Johan Brenner 17 October 2023

Lessons from Maria Raga, Sebastian Siemiatkowski and Markus Villig

Mimi Billing (Sifted), Markus Villig (Bolt), Maria Raga (Depop), Sebastian Siemiatkowski (Klarna)

Earlier this month, we celebrated the 20 year anniversary of Creandum. As part of our celebrations, we had the pleasure of hosting ‘Creandum Sessions’ - three amazing discussions, one of which was an entrepreneur panel with Bolt founder Markus Villig, former Depop CEO Maria Raga and Sebastian Siemiatkowski, founder of Klarna, moderated by Mimi Billing at Sifted.

From their diverse beginnings (see if you can match them up with their origin story) – dropping out of college after one semester, perfecting PowerPoint slides at Bain, and flipping burgers – they’ve all gone on to lead multi-billion dollar companies, and learned a lot of lessons along the way.

Here are some of the best bits from this unmissable session.

Growing as a leader

In recalling ride-hailing app Bolt’s early struggles with fundraising, Markus highlighted how much has changed in the European venture and tech scene since then. ‘We talked to probably 100 VCs in Europe and every single one turned us down… They didn’t realise that the world is now massive. There’s five billion people connected and you can actually have decacorns worth tens of billions of dollars even within the same category.’

Bolt was forced to bootstrap for its first five years. ‘I was extremely hands-on with every aspect of the business,’ said Markus. ‘Even though the company is 10 years old, I only started maturing as a leader in the last four, five years, when the company started to balloon in size. But, overall, I think it’s a natural journey every entrepreneur needs to go through.’

Sebastian agreed – leadership is about always learning...

‘Every year I call [Niklas Adalberth, Co-founder of Klarna] and I say, “You know what? This year, I’ve finally figured it out. Now I know how to run a successful business.” You’re constantly trying to evolve your thinking.’

Sebastian Siemiatkowski, CEO & Co-founder of Klarna

It’s another challenge altogether when you come in as an outsider. Maria initially joined Depop as Operations Manager, before leading it as CEO for over six years and overseeing the company’s $1.6bn acquisition by Etsy. But it wasn’t an easy journey. ‘The first two years were complicated, it was Simon’s [Beckerman, Founder of Depop] baby and that’s a big responsibility. I worked really hard to make sure he knew it was in safe hands and that we were on the same page.’

Both Markus and Sebastian also talked about the importance of trusting your gut as a leader, particularly as you scale. ‘I should always do what is my first instinct – usually that’s the best one,’ said Markus. Sebastian echoed the sentiment. ‘You’re going to have all of this noise… telling you what to do and not do. You just have to filter that.'

Just how essential is global expansion?

By the time Etsy acquired Depop, the US was already 40% of its business, so expanding Depop’s remit into the US was less about opening up a new market and more about synergising with its new acquirers. ‘Many of the things that we were deploying,’ explained Maria, ‘Etsy had implemented a while back and we could learn from their experience.’

But for Klarna,  US expansion represents more than just a market; it’s part of a larger vision. ‘Financial services is only software,’ said Sebastian. ‘The reason you see local banks dominate is just because the regulation has been so difficult to manage, but computers are making regulation easier to manage, especially now with generative AI.’ Eventually, ‘you’ll see four or five large dominant retail banking or payments companies globally. I thought if Klarna wants to be one of those five, we need to make it in the US.’

With Bolt the question of whether it feels the need to expand is a live one. ‘I don’t think that success is defined by a global presence,’ said Markus. ‘How many of you have used Alibaba? And they did one of the biggest IPOs of all time.’

Ride sharing, explained Markus, demands a more localised approach, because the network effect is city-specific.

'It doesn’t really matter how big you are in Europe or how big you are in the US. [...] You really need to take it city by city, and make sure you’re very strong in each one you go to, rather than trying to spread yourself thin and expand into too many geographies.'

Markus Villig, CEO & Founder of Bolt

Resilience and navigating tough times

A challenging 2022 took its toll on the entire tech industry. Sebastian recounted Klarna's journey to profitability, emphasising the importance of decisive action during crises. ‘We went from a loss in May last year, and this May we made a small profit. So it took us about 12 months to turn it around. To me it was just important to not stick our heads in the sand, and try to do the best out of it. And eventually employee engagement starts rising again, people get more excited.

For Markus and Bolt, their early troubles with funding were a blessing in disguise. ‘We could never really afford to hire a lot of people. It was actually a great thing, because it really forced us to think through who we hire. The people who were really up to the challenge really fit in well. Now, when we have tough times, they’re used to it. It’s a very resilient culture.’

For Maria and Depop, it was about adapting to both the tailwinds and the headwinds. ‘We thought it was going to be the end. [...] And then we started seeing the numbers picking up…

'Whether the company’s going up or down, you still have to manage the fast speed. In that sense, if you are one of the winners you know it is not going to be forever. Therefore you need to be prepared and keep adapting for whatever the environment throws at you.'

Maria Raga, former CEO of Depop

Visions of the future

The fintech sector, despite its notable successes, remains ripe with opportunities for innovation and improvement. Sebastian believes that in the coming five to 10 years, we’re going to see a dramatic shift in the way financial services are delivered. ‘Financial services are eventually going to be an AI that wakes you up in the morning and says, “Look, I’ve analysed your mortgage, and I’ve realised I can save you $10. The only thing you need to do is say yes.”

Markus sees a similarly transformative change in transportation and mobility. ‘More and more people are going to be switching over to on-demand transportation. There’s more than €1tn that people spend on private cars in Europe. [...] Even if 1% shifts over, that $10bn of business for us. [...] there’s plenty of room to grow for this whole category for years to come.’

Over the course of the event, what became clear is how there’s no one route for entrepreneurial success, and if founders think they can plot one from start to finish without all manner of roadblocks and detours, they should think again. In fact, it's how entrepreneurs deal with those detours that define their own and their companies’ success.

As Maria said: ‘you just need to keep on adapting.’


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