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In 2020, a Stockholm startup called Checkin.com processed more than 18 million sessions from users in 165 countries. This has recently been followed up with private funding worth €2m, which quickly became oversubscribed as a host of leading Nordic investors flocked towards the company. As far as this being another Nordic startup success story, it’s simply the latest example of regional innovation going global. But deeper than that, it’s also another success story for the “Klarna academy”.
Speaking with any member of the Stockholm tech ecosystem, you’re never likely to be far from a unicorn graduate – a former member of those Skypes and Spotifys who are now taking the reins of their own brainchild. But to what extent do these founders attribute those former table-topping experiences to the success of their burgeoning new ventures?
In Checkin.com’s case, CEO and co-founder Kristoffer Cassel, who founded the company together with another Klarna veteran, Alexey Kuznetsov, believes “experience” is indeed the key word, but mostly in terms of seeing a startup thrive, rather than the technical elements and innovations deployed. Since 2017, he has helped oversee his company scale at a rapid rate via a user experience-based proposition which uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to create bespoke and streamlined onboarding experiences, online.
It wasn’t an idea born in Klarna towers when he was vice-president of product, but, by chance, at an airport, long after.
“I was going on vacation and there was someone in the airport promoting credit cards – something I actually needed,” said Cassel. “The sales guy did a really good job, and I was fully onboard with the idea of signing up for this card. And then I was handed this iPad, with a great long form asking me all kinds of details, as you might expect. And instinctively, without even thinking, I made an excuse and walked away.”
Pondering on this interaction during his flight, Cassel realised the issue couldn’t have been the product, or the salesman. It was the onboarding process – a process that millions of people have to go through for pretty much every online service, worldwide. There was the opportunity.
“And pondering on it again now, such an idea may have come to me regardless of my career to that point,” said Cassel. “My experience with Klarna didn’t have me on high alert to constantly identify startup opportunities. But what it did do, once I’d had this interaction and idea, is give me the confidence that something could come of it.”
An ambition that predates Klarna
It’s this first-hand experience of seeing an idea evolve into a behemoth that Cassel attributes as the main takeaway from his time with Klarna. And he’s not the only one.
Mikael Hussain is the former vice-president of credit at Klarna, and – just like Cassel – is now a CEO and co-founder at a startup called Anyfin. Hussain joined forces with Sven Perkmann, former Klarna head of risk product, Spotify employee and current Anyfin chief technology officer; and Filip Polhem, whose journey took him via Klarna and iZettle en route to his post as chief operating officer and co-founder.
It’s an elite cast that you’d once again be forgiven for presuming would be guaranteed startup success. But that’s not necessarily how Hussain sees it.
“Anyfin was founded on a simple idea: the need for better financial options. Options that make your life easier, so you can focus on you,” he said. “Consumers are getting ripped off and paying way too much for their financing. We help people right the wrongs of their financial past and get control of their everyday finances so they can build their financial futures.
“But my idea to work in finance goes back to when I graduated. Unfortunately, I was ‘lucky’ enough to graduate during the financial crisis, but ended up joining Klarna when it was called Kreditor, which led to my role heading up credit risk there.”
Fast-forwarding more than a decade, and Hussain is now realising an ambition that predates his time with Klarna. Again, the influence from those unicorn days that is filtering through is simply knowing that a good idea can reach commercial viability – but not necessarily the startup inspiration itself.
“We now have more than 200,000 users and have recently launched the app in Germany. And this is just the beginning. Anyfin’s customers have, on average, saved more than SEK250m [£21m] using our app-based services,” said Hussain.
No guarantee of being successful – just the confidence that it could
As Hussain’s top-level colleagues illustrate, there are tangible benefits that have been gained from their time at Klarna – namely, getting to know those people. Additionally, notions of market awareness and digital know-how were potentially better understood by Hussain and Cassel than by an entrepreneur fresh out of university.
But there are also aspects of startup growth that they weren’t exposed to, or that they haven’t looked to repeat, from their time at Klarna. Hussain cites investor access as more of a learning curve with Anyfin, while Cassel pulls on Klarna experiences that Checkin.com has tried to avoid or improve on.
“It’s not only the positives I’ve taken away from that experience, but the pitfalls to avoid as well. And that’s certainly an advantage of being part of a startup already, whether it reached unicorn status or not,” he said. “For example, the way we recruit is far more global and open, taking a remote-first approach.”
Read more about fintech in Sweden
- The Nordic region is a hotspot for IT startups and Sweden is a country punching above its weight in financial technology.
- Swedish startup fund NFT Ventures, which targets financial technology developers, has expanded its reach into Finland.
- Nordic bank Nordea is shifting some of its workforce closer to fintech activity in the Swedish capital.
- Swedish online payments provider Klarna becomes one of “the largest banks in Europe”.
Ultimately, both of these Klarna alumni attribute their current successes, not to “Klarna, the tech startup”, but to “Klarna, the success story”. And from this perspective, they are also hoping to breed a few of their own future entrepreneurs as well.
“I think coming from a unicorn actually has very little to do with starting a successful tech company,” said Hussain. “I’ve found that it’s more about the learnings – what it takes to build a company and get it off the ground – that is valuable when starting your own.”
Cassel added: “I’ve had a chance to work with some of Europe’s fastest-growing online companies, but Klarna specifically has been crucial simply from a confidence standpoint. We saw first-hand what can be done if the idea and the product is right. And that gives you the confidence to dare to venture out and explore that yourself, where otherwise an interaction like I had in that airport may have just remained an interaction at an airport.
“Klarna didn’t give us a free ticket, or a head start, or a guarantee of success. It simply gave us the belief and evidence that with the right idea and the right approach, a tech startup from this region can scale globally.”