December 10, 2020

As the 2020 pandemic continues to threaten America’s small businesses, it makes sense to talk with people who are saving them, by serving them through technology.

My guests today do just that. They are Ross Buhrdorf, CEO & Founder of ZenBusiness, and his colleague Lamine Zarrad. Lamine, who is SVP, Head of Product, was a guest on Barefoot Innovation last year, when he was CEO of Joust. Joust was acquired by ZenBusiness earlier this year.

(I should note that this is another one of our episodes that we recorded several months ago and had to defer posting due to pandemic-related scheduling.)

ZenBusiness is a public benefits corporation that provides end-to-end digital tools for very small businesses in the service sector, including many “solopreneurs.” This is an enormous market, but it has tended to be underserved by software, by expert services, and by banks, all of which generally are geared to working with larger enterprises. In joining forces with Joust, ZenBusiness has set out to serve customers with ZenBusiness Money.

In our conversation, Ross and Lamine explain that their target market is service businesses with zero to ten employees. They explain that, in order to thrive, these little enterprises need to digitize every aspect of their activity, from marketing to legal to finance. Reflecting a pattern that I’m seeing everywhere, ZenBusiness is seeing the demand for this digitization soaring in the pandemic, which is driving activity of all kinds into digital and online channels. I’ve been saying that, in finance and financial regulation, we’re seeing a decade of technology adoption and innovation squeezed into a few short months.

Ross and Lamine paint a fascinating picture of what is going on with these small businesses, and some of it is counterintuitive. They are seeing extremely rapid growth, widened access to talent as people work from home, and big efficiency leaps arising from the move to operating online. They remind us that some of the most successful brands we know started in recessions. And they have fascinating insights on the future of small business, including on the impacts of Amazon.

They are also thoughtful about the regulatory environment. As they point out, today’s financial market removes risk by charging more for customers who are perceived as high risk, and often by pushing them to inferior products -- which people then get used to over time. With better data, we can all manage risk vastly better, which in turn will open many doors.

I asked Ross and Lamine about what they are doing to promote diversity in the wake of the killing of George Floyd this year and the upheavals that have followed. Ross’s response is incredibly moving -- I have continued to think about it in the weeks since we talked.

More on Ross

Ross runs ZenBusiness. He previously was the founding CTO for HomeAway (NASDAQ:AWAY). His technology built the company from a startup through the IPO and to its recent acquisition by Expedia (NASDAQ: EXPE) for $3.9B. In his more than 30 years as a technology leader, entrepreneur and c-level corporate executive in both public and private companies, Ross helps transform the way consumers interact with technology.

More on Lamine

Lamine Zarrad is the SVP, Head of Product at ZenBusiness PBC. He began his entrepreneurial journey shortly after immigrating to the United States then going on to serve in the U.S. Marines. He then built an expertise around banking regulations and financial services through work at Merrill Lynch and the U.S. Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Lamine co-founded Joust in 2017, which was acquired by ZenBusiness in 2020. Lamine combines his passion for inclusion and product innovation skills to build the ZenBusiness platform.

More for our Listeners

Please follow AIR on LinkedIn and Twitter, and also follow me personally on Twitter @JoAnnBarefoot. And please be sure to leave us a five-star rating on your favorite podcast platform.

Coming up next is my conversation with the legendary Scott Cook, Founder of Intuit. We will also welcome back Alex Lintner of Experian; former CFTC Chairman Chris Giancarlo, with Daniel Gorfine, to talk about their Digital Dollar Project; Nathaniel Harley of MANTL; and Susan French of BBVA Open Platform.

If you weren’t able to join me at Fintech Abu Dhabi, you can watch both of my sessions here. This week I am speaking at the Singapore Fintech Festival, sponsored by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. I’m doing two fireside chats there, one with CFTC Chairman Heath Tarbert, and one with the Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, Patrick Njoroge. I’m also looking forward to speaking at the LendIt Fintech Webinar: The 2021 Fintech Agenda for a Fairer Economy with, among others, Zest AI CEO Mike de Vere.

As a reminder, if it has not made it onto your reading list already, AIR has published A Regtech Manifesto: Redesigning Financial Regulation for the Digital Age. It’s in the form of a Request for Comment. We have received tremendous, invaluable feedback, and we would love to hear more! I’ll be recording it as a podcast as well.

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