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Show 121 – Unicorn Interviews – Clay Wilkes – Galileo

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This was the 11th in our series of episodes that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR Agency Tyto, and their own Without Borders podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications.

Russell Goldsmith and Tyto’s founder, Brendon Craigie were joined online from Utah in the US by Clay Wilkes, CEO of the global payments processing platform Galileo.

Brendon Craigie (top left) and Russell Goldsmith (top right) chat to Clay Wilkes

Clay explained that Galileo provides API access to a robust core banking technology, which allows their clients to run and manage enterprise grade banking offerings. They support 70 out of the top 100 most valuable fintech companies around the globe including companies such Chime, RobinHood, Transfer Wise, Varo, Monzo, Revolut, Remitly, SoFi and many others.  He said they’re providing the technology stack behind it all and in terms of the direction of the company, the combination with SoFi has allowed them to bring the two companies together. Clay explained that bringing both digital and banking payments offerings of Galileo in support of their clients, as well as the credit and lending and invest products of SoFi, provides the strategic direction of the company. He explained that this includes offering these types of products out to their clients and to the Fintech ecosystem generally, as well as expansion into additional geographic areas.

When asked about Galileo’s acquisition by SoFi for $1.2 billion in April, Clay said the discussions that were going on between Galileo and SoFi were occurring in March, which was really the first month of the global pandemic, and the markets were in meltdown. He explained that the public equities markets had hit 30 percent deceleration and it was a time of uncertainty so to be able to consummate the transaction was an important milestone and a big event for Galileo. Clay explained that bringing the two companies together was an incredible opportunity for Galileo, but more importantly, for their clients and for SoFi. He said that SoFi, has been a fintech leader in lending and being able to bring together the banking and payments capabilities of Galileo with the lending offerings and be able to offer those out to their clients, was why they brought the two companies together, and it’s been the thesis as well as the go forward strategy for the company. 

Impact of Coronavirus

Clay explained that in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic there were quite a few changes. Firstly, they had to learn how to work from home, so not only being able to provide the innovation capabilities that Galileo does remotely, but also managing growth. He explained that Galileo has grown dramatically and just being able to manage the internal component of that growth in terms of bringing on new employees has been interesting and challenging. However, he said they’ve been able to adapt and do it successfully. Clay explained that from an offerings’ perspective, Galileo powers, at least in North America, 95 percent of all digital banking. He said digital banking, during the pandemic has seen unbelievable growth which has been really interesting to watch.  Clay explained that throughout this year, a lot of innovation hasn’t necessarily occurred. He said it’s been described that Amazon was built for the pandemic and digital banking was as well, but if you hadn’t built Amazon before the pandemic, there would be no way to build it during, and that’s the same with digital banking. However, he said these companies that have been focused on digital banking have seen dramatic growth and Galileo, of course, has been powering that and been a big part of it, he said that’s been the most exciting thing specific to the pandemic. Clay said there have been other innovations and these are things that will be coming out into the general market within the next 12 to 18 months, which is going to be very exciting.  He said he wouldn’t necessarily describe the innovations as pandemic specific, they are things that we’ve seen and witnessed that are, for example, an evolution in a digital banking offering, like a credit solution.

New CTO

Galileo have recently brought on board a new CTO, Jeff Currier, Clay said it’s tremendous to have him aboard. He explained that Jeff was actually at SoFi and SoFi was a client of Galileo before the combination. So, Jeff had been familiar with Galileo, his background before SoFi was Twitter, Amazon, he was a core part of the offering around AWS, as well as a founding member of Microsoft Azure, he’s got deep and extensive cloud experience, which Clay said is really relevant to what Galileo is undertaking right now, a move from their on-prem environment to the cloud. Clay said Jeff brings a lot of maturity, a lot of deep and rich technical understanding and knowledge and has been a great addition to the management team. 

Raising Awareness

In terms of raising awareness of Galileo and differentiating themselves, Clay explained they focused on guerrilla tactics. He said that early on they were going through growth and they needed to be able to get the message out about who Galileo is and what they do. He explained that it wasn’t easy in start-up mode, trying to make a name for themselves is a matter of persistence and just staying with it. Clay explained that Galileo grew significantly over the last five to seven years, but before that, building the foundation, capabilities and the technology that would power that, was a big part of this growth and awareness, which continues today as they extend into additional global markets and other capabilities. He said raising that awareness is not necessarily an easy thing, especially in a bootstrapped environment, so they didn’t go out and raise a lot of money, they took a nice, slow, deliberate approach to their growth and fortunately, it paid off. 

Clay explained that some of the guerrilla tactics include having the individuals in the company interact with the market in a one-on-one sort of way. He said it’s step by step, it’s bringing in, closing a deal with a client, developing a relationship with a networking company such as Visa or MasterCard, potentially a bank partner. He explained that each one of these things builds on itself and it’s a direct marketing approach. 

Company Culture

Clay explained that in terms of building the company culture, it was key for them to define the Galileo core values and to really focus their company and its mission around what they believed in. He said leadership plays a key part of it, certainly, the CEO is a key role, but more broadly in the leadership team that was able to work very effectively together has been a big part of what they’ve done culturally. Clay added that the Galileo Foundation is another key part and it’s just an affirmation of their core values. He said one of their core values is focusing on the earth, and if purchasing an electric vehicle in the United States, Galileo would provide a $5,000 rebate. He said these are the kinds of things that Galileo was doing that were actionable, that supported their company culture and core values. 

The Galileo Foundation

Clay said that the inspiration behind the Galileo Foundation was allowing employees, their family and friends, partners or clients and other contacts or associates of the company to really get out into the world and to do something for somebody else. He said the Foundation was really focused on areas of the world such as Peru, India and Nepal. He explained that in addition to standard paid time off, separately, they would provide humanitarian paid time off. He said over the 12 plus years that they were initially focused on the foundation, they’ve done approaching 100 different expeditions into different countries and said it’s been a tremendous experience, both in terms of learning about the world and focusing on something more important than ourselves or our immediate community. 

Internal Communications

In terms of internal communications, Clay explained that there was certainly a shift in moving to an at home environment for Galileo. He said the office environment was key to the way they communicated previously and particularly his style of communication, which was perhaps more spontaneous. He added that it’s key to continue to have one on one, which has been a big part of Galileo and the way that they have communicated.  Clay said he encourages that not only between the members of the management team, but all of their employees at all levels of the company. He added that at Galileo they’ve seen a number of adaptations that have been really interesting, for example, there’s been a group at Galileo who agreed every morning to get up and virtually have coffee together, not talking about work things, just socialising and having their morning coffee. 

External Communications

Being an external spokesperson and representative of the business didn’t come naturally to Clay. He said as a CEO it’s very important that you’re communicating externally, it’s your role to be the chief communicator, he said he’s had to learn to do that, and he would say he is still learning and growing in that role.

Biggest Challenges

Clay explained that one of the things that was challenging for Galileo, was achieving that validation going through the $1.2 billion acquisition. He said they hadn’t taken private equity and to the extent that you don’t do that, you get overlooked by the analysts. He said it’s hard to achieve that and then communicate effectively in a world where it’s not set up to do that, especially in the bootstrapped environment. Clay said this was one of the big challenges that Galileo had, and they were fortunate to be able to finally overcome it. He said that prior to the SoFi acquisition, they took a round of funding from Accel, which validated much of what they had been working toward. However, he said many of their clients were in various analysts’ coverage and Galileo was not, so that was one of the big challenges of effective communications. 

Clay said that it’s hard for a company to go down a 20-year journey and not make mistakes. He said in terms of product offerings and definition, people that they may have hired, products or relationships that they either started or put into the marketplace, are all things that if you could see them clearly and execute flawlessly from the beginning, would save time and money. He said in terms of mistakes, he is reminded of the incredible success of Apple and their iPhone, before the iPhone came about, there was the Newton. He said it was a flawed product, but without the Newton and that flaw, Clay said Apple wouldn’t have been thinking clearly about the way to approach the iPhone. He said Galileo has had similar part of their journey.  

Best Advice

Clay explained that where advice wasn’t specifically given to him, the amount of reading that he was doing really benefited him over the years. He said one of the things that he noted and read about Bill Gates early on, was the amount of reading that he did, and he described that as the single greatest factor in his success. Clay said that was true in their journey as well and because of that, it affected their culture, he was encouraging their company to read good books that he had read along with him and they started a book club. Clay explained that they would meet weekly and they were buying books off the book list for any employee that wanted to request them. He said learning from the best minds that are out there and the experiences that they’ve had are key to success. 

He added that they weren’t always business books either, there were books about life and life’s journey and success, for example ‘The Boys in the Boat’ was about the lesson of tenacity and was one of the things that was a key part of Galileo’s journey. He said the last book he read was a book on the sinking of a Russian submarine and raising it off the ocean floor, they raised it with the Russians watching in the middle of the ocean, they’d carved out a boat that could open up the middle of the boat a very intriguing book.

Clay explained that there have been many books that have influenced him and it’s hard to narrow it down but some that come to mind quickly are ‘A Crack in Creation’ by Jennifer Doudna, ‘The Master Algorithm’ by Pedro Domingos, ‘Our Final Invention’ by James Barrat and one of the most impactful books that he read was a book by Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

Clay added that pre pandemic as a CEO, he was traveling a lot and would use some of that aeroplane or travel time to read and catch up. He said it’s harder to find that now because it feels like they’re working constantly, he said you lose track of the days, so, the media diet has definitely changed for him during the pandemic. It’s harder to find that time, personal reflection and reading time, you have to force it. 

Clay said that his journey, at least at Galileo, specifically related to communications, is marked by personal growth. He added that what he would say to his younger self is to challenge yourself to get out and do that communications more clearly, more succinctly, more specifically and more directly. He said earlier on, that’s really key and being able to articulate the company’s strategy is really important, especially as you’re starting a new and young business, it’s a key capability.

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