Mobile and big data technologies are rapidly changing the way we think about and manage our money. It’s no surprise then that so called “fintech” startups have emerged as one of the hottest and most innovative technology sub-sectors, with financial technology firms securing more than $23 billion in venture capital and growth equity over the past five year.
One of the entrepreneurs making noise in this booming industry is Brooklyn-based entrepreneur Byron Sorrells. After co-founding a startup called Healthcare Connect in 2009 and later working at Twitter, Sorrells opted to go the solo entrepreneur route with his new venture, Lemon — an automated financial assistant and money tracking software he launched in 2015.
At its core, Lemon aims to inform people in a simple and straightforward fashion about their spending patterns across all their credit cards and bank accounts. The app tracks where users can save money and notifies them about coupons and deals the next time they make a similar purchase. The tool also offers in-app financial literacy tools so people can better understand their finances.
Backed by four angel investors and venture capital firm Precursor Ventures, Sorrells has big plans for Lemon. He hopes to eventually launch the firm’s own products (such as credit cards) and offer a paid premium version of the app.
“The truth is, no one wants to deal with this stuff—being proactive about your financial information is not always enjoyable,” Sorrells explained. “It’s like exercise: important but not particularly urgent.”
Free Enterprise recently caught up with Sorrells to talk about the inspiration behind Lemon and his experience launching a business as a solo entrepreneur.
Why did you start Lemon?
I was still at Twitter in the summer of 2014, and I kept coming across stories of people who had taken a fork in the road financially because they didn’t know some basic informationabout how the financial system worked. I just thought it was crazy that we have Rosetta Stone and Dualingo for languages and Code Academy for programming, but nothing to teach people about personal finance—how credit works, how credit scores work, student loans, credit cards, etc.
So, I sat down and built the Lemon app. Initially, it was just a financial knowledge app, but it turned into something that is much more integrated with your finances. It’s connected to your bank account and actually tries to teach you in the context of what’s going on in your life.
The financial tech space is very competitive at the moment. What sets Lemon apart?
We don’t service any ads. A lot of our competitors pitch a credit card or some other financial product. That’s something I decided not to do, because we can’t say what’s best for the user if we’re always trying to make money off of them. For example, we won’t write an article that says what we think is the best credit card, put up a link to it, and get you to click on it so we’re paid a certain fee. All the companies that do that have advertiser disclaimers on their site in fine print saying, effectively, “What you’re seeing here is affected by who’s paying us and how much they’re paying us.”
The ability to be truly unbiased, transparent, and advocate for the user sets us apart from the established players. It also requires patience from our investors. It’s so easy to say, “We have thousands of users, why don’t we throw some ads at them to make money?”
How do you address that conflict when dealing with investors?
Investors want a proven path to revenue, so for a lot of them, this is a scary thing. Having a mission has helped me decide who to look for and which meetings to take. I’ve saved myself a lot of time by not flying to meetings with people who don’t have a position on financial wellness and literacy. It’s made me more up front about asking questions because I’m not there to just ask for a check, I’m there to partner with someone for the long term.
How did your experience at Twitter and your previous startup HealthConnect help you become a better boss?
One thing I learned [at Healthcare Connect] but didn’t get a chance to put into practice until Lemon was the concept of what we in the tech world call an “individual contributor.” This means understanding that each member of a team has a different personality and way of being productive. That’s actually why I started Lemon as a solo founder: I knew that I expect a certain amount of intensity from someone [another co-founder] at my level.
How has this philosophy influenced your hiring?
At Lemon, we’re still a relatively small team—about six people—and each individual has the ability to make or break the company. We’re careful about who comes in because it can impact the culture, productivity, and direction of the company. Early on, I even wrote a mission to make sure that each person is on board with the core values of the company.
Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs?
Two things. Find people who are truly aligned with what you want to do. This means investors, advisors, co-founders, employees, and friends—surround yourself with a community of people who care about what you’re doing. The second: Just go do it, don’t keep thinking about it. There was never a good time for me to quit at Twitter to start Lemon.