Welcome to 5 Questions with FinTech Founders, where we sit down with the next generation of FinTech innovators to hear about how they got started, and where they are going.
In this installment, we spoke with Shachar Bialick, Founder and CEO of Curve, the London-based banking platform that combines your credit, debit, and loyalty cards in one smart app.
Shachar built Curve with a simple mission: to simplify and unify the way people spend, send, see and save money. With over 4.5M customers, 250 employees and partners like Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, and Mastercard, Curve is growing rapidly and is currently live in 31 European countries, including the UK, Ireland, Germany, Poland, France, Italy, Portugal, Norway and Sweden and now also in the US.
Before launching Curve, Shachar built and led several companies in healthcare, finance, e-commerce and mobile telecommunications. Shachar, who holds an MBA from INSEAD, founded his first startup at the age of 21 after leaving the Israeli military.
1. What inspired you to start Curve?
The idea behind Curve came to mind back in 2006. I had decided it wasn’t the right timing, as I believed either Facebook (who had a virtual currency at the time), or Paypal ( the only company in the world that has the required capabilities), would capture the market opportunity. I was wrong.
After my graduation from INSEAD in 2013, a tectonic shift happened in the EU market, with the formation of PSD2 and the IFR. At the same time, unsurprisingly, the market began to fragment itself, and the ‘unbundling’ that occurred in other markets started to happen in the financial sector in Europe and the UK. While other fintechs went after various parts of the value chain (and continued to fragment the market) Curve believed that eventually the market would rebundle itself, and therefore worked on the proposition of ‘rebundling’ the market – a similar approach to Spotify and Amazon. We say, keep your bank, keep your products. Just connect everything to this one, unified, supercharged experience called Curve.
2. What problem were you trying to solve in the market?
The internet revolution brought with it remarkable value to consumers and businesses alike. Information was flowing more transparently and freely, which increased selection and reduced pricing and unnecessary middlemen. At the same time, new technologies, like the Web and smartphones made our ability to access and interact with various products and services more convenient.
This shift has happened in various industries, such as shopping, music, insurance etc., however it has yet to happen across payments and finance as a whole. Those markets were closely guarded by large gatekeepers such as the banks and the networks, which are largely owned and influenced by the largest banks in the world. Despite this, Curve believes that the market force and consumer needs are too powerful to maintain the status quo, and that eventually a similar shift to what we've seen with Amazon and Spotify would have a domino effect in the financial market. The only question Curve had was “who would be the race car to win the race?"
Curve is building an operating system for money. Its mission is to empower its customers to reach financial freedom by continually raising the bar of the customer experience through selection, pricing, and convenience. These are universal truths and jobs-to-be-done.
3. What measures do you take to create a culture of growth at Curve?
At Curve, there are three parts to performing efficiently.
First is instilling our 10 leadership principles – a set of values and standards for all employees. We hire based on these principles, and manage performance based on these principles.
Second, by decentralising decision-making and hiring people with the right attitude and very high potential. Grit, tenacity, inventiveness, ownership are merely examples of attitudes and traits we look for in our people.
Third, by making sure we hire and retain talent that exhibits the culture we want to see. We follow our principles to hire our people, and retain them. In addition we operate the Keepers Test; which essentially means we constantly track our employees and pose managers with the hypothetical question: ‘If Alice got a job offer from Facebook tomorrow, how much would I fight for her?’ Whatever the answer – be it a change in salary, equity, role or even simply words of encouragement – it is actioned immediately. If the answer is that they they won't fight for her, then Alice is taking an A player spot, and therefore her manager needs to reconsider her position at the company.
4. What lessons have you learned that you would share with other entrepreneurs
looking to scale?
First time founders think about the product. Second time founders think about distribution. Start with distribution first. Product-market fit (PMF) is a beautiful combination of Market-Product-Channel-Pricing. Without figuring out the channel and pricing (aka business model), you won’t be able to identify PMF, regardless of the alignment you identify in the market-product axis.
Change the leader, change the Culture, change the impact. If you don’t see the impact you expect from your leaders, there is likely a cultural issue, and the source is likely your leader. Everyone has a low quarter. Support them. But if the problem persists, you must take action.
Building culture requires culture density. Hire for the culture you want to see. Ensure people have the right attitude to the stage of your company.
Delay scaling people as much as you can. You’d be surprised what you can achieve with a small team. Criticise and review every new role requirement. Prioritise decentralisation over hierarchy.
Plan, organise, lead, control. Build the relevant systems that would allow you to achieve operational excellence. The POLC (planning, organising, leading, controlling) framework is one I like to use, as it’s the one that empowers my people the most, yet ensures we have the right systems in place for each key part of the execution.
5. What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs on raising capital?
First time founders think about valuation. Second time founders think about control. Ensure you structure your rounds such that you optimise for control. So often, I see founders focusing wrongly on valuation, rather than control. As the founder you are the living spirit behind the company. If you don’t structure things well, you will lose control pretty quickly, and may even experience a down-round in a down-market.
It is always best to raise the first $$$ with a SAFE. This enables you to balance the pricing risk based on your initial execution, while providing an upside to those who believed in you initially.
Think hard if the type of business you want to build is such that it is relevant and requires VC money. Running a startup vs. running a business is very different. A startup has expectations of increasing value 40-100 fold in a relatively short period of time. Can your business (read: market) support such an increase, and are you willing to commit?
Being great requires a lot of sacrifice. Ensure you understand it and up for it.
To learn more about Curve, visit curve.com.