Fintech/Interview/

Meet Europe’s fastest growing fintech (it’s not who you think)

Sun Finance was founded in 2017 after its founder become disillusioned at his last company. It just missed out on the top spot on the FT’s fastest growing 1000 European companies list earlier this year.

By Kit Gillet in Bucharest

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Credit: Toms Jurjevs, founder and chief executive at Sun Finance

At 21, Toms Jurjevs was hired as country manager for Latvia at consumer finance startup 4finance. He was among the first handful of employees, helping to put together IKEA furniture for the office. 

A few years later, 4finance had grown to become one of Europe’s largest digital consumer lending groups. Jurjevs had all the excitement of watching the company grow from a team of around 10 people, with less than €1m in annual revenue, to almost 3k employees and €400m

Yet in 2013, when the founders sold the business and the shareholders changed — so did the business, says Jurjevs. “Then the vision of the company kind of transformed. It was let’s move into new products, let’s do this or do that. The focus wasn’t there anymore.”

At the same time, a lot of people with nice CVs were taken on board, but they didn’t understand the specifics of the business, says Jurjevs. “And this is quite a specific business I would say.”

So at 29, Jurjevs in 2017 took the path of many early startup employees and left to found his own company — Sun Finance.

Europe’s fastest growing

It’s been a wild ride. Earlier this year Sun Finance just missed out on the top spot on the FT 1000 — the Financial Times’ list of fastest-growing European companies. 

The company was runner up to UK energy supplier Bulb Energy after recording a compound growth rate of 752% over the past four years.

In doing so it became the second Baltic company ever to reach the top 50, after Estonian ride-sharing startup Bolt — which came in third in 2019 and 15th in 2020. 

The rise of Sun Finance and Bolt, along with many others, is further proof of how the Baltic startup ecosystem is booming, in particular in areas like mobility and fintech.

Sun Finance started by offering 30-day micro loans, before moving into open-ended lines of credit. In January it launched instalment loans in Kazakhstan, with plans to expand it across all geographies. Next up is buy now pay later (BNPL), which it’s planning to launch later this year. 

“Spend every euro as if it’s your last.”

Lessons learned

Jurjevs says he took five key takeaways from his experience at 4finance, which gave him the expertise and confidence to create Sun Finance.

The first, he says, was that it doesn’t matter how fast you’re growing or how large your company is — always stay lean and think business first. “Keep bureaucratic nuances to its necessary minimum. Spend every euro as if it’s your last.”

The second was to be smart when investing in technology, because if you don’t do smart investing this money basically goes out of the window. Another key takeaway was that size doesn’t matter when it comes to country potential. “We are operating in many relatively small countries like Latvia, Denmark, Sweden,” he says. 

“Small countries very often outcompete larger countries in business volumes and profitability.”

“By population, they’re quite small, but even very small countries can be highly profitable. From my previous experience, I have seen that small countries very often outcompete larger countries in business volumes and profitability.”

The last two were related to staffing. Namely, that a CV doesn’t tell the whole story. “If you meet a person that has the right attitude or characteristics, give this person a chance,” says Jurjevs. “That’s why we have a lot of very young C-level managers here and very young specialists. The average age in our companies is 31.” 

And finally, he says, keep your most important people in the company motivated and make them feel that they’re your partner not your employees — that it’s also their company.

Comfort-less zone

Sun Finance now has 750 people on its payroll, spread across seven countries, with 4.3m registered customers and more than €800m in issued loans.

While Gen Z and millennials remain their focus, this is because they’re using online products the most. However, says Jurjevs, “because of Covid people in all age groups are adapting to online services and products more and more, day by day.”

He adds: “Once you go online, you don’t go offline any more because you will find it’s more simple, easy or convenient, and just a better experience.”

The startup’s early finance came from money Jurjevs saved during his eight years at 4finance. However, now the startup has attracted Rothschild & Co investment bank as advisors, and is looking for opportunities for how to continue its rapid growth, says Jurjevs. 

When it comes to BNPL he says it’s a huge market. “If this is cracked, and cracked profitably, then this is immense.” However, compared to many of the giants in the space, Jurjevs says they want to tackle it while remaining profitable.

Comfort zone are the two worst words that you can ever say in a company”

“Most of those big startups, billion dollar companies, they’re actually loss-making or very close to zero,” he says. “We want to grow, and ultimately want to become the leading online lender in the world, but we want to do it profitably so that we are more self-sufficient.” 

It would have been easy to rest on its laurels, after the last couple of years of rapid growth. However, his experiences at 4finance have taught Jurjevs to try not to slip into comfort.

“Comfort zone are the two worst words that you can ever say in a company,” he says, adds: “For two years we’re always saying let’s stay out of our comfort zone, because I think by the end of 2019 we were in a good place and could have just kept on growing 5% a year and that’s it.”

Kit Gillet is Sifted’s eastern Europe correspondent. He tweets from @KitGillet

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