Sjoerd Leemhuis about being the CEO of Owlin
At Owlin, we couldn’t do what we are doing without the great work of everyone working with us. In this interview series, The People of Owlin, we ask them about their daily work, background, and where they see Owlin going in the future. This month: Sjoerd Leemhuis, CEO, talks about shaping a better-informed world and revolutionizing Third Party Risk Management.
As the founder of Owlin, what inspired you to start the company? Can you share the story behind its inception?
I initially studied Business Administration and began my career in the financial sector as a consultant. One thing that struck me was how many things were being done in a rather outdated manner. People seemed stuck in rigid patterns at large corporations with old-fashioned practices, products, and tools. I realized I wanted a career on the cutting edge, doing something new, cool, and innovative—building things instead of just maintaining them. For me, it was the excitement of working on something that could grow and developing it with the latest technologies. I wanted to connect this new, modern approach with an old world that wasn’t accustomed to it, enabling things to be done much better and faster.
Also, I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I wanted to do something other than continue in my job in the financial sector. So, I quit my job, and with the help of two talented developers, I started Owlin. Eventually, I was able to sell Owlin’s product to the companies where I had previously worked.
Owlin had likely gone through iterations since its founding. Can you highlight any company direction changes and what prompted these decisions?
Over the years, there have certainly been changes. We are currently working on our 4th generation platform, so we have reinvented our entire company four times. Each time presents a new challenge as things change with new technologies and new people, requiring us to reinvent ourselves.
In the beginning, we were building more custom solutions for our clients, which is quite common in that phase of a company. We were a custom software house, but always with the intention of building a scalable news analytics product. Over the years, we have honed our product-market fit and better understood what works and what doesn’t. Now, we are more product-driven, better understand what the market wants, and have a sharper understanding of customer needs.
What key milestones and accomplishments has the company achieved over the years?
We started in the Netherlands and quickly acquired clients in multiple locations worldwide, leading us to expand internationally. We gained clients in the UK and soon after in the United States. We realized early on that we were already operating globally during the startup phase. The opening of our New York Office in 2019 was a significant milestone. Registering there and establishing our presence in such a key location was a great achievement.
Collaboration and partnerships play a crucial role in the success of many tech companies. Has Owlin formed any strategic partnerships or collaborations that have been particularly impactful? If so, how have they benefited the company?
Yes, we have several collaborations and partnerships:
- Fitch Solutions: This is the world’s third-largest rating agency and a major corporate financial institution. The fact that they seek partnerships with fintech companies like Owlin is significant. Fitch Solutions, with offices in London and New York, collaborated with an Amsterdam-based company like ours. This instills confidence and indicates that we are doing several things very well.
- KPMG: We have multiple initiatives with KPMG, a major global player. Once again, a larger player in the financial sector has chosen to collaborate with a smaller fintech company.
- Venminder: This collaboration is interesting because they are already well-integrated vertically, serving specific personas, and we can add more value to those personas. Through this partnership, we become even stronger together. We ultimately achieve the most important goal by delivering more value to customers.
What areas Owlin had primarily focused on regarding product development and growth strategy in recent years?
One of the significant challenges with our platform is its versatility. News and text analysis are relevant in many areas. However, when we looked at our market and the customers we could best serve, we found that most fell within the Third Party Risk Management (TPRM) domain. These companies are interested in monitoring various risks associated with other companies, including operational, financial, and, increasingly, ESG risks. Based on user feedback and market trends, we decided to focus primarily on Third Party Risk Management.
This focus is also essential for Payment Service Providers (PSPs). The largest third parties they need to monitor are their merchants. Monitoring companies traditionally rely on ratings based on financial information from past years, such as annual reports. However, news provides a more up-to-date insight into what is happening. For payment companies, speed is crucial. The earlier they can detect that one of their merchants is facing difficulties, the sooner they can prevent payments from going through, reducing chargeback risk.
Third party risk- or supply chain professionals are interested in monitoring the financial and operational health of their portfolio as well. So, the requirements are not that different. However, driven by regulation and society, we see that monitoring ESG risk can be a sole reason for this group to use Owlin.
Recently, Owlin has signed several PSPs. Could you provide more details about the use cases and explain what value Owlin’s technology brings to PSPs?
From a distance news analytics might look like a commodity. However, many tools focus more on onboarding, showing plain articles in a table. Our clients often refer to us as the Rolls-Royce of monitoring because of the various technologies we apply. We simultaneously monitor, benchmark and rank the most important events and parties, guiding clients on which players they should focus on today. This allows clients to monitor significantly larger portfolios with a smaller team and feel confident in their risk management. Some Payment Service Providers see Owlin as an insurance policy, knowing that Owlin helps them keep their chargeback risk under control.
With rising inflation, it can be challenging for startups to raise capital. How has Owlin dealt with financing and fundraising in these challenging economic conditions?
We have always operated relatively capital-efficiently with Owlin. We never wanted to grow ‘at all costs,’ but we are venture-capital-backed, meaning we have investors on board. Last year, we decided to become profitable as quickly as possible. We started focusing more on costs and implemented some cost-saving measures. At the same time, our revenue has continued to grow. Interestingly, more companies are facing difficulties due to high inflation, and we monitor those companies. Thus, the importance of Third Party Risk Management has become even more prominent, leading to increased demand for TPRM solutions.
Balancing work and personal life can be challenging, especially in a demanding role like CEO. How do you manage to maintain a healthy work-life balance?
I try not to focus on a daily or weekly basis. I’m okay with working harder for a month and then taking it easier for a few weeks, being more present for my family. It aligns well with what is needed at home. I see it as working in sprints. Additionally, I prioritize getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and exercising. These factors make everything else much easier.
Regarding exercise, our Owlin team is participating in a triathlon. The idea came up during lunch, and by the end of the day, we had signed up. We inspire and motivate each other. I now try to train three times a week for the triathlon. It helps that I spent ten years rowing, including four years at a top level.
Building and leading a successful tech company requires a unique skill set. What are some of the most important qualities and skills you believe a CEO should possess?
I think three points are crucial:
- Good listening and the ability to understand the situation.
- The ability to explain why certain things are important and what needs to be done.
- Creating an environment where people can be themselves. As a CEO, you are responsible for ensuring that everyone feels valued and comfortable and can be the best version of themselves. Together, we build the company.
As the CEO of Owlin, what is your vision for the company’s future? Are there any specific goals or milestones you hope to achieve?
Currently, our office in The Netherlands is larger than the one in the United States. However, most of our new clients are coming from the U.S., so it is a great goal to make our U.S. office as large as or even larger than our office in The Netherlands. Not driven to increase headcount perse but more driven to make an impact.
Ultimately, our mission is “to shape a better-informed world.” We are making the world a bit better by looking at signals like child labor and glass ceilings. One way we achieve this is by connecting as many companies as possible, ensuring that many people are informed. This allows us to make the world more transparent and leave it in a better state.
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- Lars Kuijlenburg about Software Engineering at Owlin
- Eduardo about being a Product and Customer Success Manager at Owlin