)
  • They emphasize growth
  • They recover quickly from setbacks

Credit unions already have a leg up in most of these areas. Great product? Check! Our rates are better than banks, and our customer service is unparalleled. Seek feedback? Double check! Taking care of our members is priority number one.

On the other hand, credit unions aren’t exactly in the business of creating new products or technologies the way fintechs do. With that in mind, here are some ways that credit unions can still serve as incubators of innovative ideas:

  • Meet with startups and fintechs
  • Roll out live betas
  • Listen to new ideas
  • Communicate with partners
  • Look outside typical networks

As technology continues developing at a rapid pace, we can play our part by keeping up with it. As we do, we’ll come across products, services, and strategies that benefit our members, our credit unions, and our communities.

Plus, we won’t be stuck with typewriters and personal checks when the rest of the world is using ipads and Venmo.

4. Create a Culture of Innovation

Fortunately, we’re moving into an era in which people appreciate creativity, effort, and authenticity. At no point in history have humans had such a green light to experiment, try new things, pursue exciting avenues for growth.

We support each other’s artistic works in progress on social media. We cheer on our friends as they train for their first triathlons. We let people know we support their efforts, even if they don’t always make it. You will likely find more support if you try and fail than if you never try at all.

Creating a culture of innovation means incorporating the above three ideas into one. Credit unions have to be willing to try new things and fail like a fintech or a startup. They have to understand what people—and the market—need. And, perhaps most importantly, they have to do it quickly.

Here are a few suggestions about how your credit union can speed up:

  • Build a culture of experimenting
  • Budget for unknown opportunities and failures
  • Create trust with the board
  • Report progress
  • Keep contracts short or cancelable
  • Think of vendors as partners
  • Learn at every opportunity
  • Don’t be afraid to pull the plug

The ultimate question is this: are you putting yourself out there? The answer should be “yes.”

Not everything is going to work out. Sometimes, it might seem like nothing will. However, surprisingly often, pushing for innovation will help you to discover or create something really cool. Or, at the very least, you’ll distinguish yourselves from the status quo.

You’ll rise above a sea of complacency, and you might even have fun doing it.

Tasting Our Own Cooking

At South Bay Credit Union, we’re experimenting with new technologies and ideas. We may not be making a software change every 11 seconds, but we’re doing our best to stay on top of critical developments and changes in our industry.

We opened a pop-up branch in a business center. We introduced CU Live video chat to support video banking for our members. We introduced Lease Look Alike and Visa’s Credit Card MobiMoney for our members’ convenience.

Not everything we’ve tried so far has worked. But that’s okay. We’re not here only to learn how to succeed.

We’re also here to learn how to fail. And we’re failing forward.

If you’d like to learn more about some technologies that can help your credit union, then check out the following blogs:

Email Marketing vs. Automated Marketing for Credit Unions

What Credit Union Marketing Automation Is, and Why It Matters

Jennifer Oliver is the President and CEO for South Bay Credit Union. She was previously the CEO for California Bear Credit Union. Overall, she has 30+ years of credit union experience, and 22+ years executive leadership in credit unions, including a focus in progressive management, sales & operations.