Revolut insiders reveal the human cost of a fintech unicorn's wild rise


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“You're nothing but a number to them with dollar signs attached.” That's how Revolut, one of the fastest growing fintech startups in the UK, described traditional banks when advertising for business development manager vacancies last October. Revolut was the alternative to these banks, and had already acquired 2.8 million customers without spending a single penny on advertising, the ad said.

But former Revolut employees say this high-speed growth has come at a high human cost – with unpaid work, unachievable targets, and high-staff turnover.

Laura (not her real name) wasn't aware of these problems when she applied to be a Spanish business development manager, last year. She loved the product – an app and card that provided zero-fee international money transfers, the ability to use digital currency bitcoin, as well as other services – and was excited at the prospect of working for the company.

She did a 30-minute job interview over Google Hangouts with the London-based head of business development, Andrius Biceika, and was immediately told she had passed to the next round, which would involve a small test. “The surprise came when I received the task and it asked me to get the company as many clients as possible, with each one depositing €10 into the app,” says Laura.

The instructions on the exercise said the applicants should recruit at least 200 clients in a week to have a chance at passing to the next interview phase. The task’s description didn’t guarantee that reaching the target would automatically qualify applicants for a job, but did advise them on a number of ways they could get clients, such as sharing a “promo code” with their friends, sharing it on social media, and posting promotional flyers on university campuses.

After Laura wrote back refusing to do the task and saying she was disappointed that the company would “take advantage of someone that is looking for a job”, Biceika emailed her saying she was the only candidate out of over 350 that had complained about the task. “Apologies you're not up to show what you're capable of,” he wrote in the email.

Following revelations about the exercise on Spanish website eldiario.es, Chad West, Revolut’s head of communications, said the company had shut down the practice “immediately” after being made aware of it.

At the time, besides the role Laura had applied for, the company was recruiting for similar positions in eight other European countries, but West wouldn't answer questions about how widespread this practice was, how many clients Revolut had acquired that way, or which company executives had been aware of the practice.

Revolut's "home task" required applicants for various positions to recruit new app users. "200 or more sign-ups would be a very strong indication that you’d go into the next round of
interview", the document read

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A copy of an email from May 25, 2018 shows the company had already asked applicants to complete the same exercise months earlier when recruiting for a Greek PR and community manager. A role Chad West, as head of communications, likely would have known about, according to a former manager who was at the company when the policy was brought in.

While part of the job description of a business development manager would include customer acquisition, this was not a skill PR managers would be expected to have.

“The thinking was this might not get us the best candidate, but at least we will get a lot of free sign-ups,” said the former manager, who asked not to be named. He says that none of the applicants was paid for bringing in clients.

At least in the UK, this practice might go against governmental recommendations.

“Tasks that take more than a day and that have value to the employer beyond testing the applicant usually attract the National Minimum Wage according to the Government’s guidance,” says Andrew Gray founder of Truth Legal, a law firm specialising in employment law and personal injury.

“The guidance aims to help employers stay on the right side of the law but is not legally binding. Ultimately the courts would have to decide whether the candidates’ work qualifies for the minimum wage,” says Gray.

Several former employees say that the fact managers considered it acceptable to ask applicants to work for free is a reflection of Revolut’s wider culture which, they claim, values hitting targets at all costs.

“Primarily, it starts with their CEO Nikolay [Storonsky] being very vocal about their mentality, that if you do a 9-5 [workday] it won't work out...everything he has said is a recipe for burnout” says Stevie Buckley, co-founder of Honest Work and HR advisor to dozens of startups.

Buckley, who has come across several former Revolut employees when helping to hire them for other companies, says the issue of burnout and high staff turnover comes up repeatedly.

Depending on the role, workers spend on average between eighteen months and four years at a startup. Staff retention at Revolut is far lower, Buckley claims.

Revolut was given detailed questions about all the points raised in this article, including that head of communications Chad West knew that applicants were being asked to conduct free work prior to the revelations by eldiario.es. The company declined to comment. It also did not respond to questions about bullying, unfair dismissals and low retention rates of senior HR staff.

In an emailed statement, a company spokesperson wrote: “our culture is evolving as rapidly as our business”. They emphasised that in the last year the company had grown from 150 to 750 people, with staff turnover of less than 2.6 percent, and that 40 percent of its staff was female.

An analysis of the start and end dates of 147 former Revolut employees on LinkedIn suggests that over 80 percent had lasted less than a year, and over half stayed at the company for less than six months.

“When I joined [Revolut] there were seven country managers and only one was left a year later. Two were fired within seven weeks of joining,” says Martin, a former Revolut country manager, who in the summer of 2017 was offered a job overseeing Revolut’s operations in a European country where the company did not yet have a physical presence.

Martin, who asked for his name to be changed, had been told he would be given a budget to hire a team, and relative autonomy to run the company branch in that country. He quickly discovered the budgets for staff were non-existent and bullying by senior managers was commonplace. One by one, he claims, his fellow country managers quit or were fired. According to Linkedin, country managers in the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Germany all spent a year or less at the company, and have not been replaced as of the time of writing.

Several country managers hired around that time recount of a similar experience. One says that he would be working every waking hour of the day and every weekend. During the weekdays he would execute strategies to promote the app – such as organising events or talking to local journalists – and at night and in the weekends he would translate the Revolut app and website into the language of the country he was managing.

Despite the challenges country managers had to overcome, senior managers were unforgiving when Martin and his colleagues failed to hit the targets imposed on them.

Last spring, CEO Nikolay Storonsky sent an announcement to all staff through the company's Slack messaging service, saying that any members of staff “with performance rating [sic] 'significantly below expectations' will be fired without any negotiation after the review”.

Firing staff that have failed to meet key performance indicators (KPIs) without looking at the reasons behind that failure, such as a disability or other personal circumstances, could expose the company to unfair dismissal claims, discrimination claims, or both, says Gray of Truth Legal.

“An employer who, regardless of reasons, still fires any staff member for failing to meet a KPI seems to me to have made a crude calculation that, on a cost-benefit analysis, they will make more money from the KPIs being achieved, than it will cost them in terms of employment claims being lost,” he adds.

A message Revolut CEO Nikolay Storonsky sent on the company Slack channel last spring

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Martin and his colleagues were also reminded of their targets on weekly conference calls, first on Sunday nights and then on Monday mornings, when the vice president of Operations, Alan Chang, would demand that each country manager explain what they had done that week.

“On calls, [Alan] would cut people off mid sentence and say 'next',” Martin claims. Another manager says that during the calls Alan, who is part of CEO Storonsky's inner circle, would tell most managers how they fell short of their targets, and would be constantly interrupting them when they tried to explain why.

A few weeks after starting, the first country manager quit, sending an email to Storonsky in which he complained about Chang’s behaviour and management style, according to people with knowledge of the exchange. A week later, two country managers that had recently been transferred to new countries were fired.

Around this time, CEO Nikolay Storonsky gave an interview to Business Insider where he said Revolut’s philosophy was to “get shit done”, a slogan that is emblazoned on the company's London office walls in bright neon lights. In an echo to what was going on in these calls, Storonsky would go on to say in the interview that the company attracted people that want to grow and “growing is always through pain”.

Sources say at least one former head of HR resigned after failing to convince Storonsky that the company had to change its dogmatic approach to performance targets. In the last two years a total of three different people have headed the HR department, the last one leaving two months before Revolut's use of the controversial home task was revealed. At the time of writing, Revolut has more than 200 vacancies listed on its website. The job listings for business development roles are almost line-by-line identical to the one Laura applied for.

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