This week we spoke to James Varga, CEO and Founder of DirectID. A self-confessed “startup junkie”, Varga founded DirectID in 2010 to help people prove who they are in a purely digital context, through their financial services footprint. Now, a key goal is to redefine credit risk by providing a valuable insight into people with thin – or no – credit files that’s not just based on their address or credit history.
What does your home working setup look like?
Before Covid, I had a lightweight laptop I could take on a plane as I was constantly on the move. Now, I have a bigger, more powerful laptop. I’ve set up a mobile office, with a ring light, decent webcam and even a green screen for webinars and panels. That all goes into a little backpack so I can have a full office anywhere, which has been cool.
This year, I’ll be giving up my flat and I hope to spend a few months travelling and staying in different cottages and Airbnbs in Scotland. I like to be on the move and have embraced the Digital Nomad movement!
Won’t becoming a nomad impact your credit file?
Yes. I love finding these real life examples of what we’re trying to fix with DirectID.
I’m about to go into a world of not having an address. I was talking the other day with a group that’s trying to help homeless people get established in the world, because not having a fixed address can be a real problem. I’m currently looking for a PO Box or alternative.
So while you do still have an address – how do you start your day?
Unfortunately, on my phone.
I would love to say I get up and go for a run. The reality is, once I’m up it’s all about the shortest distance from bed to starting work.
I’m most productive first thing in the morning, so I tend to have a shower, grab a pot of coffee and use those first couple of hours to really get on top of the day – because I know the rest of it is going to be manic.
Especially in this crazy world we’re all living in now, it’s absolutely relentless out there. The pandemic means there’s no travel, but then your calendar starts to fill up because you can organise meetings more quickly. There’s pressure to move from hour-long meetings to 45 or 30 minutes… some days I’ve had 16 meetings! How many half hours can you get through before you’re absolutely mushed? It’s a challenge.
How do you find the time to think?
I used to be able to do that on flights or the train.
I have recognised recently I need more time to do “slow thinking” – taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture – and how I can take moments to do that by going for a walk or whatever.
Startups are always challenging. It’s a great challenge to embrace, but they can be relentless. I think “relentless” is the word I connect with most!
They’re full of squidgy problems. As soon as you solve one thing it’s the next something. You’re at another stage, you need to hire someone, find this, do that…
Who do you go to for guidance if you get stuck?
I have a fantastic Chairman who’s not just a mentor but a friend. Otherwise, being a founder can actually be a pretty lonely job, so you have to try and build up a circle of trusted people around you.
I used to be involved in a monthly CEO dinner, and through that I have four or five people I can just talk to, put my heart on my sleeve, and get a somewhat experienced view back.
If someone has never been involved in a startup, they don’t understand the pressures or the dynamics involved.
What are the things you need that guidance on?
Right now, employee wellness and engagement are really important.
Everyone is under pressure, and the way we engage with staff has to change. Before, you could do one regular big event, like celebrating Burn’s night here in Scotland… but big once in a while doesn’t work anymore – it’s all about doing many small things.
Nobody has the water cooler or the commute – it’s just as relentless for them as it is for me. So we’ve been doing a lot of work on how to change that and seeing a great response from desk yoga, virtual escape rooms and more.
You’re wanting to almost double your workforce through the Kickstart scheme – will that add pressure?
We’re big believers in having a robust induction process. We shove people in at the deep end, which is intense, but avoids the disheartened feeling when it’s a month before you’re up and running and feel part of the team.
Our reasons for Kickstart are twofold. First, we’re always short on resource as a startup and we’re big enough now that there’s a lot of things for people to come in and help with.
On the other side, FinTech is a growth sector and one of very few industries that has actually been positively impacted during the pandemic. We’ve not had to furlough anyone and we’ve increased our team by 25%.
It’s a great opportunity to get more people involved in FinTech at every level, not just if you have a financial services background. We hope to give people some great experience and exposure to fintech in a variety of roles. Fingers crossed we can do that!
What or who in your office could you not live without?
Aside from coffee and the ubiquitous phone, I couldn’t live without the challenge. That’s what gets me up every morning – the ideal of bringing data and open banking to the world. And that’s the role of FinTech – we’ve got to build value from this huge wealth of data.
Is that what keeps you motivated?
I want that success not just for me and my vision, but I want the team to be successful as well.
That’s the potential of a startup: if we’re successful, we’re all successful. In our recruitment process, I always ask people what they want out of a startup. We’re going to ask a lot from you – not in terms of 18 hour days, but that passion and vested interest – so we have to be able to give you back what you need as well.
If I can pay off your mortgage and set you up for the rest of your life, then brilliant – let’s go and do it.