Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots

504: Spare with D'ontra Hughes

December 14th, 2023

D'ontra Hughes is the Founder and CEO of Spare, which uses tech to solve cash management problems for unbanked small businesses and enterprises. D'ontra shares his entrepreneurship journey, driven by realizing the financial industry's impact on less privileged individuals.

D'ontra highlights a significant issue in the banking sector where the poorest people are often charged the most in fees, perpetuating poverty. Spare addresses the high fees unbanked individuals face when accessing their money. D'ontra's entrepreneurial journey involved various challenges, including learning from customer feedback, understanding the importance of data-driven decisions, and navigating the competitive startup environment.

The conversation also covers the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Spare, leading to a strategic shift and a focus on regions with high cash circulation. D'ontra emphasizes the importance of strategic planning, data analysis, and a systematic approach to business growth. He also discusses the personal aspects of being a CEO, stressing the importance of maintaining personal relationships and self-care.

Become a Sponsor of Giant Robots!


VICTORIA: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Victoria Guido. And with us today is D'ontra Hughes, Founder and CEO of Spare, which uses tech to solve cash management problems for the unbanked small businesses and enterprise. D'ontra, thank you for joining us.

D'ONTRA: Well, thank you for having me.

VICTORIA: Well, wonderful. So, we met at San Diego Startup Week a few weeks ago. So, I'm excited to have you on the podcast today. Why don't you tell me what was your experience of San Diego Startup Week? And how did you come to be one of the speakers on a panel there?

D'ONTRA: Yeah, well, it's always a really nice thing to take part in, you know, kind of those innovative startup week events because you get to see a lot of what people are working on or what they're doing. So, we've been working very closely with the County of San Diego, especially with the city of Oceanside with our latest technology.

And, you know, there came this opportunity where I could get on the stage and kind of tell people about our journey a little bit, I think because we're becoming a little bit more successful or something [laughs]; I don't know what to say. We're getting better at what we're doing, apparently, and so folks wanted to hear what I had to say.

VICTORIA: I was able to catch your talk, and I thought what was really inspiring about it was that you came from the background of working in the financial industry and saw an opportunity to solve a problem that was common for other people and to be more fulfilled by the work you were doing. So, can you share a little bit about that?

D'ONTRA: I came out of a background in finance, as you said. I used to work for JPMorgan. It feels like a long, long time ago. And that was my last corporate job until I became an entrepreneur. You know, one of the things that I learned at that time...and not that the bank was doing anything wrong, but in the nature of finance, it's a business, right? It's got customers. It's got clients. It's got shareholders. And the most important thing is it's designed to make money.

There's always someone that loses, right? And sometimes you could say that that's the nature of business. But in this regard, it was a lot of people who lost that couldn't recover or wouldn't be able to recover from the financial waste that was left.

You know, I went on my entrepreneurial journey wanting to learn how to build a business and, you know, try to solve problems for myself or for other people. And specifically for this endeavor with Spare, which we launched back in 2015, we looked at the subset of the population, roughly about 25% of the U.S. population, 90-something million households of folks that were basically spending about 7% of their own income every year just accessing their own money. And, like, that's wild, right? Because if I came to you and I said, "Hey, if you got 100 bucks in your pocket, in order to pull that money out of your pocket, you got to give me $7," you'd be furious.

And so, the unfortunate thing is that this kind of tax on the poor was being facilitated by the ATM industry. At the time when we began the company, you had consumers out there going to an ATM roughly about seven times per month, withdrawing roughly about $60 per transaction. And the average fee at that time was $4.09. And today, the average fee is just about $4.80, something cents, depending on where you're at in the country.

And so, it's unfortunate the difference in these fees for these folks. It might sound absurd to say this, but it makes a difference between eating and not eating for some of these folks. And anyone who's a struggling college student or lives on the low end of the economic spectrum they understand what I mean by that, where the extra $30 or $40 in their pocket per month actually matters. It's an extra tank of gas or two tanks of gas, depending on what kind of car you're driving. And so, it matters.

We wanted to really take a really clean look, an assertive look at the relationship that, not just the ATM, but just cash management services or cash management on a local level the impact that it actually has.

VICTORIA: Yeah. And to kind of play that back a little bit, let's say you have a bank or you're not able even to get an account in a traditional bank. Maybe your bank doesn't have an ATM in your neighborhood, and you need to always go to a different ATM to get money out of your bank. And you're just constantly paying those fees. You're more likely taking out smaller sums of money, and then you have to do that over and over again. And it becomes a really high percentage of your income that goes just towards getting money out of the ATM.

D'ONTRA: Yeah, absolutely. So, when you consider even during the pandemic, right? Everyone's at home, but businesses were trying to figure out how to cut costs. And banks, just like any other business, when they have a retail bank branch that's in a neighborhood that's perhaps low income, they may not keep that bank branch around. And that's unfortunate because it creates an additional hurdle for folks to be able to become banked.

You may hear this term of banking deserts, and that's partially because folks have to travel too far, which is an external cost of time, and money, and resources, just to be able to put their money inside of a bank. Now, the additional cost for this particular demographic is that fees tend to add up. And we all know that the bank says, "Hey, as long as you keep $1,200 in your bank account, we're not going to charge you any fees." Well, that's really great, except for the person who is living paycheck to paycheck, right?

And so, this fee tax that's placed on them simply because they don't have enough money when you look at it, it's actually pretty rough [laughs]. I look at it, and sometimes I kind of laugh because it's absolutely absurd when you actually look at it on its face where the poorest people you're generating the most profits from. And unfortunately, those fees keep them in the cycle of being poor.

And so, it's been really great. Over the past few years, you've seen really great applications or neobanks come up that have acted as, you know, somewhat shields against all of these arbitrary fees, like, hey, no overdraft fees, and no account fees, ever, no monthly fees, and things of that nature, right? But they still aren't solving the other issues, some of the major issues.

So, it's really great that I have your debit card. But if you're a neobank, that means I either have to use your co-op ATM network, which is only going to allow me to withdraw cash so many times per month for free, or I have to use some other third-party ATM network. The unfortunate thing about that is they're still paying that fee [laughs]. At some point, they're still going to pay that fee, and when that money is better in their pockets, it's just a little rough. It's a little hard to digest. And so, we wanted to make sure we were doing something about it.

VICTORIA: Right. It reminds me of a phrase I come back to sometimes is that being poor is actually very expensive [laughs].

D'ONTRA: It is.

VICTORIA: There's a lot of fees, a lot of extra stuff you have to pay for that other people don't. I'm curious: how did you narrow in on this problem? Was it through doing some market research? Was it a personal experience that led you to wanting to work for these types of users?

D'ONTRA: Even though JPMorgan was my last, like, corporate job, I went out into the world to be an entrepreneur. Being an entrepreneur is expensive because you got to figure out how to pay bills. And so, one of the side gigs I had is I worked for a hotel in Santa Monica by the name of the Fairmont, and I was managing valet. For anyone who's been to the Fairmont in Santa Monica, it's not for the cheap folks, right?

But what would happen is, you know, patrons would show up, and they'd say, "Hey, I'm going to valet my car. I'm going to come back and pick it up." I'm going to go ahead and settle this up. But, you know, where's the nearest ATM so I can give the valet person cash?" And the most often answer was, "Well, there's one inside the lobby of the hotel, and then there's one across this very busy street." Both of these ATMs had a fee of...the one across the street was about $3.75 if you weren't a bank customer, and, of course, it wasn't a national bank. And then the one in the lobby was about $4.75, I think is what the fee was.

And so, here's the person who doesn't really carry cash that often being told that they have to pay a premium just to help this person out. And you could almost guess what the most likely outcome was is, unfortunately, that valet person just didn't get tipped. But the thing is, is there was actually a third source of cash, and it was actually in the valet's pocket or at the valet stand. So, there was money there in closer proximity. There just wasn't a mechanism of extracting it.

And so, our first look was, well, hey, can we monetize a transaction between, say, the valet stand and this consumer where, basically, the valet stand is selling these folks their cash for much cheaper than the ATM? So, it's going to save everyone time, energy, money, and it ensures that the valet folks get cash in their pocket. I can remember when we initially launched this; I thought it was such a brilliant idea. We created an app in which we would populate a map with all the people around you that had cash on them. So, when you say it out loud, --

VICTORIA: [laughs] Yeah. I could see how that might be problematic.


D'ONTRA: So, we're super stoked. We're, like, "Hey, we got this app, and it's really great. And, you know, look at all the people here that have money on them." So, we go to submit this thing to the App Store, and the legal team's like, "Absolutely not [laughs]." So, we spent about six months working back and forth with their legal team to come up with a model.

And it's somewhat similar to what you see today, where we're sending consumers to regular brick-and-mortar businesses that have spare cash on hand. That's it. Nothing glamorous about that. But the mechanism and the usefulness does some real overall good, not just for the consumers but for the businesses and for the local economy.

VICTORIA: Right. So, I was going to ask you, like, what surprised you in the early phases: the discovery process? It sounds like you had at least [laughs] at least one big strategic turn. But I'm curious if there was anything else that came up in your early-stage journey where you realized you had to make a pivot and change up what you were doing based on the feedback you got from users.

D'ONTRA: I'd love to be able to tell the story that we got it all right the first time around, but we didn't. I think we almost hit the checklist of things that you should not do. So, like [laughs], one example is you actually really truly shouldn't listen to your customer to some degree, right? So, you have the vision for this thing, but every customer has their idea of how your app should be better or something you should add.

And we went through phases where we were adding features then that people just weren't using. You know, it might have worked for, you know, 10% of the user base, but we had spent two or three weeks with the dev team putting in this new feature. And it was somewhat of a departure from the core. It's adjacent, and so we could justify it. So, we did it, but we shouldn't have. So [laughs], then we had to, like, backtrack on that. We had lots of these moments.

But I would say one of the most defining moments, and it was actually one of the first ones that came, was this moment in which one of early entrepreneurs' fear is that someone is going to steal your idea. So, we try to, you know, wrap folks up in NDAs, and secrecy, and things of that nature. You know, if you have a really solid idea, like, we all know that it has major potential to change your life.

And so, I can remember, you know, we went out, and we pitched this business to a venture capital company. It was very early on. That was my first lesson: people don't steal things that are worthless. And the second being that just because they steal, it doesn't mean they can build it. I can remember, you know, it took us six and a half months to get Spare in the App Store the first time around.

And during that time, we had met with this venture capital company looking for investors, angel investors. And it happened to be that this company gave us an offer to buy the company, and we said "No." But then were like, "Hey, why don't you come in and consult us, and let's see if we can work together to do a deal?" And me being super naive at that time, went in, and I said, "Hey, yeah. Like, this is how we would change the app, and this is what we would do."

And after two or three hours chatting with them, I had designed my competitor. And I didn't know that until a week later where they made their announcement, and, you know, I had Google Alerts on. And so, this app comes out and, you know, they're posting to see what people think about it. And they had gotten their app in the App Store, same business model, mind you. And I was just blown away [laughs]. Like, I think, at that time, I think I lost all composure. I was, like, sick to my stomach. I was furious.

When you asked about, like, the major pivot, it would have been in, like, my mindset because I went in thinking that we have this really great idea and how could anyone want to take something from an entrepreneur because starting is tough enough, especially the people that fund this stuff, right? And [laughs] I learned that, no, opportunities are opportunities, and people take them when they can.

And the bigger you become or depending on where your industry is, people are just looking for a shot. They're looking for an opportunity. No one really cares whether or not they're copying someone else's tech, right? If you were destined to do it, you would do it, and you would do it well, and you'd be one of the top ones to do it, right?

That was a major change in how I saw this journey, which allowed me to kind of reframe what we were doing and how I was approaching the market, how we collected data, how we dealt with our consumers, and how we ran our business in general. And then, we had to go in and pivot back to the conversation around the customer. So, we go back, and we're going back to build this thing. And so, at that time, I'm feeling, okay, I have to, like, do any and everything I can once we're in the App Store to get users and retain them.

And that's when I learned the lesson of, like, don't listen to all of your users. Like, know what your thing is, and do that thing really, really well. And try not to build features that aren't central to your core because, honestly, that can just get you in a lot of trouble. And you can waste a lot of time for no reason.

But I think the most important thing out of that is listen to the data, the information, and what I mean by that is where people go on a webpage, or where they go in your app, where they spend the most time. Listen to those things, and pay attention to the data, and somewhat become obsessed about utilizing the data to make your decisions. I think that'll save everyone a bit of heartache and, you know, pain as they go down that journey.

VICTORIA: Yeah, I really love that. There's a couple of, like, interesting points. I feel like when you said it can be daunting, like, oh, there's a million apps in there that already do this or, like, somebody else has already started this. Like, sometimes that means, well, it's a good idea because clearly somebody was willing to try and put it together, and they found a market. But you can always do it better, and you can always have a unique angle and try if you think there's a strong enough idea.

And I'm curious to, like, get more into, like, the data question and understand what do you use to understand how people are behaving in your app? And kind of metrics you look at to see how you're tracking and whether those are, like, key success measures or other ways that you think about that data.

D'ONTRA: For our application, you know, our KPIs were pretty simple very early on. It was like, do we have, like, the keywords that people respond to to find the application? And is it cash? Is cash the keyword? Is ATM the keyword? How do people find us, ultimately, at the end of the day? Because if you can solve that, solving what keywords are most attractive to your company, then what you're going to be able to do is organic traffic is going to be a lot easier to come by.

So, you don't have to spend a whole lot of money trying to get advertisements. There's going to be natural search traffic that drive people toward your platform. In addition to that, it was really paying attention to where the customer complaints were coming from because that told us a lot about the application. Even still, today, we have one very consistent customer complaint that, like, the unfortunate thing is, like, it's really difficult for us to solve this thing because it's actually more in the hands of the business than it is us.

And that major customer complaint is when I went into this active location, the person at the cash register didn't necessarily know what I was talking about, and there's a myriad of different reasons for that. But the primary one is that these locations typically have high turnover for the person that's working at the counter. And so Spare has to be an integral part of their onboarding this person so that when someone walks off the street, they can get the service that they need.

To some degree, listening or paying attention to the feedback that you're getting about the effectiveness of the service or being able to deliver the technology is actually a very useful data point. In addition to that, looking at where your app is available in cross-section with where the people are that are going to use your app. And this is one of the lessons, I think, we learned the hard way, where, you know, we came out the gate and said, "Hey, anybody and everybody can use this app. It doesn't matter if you're in New York, if you're in Texas, Midwest. It doesn't make a difference, right? Any and everyone can use it."

And the unfortunate thing is, when you do that, like, you're going to new users, which is really fun. It starts off that way. So, you go out, and you get merchants and things of that nature. And the mentality that we used was, well, we'll build it. The users will come, and the users will tell us where the businesses are or where we need to place businesses. So, we had a new person or a group of individuals show up in downtown Los Angeles. It was like, okay, cool, there's a concentration of people in Downtown LA. Let's go make sure we put businesses there. Well, that's faulty thinking in and of itself.

Even though you're getting the data points and the useful bits of data, you're actually doing it in pretty much, like, the wrong order [laughs]. We didn't really realize that, and Spare was my first tech company. And so, you know, when you think about things like that, like, you think, oh, users, they're important. But how you get them, and how you service them, and when you service them must be a strategic plan. You have to have that process thought out so that the user audience follows your plan, not you responding to them or following their informal plan.

VICTORIA: Yeah, that makes sense. And I love that, you know, focusing on the users and really focusing, like, on all of their unique needs like location [laughs] and other things like that. And I talk about that, you know, in my role as managing director at thoughtbot, I work on our DevOps and platform engineering team. I often talk about it in terms of, you know, very early in the process; you know enough about your user to tell you a lot about what their needs are going to be like on the infrastructure side, like their regional location, the sensitivity of the data, you know, that can tell you a lot about what you need to build [laughs].

So, I'm curious, you know, you're working on a financial app here. Have you also had to consider that from a regional perspective and from an infrastructure perspective how that affects your users?

D'ONTRA: Going into COVID and how we got there, was that we thought we were actually doing really well, right? So, we officially launched our platform to the marketplace in Q4 of 2018. And we did well for the initial launch without any marketing. And then a year later, we had done 3x the volume and had a strategic partner in place that would have grown our network by 30 times by the end of the next year, you know, we were moving.

And then COVID came along, right? In which, you know, huge event that no one planned for. It kind of put the company on halt while businesses were shut down, and we lost about 98% of our network at that time. So, we had to go back to the drawing board and kind of, like, figure out, well, one, if this company is really truly something that we know that there's a thing, we're going to continue to build it, but let's do it better this time around, like, what did we miss the first time?

And the first place that we went when we were trying to make this decision is we went to look up, like, cash effectively, like cash in circulation. And to our surprise, actually, there was more cash put into [laughs] circulation during COVID than there was at any other time in the past, like, decade, and so that was shocking. And so, we said, okay, cool. We know that cash is in circulation, perfect. Where is cash in circulation? And in addition to that, where should we start with the base of our technology? And how do we want to reconfigure this? And to be honest, we need help.

So, you know, we applied to Techstars, and we were super fortunate that we got into the Techstars Anywhere program. I think it was a lifesaver and a reboot for us and the company primarily because, you know, during the pandemic, we had lost, you know, over 70% of the folks that worked for the company at that time. So, going through that program helped us rethink a lot about strategy exactly we need to rebuild and reconfigure the company for success this next time around.

I think very early on, you know, we were just trying to do the business. We were just doing it rather than actually strategically building it. You know, that's the major difference between where we were versus where we are now is that everything that we do now is more methodical. When we look at, okay, where do we build merchant networks? Well, we're building them in a very strategic location. That particular location has this value to not only us as a company, the merchants in that area, but also the user base.

When we were able to take this more strategic position around, you know, how exactly we're building this business, we were actually able to see much larger opportunities that have always been there, but we just didn't see them. And so [laughs], I'm super grateful for, like, us kind of doing that recalibration because we were able to build a business that is ten times bigger than we initially thought that we were building.

VICTORIA: That's super interesting. So, yeah, like, pre-COVID, you're like, we'll get users, and then we'll figure out where to build. And then you had to, like, go through this full recalibration and focus on strategic regions, and that really opened up more opportunities and more growth than you had expected.

Mid-Roll Ad:

As life moves online, bricks-and-mortar businesses are having to adapt to survive. With over 18 years of experience building reliable web products and services, thoughtbot is the technology partner you can trust.

We provide the technical expertise to enable your business to adapt and thrive in a changing environment. We start by understanding what’s important to your customers to help you transition to intuitive digital services your customers will trust.

We take the time to understand what makes your business great and work fast yet thoroughly to build, test, and validate ideas, helping you discover new customers.

Take your business online with design‑driven digital acceleration. Find out more at, or click the link in the show notes for this episode.

VICTORIA: What does success look like for you six months from now or five years from now?

D'ONTRA: So, six months from now. We're hitting this hot streak with new clients and things of that nature. And we're going out, and we're pitching contracts that are bigger than I ever thought we would be able to pitch, honestly. And sometimes when I see the zeros on the proposals that we're sending out, there's part [laughs] of me that's like, oh, they're never going to say yes to this thing, but, one, they are, which is still shocking, even though we've gotten a few of these in.

And six months from now, I just want us to be doing it right. I know that sounds so arbitrary, and it sounds, like, so whimsical. But there are so many things that we're adjusting to in the marketplace and with our tech. Some of this is kind of new frontier for us. But what I would like to have happen is for the results in the next six months to indicate that we're doing it the right way and meaning that we have clients sticking around, we're still getting contracts signed, the network is growing, consumers are actually getting their needs met by our technology, and the company is growing at a rapid pace. That's what I'd like to see.

And granted, you know, we've, in the past, you know, few weeks here, we've doubled the size of the team, which is something that feels really great. But I want us to not lose sight of making sure that the team itself always has a common goal in mind, even as we're growing. And whether that's six months from now, 2, 5, 10 years from now, I want that to kind of be the core of the expectations of what I want this company to be able to do and to deliver.

VICTORIA: That's exactly the right attitude to have [laughs], right? It's like I want it to work. I want us [laughs] to, yeah, be successful. I think it all makes sense. You know, it's easy to come on a podcast, like, you know, you're eight years into the startup now, and you're starting to see some success. And it's like, here's how I did it. Everything sounds great. So, I'm glad you've also shared some mistakes or some things that you maybe would have reconsidered or done [laughs] differently before.

I'm curious: if you could travel back in time to when you first started, what advice would you give yourself, now that you've had this experience, to set your mind right from the very beginning?

D'ONTRA: Oh God, there's so much. There's so [laughs] much. One of the major things that I would do differently is I would read more. And what I mean by that is there are lots of lots of people that have been here in this position and done that thing already. I think in the past year, I would say probably one of the most influential books that I've read is Zero to IPO by Frederic Kerrest. And I happened to listen to it in Audible.

But when you talk about, like, just things being pivotal, or like [laughs], going, "Oh, that makes sense," yeah, you get that because being an entrepreneur isn't new. And there are folks that have already kind of cracked the code in some regards. So, if you don't have the existing network around you already, go get the materials. Go read the books or listen to the audios of people who have been there, done that. It's going to save you so much time. So, that would be the number one thing that I would change is I would really truly read more and ingest other people's experiences more, and reach out and get mentors and advisors as you're going down this journey.

The second thing that I would do is–it's important to move fast when you're building a company. It's important to respond to the market and all that stuff. That's all super important. That's how you live or die, right? You treat it like there's a fire behind you, and you have to lead it. You have this really hot thing. You've got to be in front of it always, or you'll lose it. And sometimes what we miss is we miss the opportunity to do it faster or better by just slowing down just a little bit. And what I mean by that is, like, I mentioned earlier about looking at the data and things of that nature.

There may be things in the data that are making suggestions that you should go a different direction. But because of how you've built this thing, you and your co-founders, and how you guys have built these things in your head, that piece of data may not seem like it's very relevant. Sometimes, it's good to take a breath and take an assessment of where you're at.

So, when you're with your team, whether you're setting this up monthly, quarterly, whatever it is, make sure that you're taking some time to make sure that you guys are aligned around where your company is, the industry is, and the signs that you're getting inside the space that you're operating in. It's going to save you a lot of time.

And I think the last thing that is probably the most important is for those out there who are listening to this that are CEOs, one of my board members/life mentors/ CEO mentors, a friend, and almost like a father figure to me at this point, one of the things that he said to me and that I've never gotten out of my mind is that the CEO position is the loneliest position inside of an organization. And the reason why is even though you may start a business with your friends or people who aren't your friends, whatever it might be, whatever those relationships might be, those folks will never quite understand what it's like to sit in your seat because everything must end with you. It has to.

Every successful organization is going to rise or fall by the person that sits at the top. And because that burden is so heavy, oftentimes, we don't want to go and talk to people when things are going bad. We don't want to admit when, like, hey [laughs], this thing that we've sunk all these resources into isn't really working. And just the sheer pressure of being that person sucks sometimes.

With that being said, take care of yourself and your key relationships. And I'm not talking about key as in, like, strategic. I'm talking about the people that love you. Make sure even though you're going down this journey, you're making time for your friends, your family, your significant others, your kids, whatever it might be. Because business stuff aside, and we're all chasing the–Man, this is going to be really successful one day, and I'll be able to change everyone's life. Sure, we're all chasing that.

But there is a now moment. There is a person right now that might want your love or your attention, and do not rob them of that. Make sure that you're still making time for those things that are important. Because you could very easily start building a business and five years later, look up and go, oh, this thing didn't work. And then turn around, and there's a wasteland of relationships that you just didn't pay attention to. That's not worth it. So, make sure that you're not only showing, you know, the folks that support you some love but show yourself love by still nurturing those relationships.

VICTORIA: That reminds me I heard something about like, your rest ethic should be as good as your work ethic. And your rest ethic includes that time that you spend with family, or whether it's your religion, or your hobbies, or anything like that that makes you feel whole and like yourself, which I know can be a difficult thing to do when you're balancing starting a new business and thinking about the growth and the future all the time. So, I really appreciate that.

You know, you mentioned mentorship and these networking and relationships. Bringing it all the way back to Start Up San Diego Week, I'm curious if you have thoughts on how founders could get the most out of those types of events. And what draws you back to Startup San Diego or startup weeks in general?

D'ONTRA: Just as a caveat to all this, even though I'm on the podcast and stuff like that, and I'm sure if you Googled my name, you'll see that I've been on TV and stuff, I generally don't like networking [laughs]. I'm a major introvert. So, like, when you put me in an event like that, it's very hard for me to talk to people. Like, when we met, it seems that would be contrary to what I'm saying because we were strangers, and I came over, and we started chatting and stuff like that. And by and large, like, that's not always, like, an easy thing for me to do.

The reason why I'm saying that is that if you're that kind of person, do what you have to do to be more extroverted because sometimes that extroverted or that more open or welcoming side of you will allow for spontaneous interactions to occur. And so, when we think about events like, you know, Innovation Week or something like that, there's a lot of opportunity for you to either meet people that are on your journey or a similar journey like you who've been there done that, or even just to offer a different perspective.

And if you're in a place where you're open and constantly seeking, amazing things can happen, right? You could end up with your next co-founder. You could end up, you know, with your next investor. Or you could end up talking on a podcast with a stranger that you met just a few weeks ago, right? So, anything can happen. Keeping yourself open to the opportunity and the ability to extract as much value as you can out of those events.

It's really interesting to kind of have your pulse on what's going on, even if it's outside your industry. We're a FinTech, but I go, and I pay attention to things that are going on in aerospace or in health because it's always good to, one, not completely have yourself submerged in just your industry, even though that might sound really great.

People like folks that can talk about a myriad of different topics [laughs]. So, it might be useful if you can go and have a chat with a stranger about, you know, what's the latest in aerospace, right? It gets you out of the brain drain of what it is that you do on a daily basis. But also, you get to learn some new things and cultivate some new relationships.

VICTORIA: I love that. Yeah, I listened to...I think it's Happiness Lab episode where they talk about random conversations with people those, like, sparks of innovation or things like ideas you never would have thought of if you hadn't run into this random person [laughs] and talked to them for five minutes about, you know, what they do in health tech, or what they do for their consumer product that they're building. So yeah, I think that's great.

And I've been excited to be here in Southern California for the last three years and starting to grow that network and meet people like yourself who are doing really interesting things. I'm curious if you have any questions for myself or about thoughtbot, or the podcast, or anything.

D'ONTRA: Yeah. So, you say that you've been here for three years. Tell me a little bit about your journey, how'd you get here, and why you chose the podcast life, right? As one of your many things.

VICTORIA: That is one of my many things, right? So, I grew up in Washington, D.C., And my career was in tech and civic tech. I was working for big three-letter agencies and some pseudo-federal banks like FDIC, and Fannie Mae, and PBGC, all the acronyms all the time. And we got an opportunity in early 2020 to move here for my husband's job. And we moved out here, and I decided to take a switch out of the federal space and get into more commercial consulting.

And I was lucky enough to find thoughtbot; they had a position that just looked great for me. And when I joined, you know, we have an internal collaboration thing called Hub that I think our CEO wrote and writes with the other people. All the developers on our team all contribute to it. But he posted a message about this Giant Robots podcast and if anybody wanted to be a new co-host. And I was like, "Sure, I've done a little podcasting here and there, and I have a microphone, so I'm ready to go."

And little did I realize just how popular the [chuckles] podcast was. And it ended up being a really great avenue for me to meet people and, learn more about their stories, and build relationships in a way that has been really impactful and meaningful. And like I said, you know, you never know how someone you meet might help you [laughs]. So, sometimes I'll interview people, and I'll get an idea about something that is, like, exactly relevant to the work that I am doing that week, just total kismet however it came about. So, that's how I got into podcasting and how I'm in thoughtbot and here in Southern California.

And so, I'm super lucky that I live in a place where there's lots of events going on all the time and lots of great people to meet. Between LA and San Diego, you could go to a different event every single day, probably [laughs], and meet people who are working on cool stuff.

So, my background was really in operations and maintenance and taking federal agencies into more modern practices with digital services, and agile development, and DevOps. And now I'm taking kind of a similar lens but to commercial partners who are much faster and can make change quicker. And, in some cases, are doing things in even cooler ways than I could have thought and trying to think about how to move them forward with their infrastructure and how they deploy software.

D'ONTRA: That's fascinating. And, you know, it's difficult to be in Southern California, right? New events every day.

VICTORIA: And then yeah, I'll go walk my dog in the morning--

D'ONTRA: [laughs]

VICTORIA: And people are out there surfing. And I'm like, I could surf all day. I don't have to work [laughs].

D'ONTRA: Right?

VICTORIA: But I do. I got to work.

D'ONTRA: It feels like the world of limitless possibility, right? [laughs]

VICTORIA: Yeah. You almost feel, like, a pressure. Like, everyone else is starting their own company. Why am I not starting my company? Everyone's doing cool stuff all the time. So, you get motivated that way by being around a great group of people who are...everyone is very happy and sunny and [laughs] for the most part, the people are so nice.

D'ONTRA: Definitely a departure from the East Coast, right? And, like, I'm sure you came here with, like, that hustle mindset, where you're like, got to get it done, which is probably why you do, like, a million things. But then also, you have all of these people [laughs] that, like, I don't know, like, cares to the wind when they need to, right? Although you've got lots of successful people. But, sure, like, more or less down here, it's like, hey, you know, like, let's live life first and [laughs] make the dollars second.

VICTORIA: It's very casual. I got rid of all of my blazers. There's no more of that anymore [laughs]. People when they found out that I was moving to California, they were like, "That makes sense for you [laughs]," like, just the general, like, vibe.

D'ONTRA: [laughs]

VICTORIA: And I'm a rock climber. So, they're like, of course, you're going to go somewhere where the outdoors is prioritized, yeah. Versus when you live in D.C., it's like the news is happening to you.

D'ONTRA: Yes [laughs].

VICTORIA: And it's very, very close. So yeah, it's interesting. I love it, though. And it's cool to take experience from that and then apply it to this world and how people might think about stuff. So, I was worried that, like, my experience might not translate, but it has. It's been very helpful [laughs] in some cases, right?

Is there anything else that you would like to promote today?

D'ONTRA: Yeah, so, you know, maybe for a future conversation, but in line with, you know, your background and what you're talking about, I would love to have a discussion around CRA, the Community Reinvestment Act, for those who don't understand the lingo, right? Because Spare's latest, like, golden nugget that we've really been just, like, kind of moving on and we're talking to federal regulators about is actually our impact on banks and the Community Reinvestment Act.

For those who follow the news and know, you know, the time and space that we're in right now, there are some changes that are taking place inside of CRA. And it's very fascinating because when you say about your background of helping agencies kind of modernize things with digital, that's effectively what we're doing with our tech, and we're getting a lot of support from the government.

And so, you know, I think that we're really doing some very interesting things that are starting to get some really great attention. We recently partnered with Visa on one of our initiatives, and we're talking to a few other really large organizations and government organizations so that this technology can really be used at a scale, honestly, far beyond what I ever imagined. But when we talk about, like, actually helping people, we're doing it [laughs]. We're doing it in this very unique way, which I'm super stoked about. But maybe we'll have a chat about that in the future.

But I think, you know, for those of you that are listening to this and you're curious, you know, what it is that we're working on, feel free to reach out. It's Feel free to email me: I'm generally in that email box every day. Or even just checking out our service, you know, searching Spare on the App Store or Google Play, and just going in and giving it a test drive. And, you know, we're happy to hear your thoughts.

And for those of you who are out there that may be looking for a new experience, we are definitely growing this team, and we want to expand as quickly as we can. We have some really aggressive initiatives for the organization over the next 12-18 months. And so, we're not going to do it on our own. I'm super stoked to where we're, like, we're at a place where we're like, we're actively building [laughs]. We're actively moving. And so, if there was a [inaudible 38:44] for us, whether it's supporting us as someone who uses the application or supporting us as a merchant who's in our community.

There's lots of value that we're adding that we're turning back around to reach all small businesses. We're really working on combating inflation with our tech. And we've been able to do that, which is one of those really, like, refreshing byproducts of a tech company, or at least of our services. Like, we're actually adding real, true value to folks, and I'm super stoked about that.

VICTORIA: That's wonderful, and it's really close to my heart as someone who wants to see tech with purpose and who loves tech solving problems for people, especially groups of people that usually aren't the focus of founders who are trying to turn a quick buck, right [laughs]? The people who have real problems there's a real market there. It is a business, and it makes sense to start solving those problems. So, I'm really happy that you're working on it.

Thank you so much for coming in today and being a guest on the show. We will include all those links and wonderful ways to reach out and get connected with you in the show notes.

You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at If you have questions or comments, email us at And you can find me on Twitter @victori_ousg.

This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening. See you next time.


Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us.

More info on our website at: Or you can email us at with any questions.

Support Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots