As I quickly approach the anniversary of my 4th year in business, I find myself reflecting often about what I have learned; so many valuable lessons! I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to build a company, and a team, in the same industry that I have worked in for the last 15 years — What an exciting time to be in the payments industry!
In the last couple of years, we are seeing technology and payments companies come together to offer ‘end to end’ solutions. We are seeing traditional commodity-based merchant service companies losing customers while smaller players like SONA have unprecedented growth.
So, what is driving this shift in our industry?
I think we need to look at some of the larger payment facilitators like Square, Stripe, or Paypal as the ‘big kids’ who have paved a path for many others. They have shown us that many business owners value a solution to their problems running a business, and they value a consistence understandable cost structure versus a convoluted pricing structure, that are difficult to understand. My opinion is 90% of payments companies just haven’t found an effective way to bring clarity to this piece of the payments puzzle and they create opportunities for many of the payment facilitators out there. At SONA, we choose to work in that other 10% space to find effective ways to educate our new and existing merchants in the components of rates and fees, and who are the players with their hands in the cookie jar. I look to leaders in the industry, so I am not reinventing the wheel but adding our own ‘SONA Sauce’ to the pot. Leaders like Helcim in Calgary, or Payfacto in Montreal, who have started with a transparent approach to merchant pricing but centered their value proposition on technology.
So, what are some of those bedrock lessons that I feel I have learned over my first, 4 years as an entrepreneur?
First of all — this is harder than I thought it would be! I think I may have been a little naive around understanding the challenges of building a successful business. Sometimes it feels like that cartoon where you are in a boat and one hole pops open and you cover it with your right foot and then another opens, and you cover it with your right hand and so on… You know what I mean?? Your business always has areas of shifting needs. HR, Marketing, IT, Legal, Finance; as a small business owner, we start out wearing all of these hats and focus on plugging the holes as required. The important lesson I take from this is ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ and ‘Let others carry the torch’ because there is no perfection in business. It is a canvas that changes with each day, with different people and varied influences. The best we can do is accept the fact that it won’t be perfect; we can strive for perfection but need to accept that it is completely OK for there to be holes in our boat that we can’t plug immediately. The best thing we can do is invite smart, qualified and ethical people on board to help us put plugs in those holes.
My second lesson has been a hard one filled with lots of mistakes along the way.
This lesson gets down to People and Culture. When I decided to leave the ‘Big Bank’ side of the industry and carve my own path to build SONA, I took the experiences I had speaking to so many other business owners over the years. In the process of seeing thousands of businesses, I began to see the most successful ones were companies who had a transparent message around their culture. They were clear with their internal staff, external partners, and customers, around what is important to them. These values were set as a foundation to the house that everything would come back to. On the other side, I had the opportunity over several years to sign up businesses with merchant services only to see them fall off my report after a year or two. Many of these businesses (but not all of them) seemed to lack the substance of setting these core values and mission statement. It can’t simply be just about the $$ and growing the business, because great businesses know that financial success is just a by-product of their ability to do the important things ‘right’.
I now know that my job as a CEO and leader of my company is not only need to establish those Mission, Vision and Values for SONA but I need to ensure they are buried in the fabric of everything we do and everyone who does it. This is the foundation of the house, and while it can be easy to get distracted, start building the ceiling and forget about the foundation, we have to stay grounded.
What an amazing group of people I have to work around!
The learning around the topic of ‘people’ over the last 4 years, has been filled with costly mistakes. The biggest lesson I have had regarding this, is you need to look for individuals who share your values when building a team. People who value collaboration, respect, honesty, integrity and empathy. These people are the ones who will carry your companies’ culture throughout all aspects of how you do business. They are the living fabric of the ever-evolving painting that is your business which is changing and weathering storms every day. These amazing individuals get to help write the story book of SONA as we move forward in the years to come – How cool is that?!
The third lesson I find I am often reflecting on is always be a student. There is a degree of humility that you need to search for every day to force yourself to always be learning. Over the years I have had the opportunity to work with so many talented business owners and executives and there are so many lessons to be learned from these people and their experiences. If you don’t have that humble outlook on life and business, you lose out on all the lessons that are right in front of you. I have witnessed many of the ‘bullies’ of the business world over the last 4 years and often wonder how sustainable this approach to growing and maintaining their business can be? Don’t confuse humility with being decisive though; we can all be humble enough to accept feedback and learn from everyone around us, but still be confident to make a decision and live by it!
This takes me to one of the most important lessons for me and one that I personally still struggle with.
It is grounded in the realization that you need to make mistakes; you need to make sound decisions and not deviate from them. We simply need to accept the fact that some choices we make may be wrong and there will be consequences. It is in making these mistakes that our biggest lessons are learned. As I said, this is one I still struggle with as I consider myself the preverbal ‘baby’ of the business world. I can tell you it is in the times that I have been the most decisive where I get the most career satisfaction. Decisions grounded in gathering feedback from those around me, thinking about it logically, and then ‘pulling the trigger’. It is in those mistakes that the real learning takes place.
All in all, it has been a great 4 years! I am very lucky to have great relationships with many of the companies I compete with. I can tell them where we are heading and that shows fairly quickly who has values that align with us. I am grateful for the support I have received from family, friends, partners & suppliers as I look forward to mapping SONA’s future. Our goal is to disrupt the status quo in the payments business while earning the respect of our team, merchants, and partners. I believe confidently that the team we have today is the best group of people to help achieve this goal. The next decade is going to be a lot of fun!
CEO & Founder – SONA