Joel Nordstrom co-founder and CEO of Atlar. At Atlar they automate and streamline bank payments for companies.
Prior to founding Atlar, Joel was employee number 12 at Tink – the open banking pioneer acquired by Visa for $2.2 billion – where he also met his cofounders.
They recently raised 5 million Euros round led by Index Ventures and joined by La Famiglia, Cocoa and some pro-eminent angels like Revolut CFO Mikko Salovaara, former Executive Vice President of global sales at Adyen Thijn Lamers and N26 CFO Jan Kemper.
During this episode we discuss about how Joel hustled to get the job at Tink, you will love the story, how they ideated and tested ideas until reaching and settling for Atlar and their product strategy for global domination.
But Before we meet Joel let’s listen to why Sofia from Index and Anthony from Cocoa invested. Million thanks for the input guys.
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Why Index and Cocoa invested in the seed round
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Getting the job at Tink as employee #12
Joel: Right now I'm the CEO, and co-founder of Atlar where we help companies automate their payments and lots of super exciting things going on there. But, actually I started out my career in Tink.
I joined as number 12 and, and worked there for about six years. Both me and my co-founders, Joel and Johanes were at Tink as well. We're immensely grateful for Daniel and Frederick, for having us on and letting us learn as part of the journey. The story of how I got to Tink initially was when I was studying at SSE, a business school in Stockholm and I had this idea.
I had this idea that I wanted to fix the mortgage market, as a bachelor's student for some reason. And I wanted to build a mortgage switcher and I had basically two problems at that point. It turns out I had many more problems if I were to fund the company myself, but at least at the time, I thought I had two problems.
Problem number one was, if I wanna do a mortgage switcher, how do I get data about the mortgage applicants, about the current mortgage, their finances and all of that, and second how do I get users so I can actually strike some deals with banks. As part of that research, I found what was then called the Tink app, it was this app with a turquoise green. You would never get funding or any customers if you use that color now, but it was cool at the time, all FinTech apps were green, and they had like 250k users.
So I signed up, started looking at it and I saw they had the mortgage data and other types of data as you connected your bank account to it. And they had a quarter of a million users. So all of a sudden, I was thinking why should I be doing this?
This is a perfect platform to do it. So I put together a pitch deck. That's a recommendation to never, never, ever use those templates if you wanna look professional. But I thought I was gonna look professional by using the templates in Google slides So I used some with flowers and some beautiful cool colors.
Calin: Oh my God.
Joel: I also tried to visualize it, so I did like Tink app in the bottom, and then I did a mortgage icon of the bank on top the pyramid so I was like playing around with all this pyramids and icons maybe I should pull up the deck actually, but I'll show it to you later.
I still have it. So I prep that deck and I ping Daniel who's the CEO and co-founder of Tink, they were like 10 people at the time and just got their Series A, 4 million series A, and pinged him and said:
”Hey, I got an idea for you. Can I come and present it?”
And, he responded a couple of days later and I was thrilled.I went to that meeting, super pumped. This was late 2015. I did the pitch and I was like:
“So Daniel, I got this idea that you should be doing a marketplace in the Tink app where users can refinance their loans and move savings money around.”
And, Daniel froze. Lost his speech for a while and then said:
“Well, let me go and get my computer. I'll just show you what we've been working on.So there's like no confusion on who came up with what here. “
And then he got in, got his computer and Showed what was then called Tink 2.0, which was the Tink app, this personal finance management app going from read only to being actionable and actually being able to take action on your finances, but also, improve them by moving mortgages, moving savings, moving money around.
So they were actually gonna do this thing that I had been prepping my slides for. And then it turned into a job interview. This was two minutes into the meeting. Both him and I realized that this is that job interview now. And, and then he asked:
“Okay, so, what can you do? Do you have any skills?”
And as a business bachelor student, I realized this is not a guy I bullshit. let me be just straight, with him. So I said:
“To be honest, I can't design, I can't code, but I'll hustle for you. I promise you, if you take me on board, I will do whatever it takes to help out. You'll have a lot of stuff to do and I'll do this stuff for you.“
We reconnected a week later or so, and got a first task. I eventually landed the job anyway. Since then I was chief of staff type of role for the first year, two years, and then monetizing the app. And then the last four years was working in partnerships, launching markets, leading teams for strategic deals, partnering up with Amex and many other iconic brands.
yeah, it was pretty much the ride.
Joel: The biggest meta takeaway is that Daniel and Frederick saw open banking back in 2012 when they founded Tink and started reverse engineering the banking apps that had just come out and they saw that this is gonna change the world. This is gonna change the way people do payments and change how people manage their finances.
But basically, it takes a decade. That's the meta learning. And still it's really in its infancy. It's probably gonna take two decades until it really changes the world. It's so hard to internalize because you're always over optimistic. You always want things to happen immediately. The incredible patience you need with this type of new game, changing new types of infrastructure opportunities.
The second is scaling in a regulated environment and an environment where you actually handle people or companies real money.
One mistake, one big screw up and you exit the gene pool. If we would've had one data leak with banks you're done. You exit. You exit and have to start again, and maybe you can't even start over because your reputation is ruined.
So you have to put that first, while you grow a hundred percent year over year . You can never compromise on security, compliance, reliability. And that's massive learning. Luckily we never got to learn that the hard way.
The third bit is around the organization. Scaling a company from 10 to 700 is difficult. There were times when the company was growing 200% year over year and you can just see how much pain it creates. First of all, everyone who actually knows what they're doing and knows the company, they're spending time onboarding people.
Second, you start hiring you onboard some people that are managers that start hiring teams before they're onboarded. That creates a quite vicious loop where if you don't stop it, all of a sudden you've got an environment, a culture or a system that is just spinning out of control. I think the general recommendation is always, it's to hire slowly, higher with very high quality, higher, slowly. What I think we did most of the time. It was just at some point in time that we were scaling maybe a bit too fast and then had to, had to slow down significantly and then, you know, start growing again.
But that type of chops I think is something that ideally you wanna avoid.
The idea with Atlar
Joel:So I mean we had an amazing run with Tink. I was there for six years. I loved every minute. I learned so much. Made friends for life. Johanes was there. My co-founder and CTO Joel was there for like three, four years or something. Joel who's CPO and co-founder was there as well. Visa coming in as an owner, we decided to team up and basically transitioned out, we started exploring a couple of ideas. We looked at everything around revenue based financing, crypto or things that were hot right now and after looking at the data we decided that it is not for us.
Why should we be building this? Why should we follow the hype? So we just flipped it and then thought about what are some actual problems out there that we could just start solving? And then we'll see where it takes us. We found out that while you've had so many good solutions for accepting payments, probably a trillion Euros in market, there's a void in how companies themselves handle their permits and how they automate all of those permits flows once it hits their bank account. So we started looking at that.
We then just went through and started talking to companies and then conviction grew, and eventually we decided this is it. let's go for it.
Testing ideas and validating the problem
Joel: So two things. One, technical. So we try to build stuff. So we try to build the crypto. We were looking at this real world lending space. So whether you can lend in the real world and then tokenize that and like put it on the chain, which by the way, I think it's gonna be a massive category in the next decade or so.
And, just looking at the maturity of trying to build stuff on Ethereum in solidity. It was just obvious that it is not for us. I mean, there's lots of great people that are building the plumbing and everything, but for us it was a bit too early. Then from the commercial side, just trying to push it and trying to talk to lending companies that we have gotten to know over the years or friends at companies, and just trying to see if there's something there.
And then you feel there's not a real demand. And if there's not a real demand, then you as a startup, you're never gonna actually make something happen. Because you're unproven, you don't have any credentials. You need to feel that this is a real pain if you wanna go for it.
And then the third bit was regulatory as well. So for all of those things we actually looked at regulation especially when you look at crypto and at tokenization, you get hit by or you can potentially be hit by a lot of different regulatory requirements, there's just a lot of unknowns around that.
Atlar’s ideal customer profile
Joel: Yeah, so I can take the bank that I just mentioned, which is a German embedded landing company. They are embedded into psps payment service providers or marketplaces like delivery, food delivery platforms where restaurants onboarded, and they offer them credit.
So they offer PSP customers a credit. E.g. Hey, we see you're making this much a day. Do you want 30 days up front so you can buy a new washing machine or a new kitchen sink or whatever that might be needing. That's what they do. And when you wanna do that, there's of course a lot of complexity on actually getting it embedded, getting the platform convinced, and lots of things around credit decisioning.
Lots of things of course around securitization and like a lot of problems done when you actually lend money. But one of them is that you actually have to disperse to the borrower. And you need to be able to repay them, have them repay the loan. And the way that banks are specifically doing this was, as pretty much all companies doing it, via file uploads to the bank.
So they're saying these are the loans of the day, uploading it to the bank, then taking another file once it's time to repay the loan and just uploading it. And then the bank executes those debits payments from the borrowers accounts. And that doesn't scale and you have to throw people at it.
You have customers being angry at you because you somehow missed some payments. All of these problems that happened when you add processes to something else as critical as payments. So, what they had done with their previous bank partner, they connected to the bank, file transfer protocol to the bank, and then you staffed it up with an engineering team, and all of a sudden, they had to connect another bank and that's when we wrote to them, when we had started the company and had a couple of first customers in the Nordics, and they didn't wanna do this themselves.
So it was more or less a no brainer then, instead you can just connect to our api, then they can immediately be able to initiate payouts, collect repayments, and everything is automatically reconciled. Meaning it's matched off. So you know that the money you expected to leave has actually left the account, or the money that you expected to receive has actually been received.
Current status with Atlar
Joel: So I think the fortunate position we're in is that we've managed to uncover a very big pinpoint. For European companies that handle money to third parties as part of their products. That's the definition of our ideal customer. And right now we're just focusing on satisfying that, building out bank connections, talking to customers, and just getting them done.
That's pretty much what we're spending all of our time on. We're in a good place. I think the insight from that we learned from previous jobs, where, because of localization it's so hard to expand across Europe. If you're taking a US product and then you need to localize it all of a sudden to like 30 or so markets.
But we flipped it and thought that from day one we're gonna support multiple markets. So what we did was we built a platform that supports. Finland, Sweden, Norway and Germany meaning we need to support many different bank protocols, many different currencies, and many different customer times.
So, that's what we've been focusing on for the first six, nine months. We are now at a point where we got customers across Nordic and Germany and we proved we can support multi-market use cases, and it is just something that I think we're so glad we've spent time on because it's really hard to retrofit.
Raising the Seed round from Index, La Famiglia and Cocoa
Joel: I'd probably caveat all of this by saying that there are many better sources than us out there on how to fundraise and every situation is different.
I can tell you what we had and what worked for us. Like one was a very crude prototype, just visualizing what it is that we wanna do.
It was only a happy path, and we were upfront about that, but it visualized it. It’s very much infrastructure pyramid flows, it's so easy to get lost and not really be able to follow what is we are actually doing. And what do we wanna build.
But visualizing it and building, actually building something that investors could, touch, and feel, helped a lot.
The second was that we spoke to a lot of friends in the industry, random people we just LinkedIn outreach to. And people are super open about talking about their problems. If you're honest and saying, Hey, we got this idea, can I talk it with you? Your head of … at company X? You have a couple of minutes? And people are open.
And then we could come in with a very clear understanding of the space, the alternatives, how we're tackling differently and why.
And then three, we had a team, that we all know each other really well. We’ve known each other for several years, we have very complementary skill sets as well. For the first decade it's about that early team and the team that you then can assemble, from there, so I think a combo actually showing rather than telling, understanding the space and the customers really well, and then having a great team.
And since then we've been able to assemble a world-class team in our opinion. so we're super proud.
Loosing sleep and deals
Joel: back in 2019 I had been at Tink for three and a half years or so, and I got the job to launch the UK market, and we had gone through one country manager. It's a very hard hire to make by the way, for various reasons, from both ends. that didn't work out.
We had another one, Rafa, a phenomenal guy was coming in from Stripe who was gonna join, later in the fall. But I was gonna come in, to set that up. I think from the beginning it was really, really tough. The job was to win bank and fintech deals. And on the FinTech side, we had quite intense competition. A lot of the known names were already taken.
They were already working with someone. We had back at that time, a less mature offering as well. So it was really hard. Then on the bank side, UK banks are really tough to get them to just send all of their data to the cloud and then we'll do smart things with it and like, we'll send it back. 🤣🤣🤣
Like there was quite a hard pitch, at the time. So we were struggling. I mean, it's hard to launch new markets but getting pretty much no traction for the first couple of months. At the same time working on this deal with one of the neobanks, was gonna be massive for us.
Like absolutely massive. We had been working on it throughout the year. It was gonna happen. We had prepared so much. More or less out of the blue, it didn't happen. We lost it too. And not only lost it because the product didn't happen but to a competitor.
And like, that's the double edged sword of having accountability. That it's sort of you then that screwed up. Like we like it or not regardless of the circumstances, it's on you.
Another part of the job was we were still running a couple of the banking sales for Europe at the time and had this deal in Austria that we were working on and had been working on for ages as well. So that wasn't done either. And going back and forth, flying back and forth to Vienna while juggling, no traction in London and trying to make that happen, working, nights and weekends cycle.
Then in mid-November at this conference, in London City I got this email from the bank, the Austria bank saying, sorry, this is not gonna happen this year. Let's touch base in the new year.
This was not good news to say the least. So I got on the phone with Daniel, and told him that this is probably not happening. He wouldn't like it if I said he panicked, but it was pretty much panicking because we're doing a fundraiser to be able to keep investing and keep growing and doing all that.
And part of that, I think his pitch was, we're gonna grow a hundred percent this year. And, to get this was a really big thing, we really needed it to, to reach that number. Like this really has to happen. Like let's do whatever we can to make it happen. Otherwise we are in big trouble Joel.
And then I was on my way home from Moneylive, a two day at a conference, I was walking home in London and I was thinking through the sequencing, and realized,
“okay, mid-November, if we're actually going to make this happen, we need to get one person convinced and to get that person in a meeting, we need to convince another.”
That's how banks work. It's very hierarchical. If that's gonna happen over email, that would definitely spill into the new year. You don't sign and do that quickly over email. So I realized something dramatic has to happen. I basically decided on the way that I'll just go over there.
I'll fly there and wait in the reception and get that meeting. Otherwise there's no chance of it happening. This is worth the shot.
So I called Danny and He's silent and then he's like,
“I gotta call Fred,”
which is his co-founder. so he called Fred and I was like:
“yeah, it's probably a good idea.”
Let's go for it. So I took a 17h15 flight from the airport and went straight to the lobby and just waited there and called Danny:
“Hey, I'm in the lobby.“
And he was like,
“You can't be in the lobby. That's psycho behavior. You have to go to a cafe or something.”
And I was like,
“okay, fair enough.I'll go to a cafe.“
I caught the flu on the way there so I was like, 40 degrees fever but I got the meeting in for next week with the big team.
And then the deal still didn't happen, so I screwed up that one as well. And I was accountable for it.
Yeah, that was a tough, tough period. I remember flying back to London with the tail between my legs, another one lost.
Luckily I think we pulled through every other thing that had to happen.
So I don't think we grew a hundred percent but close. Then we took Christmas break off in Stockholm.
I mean, I was really, really overworked and then got back to it in London and then, we had a lot of things going the other way. That's when we partnered up with Amex, one of the biggest partnerships that I’ve done in London.
Then I had the upside of accountability of course. and lots of other amazing partnerships then happened because of the same type of work. And that then led to the partnership with Visa. I think the moral of the story is really that nothing is done until it's done.
Things have been going super well for us now. I work every day to make it stay that way, but there are gonna be very, very tough periods. And I think having had the privilege of doing those mistakes on someone else's behalf, even though I was accountable, I wasn't ultimately accountable.
It's just the best type of school you can go into.
Dealing with the ups and downs
Joel: I think apart from the basics of sleep and eating healthy and exercising and spending time with loved ones that aren't in the crazy tech world, I try to do one specific thing, whenever I get overwhelmed or lost during work, I try to just go back to basics and just focus on the customer in whatever way is possible at that time.
The success of our business is just how many clients we solve problems for, and how much we solve problems for. That's just the math. So if we do that well, everything solves itself out. So I just try to shift focus. I send one of our customers a Slack message, check how things are going, call some, a potential one up and check, you know, should we do something soon? Or like, what's blocking you? What do we need to do to make this happen? I talk to someone on the team who's working on some hard technical problem, and then usually, I mean, can't really provide too much input, but more context around the customer and what their problem might be.
It works well for two reasons i) that's what investors care about and ii) That's what makes a successful company
So it's very rational to do that. And the other side is just generally shifting focus from yourself to someone else. Just remove stress and anxiety cuz you just don't focus too much on yourself and your own problems, but just focusing on someone else and then that's usually a good strategy in life.
Don’t take the advice and the point of advisory
Joel: I probably forgot a lot of the worst advice. But the good thing about advice is like, advice can come in ships and forms. It could be direct advice. So you're telling me something about how we should run our business or how I should speak at an event and the quality of that advice could be good or bad, but it's like very direct that it's an advice.
You can also get the advice by talking to customers and them just not being interested. You could get advice by trying to ship something that has no traction.
Advice is information that the world gives you and that you do whatever. And I think the important thing for any entrepreneur or anyone who'd want to do something, anything successful really is to listen to a lot of advice and not judge it too much at the point of advisory.
You want to hear lots of input. And then usually the advice cancels out to zero. And it's not really that it is good or bad advice. It's just you add your own filter and biases and worldview and what you wanna achieve on it, and then you form your own opinion. But it's just input for you to digest.
So, I don't have anything specific, that's like a cop out answer probably, but, that's how I think about it. I wouldn't call an advice bad or good in the sense it's just information that you can use in whatever way you decide.
Calin: So you see it as a data point. So what you're saying is like, just take it as a data point and. Look at it on average, at multiple data points, and then put your own filter and see what makes sense and whatnot.
Joel: For example, you go to two different entrepreneurs. Those could be billionaires. One will say, never raise money. It's the worst thing you could ever do. you will lose all control. Don’t do it, bootstrap it like I did.
And then you'll talk to someone else and they'll say, raise as much as you can, as often as you can, and just like hire a big team and just grow.
And it's, then you just need to add on, okay, where are these people coming from? Well the person that bootstrapped this business, did that in maybe some entirely different space or a different time and place. And then this person that was raising a lot of money maybe did it during the the.com bubble or, or maybe they did it, you know, after the.com bubble, and was just such a moat for them to actually raise money like you need.
Filtering the biases and where's this person coming from with this advice and then from your own opinion, what's the landscape now, where on that scale do you do your best to succeed as a business and win.
Calin: Yep. I absolutely agree with you. And I think you're, referring to the interview with, DHH, he's just very, very much, anti VC. I think he has some good points, but also I think venture capital can be such a great tool to grow your business. As an entrepreneur, you look at a toolbox that you have and at the options that you have, and it's your duty as a CEO to make the best for the company, and to grow the company and to make it, a company, ideally, that it's a global company and everyone knows about.
Joel: That's right.
Calin: Love it. Joel, thank you so much for taking the time. This was an absolute pleasure.
Joel: Thanks so much for having me.