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Steve's ITK: Being candid


Steve's ITK

January 24 · Issue #68 · View online

Steve's In The Know: Thoughts from a European tech insider.

Opening thought: Being candid
The big fintech news this week was that Monzo founder (and until quite recently, CEO) Tom Blomfield has departed the challenger bank entirely.
Staff were informed on Wednesday that Blomfield, who had taken a period of mostly leave after swapping the CEO role for the title president, wouldn’t be returning to Monzo. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I secured the exclusive exit interview. It was only a half hour call and I didn’t quite know what to expect, although Blomfield has always been pretty candid with me as an interviewee. On this occasion, he did not disappoint.
We discussed the pressures that led up to him no longer wanting or feeling that he could continue as CEO, and how the pandemic and the isolation of lockdown, (especially in the midst of a challenging time for Monzo) impacted quite negatively on his mental well-being. Founders rarely open up about mental health and even if they wanted to, who would they open up to?
I remember a few years ago a founder emailing to confide in me – a journalist! – that they were struggling. They then apologised for sharing but explained that they couldn’t tell their board, they couldn’t tell their employees and they couldn’t really tell their co-founder. A leader can only lead if the team they are leading is sure they know where and has the resilience to get them there. Otherwise, why would anyone follow? That may or may not be true and I genuinely believe that leadership is more nuanced than that. But in this instance, that was how this particular founder felt. I was happy to listen and maybe it helped or maybe it didn’t. Sometimes all you can do is listen, and sometimes listening makes all the difference. But not always. I think as an industry we need to find better ways of not leaving it to chance and create more spaces where early support can be sought and received.
In my Blomfield story the candour was two ways, too. He admitted that when he took the title of president he was never certain he’d return – and in that sense, when I ran the story of his then new role, I was spun a line (see ITK: #60). However, I also fessed up to readers that I knew Blomfield wasn’t returning – or that it was very unlikely he would – much sooner than last week. As he told me on record, the title and move away from being CEO was designed to give him the time and space to recover and come to a decision about his future at Monzo. Even though I knew from multiple sources that his absence had turned from weeks into months, I decided to wait until it was formally announced, even if I risked losing the story. Some things are just more important than scoops. 
I also reported that Blomfield wanted to relinquish the role of CEO much earlier, when he first said he needed help, but the board managed to persuade him to continue for quite a while longer. That raises an interesting question: in a climate of the cult of founder and where VCs are competing on their founder friendliness, have we made it too unfashionable to bring in a more experienced CEO sooner and when a startup scales? Blomfield wanted to build a 10x better bank and, despite achieving many things at Monzo, he’s undoubtedly left before achieving that. Perhaps under a different culture he may have found a way to contribute for many more years. 
After I hit publish, I had lots of messages thanking me for handling Blomfield’s story with sensitivity and maintaining a high standard of journalism. This was nice to hear but also puzzling. It felt like, as stories go, I’d played it pretty straight down the line. It wasn’t even remotely difficult to write.
Part of the (misplaced) credit, I realised afterwards, was because it’s unusual in tech for someone as known and admired as Blomfield to publicly speak about mental health and the pressures of leading a company. That was all Tom.
And I also think it says something about the way many people view journalism and journalists as less than noble. That makes me slightly sad. Journalism matters and I know the majority of journalists work incredibly hard and care deeply. I hope faith in journalism can be restored somehow, even if it’s one story at a time. 
However, I do want to say thanks, not just for the kind messages after my Monzo story but to all of you who wrote to me following the previous edition of Steve’s ITK when I talked about burnout and my own mental well-being. Two weeks leave definitely helped, although it always goes too quickly, and it has been quite tough to get back into work mode (I’m still playing catch up). This job is pretty relentless and having been at TechCrunch for about ten years, I’m not sure I have another decade in journalism left in me. A break definitely makes you think, but that’s for another newsletter. Until then, as ever, be kind. 
Things I wrote recently
Blobr, the ‘no-code’ company turning APIs into products, raises €1.2M pre-seed
Softr scores $2.2M seed for its no-code website and web app platform powered by Airtable
Genflow nabs $11M investment from BGF
Monzo founder Tom Blomfield is departing the challenger bank and says he’s ‘struggled’ during the pandemic
HiPeople picks up $3M seed to automate reference checks
Skyqraft raises $2.2M seed for its powerline issue detection system
IPRally is building a knowledge graph-based search engine for patents
Sources: Hinge Health has raised $300M Series D at a $3B valuation
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All the best,
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