This is my second go at a startup in the banking infrastructure space. The previous one - a YCombinator-backed startup called Standard Treasury - had been right about the need, but wrong about the business model. Not being able to capture the value you’re creating is frustrating!
At my next job, I was just very stressed and unhappy. To a degree that was making me question whether I could really work for anyone else at all. I happened to be visiting my grandparents in the UK in the fall of 2016 when I saw Monzo get their bank licence and thought to myself “Hey - those guys look like a bunch of nerds! I’m a nerd! Maybe I can do this!
For the most part the vision for Griffin has been incredibly consistent. We had a strategy day recently and I trotted out a video I’d recorded for applying to YCombinator in 2016 (they didn’t accept us - their loss!). While the language is slightly different, the core concept - “a modern, API-first commercial bank to power companies like Stripe or Square” - is almost exactly what we actually ended up building.
The world looks very different now, though. In particular, interest rates going back to more historically normal levels is probably the biggest economic change since the financial crisis and will take many years to be fully felt. This has profound (positive!) implications for our business model and why people work with us, as well as how we make money.
In all other regards, everytime we’ve deviated from our core path it’s been predominantly because we’ve been under investor pressure to try and shortcut our vision, and those shortcuts largely didn’t work. What’s been most joyful and fulfilling for me is - now that we’re finally authorised - that we’re seeing such a substantial amount of demand and commercial value. It really validates all the thinking we had around the thesis.
When I made the personal decision to found Griffin, my co-founder Allen, was working on a different project and I had to convince him to give that up and work on this with me instead. Over the years we’ve built an incredible team but along the way I’ve unquestionably made mistakes. I came into this without a banking background and have had to hire a number of senior banking professionals along the way. At the start of Griffin’s journey, I didn’t really know how to interview for risk, compliance, or finance roles. And I would say that’s one the biggest challenges any first-time founder or CEO has - knowing what to interview for. As time goes on, you get smarter and better, and learn what it is that you need and how to test for it.
The team that we have today is absolutely unbelievable; they’re brilliant, kind and hard-working. I’m so proud of them, and get joy out of working with them on a daily basis.
Being a founder is stressful, and having hobbies is a good coping mechanism. In my case I started painting Warhammer 40,000 miniatures a few years into Griffin, which is a great hobby for mindfulness. I also always have a small, furry dog who’s trying to get me to go for a walk, or a small child who wants me to read to them - family is wonderful for centering oneself.
More than anything, it’s just about surrounding yourself with good people in a holistic and comforting way. In Kate, my spouse, and in Allen, my co-founder, I found two people who were pretty unflappable and are very good counterweights to me. Allen and I are almost never off-kilter at the same time, so we’re always a good and stabilising force for each other. I genuinely adore all the people that I work with, so they also keep my stress levels low.
For me, it’s extremely important to live up to the promises we make as a business and that I make as a founder and CEO. I am never anything but candid and honest and what’s surprised me on this journey is that that’s not what people always expect from you as a founder - there’s a lot of embellishment that goes on.
We’ve been told on a number of occasions that we’re “too transparent” by potential investors, but maybe that’s just a question of founder-investor fit. One of the things we love about Notion is that the team is always happy to get deep into the messy reality of scaling the business with us.
Looking back now, there’s a ton of advice I could give to my younger self. A lot of founders and CEOs say that if they knew what they know now, they’d advise themselves to have never started a business in the first place (a recent, notable example of this being the founder of NVIDIA). But I think that train of thought is just part of the day-to-day of being a founder - you’re always going to debate whether the decision to go on this journey was the right one, especially when you go through the more difficult patches. Being a founder is just far harder than anyone expects it to be when they start out. What’s amazing is the resilience it breeds in you - with each new problem that arises, you always find a way to chew through it!
Also, even though it can be challenging, I do think I’m uniquely well-positioned to run this business, and I think I’ve found the right partners to enable and support me. Whilst there have been trying times along the way, I've remained unwaveringly optimistic and excited about what I think we can achieve with Griffin.
Matt Cohler at Benchmark has this quote, which lives rent-free in my brain: ‘our job is not to see the future, it’s to see the present with exceptional clarity’ and I think that’s the essence of what you need to succeed in a VC-backed technology company. If you’re ready to go down this path, you know that you’re already seeing the future; it just might not be evenly distributed. The most powerful thing you can do is to know what the future looks like because you’ve already witnessed its value manifest somewhere - that’s the best possible place to be.
The great thing for us, in our space, is that we have a lot of competitors who are trying to realise a vision for the future that is not reflective of what people actually want, and there’s no evidence to suggest that their vision is what people want. Whereas we’re trying to manifest a reality that is driven by demand that exists today - we have high conviction because we know that people want now to have what we’ve built. Even subtle divergences from what people actually want can be incredibly misleading and deeply distracting, and could ultimately destroy the business. We make subtle course corrections, but it’s always based on what people tell us they want, today, rather than some hypothetical vision of the future.
I rave about Notion Capital to anyone who will listen! The team at Notion is far more operationally involved with us than any other investors. We actively seek them out for advice on so many topics. For example, with the weekly emails I get from Claire Walker on webinars and events, there’s a high probability that I’ll pass it onto the relevant members of the team and tell them that they should go to this and that they’ll find it really interesting. Overwhelmingly, the response from our team is “amazing, yes, sign me up for it!”.
We don’t have that kind of relationship with any other investors (not to say they’re not wonderful people, it’s just a different relationship). So many funds sell the premise of an operational platform, and Notion is the only fund I know of which actually delivers real operational value that goes beyond the basics. Lots of funds, for example, offer hiring and talent support, which is great, but it’s a challenge that everyone has and that there’s therefore a lot of support on, meaning it’s not actually that hard to solve. Where Notion differentiates is that they can help you build an exceptional Customer Success function or advise you on pricing strategies, as well as a wide range of other topics, and always from a place of actual experience from world-class experts. Really, no one else is doing that.
Our culture is a unique superpower for us. How we describe ourselves and position ourselves externally is who we actually are. It’s remarkable the degree to which we get that feedback from people: people that we hire, people that we sell to, or even our regulators and investors. The more they scratch at the surface, the more they can see that what we show to the world is really who we are (whereas, I think in many other cases the natural tendency is for people to have an aspirational culture that doesn’t actually reflect how people behave).
Having a great culture is great for our brand, but honestly the more rewarding bit is knowing that people trust us. I’ve had employees tell me that they get more out of their relationships at Griffin than they get from even their friends (or sometimes even their families!). And if we were a corporate hive that would be a sad statement, but the warmth and connection and authenticity that people bring to Griffin is actually just lovely and wonderful.