Behind the API with Jeff Forkan, Gusto

Welcome! On Behind the API, we talk to the people who work to build awesome API products about their journey, learnings, and overall approach.


On today’s session for Behind the API, we are joined by Jeff Forkan. Currently leading in fintech Partnerships at Gusto, he is former Currencycloud, and also hosts the Headless Banking Podcast.


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Transcript, Grain.io:


Welcome, on behind the API. We talked to people who work to

build awesome API products and partnerships about their journey, learnings and overall approach on today's session for behind the API. We're joined by Jeff fortune. Currently in FinTech. Partnerships at Gusto is former currency cloud, and also hosts the notorious podcast, headless banking. Jeff, thanks for being with us today.


Hey Kirby. Thanks for having me on it's super fun

to be on interviewed. I haven't, I don't, I

haven't done other people's podcasts and I'm

always just asking the questions. So it's going to

be, it's fun to flip things around. Um, Well,

should I go through and get it? Yeah, go ahead.



Uh, to get us started off, um, you know, what's

going on with FinTech partnerships at Gusto and

why does it have you excited?



Yeah. Yeah. So good question. Um, a lot was going

on with FinTech partnerships at Gusto. Maybe I'm

just giving a quick background, excuse me. So

people kind of know where I'm coming from a little

bit, but, uh, you know, I was at currency club for

almost four years, um, prior to leaving in

February of 2020, I'm sorry, 2021. And you know,

and that's where before that I was actually, I was

at another company called Finastra where we were

selling, um, software engines to banks to automate

and streamline OFAC screening, as well as

international wires, ACH and, uh, FX. So I got

really deep into the weeds and I have to

understand and compliance in terms of

international payments. And so I took that

knowledge with the current squat. I stopped

current SCADA wishing job opportunity because

there is not really anybody who out there who's

done a good job fixing the crossword payment

problem. And I think current squads probably as

close as you can come to like a true tech platform

that makes crossword payments super easy. They

still have their own issues. Everybody does in

cross border, but they do a really good job. So I

saw like this whole opportunity to bring the, to

clubs tech into the United States and simplify

cross‑border payments. Um, and then I, my thesis,

there was we were going to sell it to banks. Um,

and that didn't work out actually because banks

are like impossible to sell things, especially if

you're a small, a small FinTech company or not,

you know, if you're a Fiserv FIS or one of those

big guys, it's easy. Uh, we, we ended up getting a

white label, product that into the hands of a

couple bikes, two or three in my tenure there. And

then I think we're, they're still pushing that

effort forward. And what's funny is not like some

banks now are starting to build their own API. So

you see like evolve, um, there's falls FinTech,

which is part of, um, central payments. They've

kind of, they are building their own API APIs now,

which is interesting. So that means that companies

that have our FinTech to have API might be able to

persuade those banks to patch them in. Um, but

it's a very slow moving machine, uh, as we're all

aware of, but it's your question like what's going

on with FinTech partnerships of Gusto. I think

that gets us to where we, where we are today. A

little bit is that Gusto is platform is massive,

right? I mean, we have over 200,000 small

businesses growing at a pretty quick clip. And I

think what's really interesting is that that's, I

think that's the, that is actually the, uh, the

sweet spot for FinTech these days. You know,

everything else has been kind of tapped out. You

have their solutions for large corporates or large

corporates are going to go to their bank and

they're going to there. Then they can deal with

some of the cumbersome stuff. Um, and consumers,

we have, I have like 17 different FinTech apps on

my phone right now. There's plenty of options,

whether it's investments, payments, cross border,

there's always an app crypto and whatever. Um, but

for small businesses they've been left behind and

there's still, you know, a huge part of the

economy. I think there's over 20 million small

businesses in the United States. Um, and they make

up something like 60% of the labor force.


So yeah, it's super exciting. There's a lot of

ideas that we have, and there's also a ton of

companies out there, like the Expensify. So we

already have partnerships with, uh, the ramps, the

Brexits of the world that are interested in

figuring out how we work the whole,



For sure. Now in that backstory, you've had

several FinTech stints, and, you know, you spoke

to that at a high level, but I would call some

attention to that. It's the, it's the, some of the

least sexy and hardest problems to solve around

compliance, cross border, uh, FX, a lot of those

things. So what keeps you coming back to like the

FinTech problem solving space?



Yeah, I think, you know, part of it is that like

we it's, it was, that was so hard. You know, that

was one of the, the beauty of working at currency

club for me is that it was a crash course of the

most difficult problems to solve. And so in order

to sell cross‑border payments, you had to be not

only an expert in FX, but also an expert in

Dodd‑Frank. Um, because frankly the banks didn't

understand a lot of the small banks, especially,

which are the sponsored banks don't even do

cross‑border payments. And so they don't even have

a compliance, uh, opinion on how to send money

internationally. A lot of them are just referring

that business over to Wells Fargo or PNC. Um, so

there was a huge education for me and then also

happened to kind of share that education out so

that learning all that, um, I got to really, I

kind of uncovered some of the problems and you

know, now I can, I can kind of see things more

clearly, and it's easier to find some low hanging

fruit that you can fix pretty quickly, but it's,

it's you're right, like foreign exchange as a

foreign language still for the most people in the

us. And so if you can get into that niche, it's

pretty great.



Nice. Now on this series, we really try to hack

developer experience and learn, you know, what is

the fastest way to get somebody using your API or

accelerating like a business development

conversation. And on your side, you look at a lot

of different partners, FinTech, and then even just

general partners on how they might work with

Gusto. And, you know, I'd love to learn a little

bit like as you're evaluating the company, uh,

what's kind of your process for trying to decide

if their tech is quality, like it's up to snuff.

And then what are some red flags for you, maybe

for your team that stick out where you're like,

that's losing some credibility.



Yeah, it's a really good question. And we've in

the last year, it's probably evaluated no joke

over 75 potential financial partners, whether it's

a bag or a processor or a bass or just a payments

company, um, we've kind of looked at it all and

you know, there's the, you kind of have, the

processes are easy, easy place to focus. Cause

you've got a lot of the old guard, um, which is

like your, you know, your Galileo's, your ITC is

your core card, um, and a few others. And while

they have everything you need there it's, their

API is, are really difficult, somewhat difficult

to understand. Uh, it kinda seems like things have

been patched together or, um, it's just

complicated, you know? And so that's like

something that you definitely identify real

quickly when you see like a newer company. Um, for

example, uh, you know, some of the bass players

are like, there's a colo.io. That's an really new

processor, that's doing some cool stuff and you

look at their API APIs and they're so clean and

it's like very straightforward. Like if you want

to do this, here's the API. Um, and so I would say

it's the only thing, but it's kind of the first

thing maybe that you could take a look at it.

You're like, okay, let's, let's qualify this

partner, like, okay, where can I see your API? And

you get into that API guide. And if it doesn't

look great, it's puts a bad taste in your mouth,

I'd say right off the stove.



Yeah. So to kind of rapid fire through it, what's

your stance on somebody having their API docs open

versus password protected?



Yeah. I feel like everything should be open. I'm

super open just in general. Uh, as a person, I

want to share knowledge with people like, Y

there's nothing, I don't think much comes from

like keeping things behind something behind the

scenes. Um, you know, if you got, if you putting

the information out there and you're putting out

good contents, this is kind of a marketing thing,

but like, if people can see that you're doing

amazing stuff, you're gonna, that's great. Like

they're going to be able, you're going to get more

traction. And so I don't see the point of keeping

things behind passwords, especially in terms of

APS.



So on the, in the spirit of storytelling, you

know, one of my favorite companies these days is

Kodak, just beautiful product marketing, very

clear on the use cases. So whenever you're looking

to even just add somebody's website for what could

be a headless API, you know, what kind of jumps

out to you where you're like, Hey, this team

obviously knows what they're doing and they've put

a lot of intention into it.



Yeah. I think it, it does, you know, I mean, I

love Kodak as well. And, you know, I think you can

see even like a plat, right? Like plaids, a great

story. They've just kept it so simple. And like,

all we do is connect bank accounts there. I think

they're evolving to do some more. They do some

payments stuff now, but for the longest time they

just did one thing and they did it really well.

Um, and it's all about kind of those integrations

from the get‑go. So, yeah, I mean, when I'm just

looking at a website, um, if I can see they have a

developers section and they have a solutions

guide, so I can get in there and be like, okay,

here's how XYZ company integrated them. And this

is like what the user inner experience looks like.

Okay. That all makes sense. I can embed this part

or pretty easily if that's not clear, like right

from the beginning, that's probably a bit of a red

flag



For sure. Now, in your position, you get the

opportunity to work with companies that may be a

little bit earlier stage, you know, they're

starting to, maybe they've had a few other clients

they're really working on finding that product

market fit. And so when you get into a B2B deal

with an API company for Gusto or even know work

that you were doing at currency cloud, what are

some things that are important, um, to kind of

make a win‑win partnership?



Yeah. Another really good question. So I think

what's getting to kind of the beginning of the

story, I think we're is that for a long, I feel

like four or five years ago, everyone was like,

oh, I'm going to turn on a partnerships ecosystem.

We're just gonna like open it up to everybody and

it's going to be cool and it's going to cause

everyone's going to use us because we had

partnerships. And I think like that whole thing

didn't work out very well. You ended up with like

a hundred partners and 95% of them were shitty and

they didn't really help drive your revenue. Um,

and so I think we, I think we're dialing back on

that. I know we are Augusta, but I think in

general across the industry, like, let's get,

let's actually take more time to consider, um,

what is a good partner and then make sure we're

going to be strategic and make it mutually

beneficial so that we both have skin in the game.

And then we can see a real path to making revenue,

um, which is kind of the approach is the approach

that we're taking now. Uh, there's huge

opportunities if you find the right partners, not

everybody should be apart basically.



Yeah, for sure. Now I'm shifting a little bit to

your industry view, um, and kind of your side

piece on headless baking. What inspired you to

start at the headless baking, uh, podcast?



Yeah. Like the way you classify as my sidepiece.

Um, but it was actually my old CEO, so I didn't

mention this, but between currency, cloud and

Gusto, I was actually working. I went to work for

a company called remote team.com



And



The CTO is a gentleman named shotgun Boyd us. And

we were kind of, we were getting acquired and I

had some free time.


And so he was like, yeah, why don't you just start

a podcast or something like start talking to

people and get your name out there. Uh, and it'll

help us build our network and things like that.

So, and it's fun. Um, and so I did it and it it's

been great. Um, I'm sure you're kind of

experiencing the same thing. It's, it's a little

bit at the beginning. It's a little bit daunting.

Um, but then once you get the hang of it, it's

just a conversation then you just have fun with

it,



For sure. And I'm behind the API. I feel like I

get to learn a ton from my guests. So it's a lot

of self‑serving for headless banking. I've had the

opportunity to hit a few of the episodes being

from my background, like the FinTech API space. So

interesting. Say for example, you're the CTO of

modern treasury on, so you've got some serious

guests talking about nutrients and like really

awesome stuff. So what are some things that you've

learned from that experience for that podcast so

far while you're like, wow, you know, that's like

a nutrient that I thought was kind of like a

signal, but now it's more noise or like this is a

place people should run to.



Yeah. Yeah. And I've been fortunate that I knew

from currency cloud having and even, and then

remote team and now Gusto, like I have encountered

a lot of these people that have built amazing

products. It's like, I know I knew Sam errands for

moderate treasury four years ago when they didn't,

they just got into Y Combinator. Um, and he was

like asking us at currency, thought how to do

international payments. And I'm like, at the time

I was kinda like, yeah, you know what I mean? You

know, you guys just got started. You're probably

too small. Like, well, let's talk later. They

ended up signing a deal with Scott, I think a

couple of years, you know? But, um, I think again

also like my podcast, I agree. It's like,

self‑serving, so I'm just like super lucky to be

able to interview these people. I learned a ton.

Um, uh, but yeah, some of the signals that have

come out, uh, you know, it's, I think what the

most recent, what I've been seeing most recently,

if you look at the podcasts that I've released,

everything's trending towards us as, uh, it's,

it's a very big theme. Uh, I didn't really see

that until I started talking to more people, but

that does seem to be coming up pretty quick,

pretty clearly.



And you and I had talked before this interview

about API APIs are coming out for HR tech, you

know, hooked into payroll. Obviously we know about

all of the pay key APIs with like plaid

transaction API is a well‑worn path, you know,

with Stripe and everybody that came after that.

Um, what were, what are your kind of looking at,

you know, people that have been on your podcast or

just API first companies, what are two different

ones where you feel like, oh, they're crushing it,

their product marketing is great. Their tech is

also, you know, who are people that we should know

about other than Stripe.



Yeah. Um, so I'll have to give a shout out to colo

for sure. Um, these guys are some big time

industry veteran and, um, Darren buyer over there

and they've, uh, they've assembled a team behind

the scenes of like somebody's OJI payments, people

that, so they've got the knowledge going back 20

or 30 years, you know, I think Darren buyer's sold

the original company to Fiserv in the early two

thousands. Um, and then he worked, he's been in

payments since then in various different roles,

but about three or four years ago, they decided

like the processors all suck, right? Like no one

likes their processor, literally nobody. And I've

been through this, I've talked to their companies

and I was like, yeah, we hate our process.


Um, so they decided to go out and change that. And

they built a new, the first new processing engine

from the ground up. Uh, I think since Marquetta,

maybe, which is like 15 years ago. Um, and so

that's really cool. I encourage everyone to take a

look that, um, and then another one that's,

there's like, there's a couple small business.

They're not API companies. Um, not yet. Um, but

tearful, uh, is one that I really like. They also

have a behind the scenes they're owned by a

company called flow cast.ai and flow cast is

actually an AI engine that creates small business

credit profiles and actually enables small

business lending, which is one of the biggest

problems to solve. If you go in, if you want to

get into like an SMB finance world, is that it's

most, I think like 50 to 60% of small businesses

don't have any credit. And a lot of these guys, or

these owners are just using their personal line,

personal credit to finance the business. Uh, and

so Tilford was trying to solve that, which is

pretty cool.



Nice. And then know, thinking a little bit about

kind of your growth and, um, this new adventure

that you're on with Gusto, as well as doing hello,

spanking. Uh, what's something that you learned

about yourself in currency cloud that you feel

like you're going to apply to the next challenge,

you know, cause you guys were moving really fast

to currency cloud, obviously a lot of success

there. Um, probably a lot of stub toes. And so

what are some things you kind of learned about how

you're doing your work, how you're making

partnerships, um, that, you know, kind of at the

2.0 version of Jeff?



Yeah. Great question. Um, I think one of the most

important things, this kind of coincides with me

leaving current squad and also the pandemic it's

kind of like slow down to get better. Um, so

something I try to do every day is like, there's

so many things that we could, that could take our

attention. And so I really try to decide like

every morning, like what are the two most

important things that I can work on today that are

actually gonna move the needle? Because yeah, I

could get distracted by 75 different things that

come my way, somebody emails me. So it slaps me, I

get a text message, but all that stuff is just a

distraction. And so my thing has been, what I've

learned about myself is like, I need to figure out

what's what I should focus on and let all the rest

of the stuff be noise. And when I do that, I'm

happier and I'm usually better at my job.



Nice. Well thank you for taking the time to chat

with us today. Definitely check out some of the

new partners that Gusto is going to launch next

year, but even bigger plug for the headless

banking podcast. Um, learn a lot of great stuff

there. And also just a shout out to one of your

recent guests, Jake from fly code. Uh, they were

number one on hacker news this week. So let's just

say, let's just say headless banking did that for

them.