Our Head of Product Celebrates 5 Years at Fourthline: An Interview with Jesse Weststrate
Learn about Jesse's ‘wow’ moments at Fourthline, his creative approach to product innovation, and what he believes makes for a solid partnership in the fight against financial crime.
By The Fourthline Team
Even today, fraud remains one of the greatest threats to financial institutions. The need to detect and pursue suspicious activities is a never-ending burden on banks, who face an ever-shifting compliance landscape and a constant range of new threats.
In the last five years, Fourthline has grown as a market leader in automated identity and KYC tools to help banks tackle financial crime. During that time, one of the driving forces behind the company’s success has been Jesse Weststrate, our Head of Product.
As product lead, Jesse has helped steer Fourthline’s growth ever since its days as the secure deposit platform SAFENED. In that time, he’s seen the company start from scratch: through its first major launches all the way up to its rebrand and, more recently, record growth figures of 185 percent.
For the fifth anniversary of Jesse’s time at Fourthline we sat down with him to learn more about his journey, the challenges of building a KYC platform, and what it takes to successfully scale in the digital identity management space.
Happy anniversary, Jesse! You’ve been with Fourthline for five years now - can you tell us a bit about your background and how you joined the company?
I started my career at a large Dutch bank, where I had passionate colleagues that really wanted to make certain products and certain services a big success. But I’m a strong believer that a successful company should really have their mind on the product. It’s fundamental to what any firm does. So I wanted to be on the frontier of building new, innovative products that haven’t been done before.
This is something that really caught my attention five years ago about Fourthline. Even now, our products are fundamental to what we do - it’s on everyone’s mind, whether they’re in engineering, marketing, operations, or legal.
There's no doubt that this approach requires a ton of creativity. What would you say your creative process is like?
A lot of what we're trying to do here at Fourthline is on the frontier of the identity space. So it's sometimes impossible or difficult to see how others have done it because it was not done before. Thinking about where we'll be going next, what the next step will be, requires a lot of ideation, and a big part of that is indeed creativity by sitting with potential launch partners, the board, or the management team. But it also means taking time for myself, usually in the evenings.
I am more of a generalist than a specialist, so in my creative process, I like to read a lot about diverse aspects of the industry to form my own opinion about what a product should look like and what the next steps should be. That sort of broad, generic knowledge is fundamental, because as a product person, you’re in the middle of the spiderweb in a sense. You’re very close to the core of what the product should do, but you still need to get an understanding and seek alignment with all the other stakeholders and decision makers.
When was your first ‘wow’ moment at Fourthline - when did you realize you wanted to stay with the company for the ride?
I've seen this company grow from day one to what we are today and I've collaborated with Krik and Chris through almost every stage. I know what a crazy amount of work you have to put in to get things up and running, to overcome inertia. And then somehow you manage to escape that - suddenly you start to grow and then finally you’re able to bring the product to life.
For me, this moment happened while I started to work on my second product at SAFENED. Back then SAFENED had built a deposit platform aimed at connecting deposit-taking banks with individuals that wanted to spread their funds over one or more of those banks.
As part of this platform, we envisioned a KYC module to become a crucial part of the offering from a banking perspective. The idea originated to build it into a separate proposition, and we teamed up with N26 as our launch partner, envisioning the first version of the platform.
So while the first year of my tenure at Fourthline involved a lot of experimenting at SAFENED, the KYC proposition that came out of it really sparked my interest and excitement.
What did the product development process look like from there?
We put together a proposal to sell KYC as a service, and in August 2017 we were joined by our current CTO Ralph to help us build a platform that we would be able to launch by that December. So we had a small timeframe in which to build the product, and we basically wanted to start from scratch in terms of the technology.
We managed to launch within five months, and the launch week in January 2018 was possibly the most exciting week of my product career so far. On the day we went live - Monday - we had 50 verifications come in. On Tuesday, it was 100, then on Wednesday, 200. By Friday, we had 1,000 verifications. So we went from 50 to 1,000 verifications in the first five working days. At this point, from a product perspective, we knew we had something special on our hands.
What were your biggest takeaways from that launch?
I think it worked out so well because N26 was our launch partner. And I would say we could not have done it without their support. It was not like, you are the client, we are the vendor. We were a real partnership. So perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was to always try and build a partnership with clients - and this is something we have been replicating ever since.
Every time Fourthline launches a new product, we do so with a launch partner. Every product that is successful today has been done this way.
What’s your personal approach to working with Fourthline’s clients - how do you try to meet their needs?
On the client side, it’s my job to balance pros and cons from specific requests and come up with a solution that will not just work for them, but also will work for our other existing clients or new clients in the near future. So to really ensure that we build a scalable product for the industry and not just a scalable product for one client.
When clients ask me, hey, I want A, B or C, then it's really fundamental to understand what their actual need is. They might express it as A, B and C, but their needs may be X, Y, Z. They may not have looked into the other things that could be fundamentally underneath what they express. The product role in basically every company is to understand your clients and stakeholders better than they know themselves, reach the fundamental element of what their problem is, and then begin to start solving it.
What questions should clients and partners be asking that they often don’t?
Lots of our clients and partners, when they come to us, have a specific KYC issue, whether that's due to regulation or whether it's because it's hampering their own growth. They have a bottleneck basically, and they come to us to resolve these bottlenecks. What they often don't ask at the beginning is what we can do for them in the long run, because we cannot just solve that first bottleneck like, "Hey, we have checked your customers, your users, we have KYCed all of them, all of them are now verified, et cetera."
Now, that's only the start of the customer life cycle management journey. But it's not the end. The end is maybe 35 years later when a customer stops using a specific product or stops using a specific bank account or mortgage. After clients have seen what our service can do for them, they understand that there's much more to it than just doing one-off KYC. We focus on how we can solve the problem holistically for all of our clients, for the entire customer life cycle management, which may take 35 years.
How have you learned to solve problems strategically during your time at the company?
No matter what organization you’re in, there’s so many distractions all the time; every single week, month, and even day. Tackling problems means ensuring not just your own team are aligned, but that all stakeholders, partners, and leaders are heading in the same direction with a very clear eye on the goal.
When you have that clear focus and the entire organization is focused on getting that thing resolved, then you can build momentum and get things done. This can be such a cool thing to be a part of, and is definitely an inspiration for me in my work.
If Fourthline were a character in a TV show or movie, who would they be?
I guess I would say Sherlock Holmes - we have a very unconventional way of getting things done and of reaching the desired outcome. We're trying to challenge the status quo. We're trying to not go the conventional route. We'll try to do something entirely new that hasn't been done in the past while still catching fraudsters.
By the end of next quarter, we will be able to leverage a fully automated process for our enterprise and bank-grade clients, which is simply not being done in the industry. None of our competitors can offer a fully automated solution for a compliant bank-grade KYC solution. This is what we will have accomplished five months from now. I'm certain of that.