Thursday, January 14, 2021

8:30 GMT

Interviews with practitioners: How to transform SME banking with Nathalie Oestmann

Interviews with practitioners: How to transform SME banking with Nathalie Oestmann

During the first episode of DueDil Live 2021 edition, Denis Dorval, COO of DueDil, will welcome Nathalie Oestmann, COO of Curve.

DueDil Live is a new series that showcases the practitioners of transformation and innovation within the SME financial services market. So far, we’ve had the opportunity to speak to a number of industry leaders as they seek to disrupt this fast-paced industry.

During the first episode of DueDil Live 2021 Series, Denis Dorval, DueDil's COO, welcomed Nathalie Oestmann, COO of Curve, to the discussion table.

Good morning, all. My pleasure to have Nathalie Oestmann, CEO of Curve joining us today for Episode 6 of DueDil Live. Nathalie, you must be feeling quite good after the recent, I believe, Series C announcement. Congratulations! We will cover that later, but it must be a good moment for you and all of the Curve team and your customers.

Yes, thank you. It is incredibly exciting to be able to announce that this week. What a great feeling.

Exactly, we need that type of silver lining, a bit of good news, because let's face it, 2020 has been a very challenging year for us all, I guess, and for the economy and even more so for the SME economy at large, so it's really, really good to get and hear good news like this, especially when they are all about also supporting innovative and digital proposition for financing incentives. Hey, we have a lot to cover today. We'll share with you some trends and including some a bit unexpected potential trends within the current SME banking landscape. Nathalie will talk about that and share some also interesting stats about the SME economy at large in the UK and Ireland.

We will get to know more about Nathalie's journey as CEO of Curve so far, obviously, and also the role technology plays in disrupting financial services, business, and banking, and credit for SMEs and what's next for Curve. Nathalie, you have an impressive background with many years in banking and financial services, and specific also focus on SMEs. I think that before we dive in that, the audience will be interested to understand a bit your background. If you could tell us a bit more about yourself and how you ended up being where you were, that would be fantastic.

Okay, sure, not a problem. Thanks. Yes, I do have a background in finance. I was with American Express, most notably I guess for the longest, for 15 years across the US, France, and the UK. I held a number of jobs mostly in B2B, and in the end, in B2B2C, but I developed products for small businesses on working capital across Europe and introduced that through American Express, and worked on a lot of small businesses as well; campaigns and developing out some programs across the globe for small and medium enterprises. This is an area that I'm close to my heart and also that I really enjoy.

I left American Express, it now seems like a long time ago, but it was 2015 to join Samsung Pay, where I headed up Samsung Pay for Europe. I launched the Samsung Pay Wallet across six markets in Europe. While I was in that role, I had the good fortune of meeting Shachar Bialick, who is our CEO and founder. I met a lot of FinTech players actually in that time because as you know, this is when the UK FinTech realm was really happening. There was something about the platform that Shachar was developing that was really intriguing to me, it was a very different model, and quite frankly, I saw some potential benefit for Samsung Pay. I was able to put that into play, but in 2016, '17, I started to have conversations with Shachar, we got to get to know each other. In 2018, when I left Samsung Pay, he asked me to come to Curve and I turned him down.

Now because the purpose was still Series A and I have come from very, very large companies. I'm an enterprise person and I said to Shcahar, "I love your product, I think we could work really well together, but I don't think I'm the right person for the stage of startup that you're at today."

What changed? Because, again, the brands you mentioned, they're really, really invested. In terms of American express, this is a fantastic brand, and actually, have been a great innovator in financial services through their history. Now, maybe they face different challenges, Samsung Pay, fantastic also. What made you then decide to really make that big jump? Because that is a discussion we're having with a lot of interviewees here. They usually also come from very enterprisee, but a lot of experience in financial services and it's always difficult to make the match between the FinTech and scale-up back to post Series A. The very savvy and experienced managers, operators of businesses like you joining. What was the click then for you, Nathalie?

I think it's a number of things. It would be remiss to say that Shachar is not a persistent man.

Entrepreneurs and founders are very persistent, yes.

Yes, so he wouldn't let it go. No, joking aside, that's not a joke, but seriously, the proposition was being developed and the company was reaching a certain amplitude in terms of employee base and ability. I felt that there was then an ability for me to come in and actually effect some improvements, change. Not so much change but scale as we were scaling up. I think this company is constantly changing. The persistence with Shachar and I joined in October 2019.

What's been your journey as a CEO of Curve so far? It's been 15 months and surely a roller coaster, et cetera, high pace, but if you could share a bit of that experience with us, that would be fantastic.

Look, there are a lot of things that I'm proud of what we've built. We've had an incredible year last year of development and growth. We were basically going through a full year of launches and a really great success in terms of our ability to scale up. Sorry, I'm just fixing my phone here. When I arrived, I was the 149th employee. We are now 300 employees with the new Series C announcement. We have 70 open roles today with a view of doubling in size in the next three months. This scale-up environment is really exciting, but with the scale-up environment comes challenges. You have a lot of new entrants.

There are basically, for me, some important areas that I started to focus on. The first being culture. We wanted to have a culture that was uniquely ours, that reflected our founder and his belief system, as well as those of the leadership team and what was already built within the company. We built out our leadership principles. We have 11, they're on our careers webpage, and we started to implement those. I think your experience as one of our partners, I think it has been good. You know what we're like, we're very honest. We just want to get things done and we love a great challenge. Last year threw a lot of challenges our way.

I can concur with that. It's been fantastic partnering also with you. I know for a fact that we're also doers, ie, I like getting things done. Some would say getting the S-done, so to speak, because certainly the attitude we have experienced, including with testing our product, then also actually contracting. Sometimes, especially in FinTech financial services, contracting takes ages because actually, people are getting into not very productive discussions, and forgetting about getting the things done as opposed to, "Let's justify our job or make it complicated just for the sake of it because it's been always like that sort of." I can really concur to that, but back to the culture, maintaining the culture built here at DueDil, when everybody's remote and what was a challenge for sure.

We felt we did a pretty decent job, but it's another finished job anyway. Culture needs to be maintained, it comes from the top, et cetera, but in remote work environment, it brings its fair additional set of challenges, right?

Look, in terms of the challenges, the way that you overcome it is through communication. We've really been very, very focused on communicating with our employee base, so that's been one of the first and most important things that we do on a regular basis, weekly, and with honesty. We bring up issues, we talk about them, and we work through what our plans are, we celebrate our successes. It's all about communication for me.

I concur. Communication trumps anything else when it comes to building actually teams and culture and inspire also.

The second thing I focused on was process. One of the things I often say is, coming from two excellent companies, American Express, Samsung, things just happen. Things are in place. You don't even realise that they're there, they're just there to support you. When I came to Curve, I realised I had to decompose everything that had existed around my business life in these large companies because it just didn't exist at Curve. Process was something that was really important. Things used to just get done, and here, we've had to define how it will get done. That's also been a very interesting challenge.

That is a pivot moment usually for also young companies and scale-up. It's moving from, "We're all in this together, let's get things done," et cetera, but obviously, the operationalising of everything to prepare the platform for scale tends to be a bit an afterthought because, yes, there are other pressing matters, urgency, et cetera, on the front line, and proving yourself. That's where a lot of companies sometimes really struggle to find the right people, the right set of experiences, but also the right pace moving from startup to scale up, et cetera. That's a very, very interesting point there. How did that go? Did people embrace the need for those processes? A lot of time people feel that as constraint, "Oh, it's a bit eating my freedom of doing things the way I want, et cetera. How did you manage that?

I would say we sometimes have gotten it wrong, but we have a leadership principle called build, measure, learn. If we get it wrong, we measure what has gone wrong, so we'll do a retro or something, or we'll get some data, and then we'll adjust. We have been very fluid about it, but I can tell you this, when the process is put in place and it eases people's lives, it makes things better, nobody complains.

Yes, I'd agree with that. They start loving it.

Yes, and right now, there's the old adage and it goes back to process and communication together. Before Curve, when I came the first time, was in one big room, there were forty people. If you needed to work something out, you just talk to the person next to you because likely they were working on that with you, and everything's everybody's job. When you're 300 people, there's a little more rigour you have to put in place in terms of how you're doing things and how you bring something, for example, to market. Now that we have two million customers, it matters even more. Now, you need to make sure, you can't just test and see how it goes, it needs to work when it goes to market.

We have been operational in the UK and all of EEA since I've been around. By the way, half of our customers are in Europe and the EEA. We have put everything into place and are operational in Europe, post-Brexit, we have our EMI license in Lithuania. We have done that transition without any interruption to any of our customers in Europe, and they can continue using the Curve Card.

Fantastic, well done. You managed, you smooth out, you weathered the Brexit challenges that some of the companies here also face when they have operations and customers across the channels here. Tell us about this funding. I believe from what I read, it's all about concurring the other side of the bone, the US.

Listen, there will be quite a large portion of the funding that will go towards our expansion into the US, as well as the development of Curve Credit, which is what we're here to talk about, which we have piloted it with SMEs, and that you're working on with us from a RegTech perspective. The funding is really for us to grow out that proposition, for us to do that. I think going to the US, and it will be whisker Curve Credit, by the way, is a good proposition. Curve, which I never got to spend time talking about.

Curve is a platform. It's all your cards in one. As you know, Americans have multiple cards. We Americans, I'm French-American, love our cards, and we love our credit cards specifically, but we have multiple cards, multiple loyalty cards. This is something that will work really, really well in the US, I believe, and it is all down to the execution. Our Curve Credit proposition, a little bit more about that, it's an instalment product from the power of our platform. Our ability to integrate all your cards into one, all your finances into one gives us the ability to get a really good feel of your financial health just from your spending patterns so we can make some decisions, some responsible decisions about what you can do from a Curve Credit perspective.

Just a little bit more about the platform. On this platform, when you have multiple cards on your platform, you are able to do some really interesting things. The thing I always say to people is, you believe that when you pay for something, you choose a card and you pay with it. Online, you can spend maybe a little more time, but when you are at a till, at the cashier, in the olden days, I'd like to say, you would open your wallet because I'm now Curve, you don't need to open a wallet anymore. You would open your wallet and you would pick a card and you'd pay with it and that decision is irreversible.

On Curve, it's actually incredibly reversible, and you can decide that "Actually, that wasn't the card I wanted to put it on," but because we've been trained our whole lives to make a decision right then and there as we're purchasing something, we believe we don't have the flexibility, and that's not actually true. With that flexibility comes the ability to manage your finances in a much more sophisticated way, and that's what Curve provides to our users on top of amazing FX and other things, of course.

It sounds like, yes, that is definitely a great proposition for countries where people use, whether in their consumer behaviour or as in their professional profile of behavior have and use many, many cards including credit cards, which is obviously typical from the US. Back to the SME, UK economy, and the role and what you have seen at Curve launching Curve Credit across Europe, but also in the UK. I want you to share a bit of that out there. I started with the SME in UK, our economy is about 4.7 million companies, turnover less than £45 million. It's really the lungs of the economy, the backbone, and it's been hit hard.

However, there's some interesting stats actually. When you look at, for example, the age of those companies, 56% are what we would categorise as a startup, either they have five years old or less. You would expect that, and when you add 10 years or less, that is really three-quarters of the economy out there, a lot. Also, interesting to note is that in 2020, the pandemic year, there's been more new companies incorporated in UK and Ireland than in the previous year and by a mile.

That's a positive message as well.

It's a positive message because 780,000 companies incorporated last year compared to 555,000 in 2019, that is a 40% in our search. When you look at, obviously, the companies that, unfortunately, had to wind down in 2020, there is a high number, but actually, when you compare with previous years, it's not that dramatic apart from very specific sectors that were really, really bad. When you think about it, 4.7 million, mostly £45 million or less, and three-quarters less than 10 years old, but that is being regenerated and more than 10% per year. That, for me, is a silver lining. That is going to keep being the case.

Also, some studies from McKinsey and others show that companies incorporated in crisis times tend to do better because obviously, they're with the result of either a new opportunity, a new segment. We all say post COVID-19 the world is going to be more digital, for example, because [crosstalk].

As you did mention. Tell us a bit about anything to share interesting in 2020, what happened with Curve Credit? You just launched the product, I guess.

First, I do want to clarify, we've launched a beta to our SME customers, so we're not in full launch yet. We are testing the product with our trusted customers, and that's been going really well. Look, it is very clear that for small businesses, the number one concern is cash flow. What we hope to be able to do with Curve Credit is help small and medium enterprises manage their cash flow in an additional manner. There are a lot of ways to manage it, but Curve Credit gives you that additional option to do that, and in a responsible way because we're able to monitor and measure the creditworthiness of our customers.

Nathalie, you mentioned, the responsible credit, proposition because true, back to the stats, 94% of SMEs do not report their turnover, whether because they're not legally in anyway bound to do it or because they choose not to do so sometimes. It's always a challenge to determine the health of such and such company, but I think you're making it very centre to your proposition also to be providing responsible credit to the economy out there, correct?

Correct, it is really important for us. What we're looking to do is we will have a history of outgoings. Now, that is one of many indicators, of course, and we do look for creditworthiness as well. We do do those checks as well as responsible lenders, but what we are adding is an additional layer of being able to see what is sustainable for the small business in order for them not to go into spiralling debt, which is what we hear the headlines are constantly about spiralling debt both for consumers and small businesses. That is absolutely not the direction that we should be going in in order to support them, but it does give an additional element of being able to manage your cash flows and finance.

That sounds really, really good. Again, bringing an interesting approach, innovative through your product, also the specific aspect of providing responsible credit to this and the economy out there. Anyway, we coming to the end of this interview. Maybe your last final question for you. What is the biggest thing we take maybe for granted today that you expect to be radically different in five years from now in this space?

That's what we're building at Curve. I think re-bundling all your finances and having it in one place is exactly what doesn't exist today and what I think Curve is incredibly well-positioned to do. We do have the ambitions of being the Amazons of finance or the Spotify of finance, so watch this space. I think we're ready to do that.

The sky is the limit. Congratulations again for that fantastic fundraising, but also all the extraordinary stat success you have shared with the audience today. It's been really, really extremely informative, and then I found it staining. Nathalie, with that, thank you. I wish you a great rest of the day under a very London English weather today. I'm sure we'll have the opportunity to maybe have you back because at the pace you guys are growing and delivering innovation here, but also across the board and across the channel, I'm sure there will be plenty to talk maybe in another interview right down the road later this year.

Wonderful, and I apologise for my bad internet.

No, no worries.

We were hopeful.

Have all a great day. Thank you all.

Thank you. Bye-bye.

Curve is one of many companies disrupting the financial market with the help of FinTech such as DueDil.  Our KYB For Life platform is available by API, Web App or native interface, making it easy for us to deliver up-to-date intelligence that can transform the way our partners work with their customers. Learn more about DueDil to find out how we can transform your business lifecycle.

Hosted by:
No items found.