Tuomas Toivonen is the co-founder of Holvi, banking for Makers and Doers. The Finnish fin-tech start-up is designed to help micro-entrepreneurs run their business from one place; combining banking and business tools. Of the get-go in 2011, they put their customer at the heart of everything — and still today, they’re working hard to make life easier for the same customer segment and even more holistically.
Together with his 100+ team, located in Helsinki and Berlin, Tuomas is optimising the future banking for said freelancers, providing them with one simple to use (and fully digital) service. In this episode, we talk about creating a new category in a very traditional industry, facing cultural challenges while entering new markets and keeping the vision and values aligned during an acquisition!
Silja: Holvi’s impressive office is located in Kallio, a vibrant still laid back district in Helsinki. That’s also where we met Tuomas Toivonen who co-founded the company in 2011. Tuomas is a fintech expert, worked in the industry for 15 years and founded multiple technology companies. He’s a great example of the Finnish no BS approach to building customer-centric products, always the best solution in mind and pragmatically guided by Holvi’s company values. But what exactly made him start a bank right after the financial crisis hit?
Tuomas: Well, I mean that’s an interesting question. And in some ways, we didn’t set out to found a bank as such. But more we were, the founding team, we were entrepreneurs ourselves. So myself, Kristoffer and Teemu, we were running a small software development consultancy. Mikko, our head of product, he was running his own small design studio. And basically what we wanted to have was the type of tooling that would allow us to run our businesses better or allow us to focus on actually running the business instead of spending all that manual time and efforts in the routines or business management. So we wanted to find a solution that would automate that. There really wasn’t anything out there in the market. So we in many ways set out to solve this problem that we had ourselves and then we also had before built a couple of tools to run different types of non-profit activities. A couple of us were running something called the Alternative Party, the largest digital media festival in the Nordics at the time. And we’d build ticket sales systems, counting systems, expense claim management systems for those non-profit activities. We’d seen that “Okay, it is possible to build these better tools that will allow people to focus on the actual activities, but we didn’t really see those tools available in a business context.” So that’s where it very much started. We wanted to have that tooling ourselves.
Silja: So you had this frustration but also the capabilities of doing similar, I would say, type of problem-solving, and then you paired the two to have this bigger vision … what became Holvi?
Tuomas: Yeah, you could say that. So, I would put it that there were three things. One was the need that we had ourselves and of course all in the market as well. The second thing was that we had these prototypes that we'd build for another context but which were adaptable to what we wanted to have in a business context as well. And then the third thing was a number of changes in the market that actually made it possible. I mean in recent years there's been a lot of talk about the second payment service directive PSD 2 which of course is a big opportunity as well. But then back in 2011 PSD 1, the first payment service directive was still a very new thing.
Simon: Could you describe what's the PSD thing about?
Tuomas: So, PSD is the payment service directive. Now we've got two of those like the 1st, then the revised one. And the first payment service directive was a regulatory framework on a pan-European level that basically brought a new category of regulated entities called payment institutions. And that's what we are. So we're regulated on a European level as a payment institution, and you can think of payment institution as a lightweight bank. So that's what we are and what we do. As that new regulation had come in force, well basically it was approved in 2007 but then ratified a couple of years after. And a little bit later in Finland as well because the Minister of Finance was a little bit more occupied with the financial crisis rather than bringing immediately needed new regulation. But in any case, this payment a risk directive allowed us to start to build an alternative to the traditional banks in a way that was suitable for a start-up. Slightly lower capital requirements, a little bit more straightforward regulation. So you could actually build this bank replacement as a start-up which before this regulatory framework came into force you couldn't really do it. So, the market also allowed us to take those two other things: the prototypes and put them together and start to build what is now Holvi.
Simon: And as you said in that sense there are two components to Holvi. The one side is the kind of lightweight bank or the banking system. The other component is maybe the business services you also offer.
Simon: And do you think from again the founders perspective: Was it more the tools you were interested in the beginning or was it more the banks you were interested in? Or was the one just the tool for the other?
Tuomas: I would say that it was both. So I mentioned those prototypes that we'd build before. One of the prototypes was something that kind of the design was not nearly as good as what Holvi then turned out to you have, but many of the features were there. But we had built that on top of PayPal. We did only the business management tooling. Those things that you see in Holvi of these days as well. It is bookkeeping, invoicing, online store functionality and expense client functional etc. So it had that functionality, but everything was built on top of PayPal accounts. So anyone using the product needed to have a PayPal account. Anyone that they received money from or send money to need to have a PayPal account. The core was there. It was working quite well, but it was really a limiting factor that you had to have a PayPal account. You had non-profit customers, different types of associations using the product but then if they needed to, for example, they were organizing an event and getting some sponsorship money in to get that event up and running. So they could create the sponsorship invoice through our software. They could send that invoice they could track that invoice, but then the company that was sponsoring had to pay that with PayPal. And that really didn't work well with like traditional companies that just wanted to make a bank transfer. Pay the invoice exactly the same way that they would pay any other invoice. So that was a limiting factor that we were building it on top of the PayPal ecosystem which may be in some markets universally enough that it would work, but in many other markets, it really didn't work. So that's where the possibility through the new regulation that allowed us to kind of replace PayPal with our own internal payment service. And really provide the banking alternative all in one box. And the business management tools really made it possible. So I would say that both sides are kind of equally important. The integration between the bank and the business management tools allow us to create this set up that then really saves time for our customers.
Simon: Right. So that was around the time when you then decided to full-on build that technical infrastructure of a payment service yourselves basically.
Simon: Wasn't it a scary situation? I mean PayPal has been around for years, I guess. And what was it like to build that from scratch, to challenge that task?
Tuomas: Well, I mean it was not an easy or light decision in the sense that it meant that we needed to get regulated — a lot more paperwork. We had to change many things in the way that we operated. If you're launching a new product, you'll have to take that through a certain regulatory process. So it was a lot more process that got involved to do product development and all the operations that we had. But also at that time we maybe didn't fully realise how much work it actually is. If we had known, would we have gone down that path? Who knows. I mean you can always make these counterfactuals, but you'll never know. There are two types of start-ups. There's those where people have been in an industry for a very long time. They've been 25 years in the industry. They see some very specific inefficiencies. They set up a new start-up. They start to tackle that specific inefficiency with a product that they then sell to the industry that they know like their back pockets. But then there is the other type of start-up where you tackle a huge market; a difficult market; a difficult sector and you kind of wouldn't do it if you upfront understood how hard it is. And this is a little bit more on that side that we had to learn it the hard way.
Silja: Sometimes it's good to be the outsider and not know because otherwise you maybe you wouldn't come up with a good solution.
Tuomas: That's true, and then you might not even start because you're like "Puh, this is going to be so much work." There are easier things to do.
Simon: And that probably occupied your time from 2011 when you started to … around what time did you actually … When would you say was the v1 of Holvi ready for the clients or the customers?
Tuomas: Well, I mean we got the first regulatory clearance in the summer of 2011, and we had the first live customers using the platform with our own payment system by the end of the year. So that was a relatively quick process to get kind of the basics up and running.
Simon: And you were just the four founders or how big was the team back then?
Tuomas: So at that time, we had one or two additional developers, but we were five or six people at that point. So by the end of 2011, we had the core of the core platform running, but then, of course, it's been a long development journey from thereon. And then the first customers outside Finland we started to bring them on board in 2014. So the first two years or so we were just working in the Finnish market.
Simon: And what was the decision process behind … I mean that's a reoccurring pattern in the Nordics as well: Every company you build initially has to be set up to a larger scale than the Nordics because the markets itself are so small. What was the thought process behind which market to take a first? What would be the next growth stage of Holvi then?
Tuomas: Yeah, well I mean if you look at the very classic route for Finnish companies to internationalise in the old days, it's always gone from Finland to Sweden and then additional markets, overseas markets. I mean that would have been an option, but once we'd get everything up and running in Finland, we'd already done the full integration to do a € payment systems. Going to Sweden, Denmark, Norway that would have been three additional kronor currency integration so we would have had to build the core payments integration thing for each market separately. Then I mean Sweden is about twice the size of Finland; a bigger market, but Denmark and Norway are about the same size as Finland. So it didn't feel very attractive to do a lot of that technical heavy lifting before we can even roll out a product on those markets. So that's why we then decided to kind of skip the kronor zone and go to directly to Continental Europe, to eurozone countries. And basically, what we had initially opened up in Ireland, and we opened up in Austria. Those were kind of the two first markets. The hypothesis was that OK we'd test in Ireland, then go to the U.K.! Of course, different currency. So there we would need to do the integration but for a much bigger market. So that would make sense. And then from Austria (we'd learn in Austria) and then go to Germany. But there I must say that we were a little bit naive especially with Austria to the Germany thing that OK if it works in Austria then, of course, it will be more or less the same. You'll just drop it in Germany. Well, not quite.
Simon: What was the challenge there? Was it more like the cultural side, or is it more on the acceptance side of the people? What was the challenge?
Tuomas: Well, I mean, of course, you localise the language once but almost everything else you need to localise separately. And as we provide the business management tools in our product, all the accounting integrations are completely different in each market. I mean sure you've got value-added tax that works pretty much the same way across EU countries but beyond that like taxation the different types of companies in the markets, the different ways you register to be a freelancer, our target market. It is very different. So you do need to do a lot of premarket localisation and then go deeply into a market. It then made much more sense to focus that effort in Germany rather than Austria. So now we have two home markets: Germany and Finland. We've got our two main offices in Berlin and here in Helsinki. So, over the years we've kind of really doubled down on the German market.
Simon: Could you name just three examples of how your customers are different in Finland as in Germany? Because just again quoting numbers is that Finland calls itself a digitally advanced country. And I think over 90% use mobile banking. It is very normal, and I remember a situation two years ago when an elderly woman paid with her Apple Pay smartphone in the bakery. I was just shocked. Coming from Germany is like "OK, it's the future here." Whereas in Germany you have like this tradition of cash; this very kind of angsty mindset of how to deal with cash and you know a very different mindset. What are examples of those two cultures clashing in that in that sector?
Tuomas: Yeah, I mean you already mentioned cash, and that's a good example in terms of how people (in Europe) approach money and by extension to banking in different countries. It can be very, very different. And we're of course a fully digital service. We don't have branches. So you can't come to our offices and open account or withdraw cash. You can, of course, take the Holvi card, go to an ATM, and we throw cash. Comparing, for example, Germany to Finland is so much more cash-based. In Finland, you can no matter how small purchases are you can always pay it with a card, and for us of course when we want to automate the bookkeeping for our customers, it's much easier to automate that when all transactions are digital. You already have the data, and you can build rules around the booking of those expenses to the accounts of the entrepreneur. So there are certain things where you can't yet reach the same level of automation. In a market like Germany where cash just is part of life in completely different ways than for example in Finland, that's one of the things that we've had to adapt on product level and messaging level. And also understanding deeply the different approaches to money, banking and business management in Germany. And then one related difference is that for example in Finland people as freelancers they're often very comfortable doing all of their taxes themselves. So we provide the support and the reports that they need, but then they're very comfortable just sending the value-added tax or other annual tax declaration. They can just send it themselves. Whereas in Germany, it's much more a culture that you use this tax advisor, Steuerberater. I mean you could equally well do the tax filings yourself, but it's just culturally not really done, and there isn't really a reason why things are the way they are. They just are, and it is part of the culture, and that's kind of something where you could try to get people to see "Hey, here's a better way to do things." DIY, do the taxes yourself, we will provide you with the tools. But if that's just not an ingrained cultural behaviour pattern you're just better adapting to that rather than trying to add up the people to that way … Well, a little bit, you always want to make your customer adapt to better ways of doing things because you also want to make their lives better and more and more efficient. But what else you can change everything, and you just need to adopt on a per market basis.
Silja: And if you talk about markets, then it's kind of clear today you're building it for makers for doers, for micro-entrepreneurs. Was this part of Holvi from the beginning?
Tuomas: Yeah, I mean it has evolved a bit over time. We did have businesses from the start. But in the earliest years here in Finland, we had a big segment of customers being non-profit associations which were part of the background where we came from. Different kinds of event organisers, charities, sports associations, boy scouts, girl scouts. So this was and still is a reasonably large segment of the customer base, but then from the earliest days onwards, we also had a lot of freelancers and sole traders as customers. The initial segment that we were able to get good traction in Finland was the health and wellness segment. So we got a couple of leading yoga teachers in Finland as customers, and through that, we got very good coverage in those segments. One of the learnings from that is when we had someone succeeding with Holvi in their business. If they are, for example, a yoga teacher, when they would tell other yoga teachers that "Hey, I'm running my business using this new service Holvi and it's working really well for me." That's an extremely strong recommendation. I mean when you get this recommendation from another yoga teacher. This person might not be an expert in banking, but you trust them, especially if it is a well-known teacher in your industry. "OK, they are having success in their business with this service." And then it is a really strong recommendation.
Silja: Probably the best one you can get.
Tuomas: Yeah! Absolutely, absolutely.
Simon: And was this an early-on realisation that you have this kind of ambassador model? That you have to find your beacons within your target industries and develop that from that on? Or was that kind of more on the latest stage of the business?
Tuomas: I mean it was a pretty early realisation and a very organic realisation for us in the sense that it was the direction our customers pointed us to. We just saw that there was traction in certain segments. And then when looking at that traction in some more detail, you could see that there are these kinds of key individuals through which the service was spreading. And then, of course, we tried to use that same method to enter other micro-verticals and find what these days would be called influencers. 2011, I'm not sure that influencers were an influential term as it is now, but that's really the strategy. We then started to follow from that early success.
Simon: Is that universal? Could you implement that to all the new markets you're going? As well in Germany?
Tuomas: It does apply to all the markets. Of course, as a strategy, it's very cost-effective once you get it going. But it's something that will take some time to build. I mean of course in Finland we had the advantage of having been on the market for a long time, having run ourselves businesses here, been active in non-profit activities. So the very earliest recommendations, of course, were from us to our own peers that we said: "Hey, we've found this very good tool". So there we had kind of the seeds to start building immediately, but then in other markets, it is a lot more work to convince the first people and then get the snowball growing.
Silja: So you had a strong foundation of trust already through the founders and your first employees. How would you describe the journey from being a value-driven tech start-up from the beginning to now?
Tuomas: Well, I mean, that's also where we've been very much guided by our customers. Our customers are micro-entrepreneurs, often sole traders. So this one person is the company or up to nine or ten employees but still small companies, and that's, of course, as Holvi we're now a much bigger a company, but our roots are still very much there. And a lot of people that still join Holvi, they've at some point in their careers been entrepreneurs running their own practice as graphic designers or freelance programmers. So they understand the world of our customers very much. And that's where we want to stay close to the customers. We really try (even though it's hard to in all aspects avoid) not become like a big corporate which then serves freelancers and claims to stay in touch with the reality of freelancers. It's something where we constantly need to stay close to the roots. We don't want to become too remote from the realities of freelancer life.
Simon: Is that something you apply in your daily work when hiring, for example? Or where does this really take traction? The aspiration?
Tuomas: I mean, it is very much in hiring, of course. So we do want to find people in all areas whatever is in product design or supporting our customers, and we want to find people who understand the day to day life of our customers. Otherwise, how do we connect with their lives? And how do we appropriately support them if we don't understand their lives? Or if our understanding is just purely abstract that we read some EU reports like freelancers are the engine of new job growth. Fine, you can read all of those reports, but it doesn't still connect you with the reality of the folks.
Simon: Does this scale?
Tuomas: It has scaled so far. Will it scale in going from the amount of employees we have now to 2x or 5x or 10x? Hopefully, it will. But I think that's something that time will tell.
Simon: And talking about scaling and talking about the way from like a scrappy start-up to what Holvi has become now is: One of the bigger milestones was in I think it was 2016 when BBVA, a big Spanish bank acquired you. Along the way, I think up until this point; you would never raise giant rounds of funding. Was there a big change in strategy or what was the thought process behind that liquidation process in that sense or the decision to change that?
Tuomas: As you mentioned, we've been part of BBVA, a Spanish bank, since March 2016. It's one of the largest banks in Europe. And we're part of something called new digital businesses; a unit within BBVA where other companies and we operate. One of the better-known companies is Simple in the US. A neo bank like N26 or Monza but started much earlier than these other companies. But Simple is only in the US. We'd known about BBVA. We'd known about the NDB unit that they have. And we'd also known that the founders of Simple and we'd also visited them in Portland. When this opportunity to partner with BBVA and to become part of NDB arose, then we, of course, had BBVA visiting our offices which were very interesting that they brought quite a large team. Not only finance folks to go over the numbers but they…
Simon: Not just the M&A folks.
Tuomas: Not just the M&A folks but also some of the NBD tech teams and folks from all areas: from marketing to designed to tech. So we've got to talk actually with them like: How do they see working with a start-up? How do they see building a business with a start-up or going to new markets with the start-up? And we very much liked what we heard. And then maybe a year before we were acquired or a little bit more, Simple had been acquired by BBVA and also to the NDP portfolio at that time. We then called up the founders of Simple. The references were very good at "OK, BBVA … they talk the talk, but they also walk the walk." And that was a very strong recommendation for us that this would be a very good home for Holvi. It would bring us the added resources that would allow us to go after the market of freelancers in additional European countries and do that on a much bigger scale than we would have done otherwise. So then kind of all the stars aligned quite well. We became part of BBVA. And it's been quite a good journey since then.
Simon: And how would you describe that relationship or partnership? Because there could be like dozens of possibilities to your company being absorbed within the corporate. Or like a cell outside of the core business, like an innovation cell or something like that. What was the partnership like?
Tuomas: Well, I mean, we work rather independently from BBVA. I mean we're independently regulated as a payment institution, and we build our technology stack, our services, fully ourselves. And if you look at the markets that we are in from the Nordics and northern part of Continental Europe that's not traditional markets for BBVA. We were kind of focused on the markets where the corporation otherwise didn't have a footprint. So it's quite a natural fit that we work in markets where we are. And then the existing markets are pretty well served by the BBVA Group already. So we target the underserved segment of micro-entrepreneurs, micro-enterprises as well as those markets that are not served by the Group yet.
Silja: If you say the stars aligned pretty well that they understood the values and the vision you had?
Tuomas: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the key things for us was that we don't want to be acquired as a kind of research lab that would build some future far-out products that might be really cool on paper. Or might be really cool technology but might never actually roll out to any significant number of customers. So we actually wanted to keep building products for our customers in the here and now; products that can be rolled out right away to customers. And where we can actually make an impact to the lives of our customers. That's also where our goals and the goals of BBVA very much aligned.
Simon: And fast-forwarding that to today … because that was in 2016.
Tuomas: A couple of years ago.
Simon: We're now a few years later, and you talked about the underserved category of banking for micro-entrepreneurs. Obviously, there are some competitors in the market right now and also, for example, that Hufsy went out of business, for example. Deutsche Bank working on First, I think this product called and trying to scale that. Competition is not coming from one side, right? I think competition is also coming like obviously from the banking side but also from the accounting side, right? And I think this Kontist, sort of comparable banking service in Germany as well where Haufe is integrated as a shareholder which produces lex office and all these accounting software. So this is kind of a dynamic market where competition … there's not only headwind from one side but also from other directions. How do you deal with that dynamic environment and challenges?
Tuomas: Well I mean, of course, in the past couple of years more entrants have come into the market, targeting a similar segment of customers. Overall we see that as a really a positive thing because at the end of the day the market is still wide open. And for many freelancers, their first call might still be their traditional Sparkasse or whatnot where they would go out of habit or where they have their personal bank account. They might go to these more traditional providers. So the way we approach the market and the order entrance is that together, we're educating the market that "Hey, there is actually an option out there that you can use. And that you can actually get much better services from a new entrant, from a fintech than you would get from traditional players." So I think it's to the benefit of all of us as new entrants that customers get much more aware of this option and it also kind of legitimises the market. That OK, you can actually use someone else because I mean banking is a very conservative market. So in that sense, I think it's only positive that there are these other companies in the market.
Simon: And zooming out on that and looking at the bigger picture here is that there is this megatrend, a bigger trend of what is based on life blending. What we call life blending when work and life and you know all this blend into one thing, and people are starting to have this desire for more flexibility and more freedom. Therefore working as a freelancer or a solo entrepreneur becomes more attractive to people. I think just quoting numbers 31 million self-employed people in the EU alone. And this is something which is growing. That's probably what you've been saying with legitimising the market. What is your kind of main strategy looking forward to those new people deciding for this solo entrepreneurship way or micro-entrepreneurship way? How would you attract them? What's your USP in marketing terms towards them?
Tuomas: Well, I mean looking at the future the way we see things is that kind of the financial management puzzle for solo entrepreneurs and freelancers has not been fully solved yet — not even nearly. I mean you've got from us other players goods services, the card, the account. You get the bookkeeping, the financial management, the invoicing. You get these solutions, but then there are a lot of other areas where the finance industry as a whole is failing the freelancer customer segment. So, of course, it gives you a lot of flexibility being a freelancer. And this is definitely a trend to kind of blending the work and the non-work life. But then let's say as you've been a freelancer for a number of years. Maybe that's been your first job already. Then you go to a traditional bank for a loan because you want to buy a house. You want to get a mortgage. That's a very tricky situation to be in. I mean you start looking at the forms, and it says "OK, what were your previous employers and all of that? And OK, provide salary slips of what's your monthly income!" And all of this! And there you kind of then realise that "Wow OK, in many areas of life it's totally possible to have this lifestyle as a freelancer, but then there are other areas which don't recognise that as a valid career path and then you are really kind of stuck." And that's still something where we, as Holvi, are not there yet. Other providers are not there yet. Just as an example: The ultimate freelancer mortgage product is not there yet. So there is a lot to be done and a lot that we and the industry as a whole, the financial service industry, can do to support kind of being a freelancer as a valid career path.
Simon: Which is tapping into like social developments as well, right? You kind of develop this in parallel towards those shifts in society and how people perceive work and freedom and whatnot. I think it's a very interesting thing. And from what I got now is that you looking forward is solving that still unsolved problem rather than explore new products or new ways of banking. It's more like doubling down on that micro-entrepreneurship and solving that through a broader range of solutions for living that lifestyle or supporting the lifestyle.
Tuomas: Yeah, micro-entrepreneurs are a market or is the segment that we have chosen, and it's where we want to be for the long term. We just want to be a better service, better product for that set of customers rather than for example than scaling into larger companies. When you're servicing freelancers, yes it is a business, but at the end of the day, it is a human being; a person who just happens to be in business. But who, as you also mentioned, the work-life and the non-work life kind of blend together more and more, so to serve that person holistically then you need to stay true to that segment rather than… because when you broaden to bigger companies, you lose what is special for this segment of freelancers and that's also kind of what drove us to really start Holvi. There wasn't really banking services that would understand that specific segment. So we want to stay true to that set of customers.
Simon: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, rate the show on Apple Podcasts, follow us on Spotify or maybe just tell someone about it. You can find all episodes on www.theidealists.co! As always, here's our last question: Who should we talk to next?
Tuomas: Well, I'll take one company from the financial services sector, and that would be Stripe. I mean they are doing a lot of things differently. And are apparently quite successful at it.
"We, as Holvi, are not there yet. Other providers are not there yet. Just as an example: The ultimate freelancer mortgage product is not there yet. So there is a lot to be done and a lot that we and the industry as a whole, the financial service industry, can do to support kind of being a freelancer as a valid career path."
— Tuomas Toivonen [00:36:05]
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City of Helsinki
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