Gary: My guest today is Nicola Ebmeyer, who three years ago co-founded Gain.Pro, a European FinTech looking to become the Bloomberg of the private finance market. They've already amassed a stellar list of reference clients like Bain, McKinsey, 3i and BCG normally not going for such a young company. So Nicola, welcome to the StartUp to ScaleUp game plan.
Nicola: Thank you very much for having me, Gary.
Gary: Lovely to have you on board now. Simon Sinek believes in the power of starting with why. So let's start there. Nicola, tell me about Gain.Pro. Why your purpose and your vision?
Nicola: Yeah, sure, happy to do that. Maybe taking a step back. So, I myself come from an entrepreneurial background. My mom used to be the owner and CEO of a machinery business for the agricultural industry. So very different compared to the FinTech, SaaS world I'm in now, but at the same time, she was, even given the differences in industry, a role model for me since the beginning. So basically, since I was a baby a couple of days after I was born, I spend my days at my mom's desk at the company because like back then there was no such thing as maternity leave for her. So since being a few days old, I was used to being part of a business. I was overhearing my mom talking to the engineers about new product innovations. I heard her discussing with the accountants about the financial plans and the budget. I was always impressed by her talking to clients and adapting to their different needs. Like, it was very different when she was talking to a small farmer from the surroundings of Munich, where I grew up, compared to like, one of these international Asian players and I was just fascinated by her life, how she was doing it and I knew, at one point, I want to have my own company as well. I want to create something. But I also knew that I still had to learn a lot before I could be a skilled entrepreneur and before I could actually lead people.
That's why I decided to first study. I studied at many universities, very international. Another point that drives the life of people are different cultures, learning new things. So my studies served as a great opportunity for that and then I started my career at McKinsey, which was another decision I haven't been regretting a second. It's an amazing place to learn, again, to meet amazing people. But also, of course, that talented people, colleagues internally, but also the clients I work with, they inspired me. They made me grow as a person and yeah, I had an extremely good time there.
But then over the years, the voice became louder, again, telling me my purpose in this life, should be to have found my own company and create something. So I knew I want to start something. But then I also knew a couple of more things about that and that was, one, I wanted to create a company that really solves a problem. I did not want to start a company just for the purpose of starting it maybe as a checkmark on my CV, but really, really bringing value to society and the second one was, I wanted to have a company that has a clear path towards profitability, a company where from the start on there's a vision on how we will make money, how the economics will make sense. So, these two finds I always had in mind and then one day I was sitting with Frister Haveman who then became my co-founder, and he was working back then in private equity and I was at that time with McKinsey working for a PE client and we were discussing how difficult it still is to find high quality information on private companies, and how tedious it is how much manual work it is and we're saying if there wasn't a digital tech enabled solution for it, it would make the life of thousands of people so much easier and yes, well, this was the second when Gain.Pro was founded the idea to build Gain.Pro, the first market intelligence platform for private companies.
Gary: So, it's interesting to hear the family background there and I can relate to that a lot of entrepreneurs I speak to have some kind of family links. I myself as a young teenager, watch my brother who had his own business repairing TVs and videos, build his business up, and I used to, even from the age of about 12 or 13, I used to take calls and book appointments for him when people phoned in and occasionally deal with very angry customers. So I got used to the customer satisfaction angle of running a business as well, which is super important and actually, that's the next topic I wanted to explore with you. Gain.Pro has really impressive retention, and customer satisfaction metrics. How have you managed to scale at 100% year on year and at the same time, deliver an exceptional customer experience?
Nicola: Yes. For us, it was always the customers first. So, that it like also, if you look at our code of working there, we have three elements starting with delighting our clients determines our actions, people are our greatest asset, and we run a sustainable business model. And then coming to the client - so for me, it was always about building a product that solves the pain points of my clients, and not building a product that we as a team like to build. Because I can tell you, it's very very tempting to work on things that you personally find interesting that the tech team or the engineers find exciting, but you need to be very disciplined to always take a step back and say, hey, what is it what my customer wants and this includes, of course, what helps is it both my co-founder, I but also the broader leadership team, they all have worked in the industry themselves, so your private equity, investment banking or consulting. But it involves also talking a lot to clients and prospects and being very open to feedback and not taking the feedback as some kind of insult. But really saying feedback is a gift and asking the why’s and truly understanding what's on top of mind for our clients and how we can help them. So this is one of our core values and it helped us to have grown more than 100% year on year. Our clients are extremely happy. We have an NPS of 63. Industry average is around 30 for other B2B software businesses in this space and people stay with us. So net revenue retention of 136, the latest figures for last year, so people they stay, and then they even expand their license. First People tried in one country, and then they recommended to their colleagues and another office and it's just amazing if you build a product that your clients love, but it's work every day to really make sure you focus on your client, and 100% on your clients and nothing else.
Gary: I'm intrigued by that point about making sure you build what the clients really want, rather than what you and especially your more techie colleagues, the engineering teams want to build. Software businesses are notorious for having overcome that challenge and that engineers often want the shiniest new toys and want to create things that are totally over-engineered for what the market wants. So how do you get beyond the say, the people who have the regular interface to customers? How are you getting the engineering teams to really focus on what the customers want, rather than what they'd love to build?
Nicola: To this question, so in general, we have a very transparent business culture. It's another one of our values we really share openly with the entire organization on a continuous basis. Then okay, what's the vision, what are we currently working on and what are our priorities, but also what are our financials, what is client feedback, good, but also we tell the bad and the ugly. We also did so at the time and when Corona started, for instance, being very open and transparent and taking the entire team along the journey, including our engineers. And our engineers, this is an amazing team, many of whom have been with Gain.Pro since day one. So started back in 2018, by now, they have also built a lot of domain knowledge. So I love overhearing them speak about EBITDA, and about growth and assets and sweet-spots. So they have adopted a lot of their client language already. But we spend a lot of time also with them and really like guiding them through what our clients like, telling them about use cases. So we do share a lot of stories that we hear from the client, again, with them. So not only taking it within the commercial team, or within the leadership team, but we like openly sharing it as well with the engineers so that they understand why. I think everyone always needs to understand why they are doing things and then yeah, it gets also into their DNA and that gets them building these amazing new features that our clients love.
Gary: I'm impressed that you've got even your engineers talking about EBITDA, that's the first time I've come across that. You mentioned the pandemic just a few moments ago, for between half and maybe more like two thirds of the life of Gain.Pro you've existed during a pandemic. During that time, we've experienced a big shift towards remote and hybrid working models. There's talk of a great resignation, employees, increasingly choosing companies based around culture and personal growth opportunities. How has Gain.Pro responded to these various developments?
Nicola: Yeah, so I can vividly remember that moment in March, now two years ago. I was actually back at my hometown in Bavaria. I was about to go skiing. Very excited for that and then yeah, suddenly, within basically hours our commercial agenda went from being very full to completely empty. We, at that point, have already been on an aggressive growth journey, opened back then just a huge office in London and yeah, from one day to the other there was a big question mark of where would we be going? And it was all hands on deck, again, very transparent with the organization. We also did not know where this would be going. But immediately we looked okay, how much cash do we still have left? How many days? Luckily for us, it was months of runway, and then very quickly went from this ‘I'm assessing where I'm standing now’ to ‘how can I take action’ and again, serve my clients even in this time of a worldwide pandemic.
So, we moved away from actively demoing our platform, selling to them thinking, what is it what they need at the moment and one thing we did is was we were looking at our platform and analyzing the industries and looking where are clusters that might be hit the most. So, which might be in need for additional financing, and which are other segments, industries where the pandemic could even have like a positive effect, like think about many tech businesses that support remote working, for instance. So, we made the shift and said, okay, how can we be helpful now? How can our data be helpful? We shared a lot of analysis that we did for free with clients, but also prospects and in the aftermath, they were extremely grateful. Also, like a couple of months later, the commercial calendars were filled again. We had an exceptional year in 2020, 2021 as well, I mean, you mentioned it earlier, still during the pandemic grow more than 100% so it bounced back quickly, but it was our first reaction. In terms of how did it influence our way of working, so already before the pandemic, we were HQ less, digital focused and remote first.
So, we already before the pandemic we had the mindset that you don't need to physically sit together every day and have this face time culture, in order for people to be productive. The other way around, like we trust our people, we believe that people flourish if they have freedom, and if they can structure their time, in a way that is most in line with their lifestyle. So we had before the pandemic engineers sitting in Austria during the winter, so that they could go skiing and that was for us, yeah, in our DNA, as of day one. Now more and more people of course doing it. But we stay, we stayed with this remote opportunity, so to say, because we also do have office spaces across Europe, in Amsterdam, London, Frankfurt, Paris and Warsaw. So people can go to the office if they want to. They don't have to. But we do believe in getting people together on a regular basis. So we have four times per year, we have firm wide events, where we bring really everyone together. It's always in a different country in a different location and there's always a lot of fun. Of course, we talk strategy, and we talk content. But it's also just about like having a beer with another colleague from another country in another function. So because yeah, it's not only about business, it's also about having fun as a team.
Gary: And what are some of the amazing locations you put everyone together to have fun?
Nicola: Of course, Amsterdam is always a great location where people like to come, you have the wonderful canals, where we have had some nice boat tours. But then this winter, we were supposed to have our Christmas dinner in Warsaw with an amazing place booked, unfortunately, that we had to reschedule. So this will happen now in spring but then yeah, many other locations across Europe as well already.
Gary: You've raised mostly from a very wealthy family office, did you make a conscious choice to avoid VC funding initially and do you have any plans to bring VCs onto your cap table in the future?
Nicola: So, I'm very grateful that we got the opportunity to get funding early on, because what it meant for us is that as of second one, we could focus purely on building a great product that our clients love. So, we initially that was also our idea when we started off. We said we don't want to go with a VC immediately, but we want to try to get funded privately or through a family office. So, that we can really spend the focus on the business and not on a huge fundraising process and consequently a lot of reportings which was a very conscious decision that we made to at the start and then the angel investor with his family office also continued to support us along the journey. Now, where we see the huge success that we are having we know that we want to become global huge player in the market and in order to grow to material size, we will need more funding along the way and this will very likely be also then out of scope of the family office and it will be in partnership with a VC. So we are currently in early discussions, friendly first conversations with VCs who have already shown a lot of interest especially being impressed by our growth but also by our capital efficiency and other metrics I mentioned at the beginning very important for me and my co-founder that we have unit economics that make sense and a clear path towards profitability. Yes, in the upcoming months, we will very likely get a VC investor on board to further help us grow to enter into the US and to mainly scale our engineering team.
Gary: I know a few VCs who obsess over unit economics and capital efficiencies. So I'm sure they'll be reaching out to you soon if they haven't already. Now, founding and scaling a software venture is notorious distressful. You seem pretty calm and relaxed here today. But how do you find time to relax and truly switch off from work?
Nicola: So, first of all, work is not really work for me. Maybe that's how I was raised. But I truly enjoy working. I love getting up in the morning. I'm an early bird by the way so I get up. I have a lot of energy. I'm about to just about to get the day started and start building on the product, talking to clients being with my team. So I really enjoy that parts but of course, you also need balance in life and for me, I find it in doing sports and being in nature. So and the best is, if I can combine those two, so I love hiking and did the tour de Mont Blanc last summer, which was amazing, just that seven days, 10k in altitude meters being out there, having time to reflect. Being in nature is also very humbling if you then see these mountains and what nature can do and how small you are in this universe. I'm also a big skier, sailor, a diver, if you want to make me happy, and to get my mind put on something else then it's getting me out in nature and making me active and then I come back being even more zen again.
Gary: With the sailing, the hiking, the skiing, the diving sounds like you could be in the next Bond movie. So we'll see if that's your next adventure in life. Getting away from Hollywood, are there any entrepreneurs or business thinkers who've inspired you with their philosophies or with their business journeys?
Nicola: So, I said before I get inspired by people in general, but I really enjoy meeting new people and for me, it's mainly meeting and talking to people from real life. I mean, of course, like we all follow the big entrepreneurs, the founders of Google, Facebook, Tesla of this world, but I get the most inspiration out of talking to people who went through a similar journey, because this is where I can relate most to and it's these like honest conversations also about things that sometimes don't go well. Moments where you feel insecure, moments where you think you're failing and this I can best discuss with founding peers, but also with people who haven't found a company yet but just like experience similar things by managing a team for instance.
Gary: Okay, that's interesting. So, you get your inspiration from being amongst, say, normal people, rather than listening to someone like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and their philosophies on life and on business.
Nicola: Yeah, and of course I'm open, I am sitting now at my desk. I have many of these, like business books, and "how to", I think it's also important. But then there's also like the now and here and the humble. Yeah, starting point and I think we can all just say, looking around me, like close to us, meet and see, a lot of people we can learn from like, we don't necessarily always need to look very far to get inspired and to learn.
Gary: You come across really grounded, which is quite refreshing. I often speak to your peers in the world of tech entrepreneurship, who seem to be completely carried away with the world they think they've joined, but you seem very steady and grounded, which is great to hear. Lovely having you on the show Nicola. Thank you so much for joining me on this week's podcast and I'd like to wish you and the whole Gain.pro team huge success over the next few years.
Nicola: Thank you very much, Gary. It was great speaking to you today.