• Adam Wrona

Payroll systems of the future

Adam Wrona interviews Piotr Smoleń, co-founder of symmetrical— a start-up that builds technology for a changing global payroll system bringing financial wellbeing to both employees and employers.


Adam:

How did your interests and experiences lead to the founding of symmetrical?


Piotr:

The answer is quite simple. Before symmetrical, I ran a company called Turbine Analytics which I sold to a private equity firm in California, after six years of running it. What we did in Turbine was help financial institutions manage risk and build new financial products for the end-users. Working for six years for financial institutions and understanding how the products are created, I just realized that a large number of people are significantly underserved in a very unfair way.

After selling the previous business, I started symmetrical just to be on the other side of the table— to help people and employees, and accelerate better, cheaper financial services. One of the core ideas is that employers are great “data oracles”. They underwrite financial services as on one hand, they can bring valuable data— the payroll data, and on the other hand, they want the employees to feel better and more motivated so they can also be distribution channels. So this is why we started symmetrical more than two years ago. A couple of months ago, we pivoted. The initial idea was to connect the fintech financial technology stack with the payroll stack so that we can deliver better, cheaper financial services to the employees. Then we quickly understood how payroll works. The way payroll is structured doesn't make sense, and we decided, instead of building just an access feature of the payroll stack, to replace the whole payroll stack. So what we do today is deliver global payroll rails— an API payroll solution you can just integrate with our system and run payroll for your employees programmatically.

Adam:

Is symmetrical a Polish-British startup or is it a global company now?


Piotr:

For us it doesn't matter; meaning that the way we think about our business is that we build next-generation core infrastructure for global payroll.

So our ambition is to build one API for all of the markets in the world in the next three to four years that will enable running payroll fully programmatically. The first market for this new product was the UK and now we live in Poland. We will be entering Spain, Italy, France, and Germany very soon. We define our business as a fully global business and we will not be limited only to Polish or British styles. Actually, what we do is we build mirrors to companies like Stripe or PayPal; but the money goes oppositely, not from people to companies but from companies to people, globally.

Adam:

You've mentioned a few words about a manifesto that was the cornerstone of symmetrical. Can you tell a little more on that topic?


Piotr:

The initial insight was that the way in which the financial products are being underwritten doesn't make sense. In the manifesto, we proposed a much better way of how the financial products should be created, designed, and shipped to the users; and the business led us to different verticals. Our manifesto is not that valid now. While we do something different today, we have the same philosophy that most of the problems in the world can be better solved programmatically. The trend you see is that programmatic marketplaces are replacing centralized old school processes organizations; e.g., Google and Facebook launched a programmatic marketplace for monetization of user attention— the currency is a click. Through a programmatic approach, our first manifesto touched financial services over the programmatic architecture of financial services in the future. Actually, where we are today is we're just having the same approach on how to radically simplify them, and we approach the same principles to the payrolls. We then found that the payroll industry is the next big market for us.

Adam:

How has Covid affected your business and the market as a whole? Have you noticed any notable trends?


Piotr:

To be honest, we haven't been fully operational at scale before Covid. I don't know what would have happened before Covid; the only reality I know is post-Covid. Covid helped us make a business decision to pivot our business, and that was a major impact on our business. What has changed in two years that enabled us just to go into this new direction is that the pandemic enabled global remote work. Before the pandemic, it was extremely rare as work was done in the local silo everywhere. Now, it just created an opportunity to build global rails. I strongly believe that salary on-demand is a great feature but a very dangerous one. It is actually the movement of money in time with different prices and terms. When you're moving money in time, you need to be responsible to do it; so credit is also moving on in time. If you buy insurance, it is moving money in time. So, I believe that the most important part is just educating users and helping them make better financial decisions. In symmetrical, we are building infrastructure for the payroll side but most probably, it will not be our job to help end-users in financial decision-making.

Adam:

Do you think any new laws should be imposed when it comes to salary on-demand or is the current law enough?


Piotr:

I believe that in the future, you will have superfluid access to your salary, and I think it's fair. It is also possible even today with our technology stack. I see no reason why people cannot get access to their money the second day they did the job. Of course, it's quite difficult to say how to think about the regulations. On one hand, I believe that you should be able to access your money the moment you make it and on the other hand, of course, there are some people or users who will not use money responsibly. The big question is whether it should be controlled or governed, or not. I'm not a very good person in that. There are much better people in the regulatory space that can make these decisions. Personally, I believe that people can have freedom for how they want to be remunerated. There's no reason why getting freedom on how you're paid should be regulated, but maybe there could be some reasons to do it.

Adam:

Last year you received 5.6 million euros for the development of symmetrical. What are your plans for further development?


Piotr:

We have pivoted and our current plan is to build this global infrastructure for payroll.

Definitely, the first markets for us will be the biggest European countries to be covered with a single API and that is just happening now. In three to four years, we want to cover all of the world. We want to be present in 180+ countries with a single API and we will need much more money to make it happen.

Adam:

Jakub Czarnota, who was a partner in your previous firm, Turbine Analytics, is a graduate of our university. What advice do you have for our readers, and people interested in finance and technology? What should they do to one day become founders of successful fintech startups, such as yourself?


Piotr:

If I could go back in time, I would have done two things differently. Firstly, I would have worked for at least a year at a successful fintech in the product department to better understand how the products work. I think that all successful startups of the future will be product-led, customer-centric companies. I believe that the product skill set is the most important skill set in the business. It is really difficult to get a product job in London or anywhere else. Secondly, I would have definitely tried to learn a little bit of coding, a little bit more than I’ve learned already. I’m just a basic coder and I would like to better understand the technology and the options it creates. I believe that the estimated rate of return from going the entrepreneurial way is much higher than the traditional career paths we can choose after graduation. I think it is worth risking, but first of all, learn the product, second of all, a little bit of coding, and then build your own stuff.

Adam:

Could you recommend any book or podcast that is connected to the financial technology sector?


Piotr:

Yes, I can actually recommend some great podcasts. First of all, Acquired Podcast is just a fantastic podcast about the history of great technology companies. Definitely, a Fintech Insider Podcast by 11:FS is a great resource of knowledge about fintech news. I also listen to Invest Like The Best- a great podcast as well. I really like the In Depth podcast; it is done by one of the VC funds. I’m not sure if there's a particularly good book about fintech and I would really encourage anyone just to read more books about the product because it is crucial in fintech. Definitely Empowered is the ABC book for the product, but Escaping the Build Trap is good as well. The last thing I would recommend is The Art of Game Design— this is just to think about the product as a game so you can build even better products for your users.



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