Reflecting on 9 years at N26
N26 Chief Growth Officer reflects on his 9-year journey at Europe’s leading digital bank
11 min read
Today I announced that after almost a decade at N26, Europe's leading digital bank, I will be embarking on my own entrepreneurial journey. With this article, I want to share some of my reflections and learnings, and how my hands-on experience turning a small scale-startup into a global bank led me to embark on my own venture.
Today, N26 is well known as a pioneer in the fintech and digital banking space, with a 1500 strong team and over 8m customers across 24 markets. N26 has continuously pushed the boundaries to build the first bank you'll love, with the vision to change the world's relationship with money for the better.
However, when I joined the company 9 years ago, we had none of that. We were a team of seven people, in the middle of a business pivot, had just raised 1.5m seed funding, and were still six months away from onboarding our first customer. I joined as an “Entrepreneur in Residence” directly after finishing my international business degree.
So, why did I choose N26 and what happened in those 9 years? I’ll outline my journey with some of the key learnings along the way.
Starting at a start-up vs. founding a start-up
I always wanted to have a life and a career that excited me, and during my exchange semester in Sydney, Australia I was first exposed to start-up culture back in 2013. I found people who were full of passion and energy with a vision to challenge convention and have an impact in the world, and I was hooked and decided that entrepreneurship was the right direction for me.
I had two choices: start my own business right away or join something very early-stage. As I was thinking about the two options, the common perception of a successful founder was the person who started a company right out of university and then became very successful quickly. I strongly believe that being a founder is one of the hardest things you can do and as a result, I took a long-term view and decided to not become a founder right away. Instead, I started an entrepreneurial career in an early stage start-up to build some of the skills it would take to eventually build my own… It was at that time that the opportunity to join a small start-up that had the vision to disrupt the banking industry came up, and it sounded like a unique opportunity with the right level of ambition for me to learn and contribute. After meeting and interviewing with the two co-founders, I packed my things and moved to Berlin to start my N26 journey in 2014.
Finding product market fit
N26 was started with a different proposition than we have today. Initially, the idea was to develop an app for parents that connects with a prepaid card for their teenagers (this was still under the brand of "Papayer"). The founders and a small team were working on this idea from the beginning of 2013.
On my first day at work in September 2014, I was told that the Papayer program had been stopped the week before and the company was pivoting - a first taste of developing adaptability! The team had learned from a friends and family test phase with 30+ customers that the parents were using the card themselves instead of giving it to their kids - because they enjoyed the real-time connection between card and app so much! This led to the notion that we were playing in a much bigger league than initially anticipated - and we had an opportunity to challenge traditional banks and offer a digital account for everyone, not just teenagers.
Developing my approach to leadership
We embarked on the journey to launch this evolved proposition under the new brand name "Number26" on January 26th, 2015 in Germany and Austria. Back then, I was involved in several projects, but one of my main responsibilities was to set up our Customer Service function, all the way from before we had our first customer, through the friends & family tests, to public launch and beyond. This was one of the richest learning experiences for me - because in order to solve any potential customer problem, you need to truly understand the business from all dimensions.
Learning to work with all functions of the business, and also hiring a customer service team consisting of professional customer service agents as well as several working students eventually became my first leadership experience. That special constellation taught me a lot with regard to applying different leadership styles to different individuals, one leadership principle I have found to be very important ever since.
Later in my career, I continued to refine my leadership approach as I went from my first direct reports in Customer Service to running a 130+ Growth organization with very senior leaders in my leadership team. In that context, I found myself hiring experienced managers that often were 10+ years older than myself. I knew that my approach would need to be different. My leadership proposition essentially became to hire experts and enable them to become successful at N26, empowering them with my knowledge of the ins and outs of the business and how to get things done in a fast-changing environment like ours. I am grateful for the amazing talent I had the pleasure of working with at N26 over the years. Together we built a great team and made significant progress for the company.
Balancing naiveté, ambition and outside perspective
After we raised our Series A, the founders asked me if I was up for leading the project to obtain a banking license. At that time, I had just found my feet leading our Customer Service operation and really enjoyed it. I also did not really know what this project would entail. Nonetheless, I decided to lean into the uncertainty and go for it as it was a strategic priority and an important business need.
In retrospect, this was the moment in the start-up story where we did what everyone told us was impossible, thanks to a healthy combination of naiveté, ambition and outside perspective. At the time, in Germany no banking license had been granted to a completely new bank in 10 years. No banking license in Europe had ever been granted to a bank wanting to host their IT in the cloud. And banking license applications were said to take between 2 and 3 years to complete.
We wanted to and needed to get it done in one year and, of course, have our IT fully in the cloud. And so we did just that. With a growing team of ambitious and driven experts as well as generalists, we pushed the boundaries and made it happen! I remember the day we actually got the banking license as if it were yesterday. It was July 18th, 2016 and it was a letter signed by the president of the European Central Bank at the time, Mario Draghi.
I reflect on this time as one of the most intense yet also most rewarding moments of my entire career. Managing a complex, large scale project with high stakes for the future of the business was a great responsibility and taught me a lot in terms of stakeholder management (mainly working with cross-functional team members at all levels of seniority as well as external partners), project management as well as having that long-term view to see through a high paced project over 12-18 months. This belief and mindset that anything is possible and that with hard work and a great team something as unlikely as getting a banking license can be done strikes me when looking back. I never doubted we would succeed, despite personally neither having led a project like this nor worked in a bank before... Maybe this is what Steve Jobs meant when he said "stay hungry, stay foolish".
Lessons in Internationalization
To accommodate the European markets that our new banking license allowed us to provide service to, my role evolved to become responsible for internationalization. This involved hiring General Managers, setting up local teams, and everything involved in the localization of a business.
While I have many thoughts on this, one of the main challenges is how to evolve the organisation to reflect the matrix structure that a multi-market operation brings with it. You need to be very thoughtful and clear on how to structure the local teams and how to balance decision making between central functions and local markets, a subject that has accompanied me over the last 7 years. After also having spoken to many people who have led international expansion at successful tech companies, my conclusion is that there is no universally right or wrong set-up and even within a business, different markets can be governed differently based on strategic importance and maturity of the market. What is important is that there is an explicit articulation of how this is seen and that there is alignment across the leadership team.
Growth and maturity as an executive
By 2019, N26 had grown rapidly and faster than any period in our history. Before we knew it, we had new offices, teams in different locations, 1500 people, and you naturally couldn't know everyone by name anymore. It was also at that time that I stepped into the role of Chief Growth Officer, bringing together our Global Marketing efforts with the internationalization efforts I had led prior to that.
The months that followed were certainly the most difficult in my entire journey. In addition to a leadership change on the marketing side, merging two teams, not having a support team in place and starting with more than 10 direct reports, the team size under my responsibility grew from 25 to over 100 and there were high expectations to smoothen things out quickly. This was a tough mix to handle, and the only time where I came close to burning out. I could write a separate article on that phase alone, but essentially getting alignment on the purpose and goals of the newly formed organization, hiring senior talent in several places and ensuring they are aligned towards a common goal as well as putting a support team in place was the recipe to set a stable foundation to build on.
Until 2019, we had a lot of tailwinds and we went from win to win. Then, in the years following 2020 we saw large scale macro shocks including the pandemic and war in Ukraine. On top of this, we had a new level of expectations and responsibility for N26 as a company. This is when the going got a lot tougher. And while that is normal in any growing scale-up, going through a maturation phase at the same time as these macro shocks made it more challenging and took its toll. Leading the team through the pandemic at a time when growth was also less of a priority given regulatory restrictions, our respective focus on investing in the foundations required a very different approach than in the years prior.
I have found that adaptability in my leadership style, empathy, continuous investment into bringing my leadership team closely together, and continuous learning have been essential ingredients for me throughout this phase.
Deciding when to take the next step
I often get asked why I didn't leave earlier to start my own entrepreneurial journey since staying in one company for almost a decade is not a common path these days. Knowing from the beginning that building something of my own was my end goal, I always believed that seeing and being part of all phases of a successful start-up and deeply understanding the different chapters was essential. Also, I think that truly big opportunities are rare and often people underestimate the scarcity of them. When I realized that N26 was one of those truly big opportunities, I knew I had to seize it boldly and go all in with a long-term perspective.
Almost a decade later, I feel it is now the time to follow my intuition and embark on my own entrepreneurial journey. There is never a perfect time to leave and it certainly is difficult for me to step away from something I really enjoy. At the same time, knowing that the team is in very good hands and a lot of what I have worked on in the last 12-18 months is now coming to fruition, gives me the confidence to take that step.
With regard to how I think about what's next for me, I won’t be jumping into launching something new right away. After all these years, the first order of business will be to take some time off to travel and reflect on what’s next and the impact I’d like to have in the next 10+ years. I have a lot to think about, but I’m very excited about what is to come.
Love your bank
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