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Show 160 – Unicorn Interviews – Shane Happach, Mollie

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The 29th episode in the series of the csuite podcast in partnership with the European PR Agency, Tyto and their ‘Own Without Borders’ podcast.

Russell Goldsmith and his co-host Tyto Senior Partner, Holly Justice are joined online from Amsterdam by Shane Happach who is CEO of Mollie, one of Europe’s fastest growing payment service providers. Founded in 2004, the company reached unicorn status in September 2020 and is now valued at $6.5 billion.

Russell welcomed Shane to the show and asked for a bit of background to the company and for Shane to talk through the area of business that the company is seeking to disrupt.

Shane explained the genesis of the company was to focus on making it easier, at the time, for start up and very small businesses in the Dutch market to connect to payment systems, banks and other providers of payment services. Stating that it was a previously incredibly cumbersome and now it’s merely very cumbersome for most. Shane explained how the company grew organically by word of mouth for a long period of time and he tells people that it’s a company of two halves – the first half being the bootstrapped founder led version where it was reinvesting its own capital, and the second half where the growth got turbocharged through taking an outside investment, which is very common in tech and in the fintech space, which only happened in late 2018 or early 2019. So over that time, the product suite has expanded, the geography has expanded from just the Netherlands, first to Belgium, then to Germany, France and ultimately the UK. Successive funding rounds of investment rounds have allowed the company to continue to invest and to grow the business in many different areas. Predominantly product and engineering, but also in sales, marketing, and other aspects of being a bit more visible in the market over the course of the last few years. When discussing the industry in which he wants to disrupt Shane says that in general he thinks online payment is a maturing sector explaining that there is high competition with lots of players doing the same as Mollie. However, for their segment, which is predominantly small business, it becomes easier for smaller companies to get access to more enterprise grade services. And that can only happen through companies like Mollie forcing the market open from what was traditionally a stronghold of banks and other more legacy tech players.

Career history and entrepreneurial journey

Shane started his career in quite an un-entrepreneurial way. Expanding on this, he went into investment banking when he left university and following from this did a few years working for larger organisations in corporate finance, but he found it never to be very interesting, he realised he wanted a job which was higher impact. Since this realisation he has been in payments for 17 years and the first company he joined was at an even earlier stage of development than where Mollie was when he joined. Shane worked for a Dutch business called Global Collect, although he joined in the US market when the company employed a total of 35 employees. Another instance whereby he was an early employer and not a founding member of the team but the entrepreneurial journey he went through with that company from 35 to 500 people was extremely satisfying for him to witness. Following this, he worked for a more mature company, but it was being taken out of a bank by a private equity firm, this was a different kind of entrepreneurial journey, shedding bank DNA and running as a standalone business. And that company went from 1000 people to 58,000 by the time he left through a combination of organic growth, but also some heavy M&A activities along the way. Therefore, when coming back to Mollie, he was focused on closer to those scale up roots, where every day brings a new challenge, but also building things versus really optimizing what’s already there.

Holly explained every interview that they’ve recorded in this series so far had been with the founder of the company that’s also the CEO. Shane was brought in as a CEO after Mollie established itself as a unicorn. She was inquisitive when asking how that relationship works with Mollie’s founder and if it created challenges to the role of a CEO.

Shane was a divisional CEO before his current role as the main CEO for the first time. Expanding on this by saying he can’t comment on what: “Yes, I mean, it’s a good question. Obviously, I was a divisional CEO before this. So, can’t comment on what that might be like compared to the roles he’s taken on previously”.  Shane doesn’t think it’s uncommon for the founder’s role in any company to evolve over time. Even if they’re still in the position of CEO, they tend to be surrounded by people with different skills in different areas. There was somebody in between him and Shane for a fair number of years. So that interaction between the founder in the organization and the company’s CEO was already reasonably established by the time he gave the founder, in Mollie’s case, still the majority shareholder of the business. Shane explained that he has a very big influence, but they complement each other. His career was largely in commercial and enterprise commercial functions, such as account management, building sales teams, building sales process, etc. Whereas Adriaan Mol’s career started in engineering, product, and marketing. Shane thought these they’re good complementary skill sets and worked together they’ll to leverage each other’s expectation. Their interests are aligned, and both wanted the company to grow.

Russ reinforced how the company is now valued at $6.5 billion being a result of its most recent funding, which was $800 million, making Mollie one of the most valuable start-ups in Europe.

Focus for the next 12 months and how the investment will be used for Mollie

Shane started by saying private company valuations are not something that they obsess over and that even though it’s a huge validation of the business model and hopefully of the team and what the team is trying to achieve. But it’s not the primary measure of success that he looks at as he focuses on the long run and creating value for shareholders, but really the mission of the company was to become a complete player for SMEs online and then potentially ultimately also offline and to expand into other financial services and to try to take the product market fit and Europe and first go pan-European. But ultimately, he doesn’t see any reason why this couldn’t be a global category business. There are other category players in their space that have managed to become global. So, he thinks for Mollie the investment capital is first and foremost in the product, but also in things that underpin the product. Running a payments business at high scale in this environment also involves constantly upgrading cybersecurity and other tech, constantly refreshing, and modernizing the technology estate, and then ultimately becoming a distribution arm as widely as they possibly can through partners, through marketing activities and other. And those are quite capital intensive, which is good for Mollie because it means that not every company can just spin up a multi competitor overnight.

Leadership – influence on Shane’s development
Shane proposed the idea that he didn’t think that there was one unique person, in fact he’s been lucky to have been in a space that has gotten progressively more attractive and interesting to outside investors, journalists, etc. When he started in payments, people still asked him if he was working in debt collection or if he worked for PayPal. Therefore, he now believes the business has become a lot more mainstream. And along the way he has been privileged to work with other great teammates, interesting leaders of businesses, interesting investors, and interesting customers. The genesis of his career and trying to learn the payments business wasn’t trying to satisfy the needs of super resourced, very sophisticated enterprise clients online. And he thinks that taught him a lot such as developing a ton of respect for the Google business, the Netflix business, and how those companies consume and work with payments and payment providers.  And then in his current job, his mission is to make that standard more accessible for smaller companies. He rounded off by saying he learned a lot from customers and the leadership front and seen good leaders and bad leaders like everybody.

Shane explained what resonated with him the most is when it becomes clear that people can build a great team around them and really try hard to deliver through the team and deflect individual credit. He could think of several cases where it’s really felt like a team achievement versus the leader’s achievement facilitated by the team. So, he tried to bring that into his own leadership style, and ultimately, thinks there’s no real substitute for a little bit of experience. He thinks a lot of what he’s gained is just the accumulated wisdom of making mistakes and figuring out as much about how you don’t want to be and how you don’t want to lead as how you do want to lead. Shane says there isn’t one person whose book he would recommend that everybody read, but it is really a collection of experiences. He’s also worked in different countries, so got to learn a little bit of the British leadership style, the American style, the Dutch style, even the Latin American style. He calls himself a mutt, but only the best of breed!

Mistakes

Shane of course agreed to as everybody makes mistakes and then onto say how the industry is somewhat forgiving because there’s so many different outcomes you need to generate. It’s not like a consumer product where you launch it, and it fails. There are several different ways in which clients consume the service. For example, let’s say most of his mistakes evolve over time, he just evolved. There’s a high degree of detail, management, and complexity about the product that he puts forward. So, any time where he underestimated that complexity are not respected, how many little things need to line up in order to get the right outcome for the client. He thinks that’s been dangerous. As a leader he said you’re funnelling investment to different areas and the temptation is always to go front office first is higher sales force and drum up demand and then the rest of the product will catch up. And over time, what you realize is its most of the successful players in his space have taken a back to front approach, which is if you build a great product, which is super operationally robust, very technically savvy and easy to consume, it sells itself. Finishing by saying that’s probably most of the mistakes he made not realizing just how powerful that equation can be. And so obviously he is trying to learn from that here.

Hollie states she imagines being a leader of a successful company, Shane is required to have some quite specific skill sets and be very good at them. But also, it was one of that you need an exceptional team behind you to support there.

Greatest strengths

Shane first and foremost replies by saying he thinks he still has a great curiosity for how the business works and how his industry works. So, it’s a very fast-moving dynamic industry, so probably a willingness to learn. But he is still learning every day on the job rather than pronouncing himself an expert and closing his mind to new ideas and new ways of thinking. He also really has respect for the guts of it, the details. He would like to think that by now, he knows enough about how the service is really put together to be valuable in a conversation with an engineer, an operations person, a finance person, a compliance person, etc. So, he’s worked hard to build a 360 understanding of how payment business should work, and they talked about putting a team together. Shane thinks what he would tell the team has led in the past is payments is one of those industries where there’s nowhere really to hide because everybody works on the customer outcome. There’s no invisible team. Maybe you don’t sit directly in front of customer, but you contribute to their experience with the way they use the product. No matter what your job is, he says it’s very integrated. He goes on to say how he thinks regardless of what people’s specific skills are no one wants a team of all nuts and bolts being accounting specialists that have no empathy for customers. And then at the same token, no one wants a bunch of people who are only creative types and don’t respect the details. The simplest way Shane uses to describe it is ability to work cross functionally, which sounds he thinks sounds plain vanilla, but said to put trust in him that it’s so hard. This is because finding people that are good at that and are willing to work at it incessantly despite personality differences, cultural differences, geographic and time zone differences is always every leader’s greatest challenge.

Communications and culture. Perception of becoming a unicorn

Shane answered by saying it’s validation. He expanded by saying when you’re a challenger or a smaller company in an industry which does and still is dominated to a degree by very large players, it’s nice for talent, attraction and in general, he thinks for company morale to say, hey, someone is willing to recognize and value the work that they put in. So, it’s a thing to be proud of. Unfortunately, he thinks over the last five or six years, there’s been enough investor capital, enough enthusiasm in general for the fintech space, that unicorn isn’t as rare as a unicorn should be in terms of seeing one in the wild¬ So, it used to be there were five in Europe and now there’s 55 or something like that. But again, the external valuation attached to the business is not nearly as important as what the customers say, how the customers feel about what they’re doing for them. And he wants to be very careful not to lose sight of that and spend too much time celebrating that achievement, as the next start-up company can come along and disrupt you, and then they’ll become the unicorn and they’ll be an also. So, he likes to think that it’s good to stop, pause, take stock high five for a little bit, but it’s right back to work after that.

Differentiation

Shane said that in the payments business, it’s not the same intellectual property estate as maybe the pharmaceutical business or something like that. They’re not looking to patent something it’s impossible to copy. He thinks really what they’re trying to differentiate is on the average experience of the average client that would use their services, they are often overlooked or ignored by banks or incumbent providers. They’re seen as less profitable, less interesting. It’s still a hard service for people to understand that aren’t native to the industry. He explained by saying if your real business is selling shoes on the Internet, you’re not meant to be a payments expert. So, making it easy, making it intuitive, trying to use plain speak. Whereas still giving these customers the feeling that they can be treated like a larger enterprise in terms of giving them some insight, some consultancy, some customer service, and some degree of transparency. Shane thinks the SMB industry is also known for heavy-handed tactics and the termination fees, strange price increases, opaque charging structures, etc. So, a high NPS does not necessarily make them successful but can say that versus the broader basket of competitors. That’s one area in which they think they can do a better job. And then ultimately, make the product also amazing on top of that, then that’s very, very hard for any company to do, regardless of what segment they serve.

Culture

Shane says every company has values. A lot of those values seem to blend into one another. So are people beloved, be authentic? So, he thinks that was different enough than what he’d experienced previously he thought it’s a good way to anchor around what the culture of the business should be. So really a customer first mentality is a good way to try to build a culture. Shane states that he needs to find a way to make them into experts all the time being authentic. And that just makes the overall working environment more supportive. Shane suggests depending on your cohort, the younger generation or the workforce or people that are in what’s called their first, second or third job, he thinks they have different expectations about what a company should be and should do. So, a mission driven, or purpose driven, because obviously in the financial services space, they’re not necessarily in climate tech or something that’s a little bit easier to connect and more intuitive in that way. He thinks a lot about just trying to hire the right group of people that feel like they can express themselves, that there’s opportunities to progress and that there’s opportunity to work in a challenging environment, but one that is nurturing or allows for freedom of expression and new ideas, too. Just because the industry has developed over time doesn’t mean there won’t be disruptive developments, even if they haven’t happened yet. And those are likely to come from companies that allow people that intellectual freedom.

Internal Communications

Shane said that It’s a very challenging topic and there hasn’t been any handbook in the last two years called Leading Through a Pandemic. Remembering 2001 and 2008, and a different type of economic uncertainty and explaining how this one is unique. And it’s also very focused now on tech and tech companies and prioritizing profit overgrowth. All they can do is assume that people read the news because the news is prolific and everywhere. Second is to be open about where they’re at as a business, what Mollie is doing well and what they’re not. They are capitalized, but they also tell people that they have a huge responsibility not to be foolish about that, and they need to adjust expectations for growth and aggressiveness to match, what the climate will support if the GDP of small business is going to go backwards, Shane doesn’t think there’s anything that they can do. He states Magic can’t do magic. His customers, if they’re suffering, they need to be prepared to pull in and shelter with them a little bit. They still have plenty of things that they can do. They’re doing a lot, but in an era of moderated expectation on growth and they just need to be responsible. So, they’re very transparent about that with people, especially people that if you join the workforce in the last ten years, you’ve only seen up.

Shane thinks leading through the pandemic in the beginning they were very focused on what’s the easiest way to reach people through remote means. So, they did a lot of remote checks, and they did a higher frequency, duration just to avoid people felt too isolated. And now that they’re returning, more to a hybrid model, but people can get together in person. They had a first in-person company event a couple of months ago after two- and a-bit year hiatus. They really tried to maximize that because they’re only going to do it one time this year, and Shane thinks they got the most out of it. The other is for people to hear from the leadership team. They allow people to ask any question they want of the leadership team. They address those questions sometimes in the appropriate subgroup, but they’re not afraid to stand and take questions from the group. And he explains that he’s one of these guys that’s around a lot. So also do a little bit of old-fashioned internal communication of management by walking around. They have no offices so it’s all open plan seating. There’s one coffee machine that serves at least 150 people and he jokes that he drinks a lot of coffee. So, employees can just in general see and talk to him, which depending on what you’re used to and where you come from sometimes to CEOs, is like a mythical character that has a different lift to a different floor, to an office. There are doors never opened. So, in that sense, they’re very much a modern tech company. Shane is not hard to find.

They have a slack bot that pairs people for a random coffee every week. You can sign up if you want. So, he does that, and he says people question him saying do you really do that or is you just name in there you have a stunt double or something. To which he always says no he really goes for coffee with any random person in the business 15 minutes a week. He thinks anybody should be able to find that time.

Recruitment

Shane says he’s been involved in the committee to persuade somebody talented to take a chance on them. There are people that work at Mollie that he’s worked with before, directly or indirectly customers, former colleagues, etc. So, he says that’s a nice way to get involved. He built his own team and to some degree the more extended team He doesn’t interview every candidate as that would not have been sustainable at the pace of hiring from last year. But as they now mature and grow into themselves, there’s opportunities maybe to do that differently next year. As with everything, they’ll tune the knobs for 2023. They may do some different stuff.

External communications

Shane thinks being a spokesperson for the business is tough and like business travel, either too much or too little. He said it’s just one of those things where it feels very hard to get it right because you can’t not be visible in the industry to a degree because branding does matter, and it is a trust brand. People are trusting with their money so that it’s nice if they can see that leadership of the company, are real people. And Mollie, to some people came from out of nowhere. It’s been around for a while, but its profile increased dramatically with the explosive growth during the pandemic. And sometimes it was about telling the story because they were not as well-known as some other companies that get to their level of external success. So, Shane would say it over indexed on it in the beginning as a new leader, in a new business with new investors, etc. But now he thinks they try to spread it out a little bit within the team. They try to empower the local leadership who are really the local market. Experts speak the language. So, while he can very well do an interview with a German language newspaper, it’s more effective if they showcase the local credential by having other people that can join in and be the external face of the business. But there are some interesting interactions between their contemporaries, even his competitors. There is some journalists Shane really respects in the space, there are some research analysts he really respects in the space. So, he does circulate, but he tries not to make it so all-consuming that he’s not sitting behind the desk doing work.

Shane said that he doesn’t mind as he is one of those people who loves public speaking and jokes saying it must be something in the water where he grew up. He would say some environments are more productive than others and thinks he prefers a more open-ended Q&A or discussion, really standing up and broadcasting to people. He thinks we’ve all experimented over time with how much of that people can take before they tune out. And he likes to promote the company, but he doesn’t like to be too salesy. Therefore, he does shy away a little bit from people saying, ‘please stand up and give us a commercial on Mollie’. This is because he finds that less satisfying than more curated interactions with somebody who’s really thinking hard about how to make themselves successful.

Shane said he was born in the US just outside Chicago however has lived most of his adult life outside of the states. His wife is from Mexico, and they met in Geneva whilst his kids were born in London. He follows this up by saying his family are citizens of the world.

Hollie states that Shane seems to have taken all the elements of being an internal and external spokesperson in his stride.

Biggest communications challenge

Shane said it’s just one of those things as you can never deploy a strategy that fits the whole organization. He always finds that fascinating, whether it’s all hands, meetings or emails or slack or note cards on people’s desks, it’s important to have multiple different things to try to reach the same audience. Sometimes he finds it a bit unpredictable how people choose to engage. So, what he’s learned is if you write the perfect newsletter and you send it every day to the same person for a week, you still might not get them to read it. But if you have the same content on a podcast that can use when they’re running or something. Shane respects the fact that people consume information differently. And you need to be thoughtful about which channels, which mediums do people work on. Shane then brings up a survey from a previous company whereby 75% of the people said, I understand the strategy and 25% don’t get it. Shane proceeds to say that’s awful as one in four people don’t understand the strategy. As a result of this Shane spent the whole year hammering it down. They put note cards on people’s desk, and it was an all-comms assault for the year. After the year they surveyed the same people again, and the results were 80%. He thinks it’s a bit tongue in cheek. It’s just understanding that some people just require quite a lot of 360 view. And you need to be thoughtful about whether people that are in an organization are investing themselves in learning, growing, really trying to get what the company is trying to achieve. So it may be that he needs to tell them better, and it may also be that they need to be very thoughtful about selection criteria and how they think about the people that work in the organization. Shane finds it an interesting comms challenge that he wouldn’t say have solved it but recognizing that it exists is already a by-product of having learned along the way.

Advice to younger self about communications

Shane would say it’s if he looks back on how he was when he was younger, he really wanted to surround himself with and found himself able to work with only people that were very much like him. Shane thinks most people, as they’re growing in their career, struggle to understand that it takes different personality types, and you really need to create a room full of people of different styles in order to get really the best out of the business. So that can be everything from hiring a team of people that are too much like you. Not creating an opportunity for passionate debate, not allowing for necessarily for opposing points of view in general, almost forcing your style on people, which he thinks is quite common, particularly when if you’re ambitious or if you’re viewed to be somebody who’s working hard a bit of that gets tolerated early on. But he did get some very good advice, he thinks in his early thirties from people that said he could really go far in his career if he could sort this bit out, if he could recognize this and could alter what his former CEO called his situational leadership ability, then he could be the CEO of a company one day. He listened and hopefully others would agree.