Suneera Madhani knew she had a good idea.
What if her employer, a merchant acquirer, stopped pilfering extra cash from clients through a labyrinth of vague language, a barrage of nickel-and-dime fees and opus-length invoices? Instead, what if it would offered a streamlined, easy-to-understand approach to income?
Her pitch drew knee-slapping guffaws.
"I had the idea of a simple subscription-based model for payments that I took to my male bosses. Not only did they shoot me down, but they laughed at my idea and asked me why I would ever enact a model that they felt would make them less money," said Madhani. "It was clear that they didn't understand my vision or the model I was passionate about building. The rejection fueled my fire and served as a sign that I was onto something."
After leaving her old job, Madhani became the founder and CEO of Fattmerchant, an Orlando, Fla.-based subscription merchant acquirer and independent sales organization.
You know what they say about "laughing last." After founding Fattmerchant, Madhani, one of PaymentsSource's Most Influential Women in Payments for 2018, submitted to venture competitions, which led to an initial $250,000 in funding. "This proved to us that we were onto something big with our business model, and for the first time, I realized we were on track for a very successful company."
It's an aggressive push for a pricing model that others have failed with before. LevelUp and Square tried similar subscription plans, but quickly concluded merchants preferred the familiarity of traditional interchange pricing. When LevelUp gave merchants a choice between the two pricing models, most chose per-transaction fees.
Fattmerchant has the numbers to back up its success. It has grown to $1.4 billion in payments volume in four years and its most recent funding round, announced October 27, brought in $5.5 million from Fulcrum Equity Partners. With this, the company is positioned to influence the merchant acquiring market through a mix of technology, alternative fees, relationship-focused client sales, and office expansion.
The company recently added another floor to its Orlando office, opened a new location in Atlanta, and plans to increase its current staff of 60 to about 100 over the next year.
Not all lessons in business come from well-meaning mentors. Not only did Madhani persist in building her idea despite early rejection, but at her company has strived for an environment in which people pitch in and contribute without the fear of being laughed at.
That's reflected in hiring. Madhani spent most of a phone conversation talking about people. Like a presidential candidate forging his or her identity through choosing a running mate, hiring reflects a leader's vision, a demonstration of defining values.
"I was inspired to look for these attributes in staff because I didn't see them earlier in my career," she said.
For Madhani, that goes beyond merchant acquiring skills. Madhani jokes that merchant acquiring is viewed as a necessary evil — that "no merchant" likes his or her acquirer — but that's not really true at Fattmerchant.
Madhani seeks to build connections beyond a sales relationship. That's not necessarily an attempt to get merchants to personally "like" Fattmerchant, but to see the acquirer as trustworthy, helpful, transparent and accountable.
"Competencies are of course important, but that's just the permission to play for the job interview," said Madhani. "But we look for core values. We call it the best damn experience."
Madhani seeks out people who are clearly willing to step outside of a dedicated role to help other staff, to engage with vendors and partners, who do so naturally as part of their own personal sense of what's important. Ultimately, these are people who can make a merchant's experience with the company a positive one, even enjoyable.
Madhani uses words like transparent and nurturing to describe the qualities she wants in staffers, a nod to personal relationship building in a world focused on digital delivery and fee income. She said that is a sharp contrast to her earlier career in merchant acquiring, which she said was marked by unhelpful people and a "that's not my job" mentality among a lot of the executives.
She believes the culture is a major differentiator at her new company, along with product development and technology.
"What's been most surprising and disappointing with recent payments industry initiatives is that even with the increase in fintech popularity, no one has found a way to focus on the small-to-medium-sized business owner and simplify their lives," Madhani said.
Under the hood, Fattmerchant relies on an omnichannel platform that allows business owners to view and export transactions or batch reports from all locations through a single login. The technology was developed input from Fattmerchant's staff.
Looking to the future, "virtual and augmented reality's applications in fintech are incredibly fascinating," Madhani said, adding that the technology provides the possibility that consumers can immerse themselves in a virtual world for shopping. In e-commerce, augmented reality is already contributing to the overall experience, where companies like Wayfair enable customers view the placement of chairs and end tables in their own home before purchasing, she said.
These advancements, while very useful, also open the doors for increased security risks from fraud and hacking.
"This is where transparency is key in the payments industry, ensuring everyone involved knows what risks are associated with certain shortcuts, and what benefits might result from careful research into providers," Madhani said.
Meeting these challenges requires not just an open-minded staff, but an open space. Madhani has overseen a design a space that matches the staff's personality. With Fattmerchant's digital team, it has put together pop-art-inspired team portraits lining the walls, alongside decorations and furniture pieces that Madhani handpicked over the course of several months with her team with an eye on collaboration.
"We even have a bookshelf-turned-speakeasy bar room where we can go to relax or have focused one-on-one meetings in and numerous break out rooms for collaboration and brainstorming," she said.
Madhani has positive role models in the business world. She draws inspiration from Payal Kadakia, the founder and former CEO of ClassPass, whom Madhani describes as a powerhouse among female entrepreneurs.
"She saw a problem and went out and solved it by doing something that she loves, which is exactly what my aim was when I founded Fattmerchant," Madhani said.
READ MORE: The Most Influential Women in Payments, 2018