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46% of Americans don't have $400 in savings. Gil Akos is helping people eliminate debt and grow savings with Astra.
Davis Baer: What’s Astra and how long have you been working on it?
Gil Akos: Astra is a mobile app that helps you manage your money and set funds aside for your savings goals — automatically. You connect all of your bank and credit card accounts, input your goals, and create the rules to fund them. Astra does the rest for you!
The origins of our company go back three years. My co-founder, Sam and I, were building one-off financial models for ourselves and our respective companies. We saw the impact that predictive financial tools could have across these diverse scenarios so we decided consumers should have the same power to reach their financial goals.
What’s your background?
I have a graduate and postgraduate degree in Architecture (of atoms, not bits). It’s a great field because it is both creative and technical but still building mobile consumer apps for personal finance is… a bit of a hard tack. Actually, there are a lot of similarities though: the intersection of design, experience, and code; complexities that need to come together in an effective manner; and abstract models (3D vs Financial) that we can develop and deploy to achieve our objectives.
My love of technology goes way back to my NES and then the Apple IIe my family was given by a friend when I was about 8. Fast forward to Architecture School at the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk!) where I got really into 3D modeling. I just thought it was so cool that I could define geometry and then parametric systems of geometry, render them, have a look, update the system, and repeat the process. I couldn’t get enough of it, so I continued studying generative and parametric systems at Columbia. I ended up learning 5 programming languages in one semester and I’ve been programming ever since. 🤓
How does that experience get you to Astra?
After Columbia, I co-founded Mode Lab — a consultancy that offers design technology services for other creative organizations. We were fortunate enough to work with some really cool companies like Harry’s, developing high-performance design tools and organization-wide technology platforms. It was a lot of fun!
We were entirely bootstrapped and ran the company on cash. As anyone offering services or working freelance will tell you, revenue is lumpy and really varies month to month. We wanted to grow our business and we couldn’t find any financial tools to help, so I started building financial modelsin Excel to plan for various scenarios and pull different levers to see the effect. It worked well enough that I felt everyone should have access to powerful tools like that!
What motivated you to get started with your company?
Sam and I both saw what financial models could do and we shared a similar experience of living in New York City as young professionals. Similar to the Bay Area, the cost of living really weighs on your checking account balance from month to month. Add in some student loans and your free cash flow is really stretched. We felt that pain directly.
Even in 2015 with a ton of new fintech apps out there, we still couldn’t find anything that made managing your money easier and smarter. And when we started researching the macroeconomic trends in consumer finance, we were shocked by the stats: 46% of Americans don’t have $400 saved; those under 30 have a -2% savings rate; and the average American pays $320 per year in bank fees. At that point, we decided we just HAD to work on this problem.
What went into building the initial product?
Initially, we were just trying to learn whether we could consume financial data and render the results in a secure and personalized format. We designed a couple of apps and gathered feedback on early prototypes and click through demos. This was great for feedback but we really felt it had to make something that worked with real data, so we built a web app and integrated the service with Plaid. That brought us a couple hundred users and the detailed feedback we needed — that seeing the info was great, but what they really wanted was for the info to do something.
We started building the current product in January and ran our Invision prototypes through a series of user studies. Erlibird was a crucial tool early on because we were able to get unbiased feedback from strangers and enough data points to see trends in what they were telling us. We iterated on this process and began development in parallel to building an audience with Ship by Product Hunt. From start to finish, it took 8 months and we officially launched on August 14th. 🚀
How have you attracted users and grown your company?
In our early days, we sought every means to get direct feedback from potential users. We had an online survey and we even lugged $1,000 in dollar coins to TechCrunch Disrupt. “Take a survey, get a dollar!” It’s actually funny how small that pile of coins was and how we couldn’t give them all away. But it was worth it.
More recently we’ve relied heavily on Ship and the community of Makersthere to grow our audience. Last month we were admitted to Y Combinator’s Startup School which also has a great existing community of engaged, tech-savvy early adopters. And we’ve used it as an opportunity to share our progress publicly. Ship, Makers, and Startup School have been great but it’d be misleading to say that our progress so far hasn’t included plain old email. So. Many. Emails. ✉️
What’s your business model?
The Astra for iOS app is our first true MVP. We really wanted to make sure that we had product-market fit and our mission is to empower users to save more, which is a really big problem, so the app is free to use. We plan to offer a premium subscription, like Robinhood Gold, that unlocks additional features. But now we are focused on improving the product and growing our user base, so we can continue to learn what would make Astra something everybody loves to use.
What are your key growth metrics?
We measure monthly active users (who are verified and can execute transfers) as our top line growth metric. Since we launched in August, we are growing our MAUs 30% week over week. We also track registered users, bank accounts connected, transfer volume, and total amount saved in a dashboard we built. We just crossed the below thresholds and are particularly proud that our initial users are on track to save $600 per year on average:
What are your goals for the future?
Near-term, we will continue to build features that our users love. We are working on more transfer “action” types, like a periodic sweep and transaction roundups. And we want these features to continue to make Astra smarter. For instance, a user might want to save $20 a week on Fridays, but our financial lives are dynamic and change from week to week. In one month, a more optimal series of transfer amounts might be $20 on week one, $18 on week two, $24, then $21. That’s net $3 for the month. Might not seem like a lot but it’s ~4% and those incremental optimizations can compound over time.
Long term, we want to expand from our initial focus on savings and account-to-account transfers to the other complementary aspects of our financial lives. Paying down debt and bills are the other side of the same coin and we could use more intelligent tools to manage them effectively too.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and the obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
Developing a consumer fintech app that is secure and minimizes the friction in the sign-up process is hard as hell and it’s resource intensive. The development cycles are longer than most and there are a ton of logistical and regulatory hurdles. Dennis Mortensen’s description of “Anti-lean startups” rings true for us.
Our biggest singular challenge has been matching technical skills to the need to iterate quickly. For the beta web app, we built last year we relied on a lot of outside talent, thinking that we could optimize our contributors for skill. I was working on our deep learning research while other team members chipped away at things I was less familiar with like React. In retrospect and ever since I believe you should always default to optimizing for speed. That meant learning full-stack dev for mobile, so I learned React Native so we could move faster and increase our rate of learning overall.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
The most valuable, and most infrequently glamorized, qualities for a founder are persistence and balance:
“Don’t Punk Out and Don’t Quit.” — Ben Horowitz
I like grit too, but in my opinion, persistence and balance are what you really need. The key part that isn’t shared frequently is that you have to set yourself up to succeed — in persisting. Long hours and doing things that don’t scale are often required but you need balance too. Will working 16 hour days every day allow you to keep pushing after doing that for 6 months? It took us 3 years just to get here.
Where can we go to learn more?
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