August 7, 2022

Reflections on 3 years of (Transfer) Wise | Part I: Mission and Values

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(^ Kristo & Taavet, 2014 ^)

I used to think of mission as corporate-speak, before joining Wise. I was sceptical about Wise’s mission and values in the beginning too. Later on, seeing how concrete strategies were put in place to achieve the mission, I was convinced.

I may be full of praise in this part which is unlike myself, but that is my true reflection.

A true mission attracts and motivates people

“money without borders – instant, convenient, transparent and eventually free” was (and still is) the mission. Unpacking it, I would say that the first half, “money without border” was nicely said but fluffy. However, the second half, “instant, convenient, transparent and eventually free” was concrete and powerful and did a good job to back it up as a mission statement. It addressed 4 major issues in cross-border money transfer:

The beauty of the mission, in my mind, is that it gave infinite scope to strive towards: unless all transfers are instantly arriving, as easy as lifting your fingers, and free, there is still work to be done.

I was particularly impressed with the goal to drive down the cost and reflect it with pricing to customers. Just think about it for a moment, how many companies would strive to reduce their prices and be proud of doing so? As a customer, choosing a company as such means you would only pay less, not more in the future for as long as you use their products. How powerful is that?

With that, a journey ahead attracted (and continues to attract) people to work on these hard-to-solve problems. Some of them, me included, might not take the mission to their heart initially, but it was not difficult to tell a true mission from a fake one: a lot of smart people are already working on it, why wouldn’t you?

A shared set of values becomes a code of conduct

There were four short values: “This isn’t just a job, we’re a revolution”, “We get it done.”, “Customers > Team > Ego” and “No drama. Good karma.”, which were easy to understand and follow.

As expected, people at Wise held the values high in their day-to-day behaviour. These values were also cited from time to time when in doubt.

The only one I had some issues with was “Customer > team > ego”. I found myself saying to people, that it would have been better for it to be “Customer > Company > Team > Ego” because as an individual, you work in a team; as a team, you work for a company; and as a company, you serve your customers. What’s more important is the emphasis on teams achieving common goals for the company and working together to achieve that. Don’t underestimate that missing Company - as I explain the subject of autonomy in Part II, it was a direct result of this missing link.

Mission and values anchor product and growth

I consider them as a very high-level framework for people to innovate within. As with the values, people followed the pillars of the mission, “instant”, “convenient”, “transparent” and “eventually free” closely throughout product development. Questions were constantly asked about how new initiatives could move towards the mission, and which pillars were positively affected as a result, or negatively affected to be cautiously aware.

They also found their way into the OKR exercise later. More on OKRs at Wise is in Part II.

One downside of reading too much into mission and values, which is commonly seen across companies claiming to be mission-driven, is the effect of creating a cult-like organisation. I did not think it was an issue at Wise at the time, even when it did feel culty (or perhaps a good type of cult based on an in-depth understanding of what the company set out to achieve), thanks to the values safeguarded the mission, which came from a true motivation to solve a real problem. More on culture is described in Part III.

It is all centred around customers

The obsession with customers was real at Wise. I guess this was one of the key heritage from the early days of the company, that influenced decision making and let the company survive and then thrive.

As an engineer, I took part in customer interviews with product managers and researchers, looked through data with product analysts, and the best part of working at Wise was to take on customer service duty from time to time. My favourite channel was chat as I felt productive dealing with a few customers at the same time; phone was tough, slow-moving and real-time; email was in-between, which I liked as Wise didn’t use scripted response - it was down to me wording the response with my knowledge of the products.

I did get so much out of those interactions with customers. Some decisions, seemingly difficult to make among a group locked up in an ivory tower, could be easily reached by understanding what customers needed. How to get what they wanted? Just ask.

I also developed a huge respect for colleagues working in customer service and operations, as a side effect.

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