Leading a FinTech Startup Pre-Launch
A conversation with Maria Campbell, VP of People, Griffin
You know I love a good behind-the-scenes peek so I’m interviewing leaders on how they’ve navigated a change or challenge.
This week I’m talking with Maria Campbell, VP of People at Griffin, a company with a vision to create a world in which handling money is easy. We talk about the challenges of building a company and a robust exec team before you have product market fit. I think you’ll find the company and her journey fascinating.
Can you share a bit of a background, how you kind of got into tech and how you got into people and your role?
My story is kind of an interesting one because it's almost certainly all an accident. I'm just kind of bumbling around and I've kind of been optimizing for the next fun short-term thing. When I was a teenager, I really wanted to be a mathematician. I went to University to study maths that didn't pan out very well. So I switched to philosophy quite quickly, then graduated in 2008, which was a terrible time to try and find a job and I didn't really know what I wanted to do. So I'm looking at grad scheme applications like, Hmm. I'm not sure if I can fill the whole box with why I want to learn more about transformation of something or other, I don't really understand what that is. So, you know, took a couple of random temp jobs, did a Masters in American literature because I thought it would be fun. Graduated from that and took another random temp job. And then had a baby. When I went back to work from maternity leave, when my son was nine months old, I realized that the job that I had didn't work well for me as a part-time person, that I wanted to have a part-time role where I could, you know, use my brain and do interesting things. And joining a tech startup seems like a great idea! The premise was, here's a role that nobody has done before, so four days of my time is substantially better than nothing. So that's probably something that I can negotiate my way.
I joined a FinTech startup as their “office manager”, which is, you know, a random person who'll do everything that isn’t coding or sales and things. I just kind of naturally progressed from that. The business grew from 20 ish people up to 80. My team grew with the operations side of the business, and I found that the people stuff was the side that I really loved.
After that, I moved into a Head of People role. I loved the people side of things because you have the kind of individual moments of magic where you can see the impact that you're having on someone: you're helping them process or solve the problem. You're also creating systems and structures and environments. So you can see that kind of large-scale impact too.
You’ve now been an exec three times. How big were the companies that you were at before?
The tech companies that I've joined have been somewhere between 20 and 30 people when I have joined and somewhere between 80 and 300 when I've left.
I see that as the scaling phase. When I was a COO, I joined, right around that time, they were in the process of really trying to figure out scale and things like that. It's wild, chaotic and fun.
Right it's like, you step into some chaos. It's like, we're not quite sure what problems we have or how to solve them.
I love that.
Oh yeah. What do you do if it's not slightly chaotic? You know, you need to step in and be like, ‘Hey, here's all the chaos. I put it into neat piles for you.”
Can you tell us a little bit more about Griffin?
Griffin exists to make it much, much easier for people to do things with financial services. We're working on getting a banking license so that we can be the banking infrastructure that everybody else builds on top of.
So whether you're starting a FinTech app with your best friend and you need to work with a bank so that someone holds the money, or whether you're Asos and you want to make your checkout experience better, you can work with someone like Griffin for the financial machinery that runs underneath the products that you build.
Very cool. When did Griffin get started? How long has the company been in existence?
The founders have been working together for a while. It's really only sort of two and a half years ago that the first employees came on board. And since then we've been working on getting our banking license and also building the technology that we need to be able to do that.
The banking license journey is super fun because in the UK, you have various different meetings with the regulators where they try and understand what your business model is, how likely it is that you're going to tank the entire economy if you do something wrong. And whether or not they're willing to take the risk of allowing you that role in society, to hold people's money.
At what point in the process did you join Griffin?
I joined about nine months ago. At that point in time we'd submitted initial versions of our major documents to the regulators and were waiting for them to provide us with feedback so that we could create the second iteration.
We didn't have any products which were ready to get into customer's hands. We had built maybe 10 or 20% of the launch set of features that we wanted.
How big is the team today?
We're just over 30. We're an interesting shaped company because to get your banking license in place, there's tons and tons of governance. We've got our Board together, which has four independent non-execs on it. There are a lot of people on our board for such a small company. We've got a lot of people in our exec team for such a small company.
If you think about it as sort of two halves, the one half is kind of setting up the governance and the risk and compliance frameworks that you need to be able to bring the bank side of things to life, and the other half of the business is technology and products. With a lot of people in the executive team.
Your executive team is pretty built out at this point, right?
Yeah. Given the size of the company, having sort of 10 of us on the exec team is very unusual.
Someone from the outside might say, at a 30 person company, 10 of those people are executives, that’s a lot but it's because of the industry and what needs to get done in order to launch the company.
Exactly. A lot of it comes from the amount of forethought, planning, structures, processes and risk management frameworks needed. So that we're able to take the responsibility that we're given and provide assurance that we know what we're doing. We'll keep people's money safe, contribute in a positive way to the financial ecosystem. Part of it is because a lot of the regulatory stuff is built on scar tissue. It's like things went wrong in the past, and now we've introduced regulations to prevent that from happening again.
I love what you said about scar tissue because it's such an important point, that history changes the way the industry looks at things and the way that businesses are scrutinized because of that scar tissue.
A lot of this is really positive. The fact that the regulators in the UK have a new bank startup unit, that you can get a banking license without already being a bank has really, really positive output of that scar tissue. It's the fact that there were so few banks before, that they were too big to fail. So we're in the place that we are now because of that.
Also from a consumer protection point of view, you see that things have been mis-sold in the past, and now there are more regulations around the financial promotions.
Up until we have regulatory permissions, we can't hold any money. And when they do give us permissions, it’s a very small amount of money that we're able to hold, so that we can plug it into the rest of the systems and, you know, have an account at the Bank of England, for instance.
So it's a slow process. There's a lot of rigor, thought and consideration that goes into it. I don't think any 30 person startup has a 400 page business plan unless they've had to have one so that they can show that they are trustworthy enough to be given permissions to hold other people's money. It is genuinely 400 pages.
Most startups don't invest in a VP of people until much further along. Most companies have a product and things like that. So Griffin is going about it differently, obviously, because, well, they need to, but I think I suspect also the founders understand what a VP of people can do for a team.
Yeah, exactly. Culture is such an important thing to the founders. And it's also important in the financial services space. Like, you need to have a positive culture so that you can play your role in society, but it's really, really nice to work with founders who genuinely care about culture and see the people space as something that's really positive for a company rather than just like preventative, putting out fires, because that's not really how I like to work.
There's this perception that the people team or HR are just there to protect the company’s interest. There are some like that but my experience is that more folks who are heading people departments want more for the company. They really care about the people and the experiences.
I think there's the very, very narrow lens of protecting the company, which is just making sure that the company doesn't get sued. And there’s also making sure that you can hire people because you're an appealing place to work, making sure that people are able to work as efficiently as possible because they're not distracted by, you know, the toxic person in the office or because they're not distracted because goal setting doesn't really happen so they're unclear on what to work on or how. And making sure that people stay in the business because they're learning and developing and growing.
Right, and when you're protecting the company, you're also protecting the workers’ experience.
What I love about Griffin and what you all are doing is really investing in people heavily upfront.
Yeah, the values were written down before there were any employees. The founders worked on them with the chair of the Board which shows how seriously it's taken when that is a conversation that the founders and the chairman of the board are having together.
That's so great. I think a lot of people think of values as this fluffy thing, but this has really been baked into the company and, and thought about it.
Your values are kind of like your operating system, your boundaries for what's acceptable. They're prescriptive and descriptive of how you work and what's acceptable and what's not. There's nothing very fluffy about that.
What’s challenging about operating in an organization at this phase and shape?
This is my first time being a people exec directly accountable for things to regulators. I'm personally accountable, or will be once we have a banking license and if they approve me. So there's lots of technical stuff that I need to learn about remuneration and the sort. I also need to pull together our philosophy and practices with the regulatory requirements. I really like being crystal clear about making sure that you're not financially incentivizing people to take unnecessary risks. So that's the interesting technical challenge.
There are also other challenges, like making sure you have all the people that you need for everything that you want to achieve at any point in time. And, you know, I've seen this in companies that I've worked in, in the past where we're not sure what kind of head of product we need, but we need some kind of product playbook. And so I've just been like, okay, let's just write one and start working with it. And then we're working with something rather than nothing.
Kind of similarly, I’ve stepped into project management and cheerleading our way through this sort of final 3, 4, 5 months of the banking license application, which again is very new to me, and has lots of technical details. So I'm learning quite a lot about managing people who don't answer to me because I can't tell people what to do, but I can support people and move them through it.
Is that new for you in some way?
In a people role, there are a lot of times when you are trying to get people to do things that they don't necessarily want to do, but they need to do. There's lots of working through others, there's lots of getting the managers across the business to change the way they think very slightly and actually commit to running a process with you. But a lot of the time you're the subject matter expert. Whereas with this, I'm just not at all. I didn't really know anything about liquidity management six months ago. So I've learned a lot about that. It takes a lot of questions and listening to people and trying to understand what's happening.
So, influencing and managing things that are outside of your area of expertise.
Yeah, and sometimes I have no idea how big a task is. I genuinely don't know if it is writing two or three paragraphs or spending three weeks running new financial models. I have literally no idea! So I need to build those relationships where people will tell you and cooperate with you and give you the information that you don't have. It’s about making people feel comfortable telling you that you genuinely have no clue what you're talking about. And so they educate you and bring you up to speed on what you need to know.
This process might seem out of order in some ways for a startup. What are some other challenges that you've faced given this unique business process?
It really is different because ordinarily a couple of people come up with an idea, they persuade other people to build it with them, and then you get some kind of validation from the market, right? And then you can kind of work from there, you can pivot and you can grow the business and people hear about you. With Griffin it's effectively having pure faith.
The feedback that we've had from the regulators so far and the progress that we're making indicates that we will probably get a banking license when the time comes. But we don’t have the kinds of proof points of like, “Oh, yeah. I've seen your product. I've used your product before. I understand how this works in the world.” We don’t have that because we don’t have a product people can use yet.
We’re asking people to take a leap of faith with us.
It’s sort of all or nothing. Kind of a pass/fail situation. If you don't get the license you’d have to pivot.
Yeah, it's not the usual startup-like spectrum, because to be able to make the change that we want to make in the world, we really need to have a banking license. There are companies that do similar things without the banking license, but that's not what we want to achieve. It's very much like we need to get the banking license so that we can do what we want to do. If we don't, then we're either out of business or we all go find other jobs.
And then you can’t really fulfill the mission of why the company was started. Sure, you might be able to pivot to something else but my sense is many joined because of the mission and what the company is trying to do.
Right. And the potential impact. That’s one of the things that I've always found quite appealing about the FinTech world is that, you know, everyone uses money.
So the potential for impact is huge. And then if you look at the infrastructure side of things, like that has such an ability to have a multiplicative effect because you build something, and you enable so many other people to do more. There’s tremendous potential to impact people’s lives for the better.
You’ve mentioned hiring and this leap of faith that people have to take. That takes a lot of trust. Then there's also keeping people motivated through what I would say is an arduous process. What's been the hardest part of your role?
I mean, lots of it's been pretty challenging. I think one of the really interesting things from a cultural perspective is that on the one hand we have a lot of people here who are accustomed to, you know, you build some software, you launch something out, you see something come out of it. You work in a relatively agile fashion. You decide every six weeks what you're going to spend the next six weeks doing.
And then on the other side of things, we have people who've worked in a much bigger organization with really robust processes in the traditional banking world. And, you know, our timeline is not particularly adjustable. You can't really de-scope anything.
So you can end up with a little bit of tension and friction. So keeping both parts of the business together and able to show off what they've achieved and kind of translating between the two of them and making sure that people have mutual trust and respect for each other. Yeah, it's tricky.
So you have people who are used to figuring out what they want to work on for six weeks vs people who have been in big business, whose process is slower and more stable. Putting those together is a really interesting challenge.
And they need to work together really closely as well. It's really interesting because it's not just like the two sides of the business can work separately. They need to collaborate really closely together on product.
I’m curious what it’s like having a 10 person exec team at a 30 person company. That’s a good size team. So I'm curious how that's been, what you've learned, things that you all have had maybe had to navigate together.
We started with our founders on the exec team, then added another two and then a period of time passed, then we added another. Two of us started on the same day and then added a few more at the end of the year so the team has grown in a clunky sort of way. And each time you're doing that, you're adding to this team that's not really fully formed yet.
There's also the challenge where you're hiring execs, but they need to be incredibly hands-on because they don't have a team. You're a team of one and also an exec. So you're hands-on writing policies, updating your HR information system, and tweaking the gender in one of your employment contracts. And then the next day you go back to more exec-type work. So that’s been a really interesting balance as well.
As a team, there are two quite distinct split focuses effectively: they both contribute to the same goal, but there's not a ton of overlap necessarily. That is kind of tricky. And then you've got some of us who kind of float around in the middle, keeping that focus on getting things done.
Given that we’re a bank, the banking authorization side of the business has slightly heavier representation on the exec team than the technical and product side. So it's making sure that you're hearing the right voices at the right time and that you are covering the right topics because they are the things which are important to the company, rather than important to the largest number of individuals there, or what’s top of mind.
Right, because both sides are needed, the banking expertise and the product and the tech given what you’re trying to do.
And making sure that both sides are getting enough time and support from other parts of the business, rather than prioritizing one over the other.
I can see why a VP of people would be so helpful at this point because as that neutral observer, not really involved with either side of those, you can help the exec team be more intentional.
Yeah, for sure. I think most execs have been there - when you're in a large multi-person meeting and you just genuinely aren't interested and don't have anything to contribute to that. Sometimes you're there and you don't understand why this is happening at this meeting and thinking you don't need to be here.
So one of the things that I've done is pulling out these topics that everyone cares about and running slightly smaller subgroup meetings. The commercial side of things, the tech and product side of things, these have smaller, dedicated forums to discuss. And then these are fed back into the main executive team meetings so that we know that we're there as an executive team, rather than as individuals.
If your exec team works really well together, I think it sets you up on a really good path. At some level, there is that integration between the different parts of the business, that voices are being heard, that the important issues are being covered, and people are not empire building, but collaborating and putting the company's best interest first.
This creates a better employee experience too.
Is there anything that we haven't talked about that strikes you about your journey, the challenges you face, what you've learned or something that you're proud of?
It’s been a really interesting and fun journey. I feel like I'm lucky enough to have a bunch of different choices available to me. So being able to pick a job where I know that I can be challenged and learn things, and feel like I'm, you know, getting things done and having a positive impact and having a nice time, fundamentally working with people who I care about or want to spend time with, it really motivates me to help other people to have a job that they also enjoy. I think that's probably the thing that drives me the most. And I feel like I'm really privileged to be in a position where I can help other people to have an enjoyable job.
That drives me too. I want other people to have an enjoyable job. As a COO, that was my greatest joy. I took that role to help other people have a great experience and enjoy their work.
Yeah, because it's such a fundamental part of life. If you can have a job where you show up and you're like, Hey, I'm making a positive change in the world, I have a nice community around me, and I feel like I got to learn and do new things every day, that’s a really positive thing.
I really enjoyed hearing Maria’s experience of building a fintech startup. I hope you found it as fascinating as I did.
What else to read
Useful values: guiding principles from ethics
Reading list: self-development as a People leader
Five encouraging trends in leadership
Until next time, be well.
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