What do the TV shows Suits, Madmen, and Billions have in common? Money, and with money at a corporate level, it’s all about those big expense accounts. However, the world of expense accounts isn’t all about hiring limousines and corporate jets. It’s also a kind of status symbol.
Giving a company card to an employee shows that they’re important and the company trusts them.
While this is great for those employees, what about those who don’t have expense accounts? Most businesses handle this by getting employees to spend their own money and then refunding them. In the meantime, it’s a lot of hassle for those employees to essentially lend the company money.
What is the solution to this when businesses don’t want to hand out company cards to everyone?
In this Disruption Talks interview, we spoke with Sara Brooks, VP of Sales at Pleo, about Pleo’s unique solution to company expense management.
Filip Sobiecki: Can you tell us what Pleo does?
Sara Brooks: Pleo is a Danish startup that’s around five years old. It’s focused on a mission to kill expense reports. We’re trying to basically automate it and eliminate all the hassle of doing expense reports, from filling in forms to lending your company your personal money. I think that it’s completely mad that we still do this and expect entry-level employees to do it as well.
Could you give us a little personal introduction on how you landed at Pleo?
I joined Pleo two years ago. Before that, I went to university in England, joined a Norwegian startup called Meltwater, and then I joined the SaaS world. It has been an exciting journey where I got to travel a lot and set up offices and build lots of teams. About ten years later, I came across Pleo and made the jump there.
Right now, I’m responsible for sales organization which is around 50-60 people now. We’re in six markets European-wide, and we’re just getting started to be honest. We’re on a pretty exciting growth journey right now and had a really strong last quarter.
What does a day in the life of a VP of sales look like?
I spend the majority of my time doing two things. One is coaching my team because we’re growing really fast, so there’s a lot of coaching and training.
When I’m not doing that, I’m sitting in strategy meetings. There’s a lot of strategic planning in terms of our business model, pricing strategies, market launches, and so on.
You mentioned Pleo is in a high-growth period. Can you tell us more about what that’s like during the pandemic?
Like most companies in Europe, we were hit in March last year, and as we’re spread across Europe, it came in waves. Some markets reacted better than others. For example, Sweden never went into full lockdown while the UK did.
It was pretty dramatic for us at Pleo. We’re mostly an expense management solution, but when the majority of Europe went into lockdown, no one was really using expense accounts anymore. They were all working from home. Things like travel, team-building events, and meals out stopped overnight. It was a major crisis in the first few weeks and months last year.
However, we were very successful with selling our tool despite that. I think the reason for that was because we were so quick to adapt. We changed our ads and messaging to not be about dinners and hotels but about subscriptions and working from home costs instead. It really paid off.
You mentioned Pleo had a successful last quarter. How successful was it?
With COVID, we put a lot of our hyper-growth plans on hold and, by doing so, freed up a lot of resources to do other things. Instead of focusing on all the things we weren’t doing anymore, we focused on what we could do really well, and the success of Q1 has been a direct result of that.
We’ve been improving our workflows, infrastructure, sales methodologies, hiring, and training. This has allowed us to sell expense management to companies still in lockdown.
Who are your competitors, and how is Pleo different?
The competitive landscape is quite interesting. Whenever you have a disrupting technology, there are usually legacy players. However, the legacy players in our space aren’t direct competitors. They are solving the same problems but in different ways.
In our case, one aspect of the competition is the banks because they can create company cards for businesses. Other major players are the expense management tools out there. However, our direct competitor in all this is Excel. Plenty of companies still rely on manual processes.
In terms of how we’re different, I’d say there are many ways. We’re different in terms of our technology, infrastructure, team, culture, priorities, and missions.
From the technology and infrastructure side of things, we focus on a number of things that I don't think anyone else does. Anyone can be a card issuer, but what sets us apart comes down to our relationship with MasterCard and the banks. We take away the middleman, and that makes us feel confident about growth and the security we provide customers.
The other thing that sets us apart is trust. Many companies worry about giving employees access to expense accounts, for example, entry-level staff or interns. What most companies do is help them block access to these people.
What we do instead is make everything so transparent that everyone can see who’s spending what. We believe that people behave better with company money that way.
How does Pleo adjust its offerings across the six European markets?
We’re selling the same product in our markets, so we don’t adjust it for Spain compared to Denmark.
Certain countries are much more traditional and less eager to adopt new technologies and automation than others. Some places are much further behind than others with things like accounting software integrations. Some countries are also much more conservative and less open to trusting employees with accounts, which can be challenging.
What are the benefits of a trust-based work environment?
I think it makes a huge difference. Entry-level workers purchasing train tickets or computers out of their own money when they start is difficult, especially if they’re a new graduate with a small salary.
If that employee is given a company card instead, it changes how they feel about the company. From the get-go, the company trusts them. Trust, for me, is a direct correlation to responsibility and respect.
Trust is connected to loyalty. I think when you trust someone, you gain their loyalty. When you have someone's loyalty, they have a sort of in-built responsibility and care for the environment that they’re in. I think Pleo does this incredibly well.
What can Pleo learn from expense data?
We’re capturing a lot of anonymous data from expenses and can draw analytics and trends. We can see how spending behavior has changed in a company, and all our customers receive full analytics of their spending.
I think this is definitely the way forward in terms of how companies use this information to cut costs or be smarter with their spending. This also allows companies to look back on their spending if they have Pleo for several years and assess which quarters are more expensive for the company so they can plan ahead.
Do you have a decision-making framework for making day-to-day decisions?
I think for me personally, it's a little bit more of a common-sense approach. I think decision-making can be really painful. Some companies find it difficult to make a decision, so I think internally, we try to make it as simple as possible and as quick as possible.
Are there any legit reasons for employers to be more careful or restrictive with expense accounts?
I think if you are working with consultants, people who are not part of your company, it would be difficult to grant them access to company money. However, even then, I think there are ways to manage it in a better way.
Do you think employers could use Pleo to connect expense cards to the company’s perk system?
This is an area we are really curious about right now because there’s no connection between those two things yet.
What we’ve seen is a lot of new companies using these cards specifically for the benefits. Right now, there’s nothing preventing a Pleo customer from using their card for that, but it’s not necessarily a points-based system with rewards that we offer.
Say you had a magic wand and could teach all the 12-year-olds in the world some new knowledge, what would it be?
I think being able to teach young people to differentiate between trusted internet sources and user-generated content is important. I think it’s really damaging because people are so uneducated on this topic and struggle to see the difference between fact and fiction.
This discussion is part of our Disruption Talks recordings, where we invite experts to share their insights on winning innovation strategies, the next generation of disruptors, and scaling digital products. To get unlimited access to this interview and many more, sign up here: www.netguru.com/disruption/talks