Maintain Consistency and Agility: The ability to be consistent yet adaptable to changes is invaluable. Whether it involves developing new products, exploring new markets, or adopting innovative business models, being prepared for shifts in the business landscape is essential.
As part of my series about the “How to Navigate and Succeed in the Modern World of Finance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mindaugas Mikalajūnas.
Mindaugas Mikalajūnas, the transformative force behind SME Finance, a fast-growing Baltic fintech company, is redefining the financial landscape for small and medium-sized businesses. With 13 years of banking and finance experience, Mikalajūnas is employing his project management expertise, honed at a leading Scandinavian bank, and forward-thinking leadership to provide businesses with a unified platform for their financial and daily banking needs. His vision for digitally-enabled growth has catapulted SME Finance to impressive success, doubling in size every six months. As the CEO, Mikalajūnas continues to drive innovation, cementing SME Finance’s place as a rising star in the fintech world.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My journey with SME Finance commenced in 2016, when three former bankers came together to address the needs of the underbanked SME sector. It was clear to us that the SME sector, despite being the largest business sector in Europe, was largely overlooked by traditional banking systems. Our shared frustration with the bureaucracy of the banking industry spurred us to establish SME Finance as a means to address this discrepancy.
As the CEO of SME Finance, I’ve been involved since its inception. I joined the team when we were just three individuals fueled by a big idea. This year, on May 15th, we celebrated our 7th anniversary, marking our journey from a humble startup to a progressive enterprise. In the beginning, our operations were confined to trading unlisted bonds and offering factoring services exclusively to SMEs in Lithuania. Our vision in 2016 was to become Lithuania’s leading alternative financier, providing innovative and custom solutions to small businesses. Over the years, SME Finance has grown significantly. We’ve transitioned from a small startup of three individuals to a dynamic team of over 200 professionals. Today, we’re committed to reinventing financing services for SMEs, not just in Lithuania, but also across the Baltics, Finland, and the Netherlands.
Our growth has been propelled by our steadfast commitment to empowering SMEs with the necessary financial resources to succeed. To adapt to our clients’ evolving needs, we’ve expanded our services and invested in developing cutting-edge technologies.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the funniest mistake we made when starting out, given our tendency to concentrate more on the lessons learnt, I can share our most significant misstep. In the nascent stages of launching SME Finance, we undervalued the role of technology. We didn’t perceive an immediate need to incorporate technological solutions, as our primary focus was on providing financial services to SMEs and securing our foothold in the market.
As we started growing and expanding our services and reach, the vital role of technology in bolstering efficiency, scalability, and customer experience became evident. We began to notice that our growth trajectory was hampered by our lack of technological infrastructure. This insight prompted us to reconsider and invest in technological solutions to meet our burgeoning business demands. In retrospect, this oversight was a significant error. Integrating technology into our established systems and processes was a challenging task, requiring us to take several steps back.
Reflecting on this, I’d advise any business to prioritize investment in innovation and technology from the get-go, or at least parallel to business expansion. By doing so, we could have saved considerable time, avoided numerous challenges, and ensured a smoother expansion process.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Absolutely, we’re continually embarking on exciting projects. Currently, we’re in the process of developing a comprehensive financial services platform, which encompasses an AI-driven financing solution and a mobile app named “smeGo”. You can already find “smeGo” available for download on both Google Play and Apple App Stores.
Our primary objective is to revolutionize how small and medium-sized enterprises, digital businesses, and freelancers across Europe access their working capital. Our AI-driven financing platform is designed to provide accurate and impartial lending decisions within just an hour, thereby dramatically enhancing the lending process.
Innovative elements of our project include “smeGo”, a singular platform and mobile app — these together constitute a robust financial service infrastructure designed specifically to empower and support European entrepreneurs.
Our platform and app will enable customers to access data-driven financial services for secured and unsecured SMEs. Services include business loans and credit lines, invoice financing, factoring, leasing, revenue-based financing, and embedded finance solutions for non-financial businesses, as well as integrations for marketplaces. The purpose is to make access to financial services faster, more efficient, and more user-friendly.
Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the central focus of our discussion. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started what was its WHY, its purpose?
Our purpose, or “WHY,” has remained consistent since the inception of SME Finance. We were, and remain, dedicated to supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with their financing needs.
Our motivation stems from the understanding that SMEs form the backbone of our economy, representing the largest sector within it. In Europe alone, 90% of all businesses are SMEs. Despite their substantial role, SMEs often encounter challenges in accessing essential financing. Having experience in the banking sector, I can attest to the hesitation traditional banks often have towards SMEs due to the perceived higher risks. This apprehension frequently results in these businesses struggling to secure the necessary funding they need to expand and prosper.
At SME Finance, we firmly believe in the importance of championing and aiding the SME sector. We acknowledge these businesses’ vital role in our society and economy and are committed to closing the financial accessibility gap.
We empathize with the unique hurdles that SMEs face. Therefore, we focus on providing innovative financing solutions, custom-tailored to their specific needs. Our aim is not only to empower these businesses but also to contribute significantly to their growth. We believe in the potential of SMEs and their capacity to stimulate economic prosperity, job creation, and innovation. Furthermore, our goal extends beyond merely offering the best financing solutions to SMEs; we strive to build lasting relationships based on trust and partnership.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Indeed, my guiding principle, especially during the ups and downs of running a business, is to maintain a positive attitude regardless of the circumstances. Positivity fosters a healthy mindset and contributes significantly to overall mental well-being. A positive attitude is particularly essential in a business environment, even more so when steering a fintech startup. It sets the tone for the entire team and fosters a healthy and productive work culture. Moreover, adopting a positive mindset aids in problem-solving, always providing better solutions.
Running a fintech startup can often be a chaotic routine, a sentiment I’m sure anyone in the industry would agree with. So, another principle I abide by is not just focusing on what tasks need to be done, but how they should be accomplished. I tend to break my tasks into smaller parts, considering the steps needed to achieve each component. This approach reduces anxiety and fosters a clearer mind, helping maintain focus and productivity amidst the chaos.
If a fellow business leader would ask you for advice about whether to bootstrap or to look for VC capital, how would you help them weigh the pros and cons of that decision?
When a fellow business leader asks me for advice about whether to bootstrap or to seek VC capital, I’d suggest they first consider the pace at which they aim to grow and expand their business. If their aspirations involve exponential growth, such as a 10x increase, and plans to break into new markets, introduce new products/services, or swiftly enlarge their team, VC capital might be necessary. However, if their growth goals are more modest and can be sustained by organic revenue, bootstrapping could be the more appropriate choice.
Next, they should evaluate their financial needs by determining the monetary requirements associated with their growth plans. Assess the investment needed for marketing, hiring, product development, infrastructure, and other critical areas. They should then compare whether the projected revenue and resources available through bootstrapping can cover these expenses, or if external funding is needed to propel accelerated growth.
It’s crucial to remember that VC funding typically comes with the expectation of substantial returns and may require surrendering a portion of equity or decision-making power in the business. Bootstrapping, on the other hand, allows full control retention over the business but may restrict the ability to chase certain growth opportunities due to financial constraints.
Finally, they should understand their growth rate and adjust their financial demands and flow accordingly. Every dollar should be spent wisely, irrespective of the funding source.
What measure do you use to determine the value of a company? What advice would you give to other leaders about how to get an optimal evaluation of their business?
Determining the value of a company is a multifaceted process. One of the main metrics we rely on is the yearly revenue rate, aiming for a 10x annual growth rate under normal circumstances. However, given recent economic turbulence, we’ve recalibrated our expectations to a more modest 5x growth rate.
However, while revenue growth is a pivotal factor, it isn’t the sole determinant when appraising a business’s value. An optimal approach to assess a company’s worth involves a comprehensive understanding of the industry landscape, particularly competitor activity. Therefore, my advice to other leaders would be to consistently monitor and study their competitors — their operational strategies, financial rounds, and growth trajectories.
Often, competitors have similar financial indicators, which can offer invaluable insights into your company’s relative positioning. Understanding what your competitors do and how they do it can serve as a benchmark for your own business. This comparative analysis not only helps identify areas of strength and potential improvement but can also provide a gauge for your own business’s value.
What would you advise to a founder who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
I adhere to one guiding principle: every challenge carries potential opportunities. During periods of stagnation or adversity, it’s vital for business owners or founders to harness these latent opportunities. A case in point is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It ushered in myriad changes and hurdles, yet it also catalyzed a significant breakthrough for SME Finance.
Prior to the pandemic, our main focus was on factoring. However, the tumultuous period created by the pandemic offered the perfect setting for us to pivot, seize opportunities, and expand our services. It was during this time that we experienced growth and began to offer an array of lending products. In the pre-COVID era, factoring constituted 80% of our revenue, with short-term loans making up the remaining 20%. Today, the proportions have flipped.
This principle is also embraced by many investors: every crisis presents opportunities. So, for those facing stagnation after a period of growth, view this as a moment to reassess, pivot, and uncover the opportunities that lie within the challenge.
What are the most common finance mistakes you have seen other businesses make? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
A prevalent financial mistake that many businesses make is neglecting cash flow management. It’s not uncommon to see companies generating sales and profits yet failing to achieve significant growth or breakthroughs. It’s crucial to understand that a company’s financial health isn’t merely about paying the bills on time. A financially robust business manages its inventory effectively, invests in innovative solutions, and sustains profitability in both the short and long term. All these elements hint at the need for meticulous planning and a well-defined strategy to maintain the financial health of a company. Regular monitoring of financial conditions is vital for any business, as a company’s financial health rating offers a more comprehensive picture of its status.
Every business should establish a budget and remain faithful to it. For instance, at SME Finance, I personally review our budget every month to ensure we’re on track. Adherence to a budget promotes financial discipline and informs strategic decisions.
Another critical aspect to consider is product development and achieving market fit. A product that resonates with your target audience can substantially augment your revenues and overall financial health.
Finally, diversification is key. Whether it involves diversifying your products, clients, services, or markets, it’s an effective method to mitigate risk and seize new opportunities. Diversification can safeguard your business during economic downturns and secure a consistent stream of revenue from various sources.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to succeed in the modern finance industry? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Embrace Digital Transformation: In today’s financial landscape, it’s crucial to leverage technology and digital tools. For instance, at SME Finance, we’ve invested in AI solutions to drive efficiency and deliver superior services. In the era of digitization, technology is not just an add-on, but a necessity that can set you apart from competitors.
- Maintain Consistency and Agility: The ability to be consistent yet adaptable to changes is invaluable. Whether it involves developing new products, exploring new markets, or adopting innovative business models, being prepared for shifts in the business landscape is essential.
- Develop a Robust Risk Management Strategy: Effective risk management is vital in the finance industry. It’s imperative to stay informed about the market trends and internal company situation, and invest in risk management measures. A well-implemented risk management strategy can prevent potential financial pitfalls and ensure business continuity.
- Adhere to a Budget: A disciplined approach to budgeting helps maintain financial health, guide strategic decisions, and manage resources effectively. It provides a roadmap for the organization and helps align financial goals with business objectives.
- Comply with Regulatory Instructions: Compliance with financial regulations isn’t merely a legal obligation. It’s also a way to build trust with clients and stakeholders. A compliant business is seen as reliable and credible, which bolsters your reputation in the marketplace.
- Prioritize Customer Centricity: Understand your audience and their needs. Providing personalized services and continuously enhancing their experience is key to success in any industry, including finance. When customers are put first, their loyalty and advocacy can lead to long-term profitability and growth.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- Maintain Work-Life Balance: This is crucial for long-term success and personal well-being. It’s important to work hard, but it’s equally important to give yourself time to relax and rejuvenate. For example, I personally find that attending CrossFit classes helps me unwind after intense meetings and decision-making sessions.
- Find Purpose in Your Work: Understanding the value and impact of your work on society can be incredibly motivating. When you see the tangible benefits that your efforts bring, it can empower you to do more and keep you driven.
- Cultivate a Positive Attitude: No matter the circumstances, maintain a positive mindset. This helps you cope better with stress and encourages a positive work environment, which in turn leads to better productivity and job satisfaction.
- Embrace Failure: Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. In fact, our greatest lessons often come from our failures. They provide valuable insights that can guide us towards better decision-making in the future
- Surround Yourself with Trustworthy People: Build a network of reliable colleagues and peers. They can offer valuable advice, provide diverse perspectives, and offer support when needed. The right people can accelerate your personal growth and contribute significantly to your professional journey.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions and for help: The golden rule is “Sharing is Caring”, so I would advise not to be afraid to ask for help and advices. There are so many talented people, who are experts in their fields, and it’s impossible to know everything by yourself, so it’s important to accept other people’s knowledge, to ask for advice and to use help.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could start a movement that would bring the most benefits to the majority of people, it would be something about providing the financial education and access to finances for all. This movement would aim to educate people worldwide about personal finance, entrepreneurship, and investment, and also create systems to ensure more access to financial resources. Because money is the gas for all economies — so more people will have the access to money, and will know how to manage the money, the more quality life we would be able to create.
Alongside education, access to financial resources is key to thriving economy. SMEs finances are usually are like personal finances, and the management of finances don’t differ a lot. This movement would therefore educate on how everyone could manage the cash flow smarter in order to grow bigger, or how to invest, because if money is just laying in the bank accounts — the inflation is eating them, and small business owners just go to the cycle where it becomes difficult to grow; also the movement could advocate for more inclusive financial systems, where SMEs have access to credit, banking services, and investment opportunities. This might include microfinancing initiatives to support small businesses in underprivileged areas.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best way is LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About The Interviewer: Jason Hartman is the Founder and CEO of Empowered Investor. Jason has been involved in several thousand real estate transactions and has owned income properties in 11 states and 17 cities. Empowered Investor helps people achieve The American Dream of financial freedom by purchasing income property in prudent markets nationwide. Jason’s Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ is a comprehensive system providing real estate investors with education, research, resources and technology to deal with all areas of their income property investment needs. Through Jason’s podcasts, educational events, referrals, mentoring and software to track your investments, investors can easily locate, finance and purchase properties in these exceptional markets with confidence and peace of mind.
Starting with very little, Jason, while still in college at the age of 19, embarked on a career in real estate. While brokering properties for clients, he was investing in his own portfolio along the way. Through creativity, persistence and hard work, he earned a number of prestigious industry awards and became a young multi-millionaire. Jason purchased a California real estate brokerage firm that was later acquired by Coldwell Banker. He combined his dedication and business talents to become a successful entrepreneur, public speaker, author, and media personality. Over the years he developed his Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ where his innovative firm educates and assists investors in acquiring prudent investments nationwide for their portfolio. Jason’s sought after educational events, speaking engagements, and his popular “Creating Wealth Podcast” inspire and empower hundreds of thousands of people in 189 countries worldwide.
While running his successful real estate and media businesses, Jason also believes that giving back to the community plays an important role in building strong personal relationships. He established The Jason Hartman Foundation in 2005 to provide financial literacy education to young adults providing the all-important real world skills not taught in school which are the key to the financial stability and success of future generations. We’re in a global monetary crisis caused by decades of misguided policies and the cycle of financial dependence has to be broken, literacy and self-reliance are a good start. Visit JasonHartman.com for free materials and resources.