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May 26, 2022

Accelerate Spotlight: Portabl on building tools to manage your financial identity

Nell Malone

This is the first in a series spotlighting the amazing companies and founders participating in our Plaid Accelerate program, which supports early-stage fintech founders who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. Learn more about Plaid Accelerate.

Portabl founders Nate Soffio and Alex Yenkalov

Portabl is on a mission to build universal financial identity for all. Portabl builds identity and compliance infrastructure that enables banks, fintechs, and web3 providers to onboard users quickly and securely so that consumers can manage their own financial identity and sync it with the services they wish. Read on for a conversation with Portabl’s co-founders, Nate Soffio and Alex Yenkalov. As Portabl’s CEO, Nate oversees the product, go-to-market, and finance functions. Alex is the Head of Engineering and manages engineering, architecture, security, and product. Learn more here.

Tell us a little bit about Portabl. 

Nate: These days, millions of people manage their financial lives online, from digital banking and fintech apps to the new wave of blockchain-powered services. Despite this, consumers still don’t have a great way of owning and maintaining their financial identity, nor do they have the ability to easily take it with them wherever they go, or rather, wherever they log in. So, consumers are stuck verifying their identity over and over again across different apps and services. In turn, financial services providers need new solutions to streamline user onboarding and manage compliance while maintaining record-keeping and guaranteeing security. 

Portabl is on a mission to reconcile both of these challenges by using a decentralized approach to redefine how modern financial access and identity management work for the everyday consumer. Portabl integrates with know-your-customer and identity verification providers like Plaid, to offer consumers verified credentials that they can use to streamline onboarding across web2 and web3. If we do this right, we will simplify and automate many parts of the identity compliance stack that prevent the financial system from being more cost-effective, inclusive, and equitable.

What inspired you to start the company? 

Nate: I grew up witnessing varying degrees of financial exclusion due to poverty, immigration, cash reliance, and insufficient proof of identity. All of these factors keep people locked out of even basic services. Many choose to opt-out of the financial system due to general mistrust.

Those experiences stayed with me. I spent a decade working in identity and finance and I witnessed how shortcomings affect consumers who are then faced with challenging and opaque onboarding experiences when trying to access financial services. 

Over my career, I’ve worked with many of the world's largest banks to improve their compliance processes and I’ve seen how challenging this can be and how many solutions operate in a silo.

I’m confident that we can apply new technologies developed in web3 to financial identity to transform how consumer identity is recognized and managed across both centralized and decentralized finance.

What has surprised you the most as you’ve built Portabl? 

Nate: There are truckloads of brilliant and opinionated people in the web3 community. The pace of technological and regulatory change is remarkable and keeping up with all of the developments has proven formidable—but we love it.

How does your work impact people’s financial lives?

Nate: When we say ‘universal financial identity for all’, we really do mean it. We’re trying to bring a new type of privacy, control, ease, and transparency to every consumer’s financial life. We’re combining the ease of one-click access with the kind of marketplace transparency of Credit Karma and Policygenius for all of consumer finance.

Tell us a little bit about your background. 

Nate: Sure! I was born in Colombia but grew up in the States. I’m currently finishing up my MBA at Wharton after spending 10 years in startupland working largely in the AML/KYC space. 

Alex: In my case, I was born in western Ukraine in the beautiful city of Lviv but have spent most of my life in Kyiv. I explored a few spaces over the course of my career but spent most of my time at the intersection of decentralized infrastructure and identity. Most recently I worked as the CTO of a company bringing secure identities for non-human entities like machines and products. 

What are your passions or interests? What keeps you occupied outside of work?

Nate: With my MBA behind me, I’m resurrecting some old hobbies while doubling down on Portabl. Outside of Portabl, I’m interested in everything from behavioral economics to public policy. I'm a long-time road cyclist, an avid cookbook collector, and I’m working on my green thumb. I’ve been growing a lemon tree since the start of school, and it just bore its first fruit! 

Alex: I'm a music addict. I love keeping up with the latest releases and going to live gigs. At some point, I want to work on building products in the music industry. Imagine touring with a band and building products for fans and musicians across the globe! But that dream is on the horizon–at least for now. 

Describe your journey into founding Portabl. How did you end up in this space? 

Nate: I have a solid background in KYC, AML, and compliance and have spent the past few years digging into cryptography and decentralized architecture to inform our approach with Portabl. 

Alex: In some ways, my career has felt like fitting puzzle pieces together. 8-9 years ago I was captivated by finance. At one point, I considered pursuing financial analytics instead of engineering. Ultimately, I stuck with engineering and built my expertise in decentralized identity management. When I met Nate, I realized how to connect the dots between my work in decentralized identity and finance.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Nate: Do things that don’t scale for longer than you think. When you’re still at an early stage, it’s better to keep doing things that teach you, even if they are high effort and won’t work at scale. You can always simplify and automate, it’s much more important to get as much feedback and learn as much as you can when you’re first starting out. 

Why did you apply to Plaid Accelerate? What stood out to you about the program? 

Nate: Open banking is critical to the innovation we want to drive in fintech – and Plaid plays a significant role as an open finance company in powering the financial ecosystem of the future. Beyond that, we were drawn to Plaid Accelerate’s focus on supporting founders of color and underrepresented founders. We view participating in Plaid Accelerate as an opportunity to shake up web3 and identity, which, like the rest of fintech, suffer from representation issues.

What has your experience been? 

Nate: So far, the Accelerate team has done a fantastic job of building a sense of community within the cohort and tailoring the program to each of our needs. The curriculum has also provided a vital crash course for all things policy, privacy, and security and has put us in a great position for our entry into the market.

Plaid Accelerate’s value stems from the underlying team — from Nell, the program director who runs the show, to the heads of different business units who have contributed to the curriculum and offered mentorship, to Plaid’s network of generous experts, even up through Plaid’s CEO Zach, a vocal supporter of the program. No question has been too big or too small, and I’d say the hit rate with finding the right person to talk to about one challenge or another is basically 100%. The team has been patient and hands-on, and we’re grateful to have worked with them for the past few months.

What motivates you? How do you stay inspired? 

Nate: I’m of the opinion that user onboarding and data control in financial services is really only 1% complete. I often look toward the EU, UK, and LatAm for inspiration around data standardization, aggregation, and interoperability.

Collectively, the Portabl team is driven to prove that data interoperability is not intractable and there are long-lasting ways to reconcile data privacy and compliance across the web2-3 divide. And, believe it or not, we find these engineering challenges to be really fun, and we’re excited to make the complex simple for our users. 

What changes would you like to see in fintech over the next 5 years?

Nate: In traditional financial services, we’d love to see more players in the lending space embrace alternative data, particularly to help close the gap with people who have little to no credit history. The analog of this problem exists in web3 with respect to collateral requirements; we’d love to add value there too.

In the web3 universe, we’d love to see simpler, more user-friendly ways to set up accounts that better utilize wallets and identity management capabilities. 

What’s one piece of advice you’d share with other founders? 

Nate: When you are first building a product, the most important quality your product can have is true empathy for your users. This is another way of being ‘customer obsessed’, but it’s more specific. Building truly empathetic products means creating solutions that go beyond merely solving a problem. Instead, show your users that you understand not only what they find frustrating or lacking but why it matters by offering a product that addresses the holistic experience, not just the obvious “problem”.