How we got here: one year as CEO
It has been one year since Sanja Kon stepped up as our CEO. Let’s look back at this year of major achievements.
Sanja Kon decided to leave PayPal and eBay in the past and reinvent herself at Utrust. She always knew switching the corporate behemoths for a small startup in Northern Portugal was in fact a big step forward. As she celebrates one year as CEO, the world is starting to catch up.
“Believe me, you don’t want to see what’s back here” says Sanja, during our meeting, as she gestures towards her Google Meets background. It’s a jpeg of an impeccably organised bookshelf against a clean white background. “We had a big problem with water leakages recently, so we’re doing some work on the walls and ceiling.” This tells you a lot about Sanja’s leadership style. She’s always on time, always prepared, and always impeccable. And yet, she has no qualms about discussing the nitty gritty. She expects transparency, and she practices it.
How do you do this when you can’t even be with your team in the same room?
If anyone knows, Sanja Kon knows.
She had just taken over as CEO of Utrust when the news hit. “At first, I was just shadowing Nuno, learning the ropes, but then the pandemic hit, and I had to make a number of very big decisions in a very short period of time.” So how does one find oneself in such a position? Leading a company that’s trying to change the world through a world-changing event?
“Nuno wanted me to be CEO from the moment he hired me. He saw me as his successor. I had no idea, but that’s just the way he is, he sees things ages into the future”, Sanja admits.
Nuno Correia is Utrust’s CSO and President of the Board. He’s also Utrust’s founding CEO and a true believer in the cause of digital currencies and blockchain. When Sanja started researching the subject, out of curiosity and professional interest, Utrust was already getting started.
Sanja was at eBay at the time, a company where she spent five years of her professional life. She was working on the ecommerce side of the business. She was curious about the other side of the coin, though, and she was researching payments. That’s when digital currencies caught her eye. It was a model that was entirely based on technology, independent of middlemen and the arbitrary decisions of unjust actors in unjust systems.
“So I got in touch with Nuno. I wanted to know more about this, and Utrust seemed to be one of the most interesting projects cutting their teeth in this market.” says Sanja. “I didn’t expect he’d get on a plane and come to Milan to meet me.”
Because that’s what happened. Nuno and Sanja are very different personalities, and their dual leadership styles are one of the reasons Utrust has been successful in scaling up. While Sanja is very practical, serious and focused, Nuno is a visionary. And he knew that when an eBay exec gets in touch with your startup, you seize that opportunity.
“I wasn’t ready to move to a startup by then. I was living in London, and I was still very much into the corporate world by then. I was learning.”
There’s a wistfulness to Sanja’s voice when she speaks about London that wasn’t there before. She left Italy for the British capital in a move that was as personal as it was professional. London is personal to the Utrust CEO.
“Brexit will change everything. It already has. But when I moved there, London was the place to be. In London, you had the freedom to be whoever you wanted to be. My friends were from everywhere in the world. And all the roadblocks that were in my way in Italy because I am a woman were suddenly gone.”
Sanja is speaking to us from Italy. Her husband still lives there, and it’s her home. She loves Italy dearly, and she has outlined plans to live there for half the year going forward. But workplace culture? That’s another matter.
“Italy still needs to improve a lot in that regard. I felt discriminated against because I was a woman while I was working in Italy. London was different. London is a very meritocratic place. If you imagine it, you can be it.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Sanja didn’t want to leave London. She had friends from all over the world, and the reality of Brexit hadn’t shown its face yet. London was still the centre of the universe. She was very interested in payments, however, so she decided to move…
Across the street.
In Richmond-upon-Thames, eBay’s offices are just across the street from PayPal’s, which would be the company for whom Sanja would work for the following seven or eight months.
It wouldn’t be the right fit, though. At this point in her career, Sanja’s attentions were already focused on what Utrust was doing. Nuno made sure he always kept in touch, and what the company was doing was fascinating. They couldn’t leverage their brand because they didn’t yet have a brand to leverage. Everything had to be built from scratch. The technology was new. It was disruptive. People didn’t know it or trust it yet, but the vision behind it was extremely appealing.
So Nuno played his trump card: he created a position for Sanja in the company. Vice-president for partnerships and communication. This was the perfect way to get Sanja Kon onboard. Utrust has been remote-friendly from the start, so she didn’t even have to leave London. She could fly to Braga (where Utrust’s main office is located) whenever it was necessary, and stay where she was happiest.
“I admire Nuno, and this tremendous ability he has to foster relationships. Utrust is what it is a lot because of the way he manages to convince people to get on board.”
This job was the perfect fit. Sanja was in a position to leverage all her knowledge about ecommerce to try and communicate Utrust’s mission to traditional retailers.
“This was very challenging. People can’t trust what they don’t understand, and blockchain can be complicated. So my primary focus was on education”, says Sanja. You can tell how much Utrust means to her. There’s a different passion in the way she speaks that you couldn’t hear about PayPal, not even eBay.
When the CEO position comes up in conversation, however, she laughs. She wasn’t expecting to be asked.
“At some point, Nuno realised he wanted to focus on other things. He wanted to plan out the future of the company, devise the strategy to guide Utrust into the future. This has always been his forte, and where he wanted to focus his energies more. He needed someone to run the day-to-day of the company, and that someone was me”, she says. She’s smiling. This is also massive validation of ten years of hard work in the technology sector.
“I needed time to prepare. I wanted to shadow Nuno for a while, understand how things were done, and then start working on my own way of running things.”
This was January.
Cue the dramatic music.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Sanja had been at the helm for a very short time. Utrust’s official Medium page announced the new CEO on February the 20th. The first two COVID cases were detected in Portugal on March the 2nd. It was an all-hands on deck situation. Sanja would move to Braga eventually to better manage the situation, but as far as debuts go, this wasn’t exactly ideal.
“I had to make a lot of decisions that I didn’t think I would have to be making at that point. We were always remote-friendly, so that sort of gave us a head start, but as the leader of a company you don’t really relish being the person that sends everyone home. Our office is awesome. Everyone loves it. To shut the doors was hard. And then there’s all the work that has to be done to make sure everything is running smoothly. Everyone must have the adequate equipment at home. All the remote work tools must be on point. It was very stressful.”
From the outside, it didn’t seem like it. Utrust’s progress never faltered for one second. Products were released on time, and some initiatives even happened way ahead of schedule, like the Hold partnership.
“I wanted to keep everything that made Utrust a great startup and just figure out what was necessary to take the next steps. We were always customer-driven, and that didn’t change. The Hold app is an example of this. We had our own app, of course, but we realised we weren’t going to be able to provide all the features our community wanted as fast as they wanted them, so we brought Hold in”, Sanja says. She’s back to her usual all-business self. The words are chosen carefully, the phrases themselves have method.
“Sometimes startups get in trouble because they want to be everything to everyone. One of the things we had to do at Utrust during my first year as CEO is figure out our market fit. We now know this. Our users are young, tech-savvy and they are using digital currencies to make valuable purchases. We are now focusing our efforts on a market fit that we know works, and that’s making all of the difference.”
But that’s not all Sanja accomplished very quickly with a totally remote team. She also led the processes to completely refurbish the leadership team, and the roadmapping processes.
“We wanted to make sure everyone knew what they were doing at all times, and who they needed to report to. Decision-making processes needed to be streamlined and objectively evaluated.”
Does this seem like a lot? It’s just the start. Sanja also presided over the creation of Utrust’s Customer Advisory Board.
“We needed to bring in people that represented what we realised our market fit was, so they could help us adjust to it. We have people from Farfetch, eBay, the aviation industry and elsewhere. They help us evaluate commercial models, how to profile merchants during onboarding, and figure out where the opportunities lie.”
That’s how Utrust started diversifying their products as well. Of course the payments service will always be extremely important, but Utrust is now also focusing on the B2B segment.
“We realised, for instance, that we could provide people with the opportunity to invoice using digital currencies across borders without any need to pay extra fees or conversion charges. We also created a custom solution for businesses that are purchasing, for instance, real estate, and employing large sums of money.”
So now that PayPal, Sanja’s former employer, is entering the market… Now that Elon Musk and Tesla are banging the gong of Bitcoin and digital currency… Now that Utrust’s vision for the world and the money of the future seems to be becoming a reality, what’s the future for Sanja Kon?
“Personally?” she asks, laughing, “Or with Utrust? Because the two are connected. I’m not going anywhere.”
And there’s our answer.