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CEO of Adyen on how the 6th largest European unicorn is unbanking the merchant

European unicorn European unicorn
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Token Exweb 

Valued at over $2.3 billion, Amsterdam's unicorn Adyen has risen the ranks to become on of world's most successful startups. CEO and cofounder Pieter van der Does explains how.

In Pieter van der Does’ own words, Adyen “…has been tremendously successful, becoming the default transactional solution for large, international companies.”

We already knew that though.

In fact, since Adyen suddenly attained its European unicorn status last year – they raised $250 million at a $1.5 billion valuation in December – the Amsterdam based startup have expanded to 10 offices across the world, in San Francisco, Sao Paulo, London and Singapore, employing 260 people.

That’s because they have been doubling in size every year; revenue came to around $150 million last year, whilst they processed $25 billion in payment transactions in 2014.

It’s true that fintech is an incredibly lucrative space at the moment, but Adyen’s success is down to more than a market’s maturity.

Van der Does’ European unicorn, of which he is co-founder, president and CEO, provides businesses with a global platform to accept payments, anywhere in the world. Payments can be processed across online, mobile and point-of-sale systems combining over 250 payment methods and 187 transaction currencies.

The European unicorn has found a niche: companies such as Spotify, Airbnb and Facebook require middlemen to help them process payments, and Adyen’s integrated system and platform approach enables its payments systems to scale quickly and reliably.

It also also allows them to react quickly to any new trends; the payments industry has changed significantly, even since Adyen’s conception.

Around 30% of [global online transactions] are now via mobile devices, which was only a couple of percent a few years ago.”

As transactions migrate to mobile, van der Does also discusses how his European unicorn is proactively changing the market themselves.

“Global merchants were given their terminals by banks in the past and its internal software would run the transaction, however people today want more access points, card verification and a unified platform that can be linked to a back office; we’re unbanking the terminal and unbanking the merchant.”

Adyen now has over 45 000 terminals live all over the world, and the opportunity for a roll out to match the pace of mobile integration is what van der Does explains he is now focused on.

To some however, it’s not Adyen’s future that piques curiosity, but their past.

Their trajectory to unicorn status as a European unicorn is not unique, but van der Does has claimed in the past that European founders haven’t got the hunger that’s required to reach the $1 billion valuation. What sets Adyen’s founding team apart?

“We’ve experienced a mixture of luck and good choices…”

Van der Does then chuckles wryly as he compares the early days of Adyen with some of the scenes from an American TV show, Silicon Valley, that follows a computer programmer and his friends trying to strike it rich in the 1980s tech gold rush.

“The bad decisions they make all the time, the poor investors they work with…it’s hilarious as a program, but we never did that; we’ve all had companies before and so we have the experience and knowledge to not fall into those pitfalls.”

The European unicorn’s team are also proud of their quintet leadership structure where decisions are aired, shared and finalized.

“It’s a very flat structure in the sense that we discuss things together, and make sure each one of us is enthused about our path – we have no strong ego types here – and in that sense it’s quite a creative process, despite the market we work in.”

It’s a leadership mentality that has helped Adyen achieve a recent valuation of $2.3 billion, making it the 6th largest European unicorn.

Which is impressive, but Europe as a region is playing catch up to the US and Asia: respectively, each region has 13, 82 and 28 unicorns. Van der Does thinks the discrepancy is down to how you choose your investors – and patience.

“I remember the feeling of not having a company anymore, and it wasn’t pleasant. We have chosen our investors in a very different way: none of them need to close funds as they already have the money, which allows us to scale at our pace.”

General Atlantic and Temasek Holdings are two that have invested in the European unicorn, and are aligned as to how Adyen should continue into the future, according to van der Does.

Without that common thinking, it’s easy to fall in with investors that don’t share an entrepreneur’s vision, which is a trap Adyen has managed to avoid.

“There is a lot of money flying around at the moment, but be warned: some high valuations come at a high cost; investors will have a strong influence over your company, how you structure and when you raise money – Adyen only raises money when we don’t need to!”

Van der Does and his colleagues have strong opinions on how they run their European unicorn in partnership with investors, but they have also iterated a culture of ethics throughout the company, so that their staff feel part of one company, and not part of disparate offices in different locations.

The Adyen Formula is a 7-point master plan of how the European unicorn operates, treats customers and each other that every employee reads.

Some are community based, such as ‘Winning is more important that ego; work as a team’, whereas others point out their Dutch background, ‘We talk straight without being rude.’

One of the more important ones, from the point of view of van der Does, is ‘We launch fast, iterate, and don’t stop until it works.’

“We launch and iterate fast so the merchant can use our system as quickly as possible, which they love, and then work with them to continually improve the software, should we need to.”

The European unicorn realised that endless testing and waiting until a product was perfect before launching was inefficient, didn’t benefit the consumer, and actually impossible – the perfect product doesn’t exist. Their release approach is one way they consider themselves still a nimble startup, despite their valuation and reach.

“You do have to maintain the culture of a young company. A startups’ size means that all staff are aligned to their mission, and so we try and maintain that by inviting the leading tier around us from all over the world, bringing them to a single house for a weekend of brainstorming.”

He goes on to explain the importance of making sure everybody is heard and that, despite operational differences and European unicorn status, a global company shouldn’t become different interpretations of itself.

Looking forward though and van der Does is excited by certain macro-tends in the space around him.

“Web-stores are opening physical stores and physical stores are integrating systems so you can order online and return in store and vice versa, all with tablet assisted sales where you can buy off the website in store – the whole thing is blending.”

He also likes the concept of making payments as light as possible.

“Uber is a customer of ours and it’s such a pleasant experience to exit a cab without paying. Separating payment from buying is an interesting trend and I would like to see more of that in more places.”