Q & A with Dan Choi, CTO, Starfish Digital
Q: Dan, please can you tell us how long you’ve been at Starfish Digital and where you were before?
A: I joined Starfish Digital in October 2020 as one of the original founders along with my fantastic co-founders Patrick Huang, CEO and Sally Clarke, Chief Revenue Officer. Prior to Starfish Digital, I spent the first 25 years of my career working in Financial Services for major financial institutions including Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, Bank of America, and UBS. I was incredibly fortunate to have opportunities to work around the world, lead global functions, and learn from incredible colleagues and leaders.
My background is primarily in regional and global management of infrastructure, application maintenance and large-scale transformational change management. In 2012 I left financial services and transitioned to the supplier side with Luxoft DXC (Excelian) as the Managing Director, Production Services for financial institutions. This role gave me great insights into client management. It has been a fantastic career that has culminated in forming Starfish Digital. As I can apply all my experience and knowledge while daily progressing on my steep learning hill. I’m so excited about what we're going to do as a company!
Q: You steered one of the biggest banking mergers in history with Bank of America and Merrill Lynch. What are the top three lessons learnt?
A: Yes, I remember vividly the events leading up to the sub-prime crash in 2008 and the news that Bank of America had acquired Merrill Lynch. To date, it is the second largest financial merger of all time. I ran program management for enterprise technology and shared services. It was my job to integrate IT shared services and back-office technologies across the newly combined firm.
I’d say the top three lessons learned are:
Tight planning, coordination, communication, and continual validation are the keys to successful delivery.
Surround yourself with people smarter than you, that are experts in their space and let them impress you. My job was to supply clear direction and aims, the framework of operation, the ground rules, governance and then get out of the way.
Know who are the sponsors, decision makers, critical allies and blockers and always keep active communication channels. An integration of this size and complexity requires daily decisions that affect the entire firm. There will always be detractors! Ensuring key alignment through communication and navigation of “hot spots” are critical to deliver success.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your team at Starfish Digital?
A: I've a fantastic product team at Starfish Digital with incredibly talented teammates. 2020 was our foundation year. As a start-up, we took a very pragmatic approach to building and scaling our team rapidly. In just under a year, we went from concept, to design, to development, to MVP to PoC. The product team has a strong record of accomplishment and expertise in financial services integration. They’ve been core participants in the build out of multiple top tier banks’ digital banking portals.
The key to our success is our company-wide open communications. In addition, we always strive to learn more and challenge underlying assumptions and have a clear company direction and objectives. We started the company based on a set of core principles and a vision that we use as our glue and motivation for success.
Q: What technology trends are you seeing in the open corporate banking industry?
A: The top five trends I see are:
Banks will prioritise digital capabilities and data. Banks are finding ways to monetise digital interactions and expand their capabilities. To keep their central position as the world’s financial processing centres, they must continue investing in their digital core, automation, data management and analytics capabilities.
Bank partnerships with fintechs will increase, evolve and mature. Fintechs will enable banks to extend their infrastructure, accelerate adoption of digital financial products, create entirely new services, and further enhance open banking capabilities to serve more customer segments. Instead of competing against fintechs, corporate banks should partner to remain competitive.
Global interoperability will improve. Regulators looking at the future of open banking are already considering cross-border interchanges between marketplaces in a drive to promote international trade and improve customer experiences.
Corporate adoption of digital banking will increase. Most financial institutions have API banking but make it their clients’ responsibility to build the digital capabilities to consume those services. Currently, less than 30% of open banking APIs are applicable for corporate customers.
Expansion of banking-as-a-service platforms. Banking as a Service (BaaS) is a model where licensed banks integrate their digital banking services directly into the products of other non-bank businesses. By using APIs, complete banking services can now be offered “out of the box.” New products and services can be rapidly created and deployed continually extending BaaS capabilities.
At Starfish Digital, we see a similar trajectory of the corporate banking sector following in the footsteps of the consumer/retail/commercial sectors in terms of digitisation and “open” availability of corporate data. Most corporate banking data is still transmitted via more traditional channels such as SFTP and message formats (i.e. Swift). Only leading digital corporations have the skills and technology infrastructure to consume corporate banking data in real-time. Our role is to make it easy to access corporate data by partnering with banks and providing connectivity and integration capabilities to our customers.
Q: Looking back on the year just finished, what were your goals, and were they achieved?
A: The last year was amazing, challenging, difficult and incredibly rewarding. We started with a vision and commitment to address a particular market need that we saw in corporate banking. Our key goals for 2021 were to define our company, establish our persona, build our MVP, validate our use case, prove idea validation via investment funding, gain accreditation, and build a sales pipeline. I’d say we succeeded in all aspects of our 2021 goals. This week we achieved the milestone of being awarded the Singapore Fintech Association (SFA) Certification, which is recognised by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).
Q: Excellent! Let’s discuss the product a bit more – how is your technology helping customers today?
A: We are an open corporate banking company. We view our product as critical financial market infrastructure focused on delivering and integrating corporate banking data. There are several use cases that we have developed to help customers. Our key aim is to provide the financial “rails” between banks and their corporate customers or other consumers of corporate banking data. We believe, as Clive Humby has famously stated, “Data is the new oil” and our mission at Starfish Digital is to unlock that data and make it accessible.
We offer this capability through our fully managed SaaS product, Starfish Connect. We are cloud native, API first employing a microservices architecture to ensure flexibility while ensuring security and efficient operations. Our product has been designed from the ground up to manage the connectivity, integration, and movement of secured corporate financial data.
For our financial services partners, we help extend their customer reach and improve customer satisfaction by providing end-to-end integration of bank data to their customers’ systems of record in near-real time. This allows our partners to focus more on customer relationships, banking products, back-end processing, and data analytics. We fill in the gap and challenge of technical customer on-boarding and migration to digital services allowing our banking partners to focus on value-add capabilities.
For our corporate customers, we provide a fully managed, subscription based, buy vs build bank data connectivity integration product delivering near-real time data integration. This is the first step towards digital finance and digital treasury management.
While we focus on secure corporate banking data connectivity and integration, we' re also building an impressive list of eco-system partners that can augment our services for our banking partners and our corporate customers. These ecosystem partners specialise in aligned capabilities such as bank side API portal platform development to visualisation and data analytics solutions for our corporate customers.
Digital B2B integration is still very much a developing area and we at Starfish Digital are committed to ease and accelerate the integrations needed as this market continues to mature.
Q: What's been your biggest challenge as CTO?
A: I’d say my biggest challenge as CTO is changing my mind set from delivery management to product strategy and its alignment across the rest of the company. Being a product company puts our product centre stage and it critical that we have an accurate but flexible roadmap; the right policies, procedure, and controls; and tight alignment with the company’s strategy, marketing, and sales vision.
Q: What’s your biggest achievement as CTO so far?
A: The biggest achievement so far has been building the product and validating product proof points. This is really the culmination of a series of micro-steps to define the vision, build the team, develop the product, align messaging and maturing surrounding capabilities.
Q: What can we expect from Starfish Digital in 2022?
A: From the product viewpoint, our next year is entirely about product customer readiness, support of multiple client journeys and use cases, expansion of integration points, and growing our ecosystem of partners. Its all about supporting our sales and have a clear roadmap of product capabilities for our customers that we convert into adoption and delivery.
Q: Sounds exciting, and finally, how would you sum up the past year in one sentence?
A: What a ride, I don’t ever want this to end!
About Dan Choi
Dan Choi is the Chief Technology Officer, Starfish Digital and member of the executive leadership team. Prior to Starfish Digital, Dan was Managing Director and Senior Management Consultant at Luxoft with over 30 years of financial service experience. He has served at the Managing Director level at UBS, Credit Suisse, and Bank of America with senior positions at Merrill Lynch. His leadership responsibilities in financial service technology include mergers and acquisitions, technology production, large-scale global program change and delivery. Dan graduated from Vassar College with a BA (Hons.) in Asian Studies.