Control and Visibility Over Business Spend with Hristo Borisov of Payhawk
In a tech start-up things are moving sometimes at breakneck speed. In this episode, we had the opportunity to spend some time with Hristo Borisov, CEO and Co-Founder of Payhawk, to discuss the financial systems of tomorrow and the importance of maximizing control and visibility over business spend to keep up with the fast pace of growing companies.
Payments & Fintech Insights In This Episode
- How to evaluate a cross-section of technology to identify a problem that can be solved with a software product in a saturated space.
- How the customer’s success is everyone’s success.
- The power of consolidating and integrating connecting systems to create necessary efficiencies.
- The challenges associated with the nuances of expense tracking.
- Why company cards can be a powerful tool rather a historical headache.
- And so much more!
Featured on the Show
- Connect with Hristo Borisov: LinkedIn | Twitter
- Connect with Payhawk: Website | LinkedIn | Twitter
- Connect with the Show: LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter
- Subscribe to the Show: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Show Hub
Hristo: When you are on a high-growth trajectory or in a hyper-growth, you really need to stop every three months and to question yourself as a CEO, “The way I’m working, is it working? Are the things I’m working on, and the way I’m working, is this the way I’m supposed to be doing, given that things are moving pretty fast?”
Heather: Welcome to “PayPod,” the payments industry podcast. Each week, we’ll bring you in-depth conversations with leaders who are shaping the payments world, from payment processing to risk management, and from new technology to entirely new payment types. If you wanna know what’s happening in payments, you’re in the right place.
Hi, everyone, welcome to “PayPod.” I’m your host Heather Bodie. And today, we are going to be talking about maximum control and visibility over your business spend. Joining me today is Hristo Borisov, CEO, and co-founder of Payhawk, the financial system of tomorrow that combines credit cards, payments, expenses, cash management, and pre-accounting into one integrated experience. Welcome to the show.
Hristo: Hello, Heather, and thanks for inviting me.
Heather: Yeah, we’re glad to have you. Start us off by telling us a little bit about you. We wanna get to know you, a little bit about your path into fintech, and what brought you to today.
Hristo: Well, I’m coming from an engineering background. I started my career as an engineer. In university, I studied computer science. And after the first year, I thought that that’s going to be too easy just to do computer science because…
Heather: Too easy?
Hristo: Well, in my high school, my graduating year, I managed to land a job before university as a developer. So I actually spent kind of six months being a junior software developer in a company. And when I started studying computer science at university, I was actually very clear on all the things that we were doing, and I was like, “If I’m going to spend four years just studying that, that’s going to be a waste of time.” And I decided second year to also start taking classes for business. And I managed to graduate with both degrees in four years, and moved into being a software engineer, beginning of my career for four years. And then I found my passion to be a product manager, a product person, to be really thinking about big hairy problems, and strategy, and how to bring products to market, and how to create a whole product. And I fall in love with the ability to work with UX people and engineers, and to really go and craft products. And that became who I am today.
Heather: As the co-founder of a tech company, what was that moment that drew you to solving this problem? Because that’s the role of tech in our lives is disrupting spaces and solving and creating efficiencies. So why financial systems? Why payments?
Hristo: Well, first of all, I’m coming from a very different background. So, we were building developer tools and enterprise products, and we were serving businesses, and I knew nothing about payments.
When we started the company, we had one vision, to build a big company. And to do so, we said, “We need to really find a big problem in a big market.” And we knew that, starting 2018, if you look at the software industry and enterprise software, you needed to look about the intersection of industries to identify the next emerging technologies. And we knew that by 2018, enterprise software has been around for 30 years. And everything that’s pure software has been either invented, or has been kind of a mature category so far.
And we identified opportunity to really look at problems in the intersection of industries. And we knew that the next emerging market categories are going to be at the intersection of financial services with software or [inaudible 00:03:47.424] with software or other related segments. And we decided that we really like to solve real problems, and dealing with money is something that makes it a lot real, because at the end of the day, there is a huge amount of responsibilities on the product you’re building. People are relying on a daily basis about your product. And these is the little things that we are excited about. We are very customer-centric and we love to create a product that really solving or are quite important to the customer.
If you think about you having a company card and traveling and being somewhere, you really have to 100% make sure that this card always works, because, at the end of the day, it’s about person getting on a plane, person getting into a car, person driving to a place, person paying for a hotel, or paying for a dinner with the important client. And one thing that we really wanted to make sure is that we are really excelling at providing an amazing customer experience for our clients. And we have part of our culture something that we call everybody’s customer success. So you have two titles in the company, customer success and something else, because it’s all about delighting the customers and building an experience for that. And we found that financial services present these kinds of important moments for us to solve problems. And this is something that really got us very excited about payments.
Heather: I noticed on your LinkedIn profile, it says, “Spending is easy, expenses are not.” Can you talk to me about identifying along these same lines of why you founded the company? It’s one thing to identify a big problem in a big industry. What have been some of the challenges in solving that problem in creating that solution?
Hristo: The reason why we think that spending is easy, is because spending has been around, and especially company cards, have been around for 60 years now. And the notion is that you go and get a card from a bank, and as soon as you go and swipe the card, and the payment goes through, the bank has done its job. But for you as an employee of a company, that is the moment in time for you as a business where the pain starts. Was I allowed to pay at the first place? If you got spend, who is going to reconcile the expense that I actually made in terms of physical receipts with the actual bank transaction? To whom shall I give the receipt? Who’s going to extract data from this receipt or an invoice? Who is going to reconcile this into the accounting system? How does that fit within our budget? All of those things were afterthought.
And there was a really big disconnect between banks, just giving you payment instruments, and then ERP systems or softwares trying to really manage that process after the fact. And we were really drawn into this problem that we say, “Well, we are software people, why don’t we go and merge those?” And I will say some of the first challenges we faced is that when we put together the vision of what we wanted to do, it included creating a world-class company card that is accepted everywhere, that works all the time, that we have the ability to configure different rules or spend what you can spend on. What are the policies that are required in this company? The ability to get an expense in terms of an invoice and to be able to extract all the data automatically, so that the finance team doesn’t have to crunch data, which is classical OCR problem, and then the ability to reconcile these payments with the ERP system and to just really close the books.
And when we started, the challenge was that those were actually three different markets. There were three… You know, all of these were solved completely different. So we had companies that are only focused on giving company cards or banks, companies focused on managing the expense reports, companies focused on data extraction, companies focused on really reconciliation and approval. And then when you added that problem to, you know, a multinational company that is present in many markets, and they’re present in, let’s say, five, six markets, this just becomes a much different problem to solve.
And we saw that companies were solving this by using multiple banks, multiple providers in different countries with multiple systems. And at the end of the day, they ended up using 10, 12 different systems, instead of having a single, seamless experience. And we said that, “Well, at the end of the day, finance people are quite efficient, very rational people.” But they’re not tech people. They are not in the process of integrating 10, 12 different disconnected systems. And this needs to be a seamless experience. And even though all the VCs were saying, “Well, these are different theories, you know, it is really big scope for you to build that,” we knew that we can go on and pull this off. And that was kind of quite exciting for us.
Heather: Incredibly exciting. I’m so impressed. I think it’s impressive enough alone when people set out to solve a problem with a singular product at a singular niche component of it. But to go out and say there are four and five different approaches that all need to be combined into one, I mean, that’s quite the undertaking. I’m incredibly impressed. So, one of the offerings, and I think you just mentioned it was this idea of the corporate card. And I noticed on your site, it’s mentioned of like a smart company card. Can you tell me more about that?
Hristo: Yeah, I think one of the key things we wanted to do is, at the end of the day, just create a technology that really reflects the world of all the finance team and the company. So, the challenge has been that a lot of finance people and finance teams have been staying away from the company card. And the reason for that is that they don’t have any control. You go and get a credit line of, you know, 10k on a company card, you give it to an employee, and then it is just a nightmare to chase all the receipts, and to reconcile that, and to enforce any rules. And because of that, the adoption of company cards in companies has been kept to be very low number. And we are changing that significantly.
With Payhawk, usually companies issue 8 to 10 times more cards, because they’re able to do a lot of control on the cards. What do I mean by that? Inside of our system, first of all, Payhawk… Our system is fully responsible for the utilization of every card transaction. So, as soon as you swipe your card, our system is authorizing the transaction, which means we have implemented a lot of our handles and controls on a card level. So you can go and say, “This card can only work at a certain time, at a certain merchant for a certain amount. And this is the company spend policy.” So you can also create these kind of very specific card use cases or create policies where employees are enforced to abide by those policies, and not after the fact that they have spent the money and somewhere in the ERP system, but actually during the actual transaction.
And this is extremely powerful, because this way, you get the best of both worlds. The finance team is able to trust employees to use a company card, so employees don’t have to go and spend their own money, and then wait to be reimbursed. And they can actually go and minimize the amount of time they need to deal with, you know, expense reporting and things like that, while the finance team stays in control. And the interesting thing with Payhawk is that we not only deal with company cards, we also have the workflow for employees that are not allowed to have a company card.
So we know that, you know, the midsize enterprise companies that we target that are usually between 200 and 800 people, they tend to have a lot of employees that might not have an access to a company card, irregardless of the controls that are being given. And we are allowing those, you know, employees to still being able to use the system or submit expenses, and then to be fully reimbursed directly from the system, as we have, you know, bank transfers in abroad.
And we also are able to manage accounts payable. So, all of these kinds of workflows and implementations are in a single system. And this really gives the finance team a single system with 360 degrees overview of all the spend that is non-payroll for the company. But at the end of the day, the key thing for us was really to have a company card that is a spearhead that is really something that you cannot get anywhere else. And the ability to have all these controls has been a game-changer for us. And the ability to be able to issue to businesses incorporated in 32 countries worldwide, really made it a very unique thing on the market.
Heather: Did you say 32 countries?
Hristo: Yes, we currently support 32 countries and I think about 5 different currencies. So, if you’re a multinational business with presence across Europe or the U.S., we are giving you an access to, you know, either a debit and a credit line, so that you can actually mix that and be able to really spend from different card profiles and funding sources, and really keep all the finances into a single system, which has been something that has been… Even if I think about four years. I know that was the vision. But it’s one thing to be the vision, it’s a second thing to really go and be able to execute that and…
Heather: To be the reality. Yeah.
Hristo: Yeah, and I’m really happy that, you know, we are constantly thinking about moving this forward, adding new countries, new currencies, being able to expand the complexities of workflows and processes. The finance team needs to map within the system. And so far we have been really impressed with how the market has been adopting our product.
Heather: You were talking about the difference between sort of a dream and reality. Can you talk to me a little bit about, now that it’s been just over four years, because you started in July of 2018, how has your role changed? Like, what was your day-to-day like in those early months and what is your day-to-day like now?
Hristo: Day and night. It’s absolutely different. One of the things that happens is that when you are on a high growth trajectory or in a hyper-growth, you really need to stop every three months and to question yourself as the CEO, the way I’m working, is it working? Are the things I’m working on and the way I’m working, is this the way I’m supposed to be doing given that things are moving pretty fast? And I would say every six months, the role has changed significantly. At the beginning, obviously coming as a product person, having very strong engineering team, I was focused on really nailing down the product and value proposition and nailing down what we’re going to be doing, what division, why we are doing it, what we want, where we want to get this company.
And that was kind of the first three months. After we set on that, then the next three, four months, I was kind of… Together with our first salesperson, we were selling wireframes. I was on the phone calling customers, trying to sell this thing, trying to understand how we’re going to monetize that. And then after we managed to get the product on the market after just four months, within the first 5 months of the product being live, we managed to get customers from 16 countries. And that gave us a really strong confidence that we’re solving a really, really big problem.
Hristo: Being able to fundraise has been another journey and juggle everything that has been happening. And initially, you have a team, you work with engineers, you work with product, you work with sales on a daily basis, and you’re a five, six people team, everybody’s doing everything. And then the next stage of growth has been where you are able to establish the first middle management when you get to about 20 people, where you actually have first-time managers in the company where the CEO is not saying everything, and you need this kind of structure teams.
Then the next stage is when we got to about 70, 80 employees, this is where I started building my leadership team. And a lot of people have been asking me about how hard it is and so on. And I told them that as the company grows, if you’re doing the right things, setting up your team, and really questioning, are you need to be involved in everything? What are the things you need to let go of, and how you need to think about the general vision, and how you’re able to measure things? I think one of the key things there is that it really becomes much easier.
You know, the bigger you are, the more people you have, the more you can work on this vision, and the less you need to do things yourself. Of course, I always try to be pragmatic and practical. And I really want to be deep down into certain details. But to constantly be able to zoom out, zoom in into problems has been something that has helped me stay on the ground. But still, it really, I would say is quite important to remember to do this kind of three, four months check is the way I’m working, working.
Heather: I would worry about my own self in those kinds of continual check-ins that when I’m questioning everything all the time, that it might feel hard to find a place of grounded confidence and all of that. But it sounds like you’ve struck a really nice balance between reevaluating and saying, “Because I’m reevaluating, I’m moving into a space where my team is growing and things are getting ideally easier, and the vision is becoming clearer.” And like we said at the beginning of this question, really, you’re seeing dreams become a reality, this concept of easing the corporate card, as an example, to now being able to speak to it in a very real and tangible way, that must be incredibly rewarding.
Heather: That’s wonderful. So what’s next for Payhawk? You’re tackling all these different problems, integrating them into one solution. Is there anything on the horizon or any secrets you can let us in on, stuff that’s in the works that might be new offerings from Payhawk in the near future?
Hristo: Yeah, I mean, there are quite exciting things that are coming. And I’ll share some but there are a lot of secret things that we still don’t talk about.
Heather: Oh, my gosh, you can’t even get us one secret?
Hristo: I will tell you one. I will tell you one secret. Obviously serving multinational companies requires a very big complexity of your software offering. Something that we have seen very rudimentary on the market is really the ability to manage multiple businesses in a very structured way within your probe. And we are releasing a very, very strong multi-entity management where companies can actually have a very strong dashboard of information, what’s going on across all of their companies, the ability to really share settings and product configurations between, so to say the group, company, and entities. And this is a game-changing experience for finance teams, because, otherwise, today, with everything that exists on the market, they’re being forced to look at every company separately. And completely disregarding the fact that at the end of the day you are…even though you have like 10 entities across the world, you are one and the same company. And there are a lot of rules, and workflows, and policies, and procedures, and employees, and structures that you need to have on a group level. And that requires quite good complexity and understanding, and pretty solid foundation for your software to be able to add this layer of complexity on top of that. And this is something that we will be releasing pretty soon.
Heather: That’s very exciting. I will keep my eye out for it. I like to close our conversations out the same way. So I’m gonna put you on the spot a little bit. But can you give us a window into some of the best business advice you’ve ever received? And if you can remember, from whom?
Hristo: I’d say the best business advice I have received, there are many, but I think one that I can name is from Jason Lemkin. And the fact that startups typically underselling themselves, they are pretty cheap, and the fact that you didn’t need to increase pricing, and you didn’t need to be, you know, thinking about how you monetize, not just about the metrics. It’s about quality and how you actually earn this money. And this gives me something that has been fundamental for us. We have been really, really pushing to make sure that we are actually capturing the right value that we create for companies. And that has worked very well for us and has been something that the market has appreciated because the better we map the value we create with the money we earn, the more we can invest into more products, rather than just, you know, drive ourselves out of business and then to let all these customers on their own. I think that one is pretty strong.
Heather: That one’s beautiful. And I think that is something we hear…I know I hear at least in sort of a cliched way about health, right, that if we aren’t taking care of ourselves as helpers, we can’t take care of the people around us, right? If we’re not around anymore, then we can’t help society. And if the company…like you said, if you drive yourself out of business with a low understanding and gathering of your own value, then you can’t continue to provide that value. So, I think that’s an incredible… I haven’t heard anyone say it quite that way. So, I really appreciate that.
Heather: Hristo, this has been so much fun. Thank you for joining us today. If folks wanna get in touch with you or if they want to learn more about Payhawk, where should they go?
Hristo: I think the best way is LinkedIn or our website at payhawk.com. We have a lot of contact information.
Heather: Great. Thanks so much for joining us.
Hristo: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Heather: If you enjoyed this episode and wanna hear more, head on over to soarpay.com/podcast to subscribe on your podcast listening platform of choice. That’s soarpay.com/podcast.
Payhawk is the financial system of tomorrow that combines credit cards, payments, expenses, cash management, and pre-accounting into one integrated experience to give you maximum control and visibility over your business spend.