There is a deep dilemma facing startup founders that I think just isn’t brought to light often enough. On one hand, almost all (and I do mean almost all) founders are reasonably ethical people. They can be over-optimistic, they can over-promise, they can be inexperienced around management, but at their core, they want to improve the world, build something new, and yes, make (a lot) of money while doing it.
Yet, if you really want to grow fast — so fast that you can go from piddling startup to $1.7 billion-valued banking unicorn in less than four years — then there are only so many ways to do that ethically. Or even legally, given that the laws around industries like banking aren’t designed for high growth, but rather sedentary expansion.
Here’s a lesson that I think founders internalize very, very early: growth solves all problems. And it is absolutely, 100 percent true. Growth absolutely solves all problems. Want to make your next fundraise a cinch? If you grow 5x or 7x year-over-year, watch as dozens of venture firms squabble to get access to that cap table. Want to hire faster and attract better talent? Growing at top speed is an easy way to lock in those people.
And if you think the board acts as a guard rail, you have never seen the giddy excitement of a VC who is seeing their yacht / Napa vineyard / Atherton estate being financed before their very eyes. Boards don’t ask tough questions in periods of high growth, they double down: “do everything to keep this rocket ship shooting for the stratosphere.”
In these situations, it is nearly impossible to balance growth and ethics. You can’t just say, “turn on the money laundering thing again and we will accept 5x instead of 7x” or whatever. The whole organism of the startup has been geared for growth. Hell, even the people not working for the company (but want to) are geared for growth. Every salary bump, equity distribution, performance evaluation, feedback, KPI and firing is predicated on growth.
Sometimes you get away with it, and sometimes you don’t. Uber got away with it, Zenefits did not.
So where does Revolut sit, which I’ve been foreshadowing here? By now, you might have come across the three-part story arc of Revolut, a digital banking service based in London. In part one, Revolut is a fintech darling founded in July 2015 that has since raised $336 million in venture capital within four years at a $1.7 billion valuation, according to Crunchbase.
Insane growth, huge market, real product. It’s the best first act for a startup one can possibly hope for.