S02E11: Clay Wilkes, Galileo

This episode’s unicorn interview sees us joined from Utah by Clay Wilkes, CEO of Galileo. With Galileo being acquired by SoFi in April 2020, Clay talks about the successes Galileo has seen during the pandemic, and that working with SoFi has been an incredible opportunity for business. Clay also discusses the importance he places on reading regularly, outlining that learning from great minds is the key not only to personal success, but fostering a company wide culture of self-improvement. Listen to this episode for a fascinating insight into how a global payments company is run and how Galileo dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic. The interview, as ever, was co-hosted with Russell Goldsmith of the csuite podcast


Russell: [00:00:00] Thanks for downloading the latest in our series of episodes of the csuite podcast that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR Agency Tyto, and their Own Without Borders podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications. My name is Russell Goldsmith and my co-host for this series of interviews is Tyto’s founder, Brendon Craigie and today we’re thrilled to be joined online from Utah in the US by Clay Wilkes, CEO of the global payments processing platform Galileo. Welcome to the show, Clay


Clay: Thanks so much

Russell: [00:38:74] Great to have you here. We thought we could perhaps start by you giving us a quick introduction to the business, maybe an overview of how you support your customers, but also what the longer-term vision is for the company.

Clay: [00:50:13] Certainly, Galileo provides API access to a robust core banking technology, which allows our clients to run and manage enterprise grade banking offerings. As such, we support 70 out of the top 100 most valuable fintech companies around the globe. So, this is companies such as Chime, Robinhood, Transfer Wise, Varo, Monzo, Revolut, Remitly, SoFi and many, many, many others. So, what we’re doing is we’re providing this API access that our clients can call and they in turn can offer services out to their customer. And we’re providing the back office or technology stack behind it all. In terms of the direction of the company, the combination with SoFi, has allowed us to bring the two companies together and bringing together both digital and banking payments offerings of Galileo in support of our clients, as well as the credit and lending and invest products of SoFi, really provides the strategic direction of the company and this includes offering these types of products out to our clients and to the Fintech ecosystem generally. It also includes expansion into additional geographic areas. For example, we’ve recently expanded into Latin America, into Mexico, and we’re having tremendous success in Latin America as we move into countries such as Colombia and Brazil and Argentina. And so that’s a big part of our current trajectory.


Brendon: [00:02:31] That’s really exciting. As Russell said, it’s great to have you on the show, Clay. One of the things that I guess, the big events for you this year was the acquisition by SoFi for $1.2 billion in April. I wonder whether you could talk a little bit about the background to that deal and also whether or not getting that unicorn valuation has changed the perception of your business at all.

Clay: [00:02:56] If you go back to April, the discussions that were going on between Galileo and SoFi were occurring in March, and March was really the first month of the global pandemic, and in the United States and globally, the markets were in meltdown. So, we were really in the midst of turmoil financially. I believe that we had hit 30 percent deceleration in the public equities markets, which was faster this year than had occurred just before the Great Depression. So, it was really a time of uncertainty. So, to be able to consummate the transaction was really an important milestone and a big event for us, for Galileo. Bringing the two companies together, it was really an incredible opportunity for Galileo, but more importantly, for our clients and for SoFi. SoFi, of course, has been a fintech leader in lending and being able to bring together the banking and payments capabilities of Galileo with the lending offerings and be able to offer those out to our clients, is really why we brought the two companies together, and it’s been the thesis as well as the go forward strategy for the company.

Russell: [00:04:22] Clay, you touched on Covid just there. We’re recording this interview just a week before the holiday season, at the end of what’s been a pretty challenging year. How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted on your business and the markets and that you serve?

Clay: [00:04:38] There’s been quite a few changes. The first is, like a lot of other businesses, we’ve had to learn how to work from home. So not only being able to provide the innovation capabilities that Galileo does and do that remotely, but growth, managing growth. I mean, Galileo has grown dramatically, and I’ll talk a little bit more specifically about the offerings here in just a minute. But just being able to manage the internal component of that growth in terms of bringing on new people, new employees has been interesting and challenging. But we’ve been able to adapt and do it successfully, fortunately. From an offerings perspective, Galileo, of course, powers, at least in North America, 95 percent of all digital banking. And so that digital banking, during the pandemic has seen unbelievable growth and it’s been really interesting to watch.

Brendon: [00:05:33] Interestingly, you talk about that acceleration of digital banking, I guess thinking about what the situation you’ve been in has forced a lot of companies to think more inventively and probably had to deal with different constraints that they wouldn’t have otherwise had to. Have you witnessed a lot of innovation within FinTech during this year, either that you’ve been part of or that you’ve just observed that has excited you?

Clay: [00:06:03] I wouldn’t say necessarily innovation that occurred within the year, there’s been a few, but they’re not necessarily obvious. I would describe what’s occurred during the pandemic really as preparation and being in the right spot at the right time, both for Galileo and its clients. It’s been described that Amazon was built for the pandemic and digital banking was as well. But if you hadn’t built Amazon before the pandemic, there would be no way to build it during the pandemic. And that’s true of digital banking also. But what has happened is that these companies that have been focused on digital banking have seen dramatic growth. And Galileo, of course, has been powering that and been a big part of it. And that’s been the most exciting thing specific to the pandemic. There have been other innovations and these are things that will be coming out into the general market within the next, say, 12 to 18 months, and those are going to be very, very exciting.

Brendon: [00:06:59] So rather than Covid being a primer of some of these innovations, those things are maybe still to come. The next wave of innovations.

Clay: [00:07:12] Yeah, that’s right and I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as pandemic specific. There are things that we’ve seen and witnessed that are coming out that are, for example, an evolution in a digital banking offering, for example, a credit solution. These are the things that are interesting and exciting.

Brendon: [00:07:30] And we noticed that you’d recently brought on board a new CTO and I think you talked about how that person was going to help take your payment processing platform to the next level. Could you give us a sneak peek of what does that mean?

Clay: [00:07:47] Certainly, Jeff Currier is our new CTO and it’s tremendous to have him aboard. Jeff’s background, he was actually at SoFi. SoFi was a client of Galileo before the combination. So, for the year, year and a half before they were a client utilising our platform. So, he had been familiar with Galileo. His background before SoFi was Twitter, Amazon, he was a core part of the offering around AWS, as well as a founding member of Microsoft Azure, their cloud offering. So, he’s got deep and extensive cloud experience, which is really relevant to what Galileo is undertaking right now, which is a move from our on-prem environment to the cloud, which would be widely available first quarter of 2021, so we’re just a few months from that. But Jeff has been tremendous. He brings a lot of maturity, a lot of deep and rich technical understanding and knowledge and has been a great addition to the management team.

Russell: [00:08:54] Clay, a key part of the discussions that we’re having with our unicorn leaders is on communications and culture within the business. It would be great to just understand what your approach has been to raising awareness of the business and differentiating yourself in, I guess, what must be quite noisy and crowded area.

Clay: [00:09:13] Yeah. Early on we were kind of going through growth. The need to be able to get the message out about who Galileo is and what we do, I would say was really focused on guerrilla tactics. It’s not easy. Somebody that’s in start-up mode and trying to make a name for themselves, it’s a matter of persistence and just staying with it. Galileo grew significantly, I would say, over the last five to seven years. But before that, building the foundation and building the capabilities and the technology that would power that, so in other words, watching the market grow into what we were doing and what we were offering was a big part of this growth and awareness and that continues today as we extend into additional global markets and other capabilities. But raising that awareness is not necessarily an easy thing, especially in a bootstrapped environment, which is what Galileo was doing. And so, we didn’t go out and raise a lot of money and we took a nice, slow, deliberate approach to our growth and fortunately, it paid off.

Russell: [00:10:24] What were some of those guerrilla tactics?

Clay: [00:10:27] Well, it has to be sort of hand-to-hand combat and what I mean by that is having the individuals in the company that are out interacting with the market in a one-on-one sort of way. And so, it’s step by step, it’s bringing in, closing a deal with a client, developing a relationship with a networking company such as Visa or MasterCard, potentially a bank partner. And each one of these things builds on itself and so that’s what I mean by a direct marketing approach.

Russell: [00:10:59] And what about, the company culture itself? How have you built that over the long term?

Clay: [00:11:06] For Galileo, it was key for us to define the Galileo core values and to really focus our company and company mission around what we believed in. That was a big part of it. I think leadership plays a key part of it. Certainly, the CEO is a key role, of course, but the leadership more broadly in the leadership team and Galileo had a long tenured team that was able to work very effectively together. It’s been, I think, a big part of what we’ve done culturally. The Galileo Foundation is another kind of key part, but it’s just an affirmation of our core values. So, one of our core values is focusing on the earth in which we live. And we would provide, in addition to the credits or available funds that might be available for purchasing an EV, an electric vehicle in the United States, Galileo would provide a $5,000 rebate. So, if you went out and bought an EV, we would provide $5,000. These are the kinds of things that Galileo was doing that were actionable, that sort of supported our company culture and our core values.

Brendon: [00:14:22] Well, I’m glad you picked up on that, because we were going to ask a little bit about the Galileo Foundation. What was the inspiration behind that and what things have you been focused on through the Foundation? And how does that support your company culture?

Clay: [00:12:37] The inspiration behind it was really allowing employees, their family and friends, partners or clients and other contacts or associates of the company to really get out into the world and to do something for somebody else. So, we managed the foundation was really focused on areas of the world, such as Peru, India, Nepal. And there were a number of expeditions where our experiences that we provided in support of our company culture; we would provide, in addition to PTO, that’s just standard paid time off for either illness or our vacation, we would provide humanitarian paid time off so as a separate bucket and we would pay employees to go on these expeditions. And so, I think, over the 12 plus years that we were initially focused on the foundation, we’ve done many, many approaching 100 different expeditions into different countries. And it’s been a tremendous experience, both in terms of learning about the world that we live in and focusing on something more important than ourselves or our immediate community.

Brendon: [00:13:58] One thing that we’re interested in exploring a bit more is, maybe this is particularly interesting, given how we’ve all had to adapt to working from home. What’s your philosophy around internal communications? I think when you’re a leader, you have a role leading and communicating with a wide group of people. But equally, you also need to be communicating with individuals and I just wondered, how have you managed to navigate that, particularly working from home? How have you kept those internal channels of communications flowing?

Clay: [00:14:32] There was certainly a shift in moving to an at home environment for Galileo. The office environment was key to the way we communicated previously and particularly my style of communication, which was perhaps more spontaneous. So, you know, being in an at home virtual environment, that is, let’s say Zoom-based, is a different style of communication. So, I think it’s key to continue to have, one on one, which has been a big part of Galileo and the way that we have communicated, you know, I encourage that not only between the members of the management team, but, all of their employees, all levels of the company, daily stand ups and other regular written communications, these are the ways in which Galileo has communicated internally.

Brendon: [00:15:26] A personal observation I’ve had is I think that although people have adapted very well to working from home, I think listening to you, some of that experience you’ve had of working very closely with people prior to the pandemic means that you’re able to have good relationships with people remotely, whereas I think if you’re having to forge those from a complete blank slate that’s much more challenging.

Clay: [00:15:52] Yeah, I think that’s right. The other point I would make about working from home, we’ve seen a number of adaptations that I think have been really interesting. For example, there’s been a group at Galileo who, they don’t want to do necessarily work communication, so what’s missing is this interaction of the office and one of the groups agreed every morning to get up and have coffee together. So, they weren’t talking about work things. They were just, socialising and visiting and having their morning coffee.

Russell: [00:16:22] In our interview with Mike Massaro of Flywire, he was talking about the fact that, just occasionally he’ll post in Slack, saying, here’s a link to Zoom, I’m here for the next hour, anyone want to jump on. Do you have any of that more informal, because Zoom can be quite formal, you’ve got scheduled, you know, or whatever platform you’re using, very scheduled meetings, do you have anything that’s kind of informal like that?

Clay: [00:16:47] That’s a great suggestion. I may start to use that throughout the rest of the pandemic. I’ve often wished for a mechanism like that because my style is to just kind of walk down a hall and look for the open office and drop in and have a spontaneous conversation, which you lose completely with Zoom, so partnering that with something like Slack, that’s a great idea.

Russell: [00:17:14] Yeah, I thought that when I heard it. And what about in terms of, we’re talking internal comms there, what about your role as an external spokesperson and representative of the business? How do you view that and what have you learned along the way? Did that come naturally to you?

Clay: [00:17:29] Well, not necessarily. I wouldn’t say it came naturally. As a CEO it’s very important that you’re communicating of course, externally. It’s the CEO’s role is to be the chief communicator, I think in many regards and I’ve had to learn that to the extent I have learned it, I would say I’m still learning it. And so, I wouldn’t say that, at least for me, it’s something that sort of, OK, now you’ve hit that status I’m still growing and learning in that role.

Brendon: [00:17:59] Is it possible to ask you, what have you found most challenging and have you had to formulate a plan to address any particular areas?

Clay: [00:18:07] You were asking earlier about what it means to go through that $1.2bn acquisition and one of the things that was challenging for Galileo, was that validation, achieving that validation. We hadn’t taken private equity and to the extent that you don’t do that, you get overlooked by the analysts then and because you’re being overlooked by the analysts, the press. And so how do you achieve that and how do you communicate effectively in a world where it’s not really set up to do that, especially in the bootstrapped environment. So, this was one of the big challenges that Galileo had. And we were fortunate to be able to finally overcome it. We did before just prior to the SoFi acquisition, take a round of funding from Accel, which validated much of what we had been working toward. But many, many of our clients, of course, were in these various analysts’ coverage and Galileo was not. And so that was one of the big challenges of effective communications.

Russell: [00:19:25] And what about as well as challenges, have there been any mistakes that you’ve made that you’re willing to admit to maybe, that affected the way you’ve then done business in the future?

Clay: [00:19:30] Yeah, absolutely, it’s hard for a company to go down a 20-year journey and not make mistakes. So, mistakes in terms of product offerings and definition, people that we may have hired, products or relationships that we either started or put into the marketplace, direction even and pivots, these are all things that if you could see them clearly and execute flawlessly from the beginning, would save time and money. And I don’t have a specific one in mind, but they are certainly out there. I’m reminded of the incredible success of Apple and their iPhone. But for anybody that was an Apple fan before the iPhone came about, we’ll all remember the Newton. And I would say that was a flawed product. But without the Newton and that flaw, I don’t know that Apple would have been thinking necessarily and clearly about the way to approach the iPhone. And Galileo has had similar part of our journey.

Brendon: [00:20:36] And along that 20-year journey, has anyone given you any communications advice that you’ve really hung onto or really benefited from?

Clay: [00:20:46] One of the things that I think was a benefit for me, especially over the last five to seven years, and this is going to sound silly, was the amount of reading that I was doing and while the advice was not given to me specifically, one of the things that I noted and read about Bill Gates early on was the amount of reading that he did, and he described that as the single greatest factor in his success. And I think that was true in our journey as well. And because of that, it affected our culture, I was encouraging our company to read books, read good books that I had read along with me and we started a book club. And we would meet weekly and, ultimately, we were buying books off the book list for any employee that wanted to request them. So, these types of things of learning from the best minds that are out there and the experiences that they’ve had are key to success.

Brendon: [00:21:45] Were they predominantly business books?

Clay: [00:21:48] Not always. There certainly were business books, but there were books about life and life’s journey and success and sort of unusual ways. ‘The Boys in the Boat’, as an example, was the first one that comes to mind it wouldn’t describe as a business book, but it’s the lesson of tenacity. And that is absolutely one of the things that was a key part of Galileo’s journey.

Russell: [00:22:15] What was the last book you read?

Clay: [00:22:17] Let’s see.

Russell: [00:22:18] Put you on the spot there,

Clay: [00:22:20] I’m trying to think, what is the last book? The last book I read was a book on the sinking of a Russian submarine and raising it off the ocean floor. They raised it with the Russians watching and they raised it in the middle of the ocean, they’d carved out a boat that could open up the middle of the boat. And they raised it right in the middle, right in the middle of this boat and stole it out from underneath the Russians. So very, very intriguing book and again, not about business,

Brendon: [00:22:52] Just on the book piece Clay, what do you credit that is doing for organisation? Is it about getting people to come together to explore an idea and therefore building a sense of team? Or is it about gaining a sense of perspective about what’s going on in the world? What do you credit that as doing for your business and your culture?

Clay: [00:23:14] It’s more formative than that. I’m reminded of a book that was talking about the advent of containers and how simple things like a container and container shipping as compared to bulk break shipping changed the world. And so, if you read about an idea like that and read about it in depth, it opens your mind to a different perspective. And while containers are not what we do, the question is, is how does that change the perspective and alter the way we think about our problems that we face.

Russell: [00:23:48] While we’re on this topic, what are the three books that have influenced you the most?

Clay: [00:23:52] Wow, that’s a great question. I would say that there’s been many, many so would be hard to narrow it down to three. But just three that come to mind quickly are ‘A Crack in Creation’ by Jennifer Doudna. She, of course, won the Nobel Prize just last year but before that, just a week or so after that book came out, I asked my entire family to read that book because I think it might be one of the most impactful things that humankind has to deal with. And along that line, the books that I’ve read and been inspired by that relate specifically to AI, for example, ‘The Master Algorithm’ by Pedro Domingos, is particularly impactful. We were talking about the Galileo Foundation earlier and the ‘Mystery of Capital’ by Hernando de Soto is truly remarkable in terms of better understanding the world that we live in and specifically the third world and the challenges that they face. Back to AI, ‘Our Final Invention’ [by James Barrat] is interesting. I think one of the most impactful books that I read was a book by, also Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. I would say if I had to pick a book, that would be potentially the book.

Russell: [00:25:13] Out of interest in terms of reading books and hopefully listening to podcasts, has your media diet changed at all through the pandemic, through working at home? I don’t know, as a CEO how much you travelled before and whether or not you used that time to catch up on reading or listening to podcasts. But how has that changed over the last year?

Clay: [00:25:34] Pre pandemic as a CEO, I was traveling a lot, I was on the road a lot. And yes, I would use some of that aeroplane or travel time as time to read and catch up. It’s harder to find that now because it feels like we’re working constantly. In fact, you kind of lose track of the days. And so, the media diet has definitely changed for me during the pandemic. It’s harder to find that time right now to find that personal reflection and reading time. So, you have to force it.

Russell: [00:26:05] Yeah. It’s interesting you say about forcing it because there’s someone I know is a business coach and she can’t help going into coaching mode whenever I talk to her actually, but she was saying about the fact that because she’s lost that commute time, she’s put in her diary an hour walk in the morning and an hour walk in the evening. And that’s where she’s catching up on her listening or reading, or whatever it might be, because it’s come out of her natural day. So, she’s forced it back in there, which because otherwise, like you say, you’re at home, you come down and you’re straight into work mode and you’re not putting those breaks in which I think is quite important. Clay, we’ve got one final question for you that we’ve been asking all our unicorn leaders, and that’s if you were to go back in time and speak to your old self, what guidance would you give yourself about communications? And also, what steps would you encourage yourself to take in order for you and your business to excel in comms?

Clay: [00:27:04] Well, it’s a really good question. My journey, at least at Galileo, specifically related to communications, is, I think, marked by personal growth. And I think that what I would say to my younger self is, I would challenge myself to get out and do that communications more clearly, more succinctly, more specifically, more directly. Earlier on, I think that’s really, really key. And being able to articulate the company’s strategy is really important, especially as you’re starting a new and young business. And so, it’s a key capability.

Russell: [00:27:47] Fantastic. Clay Wilkes, thank you so much for taking the time to join us and speak with us online today.

Brendon: [00:27:53] Thanks, Clay.

Clay: [00:27:54] Thanks for having me. Really appreciate it.

Russell: [00:27:58] There you go, Brendon, Clay was our second unicorn from North America, thoughts on what he had to say?

Brendon: [00:28:04] Well, yeah, I really enjoyed that, I thought Clay shed light on a different perspective that we’ve not really explored much, I think, in any of the other interviews we’ve done, which is that I think a lot of the other conversations we’ve had have very much focused on what’s going on within an organisation. And I thought it was very interesting the way that Clay has built a culture around, looking outside of Galileo, so whether that be encouraging everyone and putting a real focus on getting people to read books and explore different ideas and different challenges that people have encountered in completely different industries, or whether it’s about the Galileo Foundation and launching expeditions to 100 different places in the world. I think that idea of getting people to look outside the organisation and inspiring the organisation internally was a really interesting point and certainly something that I’m going to be borrowing.

Russell: [00:29:05] It must be great to work for the organisation and have that Foundation as something that you can get involved in as well and he’s clearly so passionate about it.

Brendon: [00:29:13] Definitely.

Russell: [00:29:14] Well, that is actually it for this latest episode in the series with Tyto. If you want to find out more about Galileo, then their website is Galileo-ft.com. We’d love to hear your comments on today’s chat, you can share those on our Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter feeds. And those are all linked from the top of our website at csuitepodcast.com, where you’ll also find all our previous shows and supporting show notes plus links to where you can subscribe for automatic downloads of each episode via the links of Spotify and Apple. And if you’ve liked what you heard, then please do give us a positive rating and review. We’re of course, available on all podcast apps. Just search for the csuite podcast and please hit subscribe. You can also subscribe to the ‘Without Borders’ podcast from our partners at Tyto and all the details for that are on their website. Just head to TytoPR.com, click on the podcast link in the top Nav bar and you should find it all there. If you are a unicorn leader yourself and you’d like to be part of this series, please do get in touch via the contact form on the website at csuitepodcast.com, plus, of course, anyone can get in touch too, with any feedback you may have. And finally, if you want to reach me, you can do that via Twitter using @RussGoldsmith or you can find me on LinkedIn. But for now, thanks for listening and goodbye.

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