SoFi’s CEO Talks Membership Strategy, Future of Fintech

April 11, 2019

By Tanaya Macheel

SoFi is on the hunt for millennial, mobile-first investors with two new exchange-traded funds announced Thursday—the latest customer acquisition play for its broader membership strategy.

The new ETFs, or baskets of securities for retail investors that trade on a public exchange, will join the company’s stock-trading and robo-advice products that currently sit under the SoFi Invest umbrella. SoFi doesn’t charge commission fees and is waiving management fees until at least April 2020.

“Some of our products will be for (customer) acquisition, such as this one, and some will make money,” SoFi CEO Anthony Noto told Cheddar on Thursday. “We think it’s a great combination to appeal to people who are underserved by the financial marketplace today. We are a mobile company first and foremost, but we’re still a personal finance company and we want to give new and novice investors an easy way to learn how to invest.”

Fintech companies like SoFi have recently been combining high-yield savings accounts and low-to-no-fee investing products as a way to attract new customers and generate more data from them. Last year, micro-investing app Acorns launched a checking account and debit card, Chase introduced commission-free online trades, and the stock-trading app Robinhood revealed its version of a 3 percent interest savings account.

SoFi initially launched as a student loan provider. But since Noto took the reins of the company in early 2018, the privately-held company has aggressively built out a suite of financial products.

That suite now includes a zero-fee, hybrid save-and-spend account that earns users 2.25 percent interest, a credit card to come later this year, a robo-advisor, and the two new fee-free ETFs, which launched Thursday. Besides student, personal and home refinancing, SoFi also offers life insurance through a partnership with Ladder and plans to launch cryptocurrency trading through a Coinbase partnership this year.

While 2018 was a building year for its financial product suite, SoFi (which is short for social finance) is focused on the social aspect of its membership offerings in 2019, according to Noto.

“We provide our members more than these tangible financial products,” he told Cheddar. “We give them free career advice, free certified financial planning advice, member events, and we’ll continue to add to the more intangible elements of how to get your money right over the next year.”

“The more information we have about you the better we can meet your needs, whether it’s for borrowing, spending, saving or investing,” he added. “So building that data integration and machine learning application is also very important.”

Noto also said the company is still evaluating a banking license. Before he joined the company it applied for an ILC, or industrial loan company license, which would make the deposits it holds eligible for insurance from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The dramatic ousting of Noto’s predecessor at SoFi, Mike Cagney, halted the process in late 2017.

“We would love to have an ILC license (from the FDIC) or a national bank license from the OCC,” Noto said. “It’s a matter of when, not if. It would significantly reduce our costs in being able to lend more money to more people. And we could serve our country much better if we had a license from the standpoint of being able to use insured deposits as a lending source.”

Noto emphasized that SoFi is already regulated on a state-by-state basis and subject to exams by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“We welcome that regulation because we should be running our company in a way that’s responsible and that engenders trust with our members,” Noto said. “The regulations that have been put in place are really meant to safeguard our interest and we’re 100 percent aligned with that.”