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North Star Leaders Podcast

Matt Oppenheimer

Season 1 Episode 1 10 Oct 2023

Transcript

Matt Oppenheimer:

The reason though that focus is important at any stage is because while it's not as existential, companies might not fail because they're running out of time, energy, and money. Even if you're running a larger company like Remitly, time, energy, and money are some of the biggest assets that companies have and if a company spreads themselves too thin, then obviously it decreases their chances of being successful at anything. So that focus is, I think, important for any stage of any company, for any leader.

Lindsay Pedersen:

The world needs what only your business can bring, and as a leader, it's your job to deliver. But where do you focus? Where do you direct your time, your team, your budget, and your emotional energy? We are learning this together on the North Star Leaders podcast. I'll be talking to purpose-driven leaders about the choices they make to create audacious economic value while also realizing their distinctive purpose.

I'm Lindsay Pedersen, brand strategist, author of "Forging An Ironclad Brand" and host of the North Star Leaders podcast. Let's get to it.

Today I am so delighted to be joined by my guest, Matt Oppenheimer. Matt is the co-founder and CEO of Remitly, a leading digital financial services provider for immigrants and their families in over 170 countries. Matt currently also serves on the board of directors for BECU. Matt, welcome to the show.

Matt Oppenheimer:

Thank you, Lindsay. So great to be here.

Lindsay Pedersen:

To start us off, Matt, what is your favorite thing about what you do?

Matt Oppenheimer:

I would say getting to see the impact that Remitly has on first and foremost, our customers. Over five million customers have used Remitly now, but our team, our investors, and there's something special about co-founding a business and getting it to the scale and size that we're at now. The impact is pretty profound, so for me, the favorite thing about what I do is getting to feel and see the impact it makes in people's lives.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Well, and building on that, as Remitly has evolved from startup to now publicly traded company, how has that feeling of seeing your impact change? How has that impact changed and the favorite thing about what you do? How has that shifted, or has it?

Matt Oppenheimer:

At the beginning, it was much more direct. I still remember getting to product market fit, our first customer, which we've written a blog about so I can share his name, which he was comfortable with, Earl Gola. I still remember him coming into the office and doing his very first transaction. He was actually at the IPO, which I'll get back to in a minute.

But there was that direct interaction I'd say a lot more where I saw the impact. Now, I think a lot of the things that I do have ripple effects, meaning if I hire the right executive, if I create the right culture, if I make the right strategic decisions, those are the things that have ripple effects to much larger groups of individuals. And in some ways it's more removed, but it's also bigger impact just given the scale and size that we're at.

And going back to the Earl story, we've tried to stay pretty grounded and I've tried to stay pretty grounded. Like I respond to customer escalations every day where we can do things better. I hear from customers whether it's direct email, LinkedIn, you name it. Earl was at our IPO on stage with us. He's become a close friend. I still try to have that direct interaction to stay close to what matters, but a lot of the day-to-day has become more of those decisions that I mentioned which have bigger impact. We're a little bit further removed from the direct customer interaction.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that. I love that Earl was with you at the IPO. That is so cool. It's such an emblem of customer centricity. That is so neat. I've heard you talk about focus and the importance of focus. In fact, I heard you, I'm going to quote you in a second. I heard you say on another podcast, "In the short term, focus might slow your growth, but in the long-term, it'll supercharge your growth and decrease your risk. Focus is the underappreciated nutrient of long-term successful companies."

I had goosebumps when I heard you say this. I wonder if you could riff on this idea of the importance of focus.

Matt Oppenheimer:

Fundamentally, focus is true at any stage of any company, but I think it's most existential and important for new companies because ultimately if you're on an entrepreneur journey, if they're any of your listeners that are on that journey, companies fundamentally fail because the company, the founders run out of time, energy, and money and on their way to product market fit and then scaling up that business.

And so I think that one way to mitigate that that a lot of entrepreneurs forget is intense focus. Focus on in the early days in my view, what is the problem you're trying to solve, not necessarily the solution, and then what are the hypotheses that you have in a very focused, rigorous, we even created like a spreadsheet, what are those hypotheses and then what's the most efficient way to test those hypotheses that oftentimes don't even start with building product?

And the more focused the product is and for us, that meant we're 170 countries as you mentioned, but for us, what that meant is we, I've been around 12 years now. For the first two-ish years, we were just serving US to the Philippines. That's it. Then we launched India, just US to India. Then we launched Mexico. Now we're talking like four or five years into the business we're serving like three countries, basically.

What that helped us do was not only get more focused because we had to focus on a specific segment of a specific customer base, even though our vision was much broader, it helped us focus on a specific use case and customer pain points solved that was more tangible and more real because there's specific customer segment you're thinking about, but then it helped us build the systems, the product in the right way to where we're able to scale it much faster later.

So that's what I would say if I riffed on it for a bit. The reason though that focus is important at any stage is because while it's not as existential, companies might not fail because they're running out of time, energy, and money. Even if you're running a larger company like Remitly, time, energy, and money are some of the biggest assets that companies have and if a company spreads themselves too thin, then obviously it decreases their chances of being successful at anything. So that focus is I think important for any stage of any company, for any leader.

Lindsay Pedersen:

It's like lack of focus is expensive, that's why it's expensive and being expensive will have different implications depending on your stage, but it might be existential threat at an earlier stage, but it might be foregoing a huge opportunity at a larger stage. There's a short-term trade-off though. In the short term by not being focused, you can get a bump. I imagine there are times when you had to say no to something that was dangling before you that would've given you a short-term hit of sugar.

Matt Oppenheimer:

Sure.

Lindsay Pedersen:

How do you encourage leaders to embrace focus despite the need for that short-term trade off?

Matt Oppenheimer:

Yeah, it's a really good point and I think that there's so many forces that will pull a leader away from focus because there'll always be another idea, there'll always be more things that you want to do that you have capacity to do in the short term and like you said, that could actually bump short-term growth. So the example I think about in our business is when we were just focused on US to the Philippines, there were some of our competitors that went really broad, so they launched a lot more corridors than countries, corridors like country to country B, but they launched a lot more countries, a lot more corridors, a lot earlier. Their growth just shot through the roof compared to ours, and so they got much bigger much earlier than us.

The challenge that they eventually faced is they didn't have that same customer centricity, customer understanding, platform that they built and they started to run into not just one company but multiple companies. There is one I'm thinking of, run into a lot of infrastructure and other challenges and we grew way slower, which meant it was harder to raise capital. It was harder to convince the next ambassador to say the biggest question that was raised in the first two or three fundraisers at the first four years of the business was, "Can you do this beyond the Philippines? Can you do this beyond two countries? Can you do this beyond three countries?"

That was hard to raise, it was much harder for us to raise capital because the business was smaller and we hadn't proven that, but we stuck to our guns and I think that then we've since far surpassed some of the companies that I'm thinking about, but the important lesson from that story is that there will be a lot of forces that pull a leader away from focus.

And having that conviction I think is super, super important because the only person that can really have that conviction I think is the leader and where to focus because you have to focus in the right places. If we would've picked Mexico to start, I actually think we wouldn't have been successful for a variety of reasons. It was our third core grower, but where to focus is also something I think only the leader can take those inputs and then ultimately make the right decision and pivot if they need to, but pivot to focus on something else as opposed to trying to do everything.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I hear a lot from you about the conviction that's required and the discipline that's easier to have the discipline. If you have the conviction, if you feel really good about the decision you made about what the focus is going to be, it's going to allow for those hard trade-offs to happen, but if you want to be around for a long time, if you want to be a durable business, there is so much utility to embracing it despite that short term, foregoing the sugar rush or the protein sustained energy, if you will.

Matt Oppenheimer:

Yeah, I think conviction's an interesting point in terms of leadership in general, but especially in entrepreneurs because I was talking to a well-known investor last week and I was asking him, he's probably talked to 10,000 companies over his career and I was like, "What are some of the qualities that you think are most important?" And he said it's this interesting balance of having call it conviction, call it confident, call it grit, tenacity, but then also having a humble curiosity.

Those two traits are oftentimes in juxtaposition and it is those two things that I think make successful entrepreneurs especially and successful leaders. And the way that I think about it is falling in love with the problem, not the solution is one example of how that's applied. Because going back to the point about focus, it's important for entrepreneurs and leaders to take feedback with an inquisitive, curious mindset, process it, decide if they should change course or stick to their conviction of the current focus area that they have or whatnot. And that is I think a very unique skill to be able to both have conviction, to use the word you use, and be able to have humble curiosity around things that challenge that conviction.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that there is this dance between conviction and curiosity and conviction and curiosity and just like with a lot of things over-emphasized doesn't get you to the longevity. Too much conviction you might be rigid. Too much curiosity, you might be a fly-by-night company because nothing sticks.

So holding both, which it's interesting that dance reminds me of the dance of short-term, long-term we need to be around for the short-term because we also want to be around for the long-term. It's both. It's a paradox. Tell me about the Remitly drilling down. We've talked a lot about the business and the markets. Tell me about the brand of Remitly, what Remitly means to the Remitly customer.

Matt Oppenheimer:

It's been an interesting evolution because when I started the business 12 years ago, I mean I was living in Nairobi, Kenya. I've traveled to close to a hundred countries, but most poignantly when I was living in Europe and then Kenya, I had to get money internationally. And most of what I was focused on when I had my personal experience was like it was expensive, it was inconvenient, it was slow, it was all these tangible components.

It was a lot more expensive, a lot more inconvenient and a lot more important for a lot of my Kenyan friends to receive money from their loved ones in Europe and North America primarily. But I mentioned that because I think that's the way a lot of folks think about remittances, including myself and what I skipped over because at that time I was working for Barclays Bank, I was very included into the financial system, is that part of, it's related, but before you can talk about any sort of tangible benefit within remittances, you have to build trust and that is what is paramount more than anything.

And part of it is yeah, having a fair and transparent price, especially given the reputation I would say remittances have, having a fair and transparent price is building trust. Having a service that delivers as expected in terms of speed and reliability builds trust. But I vastly underestimated that our business is all about trust.

And I think that's true for all financial services companies, but I think it's especially true for our customer base because one, we're asking customers to give us a lot of their personal information as immigrants name, address, tax ID or social, birthday, a bunch of things like that. And then we're asking customers to give us their money, a big percentage of their income as opposed to something like lending money, so it's all about trust.

So going back to our brand promise, I think we had some early iterations where we didn't really understand the root thing that we could both differentiate and that ultimately mattered to customers. So our brand is all around peace of mind now and we don't necessarily say peace of mind to in our marketing materials, but that is our brand positioning. It's about providing a very reliable, trusted, and fair service, which by the way, it's not only very important to customers, it's incredibly hard.

That's the other thing I didn't realize when I started the business 12 years ago. You start thinking about the various risk systems, fraud, compliance, payment acceptance, payment disbursement. We send money to 4 billion bank accounts, a billion mobile wallets, 460,000 cash pickup locations. Getting the money from A to B, it's not only very complex, but it's very hard to do reliably until you get more scale.

And so we're at this sweet spot now where we're clear on our brand positioning, which is peace of mind. That's been true for five plus years now, and we've got this flywheel effect of how we can really drive down. We measure this metric internally, but transaction contact rate and any sort of friction that's happening with customers in a way that I think no other money transmitter can do as well as we can. And we're just getting started in that journey. So it's all about peace of mind, it's all about trust. That's the brand promise, and that's ultimately what customers care most about.

Lindsay Pedersen:

It makes me think of what you were referencing earlier that it was a slow build with a lot of humility, built a lot of depth before expanding, and that a surefire way to not build trust, especially when it's literally somebody's income and their families receiving that income and wellbeing to over promise to get too far ahead on your skis.

Those two things seem really related to me that your capacity to wait until you were really nailing the promise and then building, like you said. Maybe that is a universal truth that's just so heightened with this consumer behavior and their relationship with sending money and their relatives in most cases that they're sending it to, so it's hard.

So peace of mind, ultimately that's your promise. Is there any disutility to having such a big promise as peace of mind? Are you ever like, "I wish we weren't trying to do something so audacious as that?"

Matt Oppenheimer:

I think that maybe in the earlier days and still now, I think we still have a lot of work to do to live up to our promise in terms of what we can do. And I'll state some examples of what I mean by peace of mind. I mean one is just how we market, how we communicate with customers. If you think about our customer's journey, oftentimes they're moving thousands of miles way. New country, new financial services systems they've got to work with, new language oftentimes, new, new, new, just different.

And there aren't a lot of companies that are like when we say peace of mind, they're for them so they can be there for their loved ones back home, which is a big reason that they moved to a new country in the first place. And so I love the emotive component of our brand. When I think about how we deliver it from, its part of [inaudible 00:17:02], and I think we bring that emotive aspect out in our marketing, my definition of a brand in general is a promise when delivered creates preference. So then it's like how is our product delivering that peace of mind?

And it's interesting because you look at things like an exact delivery day and time of when funds will be available. That is something that's becoming more standard, but we are one of the first, if not the very, very first to offer that. And so if you think about all of the different variables, pay in, risk systems, payout, FX, flow funds, all of those things, a lot of companies we're not even saying, "Here's when your funds will be available."

So if you aren't even saying when funds will be available, one, you're not building peace of mind with customers, but two operationally, you don't have the rigor to be able to say how often are you meeting what we call our perfect delivery promise? And then how are you making it right for customers if there's some sort of issue in terms of giving them a refund, proactively communicating, getting more information from them if we need it for risk reasons?

So I think that since we've had that in our DNA from an early days, we look at things like our transaction contact rate, our perfect delivery promise. If you look at the trend line of those, I'm super excited and proud of where we're at and I look at where we can get now that we're at pretty significant scale and we have a digital first approach, meaning we don't have a lot of the legacy systems that some of the older money transmitters have, we can make it so much better in the coming years.

And so I feel like we're actually in the early innings of even delivering on our brand promise, even though I think we're better than the rest of the industry. That's the biggest, to your point about the audacious of peace of mind, I think that it is audacious, which means we also need to look in the mirror and say, "How can we get better and better at meeting that every day?" Which we certainly can.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that. I love that. It can be operationalized at levels high and low left and right. It also makes me think there's peace of mind kind of top down. Okay, then what does that mean for all of the operational components that can allow for peace of mind? I can also think sort of bottom up, say speed as a functional benefit where we do it fast. Speed in service of what?

You could say it's a fast transfer in service of a lot of more emotive benefits, but it's speed in service of peace of mind as opposed to speed at service of something, say more hedonic. It would lead to a really different kind of optimal product experience and trade-offs and investments. So it's another cool utility empowering for the person who's building that speed in the organization.

Matt Oppenheimer:

Exactly. It's all about how it ties back to that trust and peace of mind. Exactly. And it also is important to recognize that I think this is true of any company, but what might build peace of mind or whatever a company's brand positioning is might be different for the customers that the company serves versus themselves.

So an example that I reference at times, this was like five plus years ago, when we have to collect additional information for compliance reasons, we have to do something called KYC, know your customer, which we're obligated to do as a money transmitter. We sometimes have to ask additional information from our customers. And so there was a sentence in there. I remember chatting with our copywriting design team that said, "Due to regulatory requirements, we need to collect additional information, an ID," whatever else we needed, and that might make sense for a lot of naturalized American citizens.

But first think if you're an immigrant and how you might view the regulatory aspect and then second, our customers are so diverse in terms of where they come, what countries, whether blue collar or white collar, all of that. But also think about if maybe that customer came from a country in Latin America that might have a lot of corruption within the government and regulatory regime.

The least trusted and peace of mind message you could say is due to regulatory requirements. But what you can say that would actually build peace of mind is, "In order to protect you and your safety and the safety of our platform, we need to collect this additional information." And so it's a nuance, but to your point, if you have that higher focus of peace of mind, then it's peace of mind for our customers specifically, and it's always viewing it from what's going to actually give them that trust and peace of mind. That is the most important thing.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love how granular that is too. Peace of mind is a lofty promise and it comes through or it's enabled through something as granular as a cell in a Google sheet, in a survey for the way that that's phrased that achieves the same needed outcome. But I just love kind of how mundane in a way that is. Mundane is, that's their experience of the product. It's mundane and it's also transcendent at the same time. I love it.

Before I get to, I have a few one word answer, rapid fire fun questions. I had kind of a different kind of question, which is about how you set yourself up for your day as a leader. What do you do to fill your tank to mentally, physically, spiritually, what are the things you do to ensure that you can do this really demanding job?

Matt Oppenheimer:

Yeah. Well, I like how you even asked the question because it's a balance of a lot of those things. Physically for me, exercise routine is a very, very important part of my both mental and physical health, so I'm a big runner because it's just most efficient. But I also do other, when I have more time swimming or biking or Pilates, like a wide range of things.

So exercise is big, and I usually do that in the morning, not every day, but probably four or five days a week. I would say when I'm my best, that's the one I'm most, I guess I'm talking about these, I can do that. I have to do that at the baseline. When I'm my best self, which I'd say is not every day, just being transparent, but good reminders for me as well. I have a meditation practice that I use. One of the apps like Headspace. Sleep is critical for me. I feel like there's sometimes this pride that's like, "Oh, I only slept five hours less night." I'm like, "That's not good enough for me."

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh my God.

Matt Oppenheimer:

I need sleep. I think most of us need sleep. Not just work related, but it's kind of remarkable to think about the iPhone was invented in 2007, so 15 years ago, which in some ways feels like a lifetime ago. In other ways it's like 15 years and how much it permeates my mind space, not just work, but popup notifications, the news, social media, all this crap. So again, when I'm my best self, which is 25% of the time. I'll leave my phone downstairs when I get home. I have a little basket I put it in.

Again, not every day. Sitting right here right now, but when I'm my best self I put it down there when I come home at the end of the day and I'll still have my Apple Watch so folks can get in touch with me in the event of an emergency, but a little bit of disconnection is helpful, so I have time to think as opposed to being reactive and time to be present with family and other things. So those are some of the things.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love it.

Matt Oppenheimer:

But again, I don't do all of those things as regularly as I'd like.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I mean, 25% of the time is pretty good, and especially when you're up against, I mean in the case of the phone, it's literally like an addictive substance.

Matt Oppenheimer:

Yeah, totally.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I find my newest thing with the phone is to use the least technological solutions, like putting it in a basket, literally physically don't count on the phone to keep me off the phone and just turning off notifications is just not enough.

Matt Oppenheimer:

Exactly.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Actually putting it where I can't possibly see it. It's hard though. It's hard, but it's worth it. It's worth it.

Matt Oppenheimer:

So worth it.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, this has been so fun. Okay, I have some rapid fire questions for you. One word answers. Are you ready?

Matt Oppenheimer:

Ready.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. Favorite snack?

Matt Oppenheimer:

Clif Bars.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Dog person or cat person or neither?

Matt Oppenheimer:

Can I say both? I love all animals, but if I had to answer briefly, I'd say dog.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Would you rather be a superhero or the world's best chef?

Matt Oppenheimer:

I would say superhero.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What's your favorite book?

Matt Oppenheimer:

I don't know if it's favorite, but "How Will You Measure Your Life" by Clay Christensen is a really good book.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that book. Okay. And lastly, what is your favorite guilty pleasure TV show?

Matt Oppenheimer:

I watch less TV recently. The first show, this is going to date me, I used to watch the show "24". That was, I would binge-watch that, but that's like years ago. What's the show I've watched recently? I think my takeaway on that is I need to watch more shows.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I don't know. That's good.

Matt Oppenheimer:

I will say I'm a big cycling fan, and so what I actually watch at the end of the day is not a show, but I love professional cycling, and so I'll watch the recap, especially in the summer of the Tour de France, La Vuelta, The Giro, which is the Italian race, and they have these five minute recaps on the GCN channel of YouTube, and that's actually what I watch is I love professional cycling. It's just so intricate and so complex once you get to know that world and it's fun.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that. I have never gotten that before. That is wonderful. Matt, this has been such a joy. Thank you for joining me. If others want to stay in touch with you over LinkedIn or on the socials, where should I send them?

Matt Oppenheimer:

LinkedIn you can follow on me. It's just Matt Oppenheimer. Twitter it's just Matt_Oppy and I send a welcome email to all customers who sign up for Remitly, and so my email's out there too. It's just Matt.oppenheimer@remitly.com.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Thanks for listening to this episode of North Star Leaders. Make sure you don't miss an episode by subscribing on your favorite podcast app. For show notes, transcripts and newsletter signup, visit ironcladcloneeight.com. Please join us again for another episode of North Star Leaders.

Lindsay speaking

About Lindsay

Lindsay Pedersen is a bestselling author and brand strategist with a scientific, growth-oriented approach to brand building. She has advised companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Coinstar, and IMDb.

Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered in Lindsay a deep appreciation for the executive’s charge: increasing the company’s value. There, she led mature, billion-dollar businesses and newly-launched categories, from Clorox Bleach to Armor All to Brita. In each case, she was solely responsible for increasing the business’s value.

Thanks to this executive perspective, Lindsay demands that brands be hard-working, disciplined and rigorous in growing a business. Her brand strategies are tested in the crucible of her proprietary Ironclad Method. Lindsay arms leaders with an empowering understanding of brand, and an ironclad brand strategy to guide choices as they grow.