Not many people start a new job by speed-dating their boss in the middle of the night. But that’s exactly how Monzo COO Sujata Bhatia began her time at the neobank.
It was June 2020, and thanks to strict lockdown measures, her move from American Express to a startup looked rather different to what she'd been expecting.
“The whole time I was sitting at the same desk in my attic,” Bhatia tells me when we meet for breakfast at 9am in South Kensington, the elegant London neighbourhood she’s called home for two decades. “One day I turned off my PC from this big global financial services company, and the next day I switched on my shiny new startup Mac.”
Bhatia’s new boss, TS Anil, had taken on the CEO role at the digital bank just four months before her and was still living in California.
This meant the pair were at first working with an eight-hour time difference, and had never met in person. They also had their work cut out: Monzo had just almost doubled its annual losses, and lost its founding CEO Tom Blomfield.
“It was just like… Ok, we don’t know each other very well, we can’t see each other, so we’re going to have to figure out how to rapidly accelerate this partnership,” says Bhatia.
“We took some time out one evening in the first week to just speed-date each other. I told him my rapid fire life story tale, then he did — and from there, we continued the evening Zoom calls daily to touch base at the end of our days.”
Anil would wake up at 4am to overlap with the rest of the UK-based business, and Bhatia would work until 10.30pm.
“Luckily I’m a night owl and he’s a morning person, so it randomly just worked?” she says. “It was quite serendipitous.”
This lockdown-era tale seems a world away as we squeeze round a small table in the sleek surroundings of private members' club The Other House. We order extortionately priced oat milk coffees and overnight oats — which Bhatia never touches.
From corporate life to startup life
Boston-born Bhatia says she had a “nerdy obsession” with Fortune magazine in high school, and her first career dream was to become a financial journalist.
That, evidently, wasn’t to be — and after graduating with an MBA from Wharton, she started a career in consultancy; she did stints at Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs and Bain, before moving to Amex to take on an internal consultant role.
“It was my first foray into a real company that made real things,” she says. “I never wanted to be a partner within a consulting firm — I was there for the training and toolkit. But I always had this craving to learn how to run a business.”
By this point, she was living in London, having “followed a boy across the pond”. It worked out: she and her British husband now have two teenage daughters who are, I learn, big Swifties.
At the time, Amex’s CEO was Kenneth Chenault — only the third Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
“That was amazing to see and made me think ok, there’s a culture I could fit into,” Bhatia says. “I was an American, and a woman, and a person of colour. So I wanted to go somewhere where that wasn’t three strikes against me.”
She spent the following 16 years moving across functions within the business, trying just about anything she thought sounded interesting and could learn from.
One of these roles was as chief of staff for the late Ed Gilligan, former Amex president, where she “got to be in the room where the real stuff was happening in the middle of a global financial crisis”.
“I got to see in wartime, at the brink, how all these incredible leaders could manage through a scenario in various different ways, and I just sort of learned through osmosis,” she says. These were lessons she would later take to Monzo.
We’re halfway through our meeting and I notice Bhatia hasn’t even taken a sip of her coffee, while I’ve almost finished my breakfast. It turns out almost two decades at Amex is a lot more interesting than I’d expected.
Towards the end of Bhatia’s time at Amex, she oversaw the firm’s global payments products strategy across 23 markets, before heading up its global merchant services across Europe.
At the time, the card giant had begun partnering with fintechs for payments processes, and she started to develop an interest in the sector.
“My job was to watch all this disruption and figure out how to respond to it, instead of being the disruption,” Bhatia says. “So that started to leave me a bit dissatisfied.”
It was at this point that Bhatia first came across Monzo.
“Tom Blomfield came into Amex to speak to a bunch of executives and I listened to him talk about Monzo’s customer-driven mission, and it gripped me. It was very well articulated and I remember getting curious,” Bhatia says, her media training in full flow.
A few months later, she got a call from a headhunter looking for a COO at Monzo. She didn’t hang up.
“I didn’t have a Monzo card at that point,” she says. “It hadn’t quite reached South Ken yet… but I was struck by the whole new level of customer obsession among people who did.”
It took Bhatia eight months to come to a decision on the job — mainly because she doubted that she’d find another workplace culture as supportive as Amex.
Tom Blomfield came into Amex and I listened to him talk about Monzo’s customer-driven mission — it gripped me
“I wasn’t willing to give that up to go join some fintech bros,” she says.
So how did she assess whether or not Monzo met her criteria? “Mostly through intent in conversation, and how important it was on the agenda of even the highest in leadership,” she says. Forget financial journalist, Bhatia could have been a politician with such diplomatic answers.
Monzo has been making faster progress on diversity than its neobank peers for the past few years. Between April 2019 and April 2021, Monzo reduced its median gender pay gap from 20% to 4.3%. Its board is now 56% women, and 37% of its leadership team are women. Bhatia says that 20% of the neobank’s workforce are LGBTQ+ and 23% are people of colour. Diversity is one of Monzo’s five key company goals under her watch.
“I believe what gets measured gets done, so we measure it all,” Bhatia says. “We have diverse leaders now that I hope will create a virtuous cycle in hiring.”
Shortly after accepting the job, Bhatia got a call telling her Blomfield was stepping down as CEO. She was given the option to back out, but decided to stay in the game.
“Tom was great, but I hadn’t joined for him. So now the biggest risk was whether TS and I would work well together,” she says.
One of their first milestones was raising £60m in December 2020 — a follow-on round to the Series G that Monzo had announced in the month she joined.
Then they had to focus on the bank’s huge losses — which doubled to £115.4m from £50.7m between 2019 and 2020.
Bhatia skims over questions about how bad exactly things were financially when she arrived at Monzo, but does elaborate a bit more on when it began to feel like the bank was turning things around.
In times of difficulty, the most important thing is to focus narrowly on what you can control
“TS and I talk about this a lot — it was just a steady swell of momentum,” Bhatia says, polished but vague. “I took what I’d learnt at Amex during the financial crisis… There was a lot of over-communicating, narrowing scope, and focusing on the five things we need to do to be successful.”
A lot of this centred around improving the foundational controls of the business to match its growth. “Things like fincrime controls, a proper customer service system, payroll — all those things were all over the shop,” Bhatia recalls.
It also involved beginning to diversify the neobank’s revenue streams, including shipping new premium subscription products and launching business banking.
Every six months, Bhatia and Anil would decide on the next five things that all teams needed to focus on.
“If we were doing those things, we knew we were doing ok,” Bhatia says. “In times of difficulty, the most important thing is to focus narrowly on what you can control.”
Even nonagenarians use Monzo
Monzo recently hit 7m UK customers, putting it streaks ahead of its biggest rivals Starling, which has 3.5m UK customers, and Revolut, which has 5.75m. In 2022, it averaged 150k new personal account sign-ups a month.
Being a millennial in my late 20s, I feel like Monzo has exhausted my demographic. So where’s this growth coming from?
“It’s everyone coming in from beneath you,” Bhatia says, pointing out that the neobank’s core customer base ranges from 18 to 45-year-olds — but now even includes 100 customers in their 90s.
“But our mission is to build all the products and services you need in one place, to keep you as you get older,” Bhatia says, clutching at the flask of homemade coffee that’s powered her through our interview, and is the reason she never touches her breakfast. (I later learn it’s a protein coffee — "proffee", a viral TikTok drink I've noticed being favoured by fintech bros lately for its low-calorie promise to improve "focus" and "performance".)
Buying a home, having children and managing insurance and pensions are all financial scenarios that Monzo wants to provide for, she says.
You have to get zen about the right leaders for the right time
We’re meeting a week before Monzo launches its easy-access savings “pot” feature offering customers 3% AER. Bhatia hints that other investment products are on the agenda further down the line.
She also plans to build out its business banking arm for SMEs, having just hit 200k business banking customers — a way to go behind Revolut’s 500k business customers and Starling’s 460k.
Monzo has been slower than Starling and Revolut to diversify its revenue streams, which has left it in the red as its two rivals hit profitability in 2021 — but Bhatia skirts around any questions about its financial performance. (The bank recently told investors it expects to hit profitability later this year.)
Bringing in the grownups
I ask whether she thinks all fintechs reach a point where they need more experienced corporate leaders to take the reins.
“When you’re going from a startup to scaleup you need people with experience so that you’re not reinventing the wheel on everything — there needs to be some degree of how to set up structures and processes and leadership,” Bhatia says.
“Some people want to make the transition from founder to that and others don’t want to — and it’s ok for companies to evolve. You have to get zen about the right leaders for the right time.”
Bhatia points to Amazon’s switch from Jeff Bezos to Andy Jassy and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg becoming Mark Zuckerberg’s “scaffolding”.
“But I don't think it’s necessarily about having banking and regulation and finance people — I was never a banker, and never did retail banking, but I had to learn it when I got to management here too,” she says.
In terms of exit scenarios, Bhatia says the neobank still plans to IPO eventually, but has a lot of goals to achieve before then. She says its biggest goal in the near term is conquering the US — a market that no European fintech has yet managed to crack, but where Bhatia is confident Monzo’s brand will succeed.
So is it all a grand scheme to return to her home country? “Never say never,” Bhatia concludes.