AUSTIN, Texas The dress was casual. The presentations were edgy. But the representatives of Capital One Labs made it clear to the South by Southwest crowd that it's not exactly like the startups it aims to hire away from.
The four-year-old research and development arm of Capital One temporarily converted the bank's branch on Sixth and Congress streets in Austin into an event space for SxSW attendees. The annual, citywide technology and culture festival, which kicked off Friday, is expected to draw more than 30,000 people this year.
Sporting zippered hoodies, members of the lab stood next to a DJ's turntable station and held forth on the rewards of working with a "kick-ass team," in the words of Mili Mittal, the division's head of product.
The presentations reflected the existential worries of a heavily regulated banking industry that often struggles to recruit tech talent and to keep up with innovation, much less blaze trails. "Nontraditional digital competitors are entering our industry, forcing us to raise our game," read one presenter's slide, which displayed the logos of several such disruptors: PayPal, Mint, Apple, Google, Facebook and Bitcoin.
One example of the Labs' work is the Capital One Wallet, a mobile app that helps users monitor spending and eases the set-up process for Apple Pay.
Mittal, previously the cofounder and chief executive of a food-tech startup, said she loved being an entrepreneur but found the financial uncertainty and lack of medical benefits stressful. Capital One, she said, gives her the best of both worlds.
"I actually feel like I'm still living the startup life," Mittal said Saturday.
She admitted she did not initially believe a financial institution could suit her career goals. "Banks aren't exactly the first thing you think about when you think of companies in consumer tech innovation and making the world a better place," Mittal said.
When she went to interview with Capital One Labs two years ago, Mittal expected to see "cubicles and spreadsheets," she said. Instead she found walls plastered with sticky notes a sign of creative minds at work and "people like me," none of whom had worked at a bank before joining the lab.
Mittal noted that, despite its $298 billion in assets and 46,000 employees, Capital One has at least one thing in common with the scrappiest of startups: it is led by its founder, CEO Richard Fairbank. He has imbued the company with a sense of mission, one of "changing banking for good," Mittal said. "It wasn't a kind of bottom-up thing. It's coming straight from Rich."
If your eyes are rolling right now, Mittal also described some more pragmatic perks of developing technology and products under the wing of the country's eleventh-largest bank and third-biggest credit card issuer. These include patient capital; barriers to entry for competitors ("we are a bank it's a pretty highly regulated industry"); and scale that "a startup would kill for" (Capital One has more than 60 million customers). Plus, drawing a steady paycheck "frees you up to focus on people and product-building."
And when one of the few dozen or so techies in the audience asked if she had any thoughts about virtual currency a touchy subject for bankers and their regulators Mittal laughed nervously before giving a downright corporate answer: "We can talk about it afterward."
Jason Valentino, the technology director at Capital One Labs, showed a similar mix of tech-sector exuberance and big-company worldliness in his presentation the day before.
When asked how the lab helps newly hired software developers get acclimated to the organization, Valentino joked, "beer." But the serious answer that followed was revealing.
Most of the 80 or so people the lab employs in San Francisco, New York and Washington came from much smaller organizations than Capital One, said Valentino. "So they come in with kind of fun preconceived notions of how things should be done," he said. As a result, "the biggest problem I have is that when we hire someone from a company of five, and he looks at me and he's like, 'why do I have to go through you?'" to green-light an idea. "And I'm like, 'It takes 15 seconds. There are other people in this world that wait months. I'm not the bad guy.'"
This was Capital One's first year at South by Southwest; for Silicon Valley Bank, it was the sixth. Instead of recruitment, the $37 billion-asset lender, based in Santa Clara, Calif., which focuses on serving exactly the kind of businesses its name implies, was on the scene mainly to meet with clients. The bank rented out a restaurant a few blocks from the Capital One branch, offered chair massages to visitors upstairs and sponsored "mob pop-up" fitness classes.
"We see other banks try to sponsor events," said Robert Sureck, senior market manager for the southwest region at Silicon Valley Bank. "There's not a perfect fit like there is for us. Our constituents are walking down the street right now."