Sila Founder and CEO Shamir Karkal on DeFi, TradFi, and Everything in Between

The fintech industry talks a lot about bank-fintech and fintech-bank relationships. Everyone in this industry will proudly declare how essential these partnerships are for everyone in the value chain. However, the recent introduction of crypto and decentralized finance (DeFi) is complicating things. How can a traditional financial (TradFi*) institution like a bank align itself with a DeFi startup or get involved in crypto?

For insight, we spoke with Sila CEO and Founder Shamir Karkal. Karkal co-founded Simple, one of the first digital banks, in 2009 and sold the company to BBVA in 2017. The following year, Karkal founded Sila, a company that offers banking, digital wallet, and ACH payments APIs to help companies integrate with the U.S. banking system and blockchain quickly, securely, and in compliance.

In our conversation, Karkal highlights the intersection between TradFi and DeFi and examines ways the two can work together while still regarding necessary compliance measures.

What are some ways you are currently seeing crypto businesses and TradFi organizations interacting?

Shamir Karkal: Unquestionably, crypto is becoming part of life. It is becoming part of everyday finance. We had a massive crypto boom in 2021 and now we are experiencing a crypto bust. But public markets and fintechs have performed equally as bad – or worse – than crypto. Over the last few years, traditional finance has been waking up to the crypto space. They take it seriously now.

During mid-to-late 2020, most TradFi organizations thought of crypto as a passing fad, a new dotcom boom. Today, there is no more dismissal of it. The top levels of large banks understand that crypto is here to stay – that it is an important part of the future of finance. Clearly, how this future will look in detail is still to be seen. Some TradFi organizations have embraced crypto whole-heartedly, such as Cross River bank and Silvergate bank, but there are also others still on the fence.

Crypto has scaled dramatically in 2021, which – ironically, some might say – has made crypto businesses appreciate traditional finance a lot more. They are not fans, not by a long shot. But, for example, they understand that compliance is not optional, and that one needs to comply with the law in one’s jurisdiction. As crypto businesses matured, reality has set in partially because when you‘re big, ignoring the law is not an option. In fact, crypto businesses often have a better understanding of regulations than fintechs. Because most answers are subject to change in the world of crypto, participants need to understand and follow very closely how things evolve. 

Some of the largest TradFi organizations such as JPMorgan went as far as launching their own stablecoin (JPMcoin). All are going to have similar projects. In my view, big banks have no ability to compete head-to-head with anybody in the crypto space. However, they are perfectly positioned to provide services to the winners in the crypto space– to the big exchanges, the big processors. All of those firms need all the services that traditional finance provides. Providing financial services to crypto winners is where the money is to be made. The foundation of the future of finance is still the financial services that today are supporting any other businesses. 

What types of partnerships do you expect to see in the future?

Karkal: To partner is in the interest of both crypto and traditional financial institutions. Crypto businesses are using traditional finance to broaden and speed up adoption of crypto services. True, a lot of people want to get into crypto. Still, everyone who does today has money in a bank account or a debit card. Even if your business is all about crypto, you need to create the bridge to allow people to move money from here to there. 

When it comes to regulation, what do banks need to look for when partnering with crypto startups?

Karkal: In technology or crypto, it is often said that you need to look for teams who move fast and break things. That is not true in banking. Banks need to look for projects that have good teams, are well funded, and where teams have an understanding of the compliance issues they will face. Because you can only develop a plan to deal with problems after they are recognized. One key question to ask is, “Do you have an opinion from an experienced lawyer?”

My advice is to look for real teams with real people that are serious about a long-term relationship. Beware! There are plenty of scams out there. Don’t support people who are only interested in making a quick buck, or the next ponzi coin (a real thing).

Crypto is also fraught with fraud. There are many, many different types of fraud: fraudulent businesses, payments fraud, ACH fraud, etc. Banks have been combatting these issues longer than crypto businesses. They stand to know more about them and can help. The key is to identify crypto businesses that built out the necessary capabilities, and that get advice from the good lawyers in the space. That’s a good litmus test. 

How can banks position themselves as good partners for crypto companies?

Karkal: The key is to figure out which products and services the bank is willing to offer. That sounds basic, but a bank has to ask itself if it is willing to service a crypto company. Is it ready to be their corporate bank? To do payment processing? To be a custodian for their funds, or their customers’ funds? After figuring out what a bank is willing to do, the second step is to go do it with some startups. Some banks act as if they want to partner with crypto businesses, but then their compliance processes are so onerous, it just won’t work. They end up standing in their own way. My advice is: if you’re serious, go do it with a couple of crypto companies first before making a big marketing push. If you’re successful, word will spread through Discord or Telegram channels. And, suddenly, you’ll find other projects and companies that will be coming to you. 

Here is the rap. The question is really, “Can you get to the point of opening an account?” Remember: crypto businesses do not have the profile of traditional customers. It might come as a Delaware subsidiary of a company registered in the Cayman Islands with senior people sitting all over the world. As a highly regulated bank, what is your process for this setup? You need to figure out your compliance piece to make such a setup work.  

I know of crypto businesses that are public companies abroad, are serious players, and yet have trouble opening corporate bank accounts in the U.S. As a bank, you need to understand that there is one thing crypto businesses don’t have: patience. They won’t wait 12 months while a bank’s internal committee rejects their application for the 13th time because they have a subsidiary in the British Virgin Islands that’s on a black list somewhere. You as a bank need to figure out this and related processes first, before your sales people are soliciting crypto businesses. 

*TradFi refers to traditional financial institutions as well as fintechs.

Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash