#inspiredbystories

How to survive crises, and what to learn from them. Successful managers take stock

by Natascha Zeljko

Miriam Wohlfarth, Founder and Managing Director of RatePAY

The start:

Miriam Wohlfarth was already working for a startup when the term hardly existed. In 2000, she moved from Hapag Lloyd to Bibit, a small Dutch company, and from Düsseldorf was responsible for all German sales. “The topic of Internet payment systems was still in its infancy. I made cold calls; I had no experience at all with such a thing.” It’s zero hour.

After the first dotcom bankruptcy a second wave of startups comes. Miriam senses it: something big is emerging, an entire industry reinventing itself. “There was a crazy atmosphere. I simply liked this cool working environment better than these paralyzing, hierarchical corporate structures,” she explains. It’s the time of the pioneers. She meets people like the inventors of Skype or the founders of Wirecard, then still a startup. There are no blueprints, nobody to tell you how to do it. “It shaped me. I’ve learned to try things out. We were quite successful with it.”

Then the financial crisis of 2008 came and blew sand into the gears. Important people left the company, including Miriam’s boss. She had just become a mother and wasn’t interested in going along with the offer to set up a new startup. This start-up—Adyen—went public last June and is now valued at almost 17 billion euros. A few months later, Miriam also resigned. In the new company, she met two external colleagues who were to become her co-founders. “We were working on a project that wasn’t going well. And then I heard myself say, ‘Maybe we should do a start-up?’ Suddenly it was there, the idea, just thrown into the room. RatePAY” was founded in 2009.

The crisis:

Financing proved difficult. “We presented it to investors, pitched it x times. But nobody wanted it. It was the financial crisis and nobody dared to invest in financial products.” And then a solution presented itself, demonstrating the value a good network is in such times. Miriam had a friend with contacts to the Otto Group. “We had a big pitch. It worked. Otto wanted to invest.” The Hamburg-based company joined as an investor in 2010.

But when money comes, there is also a long to-do list. Power relations shift. It no longer worked with one of the two co-founders. “That wasn’t his world. We broke up. That was the first setback.” At this point RatePAY employed about 15 people, and the departure of the colleague led to a shortage of financial backing. They asked Otto for help, who sent a consultant to restructure everything. Today Jesper is CEO at RatePAY and runs the company together with Miriam.

Things are going better, but the decisive measures are still missing. “We noticed that we were on the right track. But we needed more money to professionalize the whole thing.” Although an important breakthrough was achieved with a larger customer, the company was on the verge of collapse in 2011. Otto offered to take over RatePAY completely. “Of course, that was a difficult decision. That was no longer my company. But you have a responsibility, and we had already put our heart and soul into it for two years at that time. You don’t give that up so lightly.” The sale lead to further distortions, with the second co-founder leaving the company. “Those were really hard years. The founding team had fallen apart. We constantly had to chase after the money, the banks. But somehow it still worked, we achieved important milestones, won major customers like Eurowings. And in 2016 we finally received the BaFin license.”

Today:

In 2016, RatePAY reached the profit zone for the first time with a surplus of 80,000 euros. By 2017 the number reached 2.4 million. The company now has over 200 employees.

When asked about getting through crises, Miriam says, “I have always believed that this product works. That’s what it’s all about: discovering something you’re convinced the world needs. This faith carries you through difficult times.” Private resources are also important. Without her husband, Miriam says, it would not have worked. But of course things fall by the wayside. You see your friends less often. “You have to set priorities. It’s an illusion to think you can accomplish everything.” Her daughter Hannah is now 14 years old; an au-pair used to help the family. That wasn’t always easy, but, “The pressure comes mainly from outside. My mother was also always working and we have a close relationship. It’s the same with Hannah”.

Last year RatePAY was sold again to an American private equity firm. For Miriam, the situation has not worsened. On the contrary, she is now more involved again. “Looking back, without the Otto Group, the company would not have grown so large, in such an environment, in such a time. And now—now it can get really big.”

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