How to turn your startup into a mature company with Murali Akella, CEO of RationalFX

Murali is the CEO of RationalFX, a market-leading foreign exchange and international payments company who have facilitated over $12 billion of international payments for their 180,000+ registered clients across over 170 countries.

Murali was previously at TransferWise where he led execution for platform strategy with financial institutions globally and started his career in Accenture’s technology division.

He shares some of the ways he established strict disciplines and structure when scaling a start-up, the cost of not preparing and setting out the foundations first and the importance of cultivating a culture where people are not afraid to fail.

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How have things changed for you since the pandemic?

On the 17th of March last year, we were a 100% working from the office company and on the 22nd we were a 100% working from home company. We went in knowing nothing about how to handle ourselves and how to take care of our health.

It’s been vastly educational; we’ve done a lot of learning by doing and have had to develop a fearlessness of failure. We’ve developed a culture that allows for failure without penalisation, acknowledging that things do go wrong.

Were there any significant changes to your overall business position or business strategy?

During the pandemic, the uptake of digital payments has been on the rise. People aren’t walking into a branch to make a payment; they’re forced to now do it on the Internet. Therefore, the adoption of digital payments in the industry itself has gone up rather than come down.

Foreign exchange digital players have been around for a while, but then choice came along, and customers became more discerning. They were no longer forced to choose the one that is closest to their office, instead the Internet has allowed them to choose providers more carefully.

Thankfully, our customers chose us on many occasions and we had many repeat bookings come through. Because of that behaviour, we realised that we did not have to pivot our strategies as much. All we had to do was perfect the channels that we had with our customers by looking at how we acquire them, how we liaise with them and how we retain them.

We were, however, more critical of ourselves than ever. We effectively started to say, what are the riskiest parts of our businesses and started asking ‘Do we need this?’ ‘Is it healthy for us to do this now?’ ‘Is it going to have long term benefits for the company?’ Yes, or no? If the risks outweigh the benefits, then we don’t want it.

Was being a CEO, something that was always appealing to you?

Absolutely not. When I started my engineering degree, my dad and I were very keen on the idea that I would be building bridges, buildings and trains, not finance.

My grandad was a civil engineering professor and he told me that there’s a university up north in India where if you open your windows, you can see the Himalayas – beautiful. That’s where I started my civil engineering journey. Four years later I decided that it would not be beneficial for humanity if I built anything similar, so I pivoted towards my love of computers and tech.

I got into Accenture, then I started writing lines and lines of code. I started to ask myself what’s the point. My interest then drifted towards what happens because we code. This is when I started to consider fintech and to my luck, one of my classmates was down to visit and he asked me to come with him to his interview at the bank. He came up with the idea that I go and talk to HR and 15 days later I had a job offer and I was working for Standard Chartered. Then my manager asked me to join him in Singapore and 20 days later I was there.

Do you think it was the 20 years+ of doing the different jobs in the industry that gave you the confidence to become CEO?

In the back of my mind, it was reassuring to think that I’ve seen this drama before from a different side of the table. I also took comfort in the fact that I would always be standing on the shoulders of giants. It was also reassuring to think that even though I probably wouldn’t know a lot of the stuff I needed to know, the likes of Besos, Musk and any other CEOs on the planet have learned how to be a CEO by walking through the fire themselves. You just have to learn by doing.

We have to have the humility to acknowledge that I don’t know many things and I’m relying on my team to help me figure this out. When in times of indecision, I will lean on them to help me find the right way forward. And that is again a question of trust. I think that’s what helped to not terrify the living daylights out of me as I joined this role.

What are the biggest challenges you are facing at RationalFX?

When we decide to change and when we decide to grow. There will always be resistance. The people that have been here for years said this is not how we’ve done it before. However, the key elements are to be receptive to change and to spend time laying the groundwork for change.

I’ve personally made mistakes or have seen this mistake being made in other places, where people want change, but you want it to happen overnight. That doesn’t make sense – if you could have done this before you would have done it.

You have to lay the groundwork. Resource more people, build better processes, use tech that works, use customer feedback to ensure what you’re building is what they want and make sure it’s a sustainable change.

How do you ensure the long and short-term strategic goals are in sync?

The things that you do tonight, the things that need to be done by tomorrow and the things that need to be done next quarter, six months, and over the next two years – balancing them in such a way that one aligns to the other that is the job.
And more often than not, these decisions are not made based on data or with full visibility, but the lack thereof. You need data to make better judgements.

You need to paint a vision of the future and go towards that saying you will not accept a compromise of any of the data points that lead you there. There is a chance that it might fail, but contradictory to that, you have to have focus and have courage before you embark on your plan to ensure it succeeds.

I force myself to reflect on what I said I would do in the past quarter or week compared to what I have done and make sure I tick off the things that get missed out. I also consider how these plans will become a brick in the overall wall of plans that we have.

If I see that I’m spending a lot of time firefighting and that brick is not being built that week, then I go and ask my team for help to take a share of the responsibility. The process speeds up once you’ve acknowledged that you need help and start to involve others.

Are there any big leadership learns that have shaped you into being wired the way that you are today?

The first thing for managers is we’ve got to treat people like people. I don’t have contacts. I don’t have networks. I have friends and I tend to treat every single one of them the same and don’t think of people as contacts, but human beings. It gives you a different kind of expectation and reasonableness when setting goals.

I realised that when I hire people, I hire them for their attitude, not for their aptitude. By insisting that people need to have done what I want them to do, I’m giving them stale work. And secondly, although there is a risk for me, if somebody is hungry, is willing to put in the time and energy to learn about a role, then he or she is actually on the same footing as someone who’s done it before.

What have been the biggest or standout challenges in creating and maintaining a strong culture during the transition from a 100% in-office business to a 100% remote business?

One of the things I’ve realised is that virtual meetings are all well and good, but setting a vision virtually dies a very slow painful death in a zoom meeting. You cannot have strategic long term motivational conversations through zoom because it sounds fake, even if you are the most authentic person on the planet who believes in the vision that you’re trying to convey.

What are you most optimistic about right now?

I am optimistic about growth. It’s like the Churchill quote – never let a good crisis go to waste. What’s happened in the fintech industry is that bad risk management got weeded out. One way to go about it was to have an attitude that is “oh wow this is difficult we need to adapt, adapt, adapt!”

Working at a company with high growth means that our people will grow and find new opportunities and do bigger, better things all the time and this is part of the challenge. I’m ultra-confident however, that my people will be the hungriest client servers in the industry and I’m incredibly happy about that.

Now imagine if we can harness that focus, look in the right places and invest our energy in exactly the places where we want the most optimal return, then we should be able to see synergy from a lot of our people working alongside each other.

Is there one thing that you think people should know as a leader?

One thing I would love to see in any leader is the willingness to accept vulnerability. More often than not, I find that the more senior you go, the more there is a need to be right. I think the more important thing is to acknowledge that you are as human as everybody else. In my eyes, firstly that makes your life easier and secondly, it communicates to the rest of your people, that it’s fine to screw up. By being willing to embrace our human vulnerabilities, we are defining our culture, and this will influence people’s decisions in the future.

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