I recently caught up with Sebastian Siemiatkowski, the founder and CEO of Klarna - one of Europe’s leading providers of payment solutions for e-commerce and took a trip down memory lane. He talks about his background, how the idea for Klarna came about, advices about investments (Klarna raised $155M in Series C funding late last year) and why even though people are moving away from paypal it is still a David vs Goliath story for them.
This is the full interview.
Can you give us some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
I was born in Sweden by polish immigrants who fled the communist regime. Ever since I was a kid, I have been driven to prove that my family “deserved” the same that the rest of the Swedes had, so I got involved in a number of different projects that I thought would enable me to do so. I used to spend a lot of time coming up with business ideas, some just ideas, some I wrote down and some I realized in a small scale.
Tell me about the early days, how the idea for Klarna came about?
Niklas and I were on a trip with the aim to travel around the world without flying, when we got stuck in Australia and had to wait a month for the next cargo ship that would take us to Mexico. Due to the delay, I wasn’t able to return on time to continue my studies in 2003. Instead I got a job as a salesperson at a factoring firm, where I started to learn the business. Eventually I started to gain an understanding of online shopping, and I realized that there was a huge difference in how people were paying and how they would have preferred to pay. The company I was working for eventually went bust after I left, but the idea survived and I joined forces with Niklas and Victor to start Klarna. At the time, we all were students at the Stockholm School of Economics, which has a business lab that supports students who start companies. The opportunity to join the business lab was too good to pass up, so we presented our idea to them and they urged us to pursue it.
What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
Probably the hardest part was the decision itself to start. We were in the middle of our studies and all of the other students were talking about getting jobs in banks in London. To do something different and start a business was a huge step. What helped us was when we said to ourselves, “Let’s not talk about a life commitment. Instead let’s give this all that we have for 6 months and then see where we are.” And so we did.
What is Klarna? Tell me how it works?
We provide after delivery payment solutions for e-commerce. The basic idea is that buying is fun, whereas payment is a nuisance. That’s why we want to separate buying from paying, and the one way to do that is to let consumers pay after delivery. In practice that means that consumers pay via invoice rather than for example with their credit card at the moment of purchase. For consumers, this implies total safety as they don’t have to pay for anything before they are able to hold the ordered products in their hands. For online shops we provide a full payment guarantee and handle all payment related administration. it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.
How were you able to convince investors to invest in your company at that time?
We were extremely fortunate to meet Jane Walerud. The school we were studying at has a good reputation. When the business lab invited some business angels to listen to pitches from all the companies in the lab, Jane was one of them who attended that Christmas party. Jane has founded and funded a string of successful companies. We were a bit surprised that she gave us more money than we had asked for, and for less of the company. I think part of it was that she liked the idea but even more so that she saw three 23-year-olds who were extremely motivated and prepared to work 90 hours a week to become successful.
How has the business evolved comparing to your first year of running it, the business model? Strategy?
The company has changed a lot. When we started we were 3 students, now we are 600 employees. Back then we were happy amateurs, today we are one of Sweden’s larger companies. We have added more bank like products to the business such as Klarna Account, which allows consumers to make purchases online and then pay in instalments. We have expanded to a number of geographies outside of Sweden. And we have become regulated like a bank and this entails huge consequences, such as the establishment of rules, procedures and processes in a high growth environment. The underlying idea, however, to create payment solutions that help merchants increase their sales has stayed the same.
What is your business model?
The question is how we can increase sales for online merchants by making payments simpler, safer and more fun. Safety comes from the fact that we know that most people who shop online would prefer to hold the product in their own hands before paying for it. After delivery payments make this possible. On the other hand, online shops incur a huge risk when delivering something without having received payment for it. This is precisely where we come in. We let consumers pay safely when shopping online and at the same time take the associated risk for the shops. Simplicity comes from allowing people to buy stuff online with an absolute minimum of information entered. We only ask for email, name and address.
How many users do you have? Paying customers?
We currently have more than 14 000 affiliated online shops in Europe and more than six million people have used our services.
Are you profitable?
Yes, and we have been profitable since the very start. We raised 80 000 Euro during our first round of funding and we spent only about half of it before we achieved profitability.
It must be very encouraging for you as everyone seems to be moving away from Paypal these days?
You have to hand it to Paypal that they are growing at a 30 % per year rate. That’s pretty impressive for such a big company. At the same time the internet is constantly evolving at an impressive speed. Companies who used to rule the net such as Yahoo, Netscape and Altavista are now shadows of their past glory. We foresee such a shift in payments as well and hope to be the leaders in it. However, this is still very much a David vs Goliath struggle for us.
Speaking of Paypal, how do stay competitive? What makes you guys different from the likes of Paypal, Stripe etc..
I think it is a combination of many things. Though it might not be the most important factor,we are one of few players in the market who is not dependent on VISA or Mastercard. All of the other vendors including the ones mentioned and others such as Square are dependent on these brands, which limits them in many ways. They make less money per transaction as they only earn a fraction of the revenue that a payment transaction generates. Moreover, while they may build beautiful shells, they are built on top of the existing infrastructure of VISA and Mastercard that has a Cobol legacy.
How has your market changed in the past few years? How has your business changed to keep pace?
Actually we see more and more of the market moving in our direction. To us it has been much more about making sure we grow the business and our organization in line with the market’s evolution, so that we can maintain the high quality of our services. We will continue on our mission to provide a shopping experience that is as simple as clicking the “Like” button on Facebook.
What would you say has been some of the most crucial things that you’ve done to grow your business?
I think Klarna has grown partly due to the expansion of our customers (on average e-commerce merchants have been growing at rapid rates, which fuels our growth as wellsince we charge per transaction). But if we look at what we have done ourselves I would note a couple of important things. We have a very strong sales organization that has a great winning culture. We have a track record of being very selective when hiring. What we could have done better is starting on a smaller scale in more markets earlier. Finally, we have had the fortune to work with some of the best growth investors in Sweden and internationally.
Coming back again to investments especially in Europe, a lot of people have talked about how difficult it has been to raise money, how have you seen this change over the few years?
There has definitely been a change. When we started this business in 2005 we did not even know what a series A was. We just needed money and really needed someone to invest. As mentioned, we had the good fortune to meet Jane. When we wanted to raise additional fundingin 2007 before the financial crisis there was no interest. We visited a lot of Swedish investors. However the VC market in Sweden at that time was totally dead. The only firm willing to invest was Öresund and so eventually they did. A lot had changed in 2009/2010 when we ventured on the international VC market. It helped that a number of Swedish companies had proven successful such as Skype and Spotify, while it also helped that we received mentorship from people in companies like Tradedoubler, Gymgrossisten, Pricerunner. The access to this type of money has dramatically changed in the Stockholm startup scene.
Klarna has been very successful raising money, you guys have just raise a staggering amount of $155 million in your Series C funding, why so much and what kind of plans do you have in spending that money?
Part of that money was used to purchase secondary stock from Öresund who had decided they wanted to sell a part of their shares. However it was still a big raise and the reason for that was simply that there are huge international growth opportunities for Klarna. Just as importantly, we believe that if we spend the money wisely to pursue our ideas about how to revolutionize payments, then we will build the foundation for a global giant in the payments industry.
What kind of advice could you give to startups looking to raise money, is there a special route or process that you have?
Well, over time I have learned to just stay in touch with any investor who contacts you and at least update him or her with a few emails now and then. Otherwise reach out to the usual suspects, often the firms that you find written about on sites such as Techcrunch. Make sure you have a good pitch prepared, and never go into exclusivity until you have received indicative bids. All investors will try to spend as much time as possible and keep asking for as much data as possible before they put in a bid. Just give them a deadline and a limited amount of data. If they are not ready to buy into your company at that point, then it’s not meant to be anyway. Don’t spend your time on too many people - choose the ones you feel like working with. Always have a route open to go to someone else if they start pushing too much about legal issues or during the business diligence process. Always raise funding when you still have money and try to avoid winding up in a situation where you need money ASAP.
What would you like to say to an entrepreneur contemplating bootstrapping or getting investment?
With so low start-up costs as we have today I would definitely bootstrap until I would be able to see that your services/products are getting some traction. Then I would raise money as you quickly want to expand the business.
What is an average workday like for you?
No day is like the next. I travel quite a lot between our different offices. I sit in interviews with people for all kinds of positions. I have meetings with my management team and the product teams. I meet existing and potential customers. I answer a LOT of emails.
What could you say has been some of the key things you’ve learnt so far as an entrepreneur?
The first thing is really boring but entirely true. If you work a lot, things happen; if you don’t, nothing happens. When we were sitting in the business lab we and one other company were the only ones who came in 7 AM in the morning and left 11 PM every day, Monday to Sunday. It’s also only our two companies that are still around. Scalability is the second thing. Do something that makes money when everyone is on vacation(i.e., that is as little people dependent as possible).
What has been your most memorable moment so far on your entrepreneurial journey?
There are numerous ones, but I would say the most important thing is that there has been so many. When Niklas and I travelled around the world without flying, we spent 143 days moving from one place to another. When I came back from that trip I felt physically old. My brain was stuffed with as much memories from the trip as I probably had from the rest of my life up until leaving for the trip. It reminded me of the truth in that old saying “the journey itself is the goal.” Or as we say in Klarna, change is not always enjoyable but it is always memorable.
What trends, startups, technology are you personally looking forward to in 2012?
Klarna will launch a new product that we believe will revolutionize the way people shop online.
What are your other plans for Klarna in 2012?
We want to become market leaders in all of the countries that we are present in – a goal that we are now closer to than ever before. And of course we want to continue to push the limits of e-commerce by launching new services and expanding to new geographies.
What pieces of advices could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there looking to start their business?
If you believe in your idea, stick to it no matter what others say. If we had not done that, Klarna would not be where we are today.