Holvi – A true digital company

Holvi was founded 2011 in Helsinki, Finland, and offers digital banking services for micro-entrepreneurs. Holvi was built by entrepreneurs, who understand the unique challenges of starting a small business. The vision of the company is to be the most recommended provider of business banking services for micro- entrepreneurs in the European context (companies employing between 0 and ten people).

Today, Holvi is a global community of over 100 team members representing more than 25 different nationalities. The company has offices in Helsinki, Berlin and Madrid. Antti-Jussi Suominen, CEO since 2017 after BBVA acquired Holvi, explains Holvi’s operating model and how to run a true digital company.

“Our promise to the customer is to help them succeed in their business.”

Antti-Jussi Suominen has always been building new businesses in the corporate context. Starting from scratch, corporate venturing, corporate incubation, acquiring and integrating companies and in some cases divesting projects and companies. He has previously worked as the CEO of Sulake and, before that, has worked in large companies like Elisa, Nokia and Sonera.

Our first promise to our customers is that by using Holvi services they will spend significantly less time with their finances and always be in the know, in real time, about what is happening with their business. Our goal is to position Holvi as a credible voice of the entrepreneur, by providing them with tips and advice on running a business through our content, products and services, partners and the Holvi community.

Our mission is to help micro-entrepreneurs to succeed. Holvi gives the everyday entrepreneur the tools they need to easily manage their business finances, allowing them to focus on the work they love. They can define just what success means to them. Typically, they want to accomplish something, local or global and follow their dreams. They have the passion but they hate the bureaucracy; and this is what Holvi helps them with: ridding them of the endless paperwork, and automating tedious manual tasks in order to allow them to focus on the things that really matter to them. Some people want to be the unicorn that we are always reading about in the newspapers. Others want to spend three months on a project and then spend the next 3 months scuba diving in Thailand. Success of the micro-business depends entirely on how the entrepreneur behind it defines it!

Holvi is an Authorised Payment Institution and is regulated by the Financial Supervisory Authority of Finland. We are authorised for operations across the EEA and have passported our license to all EEA member states. Our key markets are Finland and Germany but we currently operate across the Eurozone in markets including Austria, Ireland, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. We’ve also established a partnership with Estonia’s e-Residency programme through which we are able to serve location independent entrepreneurs globally and build a truly global community of Holvi entrepreneurs.

We have grown pretty quickly in the past year. The company had 14 employees when it was bought by BBVA in 2016. Today we have over 100 employees, mainly in Finland. Marketing, business development and compliance is based in Berlin and our mobile development is done in Madrid.

Contextual banking

Our founders, and many of the Holvi employees, are former freelancers and small business owners themselves. Holvi started out by solving the everyday problems that event organisers, associations and project workers come across in managing their finances. We quickly realised that there were more people facing similar challenges and that there was a larger demand out there for a service like ours. There exists a full segment of micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses – or Makers and Doers as we call them – who are currently being poorly served by traditional banks and other players.

Traditionally, banks have built their core offer around a one-size-fits-all product or service that often tries to be everything for everyone. Our focus, since the beginning, has been on building something that could be labelled as contextual banking – a tailored service for the micro entrepreneur, allowing them to use the product for their specific needs. Our benefit is in being close to the customer – we can bring out their unique context and specific needs and attach them to our service.

We help our customers to automate all the administrative tasks that don’t contribute to growing their business. We have taken the payment account and built on top of that a set of tools. The first thing we advise our customers to do is to separate personal money from business money. This is because most of the micro-entrepreneurs (freelance coders, yoga teachers etc.) operate their business from their personal account, as they may be unused to dealing with things in a businesslike way. We then provide them with the information that our digital product can, in less than 5 minutes, set up a separate smart business account for their business needs.

With our smart business account anyone can start categorising their expenses and income. This will act as a base for bookkeeping. Holvi does not offer bookkeeping itself, but creates enough rich data that the customer can easily handle the bookkeeping on their own or via their accountant. Holvi has a network of accounting partners who can be suggested if accounting services are needed. We also offer a Mastercard attached to the account. All business-related expenses can be paid with this card and taking a picture of the receipt with Holvi’s mobile app will link all the information on it to the transaction. In this way we can create the rich data with which your bookkeeping can be easily done, which makes it much easier to keep track of business money.

On top of that, Holvi has built an invoicing tool. A freelancer, software developer or graphic designer who is selling services to a company, can then easily create an online invoice. It can be customised with a company logo etc. and sent as an e-invoice. In Finland or in countries where e-invoicing is not that big, an invoice can be sent with an email. The tool provides the real-time status of the invoice. The user can then see how much money is owed to them.

The user is also able, for example, to credit the invoices and other basic functionalities. In this way, the user can start collecting revenue from customers. If customers are more on the consumer side, such as for a yoga teacher or private tutor, Holvi has created an easy to use online store. It can be used to sell services and the customer can pay with credit cards or with different local payment methods such as bank buttons in Finland. All the transactions are visible in the Holvi account. It is then easy to see how many different products have been sold to customers. We try to show our customers their income and money owed to them as easily as possible, and, on the other side, payments you need to make – and then we show the balance.

With our easy-to-set-up storefront, integrated invoicing tool and core business account, we enable our customers to use a number of different methods to collect income. That’s always the first step for micro-entrepreneurs. Through our platform, our customers can get a real-time overview of their finances and manage cash flow, as well as control and monitor their spending with our business card, that works seamlessly with the app and helps you to store and categorise receipts in your bookkeeping.

We offer more than a traditional bank could offer this segment of business; that’s why we see ourselves more as a toolkit for entrepreneurs – that’s contextual banking for us. The micro-business can use the whole product for themselves or just parts of it, as suits their needs.

Working ways and culture at Holvi

Holvi is owned by BBVA but operates as an independent company with its own license and technology. BBVA finances us and provides strategic support through our board as well as giving access to resources and networks within their portfolio companies.

Holvi is divided into eight functional teams; business development, marketing & communications, customer success, product & design, software engineering, technical operations, control (compliance, risk and legal) and finance and HR. Typically each of these teams have their own role definitions and their goals and objectives are aligned through the OKR framework within the company. In addition to function work, our product development works through value streams where all functions are represented, and they work in cross-functional areas. Each value stream has a product owner and technical team (frontend, backend and mobile), data analyst, designer and representatives from marketing, customer success, legal & compliance and operations. We work with agile methods and in sprints of two weeks to ensure a fast development and iteration of our service and product.

Through our OKR framework and value streams, we review the development of different initiatives on a weekly basis in the management team. In addition to this we have a monthly product prioritisation meeting, where everyone is welcome to join and where we list the things that need to happen as well as prioritising resourcing based on business impact.

Every week in the management team meeting, we look at the progress of each value stream and decide whether or not we should still continue. Most of the time, we do not have the maturity to say ‘no.’ I’m still waiting for the first time we say that this is not worth doing mid-way through delivery.

We still have a lot to learn about managing the portfolio and how to prioritise it. In my opinion, the company is at a stage where we know there is a market for our product. Most of our customers are either some what satisfied or satisfied with our services, but at the same time we have a very long backlog of customer suggestions. We roughly know what we should be doing in the two years ahead. It is not rocket science, disruptive or transformative, but basically modifying and ensuring that our products work even better. There are very good reasons as to why our customers should choose a service like ours. For example, e-invoicing was suggested by our customers some time ago and it is now included in our services. In this way, our services continuously evolve and keep pace with addressing our customers’ needs.

Currently our main challenge is to attract better software developers into the company. This is, however, a perennial situation with development organisations. It is primarily an equation of prioritisation. It is about the execution, rather than the inception. Consecutive development is not necessary, it could be parallel. This is our current challenge. We need to hire more people.

One way in which Holvi differs from other companies in which I have worked is that the company is genuinely run according to its values. These values drive the decision-making. Naturally, most companies have their values, but in reality, I have rarely seen them in practice. This is where Holvi is different. Our first value is that we are genuine. If something is not working, we will tell our customers. Should they request something that we don’t have, we will tell them. We will not play tricks. Similarly, with our pricing. We don’t to do 99-cent pricing. We have very clear pricing: we specifically state what you get and what you don’t get.

Our second value is that we are humane. This is the part that I really enjoy about Holvi. We actually want to be good people; not only professionally with our product but in caring for our customers, we want our customers to succeed and be happy. Everyone in this company feels that way. If not, then this is not the place for you. It is very important that we maintain this humane approach. I know that the bar in many places is very low in the financial industry. For example, in customer service, you can call and find that you are kept waiting and waiting and, after 20 minutes, you then need to answer dozens of voice-activated menus just to find out that they can’t do what you need over the phone, but you need to go to their branch office. When we pick up the phone, we try to fix your issue at once – and we are actually doing pretty well!

The third value we have is that we are experts in what we do. We have chosen the area of business banking for micro-entrepreneurs and we intend to excel in it! In areas where we are not experts, such as accounting, we rely on our trusted partners.

Our last value is fanatic quality. We take care of people’s money and their business data. In some of our values we are excelling, and in some areas, we are not yet doing as well as we would like, however all of our values guide us in daily work. If, for example, we think we should provide a new feature but we don’t think the quality is good enough, we will not provide it until it is good enough. If there is a customer case where we could bend the truth a bit to flatter the customer, we don’t. We tell them how it is, even if the situation is not as positive as they would like it to be. If there is a customer case that needs a little bit more support and we have the ability to offer that support, we will always take the humane approach and go the extra mile to help them. As stated, this is the first company where I have been able to manage through values rather than bald, emotionless targets and I have found it to be a thoroughly uplifting experience.

We have people working with us from many countries. Our company language is, of course, English and everybody needs to be able work in English, but other than that you hear people speaking in many different languages in the office. This adds a certain perspective and flavour to how we work here at Holvi. The organisation is very welcoming. You quickly see people sharing pictures, having beers after work and creating relationships that result in a cohesive quality that is most desirable in any company. Diversity creates curiosity and leads to people forming friendships and becoming socially active, seeking out new experiences and ways of thinking. This creates a very distinctive, welcoming, open and appealing atmosphere in our company.

Cooperation with BBVA

BBVA wants to transform itself from a bank to a digitally agile organisation and is already doing pretty well. If not yet Number One, then certainly we are in the top three in the world in transforming our customer base into mobile digital users. They are doing an extremely good job with user experience, but, at the same time, it is a very large organisation and as such things take time. Driving cultural and business transformation is not an easy task!

The transformation starts from the top. BBVA’s recently retired executive chairman Francisco Gonzales has said that the world now has 20,000 analogue banks but after the digital revolution there will only be a handful of digital institutions left. He wants BBVA to be one of those. He has been relaying this message for years now. Carlos Torres, who succeeded him as the executive chairman has experience of the digital side of the business. For many years he has been driving data and digital strategy inside the bank as the CEO and now continues the job leading the board of BBVA.

Holvi’s role in this transformation is to bring their expertise and best practices to the organisation. Holvi is part of the New Digital Business organisation. There are other similar kinds of companies within that unit and we regularly meet the CEOs of those companies and exchange experiences. Our way of working is to work as closely as possible with the customer.

We are running different services in smaller cases. Large organisations consist of many small teams. If we can really achieve that, we can turn a large, unwieldy organisation into a group of agile teams. We can also access information from markets where BBVA does not operate.

We have an increasing exchange of knowledge between experts in Holvi and other parts of BBVA. We rotate people in projects in order to increase and disseminate this knowledge and experience. And at the end of the day, we need to bring our small but significant contribution to BBVA’s results.

Artificial Intelligence at Holvi

Artificial Intelligence and machine learning are not just creatures of postulation and hype anymore. They are in use today throughout many applications. It is hard to say where AI or machine learning will have the biggest effect. It has wide and varied applications. In our industry it has been used for monitoring transactions, back office, providing insights to customers about how their money is being managed or giving predictive analytics regarding their cash situation. This is what makes it so challenging, as it can be behind any service. The complexity of implementation can vary widely from simple static if-then logic, to neural networks continuously optimising and learning based on a growing amount of data.

As things stand, we can still go a long way with less adaptive software technologies. We are, however, using machine learning in some parts of our services. We will of course have to use adaptive technologies in a more extensive way as we grow.

At Holvi we are not looking to use cutting-edge technology just for technology’s sake. Our customer needs are simpler and we don’t use the latest technology like block chain, crypto currency or AI just because we can. We always begin with the micro-entrepreneur and their needs. We don’t want to be called an AI company just because it is cool to be an AI company. We are the micro-entrepreneurs’ company that is focused on its customers!

Key findings of Holvi’s digital journey for business leaders:

Organisational alignment

Have clear functional teams with their own role definitions, but set aligned goals and objectives through a company-wide framework like the OKRs. Drive product development through value streams that represent areas with the strongest business impact and organise the team to work in cross-functional units. Use agile methods and work in sprints of two weeks to ensure fast development and iteration of the service. Follow progress on a weekly basis and decide whether or not you should still continue. Use that insight to decide the focus areas for the coming quarter, but, at the end of every quarter, look at what got done and what did not get done. Did you learn about anything that we should avoid doing in the future?

Digital revolution: The transformation begins from the top

In a very large organisation things take time. Driving cultural and business transformation is quite difficult, but not impossible. A digital journey begins from the top of the company and the CEO needs to have experience of the digital side of the business. Finally, the chairperson is the one who ensures that the CEO has the mandate to drive transformation.

Artificial Intelligence: not only hype anymore

Artificial Intelligence and machine learning are already in use today in many business applications. Still, AI shouldn’t be used just because we want to use that technology or, because it is cool to be called an AI company. Always begin by asking yourself what your customers’ needs are, and only after that, select which technologies your business needs to fulfil their needs and assist in creating your customers’ success!

This article was originally published in the book Surfing the Digital Tsunami. Text was written by Tuomo Koskenvaara.

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