After Mollie raised a massive funding round recently, Amsterdam has a new unicorn. The online payment platform Mollie entered the exclusive club by raising a €90 million Series B round. And while founder Adriaan Mol remains the face of the company, their CEO Gaston Aussems has had a big hand in its success. Remarkably enough, Aussems decided now is the right time to part ways with the fast-growing company. We invited him over to talk openly about his time at Mollie, the future of the company, time machines and the importance of having Darth Vader statues in the office.
Leaving a unicorn as CEO: why now?
The fact that their CEO Gaston Aussems seems to choose this moment to say his goodbyes, raises at the very least one eyebrow: why now?
Aussems already decided to leave earlier this year, well before the funding round. “Mollie outgrew me”, he says. “I was not the one who was going to grow this company from 300 to 1000 people. I considered this funding round the right moment to hand it over to someone who could bring the company to the next level. Someone with a track record in scaling companies to a significant size. I felt like I couldn’t add enough value anymore.”
Joined a company at standstill
The 31st of August was Aussems’ last day as CEO at Mollie. After about seven and a half years at the fintech, he left just before the company became known as one of the fastest-growing companies, making it to unicorn-status. Aussems joined back in 2013: “I was working for the Dutch Central Bank (DNB, ed.) and had fifteen years of experience in payments. An acquaintance asked me to use my network and nominate some candidates for the role of CEO at Mollie. In the end, Adriaan asked if I would like to do it. I was hesitant at first, but I saw talent, I noticed energy. And I thought I could add value. At that time, they spent a lot of resources on obtaining their financial license, hence not many new products were developed. They were pretty much at a standstill back then.”
‘Big merchants will own you’
In the years that followed, Mollie grew to a quintessential player in the booming fintech hub that Amsterdam turned into. One of the main reasons, according to Aussems, is a clear focus on their target audience. Mollie serves the small and mid-sized vendors and merchants with their payment service. A conscious decision, says Aussems: “Big merchants will eventually start to own you. There will always be a feature request. ‘Oh we need this SAP interface, and can you add this and that for us?’
“If you want to go for the larger crowd of merchants, you need to keep your code clean. Our lead developer used to say: ‘if I see something in our code like if merchant is that, then do this, then I quit’.” This is not always the easy choice, according to Aussems. “It can make it more difficult when your commercial department says you can add a big client if we can just add some little thing.”
Aim for the masses
For Mollie, aiming for the masses turned out to be the right choice. The numbers tend to speak for themselves when a couple of weeks ago they closed an impressive €90 million funding round against over a billion dollar in valuation. American investor TCV already has an impressive portfolio, including early stakes in Facebook, Netflix and Revolut.
What convinced them? Aussems: “Mollie collected a lot of great talent. And it is a successful business model purely based on low-risk business. Mollie has always been profitable. Yet there is still a lot of potential because the long tail and mid-markets are seriously underserved in Europe. And the rest of Europe is significantly larger than the Benelux, where we are dominant now. We showed with our expansion to Germany in 2019 that we are capable of growing to other, larger markets.”
Industry in a time machine
What also didn’t hurt the case for Mollie, is the fact we live in a completely different world now than we did at the beginning of 2020. As grim as the pandemic is, it pushed Mollie forward with unexpected force. Online shopping became the norm. On top of that, people stuck at home turned into vendors when they started to clear out their closets.
Aussems recalls having peaks of adding 1500 new merchants a day. “We always thought we were highly scalable, in that we could handle 500 new merchants daily. They have to go through a legal process and a KYC-procedure, which is automated. But in the end, you always want to have a person look at the merchant to see if they do what they say they do. That was a bottleneck there.”
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Part of Mollie’s business collapsed, however. Many of their clients are theatres and other venues selling tickets, which ground to a halt. Despite that, the boost in online sales meant Mollie grew 40 or 50 per cent in a couple of months, says Aussems. “The question is if it will stick. Some merchants are now online, but will they stay online? As for the consumer side, there is more stickiness. People that shop online will not go back. In that regard, the pandemic acted like a time machine. It warped the entire industry forward 5 years.”
Embrace Darth Vader
But COVID-19 also had other effects on the company. Like any other business, its employees had to start working from home. Not easy, for a company that prides itself on its fun and slightly extravagant culture that makes it a coveted place to work. According to Aussems, that’s not something that happened by coincidence. “We nurtured that culture from the start.”
His advice for other businesses trying to imitate that atmosphere is to ditch rationality ever so often. “We chose to spend significantly more to sit on the canals in Amsterdam in a magnificent building where everyone can easily cycle to. Where we have a garden for parties or drinks and where you can have great lunches, it shows that as an employer you care.”
Then there is the x-factor, brought in part by the remarkable personality of founder Adriaan Mol. Aussems: “Adriaan likes Star Wars, and we have a huge statue of Darth Vader in the lobby. We embrace that geekiness. But sometimes you also have to do the non-rational things.” As an example, Aussems remembers booking the entire Tuschinsky movie theatre in Amsterdam for a private viewing of a new Star Wars movie for all employees, before it even hit the theatres.
With COVID-19 keeping everyone at home, those things are harder to nurture. But Mollie is trying, says Aussems. “We send people presents at home every week so that they can have a nice lunch at home. We did a virtual wine tasting recently, to try to keep it going.” Not for nothing. For every open position, Mollie still gets on average about 80 applicants.
Complete European footprint
The future of Aussems lies not with Mollie. He will remain a shareholder, but regulations prevent him from being an active member of the board. It gives him plenty of time to muse about the future of the company he used to be leading. “Mollie will continue to grow and get a complete European footprint”, he predicts. “Then either they take the step to another continent, which is not easy because you need to get licensed there, too.”
“I envision there might be some very close cooperation with an American or Asian financial institution, who is looking for a European footprint, or an e-commerce facilitator that wants to extend its value chain to become a large e-commerce player.”
Either way, Aussems does think Mollie has a good chance to become one of the most important players on the fintech market. “You have to use the investment money wisely and rapidly expand. Scaling is not easy, because every market is different. Different merchant structure, different tech platforms, so it is a challenge to keep the product standardised. But the fortunate thing for Mollie is we never acquired a company and never had to integrate a platform. Mollie has a single platform, so scale can truly be realised,” Aussems concludes.
Image credit: stefanmarcelgerard.com