As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Gabriele Musella, Founder and CEO of Coinrule — a smart assistant designed exclusively for cryptocurrency traders.
With over 15 years of experience in domains such as FINTECH, Telco, Science, Banking, he has has been able to seamlessly navigate through a range of innovation management roles around 5 countries — Finland, UK, USA, Hungary, Italy- working for UBS Bank, Nokia, NHS, Vodafone, IBM, WPP, Lloyds Bank, etc.
Gabriele holds a BSc/MSc from the Polytechnic of Milan and has undertaken several executive business programmes at the L.S.E and Harvard University.
He is a Lead Mentor at Google Launchpad, and a Mentor at StartupBootCamp, and Virgin Startups.
Thank you so much for your time. I know you’re a very busy person; our readers would love to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?
My background is in UX. I worked in several innovation labs at different banks in London. Before that, I worked in the US at MIT in a research lab, and previous to that, I also worked in Finland, mostly on Nokia Siemens projects. I was taking care of complex data, user experience, product management, and analytics. That’s my background: a design path morphing into business/entrepreneurship.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
The funniest mistake is when I showed up in a full suit and tie for an interview at Google. I didn’t know how relaxed they were. So I just showed up with a formal outfit, too formal. And that was probably a mistake. That was the first of many interviews there, they ended up wanting to meet me every year. After four years of nice chats, I stopped applying.
Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that
The lesson was to do a lot of research before starting a new job, to understand the culture. Understanding the audience you have in front helps in adopting the language, to fit in, still preserving your singularity.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to words who helped you get to where you are today? And can you share a share a story about that person?
Yeah, Robin Bade. He is now one of our advisors in Coinrule. He was one of the first investors in Coinrule and one of the first to believe in us, as well as he was the person that inspired me to become an entrepreneur back in the days when I was working in Finland in 2009. It was an inspiration; we kept in touch and followed my journey across startups till the present day. He got to see first-hand all the lessons I learned over the years. Eventually, He was ready to invest when He saw that Coinrule was a future-looking venture and a potential profitable business built by a complementary team. On the other hand, I got inspired by him, by watching his work at Activeark WPP in Helsinki. We had big clients like Nokia, and the perseverance he showed in being able to start with a very small project within a big corporation and then expand to different capabilities and different units within Nokia, made me think a lot about how to develop a business.
It was like seeing a business case applied in real-time in front of me. Something clicked in my mind, with that vendor strategy and with the leadership style he showed to the whole team. Within a few years, he became one of the leading suppliers of software, digital creatives, and marketing for Nokia.
Anticipating customer’s demands, even if it would waste some resources and Robin’s pro-active, yet calm, sales process, was a key factor in that escalation. The way he built the team, with many specialised experts and amazing partners, like Kasper, Creative Director, made me really want to build an interdisciplinary organization and add value to society through a scalable product. That was a big inspiration for me for starting my first company.
Extensive research suggests that purpose driven businesses are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision? What was its purpose?
The vision was to allow ordinary people to be able to manage their investment in an active way. People work so hard to save money, to have them eventually controlled by some else, or be almost forced to deposit your savings into “black box” investment acconts giving a 3%-5% return every year is obsolete. Out there the market is managed by bots, hedge funds, and investment banks with access to tools that ordinary people cannot access. Coinrule’s vision is to level the playing field between these two groups. We believe in less inequality in society. If we can upskill ordinary people to manage their finances and teach them how to do wealth management, we can create a better society even with small amounts. Everyone can join the game, and everyone can invest and even support good companies, resulting in less manipulation of markets.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now return to the main focus of our discussion, can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
That’s a very recent story about Covid in February. We were in the middle of a fundraise with a negotiated Term Sheet on the table. After having had several conversations with a prominent VC in London for the last few months, we finally had the round sorted. However, within two weeks from the Covid burst, the deal changed completely.
The valuation of the company got cut by 60%. We found ourselves in a situation where we had to accept a terrible deal, a “shark deal”. Considering our valuation was now much lower and the new round was offered just with a 20% premium, I felt that the team was not being rewarded in the right way. My main goal was to preserve the team motivation and preserve the value of the work that was created so far. In parallel, the start of the financial crisis was a big challenge because, on one side, we had the opportunity to get the money straight away. However, it was a bad deal. The deal would compromise the company on the other side now could have also sorted and solved many problems that appeared in terms of Finance.
Ultimately, we made the right decision. We cut all founder salaries to almost zero, we put some staff members on Furlough and by doing so, we hoped for the best while preparing really for the worst. We reached out to tons and tons of investors, and, within three months, we were able to raise funds at a valuation we wanted. The valuation we wanted was at 4 million pounds, the round it’s almost close now, but it’s oversubscribed. Overall, we had a couple of months of uncertainty, mainly March, April, and May. But then we started having the first tickets in, and so we kept going, I must say one thing that also helped us a lot was the R&D claim back from the HMRC tax and the tax relief. That kept us going together with furlough, and then the first angels started investing. The COVID situation and the lack of funds made that phase a very challenging period.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? And what sustains your drive?
Not really; the only time to give up is when it ends. We always take an optimistic view — there is still a solution to a problem. Although, there was no sleep for a few nights, I was reading, strategizing, and trying to find a solution because giving up is never the answer. In fact, my co-founders and I always repeat ourselves that if we aren’t doing the right thing, we should close the company. Difficult moments are more like conscious moments while we thrive to do the right thing for the company — for our people in the team — instead of just accepting the present moment.
Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges?
The motivation came from the vast community we have around Coinrule. Users write to us every day. Some of them hate us, some of them love us, it is a sign they want and need Coinrule. Our product adds value to their lives and that drives the whole team in persevering and looking into the future; our community is a only significant source of motivation.
What sustains your drive? What keeps you going?
What keeps me going is knowing that, bit by bit, we can improve society. So even if it’s a tiny part — our user using Coinrule’s product few minutes per day — I know we are contributing to solving inequality, worldwide.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It is to push and follow through on an idea, even if sometimes everyone else think it is crazy. Having some calculated risk in place and being stubborn in exceptional times helps. At the same time, understand what the team and company can sustain in the long-term. Our team reacted very well to the ‘call to arms’; I gave a speech in March, and everyone was very conscious and responsible and took a small cut to move forward. None of the guys we had in March left beacause of Covid. I must say, connected that that, a period of crisis is the best time to start a company. Overall, being occasionally stubborn in your leadership style and understanding the needs to balance that with a smoother management approach is the most valuable skill to have.
When the future seems so uncertain, what’s the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It’s about reminding team members that they’re doing this not just for themselves but for the greater good, something bigger than any individual. Usually, good people tend to uphold good values, and those values can include their families, network, and their principles of crafting the best experience for other people. It can also be contributing to their own community in the neighborhood, but you’re stepping up to taking responsibility for something bigger than yourself. That’s what motivates at least some part of the company; everyone is different; we have introverts, extroverts, different genders and backgrounds. Overall, it’s understanding that the work we you do can have an impact on your destiny as well as the fate of someone else. Having responsibilities like those ones typically pushes people to step-up.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Over the years, I found that the best way is to be very rational and logical. Phrase it in a way that highlights the constructive element and the positive element situation by being very realistic on the downside and being very upfront and transparent on the upside. The actual person on the other side of the table can weigh these two elements. They can understand rationally, and logically the context in which they are in, and unusually, this approach works very well because you give people the space and already the tools and the analysis for them to rationalize the situation internally. Therefore, to overcome that situation or shocking news.
Thank you. How can leaders? How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Planning is good, plans are bad. The act of planning is good, to direct you and to make you point your nose in a specific direction. Planning gives you an idea of the upcoming schedule looks and how to organize time and effort. It’s important to note that plans are worthless, even if you’re not in a crisis. Because the world nowadays is fast-paced, technologies like basically brought your mind to us at an accelerated speed that is not sustainable. The fast-paced environment causes plans to be frequently changed and altered to fit current conditions, and if a plan is always being changed, it becomes more of a prediction than a plan. Leading to plans becoming more like a real time stream of months.
Is there a number one principle that can help guide the company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Culture in your company, having some values written down. Values that have been discussed beforehand and agreed upon, really help keep the company together. Like pillars, showing why we as people are in the same group building something for others, values can be good hooks, hold the team together, and persevere in a very difficult time.
Can you share three or four of the most common mistakes you’ve seen other businesses make during difficult times?
One mistake is not to cut the budget straight away. That’s the first thing — the gas for a car. And that’s something to keep under control. Actually, minimizing spending because cash is necessary in those times is important too. If you can take extra loans, grants, even some more funding, take it, even if you know later on you will have to pay more interest or collaterals. Recently I’ve seen many startups make the mistake of forgetting monitoring the cashflow and, instead, focusing only on acquisition.
The second mistake is also not being amble to change leadership or management approach. For example, with COVID, we modified our processes for two months; we switch to ‘command and control’ management. We were in a crisis, and we had to ship specific features, to be deployed live for our users. The fact that we have users who are waiting for this feature and we know that this feature will be very lucrative means we’re working to bring additional revenue to the company, so I switch to command and control. Consequently, the agile development was paused for a couple of months; this is not something that every company does. Having a collaborative, participatory approach or any other leadership style you have. It’s not always the best in every situation.
Last but not least, first-time founders, tend to scale too fast — most of the time, they scale when they don’t have the right offering in places, they are not generating enough revenue, the business model is not yet reliable. Yet they try to scale to widen their offering leading to them stretching themselves too thin. Reaching the point where they can’t take care of the current customer segment that is generating the revenues is the most important aspect at the beginning.
What should one keep in mind to avoid that common mistake?
If you keep in mind that one or two primary products drive most of the world’s big companies. If you think about Google, it started with a search bar to search by Stellar. If you think about Dropbox, it’s just like folder management and the cloud. Considering Amazon, they still have the same core proposition. It will be there forever, and you need to be strong in that before adding all the units and other products.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times even more during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Yes, it is different for Coinrule because at the moment all our marketing and traffic are one hundred percent organic. We have several growth hacking tools in the company, hence, we didn’t have to cut the any paid-marketing budget. On top of that, I usually try to find parallel alternatives to paid tools. Then start looking for all kinds of funding. So it’s important to watch and explore all the options, be creative, and do not be embarrassed to ask for support, to have advisors or mentors. You must keep your customers, the ones who are paying as close to you as possible, rewards them with some of the perks you know are not costing anything to you while adding a lot of value to them. In those times, you need to keep the customers that you already have as happy as possible because they generate recurring revenues that you may need for the next few months.
The primary question of our discussion, based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead an effective de to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each
During uncertain times the first action a business leader must take is a “call to arms”. It is essential that the team is on the same page and informed about the current situation. When I was in the innovation lab, we had to prove ourselves with specific projects, and there was a particular moment where we were working with command-control style for a limited amount of time to deliver a specific project, a MVP. It ended up being a good approach at the time.
Similar to what I stated before, try to manage and measure the budget from every single source and angle. Counting each source and doing that as fast as possible helps inform you about where you stand. That’s something that we’ve done in Coinrule and in other startups too. After cost-cutting, you must start exploring alternatives in terms of funding. I’ve seen many of our colleagues in other companies in London exploring the innovate UK grant or talking with some consulting, like ratifying how to take advantage of the European loans or like all the bounce back loans. So exploring alternative finance, even if you postpone and the repayments of some of the interest that will incur from taking a loan.
Stick to your values, the values of the company that you have agreed on with your team. Stick to them. Always recall your values during meetings, make principle-based conversations about what we are thriving for. Inject new hope, trust, and reliability in the discussions you have. I’ve seen that done in companies when they were having huge digital transformations. In UBS, leadership used those values to drive transformation, and it was pretty tricky especially in typical waterfall/9–5 banking environment.
The last one is to predict what will happen, research your competitors, what they are doing, speak to your co-founders, talk to them, be alerted about news, and predict the next six months. With scenario building, you can understand and be prepared for what’s coming.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”- Winston Churchill
This quote was very relevant for me while beginning my entrepreneurial endeavors. Prior to Coinrule, I started two startups, which I consider a soldi learning experience. Eventually, you reach a point in th elife of the organisation where you genuinely need to work very hard and push forward to attain lon-lasting success. Once your company becomes sustainable, you must keep learning as the business is running. That is where I see myself now with Coinrule.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Connect to me on LinkedIn, check out our Crowdfunding Seedrs campaign on http://Seedrs.com/Coinrule or our blog where we share our exciting stories about what’s happening in the company. They can also write to me at [email protected]