Operational Scalability: Joe Heck of Happy Money, On How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People…

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Operational Scalability: Joe Heck of Happy Money, On How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A Business To Scale

…Hire leaders initially, not just people who can get the work done. Once you start growing the team, you may realize someone you were working with is a great employee, but not a great leader. If you hire above them, they won’t be too happy.

In today’s fast-paced business environment, scalability is not just a buzzword; it’s a necessity. Entrepreneurs often get trapped in the daily grind of running their businesses, neglecting to put in place the systems, procedures, and people needed for sustainable growth. Without this foundation, companies hit bottlenecks, suffer inefficiencies, and face the risk of stalling or failing. This series aims to delve deep into the intricacies of operational scalability. How do you set up a framework that can adapt to growing customer demands? What are the crucial procedures that can streamline business operations? How do you build a team that can take on increasing responsibilities while maintaining a high standard of performance?

In this interview series, we are talking to CEOs, Founders, Operations Managers Consultants, Academics, Tech leaders & HR professionals, who share lessons from their experience about “How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A Business To Scale”. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Heck.

Joe Heck is CEO of Happy Money, a leading platform for unsecured lending in partnership with credit unions. Over the last four years, Joe has played a critical role in driving Happy Money’s growth, operations, product innovation, and long-term capital strategy for originations. Prior to his CEO appointment in 2023, he served as the Chief Operating Officer, overseeing risk, data science, operations, and customer experience. Now as CEO, he brings his unique combination of grit and creativity to steer the company through this next season and drive the team forward to create value for Happy Money’s stakeholders, partners, and consumers alike.

Joe has a legacy of driving innovation and transformation within the lending industry as well as years of experience working with credit unions. Prior to joining Happy Money, Joe spent 15 years at CUNA Mutual Group (now TruStage) in various leadership roles, including leading product innovation to help financial institutions on their digital transformation journey. Joe implemented a lean startup culture to enable customer-centric product development, increasing development and go-to-market velocity. He also served as an advisor to the company’s venture arm, TruStage Ventures, in evaluating fintech partnerships specific to the credit union industry.

Joe received his MBA from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business and has a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance from Michigan State University. Joe and his wife Britta have two young children, Oliver and Lincoln, and reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I joined Happy Money nearly five years ago, leaving a very comfortable enterprise job where I was leading new product development for their digital transformation. I was a bit of a cowboy in that large, established enterprise company as I thought frameworks meant bureaucracy. When I first came to this hyper-growth company, I had to adjust to the significant differences in how things were done. Change can be uncomfortable, but I came to realize that Happy Money could benefit from some of the structures that enterprise companies mandate for scaling people, processes, and technology. Five years later, I am now CEO of the company and continue to integrate the balance of structure and innovation.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started at Happy Money, I came in my 90-year-old insurance company “business casual” — slacks and a collared shirt. Got ribbed a little and asked about the dress code. I was told Happy Money didn’t have one. So, I went with my true comfortable look and showed up in basketball shorts. After a few looks, I quickly realized that there was an unwritten standard — and I hadn’t met it that day! We still get a chuckle out of that moment, and it helps me remember two things:

  1. It’s important to unearth the unwritten rules in your organization.
  2. Never take yourself too seriously.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our ethos and culture are very special to us and integral to our business. We are focused on better financial outcomes for everyone involved — both consumers and financial institutions. And we get excited to solve problems… together. Financial services are complicated, but part of that complexity is driven by the fact that this industry is, and has been, built by financial professionals who were guided by traditional thinking around product development. What I love about our team is the way we think with a human-centric approach that frees us from the way that things have traditionally been done. We challenge the status quo and dig through the layers of solutions that oftentimes bury the original problem to solve. All of this is underpinned by our deep care for people — starting first and foremost with the people who work here at Happy Money.

We bring this people-centric lens to everything we do, looking at financial services through the lens of effects on individuals. As an example, we conducted a study that found people who carry a revolving credit card balance experience 17% higher levels of financial stress than those who pay their cards off each month. Credit card debt is associated with all sorts of stress and adverse effects on people’s lives. That understanding has driven Happy Money’s approach to lending in many ways. We are on a mission to design a happier way of lending that empowers people to achieve their goals and helps our credit union partners achieve greater impact and scale.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

My three most instrumental and integral character traits are Curiosity, Creativity, and Grit.

  • Curiosity: I love to learn new things and to learn from others. This generates a lot of energy for me and has allowed me to learn from multiple industries, industry leaders, and products that I can then map back into my world, our company, and our business.
  • Creativity: Having diversity in thought, experience, and observation creates a foundation to look at challenges and opportunities through various angles and perspectives. Specifically for me, growing up in a relatively lower end of the socioeconomic environment and progressing through nearly all levels throughout my life, has allowed me to think creatively and empathize with many personal and professional situations.
  • Grit: This is probably the trait I am most proud of. Growing up in a blue-collar community, this is something that we placed high value on. I like to work on problems others shy away from, without fear of failure. Personally, I find adversity to be a strong means of motivation.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

Pursuing two good paths always leads to nowhere. Leaders and teams need to drive with conviction, so choosing one path and driving focus provides the best odds of success. I’m a big fan of lean startup methodology in which you do your best to create clarity via small tests.

When confronted with two good paths, I look for a few things:

  1. Alignment with the strategy
  2. Urgency given market conditions
  3. Degree of confidence we are right

Rarely are all three of these points clear, so designing experiments and pressure tests (which can be as simple as calling five customers for their view of the world) provides additional texture to nudge one ahead or behind the other.

In choosing a path, I recommend building out answers to these questions:

  1. What needs to be true for us to remain on this path?
  2. What would cause us to rethink our decision or path?
  3. What are ways we can validate/invalidate our assumptions on the journey?

With this, I think a team can better align on discussions about what to start, stop, or continue in an unemotional and data-driven way.

Lastly, avoiding trap doors and big mistakes is really the objective when assessing a path with these questions. Watching leaders invest big time and money on products and services that are heavily based on experience and assumptions and then fail at launch has influenced how I attempt to manage these big decisions. It’s also influenced how and which questions I ask.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Operational Scalability. In order to make sure that we are all on the same page, let’s begin with a simple definition. What does Operational Scalability mean to you?

Operational scalability is being prepared with your people, process, and technology to match the pressure that hyper-growth can put on a business. For example, ensuring that the areas of your product and/or service differentiation don’t deteriorate with rapid growth is critical. Equally important is making sure your non-critical and non-differentiated services scale efficiently.

Which types of business can most benefit from investing in Operational Scalability?

From my experience, I believe hyper-growth businesses can benefit most from investing in Operational Scalability. On that note, I categorize businesses and products into three buckets:

  • Start-ups: Still figuring out product/market fit, features, differentiation, etc. Small, brave, and sassy.
  • Enterprise: Great product/market fit, mature revenue, and looking to drive additional juice out of their operating expenses.
  • Hyper-growth: Found the fit, now need to make sure they don’t blow it up as they seek to establish a strong market position.

It is in the Hyper-growth arena where being conscious of your infrastructure, process, and overall operating expenses can make or break success. Having awareness and anticipating where the challenges are is crucial, so they can be built into the roadmap.

Why is it so important for a business to invest time, energy, and resources into Operational Scalability?

The investment in Operational Scalability allows you to stay focused on the horizon ahead, which is growth and product innovation. Additionally, it is much easier to manage a P&L with predictability in expenses.

In contrast, what happens to a business that does not invest time, energy, and resources into Operational Scalability?

If you do not invest in Operational Scalability, 80% of your team’s time will be spent fixing issues. Additionally, if you’re burdened by tech debt or inefficiencies, you may miss opportunities due to cost or lack of focus.

Can you please share a story from your experience about how a business grew dramatically when they worked on their Operational Scalability?

At Happy Money, from 2021 to 2022 we grew our core business 100% YoY with less than 10% increase in headcount through delivery of automation in our loan verifications and processing.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the “Five Most Important Things A Business Leader Should Do To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A Business To Scale”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

In my experience, the five most important things a business leaders should do to set up systems, procedures, and people to prepare a business to scale are:

  1. Strategic Alignment: How are we going to win now, in six months, in two years, in five years?
  2. Growth Plan: How do we define scale? What are the parameters we should consider?
  3. Differentiation: What should scale without a dilution in customer value? What needs to scale with a focus on efficiency?
  4. Categorization of Systems: Systems of Record (updated infrequently), Systems of Differentiation (updated frequently), and Systems of Innovation (updated and broken all the time); know what is what and ensure you are investing time and energy in the right ways
  5. Buy/Build/Partner Framework: Related to the above, don’t build or customize everything. It is too expensive to both build and maintain. Know and align so you can pace investment of time, talent, and treasure with the expected ROI.

With these five elements in place, it is easier to establish a framework for evaluating investment and return on that investment across various initiatives.

What are some common misconceptions businesses have about scaling? Can you please explain?

“It’s never too late” and “It’s never too early” are two common phrases you hear. Both are wrong, and both are right. It is important to know and identify a time horizon when you are building for (or anticipating) scale so you pull the trigger at the right time. Too early can create unnecessary operating expenses and bureaucracy, while too late can create massive bottlenecks to growth.

How do you keep your team motivated during periods of rapid growth or change?

I try to bucket the work, the energy, and the goals to the season I perceive us to be in. When the season changes, I signal that to the organization so that people can better understand the logic behind a given change.

Overall, I believe motivation comes from:

  • Mission and Vision: Staying aligned to your mission and vision helps imbue a sense of purpose in your organization.
  • Culture: Maintaining consistent values through our operating principles helps people know what to expect of each other, regardless of the season.
  • Clear Priorities: Aligning priorities to the season is also critical to right-sizing the work to the strategic roadmap.

Transparency and authenticity as a leader have allowed us to weather many seasons of change as well as avoid too many surprises.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” This quote was the inspiration behind the title of one of Brené Brown’s books, “Daring Greatly”, and the concept resonates with me deeply.

I think we all care, to some degree, what others think of us. This can show up in how we engage in our personal and professional lives. I firmly believe that the person in the arena is the one who counts, the one who is taking the chance, the risk, to do something great. Criticism, absent acknowledgment of that effort, doesn’t move us forward.

This is what propels me to speak up — and encourage others to do the same. As John Jay Chapman said, “Do what you will, but speak out always. Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don’t be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.” At Happy Money, one of our operating principles is to deliver the right results with urgency and focus. We move forward, undaunted by past challenges or present adversities, and partner together to create something new to impact our industry for the better.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Happy Money was founded on the belief that there was a happier way to approach money, and that business could be a force for good. With that, our company was built on the idea that people deserved a better way to reach their financial dreams and goals: one that had their best interest at heart. We’ve been building that movement ever since, seeking to create and deliver financial tools and services that help people do more with their money. With every decision we make, we’re designing a happier lending experience that keeps people’s best interests at heart. This philosophy permeates both what we do and what we don’t do, setting a new lending standard that supports consumers and financial institutions thriving… together.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Learn more about Happy Money and opportunities for partnership at happymoney.com. You can also follow me on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Operational Scalability: Joe Heck of Happy Money, On How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.