A Glimpse In the Rearview and Ahead – the Story of Owlin
We believe that, every once in a while, companies need to look in the mirror. Not only to measure the effect of time on themselves but also to understand how they have affected others – their clients, partners, and the market.
We sat with Sjoerd Leemhuis, CEO and Co-founder of Owlin, to look back at what the company managed to achieve over the years, where it is headed, and how the market changed in the meantime.
How it all started
The Owlin story dates back to 2012 in Amsterdam. While fairly unique, there is a single aspect that our story shares with the basis that many successful businesses are built upon – a problem that needs a solution.
“At the time, I was working in the payments services industry and noticed that companies were experiencing a major problem,” recalls Sjoerd. “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,” he explains. “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,” he concludes.
But in times when the industry was still struggling to get back on its feet after one of the most devastating financial crashes, this proved a challenging task, especially for companies with hundreds or thousands of merchants. Even with the needed workforce to perform daily internet searches for potential adverse events over the client portfolio, the language barrier, informational asymmetry, and the risk of human error remained.
“We saw a sweet spot to solve that problem through technology and the power of AI,” explains our CEO. “When we first started the company, our platform resembled a tweet deck where clients got lots of news insights. We were going to clients, pitching that they can have all the news from the world in a single column. But the problem was, the same as with a Bloomberg terminal, that the column would get flooded with headlines, making it very hard to follow even when skimming through the news,” he recalls.
The first pivotal moment in Owlin’s journey was when the team realized that, while incredibly useful, scraping the web for news wasn’t enough.
“We decided not to throw just news to our clients, but to throw analysis and insights instead. The idea was to pre-process the information before sending it to the clients and basically letting them know where we see traction and where they might have to look for opportunities, risks, or trends,” he adds further.
After a couple of years, during which the team was mainly focused on developing the technology, Owlin managed to attract KPMG as its first big client.
“This marked our transition from being purely a newsgathering technology to a complete AI-driven platform that eases decision making and risk management processes,” Sjoerd remembers fondly.
The journey, however, hadn’t been easy. Unlike other startups who kick-start their growth through funding, Owlin bootstrapped its way to success.
“I consider this was the right choice in our case 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,” reasons our CEO in hindsight.
Fast-forward to 2019 – Park Avenue, New York, champagne, and a new office as the next step in Owlin’s expansion campaign to be closer to its global client base.
Today, we proudly serve over 60 clients from all across the world, including the US, the UK, Singapore, Brazil, and more. Owlin’s solution empowers various businesses, including payment service providers, asset managers, banks, pension funds, rating agencies, consultancies, and more. The list of market leaders we work with includes NN Investment Partners, ING, Fitch Solutions, KPMG, Schroders, Worldine, Adyen, PGGM, Berkshire Partners and Newmarket.
However, how Owlin measures success isn’t the number or the scale of its clients but the successful partnerships the company builds over the years.
There are several reasons for that, starting with the depth and breadth of market coverage the technology provides.
“Gathering news and analyzing text is essential, but not sufficient for the one-stop solution we aspire to be,” he shares. “Often, the key details lay outside the media or the publicly available balance sheet. We built a platform, capable of tracking non-tangible factors, unstructured data, or even the universe of unlisted companies to give our clients full coverage of their investment portfolio or supply chain,” explains Sjoerd.
This proves to be a major difference-maker for companies with global portfolios that have to monitor thousands of companies from all across the world simultaneously.
“Owlin is an important tool to pick up these signals because we have hundreds of active clients across the globe which we can’t keep an eye on with a single team,” admits Erik Stelwagen, Senior Investigation Manager at Worldline.
Similar sentiments are also echoed by the risk management team at NN Investment Partners.
“Some of our investments never make it to the global newspapers. They are in a foreign country where the company might, indeed, be a big local player, but for Dutch or English papers, it might not be relevant, hence not covered in the news searches,” explains Wim Van Nes, Head of Credit Risk at NN Investment Partners. “The difference with Owlin is that you have the peace of mind to have swept everything and that if a keyword is triggered, you will get an alert. On the other hand, we know that if there is no signal, there is probably nothing,” he adds further.
“The idea to employ the NLP capabilities of our platform in many languages wasn’t only to help our clients build more data-driven and resilient risk management processes, but also to help them grow their business and better serve their own clients,” says Sjoerd regarding one of Owlin’s key advantages over other technology service providers. “For example, there was a banking client of ours who captured news for a 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 can finance that investment,” he recalls.
Owlin’s ability to help companies recognize risks and capture trends but also to build better relationships with their clients is widely appreciated by the market.
“When I was starting OHM Research, I was looking for service providers to partner with, and I couldn’t find any other news engine that works in the way Owlin does,“ shares Roberto Attuch, Founder and CEO of OHM Research. As an electronic research marketplace, his company delivers actionable insights to investors interested in emerging markets in Latin America. “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,” Mr. Attuch adds.
One of the key distinguishing factors of Owlin, not only according to our team but also our clients, is the constant dialogue we promote with the financial institutions we serve to further improve our solution and ease their operations.
“We have a really experienced team that knows the industry inside-out, but we never pretend to know better than the client,” admits our CEO. “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,” he concludes.
“We really appreciate Owlin’s flexible and service-minded approach in our partnership,” says Eibert Van Der Wel, Portfolio Manager of Commercial Real Estate Debt at NN Investment Partners.
This proactive attitude is also what empowered the launch of Owlin 3.0. The new platform brings improvements on three fronts – data gathering and indexation, front-end applications, and analytics to redefine the way organizations monitor risks, discover trends, and scout opportunities on a macro and micro level.
“We are convinced that applying the latest developments in AI and NLP is key to helping our clients get a competitive advantage. And Owlin 3.0 embodies just that – more functionalities and better usability for more complete market coverage and better identification of key risks and potential opportunities,” explains Sjoerd.
Owlin’s upward trajectory continues to date. The first half of 2021 marked a major success as our company was ranked among the best risk management solutions for financial institutions in the “GRC Solutions, 2021: Market Update and Vendor Landscape” publication by Chartis Research. As a market leader in three different quadrants, Owlin joins global-leading technology and know-how service providers with decades-long history.
“While the number of successful client partnerships we have built over the years is a testament of the value our platform adds to their businesses, getting recognition from such a reputable organization makes us even prouder,” shares our CEO. “It shows we remain faithful to our mission to shape a better informed world and ease financial institutions in their transition from manual and audit-based risk management to automated, machine-driven advanced analytics,” he continues.
Going forward, Owlin intends to step on this recognition and build its future with ambitious plans already in place.
“Our approach from the start has always been to seek ways to employ more data. We started with news, then added unstructured data and analysis, and we are now looking at the next step,” says Sjoerd regarding the company’s plans. “We intend to enhance our solution with all types of data that can help our clients build even more accurate models,” he adds.
Owlin’s end goal is to capitalize on the growing alternative data landscape and continuously enhance the platform’s intelligence functions through new variables and data points. To bring clients access to next-level actionable insights, Owlin plans to consolidate an extensive set of alternative data sources that can range from customer reviews, credit cards payments data to satellite images and more. By connecting all dots, the platform will ensure a truly holistic 360 degree view of the market from a single end-to-end dashboard.
If we should sum-up Owlin’s future plans in a single sentence, let it be Thomas Edison’s famous saying: “The possibilities of advance are infinite, sir, infinite.”
If you are interested in what possibilities Owlin can open for your business, feel free to get in touch with us.