This post is part of Accel’s Secrets to Scaling series, where leaders from across our portfolio share their learnings and advice with the next generation of entrepreneurs and exceptional teams everywhere.
Neither of Public’s co-CEOs is originally from the United States. But in the years before moving to New York, Jannick Malling and Leif Abraham had a notion that the US public markets could be serving more people in fundamentally modern ways.
At the time, they were perplexed that so few Americans were participating in self-directed investing across even just the US stock market. They wondered why that was and discovered it seemed to be a multi-faceted issue: Americans either couldn’t afford to build a well-diversified portfolio, or faced a psychological barrier and felt like the stock market wasn’t for them.
They decided it was time to get to work, and they launched Public in late 2019 with the mission "to make the public markets work for all people." Since then, Public has expanded to become a popular investing platform that allows everyone to invest in stocks, ETFs, crypto, and alternative assets, like fine art and collectibles—all in one place.
Accel first partnered with Public for their Series A in 2019. We sat down with Jannick and Leif to hear their secrets to scaling and to reflect on the journey so far.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you find the inspiration for Public?
JM: I’m originally from Copenhagen, but a decade ago I was living in London, at my first startup working with global fintech companies. I remember thinking the US stock market was a compelling asset class. There were plenty of people overseas envious of it, but looking at the data, it seemed so many Americans weren’t taking advantage of it themselves. The more I realized this and wondered why that was, the more it was clear there was an opportunity.
LA: A few years later Jannick and I met through a shared mentor. We had both exited our companies at a similar time, and we were both figuring out what to do next and decided to start something together.
JM: We started to think about opportunities that involved solving the dearth of participation in the US stock market. It was a multifaceted problem, and those are actually harder to solve. We knew we needed to not just make the market more accessible, but also more approachable. Those are two similar-sounding words, but they're actually very different. We wanted to innovate better accessibility, with engineering and regulatory solutions and the psychological barriers to approachability with product, brand and marketing. So that's where Public’s mix of fractional investing, and a community-driven feel in the app came from, respectively.
What advice do you have for founders operating in industries where you need to set yourself up to handle quick changes in demand?
JM: Consumer interest in the savings and investing space has recently increased, but it's a volatile industry. A wave of new customers can happen unexpectedly, as it did for us during the GameStop trading frenzy in 2021. Even though we couldn't predict it, we had set the company up preparing for a quick spike in customers because we had 100% conviction that it would happen. We did a lot of work to prepare for new demand at that time when nobody else believed that it would. Once it happened, we were ready. From the beginning, we built our principles with this in mind. For instance, one of our principles is “find a way.” In the GameStop instance, we grew the customer base by 100% in a week. At that moment, the “find-a-way” culture was really what powered our engineers. It had been infused from the beginning.
LA: We also have these things called Black Swan playbooks within specific disciplines, they basically outline how you operate if a specific scenario happens. Things like – what happens if our entire CX system is down tomorrow? How do we actually keep communicating? And what's the process if suddenly our 30-person CX team has to run customer service out of a single Gmail inbox? We have the Black Swan playbooks for specific disciplines, operational functions, customer service and operations, and aspects of this is even marketing. We prep things like Twitter ads ready to switch on so that if a competitor stumbles and we need to step up, we don't have to waste time going through an approval cycle.
It’s also important that when demand goes up, you have the humility to recognize the wind in the back of your sails could be gone tomorrow. How can you make your sail bigger to capture the wind when it is there? But also, you have to use those moments to prepare for the times when the wind will not be at your back. I think it's too easy for companies that have a great organic growth spurt because of external events, to then take it for granted. And then once those dynamics are not there anymore, you're screwed. So, I think it's important to keep your head down and keep building strong fundamentals so you have momentum even if or when the wind is not in your sails.
What are the advantages of co-CEOs?
LA: Because we're sharing the CEO responsibilities, we have the ability to be deeply embedded with different teams in our respective disciplines. Staying close to work and staying close to the craft of something that's good for us, but also just generally helpful for the team. Actually, when the Accel founders were on the 20MinVC podcast, I remember them talking about how much they value balanced decision-making and felt it was stronger with two. Ultimately, we’re all human and all have a bad day. But having the buffer of two people truly creates balance. I remember listening and thinking how I very much agreed with what.
JM: After funding, when companies are encouraged to scale, they often quickly hire a bunch of executives as they race to series A or Series B. Suddenly you're growing the C suite 300% at one time, despite the reality that it is really hard to find the right people. That is quite risky to do, but some really have no other choice. What's been nice for us is that we're co CEOs yet we have pretty different jobs and clear mandates on which areas we’re focused on. This allows us to cover more bases so we can be patient in finding our next great c-level execs.
What advice do you have for founders crafting core principles?
JM: We don't see why principles have to remain the same on day one as they do on 1,000. Everything in life evolves. Culture evolves. Software evolves. Companies evolve. Why should company values and cultural principles stay the same? We version our principles and revise them every quarter. My advice would be to update them like you do everything else, because then you’ll never have a situation where a new cohort arrives and there is a disconnect between the new employees and old ones and old culture.
LA: In the onboarding session for new employees, we spend an hour running through every single principle. It’s easy for people to be cynical about cool sentences someone wrote to try and seem motivational. But we try to level set and explain that principles are not just sayings, they are tools.
Reflecting on your journey so far, is there anything you would do differently or wish you had known when you started?
LA: The reality we're living in right now has been created based on decisions we've made in the past. It's tough to predict if anything would have been greatly different.
JM: The thing we always struggle with is the decision between speed and scalability – doing things quickly, or doing things right. Often, this decision is based on just your own conviction, your own opinions, and anecdotal data. It’s so important to decide which philosophy you’re going to adopt from the beginning. If one founder wants to move fast and break things, and someone else wants to move slowly and do it right, you spend most of your time in conflict. Alignment here is crucial, and alignment with your investors, too. Our investors at Accel were fully behind not just what we wanted to build, but how we were going to execute it. And if you are lucky, you will find great investors that will help you do things right, not just fast.