A Coffee Talk with Sjoerd Leemhuis, CEO and Co-founder of Owlin
“The data universe is growing, and we are determined to cover the entire landscape”
Few would argue that there is a better spot for a morning coffee in our beloved Amsterdam than somewhere with a view of the mesmerizing canals. Luckily, our office offers just that! So, location: check. The other essential ingredient for a good coffee is good company. We have that covered too.
We sat with Sjoerd Leemhuis, CEO and Co-founder of Owlin, to talk about what the company managed to achieve over the years, where it is headed, and how the market changed in the meantime.
As a start, it is always exciting to learn how an idea is born. So, can you share more about the start of Owlin?
Sjoerd: Sure! Owlin was started in the years after the financial crisis. At the time, I was working in the payments industry and noticed a significant problem.
For example, if you buy a plane ticket and the airline goes bust, you receive a chargeback. While people might think that the chargeback comes from the credit card company, the truth is it is covered by the payment service provider.
This led me thinking that, to avoid going out of business, payment service providers had to find a way to constantly monitor all the clients they serve globally and timely identify problems like risk of bankruptcy, for example.
Companies and risk managers needed a solution to monitor risk events and to be timely alerted should a problem that might affect their operations occur.
Such an idea sounds complicated even on paper. Can you explain how it turned into a working product and walk us through the first years of Owlin’s journey?
Sjoerd: We started in 2012, after completing the Rockstart.Accelerator program in Amsterdam. To be honest, the first few years were filled with ups and downs. When we were a 1-year-old firm, we raised seed funding to speed up our development.
However, we soon found ourselves in the rare situation where our seed-backer went bankrupt. This led to some internal disruptions at Owlin and, in the end, guided us to the decision to bootstrap our way to success. In hindsight, I think this was a good decision and a learning experience as it basically forced us to listen very closely to the market needs and immediately develop a product that fitted what our users eventually wanted to have and work with.
The first few years, we were focused on building the platform, while onboarding our first client such as KPMG, ING and Worldline.
For close to a decade of existence, Owlin must have evolved a lot. Can you make a parallel between what it was at the start and what it is today?
Sjoerd: Yes, indeed. The very first Owlin platform was something like a Tweet deck. It gathered and listed news relevant to a particular topic. Its main advantage was surfacing breaking news stories in real-time. It kind of pointed companies in the right direction – where to look and, if needed, to investigate further.
When pitching to clients, we were basically saying that Owlin could give them all the news from the world in a single column. But we quickly realized that the problem was that this column could often get too long. As a result, the client got flooded with headlines, making it very hard to follow even when skimming through the news.
Furthermore, it was clear that our solution could get much more helpful to our clients if, instead of just throwing news to the user, we pre-processed them and focused more on analysis. Basically, to digest the information and provide the client with an easy-to-interpret visualization of the results.
Our clients started appreciating this function and, over time, we evolved it a lot. From being purely a newsgathering technology, we became a complete AI-driven platform that eases decision-making and risk management processes.
Today, Owlin is a powerful tool that dives into over 3m news sources in 12 languages to provide actionable intelligence and help companies control risks, identify trends, and capitalize on opportunities.
But Owlin is much more than just automation. Where does it add the most value for the client?
Sjoerd: Automation is, indeed, key for companies. Instead of performing manual Google searches for news and employing extensive teams of researchers, they can let Owlin do the hard work, and more importantly, for a fraction of the time needed and without the risk of missing an essential detail.
However, you are correct that automation isn’t everything. What is more important is overcoming language barriers, eliminating noise, and extracting the essential information. Such capabilities empower financial institutions to effectively monitor non-listed companies and ensure better transparency over their investment or client portfolios.
Furthermore, financial institutions aim at being flexible and doing this quickly to ensure their competitive advantage or avoid financial or reputational risks. Owlin’s ability to surface breaking news in real-time gives them the cushion to react if, say, one of their portfolio constituents is facing a risk of bankruptcy or is involved in some sort of controversial scandal.
Speaking of this, can you share examples of how Owlin has helped clients avoid high-risk situations like the one mentioned?
Sjoerd: Over the years, we have had multiple situations where we were aware that a client had captured a red flag and avoided a problem through Owlin. There probably are other instances that we just don’t know about.
Some of our clients in the payment service providers’ niche have shared that Owlin had guided them where to look by signaling financial difficulties of portfolio constituents. As a result, they had managed to avoid potential financial damage of millions of dollars in chargebacks.
Investment companies have also shared similar experiences.
“Recently we reviewed an investment in a supermarket with the company itself providing much information – how they try to greenify their business, improve the quality of the products, etc. On the other hand, we found articles that they had disruptions with the workforce, making them work extra hours without additional payments. And that is also a part of ESG. Having found this, we decided against making the investment.”
– Wim Van Nes, Head of Credit Risk at NN IP
I can go on and on, but what is more important here isn’t the number of high-risk situations avoided. More often, it is about the magnitude in which such problems might have affected our clients if not timely identified. We have estimated that preventing just a single high-risk event per year generates an extreme solid ROI for the platform.
And it isn’t just about avoiding risks. The platform helps our clients grow their business and better serve their own clients. For example, there was a bank that captured news for the development of a new project in China through Owlin. They weren’t aware that one of their clients was looking to invest in a big project abroad, and the bank immediately called them to say they could finance that investment.
“The combination of our platform and Owlin makes it increasingly easy for clients to access news and insights. For example, we can send them daily updates about topics of interest both globally and in Brazil or tailor specific products, which makes our approach more proactive and helps build better relationships with our clients.”
– Roberto Attuch, Founder and CEO of OHM Research
These examples indicate a strong bond between Owlin and its clients. Can you tell us more about the approach you take when working with financial institutions?
Sjoerd: When making a product for the market, you can’t just ship it and sit back and wait to reap the rewards of your work. You should be in a constant dialogue with the market to see where you can improve, what else your clients might need, and how you can help them.
However, it is essential not to try to dominate that dialogue. Although at Owlin, we have gathered an experienced team that knows the industry inside-out, we never pretend to know better than the client.
“Owlin always puts in you the center of their service.”
– Barry Landegent, Head of Merchant Potential Liability Risk at Adyen
We sit down with them, ask questions, listen, and analyze. Often, there might be a better solution than the one the client has thought of, so in the end, it all comes down to creativity and finding the best way to assist them.
“We really appreciate Owlin’s flexible and service-minded approach in our partnership.”
– Eibert Van Der Wel, Portfolio Manager of Commercial Real Estate Debt at NN Investment Partners.
The fact that we managed to grow to a point where we proudly serve over 60 clients from all across the world, including the US, the UK, Singapore, Brazil, and more, leads me to believe this is the right approach.
The last couple of years and this one, in particular, are proving to be especially successful for Owlin with a new US office, lots of top-tier clients and several industry awards received. What does this mean for the company?
Sjoerd: Interestingly, the way you worded your question and all the things you mentioned are basically the results of Owlin’s journey we talked about so far.
The office we opened in 2019 in New York was the natural next step in our growth and idea to be closer to our global client base.
This year we were ranked among the best risk management solutions for financial institutions in the “GRC Solutions, 2021: Market Update and Vendor Landscape” publication by Chartis Research. Furthermore, we were also recognized as “The Best Data Analytics Provider” by WatersTechnology.com in its 2021 Rankings.
This is a huge testament that shows we are on the right path. Going forward, we intend to step on these recognitions and build an even better product.
As we approach the end of our conversation, it might be a good idea to sum up exactly by focusing on the things we can expect from the product perspective. Can you share more about Owlin’s plans?
Sjoerd: Of course! I love talking about the future.
First, I should say that I firmly believe the key for better risk management is in the successful combination and interpretation of slow data (e.g., ratings, annual reports, and research reports) and real-time information in different languages. So far, there is no company out there with this combination of unstructured data and the ability to explore non-tangible information in as many foreign languages as Owlin.
However, we plan to go beyond that. Our end goal has always been to bring clients a truly holistic 360-degree market view. This means to continuously complement our platform with more and more data. We started with news, then added unstructured data and analysis, and we are now looking at the next step. We aim to add all types of new variables and data points.
Think of alternative data sources that can range from customer reviews, credit cards payments data to satellite images, and more – basically everything that can help our clients access next-level actionable insights from a single end-to-end dashboard.
Therefore, I am really exciting we can announce the release of Owlin 3.0. The new version of our platform embodies the latest developments in AI and NLP, bringing our clients more functionalities and better usability.
But this is just a single step in a long journey and we plan to do even more. The data universe is growing, and we are determined to cover the entire landscape. In my opinion, that’s the only way to shape a better-informed world.
If you want to learn more about the difference that Owlin can make in your organization, get in touch with us – we would love to hear from you.