In 2005, Sebastian Siemiatkowski co-founded Klarna, a payment solutions provider based in Stockholm. He currently serves as its Chief Executive Officer. In 2014 the company processed 30 % of all sales online in Sweden and is valued at $2.25 billion. Over the past decade, he oversaw the company’s rapid growth across Europe and more recently into North America.
Sebastian has received multiple awards for his leadership, including runner up in the 2015 global EY Entrepreneur of the Year award, Leader of the Year by Adecco, and European Entrepreneur of the Year Award by TechTour. He holds a master’s degree from Stockholm School of Economics.
What were your early years like?
I was born in Sweden of Polish immigrants. Both of my parents were intellectual and had capacity for greatness, but in Sweden my father ended up as cab driver and as a food inspector checking in on restaurants. My mother had a problem with her back and retired early. She couldn’t go to work, so instead she became a painter and sculptor.My parents divorced when I was 11 years old. Back then, I thought that money could solve any problem in life, but over the years I learned that this is not necessarily the case; money doesn’t always bring happiness.There was something about becoming financially successful that intrigued me. As a kid, I used to spend a lot of time coming up with business ideas, and I read a lot of business books about successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. I started working early in life — my first job was flipping burgers at a Burger King fast food outlet. Then I worked in telesales, making cold calls and selling products. At age 21, I was promoted to become the manager of the sales team. It was the first time I started to learn about managing a team.
What has been your biggest challenge?
When we started Klarna we were only 3 people — now we employ more than 1500 people. The scaling infrastructure changed massively and grew to much greater heights than we could have foreseen. My challenge is to consistently push myself and set high expectations. At each stage of my career I’ve questioned my ability to succeed in new and challenging environments. I ask myself if I’m good enough, if I’m growing and changing fast enough, if I am adapting to changes. I’ve had to push myself to take new steps. I think it is important to lead by example. I can’t expect something from others that I wouldn’t expect from myself. I consistently reflect on what is it that I could do to improve in my roles, and to me this reflection is crucial in order to feel that I am doing a good job.
What are some important leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Early on, I learned that if I wanted to build a large and successful company, I would need to go out and find the right people to work with — people who have the ambition and skills to help me achieve my ultimate vision. It is important to establish a world-class team.
As a manager, I was sitting in a position in which I was consistently chasing goals. A year before I started Klarna, me and my co-founder, Niklas, travelled around the world for half a year without flying, moving from one place to another. When I came back from that trip I felt like I was twice the age I was when I left. My brain was stuffed with as many memories from that trip alone as I probably had from the rest of my life. Because our environment changed daily, I still vividly remember unique events from each day. Through this experience, I came to realize that it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters. While I do have high ambitions for Klarna, I make sure to enjoy the journey and the challenges that we are facing.
How would you describe your leadership style?
As a leader, I am quite tough. I think that all people are driven by different things; many are driven by the prospects of making a career, achieving financial success, promoting change in the work environment, or by social aspects. All people have different motivators, and these differences are important. Over my working years, I have realized that I strongly desire to build a great company that has a positive impact on the world. For me, my company’s impact is my most important driving factor. Therefore, I strive to create an environment in which my company can achieve this purpose.
How do you motivate your team?
I like to surround myself with people who are highly motivated. To a large degree, many people are self-motivated and good at what they do. Their motivation often surfaces when they are placed in an environment where they can make an impact that can move mountains. Therefore, employers must ensure that their employees work in an environment in which they can fly.
What is the key to your company’s success?
The key to our success has been our ability to deliver for our customers. I think a lot of companies get caught in their ambition to change the world. But what should really be driving companies is the potential to make their service even more attractive and better for their customers. The most important thing to a company should be to build an awesome product; once that is achiever, the rest will fall into place. The product should be something that the consumers truly appreciate, and that helps to make their daily lives easier. This is the purpose that we strive to achieve.
How do you hire?
I am very keen to understand people’s backgrounds, including where they are coming from. To a large degree, I am looking for their motivating factor — I want to see that they have the drive and hunger to accomplish great things. To this end, I’ll often ask the following questions: “Tell me about yourself? In your last job, what were your responsibilities? What changes have you made since leaving your previous organization, if any? And why?” How a person answers these questions helps me to determine his or her real character.
Should you yell at someone at work?
It is not acceptable to yell. In trying situations, I would first need to identify and understand what the problem is and why it isn’t working itself out. Does the problematic person not have the abilities or resources to completed the job, or are they having other difficulties? The best way to solve these problems is to sit down and try to understand what’s going on. When I see that an area isn’t functioning effectively, I try not to jump to the conclusion that people are not performing or that the problem is their fault; I look at all possible explanations for the problem.
What advice do you give to young people?
If you are having a bad experience then it is likely that you can change it, and if you want to better something then you may need to change your own behavior. Success comes from having new experiences, testing ideas, and analyzing outcomes by asking yourself what you did right or wrong in a particular situation, and what you learned from it.
When I advise young entrepreneurs, I tell them, “It’s not about figuring out the best business ideas, and it’s not about solving problems theoretically, but it’s about testing your ideas. It’s about coming up with an idea, and then trying it and learning from it.” Building a successful business is about your ability and about how often you can conduct these self-evaluations.