This story originally appeared on iNovia conversations.
“Silicon Valley is good at getting rid of pain points. Banks are good at creating them.” — Jamie Dimon, CEO JPMorgan Chase
FinTech has made massive waves across the world in recent years, with more than 5,000 companies founded, raising nearly $6 billion in venture capital financing.
Let’s take a step back and reflect on why we have seen so many unbelievable entrepreneurs choose banks as the next establishment to disrupt. Of course, the simple answer is that banking is a large sector, with lots of room for improvement; and millennials desire digital experiences in their financial lives. While those are the most often quoted reasons we see in pitch decks today, we believe the real tailwinds behind the growth of this sector lie even deeper.
First off, an attractive quality of a market ripe for disruption is one where the critical infrastructure is already in place for innovation to be built upon. Matt Heiman at Greylock references that critical infrastructure in this post, citing data APIs like Plaid, Yodlee, and Flinks making it easier to work with financial data; payment APIs like Stripe making it easier to accept payments; and financial market APIs like Xignite, making it possible to pull in live stock prices. Having this foundation in place makes this space all the more attractive for entrepreneurs.
Second is the harsh reality that one’s financial picture today is much different than it was a decade ago.
- Real annual wages have been stagnant since 2000
- Education costs are rising exponentially
- Credit card balances are higher than ever
- Credit scores are lower than ever, limiting access to capital
- Home ownership is at its lowest level since the Census starting tracking it
- High deductible health insurance plans are now the norm
- Populations are aging and retiring older
As Sarah Tavel points out in this post, called “Saving People Money”, in response to these changing macroeconomic factors, people need new ways to save money, manage money, and invest money. Cue the need for tons of innovation.
Lastly, banks have turned into modern-day conglomerates. The large banks today offer every product you can imagine, from insurance to loans, to mortgages, to cross-border money transfers, etc.
This is a prime example of an institution that does a whole lot of things, but does none of those things really well. This is the perfect landscape for a startup to focus its efforts on a select few of those items and execute to perfection.
The ability for a startup to begin “unbundling” some of those banking services is predicated on the notion that a physical presence in banking is no longer at the core of the customer experience. Alex Rampell, Partner at a16z, makes a great comparison between the financial sector and the retail one, citing Amazon as the retailer that caught these same tailwinds and removed the physical presence from the equation, allowing it to displace WalMart as the biggest retailer in the world. He leaves us with a crucial thought in this video, asking “when will banking have its Amazon moment?”.
These factors have opened up the possibility for thousands of startups to transform the way modern banking is done. Every transformation happens in multiple phases, and the first step in this equation is unbundling. The opportunity at hand is for startups to be exclusively focused on only one banking product (say savings or lending). Consider several examples of this being successful:
Alternative lending platforms such as SoFi, Kabbage, and Clearbanc have all taken advantage of the inefficiencies in the lending departments of large financial institutions. These lenders all have similar formulas in the way they disrupt traditional banks:
- High Touch: Start by focusing on a specific user and understand that user really well. This allows the company to underwrite that specific user much more effectively than a bank would. Underwriting more users means more originated loans, and lower loss ratios. For example, SoFi has focused on students, Kabbage on SME’s and Clearbanc on entrepreneurs.
- Reduce the margins banks earn on loans: A traditional bank accepts money (deposits) and pays a minimum amount of interest (<1%) and then loans that money (primarily on credit cards) for closer to 19% interest. There is a lot of margin there to cut in to for a startup. Given the lenders mentioned above don’t have brick and mortar operations to pay for, they can beat the banks loan rates in most cases, and offer credit to more borrowers.
Robo-Advisors such as Wealthfront, Betterment, and Wealthsimple have automated a routine job that was typically done by financial advisors. Large mutual funds and ETFs were already mostly being managed by algorithms, however clients had to consult financial advisors prior to investing. By removing the advisor from the equation and promising individuals a balanced, diversified portfolio that fits their lifestyle, robo-advisors are able to offer equal returns with much less management fees (typically 0.5% vs 1.5% at traditional banks).
- Savings platforms such as Acorns have found new, innovative ways to encourage people to save money. They are able to offer a fully digital experience, and have ‘gamified’ saving, by incorporating goal setting, rewards points, and a social element. Alternative savings platforms can earn a higher return for clients on their savings all with free accounts that they can contribute to or withdraw from anytime.
These examples continue across every facet of a bank. This image below gives a taste of the FinTech landscape today, and highlights every element of unbundling currently under way. This is the home page of Wells Fargo and it outlines the top startups picking apart every piece of the bank.
Of course, unbundling is not the holy grail, it is merely phase one. Entrepreneurs’ ambitions and world domination plans are much larger than simply mastering one banking product. The first product, or the unbundling, is just the “hook” to acquire customers and begin building trust and brand name. Startups exploit the banks on one simple product as a hook to win the consumers’ business in the hopes of then being able to target that same consumer with other financial products in the future, hence phase two: rebundling. The more startups that begin offering additional financial products, the more those startups will begin to resemble traditional banks. Here are some examples of rebundling happening in action:
- Acorns has now differentiated beyond simply a savings platform by launching Acorns Spend, a debit card product.
- Square began as an easy-to-use terminal for on-demand workers to receive payment. They have now begun issuing loans to their merchants.
- Paypal has launched a prepaid debit card that includes bank transfers, deposits, and cashing checks.
- SoFi has moved beyond just student loans and into mortgages, wealth management, and life insurance.
- Robinhood has extended its trading services to cryptocurrency
- Stash has launched core banking and custodial services
- Credit Karma knows everything (far beyond just credit cards).
What has emerged in the FinTech space is a race to own the end client relationship. Each startup took a different approach, chose a different vertical, and unbundled a different element of the bank. But as all those startups look to layer on, and rebundle the core services of a bank, they will all be vying for mindshare from the same customers. Suddenly, a group of thousands of companies solving various, unrelated problems, will become competitive and will race against each other to be the “go-to” digital bank (or the ‘Amazon Moment’). Despite the numerous examples of rebundling above, we are not quite there yet. As the graph below depicts, we are still at the tail end of the unbundling phase, with startups trying to achieve critical mass in their verticals, prior to commencing the rebundling process.
Once the rebundling phase begins on a macro level, the threat to traditional banks will increase exponentially. Today, consumers excited by digital offerings startups are delivering are faced with the pain of having to piece together all of their financial needs like a puzzle (since every startup only unbundled one product). Getting all of your financial needs serviced, requires interacting with many startups. This pain still generates enough friction for consumers that they maintain their relationship with their traditional bank, and experiment with one or a few new innovative products on the side. Most customers with an Acorns account, also have a traditional savings account at their bank (likewise with investments and loans).
While we don’t expect startups to attempt to put together products that cover everything Wells Fargo offers today, we expect them to bundle a subset of elements that have high synergies. In the past, a HENRY (High Earner, Not Rich Yet) would have one relationship — a big bank; in the future they won’t have 50 relationships (one for each service) but they may have 3–8 relationships with digital rebundlers. Customers will have the opportunity to transfer more and more of their banking relationships to their most trusted digital providers, and will be able to move further away from their traditional banking relationships.
We have yet to see the true threat to banks. But it is around the corner.
Let’s conclude by summarizing what all of this means for inovia in terms of how we allocate capital and make investment decisions in the FinTech space. Here are some of the key elements we look for:
Having a unique and differentiated customer acquisition machine: the ability to acquire customers cost effectively is of utmost importance in the FinTech space. As mentioned above, owning the client relationship is the holy grail, and having a customer not only counts as revenue for the current product, but also allows the startup to target that customer with additional banking products in the future. Here are some examples of unique customer acquisition strategies that have proven successful for FinTech startups;
- SoFi began by targeting students with its loan products. This led them to be able to use universities as distribution channels and acquire students cheaply (this customer profile was being ignored by traditional lenders). They coined the term HENRY to describe their target customer. This profile was not of interest to banks since they were not wealthy enough (yet) to drive a significant amount of business.
- Clearbanc offers revenue-based financing to entrepreneurs. They quickly realized that many small businesses use Facebook as their primary advertising channel and that one of the barriers for small businesses is access to capital. Clearbanc partnered with Facebook to help provide capital to these small businesses (much of it to be re-invested in Facebook ads for customer acquisition). This allows Clearbanc to acquire users cheaply through the Facebook merchant network.
- Affirm allows consumers to pay for large retail purchases in installments. Rather than target consumers directly, Affirm used merchants as their distribution channel. Once a customer reaches the cash, the merchant would ask the customer if they wanted to pay using installment payments (powered by Affirm). This turned the business into a B2B model of selling to merchants rather than a B2C model of competing on customer acquisition.
A well-thought out rebundling strategy that involves owning the end consumer or merchant: Entrepreneurs need to think about pitching the big vision from day one. Building a massive business in the FinTech space will not happen with a series of accidental product additions along the way that we “hope” consumers will enjoy. Owning the end customer should be the objective from day one, it is the core of the business and the reason for existence. Then it is up to the entrepreneur to experiment with various “hooks” to lure in their first batch of customers cheaply. These hooks are more flexible and far less important than the actual master business plan. Here is some advice on choosing the right hook:
- Test and iterate quickly on initial customer segments you are targeting and the product offering you’re selling. Try something and kill it within a few weeks if you are not luring a unique kind of individual. It is crucial to find a differentiated customer base to initially target, rather than going after the same customers as everyone else.
- Pick something that resonates with millennials. For example, Ellevestcreates mutual funds tied to the unique career path of women, OpenInvestallows clients to add social impact stocks to their portfolio and Quantopianallows anyone to create financial trading algorithms. The overall vision of all of these companies is to be the trusted financial partner for their target client base, however they have all approached the market with hooks that resonate deeply with that market they are targeting.
- Once you’ve found a differentiated customer base and a product that resonates with that base you will begin attracting attention to yourself. The idea is that you can use your initial base as a springboard to layer on your rebundling strategies in a more cost effective way. Start with engaged users, build brand awareness among them, garner attention, and then begin rebundling.
Innovate in a new area of banking: Over 40% of all investment dollars into FinTech startups to date have been poured into the alternative lending space, leaving massive industries (such as mortgages and insurance) with few well-funded companies. Additionally, there potentially many innovative ways to improve one’s financial lives that don’t even exist yet and are not even done by banks. Finding a new way to add value financially is a compelling way to disrupt the antiquated banking industry. Examples of radically new financial products are;
- Mortgage companies like Ribbon, Point and Properly that allow consumers the ability to sell their homes more efficiently and even offer the possibility of unlocking some of the equity in their home (things banks don’t do today).
- Contextualized insurance companies like Lemonade, and Slice. Today, an individual may act as a business one day (renting our their home on Airbnb, or driving their car for Uber) and as a regular citizen the next. Insurance needs to adapt to understand the context in which your assets are being used.
Create your own infrastructure and be self-reliant: Many FinTech companies simply add a new layer or application on top of existing banking infrastructure. This is a great way to validate the problem, but in the long-term the majority of the gains will still accrue to the financial institution serving as the infrastructure layer. FinTechs that are self reliant can be more disruptive and rebundle other apps even easier than those that rely on others. This is one example of a well-planned rebundling strategy from the start.
At inovia we look to partner with audacious founders building enduring technology companies. It is clear that the ability to have an impact on one’s financial experience has the potential to disrupt everything we know about our banking systems. Those are the types of ‘big bets’ we thrive in undertaking.
Alex Barrett is a VC at iNovia Capital. His experience in financial services began during his time in Accenture’s Management Consulting practice.
Growing world-class scaleup hubs through global lessons
Dean Hopkins, CEO at OneEleven, discusses how global scaleup hubs can learn from each other in order to build outstanding scaleups.
Any time a new global city or region emerges as a technology or innovation hub, the inevitable comparisons to Silicon Valley begin. New York as Silicon Alley, Israel as Silicon Wadi, and Toronto was recently dubbed Maple Valley to much scorn.
But it’s time for globally emergent innovation hubs to look beyond Silicon Valley as they work to build scaleup success, with each location learning from the specific lessons of one another to help all players in the community succeed.
Outside the original Valley, collaboration, diversity and connections into other ecosystems are major strategic advantages for any hub that wants to scale faster – more connections, more funding, more talent, more resources and more stories to share to teach others.
Just look at Stockholm: With a population of only one million, it has developed more Unicorns per capita than any other innovation ecosystem outside Silicon Valley. Among other things, connecting into other major hubs helped propel growth and seed opportunity.
With OneEleven now established in the UK, we’re applying lessons from two leading hubs — London and Toronto — to guide our strategy and propel our value. Both cities embody hard-earned scaleup lessons, like specialization, building ecosystem partnerships and leveraging the power of diverse leadership, that we believe are key to ecosystem and company success.
Focus on growing the greatest verticals
London has built an ecosystem around its strengths.
The city is by far the leading source of fintech innovation worldwide: it has the greatest concentration of fintechs and the largest workforce in fintech — it dwarfs everywhere else even New York. In the first quarter of 2017, London saw $421 million invested in its fintech industry pushing New York out of the top spot for fintech investment. The City of London has worked with a variety of institutions to rally behind this emphasis on fintech, bringing together government, educational institutions and various sources of funding to embrace the fintech ethos.
The lesson to be learned from London’s focus on fintech is that innovation hubs need to concentrate their efforts in certain sectors where they already stand out as a global leader.
In Toronto, we’re starting to see a lot going on in the deep AI tech space, through the Vector Institute and other organizations building on a research base of over 30 years by Dr. Geoffrey Hinton and his colleagues. Of course, there’s room for improvement. While research labs are popping up regularly, with big partners involved, Toronto and Canada are lagging when it comes to patents and application of AI tech. As we build up this sector of our innovation ecosystem, we have to develop a well-rounded AI industry that includes a robust IP regime to keep AI innovation in Canada.
Diversity in leadership
Both London and Toronto also boast the highest demographic diversity of global cities, and demonstrate how valuable entrepreneurial leadership from all over the world can be. Forty percent of London residents classifying themselves as other than white according to a 2011 census, and that diversity powers the tech and innovation ecosystem in the city. Recent research shows that immigrants and people from minority backgrounds in the UK are twice as likely to be early-stage entrepreneurs.
Toronto is similarly diverse in its population, and talent is one of the reasons the city is seeing global recognition as an innovation hub.
Canada’s fast-track visa program prioritizes highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs and was created as a talent magnet for Toronto especially – last year MaRS released survey results showing 45 percent of Toronto tech companies made international hires in 2017 alone, and 35 percent of respondents used the visas to hire.
Other scaleup hubs could build valuable leadership and collaboration from a similar approach to entrepreneurship: one which looks to bring in more diverse, global talent on the leadership side, as well as the wider talent side. Scaleup communities have to be competitive on the world stage by inspiring people from all over the world to come and build their businesses there, as a lack of immigration and global perspective can starve an ecosystem of oxygen.
Culture of collaboration
We’re very fortunate in Toronto to have a culture of collaboration that starts at the earliest stages of entrepreneurship, and continues throughout company growth. There’s a strong expectation that you will work together, and for that reason, forming a community in Toronto is almost a matter of course.
Hubs like MaRS, 111 and the DMZ, for example, have opened up prime real estate to provide space for young companies to grow and to foster their developing businesses. Canadians have proven they are wired differently and Toronto’s collaborative and inclusive culture is one of its strongest competitive advantages.
In London, there’s a hyper-competitive environment for businesses, and perhaps not as naturally collaborative of an environment. That might just be because the city has only just recently seen an effort made to boost that kind collaboration from organizations like the Scaleup Institute and Tech London Advocates.
But collaboration between government, academia and business is one of the things that makes London a world-class scaleup hub.
Collaboration between groups tends to be verticalized in the UK, with TheCityUK being a prime example; the industry-led body that represents UK-based financial and professional services companies showed that collaboration between financial institutions and fintech companies can speed up the process of creating innovative products and services. By looking at IP, regulatory compliance, data protection and privacy, TheCityUK provided seven possible models for collaboration between banks and fintech companies.
Big scaleup success stories can also influence the effort to increase collaboration in scaleup hubs — and London has some amazing stories to tell.
Renewable energy company Bulb grew from 85,000 customers to 870,000 in the space of 12 months, becoming one of the fastest-growing scaleups in the UK. The company’s founders Hayden Wood and Amit Gudka are immensely proud of their place in London’s ecosystem. This is how how big names in a scaleup hub can advocate for an entire community.
For our part at OneEleven, we’ll work hard to build up that kind of collaborative community and collective effort as we continue to expand into London’s innovation ecosystem. We want to ensure that the success of these companies continues past their early stage, into growth and on into the billion-dollar club. The middle chapter is currently not being written in London — despite early stage support for companies and big success stories — and that’s what 111 is here to address.
Global scale through collaboration
Innovation hubs around the world can also work together to take the friction out of companies expanding between markets. Furthermore, cooperating markets can increase their competitiveness by promoting an exchange of innovative business practices, and reap the economic benefits that scaleups can bring to innovation ecosystems.
London and Toronto are a good example of global collaboration, as they the two cities have begun to explore greater cooperation when it comes to facilitating expansion between hubs.
The Mayor of London’s promotional agency London & Partners has opened an office in Toronto to better encourage Canadian businesses seeking to expand to consider London for their next destination, and to support UK businesses seeking expansion into Canada’s market. Over the last decade, the organization says 44 London businesses have expanded into Toronto and 118 Canadian businesses have set up shop in London during that same period.
This is only the beginning when it comes to proper cooperation between these two cities: government, academia and innovation hubs should work together to encourage scaleups in their efforts to expand between international markets.
Greater than the global sum of our parts
At OneEleven, it seems to us that the unique evolution, and now collaboration, between the London and Toronto ecosystems signals the rise of a global network of innovation that is in its early stages. Such a global network, powered by the diversity of each market, promises to have a dramatic effect on the ability for scaling companies to access talent, customers, investors and partners much more easily. We are excited to be a part of the rise of this globally connected and collaborative ecosystem that builds on what was started in Silicon Valley, but brings innovation into the more global and highly connected digital present.
#ScaleStrategy Q&A: Borrowell’s Co-Founder on Why Scaleups Need Values More than Culture
Eva Wong discusses how the credit and fintech company keeps applying their values to support growth.
“I remember having a half hour conversation about building a sales team with our OneEleven office neighbour. He took me into a board room and wrote out everything that he learned and the mistakes he made in the nine months it took to build out his team. That’s just one example of our first value: humility. Admitting there’s someone 15 years younger who’s been in business way less than I have been, but who knows way more about this than I do,” she recalls.
Wong says values and the culture that emerges from them can help companies scale by bypassing cumbersome process and bureaucracy that can slow growing organizations. As Borrowell has grown from 4 to 45 employees, Wong says she has learned that values are more fixed — and crucial — than culture.
“In the early days, we talked about culture fit. Now we talk much more about culture contribution. [New team members] don’t have to fit into the existing culture. As we grow and change, the culture will too. The values are more important to hold true to,” she says.
Recently, John Ruffolo, the chief executive officer of OMERS Ventures, caught up with Wong to discuss why scaleups need to pay close attention to culture, how it impacts hiring and how to scale it as the company grows.
John Ruffolo: Why is culture so key for scaleups?
Eva Wong: There’s a really popular quote that says “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture is what keeps larger companies agile. If people don’t intuitively do the right things on their own, you have to add process and that slows companies down. For us, as we grow, a really strong culture involves ensuring people understand how they help us continue to scale in a way that avoids bureaucracy.
Ruffolo: How would you describe the culture at Borrowell?
Wong: Culture isn’t about perks. It’s not about things we do for fun. Or how the company has shared interests. For us, it’s clearly tied to our values. Our values are:
- We’re high-performing and humble.
- We’re trustworthy and team-oriented.
- We love learning.
- Act like owners.
- Diversity makes us better.
Ruffolo: When the initial team came together, did all of you share those values?
Wong: I don’t think it was as explicit. When you come together as co-founding team, you just click. It was more implicit. We did read the Netflix culture deck and said “that’s what we want our culture to be!” We knew we’d have to articulate it one day because people were asking what our culture is and we wanted to be consistent in how we described it.
Ruffolo: How did the culture shift as you grew from 4 to 45 employees?
Wong: We didn’t have our values established or written down when we were four people. That came when we were maybe 16 to 20. It was a collaborative, organic, bottom-up approach where we asked employees, ”What’s different about working here than other places you’ve worked?” People shared different things and we came up with the values that way.
But as we continue to grow, culture is naturally going to change and we’re okay with that. It has to change. What we don’t want to change are the values. We want to add people to the company who add to the culture, not necessarily stick in the lanes. We recognize that as we grow and become more diverse those values can manifest differently. We still want people to act like owners, but it just might look different compared to where we were when we started.
One thing our VP Talent, Larissa Holmes, launched within the company is a competency matrix, which explains what behaviours we expect from team members at each level of the organization. For example, if you’re a senior director what does it mean to be ‘high-performing and humble’? It’s also a way for employees to know what competencies are needed to move from a manager to a senior manager to a director and how those things are tied to our values. Employees have to get better at exemplifying the values to move up in the organization.
Ruffolo: Do you think culture is playing a role for talent wanting to work with you?
Wong: One hundred percent it is. A lot of people will check out Glassdoor before they come in, so they already have a sense of our culture and values. We take the interview process seriously as well, since it will be their first real taste of our culture. On Glassdoor, people can actually post reviews of the interview process, even if they’re not hired. There are posts from people who we turned down but who wrote positive reviews of their experience. We try to make sure that people we are interviewing see and meet various team members from different levels within the organization. That’s important to us.
Part of the interview process is doing an assignment, which exemplifies our values as well. It’s not just about who can talk a good game. You have to produce good work, too.
Ruffolo: In interviews, how do you describe your culture to a candidate?
Wong: Like any company, you can put values on a wall. But you need to give specific examples of how you actually live them. Our value ‘act like owners’ is a pretty good way of encompassing us. We really do encourage everyone to think about what they would do to make the whole company successful — to put on their CEO hat and think about what’s best for the business. It encourages people to avoid thinking in a very narrow sense about their role.
Our ‘high-performing and humble’ value is a big part of who we are too. Humility helps us recognize that although we’re all really smart and capable, you can’t just operate as an island. You’re dependant on your teammates, and we need to listen to our customers. Humility allows people to be able to take a step back and have their ideas challenged by others.
Ruffolo: Is there one of your five values that needs to be taken to the next level?
Wong: The value — ‘diversity makes us better’ — is something that we’re working to improve on. Our goal is to have a gender-balanced company, and we’re not there yet. We’re currently at 40%, which is not bad, but it’s not evenly distributed within our company. We’re continuing to track as we grow as a team at different levels and different departments.
Obviously, diversity isn’t only about gender. There are a number of different metrics we measure, including the percentage of employees that are born outside Canada. Since we have this focus on diversity and inclusion, I think we’re more likely to attract and retain diverse talent and to promote people with different backgrounds and experiences.
Ruffolo: Which entrepreneur inspires you the most and why?
Wong: There’s an entrepreneur named Kim Scott who has written a great book called “Radical Candor”. I admire her because she’s been very effective as a business person and operator without losing her humanity. She still cares very much about her team, and I think she would say those two things reinforce each other, whereas some people think you can either be a strong operator or a good person. She said in order to be an effective operator, you have to care about your team and have authentic relationships.
Ruffolo: Are there are books that helped you in your scaleup journey?
Wong: I read a book by Adam Grant called “Give and Take”. He talks about people falling into one of three categories: givers, takers, and matchers. Within givers, there are smart givers and there are pushovers — those who give but not in a smart way. They tend to burnout and get taken advantage of. Of all those groups, those who do the best are the smart givers. At Borrowell, we ask ourselves: “how do I give smart without burning out or being taken advantage of?”
Ruffolo: What is your number one piece of advice for a founder in the scaleup stage?
Wong: Constantly reevaluate what you’re doing and make sure you’re still working on the highest value things. When you’re scaling, things are constantly changing and you have to keep reevaluating your role. Are you spending your time doing the most high value activities?
3 Things to Know About Scaling Culture Through Values
Co-founder and COO of Borrowell on the power of values
As Wong has helped grow Borrowell from a team of 4 to 45, she has learned that being clear on values is more important than maintaining a culture through scale. Culture emerges from a company’s values, she says, and both together help companies avoid the need to create cumbersome process and bureaucracy that can slow down growth.
“Values and culture are what keeps larger companies agile,” she says. “If people don’t do the right things on their own, you have add to process and that slows companies down.”
When Borrowell was first founded, they didn’t have their values written down, says Wong. As they grew, they needed to articulate those same values clearly for the scaling team.
“We first did it when we were about 16 to 20 people. It was a collaborative, organic, bottom-up approach where we asked employees, ‘What’s different about working here than other places you’ve worked?’ People shared different things and we came up with the values that way.”
About a year ago, as growth continued and Borrowell raised another round of funding, Wong and the rest of the management team knew they needed to add one more value: diversity.
“We care a lot about diversity. Checking off a diversity box and getting them in the door isn’t enough. We want diversity of opinions and to retain diverse employees,” she says.
Today, Borrowell’s values are:
- We’re high-performing and humble
- We’re trustworthy and team-oriented
- We love learning
- Act like owners
- Diversity makes us better
For scaleups looking to refine their values and culture, Wong has three key lessons she has learned through the evolution of Borrowell.
1) Values Over Culture
“It’s more about values and less about culture,” says Wong. “We’re open to our culture changing, but want to keep our values consistent.”
In the early says, she says, the founders talked about culture fit, while now they talk about culture contribution. Employees don’t have to fit the existing culture or share the same personalities as current employees because those things will grow and change as the company does.
In fact, Wong wants to see a diversity of culture at Borrowell and is open to seeing their values manifest themselves differently as they continue to grow.
“We want to add people to the company who add to the culture, not necessarily stick in existing lanes. As we grow and become more diverse those values will look different. We still want people to ‘act like owners’, but it just might look different as we grow compared to where we were when we started,” she says.
2) Ask About Values When Hiring
One lesson Wong learned through trial and error was to be explicit in interviews about the company’s values and share what they mean.
“We take the interview process seriously, since it will be a person’s first real taste of our values and culture,” she says. “We embedded our values into the process and we have specific questions we ask during around each of the values to make sure people are aligned with them.”
Part of the interviewing process at Borrowell is to do an assignment, which helps the team see the work a candidate actually produces.
“It’s not just about who can talk a good game,” says Wong. In addition, candidates interview and meet with various people from different levels within the organization who discuss how values are executed throughout the company.
3) Empower Employee Success with Values
Wong and her management team have taken their values one step further in an effort to support the scaling company.
“When we started, people were in contact with the founders every day. But as we’ve grown, that’s less true. So we need to define what each of our values mean at different seniority levels and not just demonstrated by the management team.”
To address this, they launched a competency matrix that defines what skills and behaviours are needed for the values at each level of the organization.
“If you’re a director, what does it mean to be high performing but humble,” she says. “We’re communicating what it takes to move from a manager to a senior manager to a director and what is expected. It’s part of the promotion process. Employees actually have to get better at exemplifying the values to move up in the company.”
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