It takes a village to create the rewarding experiences Canadians deserve with their money. At Neo, Head of Engineering & Co-Founder, Kris Read, knows all about leading the charge through digital tech. We chatted with him to understand his role, the future of fintech and the ins-and-outs of building a financial app that’s the first of its kind in Canada.
Q: Tell us about your background.
A: My career spans about 15 years of startups! I’ve joined some, started some, and had both successes and failures–a lot of companies were home-grown in Calgary. My first job after grad-school was as a very early developer at Solium Capital, which has gone on to become a tech unicorn in the city. At that time, it was a small, scrappy startup and just getting off the ground. I didn’t realize how good it was because I had nothing to compare it to.
I caught the startup bug and continued helping amazing young companies over the years. Then I took on a CTO role for the first time in my late twenties, which at the time I thought was something to be proud of. Now looking back, I wasn’t prepared for what it takes to run a tech company. It was a really humbling experience and learned that if I ever had another chance to do it all over again, I’d have to be a lot better.
I worked on self-improvement while doing consulting work with a global group called ThoughtWorks; they’re famous for leading the way in Agile software development. I got to travel the world, hang out with tech celebrities, and received some outstanding mentorship. It was a terrific experience overall. But eventually I couldn’t resist the urge to build another company.
My biggest success since then was my second-shot as a CTO: a company called Vogogo right here in Calgary. I built the development team from scratch; we created a genuinely disruptive product and processed payments for explosive new companies including Coinbase, Bitstamp and Kraken. At one point, we were one of the hottest startups in the payments and digital currencies boom. Bitcoin was in the news every day and we were one of the companies behind it.
Vogogo was a rollercoaster of an experience and I loved building the team and the tech. After that, I was itching to create the next startup–it felt inevitable that I’d return to Calgary and to entrepreneurship even when my own consulting business had me in New York or San Francisco. I met Andrew Chau for coffee and that led to the creation of Neo.
Q: What does your day to day look like? And what does your team do?
A: As the Head of Engineering and Co-Founder, I make sure we’re building a high-performance engineering team. My job is to empower the team so that every day we can do what needs to be done and create a world-class product. I also do a lot of recruiting to bring in the best talent. Half my time is spent one-on-one or building communication to make sure everyone’s on the same page and set up for success. Keeping our team aligned to our greater vision and mission and motivated is key to us bringing value to millions of Canadians and merchants.
Beyond just making sure our teams are aligned, I’m the person thinking about the future when the team’s too busy crushing code. While they’re creating the features we need, I might work on our security roadmap or prioritize problems like quality, compliance and scale.
Planning around technical obstacles is really crucial, so that by the time the Product team brings in tickets, our engineers can make the right decisions and we’re not wasting time or energy.
Q: What value does Neo add to Canada’s financial landscape?
A: Neo is built with technology at the forefront. No bank can say that. Sure, they have mobile apps, but they’re not building from the ground-up with modern technology as top-of-mind. Customers struggle with banking apps today. One thing that makes us different is our best-in-class mobile technology and our process of building it out.
We actively pivot to meet the needs of the market and customers, so when we release our products, we’re agile, we learn quicker and build products that are better, and do it faster than even the biggest banks - despite the banks spending billions of dollars a year on technology. We’re creating something that’s easy to use and ties together rewards, savings, and spending so you can have an integrated and seamless experience.
Q: Neo is an everyday spending and saving solution that’s combined with a rewards program. Traditionally these things have been kept separate–you log into different apps for banking and rewards. What has your experience been like to marry these two different, but connected areas?
A: People don’t want to carry around 20 different loyalty cards in their wallet. Yet, no one has created a winning solution to fully integrate merchant rewards with a spending card. You shouldn’t need to collect a million points or miles and then try to figure out how to use them later. It should just be part of the shopping experience.
People love simple apps that are seamless, and it makes sense to them that one card and app can bring Canadians, businesses, and banking together. But there’s a reason no one has done this before - it’s not as easy as it sounds. Building a financial product that’s safe, secure, and a great customer experience is hard - and layering in rewards adds to the tech complexity.
To marry both rewards and banking together, we’ve had to rethink and redesign these systems. We’re excited to build systems and products that no one else has done before to benefit all Canadians.
Q: Neo reimagines spending, saving and rewards for Canadians. What are some of the challenges with building an app that fits this bill?
A: There can be a lot of challenges! For instance, we could easily fall into the trap of spending all this time and money, and then coming out with a product that’s boring or that already exists. The last thing we want is an app that’s essentially no different from that of any other bank or financial institution.
Because we operate in the same industry, share the same partners and have to follow the same regulations, we’re sometimes encouraged to go down this path of doing things the way they’ve always been done. I try to remind myself that we’re creating something that is new, not copying what’s already been done.
We’re constantly fighting “why don’t you just do it the regular way?” Well, we know there are always faster and better ways to achieve something, but part of the challenge is saying no to all of that.
Doing things the better way usually means spending more time, staying up late, or working through the weekend to make it happen - but it’s that extra effort that makes the difference between ‘average’ and ‘amazing’. Our team puts their blood, sweat and tears into making a better product and that makes a difference. We block out the noise and stand out.
Q: How does a financial tech company creating a more seamless and personalized experience keep people’s money and data safe and secure?
A: Handling people’s money is serious. We have teams dedicated to compliance, financial risk and cyber-security. Their jobs are to know what the industry standards are and how to exceed them all. We hire top professionals that understand state-of-the-art security and we implement that in every process.
On top of all of this, we work with bank partners to hold your money securely–so it is no different to use Neo as your savings account than it is at a traditional bank. This ensures your money is protected and eligible for deposit insurance. Plus, we partner with Mastercard so that you’re not on the hook if fraud took place with the Neo Card (Mastercard Zero Liability Protection).
We also work with multiple third party experts, consultants, auditors, testers, and more to ensure Neo is safe and secure.
Q: What has the evolution of the product and team been like?
A: It’s been a real rocket ship. We started with just the founding team at the Calgary Public Library; we call that our first “office”. The three of us worked for months just sitting at the tables, coming up with ideas for Neo and creating the strategy to build out the company.
Then early last summer, we pulled the trigger to hire someone, and we moved into a co-working space just down the street from the coffee shop where Andrew and I met. We were moving out again before we could move in. We had furniture deliveries coming to the old office that didn’t even need to be unpacked because we had to move into a bigger place.
At every turn, hard work is paying off–we’ve secured partnerships that’ve been instrumental to accelerating Neo. We continue to attract great talent and incredible investors. Everyone has their own unique set of skills and value they bring to the table, and we keep the bar high at Neo.
Q: Why do you think Alberta’s disproportionate amount of Canadian fintech companies have taken off?
A: Toronto has traditionally been seen as the fintech capital of the country, so a lot of people have asked us why we didn’t start Neo there. Well, Calgary has grown tremendously and our province has had a fintech boom over the last decade in tandem with that. Since the 1970s, Alberta has welcomed an influx of professionals to move and work here in the energy industry. From the start, this created a powerful demand for financial services and tech.
Calgary is starting to shine in tech (and the broader Canadian Prairies) with other key players such as Solium and Symend also paving the way.- The people here are energetic, the city is flourishing, and we have some of the top educational institutions here, and the standard of living is high. Plus, key stakeholders and the community, like The City of Calgary, Calgary Economic Development, and Harvest Builders have made a big difference with the tech ecosystem support.
We have the opportunity to create a meaningful, world-class consumer tech company right here at home. There’s no need to move thousands of miles away to Toronto or San Francisco if you have the right team, ambition, and talent.
Q: Fast forward five years. Where will Neo end up and what decisions do you have to make today from a technology standpoint to get there?
A: Our mission is simple: build the most rewarding spending and saving experience for Canadians - the way it should be. We’re starting with a no-annual-fee credit card, high-interest savings account and instant rewards from thousands of national brands and local merchants. Our goal is to add value for Canadians, so that they’re getting the most out of their money. That might mean launching new and innovative features and products by rebuilding them from the ground up, so stay tuned for more.
Q: To end things off, what advice would you give your 20-year-old self or any aspiring tech founders?
A: You need to build a great team. It doesn’t matter how well you can code, how up-to-date you are with the latest trends, how smart you are or what you built over the weekend. It’s about the talent and culture you create, how you inspire and motivate everyone you work with.
In my twenties, I definitely made the mistake of thinking that the best way to lead a tech company was to be the tech guy. But what it really comes down to is removing the barriers and stress from being high-performing. That’s what creates valuable products. You can’t do it alone–it’s rare to even do a meaningful amount just by yourself. You need to rely on a great team.
This may seem like obvious advice for someone in a leadership role, but in tech, this is especially important. So many people in our field are passionate techies, come from engineering roots or computer science backgrounds. They’re quick to catch onto tech things, but slower to catch on with people things–and you can’t have one without the other.
To learn more about working at Neo and building Canada's most rewarding spending and savings experience, check out our careers page.