Marie Steinthaler is Head of Strategic Expansion at Zopa, Europe’s largest peer-to-peer lending service. They match sensible borrowers with low rate loans with smart lenders looking for strong returns by cutting out the need for the bank inbetween. Marie has deep expertise in technology start-ups, having developed a Swiss army knife of skills in the process, as well as an in-depth understanding of consumer web, media, FinTech and mobile.
“…we pull together people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, which is very important when you’re building financial products which are targeting more than your average middle-aged white male (not pointing any fingers, Silicon Valley…)…”
Please can you tell us about your career to date and what first got you interested in working in finance?
I arrived in London over six years ago, with no clear plans on what I wanted to get into. Finance was always an interest – part of my degree was economics-based – but I did not pursue finance jobs back then. I started off in data and insight consulting, working with big retailers and utilities to understand their customers better.
I was introduced to Zopa through a friend about a year later. They were looking for someone to join their marketing director in a team of two to build out customer insight and social media marketing. It was really eye-opening – I had no idea what a venture-backed company was, that it was possible to completely disrupt a market from the ground up, and that someone with my level of experience could get so broadly involved and learn so quickly.
After Zopa, I explored the wider start-up ecosystem. I worked on a community website building tool that let people in clubs build their own sites to manage their groups, consulted on a big data social media analytics platform going through a pivot from B2C to B2B, and most recently, was part of the team that built the UK’s favourite kids video-on-demand and learning app and launched it in over 100 countries.
Pretty diverse, I’d say! The common factor across everything I’ve done has been improving how people interact with technology and unlocking the power of tech to make the world a more transparent, efficient place. That sounds cliché but that’s that.
As for what got me interested in finance – there are three things that are incredibly important to me: working with super-smart people, building products that genuinely impact consumers’ everyday lives, and the ability to see how my work makes a dent. Finance, and particularly the intersection of tech and finance, ticks all these boxes.
What does your role at Zopa involve on a day to day basis?
I look at all the things Zopa could do and figure out if we should do it, and how we’d go about doing it if we decide we should. That could be anything from new products to new geographies to new ways of working together internally. On a day to day basis, I work a lot with development and product, as well as user research and risk analysis. It’s great being about to interface with various parts of the business, and see things come together.
You worked at Zopa as Marketing & Insight Manager for just over a year between 2011 and 2012 – what made you want to come back?
After about one and a half years at Zopa, I moved on to explore other parts of the start-up ecosystem and broaden my experience in other sectors. Fast forward a few years to today and I’ve accomplished that – I have a very deep understanding of consumer tech, product management, and driving growth across various industries – and the opportunity at Zopa was perfect. We’re now right in the middle of the rapid growth stage and it’s very difficult to understand what that means until you’ve experienced it. As someone who’s done a bunch of early stage work and product / market fit finding, this was just the ticket.
I’d mention the incredibly smart team and disruptive technology, but obviously, those were also there back in 2011. It’s great to see that that is very much still the case – and continues to get better. Zopa has bold ambitions, and bold goals attract bold people!
Zopa is growing fast! (Revenues jumped from £5.4m in 2013 to £11.5m in 2014, and they are on track to more than double them again this year to in the region of £23m.) How to you keep up?
As I said above, it’s hard to put into words what a high growth environment feels like. Every week, we have a bunch of new joiners, so just remembering people’s names is a challenge. Fortunately, these kinds of companies attract people who relish these challenges. You have to be highly ambitious, able to make connections quickly to see where you can make the most impact, and make your own work. If everyone on the team’s doing that, it just works.
In terms of me personally, I read a lot. Read read read. Then of course, speaking to people in similar businesses to share war stories helps. And finally, always bringing yourself back to the problem you’re solving. We are making money fair and simple for people, and everything we do is filtered through that lens.
What have been the greatest challenges in terms of getting the public to understand and embrace peer-to-peer lending?
The very first question every lender asks is “What happens when people don’t pay back?”. So there’s the risk question, and explaining to lenders what mechanisms we have in place to mitigate and manage risk.
This ranges from our exceptional, prudent risk management (which we’re very transparent about – you can download our entire loanbook, look at historic performance, and even pop by Zopa HQ to speak to our risk team!) to diversifying every lender’s cash across a number of what we call microloans. If you put £1,000 into Zopa, this gets split into 100 microloans, spreading your risk.
On the borrower end, it’s not as difficult to get people to understand why peer-to-peer is better. We offer fantastic rate, an award-winning customer experience (we’ve been voted most trusted personal loans provider six years in a row by Moneywise!), and the emotional advantage of paying your interest to another person, not some faceless corporation. Everything’s done online, and because we’re smarter with our risk models, we can price more fairly.
Who are your female role models?
I admire Nathalie Portman, who is not only an amazing actress, but moreover very intelligent, involved in ethical causes, and just inspiring all round.
Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, is an extraordinary person. Even with all the controversy around Theranos recently, I still think she is showing not just women, but people in general, what is possible if you set yourself huge goals.
Finally, a friend recently told me about Octavia Hill, and blew my mind in the process, as I’d never heard about her before. She was a 19th century social reform campaigner, founder of the National Trust, and incredible woman. Look her up!
Why is London such a great location for finance and also tech?
We’ve got the major financial centre in the City of London. We’re close to major artificial intelligence hubs Cambridge and Oxford. The UK regulator is forward-thinking, supportive, and keen to see more innovation. And we pull together people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, which is very important when you’re building financial products which are targeting more than your average middle-aged white male (not pointing any fingers, Silicon Valley…). New York and Hong Kong have similar a make-up, but we’re right between them, so we get the additional time zone benefit.
What are your ambitions for the future and what is coming up next for you and Zopa?
I’m excited about Zopa in 2016 and beyond. We’re operating in a massively interesting space and I couldn’t possibly say what it’s going to look like in 12 months’ time. In six months, the organisation will probably look very different, and yet again in another six months. This opens up a lot of opportunities for thinking big, but also executing on these ideas. I can’t give too much away about what I’m specifically working on, but rest assured it won’t be easy – which is a good thing, otherwise everybody would be doing it!