“I didn’t really have a proper job before this…”

If ever you needed proof that drive, determination and a little bit of chutzpah goes a long way, Klarna CEO Sebastian Siemiatkowski is it.

While you might think the CEO of a company worth a reported $2.25 billion would have extensive boardroom experience, Sebastian Siemiatkowski earned his stripes flipping burgers at Burger King, aged 15. He progressed to the Stockholm School of Economics before hitchhiking across America, where he was inspired to cofound Klarna in 2005. Since then, the Swedish start-up has been named as Europe’s leading online payment provider and is tipped for world domination. As first ‘real’ jobs go, it couldn’t have gone much better. So how did he do it?

Hire the best “When I was building the business, I made a decision to recruit the very best people. Of course, that begs the question: what makes people ‘the best’ at what they do? It’s something that took me a couple of years to figure out. Today, I’m proud to employ people with the smartest minds and the very best experience. However, it’s not all been plain sailing.”

Listen to others “I had a hard time making it work at first. The team weren’t gelling and we just weren’t getting anywhere. My wife said that I needed to work on ‘group management’, but I was indignant – why should I do that? These were highly paid, highly qualified people – they should know better. How arrogant I was. Around this time, I ran into the CEO of Ericsson – one of Sweden’s biggest companies – and I asked him how much time he spent developing his team. He said he spends two days a month doing just that. Oh. Big wake up call.”

Draw on your experience “I started working at 15 and I’ve had a few entry-level jobs along the way, for brands such as Burger King and Coca-Cola. They made me who I am today and gave me such a feel for how a company works and how the internal processes come together to deliver the finished product or service. I spent a lot of time thinking about those processes and how I could improve them.”

Consider your audience “Most artists say that they don’t really care about the audience, but I’d dispute that – if people like what you do, you take notice. For me, building a product or company that customers love and react well to is very important. I love it when I see people on Twitter talking about how much they love Klarna – it gives me more of a buzz than anything else.”

Ignore trends “I think social media is great and is good for feedback. It can improve your insight into your brand and help you build on it. However, there is a risk, because it’s short term, reactive and can get a little moody. You have to consider that when you’re making long-term business decisions. I’ve also grown quite careful about not trying to follow the latest trends. There’s a lot of buzz relating to our industry and if I tried to tie our strategy to trends, I would have to change it every three months.”

‘Eureka’ moments are fleeting “Those sort of inspired moments are good from a storytelling perspective, but they’re few and far between. For me, it’s all about truly understanding your customers’ needs and trying to apply your technology to meet them. There has to be insight, but it’s more to do with the daily grind and striving to deliver on your strategy.”

Reinvention is rare “If you look at tech companies in general, they often think that they’re going to reinvent everything. Certainly, we aim to improve things, but it’s arrogant to think that the very fabric of society or work is about to be disrupted because of what we create. I think a lot of companies get lost in the bigger picture when they should be focusing on meeting the needs of their customers. At Klarna, we’re 100% focused on our product and on improving it. That’s it.”

Mistakes happen “I have made so many mistakes along the way. The one that comes to mind was when – against what a lot of my business advisors told me to do – I took on the job of Chief Marketing Officer, in addition to my CEO role. That wasn’t the mistake, though. The mistake became apparent when I was doing that job, meeting with my marketing team and getting nowhere, because I hadn’t been given a clear long-term vision to work with. I wanted to storm into the CEO’s office for answers – but I was the CEO! My mistake was that, as CEO, I had the vision in my head, but I hadn’t articulated it in such a way within the company that we could achieve it. We have 1,500 people working for us and it taught me that my job is to make sure everyone is working together and going in the same direction.”

Prioritise your time “Recently, I totally changed the way I plan and organise my working week. Now, I set aside a day for external meetings, interviews and operational activities; I have a day that I keep for my own private time for focused work, and to crystallise my thoughts and ideas; and the other three days are spent aligning how we all work together as a team and on planning. So far, this new way of working seems to be going well.”

Be passionate “I love thinking about work. I don’t like turning off. You wouldn’t ask Bono not to think about music, so why should I stop thinking about business when I’m away from the office? I don’t have many other passions in life – I don’t play golf or anything. However, I do have a family and when I’m with my kids, I turn off my phone and am 100% involved with them and what they’re doing.”

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: https://ink-global.com/our-clients/portfolio/easyjet-traveller/