Every year, we collectively pause to contemplate the contribution of women across industries, communities and households around the world. Where would we be without them? For starters, we’d have a few less tools, technologies and conveniences in our lives.
Avoiding a call from someone? You can thank Shirley Ann Jackson, a theoretical physicist whose contributions to telecommunications would eventually lead to the invention of things like caller ID and call-waiting.
Enjoying the convenience of your local coffee shop’s WiFi? Hedy Lamarr’s ground-breaking work paved the way for the invention of WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth.
Using a computer to read this story? Ada Lovelace is credited with writing the world’s first computer algorithm as she translated the notes of mathematics professor Charles Babbage.
With so many exceptional contributions to our world, why is that women seem to be continually written out of the narrative – especially within the tech sector? After all, the number of women in senior leadership positions is growing, and data shows that a more inclusive management team has the power to change the very DNA of an entire organization, with better employee engagement, retention and wages reported by female staff across the board.
So if they’re out there, and we’re talking about them, are women in tech really so rare? Perhaps the perspective is in the positioning. When we interview female leaders we have a tendency to focus on one key characteristic: their womanhood. We ask them, whether consciously or unconsciously, what it’s like to work in tech as a woman, what’s it like to balance career with family as a woman and what professional advice can they offer as a woman.
But we know women in tech are not solely defined by their womanhood. Instead, female tech leaders are tenacious, driven, and solutions-oriented and we’re especially curious to discover how they define success when society’s main identifier is removed from the equation.
And so, in honour of International Women’s Month, we’ve sat down with kompany’s COO, Johanna Konrad, to cover everything from a typical day in the life to her perspective on the ever-evolving RegTech industry, without ever asking her something we wouldn’t ask a man.
First off, thank you so much for sitting down with me.
It’s my pleasure. This way we can also have the chance to get to know one another a bit better.
That’s true! So, can you begin by explaining your role at kompany?
So, my official title is Chief Operating Officer but as we are still quite a dynamic organization, the roles are not 100% defined. My main responsibilities include more of the inward-looking parts of the business including finance, accounting, planning & reporting, HR and various legal topics. I’m also closely involved with the interactions with our shareholders.
In addition to those things, I am also involved with our customer service operations – essentially making sure our existing customers are served in a professional and helpful matter.
I’m sure there’s something I’ve forgotten…
So, not a whole lot things then?
[Laughs.] Ha-ha no! My schedule is wide open!
And tell me, do you seek out investors or are they coming to you?
In many cases they come to us. Especially these days since RegTech is on the radar of more FinTech related investors, they’re the ones approaching us. We also regularly participate in programs -- both sales and business development focused -- that usually have some kind of investor aspect tied to them. Not long ago we participated in RBI Elevator Lab here in Europe and just recently joined Plug and Play in California, which means getting in touch with corporates for sales development but also just talking with the investor community.
How did you come to join kompany?
I used to study with one of the original founders and we had lunch at some point when I returned to Vienna from the UK and was setting up a few smaller entities here. He asked me if I could support on a consulting basis for a while as there were a few projects that needed support and that ended up being more and more and…
Yeah! [Laughs.] Then I was “internalized” as they say. That must have been about 5 years ago…
What were you working on prior?
My original career began in telecommunications. During my studies I already started working for Ericsson, those were the days 3G networks were just being tendered and built out. Eventually I moved to A1, where I worked in product management; specifically focusing on the prepaid product and some group projects where we built out mobile applications by leveraging the new possibilities in the mobile internet sphere.
After that I moved to the UK to complete an MBA at Oxford and joined the headquarter of Vodafone’s international operations when I had completed my studies. During this time I focused on commercial strategies and planning topics. Specifically, I led the efforts on optimisation of pricing, designing the commercial models when it came to combination of price plans and products. Ultimately it was my job to improve profitability and cost efficiency for Vodafone’s European region.
Before joining kompany I led a boutique consulting firm for the Central and Eastern Europe region that offered project development advice for international greenfield and infrastructure projects. That was a rewarding experience as well.
Was having international experience intentional or did it happen naturally?
It was intentional. I’m originally from Sweden and have always considered a global perspective to be paramount to success. When I ventured out to the UK, part of that motivation came from a desire to increase my international experience. In fact, one of the key things I like most about kompany is that we’re really international inside and out.
Was being a COO always the main objective or have your ambitions changed throughout your career?
No, this was not specifically part of the plan. Instead, my main goal was to always be doing something that was interesting to me, and exciting. Exciting means being in a dynamic environment where things happen fast, and you have the possibility to influence outcomes.
With growing age and experience it often ends up being that you have knowledge that you can share with others and so it’s rewarding to move into a managerial role where you can do that on the go, so to say.
But no, it’s not something that’s happened by pure design. [Laughs.]
What does a typical day look like for you?
Usually half of the day is meetings with different members of the team to discuss strategies and optimize what we’re already doing. Part of the day is also dedicated to HR topics. We’re still growing a lot, which means recruiting new people and making sure that the current team are working on topics they’re interested in and where they can personally develop is key. Of course, financials and figures and sales performance are a large part of the day as well.
At least every second day something new pops up that was not part of the daily plan, but that makes things interesting and keeps us on our toes.
From my personal experience, start-ups seem to have a reputation of either being a dynamic place to work free from corporate barriers or a lawless land that devolves into Beer Fridays and ping pong tables. Where do you see kompany fitting into a landscape like this? How do you view its culture?
First off, we’re not a start-up any longer. I’d call us a scale up. We’ve been around 8 years. It’s moved out of we’re a fun group of people who stay until midnight and then go to the pub for a drink. And it’s healthy we aren’t there any longer. With the size we are now, this typical stereotype doesn’t work anymore because you need a few structures here and there to make it possible to work efficiently together.
I would say the "family feeling" still persists amongst the less new team members. And it’s also particularly satisfying when you see old team members and newbies working well together from the beginning, because the collaborative atmosphere of the organization has been clear from the first day.
What will become a bit more important as the team grows is communication. Communication between the teams will need to become more structured because there’s less overlap when departments grow and build their own unique processes. Getting that structure in place is a priority for me.
And have you always wanted to be in this field? What’s your opinion on the current landscape of regulatory technology?
I must admit I hadn’t really been thinking of RegTech five years ago, but I also don’t think it was really a term that existed or was commonplace at the time.
It’s a dynamic environment because there’s a lot happening, and the regulatory environment keeps changing rapidly. New AML directives are coming out very close to each other and that obviously drives a market need. On the other hand, the whole digitization of the financial sector is progressing quicker and quicker these days and that in combination makes it a great space to be in. What we do in the end is help regulated companies make their processes more and more efficient.
In terms of the market itself, I think the term RegTech is used loosely these days. On one hand you have compliance platforms and on other companies that provide information like ourselves to enable the management of risks. Everything is more or less thrown into a bucket and you call it RegTech.
Sounds like there’s a lot of competition…
Well, all of these things mean there is a growing need but there are very different requirements that need to be fulfilled when it comes to what the end client actually needs and wants. I think there are a lot of players out there that are categorized as RegTech to the general public, and while it’d be easy to consider them competitors, I think they are, in many cases, potential partners.
For instance, there are companies that focus exclusively on KYC solutions, but their clients may also have a need for KYB so while in the broarder sense it’s competition, there’s still a lot of room to work together.
There are niche players that will need to find a strategy to partner up and then provide a full spectrum experience to users. That’s what we’re also doing, we’re thinking about our strategy going forward, working with platform partners and other partners in the space to offer the most all-inclusive experience possible. When you consider it like this, working together simply makes sense.
Is that challenging when you’re dealing with investors? Trying to differentiate yourself and make it clear what is actually RegTech and what’s not. If they see competitors everywhere where you see partners, is that where you experience a challenging conversation?
What is challenging in many instances is to explain what makes companies in that space different. So, what is our USP versus Company B’s USP? Why is it different and why are they not a competitor? In the talks we’re having, there is an increased understanding of what we actually do and what it entails to deliver on some of the parts in a different way than others can or do.
So while we are seeing that the market is becoming more and more educated there’s still usually conversations that come back to Well why would that be different than what Company B does?
And on that note, how do you deal with disagreements with the CEO when you’re taking on challenges like bringing investors on board?
Hmmm. Well we tend to stand around and shout at each other. [Laughs.] No! I’m kidding. We usually just go through the underlying thoughts together, exchange points of views and in the end we both understand that it has to be a pragmatic decision. This is my point of view, this is your point of view but what does kompany actually need right now?
And on the broader strategies there’s full alignment also within the extended management team. We have a common understanding of where we are, where we want to go and what is required in order to get there. When it comes to the specifics, there are usually two roads to get to the same target and um, differences can occur in terms of what one thinks could be the better way to go, but in most cases we resolve these things quite quickly because there’s just no time to waste.
What’s the best thing about working in RegTech? The worst thing?
I think the best thing is that it’s a truly exciting space to be in because it’s growing and there’s a real demand. I always like to work with things where you see that people need it and want it. Maybe they don’t fully understand it yet, but they do have this underlying requirement of using what you provide. That’s somehow fulfilling, you know? I get to provide what someone else can use and needs in order to do their own work better. On the other hand, it’s great that things are happening quite quickly. We’re seeing changes in the market and that makes it interesting for our customers too.
The worst thing I would say is there’s usually a lot of education still involved and you can’t really package that educational material up easily because there are so many differences in what one company needs and what another needs. It’s quite challenging to make sure that we provide the information required in a streamlined and structured manner to potential clients. This also results in long sales cycles which is always a challenge when you are a growing company, because we need to plan and make sure we accomplish those plans on strict timelines.
It’s a bit of a hen/egg issue. Meaning we need more people to serve our customers but we need more customers to get the people to serve them. And sometimes the timelines are a bit fluid and you can’t really say Well in 3 months we’re gonna be there because a sales cycle with a large customer might take 5 months longer than expected since we’re dealing with multiple departments across multiple jurisdictions.
To summarize, I guess the worst thing is you can’t really just go out and plan concretely. We need to often work in a way that reacts to the way things evolve on a short-term basis.
And are investors sympathetic to this? Is it about choosing the right ones who understand it’s not all about the Silicon Valley hyper growth you typically hear about?
That’s what we’re trying. There are obviously a lot of different types of investors and since we’re not just dealing with ongoing business but also developing new services based on exciting new technologies, you need a different breed of people who can look at these things. They are not the typical ones who invest in core businesses but instead the ones who invest in a strategic bet on how the market will develop. And that’s something that’s based on performance years down the line so it’s a different mindset that’s required.
The challenge we have is to combine these types of investors and make sure they’re informed and they believe in what we do.
What’s been the most surprising part of your career so far?
Hm that’s a good question. You know, some people have career plans, they say: in 3 years I wanna be doing that and in 5 years I wanna have that role and in 10 years I wanna be the head of that.
I have never had that. I’ve just kind of let my professional life take me in directions based on the work at hand and what I felt would be more interesting to spend my time doing. And surprises have happened all the time with this approach, because things tended to change often. So I wouldn’t even be able to single one particular time.
It’s been a constant surprise!
And how do you define success?
Success for me personally is when I have the feeling that I’ve been able to contribute to something where I’ve made an impact. There’s a visible change out of the work that’s been done. I think that’s the most rewarding thing.
Obviously in business, success is always measured in terms of revenues and funds and so on, so achieving the next leap in terms of growing into a significantly larger company is something I would qualify as a great success.
What’s something from “start-up culture” that you think needs to be left behind?
I think what needs to be left behind is the concept that everyone is involved in everything. That simply doesn’t work when you scale. If you’re doing things right people have too much to do in their own spheres to get involved in other areas. You need to make sure there are certain responsibilities that are with certain people and others need to stay out of their way and in their own specialities.
One can’t keep managing everything.
Any parting advice for our readers?
My focus has always been on the work at hand, not the politics. Politics was actually a reason I moved away from the large corporate world. I just want to get things done and ensure everyone works together effectively so if you can manage to choose an environment conducive to this, you’ll be able to gain experience quicker and without so many impediments.
But ultimately, my advice would be to just like what you do. Because when you like what you do, you do it better. And focus on the content. If you get into situations where you have to deal with interpersonal elements, you need to keep your focus, remove the politics and create content you are proud to stand behind.
Follow your interests and eventually things will fall into place.
This story was originally published on LinkedIn on March 12th, 2020.