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Q&A: Wealthsimple CEO Mike Katchen talks process, culture and scale pressure

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Mike Katchen, CEO, Wealthsimple
Mike Katchen, CEO, Wealthsimple
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#ScaleStrategy is produced by DX Journal and OneEleven. This editorial series delivers insights, advice, and practical recommendations to innovative and disruptive entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.

In three-and-a-half years, Wealthsimple has raised $165 million in capital from the Power Financial Group and scaled from three employees to 175. And in early 2018, the company announced a milestone of more than $2 billion in assets under management and cemented itself in the vanguard of Canada’s new breed of financial services businesses.

“I’m on a personal mission to build a Canadian company globally,” says Co-Founder and CEO, Mike Katchen. “I want to see more companies in Canada take on the world and build long-lasting global institutions.”

Wealthsimple’s scale-up story is the stuff of legends (you can read our piece on their journey here). As part of #ScaleStrategy, Katchen spoke with Bilal Khan, Managing Partner of M6ix Ventures and the founding CEO of OneEleven, about the pressure, pain and pleasures of growing rapidly.

Bilal Khan: What has the experience of scaling your business been like?

Mike Katchen: I think the hard part for me is that we’ve never done this before. We didn’t really know what good process looked like. I like to think that good process is something you can’t even see. It’s just a way of operating that makes everyone better, but not something you pay attention to or gets in the way of work. Today, we’re trying to introduce structure to make people more productive, but we still have a ways to go on that front.

Khan: And you’re happy to let team members build the processes themselves?

Katchen: I’m very hands-off. I’m here to support our people to do the best work of their lives.

Katchen: If they need my help or support, they want to problem-solve things, come to me. But I am not going to drive the agenda for each individual team as to what they’re supposed to accomplish, what they’re working on, what their goals are. I’ll encourage them to push their thinking, but it’s not up to me to set each person’s ownership over their parts of the business. That’s a key point of our style.

Khan: Was there a time when you realized a certain process or system that you were using was starting to become disastrous and you had to introduce something new there?

Katchen: On the people side, I led HR and recruiting for the first 50 hires. It was really important on the recruiting side, but a terrible idea on the HR side. Quickly after that, our first HR leader came in and helped to structure some of the “people process” that we have here, which made a big difference. At some point you transform from being a small, scrappy family-like team to building a company where things like career paths, trajectory, titles, salary and benchmarking become really important. As soon as you hit a certain size, you have to think about what the company starts to look like rather than just a group of folks trying to will something into existence.

On the product side, in the early days, you go by your gut. You build the things you want. That’s still is a part of our ethos because we are clients of our products and we love to build things that we want to use. At the same time, you start to pay real technical debt if you build things you’re not going to commit to, and you become much less nimble as you scale. In the last year, we really tried to implement a better product planning process where anyone in the company can pitch what we build, but we have a process in place on how we decide what to build, what to kill. This is important to help us stay focused on building the right things.

Khan: Tell me about a scale pressure that was a hard nut to crack.

Katchen: Last year we were unprepared for the enormity of tax season in Canada. The industry talks about taxes being super seasonal and that tax season is the busy time of year, but we never experienced that before. We didn’t anticipate this huge spike. During last year’s tax season, we were wholly under-resourced on our customer support team, and this led to some poor experiences and delays that we had to crawl our way out of it. People were working 120-hour weeks for a couple of months straight to try and dig our way out of that hole.

This year, we tried to be a lot more thoughtful about it. Rather than hiring an army of customer service people, we threw a technology team at our customer support operations and tried to figure out if there was software we could build that would both support our customer support resources as well as eliminate the need for customers to call in.

What we found is that last year, there were something like 35,000 interactions in the month leading up to the RRSP season deadline. This year, we have more than three times the amount of customers but only had 40,000 interactions. All without a bigger team.

Khan: How do you continue to be innovative, test new product offerings without impacting the business at scale?

Katchen: We get really excited about big ideas and probably throw too little resources at them and don’t always see the ideas all the way through to where they need to be: robust and scalable.

We need to focus on maintaining our positioning and growing our market share, keep optimizing to deliver a better experience, keep improving to make the fundamentals of our business better. But our aspirations are much bigger than just that. We want to build a business around the world that truly transforms the landscape of financial services. That requires some big bets and not all will pay off.

So, one of the new things we’re introducing is an analogy from one of our team members: Garden and Plant. This describes those two activities of growing market share and making big bets. We need to be smart about how we resource between those two activities. To do that, we’ve decided that 75 percent of the company resources should go toward gardening activities that support business growth, and 25 percent should go toward planting or cultivating new ideas. I think it will bring some more discipline to allocating resources.

Khan: How do you manage culture with 165 employees and growing?

Katchen: We’ve done a few things right with culture at scale.

Katchen: We still have an all-hands meeting every week, and we’ve iterated a lot on the content of that meeting and who leads it. I used to lead them all the time, and then my co-founder and I started sharing the responsibility, and now it’s everyone on the leadership team can run them. I think people enjoy that different team members from other parts of the business get to share how the company is doing. It adds perspective on how things are going that I think is valued.

And at that meeting, we try to do things that ensure that people know where we are going. We remind people of the company priorities and how we’re doing moving against them. We talk about metrics.

Specifically, we have a concept called FUD, which we stole from Stripe, who we really admire for their culture). It stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. It is a chance for anyone in the company to publicly or anonymously share what we call “an existential concern” that they have about the business. It’s a pretty jarring thing for people the first time they hear it. But I think it inspires a culture of transparency and enforces that it’s okay to have tough conversations here.

Khan: Have you had the conversation around potentially bringing in people who have done it before.

Katchen: Ah, the grey hair question. We’ve been fortunate and managed to grow very quickly. Boards are happy when you grow fast. For me, I’ve always had the mindset that there might come a day where it makes sense to bring in someone. To me, there’s no ego about it. I’m here because I believe in what we’re building at Wealthsimple. I believe in the team. I want to see this through to building a truly transformative company that makes people’s lives better. Right now, I am probably the right person in this role. If that changes, that’s cool, so long as it’s for the right reasons and it’s the right person.

For Wealthsimple, we gave up control as a business. We sold the majority stake to Power Corp., which is a really unusual thing to do for a business of our size. And the reason why it’s okay is because to take a company all the way to IPO, you’re going to have to do that at some point. For us, hanging on to control is less relevant. It’s a question of “how do you set up your business for long-term success?” We tried to find a partner that we trusted and believed could be a long-term partner to help us get there. It made that trade-off a lot easier. They share that trust with us and our management team.

Khan: What books helped you in your scaleup journey?

Katchen:

  • “Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson” By Andrea Mandel-Campbell. This book was a huge wake-up call on the need to think big and do things differently. I talk about the book a lot because it informs a much of my thinking around Canada and how we need to build global companies.
  • “The Lean Startup”. By Eric Ries. How many businesses get built where people spend years of their time on products and projects that don’t have fit because there’s no market for it? They never test it. Everyone has to know that.
  • “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. In the first year of scaling, I remember reading what he wrote about hiring friends who have been a part of the business from the beginning and how much that sucked. And it does, it’s heart-wrenching.

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DX survey reveals high levels of enterprise-consumer disconnect

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A new survey looks at the global investment and effectiveness of businesses’ digital transformation efforts. The survey shows a disconnect between enterprise investments and consumer experiences.

The survey is titled “The Kony Digital Experience Index (KDXi) Survey”, and the main takeaway is that while businesses have invested nearly $5 trillion on digital transformation initiatives, only 19 percent of customers have reported any significant improvement in the experiences offered to them.

The Kony Inc., survey included 1,600 responses from business leaders and customers across the U.S., Europe and Asia. The responses were used to gauge the target digital project implementation efficiencies in banking, retail, utilities and healthcare. The research showed a disconnect on both sides and a potential misalignment around investment priorities, and highlighted the impact this could potentially have for businesses.

Among other things, the study found that consumers are underestimating the number of businesses that are investing heavily in every customer experience outcome by at least 50 percent. This means that while business are spending money on digital transformation projects, consumers are not necessarily noticing a difference.

The survey also reported that 62 percent of consumers say that they spend more with companies that offer effortless digital experiences, while 56 percent of consumers indicate that they will switch if a retailer does not deliver the digital experience they want. This signals the necessity for businesses to continue to invest in the digital experience for the customer. However, in doing so they need to start making an impact.

As the report states: “It is critical for businesses to have a greater focus on understanding and aligning with customer needs and priorities to ensure that they are driving the agenda for the digital technology they create and fund.”

In terms of what businesses should be doing, the basis of a strategy includes:

  • Embracing innovative thinking, ambition and a commitment to improvement
  • Prioritizing investment in digital outcomes, not digital initiatives
  • Getting their foundations right before evolving
  • Building for now, but investing in a roadmap that leads to the future
  • Saying no to silos and yes to integrated digital strategy
  • Setting a customer-centered digital transformation agenda

This means companies should work to provide web experiences that make it easier for users to navigate, and for websites to be more engaging and intuitive to use. There also needs to be comprehensive online and mobile facilities so that users can do everything online or via their mobile device. Furthermore, to truly step forwards, businesses need to begin offering digital experiences such as AI, chatbots and augmented reality.

Summing this up, Thomas E. Hogan, chairman and CEO, Kony, Inc. states: “Improvements in costs and efficiencies are always welcomed and clearly important to project funding, but the real returns and real impact of digital starts and stops with its impact on the customer experience.”

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‘Ethical AI’ matters — the problem lies in defining it

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News that Microsoft will invest around $1 billion to examine ethical artificial intelligence signals that the tech sector is thinking deeper about the ethics underlying transformative technologies. But what is ethical AI?

Microsoft is to invest around $1 billion into the OpenAI project, a group that has Elon Musk and Amazon as members. The partners are seeking to establish “shared principles on ethics and trust”. The project is considering two streams: cognitive science, which is linked to psychology and considers the similarities between artificial intelligence and human intelligence; and machine intelligence, which is less concerned with how similar machines are to humans, and instead is focused on how systems behave in an intelligent way.

With the growth of smart technology comes an increased reliance for humanity to place trust in algorithms, that continue to evolve. Increasingly, people are asking whether an ethical framework is needed in response. It would appear so, with some machines now carrying out specific tasks more effectively than humans can. This leads to the questions ‘what is ethical AI?’ and ‘who should develop ethics and regulate them?’

AI’s ethical dilemmas

We’re already seeing examples of what can go wrong when artificial intelligence is granted too much autonomy.Amazon had to pull an artificial intelligence operated recruiting tool after it was found to be biased against female applicants. A different form of bias was associated with a recidivism machine learning-run assessment tool that was biased against black defendants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recently sued Facebook due to its advertising algorithms, which allow advertisers to discriminate based on characteristics such as gender and race. For similar reasons Google opted not to renew its artificial intelligence contract with the U.S. Department of Defense for undisclosed ethical concerns.

These examples outline why, at the early stages, AI produces ethical dilemmas and perhaps why some level of control is required.

Designing AI ethics

Ethics is an important design consideration as artificial intelligence technology progresses. This philosophical inquiry extends from how humanity wants AI to make decisions and with which types of decisions. This is especially important where the is potential danger (as with many autonomous car driving scenarios); and extends to a more dystopian future where AI could replace human decision-making at work and at home. In-between, one notable experiment detailed what might happen if an artificially intelligent chatbot became virulently racist, a study intended to highlights the challenges humanity might face if machines ever become super intelligent.

While there is agreement that AI needs an ethical framework, what should this framework contain? There appears to be little consensus over the definition of ethical and trustworthy AI. A starting point is in the European Union document titled “Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI“. With this brief, the key criteria are for AI to be democratic, to contribute to an equitable society, to support human agency, to foster fundamental rights, and to ensure that human oversight remains in place.

These are important concerns for a liberal democracy. But how do these principles stack up with threats to the autonomy of humans, as with AI that interacts and seeks to influencing behavior, as with the Facebook Cambridge Analytica issue? Even with Google search results, the output, which is controlled by an algorithm, can have a significant influence on the behavior of users.

Furthermore, should AI be used as a weapon? If robots become sophisticated enough (and it can be proven they can ‘reason’), should they be given rights akin to a human? The questions of ethics runs very deep.

OpenAI’s aims

It is grappling with some of these issues that led to the formation of OpenAI. According to Smart2Zero, OpenAI’s primary goal is to ensure that artificial intelligence can be deployed in a way that is both safe and secure, in order that the economic benefits can be widely distributed through society. Notably this does not capture all of the European Union goals, such as how democratic principles will be protected or how human autonomy will be kept central to any AI application.

As a consequence of Microsoft joining of the consortium, OpenAI will seek to develop advanced AI models built upon Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform. There are few specific details of how the project will progress.

Commenting on Microsoft’s big investment and commitment to the project, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella does not shed much light: “AI is one of the most transformative technologies of our time and has the potential to help solve many of our world’s most pressing challenges…our ambition is to democratize AI.”

Do we need regulation?

It is probable that the OpenAI project will place business first, and it will no doubt seek to reduce areas of bias. This in itself is key to the goals of the partners involved. For wider ethical issues it will be down to governments and academia to develop strong frameworks, and for these to gain public acceptance, and then for an appropriate regulatory structure to be put in place.

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Digital transformation is causing C-suite tensions

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Photo by Taylor Nicole on Unsplash
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Digital transformation is not only about technology, it’s also about changes of practices which need to diffuse through an organization’s culture. This needs to be begin at the top. A new report finds C-suite discord is a block to effective DX processes.

Rapidly undergoing effective digitally transformation puts a strain across C-suite relationships, according to a new survey of major enterprises. The report has been produced by business management software provider Apptio, and commissioned by the Financial Times. Titled “Disruption in the C-suite“, the report is draws on the findings of a survey conducted with 555 senior executives, (50 percent occupying CxO roles). The executives were based in major economic nations: Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the U.S.

The report finds that while digital transformation leads to greater collaboration across different business functions, it can also create blurred responsibilities across the C-suite. This crossover carries the risk of key issues being missed; it also serves as a source of tension between top executives, as traditional functions merge and territorial disputes are triggered. As a sign of such differences, 71 percent of finance executives found the IT unit within the C-suite should be seeking greater influencing skills to better deliver the change their business requires.

Team deficiencies found in the survey included not having key performance indicators in place with to measure digital transformation progress. Also, the CFO was found to be the least deeply aligned member of the C-suite team, especially not being aligned with the CIO.

To overcome these divisions, the report recommends that organizations invest time in ‘bridging the trust gap’ between functions and seek to ease tensions, especially between the offices of the CIO and the CFO. An important factor is with establishing which function has accountability. Another measure that can be taken is with ensuing that data is more transparent and where key metrics are issued in ‘real-time’.

The report also charts how digital transformation is being fully embraced, as leaders at global brands are embracing processes and technologies like artificial intelligence, workplace reskilling, cloud computing, agile working and de-centralized decision-making.

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