Farhan Ahmad is the founder and CEO of Bento for Business. He’s worn the hat of entrepreneurial business leader within traditional financial institutions like Barclays and JPMorgan Chase as well as the hat of fintech entrepreneur. Bento offers SMBs a new type of expense management solution that allows them to set budgets and build expense policies into their expense cards. The result is that companies can proactively manage how, when, where, and who can spend corporate money.
Farhan joins us to talk about his personal journey leading payments at large financial services and founding and leading fintech startups. We talk about his customers and what they really need from expense solutions. Lastly, we talk about his future growth and product plans for Bento.
From startups to large financial institutions to startups
This isn’t my first startup. I’ve kinda played in both the large company and startup environment for all of my career. I started off working for a fast growing credit card company, First USA. I had some great experiences there. As the first dot com boom started, I got intrigued by startups and started up a couple companies. I had a phenomenal time building companies, products, and reimagining the world. I took one company public and sold the other.
I came back to the big bank world to see if I could leverage any of that experience. The good news is that I’ve enjoyed working at every place I’ve been a part of and they’ve all contributed in some way to where I am today. I built a healthcare business at JPMorgan Chase that later became Chase Health Advance. I moved from there to Discover and ran their prepaid business and technology business. I oversaw payments for Europe and Africa at Barclays. At these large companies, it was always doing something new, building a business or technology. I love solving complex problems — that’s been the driving force behind my career.
Getting to the Bento solution
Having been in the space for ages, there’s a lot of friction in B2B. I’ve seen what banks have built for large companies and SMBs. I saw how archaic it was and that there was no competition from startups. Also, there was a big change coming. Ten years ago, most transactions in the US were paper based and so were the processes around them. It’s really hard to digitize that. If I get an envelope with an invoice in it, I’m probably going to stuff a check back in the envelope.
Now, accounts payable and accounts receivable workflows have been automated and the processes digitized. But the payment at the end generally remained check based. 80 percent of SMBs in the US still use paper checks for their payments. Now, there’s a reason to switch to digital because the processes have been digitized.
A business pays another business because there’s a person involved or there’s a systemic, automated way. We didn’t want to build a point solution just for expense management. And we didn’t want to build an API-type solution just for automated payments. We thought we needed to build a holistic payments system which we call our financial operating platform which makes it very easy for businesses to replace their checks with a Bento product.
The product can be anything digital — it can be ACH, faster payments, a prepaid card, debit card, credit card or virtual card. Businesses need all these choices. It needed to be a full stack payments structure and not just a card company. We also realized we needed to plug and play into various workflows, like expense and AP/AR. We built everything in a modular way so businesses can. We also realized we can’t be just a technology provider. Financial services is heavily regulated because there’s a lot of risk involved. We focused on building a smart and modern compliance process, so our customers don’t need to worry.
Customers using Bento
Our customers run the gamut. We have small and medium businesses. We also have more tech savvy businesses that use us for systemic workflows and our APIs. We also have very large companies as customers who like what we do but operate in a niche environment. For them, we white label our product, brand it with their brand, and they distribute it in their ecosystem.
I’m a massive proponent of the partnership model. This isn’t a winner take all industry. B2B commerce, according to Goldman Sachs, will be $200 trillion in the next few years. This will be distributed across multiple banks, countries, use cases, verticals. Each of them is nuanced, whether it’s a new market, industry, or a different use case. It’s really hard to say I’m going to go after every opportunity directly. We want to find partners in the workflow. That’s the key thing — there are companies building great workflows. Through partnerships, we’ll break down the remaining barriers.
We don’t currently offer the full stack of payments but will be Q2 or Q3 of this year. Because of our focus on partnerships, we’re always working with new workflows to be the payment of choice at the end of the workflow. A bulk of our efforts will be around the type of use cases we can service.