HIGHLINE portfolio company Control is a management platform for the payments industry. Founded by passionate FinTech entrepreneur Kathryn Loewen, Control’s iOS, Android, and web apps help online businesses manage payments better, allowing them to easily connect to payment platforms with a couple of clicks and monitor payment metrics in real time from any device. Control’s payment-specific metrics allow business owners to predict problems and trends, and respond to threats and opportunities, while configurable and real time alerts allow merchants to keep tabs on their payments.
We recently connected with Kathryn to learn more about the journey that led her to founding Control, and explored her deep interest in FinTech, her insatiable hunger for knowledge, what she looks for when hiring, and her advice for other founders.
Q&A With Kathryn Loewen
What were you doing before you founded Control?
Working away in the corporate world full-time while simultaneously doing a BCom full-time, and then an MBA full-time, reading every conceivable article and book I could on strategy, business, and technology while constantly dreaming of starting a software company.
You started your career at Citigroup Europe where you developed Citidirect, one of the first online banking systems. How did that experience influence your career path?
I left BC in my early 20s to chase better economic opportunities, and ended up in Ireland just as the tech sector was starting to boom. I was 23, living in a Europe, and working on the software side of international banking. Dublin was the most exciting and cosmopolitan place in the world, as it experienced a modern renaissance known as the “Celtic Tiger.” It was thrilling, and exposed me to the world of high-volume transactions and the mechanics of the US banking system, such ACH and the SWIFT network.
I remember the first time I went to Canary Wharf in London and was so impressed by being in the epicenter of financial services where, really, banking originated. I’ve always been inspired by the merging of finance and technology and my career has followed this particular passion right from the beginning.
You’re very passionate about the payments industry, and even wrote your MBA Thesis on “Launching Mobile Banking Apps in Emerging Markets.” Where did that interest come from?
After working at Citigroup, I found myself in another boom industry back in Vancouver: online gaming. I was developing our eCommerce solutions, and managing integrations to payment platforms all over the world. We were processing Brazilian Reals via Boleto Bancário, Yuan via China Union Pay, etc. One common problem that always persisted in this industry was the lack of mobile solutions, even though the biggest adoption of innovative money transfer were in countries that were becoming more and more mobile-forward. Considering my level of interest in FinTech, it seemed like a fascinating and ideal topic to delve into, with the added bonus of receiving credit for my graduate degree.
What inspired you to start Control?
There were a number of industry trends and events that were a catalyst for Control’s inception. I had been watching what Stripe was doing in the payments space for a couple years. I knew that their pioneering of open APIs in the payments space was going to radically change everything in the industry.
I started tinkering with some business models built around Stripe in mid-2013, and by early 2014 had bought the IP and source code for a fledgling Android app built with Stripe Connect. In February 2014 I officially founded Control and created the brand. I picked up traction very quickly in the app store, and based on my knowledge of the criteria for a minimum viable product, I knew I had something that warranted putting in full-time effort. In a matter of weeks, I transitioned from a corporate job at SAP to running a startup.
How did you get your first non-family/friends customers?
I deliberately went mobile first because A) that’s the immediate channel where I saw a product/market fit, and B) it allowed Control to capitalize on the less competitive world of ASO (app store optimization) vs SEO (search engine optimization). All of our growth, to the end of 2014, was accumulated by organic search via the App store.
You’re actively expanding your team. What are you looking for when hiring?
I’ve been working in software and product development for a number of years at a level where I was hiring and managing staff. There’s a certain instinct about hiring that’s learned only with experience. Beyond my gut, I also highly value education. Whether it be university degrees or coding bootcamps, I like hiring employees who are constantly learning.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
Definitely fundraising. Control has a compelling story and attractive growth numbers, but being Canadian, our good ideas tend to get overlooked by the capital cores south of the border. In my opinion, we don’t yet have a mature VC industry in Canada to finance startups completely independently of US involvement. I remember being on calls with VCs from the Valley, pitching my heart out, and hearing feedback that we would never get traction on people actually paying for the service; meanwhile my Control app on my phone would be blowing up with sales.
What about your biggest win?
Acquiring my closest competitor early on — the app that had originally inspired me to create Control — with a creatively constructed win/win deal structure I designed myself.
Being a founder/CEO can be tough. Do you have any rituals to keep you grounded, focused, or motivated?
While I practice meditation to keep my emotions grounded, I also constantly work on increasing and optimizing my emotional IQ. These two behaviours seem diametrically opposed, but they’re actually in perfect harmony.
I do have one specific ritual: my partner bought me a pair of navy blue socks with dollar signs printed on them, which I always wear when pitching to investors.
How do you stay on top of FinTech news and trends?
I literally read everything I can get my hands on, but my go-tos are Fast Company, The Economist, Harvard Business Review, and Bloomberg (I have monthly subscriptions to all of them). I also spend a minimum of one hour a day catching up on news feeds from Venture Beat, TechCrunch, and PYMTS.com. I also like to read business books that bend my brain in slightly different directions such as The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Malcolm Gladwell’s work.
Who’s a founder that inspires you?
Jan Koum, the CEO of WhatsApp. The WhatsApp story is compelling, regardless of whether you agree with their valuation. He wasn’t an Ivy League, privileged elite. His mom brought him to the US from the Ukraine for a better life, where she supported the family as a cleaner. When both his parents died, he relied on social security for basic necessities. He later signed the $19 billion deal with Facebook on the office door where he used to collect welfare.
I always like the story of the underdog who does well. We all face our own personal adversities and the ones who rise above regardless of the odds are the true entrepreneurs.
What advice can you give other entrepreneurs based on your own learnings, or advice you’ve received?
A lot of people choose the path of entrepreneur or CEO of a startup because they’re fiercely independent and resist accountability and authority. The sooner you realize your value is directly dependent on the richness and depth of the network of people around you, the shorter your path to success.
About Kathryn Loewen
Kathryn started her career with Citigroup Europe, developing Citidirect, one of the first online banking systems. She then worked in the high velocity world of online gaming, where she was the director of product management for eCommerce and risk management applications. Kathryn moved from developing software to selling eCommerce applications for SAP, engineering solutions for customers like Apple and Toyota. Kathryn considers herself a payments fanatic, and wrote her MBA Thesis on “Launching Mobile Banking Apps in Emerging Markets.”