How To Create One Team With One Dream

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On today’s episode, I talk to Suneera Madhani, the founder and CEO of Fattmerchant. I met Suneera when she was going through Starter Studio, a tech accelerator in Orlando, FL, and when her team was preparing for incredible growth, she asked for my help to align her team. My purpose in life is to help teams increase their cohesion and effectiveness, ultimately driving organizational performance, and a lot of that involves growing individual self-awareness to create more self-accountable team members who then communicate and collaborate more effectively. AND, there is also the critical element of aligning your team on the core elements of your organization. Why do you exist, what do you do (and what do you NOT do), what is your vision of the future, how do we align decisions to maximize the likelihood we get there (AKA strategy), and how do we treat each other along the way (AKA culture). I use the framework from Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything to create a playbook for executive teams. In my interview with Suneera, we discuss everything from self-awareness to recover from defensiveness to finding your true purpose as an organization to how a viral article in Fast Company broke Fattmerchant, but ultimately prepared them to align strategically in preparation for scalability and 10x growth. If you are an entrepreneur who wants to grow a company, or a leader who wants to create a kick ass culture, you don’t want to miss this conversation.

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[0:25] Laura: On today’s episode, I talk to Suneera Madhani, the founder and CEO of Fattmerchant. I met Suneera when she was going through Starter Studio, a tech accelerator in Orlando, FL, and when her team was preparing for incredible growth, she asked for my help to align her team. My purpose in life is to help teams increase their cohesion and effectiveness, ultimately driving organizational performance, and a lot of that involves growing individual self-awareness to create more self-accountable team members who then communicate and collaborate more effectively. AND, there is also the critical element of aligning your team on the core elements of your organization. Why do you exist, what do you do (and what do you NOT do), what is your vision of the future, how do we align decisions to maximize the likelihood we get there (AKA strategy), and how do we treat each other along the way (AKA culture). I use the framework from Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything to create a playbook for executive teams. In my interview with Suneera, we discuss everything from self-awareness to recover from defensiveness to finding your true purpose as an organization to how a viral article in Fast Company broke Fattmerchant, but ultimately prepared them to align strategically in preparation for scalability and 10x growth. If you are an entrepreneur who wants to grow a company, or a leader who wants to create a kick ass culture, you don’t want to miss this conversation.

LAURA: Alright, so, uh, thank you so much Suneera for being here on the show. Um, I want to start out and just ask you to introduce yourself to our listeners.
SUNEERA: Hi, everyone. My name is Suneera Madhani and I am CEO and founder of a payment technology startup here in Orlando called Fattmerchant. And Laura, thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
LAURA: Yeah. Okay, awesome. So, tell me more about Fattmerchant.
[2:25]
SUNEERA: Yeah, so, Fattmerchant is a payment technology company. We’re the first subscription based merchant services provider, so we do unlimited credit card processing for small businesses. But what makes us unique is that we do unlimited processing for them for a monthly subscription instead of all the variable fees that all the other companies charge. And so we’re– we save business owners about 30 to 40 percent in credit card processing fees, which is a huge burden for them already. But what makes this really cool is our awesome technology. So, we have our own proprietary line of payment solutions. So, we do everything from mobile payments to online e-commerce. We have our own API. We’ll put in actual card present* terminals in small businesses, we’ll integrate with their point of sale for a restaurant. And, um, that’s what we do. So, we have our own proprietary line of payment technology, but everything kind of aggregates into one platform, which makes us even more special. So, small businesses today don’t take payments just in one form anymore. So, let’s think about, you know, a really awesome cupcake store that you know that you go to. She has a terminal that she accepts credit cards for when you’re, you know, when you’re coming in and checking out to grab a few cupcakes. Then she does her catering for her brides and she does large wedding cakes, so she sends invoices via Quickbooks to them to collect a deposit. She also has an online store. She ships cupcakes out everywhere, sells really cool tee shirts. And also she goes to all the wedding trade shows and she needs a mobile device to go take payments. Well, currently, that merchant, that little small businesses, she’s taking payments in four different forms–
LAURA: Right.
SUNEERA: –from four different providers–
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: –with four different merchant fees that don’t talk to each other.
LAURA: Wow.
SUNEERA: So when she needs to pull up the health of her business, she’s doing a lot of reconciliation to understand her finances and her payments for the business, which is the heart of a small business, is collecting revenue. What we’ve done at Fattmerchant is we can offer you every line of proprietary product that, hey, you don’t have to use ours. We can integrate with the shopping cart that you have today. We can integrate with that point of sale that you have today. And what we do best is pull all that payment transaction information into one aggregated platform. And so now she has one merchant account. She has one bill that she has to look at. She has one statement and she can pull up on her app and see the health of her business holistically. She can understand that she has this much left in Accounts Receivable which will integrate with her Quickbooks. She can see how her online e-commerce store is doing and she can check in on the store when she’s on, at a trade show. So, that’s what makes Fattmerchant really special and really unique.
[4:45]
LAURA: Yeah. So, it’s not only that it’s saving money but it’s also creating simplicity which is, you know, as a small business owner, I always want more simplicity.
SUNEERA: Absolutely.
LAURA: Everything is so chaotic and crazy, so if you can bring that, that’s a huge value proposition.
SUNEERA: Yeah, and that’s our goal. The goal is to make payments simple for the small business and not have them have to worry about the headaches of it. We were like, we consider ourselves as your payment partner. So, and again, like I said, we believe that payments are the heart of the small business and so our goal is to make it as seamless as possible for the business to never have to think about it again.
LAURA: This is why you’re a disrupter–
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: –right? In the industry.
SUNEERA: Absolutely.
LAURA: This is why you’ve been as successful as you’ve been.
SUNEERA: Yeah, it’s been really fun.
LAURA: So, one of the things, actually, one of the first things that we did when I was working with your team was we talked about why. You know, why does Fattmerchant exist? Like, how do you contribute to a better world? Do you remember that, that compelling–
SUNEERA: Oh my god. That was one of my favorite, probably one of the hardest exercises that we have ever done was sitting down and creating the Fattmerchant playbook.
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: And so, for those of you that don’t know what this, what you know, Laura comes in and does, one, is incredible things, but one of them we sat down and we did the Fattmerchant playbook and she was asking us really tough questions. Like, as a company, when you’re starting off, you think you know what your vision is, you think you know what your mission is, and what your core values of the company should be, but I think we had too many. You know, we kind of wanted to be a little bit of everything and we wanted our team members to encompass everything. And I think one of the hardest things was simplifying it.
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: Like, removing all of the words. So, we had our mission statement and then you were like, “Okay, now remove half of the words.”
LAURA: Yeah. Maybe more than once. It was like, “And, cut it down again. Yeah, and cut it down again.”
SUNEERA: And it was so, so difficult. But what– at the end of the exercise, which was an entire day, we left with a very clear message as a company. And we understood who we were, what our clear mission is, we understood why we exist, and what we’re going to accomplish for our businesses and as a company as a whole.
LAURA: Awesome.
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: And so, why do you exist? What’s your one-liner?
SUNEERA: So, we exist to level the playing field for small businesses.
LAURA: See, I love that.
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: Right? I mean, that’s so compelling, ’cause that’s a huge part of it.
SUNEERA: And payments doesn’t even exist in that–
LAURA: No. Nope.
SUNEERA: –in those words. And that was one of the things that was so difficult for us was to remove, just to remove, that.
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: And we just kept going through so many iterations of it, but we exist to help small businesses. That’s what Fattmerchant’s core is.
LAURA: Yeah, so let me speak to that. A couple things.
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: So, one is you probably remember I told you and your team repeatedly, “Don’t worry. The very next thing we’re gonna tackle is what.”
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: Like, we’re not leaving that out.
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: We know that’s important. But the why, the fact that it doesn’t say anything about payments, one of the things that’s so beautiful about that: first of all, it’s emotional appeal. Like, the what does not appeal emotionally to most people. It’s the why that really is compelling. But the other thing that I love about how it doesn’t say anything about what you do, is that it opens up this space, not only for you all to grow and evolve as a company, but even presently for you to look around the community and say, “Who else exists to level the playing field for small businesses?” Right? Like, who else is this a compelling why? Because those are the exact people that you want to partner with, regardless of their what. Whatever their what is, you know there’s room to integrate because you guys believe in the same thing.
SUNEERA: I couldn’t agree with you more. And that was the cool, that was the coolest part about the exercise. And then the what is by providing simple payment solutions. Right? I mean, that’s the next step of it. And that’s how we do our why. Or–
LAURA: Yeah. That’s how you make that real.
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: And the what’s never, it’s never the most exciting part of the playbook–
SUNEERA: No. Yes.
LAURA: –but it’s very necessary, right, for clarity. So, that’s, that’s a big part of the playbook. One of the things I tell people sometimes, I actually got this from Stephanie on my team, is when people ask what I do I say, “Well, part of what I do is I help executive teams have conversations they didn’t even know they needed to have.”
SUNEERA: Oh yeah.
LAURA: Just like what you were saying. You know, because especially in the beginning, you’ve got a small team and you’re all operating together and you’ve got a lot of shared understanding, or at least you think you do, and then as you start to grow you start to feel some of the cracks and you go, “Wait a second. I thought we were on the same page. We aren’t aligned anymore. What happened?” And, you know, you as the founder, probably feels actually pretty clear to you most of the time. But the ability to put that out there on the table in a way that the whole team can align around it, understand it, and then start to repeat it, that is what enables you to really scale and grow without losing that sense of your why and your core. Why you exist, why you started it to begin with. So, anyway, that’s how I like to sum it up sometimes. Okay, um, so obviously you’re a startup. And, from my perspective, you’re one of Orlando’s most successful and famous startups. Always, always–
SUNEERA: Famous.
LAURA: I mean you are! It’s like you’re this fantastic, you know, poster child for a successful startup.
[9:50]
SUNEERA: It’s a lot of pressure.
LAURA: I’m sure it is a lot of pressure. Sorry to pile that on.
SUNEERA: That’s okay.
LAURA: But you know I bring that up because you chose to invest in, in hiring an organizational psychologist pretty early on. What, what drove you to make such a bold decision?
SUNEERA: I think that that was probably one of the smartest moves that we made earlier on was to invest in taking the time to understand our team, our cohesion as a team, and to get some processes in place before things were broken. We started feeling, hey there’s a lot of growth happening, there’s a lot of pressure. What type of company do we want to be? How are we gonna start responding to the changes in the dynamics that are happening within our growth? I think when people ask like, “Oh, what’s the greatest challenge of your business?” It’s keeping up with our growth. Because even with growth comes, like, our problems are– every business has their fair share of problems every day. I mean, as a CEO, you’re constantly just putting out fires, right? I mean, that’s your role every day. However, your problems become relative in size as you continue to grow as well. So, when we first started as a business in 2014, we did five million dollars in transactional volume for our customers. In 2017, today, we’ve done a billion dollars in transactional payments–
LAURA: Wow.
SUNEERA: –for our customers. So the growth has been really tremendous.
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: How do you keep up with that, right?
LAURA: Oh my gosh.
SUNEERA: I mean, your team has to grow, your leadership team has to grow, you’ve gotta get middle managers in place, you’ve gotta get scalable processes in place, and you’ve really gotta think about your organization from outside of your four walls and look at it from the top down view in terms of, strategically, where do you want to be in the next three years. And you’ve gotta break down those goals. It’s not just, you know, you can’t just eat an elephant, you’ve gotta bite, you know, you’ve gotta chew it one bite at a time.
LAURA: Right.
SUNEERA: And so, for us, at that point, it was an integral, integral time for us to, um, set those processes and plans in place and start from the leadership team itself. And that was a decision-making– that was one of the reasons why we decided to do it earlier on. And I recommend that.
LAURA: I, I love that so much. I think that a lot of people wait until they really do feel like things are broken, where it’s like last-ditch effort, our company’s about to completely tank because, you know, we have massive communication problems at the top. But that was not the case with you guys. And actually, one of the stories that I, I’ve read a couple times, um, about was when you all were featured in, –was it Forbes or Inc Magazine or like multiple?– I don’t even. You were featured in something–
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: –and then, like, s*** blew up.
SUNEERA: Okay, that was a, that was a Fast Company piece.
LAURA: Fast Company.
SUNEERA: Fast Company, 2014, November. There was an article, um, that was, “Meet the Woman Trying to Change the Credit Card Industry.”
LAURA: Uh huh.
SUNEERA: And it was, it was an article that went viral for Fast Company. There was over 20,000 shares just from the article itself—
[12:46]
LAURA: Wow.
SUNEERA: –so you can’t even track what’s beyond that.
LAURA: Oh my gosh.
SUNEERA: We didn’t even have systems in place to track what was beyond that.
LAURA: Right.
SUNEERA: But it’s one of my favorite stories about the company. That was our, “Holy sh**” moment. We have something. And we probably– and it was, it was, it was so great and it was so bad at the same time. And I’ll kind of take you back. So, Lyndsey and I, are my first hire. She’s our managing director for Fattmerchant. We were all around town, pitching our business plan for Fattmerchant. We were telling everybody, every stage that we could find, every meet up, every startup event, of hey, this is this really cool, disruptive model and payments that we’re bringing to Orlando. This is our whole new startup. From there, we got picked up by a few Orlando business journal pieces, and then from there, that’s when the Fast Company writer reached out to me. And I’m sitting in my office and my phone rings and it’s hey, “I’m this writer from Fast Company. We’re doing– we want to do this feature story about you. Tell me a little bit about your business.” And so, I’m like, first I don’t even believe that this is happening–
LAURA: Yeah. You’re like, “What? You’re from what now?”
[13:45]
SUNEERA: And we don’t even have, we don’t have a conference room. We’re in like a co-working space–
LAURA: Uh huh.
SUNEERA: –in like a really tiny office. So, I’m like, you know, in one of like the tiny place– like one of the tiny conference room offices. I take a little paper, I post it on to like the wall, like do not disturb, and I’m like holding my phone so hard against my ear so I don’t lose service. And I have, like, I always have service issues. So I’m like, telling the Fast Company writer all about Fattmerchant, we’re discussing it, and I thought there was gonna be more pieces to this, like for the interview, but it was just that was it. And, uh, about like literally not even twenty-four hours later, this like article was up–
LAURA: Whoa. Oh my gosh.
SUNEERA: –and so I had no time. First, I didn’t even know if I was gonna get published or what this was gonna be and literally, like, so quickly–
LAURA: Wait. Did he really… he called you in like real time was like, “Can I talk to you now?” or–
SUNEERA: Liter– It wasn’t, it wasn’t literally real time. It was, “Hey, we’re gonna chat.” And then, like, later on that day–
LAURA: Oh my gosh.
SUNEERA: –and it was, it happened extremely, extremely fast.
LAURA: So fast.
SUNEERA: So fast. Article’s up and our phone, phone, phone–
LAURA: Singular. One phone.
SUNEERA: One phone, two laptops, one intern, Lyndsey and I– tiny, like, our carpet, we still have this carpet in her office; it’s a five by seven carpet that fit our entire office. And that was our office. {laughter}
LAURA: You have to always keep that.
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: That is fantastic.
SUNEERA: That was the size–
LAURA: I love it.
SUNEERA: –it’s relative to how fast we’ve grown, is that carpet.
LAURA: Oh my gosh.
SUNEERA: And so, that carpet, that was our office. One phone. Phone is, phone is ringing nonstop. And then we’ve got customers calling, like potential customers calling. We’ve got other writers calling. We’ve got investors calling and we’re like, “What is going on?” Our godad-, so they linked our website onto the article. Our website crashed, so there was, it was like error codes and we didn’t have like our landing pages, like, you know, where the contacts were going. It was just, it was a sh** show on that end. We got phones installed. So like, that day we had our phone company come in and they, which, you know, they’re a local company. Which is so great, that’s why you should work with local companies because like they act so fast when like you need them. Uh, so we had our phone company come in. They installed additional phones. All the startups, like on that floor, were helping us pick up the phones.
[15:55]
LAURA: Aw.
SUNEERA: Our friends.
LAURA: That’s awesome.
SUNEERA: It was, it was one of the greatest experiences ever, but it was also the biggest learning lesson ever. And it was, one, holy sh** we have a product and a service that people want. We really need to go scale this. Two, you know, we need to build scalable processes. I mean, we can’t, um, you know, we had post it notes. And I have, I have photos and I have fun Snapchats from, like, that time that was going on. We literally had post-it notes all over the office. We literally turned Trello into a CRM system. Like, we didn’t have a CRM system that we’d invested in and we were, obviously we had just gotten started. But that was the, that was the article that you’re referencing. And from there, that was kind of that learning lesson of, hey we just, we have, you know, we have a business opportunity but we weren’t able to capitalize on it.
LAURA: Yeah. It kind of broke you.
SUNEERA: It did.
LAURA: I mean, it was incredible, but, like, it broke you. You go, “Oh shoot–
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: –Okay, this is growing faster than we can manage. We’re breaking.” I imagine in the moment that felt just kind of catastrophic, actually, because of that opportunity lost, right?
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: Oh my god, the website’s down, right when we’re getting all this attention. We can’t support it. We’re missing all these phone calls. Like, like that probably felt horrible in the moment, just that, okay we’re breaking.
SUNEERA: It did.
LAURA: ‘Cause you can’t keep up.
SUNEERA: And the, the, our next move was 2016, our entire thematic goal, which is another thing that we learned from you, Laura, was setting that thematic goal was, um 10x scalability. That was it. So, for us, every single thing that we did as a company had to be 10x scalable. So, whether it was whatever process, like the process that we use for our phone system, not even just the tools that we use, our CRM, our platform, can our, even our application process on how you apply for us online, can that be? Can we handle if there was 1,000 applications today, would we be able to handle it? And so, you know, that’s how we’ve built everything. Um, ground up–
LAURA: I love that.
SUNEERA: –was 2016 was all about scalability. And we did scale. We scaled 2000% in 2016–
LAURA: Oh my gosh.
SUNEERA: That was what we did. We did $110M the next year. So from $5M to $110M. That was just, it was incredible and it was all about setting that mindset of here’s our plan for the company. Here’s how we’re strategically going to think about it. And we’ve gotta become, like, this is our goal, as an organization, from every single person on our team, every single thing that we do has to go back to that core principle of 10x scalability.
LAURA: That is so fantastic because it’s not just about the execution of what you’re doing, but when you are doing all of your strategic planning around that belief and that basis of — did you say 100x or 10x?–
SUNEERA: 10x.
[18:39]
LAURA: 10x. Okay, sorry. It’s like, still huge. 10x scalability, that you’re removing that self-limiting belief, right, that it wouldn’t happen. You’re just saying, yeah, it’s gonna happen, so let’s get ready for it. And everything about this strategic planning, then, just becomes this continuous reinforcement of that mindset where there are no limits.
SUNEERA: Yep.
LAURA: It’s so powerful.
SUNEERA: It is. It is.
LAURA: Um, so one of the things that we did, you mentioned the playbook. And so we talked about a couple of the elements. You know, part of it is the why and then of course the not so exciting, but the terribly important what. What you do. Um, and you’re starting to hit on it a little bit with strategy. So, we also created, um, strategic anchors. Can you talk a little bit about that process and how you’ve used it since?
SUNEERA: Yeah. And we still have the same strategic anchors from when we did that exercise. And the strategic anchor exercise was really thinking about the pillars, is how I think about it, of the company and that you can’t, you can change your house around, you can remodel it, you can put in a new kitchen, you can change everything around it but the core, the actual pillars and foundation that your house is built upon, you can’t change that. And so that’s how I, that’s how I view the strategic anchors for our company and that’s, you know, and one of them was subscription based. So we’ve had tons and tons of opportunity to pivot in other directions, add different revenue streams, and we, we tried things a multitude of times but as long– but when it doesn’t, when it falls away from your strategic anchor, it doesn’t work because that’s the pillar of your home. Like, you can’t–
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: –you can’t deviate from that.
LAURA: One of the things, sorry to interrupt you–
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: –one of the things that really helped me get strategy and the importance of it is when your strategy is clear, you know what to say no to.
[20:22]
SUNEERA: Bingo.
LAURA: Because you have– there’s way too much opportunity out there to say yes to everything. You’ll just drown yourself, you’ll dilute everything that you stand for, and what you’re all about.
SUNEERA: Oh my goodness. I would say that was probably the biggest time waster for me, as a CEO, was listening to all the different– like, you meet 1,000 people that say they can do 1,000 things for you that can grow, you know, x amount of partnerships and x amount of revenue and you should be doing here and you should expand in this vertical. I mean, we’ve a product that’s very scalable that can apply to almost any vertical. We can take payments for any type of business at any level volume. We wouldn’t be able to market if we didn’t understand who our target cust– if we didn’t stick to our core of what we’re good at, I mean we’ve been trying—you know, people don’t understand all the time–like, we acquire our customers digitally. That’s how we do it. We don’t have feet on the street. “Oh, but if only you invested, you know, on the feet on the street approach…” And you’re right. That is an avenue that can work and it does work for tons of companies. But for us, this is where we want to focus because we’re really good at this. And if we just want to say no to everything and if we stay laser focused, we know we can get to the goals that we set out to do because we’re not distracted.
LAURA: Yeah. And then you have your whole team, when they understand those anchors, they’re making their decisions by taking the decision through those filters.
SUNEERA: Absolutely.
LAURA: That’s how I think about them, as decision-making filters. You’re creating such consistency that you’ve got everybody on your team truly rowing the ship in the same direction–
SUNEERA: 100 percent.
LAURA: –versus sort of that, “Oh shoot. Little bit to the left. Oh, little bit to the right. Like, oh man, are we going in a circle? Like, what’s happening?” Which happens for a lot of startups because they just haven’t made the time to have those conversations.
SUNEERA: It is. That and even thinking about it. I mean, you were– you’re, you know, when you’re starting a company it’s just you and then you have your team of five and that’s why, you know, oh you can close the door and make all these decisions together and you feel like, oh you’re on the same team. But then once your team starts growing, it’s kind of like telephone. They don’t know what my strategic vision is. They don’t know, you know, they don’t know what our leadership team strategic vision is. So the message gets lost in translation and that’s why it’s really important for, as an organization, for you to take a step back and really ensure that the messaging, the, you know, the core values, your strategic anchors, your vision, your goals for the company are extremely aligned from top down because once your team has grown from, you know, above 10 employees, I think every founder who’s gone through some team challenges, culture shifts. Ideas shift. Messaging shifts. Now, you know, right now we’re a team of 30 plus.
LAURA: Wow.
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: Oh my gosh.
SUNEERA: And, you know, we have middle managers in place. I’m not there in every single one of their conversations to understand who they’re saying yes to and who they’re saying no to. However, I know that they understand and they’re aligned in terms of what our strategic anchors are–
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: –so that they can make those decisions on their own and still translate and still all be growing in the same direction. And no one’s taking us off course.
LAURA: One of the things that I’ve heard, um, just to kind of reiterate or echo that point is it’s so powerful when a leader can say, “You know what? My employees can do whatever they want as long as they…” what?
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: Like x, y, z, or a, b, c. Like, what are those things? And, for me, that comes down to your strategic anchors and then, of course, your values–
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: –which comprise your culture. So, can you tell us a little bit about the, the culture and your core values–
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: –at Fattmerchant.
SUNEERA: So, our culture at Fattmerchant is definitely really fun. You can kind of see that from –and that was part of even our brand and who we are as a company. So you’ve probably never heard of any payment company named Fattmerchant {laughter}and that was, and that was on purpose. That was also very strategic. We wanted to be everything every payment company wasn’t. And so, Fattmerchant stands for Fast Affordable Transaction Technology and it’s meant to be fun. You know, we want to make your wallet fat and our logo is a really cute pig named Benjy, for Benjamin for dollars and it’s just, our– we really want to focus on the customer experience end to end and it’s a member, it’s a membership driven model, which is, one, it’s very unique in payments, um, but we want our customers to feel like they’re a member and it’s not, it’s not transactional even though that’s what we do is transactional.
LAURA: Right. It’s still relationship based.
SUNEERA: Yes. And so one of our core values is “The best damn experience.” And that is one of our core values as a company, you know, every person on our team needs to completely embody and understand and give it their all to create the best damn experience. And it’s not the best damn experience just for the customer, which is one, we want them to have that, but it’s the best damn experience to each other when we walk into the door every day. It’s the best damn experience to our community. It’s the best damn experience to our vendors, to our partners, and that has– is what’s gonna make our organization so successful. It’s not just about– it’s the holistic approach of the best damn experience.
LAURA: I love that. Okay, so I have to ask. One of the ideas that came up that really, really cracked me up that I’m so curious–
SUNEERA: Oh god.
LAURA: –to know if you’ve ever implemented it was to have fatt camp. Has that become a thing yet? {laughter}
SUNEERA: It actually, it’s Fatt Academy.
LAURA: Okay. That’s good.
SUNEERA: So, Fatt Academy is when we have a new hire, um, again it’s all about scalability. It gets tough. You know, and we’ve done a really, we’ve done a better job of onboarding new team members but that’s definitely something we’re still improving processes on, ’cause it’s just so hard to create these processes when you’re having to recruit and hire and train so fast.
LAURA: Yeah
SUNEERA: And, uh, we hate outsourcing things like this to third parties ’cause it’s like you, you have to do that internally.
LAURA: Oh yeah.
SUNEERA: You have to take the time to ensure that your training for your organization comes from leadership and–
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: –from the first 10 team members. And so, fatt* academy is, um, kind of like our training course for when we have a new hire and they go through different courses. So now we have them kind of all online as well, first we do them every time in person, we were like, “Oh sh** we should just record this.” Right? Going back to scalability.
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: So, yeah, we do have fatt* academy. It’s like our full training program but it’s not just about here’s how to do your inside sales role or here’s how to do your operational role or here’s how to do your programming role. It’s really, you know, you have parts of their– parts of that is obviously job training but it’s our tools, our processes, and then, most importantly, who we are, what we are, why we do, what are our core values.
LAURA: Yeah, and I love that you said this is something that you want to keep in-house. I agree with that whole-heartedly because, especially for Fattmerchant where culture is actually a part of your strategy, where the culture that you create internally for your employees is part of what differentiates you. Um, I think that it’s one of the, I think it’s a massive opportunity to truly look at your culture and say, “You know what? We’re gonna create such an amazing environment here that the way that we work is so unique that it’s really difficult for any other company to replicate and it’s part of what makes us successful.”
[27:15]
SUNEERA: I love that you just said that. That’s like the biggest compliment I think anyone has ever given me.
LAURA: Oh.
SUNEERA: I love that. It’s true and that’s, that’s– I mean, for me, I’ve always worked in, you know, we’ve all had jobs that we just, you know, we’re not passionate about. I literally worked for a tobacco company prior. Like, you can’t get–
LAURA: I’m sorry to hear that. {laughter}
SUNEERA: No. Yeah, it doesn’t get, like, you want to talk about passion? There’s like no passion–
LAURA: No.
SUNEERA: –in that. And it’s literally like a dead, it’s a dead organization. Literally. And, uh, I mean, I just I’ve always yearned for wanting an environment that I’m truly really passionate about.
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: And no one wants to come, like, work in merchant services. Like, you know, like we have some really amazing–
LAURA: Sexy. {laughter}
SUNEERA: Yeah, it’s not sexy at all. And like, and that’s just part of the– that was the industry that I was in and that’s where I saw like a problem where I needed to solve it. But I’ve– for the culture kind of came from my like inside desire to want to come to work every day and absolutely crush every day because I’m so excited and I love working with my team and we’re just all having fun while, you know, making everyone’s, like, experience so great. And so that’s where that comes from.
LAURA: That’s fantastic. I love that so much.
SUNEERA: And it was, you know we got our new office a year ago, which we’ve already grown, we’re literally elbow to elbow and the elevators open into our office–
LAURA: Hello.
SUNEERA: And it’s really cool but the, what I love about it is I always say, like, anyone that like walks through those elevators, like, it’s just like you’re walking into, it should be the best experience ever.
LAURA: Yeah. That totally fits, right? That’s what you’re all about. So, one of the things, um, you know, I love about this conversation is I feel like the main thing that we do is we really focus on team performance and team cohesion. And so a lot of that gets into what people might label as like the touchy-feely stuff. Which, okay, well, whatever. All of our behavior is driven by feeling so you can call it touchy-feely–
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: –but it just is. And that’s important. I’m gonna ask you about that in a minute. But the other thing that I want leaders to understand is that this whole idea of the playbook and getting really clear about our why and our what and our core values and our strategy, the future vision, all of those things are super, super critical to enabling team performance and building trust. Because, I mean, those conversations that you all had as a team, when you are super crystal clear about where you’re going, how you’re getting there, what decisions you’re gonna make and how you’re gonna treat each other along the way, it reduces the fear of hidden agendas, you know, individual agendas. And we stop making up stories as much, like that person’s disagreeing with me because they think x, y, z. It gives you this concrete, tangible thing to look at and point to, to say, “You know what? This is what reminds us we’re on the same team.” So, it’s not, it’s not just about the touchy-feely stuff. It’s about creating that shared foundation that you’re truly aligned on. And I think that some people just maybe fail to see how critical that is, even to building trust on a team.
[30:13]
SUNEERA: I, I mean I think one of the people that would say, “Oh, it’s not personal. It’s business.” That’s a bag of bullshit. Business is personal.
LAURA: It’s so personal.
SUNEERA: I mean, like every business, it didn’t just get started because it’s, you know, it was just a business. It was personal. There was personal tied to everything. You come to your job every day, that’s personal. You put your effort into everything, that’s personal. You know, what– how your team members talk to you, it’s not business, it, it is personal. And so, for people to think that they can separate those two things, it’s impossible.
LAURA: I don’t want it to not be personal.
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: That’s what you call disengagement. Right?
SUNEERA: And I kind of went through this in my mind. I always– ’cause I’m an emotional being, naturally, right? I mean, and Laura, we’ve worked through so much of it.{laughter} And I’ve, you know I’ve always thought oh, I let my emotions make decisions in business. Or I really try to separate gut from fact and I’m always keeping myself in tune in terms of like my emotions and my, and my emotional intelligence. But a big learning lesson for me is it’s okay. It’s okay to, to go with your gut. It’s okay to, to have it be personal because it is personal. I can give you so many examples and so many stories, which I’m sure you’re gonna poke at right now, {laughter} of team cohesion and making, mixing business with personal.
LAURA: Okay. So give me an example of what comes to mind.
SUNEERA: I work with my brother. {laughter} So it doesn’t get more personal than that. So, Sal Rehmetullah, he’s co-founder of Fattmerchant and he is my younger sibling by two years. We are, we kind of grew up, we’re best friends. We went to 10 different schools in 12 years so–
LAURA: Oh my gosh.
SUNEERA: –we moved a lot. So, we kind of had to be each other’s friend. And so it was kind of like we always had each other’s backs and, when launching Fattmerchant, I couldn’t think of a better partner than my brother. And just, he is, he’s like, you know, he’s under 30 but you’ve probably never met anybody with more experience at his age and he’s just so wise for his, for his age. Um, and with me, we’re kind of, we’re very, we’re two* different– he is very, he’s kind of, you know, he’s a little stoic. He’s to the point. He’s not very emotional when it comes to, you know, expressing himself. And I’m the total opposite. So, kind of coming together as partners, there’s so many things that work tremendously great but then, working together as siblings, sometimes just the way that we’ve, you know– it’s easy to talk to your brother a certain way. It’s easy to disagree on certain things and we kind of, we fight and then we get over it. It’s just kind of how we’ve been our entire life. And it’s very quick and, um, can be intense, um, and it’s done. And we’ve– it worked fine, or what we thought, for like the first year and a half of our business. But once your team starts to grow, it’s not just the two of us that are in the room anymore. And so we have to be really careful on the way that we, you know, speak to each other, we’re– our body language. Our annoyance and aggravation with each other. Because it doesn’t, it’s not– one, it affects each other, us as well but it really does affect other team members.
LAURA: What impact do you think it was having on the team?
SUNEERA: A negative impact. I mean it’d make people– I mean, especially on like the leadership team, um, I would say that there’s definitely moments where it’s made my team feel, like my leadership team, feel uncomfortable, where they felt, you know, in a meeting they weren’t able to express their ideas because we’re so intense in our ideas that we’re, you know, we’re, you know, maybe we’re battling over a certain situation and so we’re– you know maybe Lindsey hasn’t expressed her viewpoint on it because she’s like I’ll just let them hash it out and then I’ll express it. And that’s not the way that you want to run, you know, your organization.
LAURA: Yeah, I mean they have a seat at the table for a reason.
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: Right? So, it’s probably like you and Sal going back and forth, back and forth and then you look at your team like, “Why aren’t you jumping in?” And they’re like, “Whoa. Give us space.”
SUNEERA: Yeah, I can give you, I mean I can give you so many examples. You know, like, there’s a, there’s a product, there’s a product pricing meeting. And I’m like walking in through the door and I’ve kind of already have my mind made up that he’s gonna disagree with me on this because he thinks about it a certain way. We’re sitting across from each other. And we’ve got Jacques* in the room, our CTO, we’ve got Lindsey, our, our, you know, our managing director, and we’ve got our marketing director, director of marketing in there as well and, you know, I’m expressing like, here’s kind of where we’re going. I already see, in my mind, I’m like, Sal’s rolling his eyes, he’s put his feet on the table—{laughter}
[34:43]
LAURA: Oh. Power move right there.
SUNEERA: Power move. He’s at the head of the table, across from me–
LAURA: Always is.
SUNEERA: Always is.
LAURA: Always head of the table.
SUNEERA: Is this not– is it–
LAURA: That’s true.
SUNEERA: Get’s there five minutes before so he can sit at the head of the table. {laughter}
LAURA: That’s great.
SUNEERA: So, yeah, no. And I’m in this moment and I’m like, in my mind I’ve already made up that he’s, you know, he’s disagreeing with me. So, my defenses start to come up and one of the things that Laura’s– you know, we worked on is even understanding, like, you make think you’re not defensive but then there are certain things behaviorally, sometimes you do it physically, there’s certain things that you say, it’s the way that you talk, your tone. There’s so many things that play into like your natural defensiveness and, for me, I guess, you know, that’s where my, you know, when I see him react a certain way it’s in my mind but my natural defenses start flaring up. And I’m like, “Hey, you know what? No worries.” And I turn off, like I shut off. I’m like, “Fine. No worries. We’re not gonna do this.” But I could see, you know, I could see Jacques wants to share something but he’s not. I can see that Lyndsey wants to– and this you know– share something and she’s not. And this is just going back to one particular example but it’s things, it’s little things that, once we kind of realize — so we did this exercise with Laura and it kind of felt a little kumbaya-esque–
LAURA: {laughter}
SUNEERA: –that first half of the day and we were like–
LAURA: You’re like, “Oh, what are we doing?”
SUNEERA: –oh, what are we doing? Right. So, it’s like, oh tell us about all these stories about your past. And she’s–
LAURA: Yeah, it’s vulnerability-based trust. So I start out immediately, like, let’s get vulnerable and everyone’s like, “Oh my god.”
SUNEERA: And it’s like 8:30 when she’s having coffee and we haven’t gotten to the deep shit yet. {laughter}
LAURA: Good morning!
SUNEERA: She’s like, “Tell me a time where you felt scared.”
LAURA: Yup. Pretty much.
SUNEERA: So, we went through this exercise and by the end of the day we learned so much about each other and about our defensiveness on what are some things that– you know, how we react when we feel defensive and how, how we want others to not perceive this. Because it may be that I may be, he may be putting his foot on the table and, you know, that may be just a regular move for him.
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: He may not, it’s, he may not, he’s not trying to overpower–
LAURA: Yeah. Like assert.
SUNEERA: –or do anything but in my mind I may interpret it that way. So, understanding everyone and their behaviors and not, you know, not taking things as defensively, like an example is Lyndsey. Lyndsey talks really fast when she gets defensive or when she’s nervous or when she’s, you know, um, when she is defensive. And so that was one of the things, like, I had no idea and now that we start paying attention to it and we’re like, “Oh, Lyndsey’s talking fast. Let’s slow this down to ensure that we’re all on the same page.”
LAURA: Was that even, I think that was maybe like the collaboration contract that you created with her, right? So that’s– collaboration contract, the idea there is that when I’m clear about okay this is a sign that I’m defensive, this behavior you’ll notice this, I create a contract with my team to say–
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: — say this thing or do this thing and then that’s gonna draw attention for me. I’ll now notice. Oh yeah, am I defensive? Do I have some kind of physiological reaction going on? And I have an action plan and I can take a breath, I can pause, and then I can reengage non-defensively, or at least less defensively. So I think the collaboration contract for her, wasn’t it like actually slow down?
SUNEERA: It was slow down. That was the word. It was, and it was really fun and when people are listening they probably think that we’re having these crazy meetings all day long. It’s not. They’re totally normal,–
LAURA: Oh yeah.
SUNEERA: –regular meetings–
LAURA: Happens all the time.
SUNEERA: –that you would think that there’s nothing going on but if you really just take a step back and you’re like, “Hey, could we be working better? Are we getting all of the ideas on the table? Are we getting everyone’s, um, not just agreeing to– what was the thing that it’s, it’s not just?–
LAURA: Disagree and commit
SUNEERA: Yeah. Like not just getting them to agree for the sake of it but that we’re actually getting everyone’s commitment into this new project or this new thing and so it was a really great exercise. I think my word of my defensiveness it was “ca-caw” and so anytime my team felt like I was getting defensive in, in my traits they would say the word “ca-caw” and I’d be like, “Okay, actually you’re right.”
[38:48]
LAURA: Can you think about a specific example where they used that and, and it helped you and you’re able to take a breath and reengage?
SUNEERA: I can’t think of one in particular. Um, but I think that when I was– I will definitely say, so I had a baby last year and–
LAURA: Yes.
SUNEERA: –the last trimester, and I was at work until the day I gave birth.
LAURA: Oh my gosh.
SUNEERA: So, I remember those last couple of weeks. I was like already so exhausted and the days weren’t any easier and I think that during that, like the last like three weeks in May– my daughter was born July 5th– I think there was a lot of “ca-caw” used.
LAURA: Nice. And was it effective for you? Like were you able to–
SUNEERA: Absolutely.
LAURA: –kind of chill out?
SUNEERA: And what’s, what’s interestin–I mean, we’re not and now it’s been a year since that exercise so we’re not, no one, you know we don’t really use the words anymore. But I think we’ve just, we all got so good at, you know, just understanding each other, understanding our little pain points, our understanding each other’s buttons that now we kind of don’t, it’s, it’s not needed. The words were just there for a reminder in the beginning–
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: –and then it becomes like, becomes habit so you don’t have to really, you don’t really have to use the word as, um, you know, as a calming mechanism.
LAURA: Right. Yeah, I mean as self-awareness grows and it becomes more part of the culture–
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: –then you stop needing to rely quite so much on the structure, um, and the systems. The systems are there to help create new habits and grow the awareness.
SUNEERA: And I think it’s important for the listeners to understand defensiveness does not mean like getting crazy.
LAURA: No.
SUNEERA: Like, I mean, defensiveness, literally, for our CTO was like retracting–
LAURA: Yeah.
SUNEERA: –like not saying anything.
LAURA: Oh yeah. As humans we’re super creative in how we get defensive.
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: And, okay, so I definitely, I believe that defensiveness is a total culture killer. And I think defensiveness is the worst, the worst thing to come up when you’re trying to resolve a conflicted situation, which is what most of business is, it’s problem solving. So, yeah. I think defensiveness is toxic but it’s also completely natural and completely evolutionary. We all have defensiveness. We all have it. It happens to all of us every day unless you’re not a human. So, I also want people to understand that. You know, when we talk about defenses and defensiveness on your team, it’s not like you have some crazy weird team. {laughter} You’re just, you’re just a group of leaders and executives that understands the value, um, of self-awareness and, to your point, can we be working more effectively? More efficiently? Can we get out of our own way, basically?
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: Right? And it goes back to that. It’s a competitive advantage for you all to create that kind of culture. It’s not, it’s not fixing something that’s broken, it’s just taking you to the next level.
SUNEERA: I mean I think another, another thing, for me, that you really helped with was even in my own mind, like you said, getting in my own way. And confidence. I mean, everybody thinks I’m like the most– I’m super confident and everything’s really easy and I, and I do. I get shit done all day long but emotionally and mentally I was a blocker for myself. Where I was– you know, you kind of put yourself in front of, like, hey, you know, maybe I am just a woman. And this is really hard. Or, can I really get– I’m seven months pregnant. Is it really unrealistic for me to go get two million dollars in funding? Like, you start to talk, you literally you really do start to put yourself as a barrier and you have to completely remove that. Like, one of the things, when I came back from work, you know after like a very short maternity leave, you know, I felt, I felt lost in my role. And, you know, I was like, “Oh my god. Everything’s operating so smoothly. I’ve been gone for six weeks now. And like, no one’s bothering me. No one’s calling me. They’re, you know– I’m not needed anymore.” And that—
[42:35]
LAURA: That’s hard.
SUNEERA: –that became like a, you know, like a, I was in my own way in terms of thinking about that instead of it being like, “Wow. Holy sh**. I’ve created a self-sufficient company. Look at my amazing organization and the leaders that I have in place that work so cohesively, that are executing upon everything, we’re crushing numbers.” But instead you kind of become like your own, you know, your own blocker.
LAURA: Yeah, so you’re talking about, I call that self-talk. Right, so noticing your self-talk.
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: And is yourself talk helping you or is it inhibiting you, is it getting in your way? And what you just did there with that framing is so, so critical. This is true for any, any leader that’s moving up in an organization, which, in the case of a startup, when you have a founder and CEO, sometimes that person loses sight of the fact that they’re moving up in their own organization because the organization is building out underneath them.
SUNEERA: Yes.
LAURA: But if you’re not continuously reconceptualizing what it means to be competent as a human, then you’re gonna get in your own way big time. So what you just did was reconceptualizing competence, right, where it used to be, “They need me. I’m the one that’s responsible for putting out fires. They’re reaching out to me all the time.” You know, that helped you feel competent and significant and all those things that every human wants to feel and then you went, “Wait a second. I’m actually a freaking badass because look what I helped create. Look at these self-sufficient leaders. Look at this team.”
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: And you can feel amazing about that.
SUNEERA: I see that, not only on the leadership end, I see that throughout the organization. And it’s like one of the biggest things that I see is people and that them themselves being their inhibitors and it’s primarily on “I don’t feel competent.”
LAURA: Yup.
SUNEERA: And there’s a reason why you’re here every day. There’s a reason why you have a seat at the table. But we ourselves do that self-talk and that we need to drop it.
LAURA: As soon as you notice your self-talk– that’s the first thing. Notice it and go is it helping me or not?
SUNEERA: Unless it’s like that really great, “Oh, you’re a badass” all day. {laughter}
LAURA: Yeah. I know. So, I’ll talk about this probably on a future episode, I’ll go into it in more depth. But um, that’s my champion, that’s what I call that voice.
SUNEERA: Oh cool!
LAURA: And then I have my critic. My critic’s a bitch. And she’s–
SUNEERA: Yeah.
LAURA: –really, you know, she’s harsh. But I have that champion voice too and so part of it was about, uh, giving her a megaphone, ’cause she was real quiet–
SUNEERA: Okay.
LAURA: –you know, for a lot of my life. And sometimes she gets real quiet and the critic gets real loud. Um, but yeah. We have lots of voices in our minds and this is not just crazy people. This is all people. So, it’s paying attention to those voices and recognizing which ones are really helping you and serving you and which ones are getting in your way. Alright, so here’s my last question. I think. I say that sometimes and then I have more questions. So, what would you say to other founders and entrepreneurs who think that it’s too early to invest in team and leadership development.
SUNEERA: Ooh. It’s never too early.
LAURA: Okay.
SUNEERA: I just gave you our example. It’s never too early. I think that, one, you have to have a team. So there might be a time where it’s a little too early. {laughter}
LAURA: Maybe, although that self-talk thing can stop even like a solo entrepreneur founder.
SUNEERA: No, you’re actually right. Actually, it is, it is never too early. Um, you know, I think that if– you need to take the time to really see and understand where you want your organization to be a year, three years, five years, and maybe 10 years. You know me, I don’t believe in more than a three year strategy–
LAURA: Yup. [45:41]
SUNEERA: –personally. Uh, but you really need to be able to kind of, you know, set those goals out, kind of like a vision board and, to get there, you have to have a lot of building blocks in place. And you can’t do that alone. And you have to get the right processes in place. And you can hire the greatest talent ever, but if they’re not gonna be working in cohesion and all, like you said Laura, rowing in the same direction, you’re not gonna get to the finish line. And so, you know, you’ve gotta have a coach. Right? Like you gotta train. You know, you’ve gotta make sure you’ve got the right, the right rowing supplies and I don’t know I’m not a rower. {laughter}The right oars.
LAURA: You’re like, “This metaphor is falling apart for me a little bit.”
SUNEERA: It is. It is.
LAURA: But you get it.
SUNEERA: But you get it. You gotta all get in the same direction and everyone’s gotta be on the same team, you know, on the same team. We actually, one of our other core values is “One team, one dream.”
LAURA: Wow. Awesome. That’s beautiful.
SUNEERA: I know.
LAURA: Oh my gosh, this has been so valuable–
SUNEERA: It was so fun.
LAURA: — it was just like action packed, like, the entire time. Thank you so much for taking time to be here and talking with me today.
SUNEERA: I, I’m, I actually I really enjoyed this and I feel like I gotta give my, my champion a megaphone when I walk out of here today.
LAURA: Absolutely.
SUNEERA: So, thank you everyone for, for listening.
LAURA: Alright. Thank you.
Outro: If you want to learn more about those conversations you didn’t even know you needed to have with your team – please reach out to me at Laura@gallaheredge.com. It’s never too early, although it’s possible it might be too late- for you to align your team and create the kind of cohesion that removes a lot of the pain from scaling your organization. Thanks for listening to the show. Since you’re still here, I’d love to ask for a favor – would you please rate this show on iTunes? It’s one of the best ways to help others find the show, and I’d love to get this message out to as many people in the world as possible. Also, maybe you want to send this episode to somebody that you think could benefit from listening. Thanks for all your support….we’ll talk again soon.

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