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Signals Fintech Founders: Ansa's Sophia Goldberg

On serendipity and building fintech infrastructure.

Signals Fintech Founders: Ansa's Sophia Goldberg

Sophia! Super excited to chat, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and what Ansa does?

Yeah, happy to. So I'm Sophia Goldberg, Co-founder and CEO of Ansa. We're a seed stage startup based out of San Francisco. I will tell you more about that in a little bit, I'm also the author of the bestselling Field Guide to Global Payments, which is the 101 I think everyone in payments and fintech should read, and I’ve been in payments for about six years now. I worked across commercial and product roles out of San Francisco for Adyen for four and a half years. Before payments I did a kind of smattering of non-fintech things.

Love it. So we're going to jump right into talking about the book. Tell us about that experience. Why do it?

Hubris! Honestly, I thought it’d be easier, so I think that was part of it. It really stemmed from a gap I saw, which is also how I ended up building Ansa as well. I would call it my Jackson Pollock moment. When I started in payments, there was Payment Systems in the U.S. and that was the one tangible book you could go learn from. But that book really wasn't accessible. It wasn't helpful for me either, especially because I was at Adyen and a lot of the work I was doing wasn't U.S. payment systems-related. I was a complete sponge while I was at Adyen, and I built out some training programs. I got a lot of joy out of training new hires. I sat on the board of Payments Ed, which is the payments education forum. They do two conferences a year and it's very education-based. That made me realize that I like teaching and demystifying payments.

In the middle of the pandemic, when all of us were quite bored and watching Netflix and doing different things, I ended up rereading Payment Systems in the US and kept saying, like, "I would have explained that differently. I would have put these topics in a completely different order. Why don't I just try and do that?” A lot of people were writing at the time, and Substack was getting bigger but I didn’t want to just launch a newsletter. I wanted something tangible, something people could reference, something they could hold. I didn’t know how to do SEO, I don’t have a marketing background, so I didn’t know how people would find my writing if it were a blog. I also didn’t want to have to write every weekend for the rest of my life, so decided to go the book route. Part of that is also just because I love books, but really have something tangible to hand people that mattered to me too.

So you’re the founder of a seed stage startup in SF, but you’ve also written a book. You know, those are, in my mind, I think of them both as entrepreneurial ventures. When you compare and contrast, how do the early days of building Ansa compare to the early days of writing a book?

I've never been asked that question! I like that one. I think there's a huge amount of both overlap and difference. The overlap is it's a very self-starting endeavor, and you can tell folks about what you're either building or writing and that creates a great accountability network for yourself. But with a book there is a clear end. There is finality. Whereas a startup is the exact opposite, on the ambiguity spectrum. And so that's very different. Like there was ambiguity around the book of like, “Will anyone like this? Will it be any good? Will it be helpful?” and there's a vulnerability to that, but it's very different from a startup, where there's aspects of “Do we have product market fit?” Or “Does what we're building matter?” Like, “Is this going to change the paradigm of payments in the way we're planning and hoping it does?” 

You also have a lot more people with you in the journey with a startup. A book is a very solo endeavor, and I remember working with my editor and interviewing people but it’s pretty solo. It’s rewarding, but I’m enjoying startup land so much more.

Love it. So you’ve raised $5.4 million from Bain. You spent six years in payments, four of those at Adyen, but you started your career out in consulting? Political consulting correct?

Politics and consulting, yes.

Help us get from A to B, with the amount of startups I meet on a yearly basis, I would frame that as a nonlinear career path.

Yes, I agree. And I think also within payments, I've been nonlinear. So in undergrad, I studied political science and art history. I think the common thread through everything is I'm just like a really curious, nerdy human. I just dig into things and keep digging and whatever keeps my interest the longest, I stay with. I'm six years into payments and I think I'll be here forever because it feeds that in me. So in undergrad, I did like the classic summer in investment banking, summer in management consulting, and-

The pipeline, as I like to call it.

Yeah, it was like, “Oh, I think I like banking,” and thankfully someone in my life said, “You're a really creative person. This is not a creative industry. I think over time you will hate it.” I've thanked that person so many times in the last decade for saving me from that, because I really liked the style of work during my internship. So consulting had that creativity. I liked it. But then I also worked in Parliament in the UK in undergrad for a year, I studied abroad in London and I really liked that. I really liked the tangibility of trying to help the world, but it was so slow. And so I didn’t like the pace of work, even though I loved the work. Then I worked on the Clinton campaign, and also liked that way of working. I liked the work itself, but it didn't go the way we wanted. So after that I went to grad school in the UK, and coming out of that with with Brexit and Trump having just happened, and me not really knowing what I wanted my career to be like because I had initially planned to be in public service international organizations, I actually just ended up at a five-person startup in Stockholm. That was purely because a friend of a friend’s dad was an investor. They needed someone who could just be a Jane-of-all-trades ops person, and they were like, “Sophia’s from the Bay Area, she must know startups!”

Yeah, like, “Oh okay, seen the Golden Gate Bridge before? She's got it.”

I had one 45 minute call with the founders and was like, “Yeah, I'll move to Sweden.” It felt like one of those things that I'll only ever regret not moving to Sweden in my early twenties. And I am really grateful for that experience because I realized I really like operating at a small scale, the dumpster fires of being super agile and being super collaborative. For me, it's just a really fun and rewarding way to work. But I didn't really care about the subject matter. I needed something that got at my interests more, so I took a step back after leaving and I realized I love the physical mechanisms of the global economy. I studied trade economics in grad school. I really love commodities and freight, and I found payments to be a similar area but with way more technology companies for me to explore working with, and that’s how I found Adyen.

Yeah. That is an incredible story. I don't call it the dumpster fire stage. I call it the amoeba phase or the primordial ooze stage of startups.

“Primordial,” I also call it primordial, yeah.

So Sophia, before we go any further - can you tell us about what Ansa does?

Of course, so what we're building at Ansa is white label closed loop Payments-as-a-Service, which is a lot of jargon to mean embedded customer balances or customer wallets. So that can look like the Starbucks in-app payment method, right, where you want to be able to launch this ability for consumers to prepay for your products. It can also look like a metro system's payment rails. It can also look like how you're able to do micro transactions on a digital platform. There's many, many different verticals where closed loop payments can be really powerful. We're building a very horizontal platform for that. 

Really where our ethos stems from is the fact that payments have stayed primarily the same for the last 70 years in the US, but commerce has changed a lot. So with that in mind, our goal is really to be more commerce enablement than a payment layer that merchants have to build hacks on top of to get the customer experiences they want. Everything we do stems from this open ended question of, “Can we not only help existing commercial models function better, but what kinds of monetization can companies build with their customers– because we now exist– that we haven't even thought of yet?”