MAKE THE TREND YOU FRIEND: An Interview with Scott Saunders, CEO and Founder of Happy Money
Updated: Nov 22, 2021
The world was a scary place in early 2020 as the pandemic crept up on us like a thick, cold fog rolling in off the water. We had to act fast to ensure everyone on our teams could safely hunker down and shelter-in-place. We faced empty grocery shelves and shortages of supplies the likes of which we hadn’t seen in our lifetimes. Companies had to move quickly to equip their employees to work from home (WFH) and then shutter their campuses.
I recently caught up with Scott Saunders, CEO and Founder of Happy Money, to discuss how that time felt for him and his company. Scott admitted he was “scared out of his mind” about whether his employees could continue to deliver results in this new work environment. He had always been a big believer in the value of everyone working together in person and had never really liked the idea of remote.
But as Happy Money’s founder, Scott is a disruptor, both personally and in the personal financial space. His company is turning borrowers into investors and savers at a rate of $3B in debt repaid since Happy Money’s inception. Scott applied that same courage and disruptive approach during the pandemic, completely reimagining what it means to create a productive workforce.
By December 2020, when Scott and I met, he was ready to articulate a brand new vision – he wasn’t moving to a hybrid workforce (where some people worked in the office and others from home), instead Happy Money would be distributed-first. (If you don’t know what this is, keep reading!)
And that decision was harder to make than it sounds. Happy Money had just designed and built out 70,000 square feet for a brand new office space in Orange County, CA. Their new office was ready to occupy just weeks before the shelter-in-place order. Have a look at their beautiful space.
Yet despite the cool new digs, Scott reflected back to his upbringing as the son of an Air Force fighter pilot who had lived in France, Germany, England, Japan and Korea and a handful of places across the United States growing up. During those many moves, he had developed an expertise around pressing through culture shock. He had learned to take a new environment and make the best of it, without looking back.
He wasted no time with nostalgia for the office of old but rather started to think about how to make the new world of work a competitive advantage. Scott explained his thinking, “When a lot of people talk about all the things that won't work about this, I feel like it's this desire to go back and live in another world instead of saying, ‘Hey, we used to do like this, but how could you do that same thing in this world that we're in now.’”
One of the things Scott wanted to ensure was that Happy Money was agnostic to where an employee was sitting – he wanted all employees on an equal footing in a distributed-first setting. So when they started down this new path, Scott and his execs began by putting their beliefs about distributed-first down on paper. They wanted everyone to be on the same page with what distributed-first IS and what it ISN’T.
Critically, his team drew a line in the sand with one belief around employee development, claiming that “Happy Peeps can and will grow from anywhere,” while also ensuring that the employees understood that they own their own career development. They also addressed the concern that was on the minds of many -- how will you alter my pay if I have moved during the pandemic? The execs made it clear that Happy Money pays for impact and results -- not where you live. By laying out these core elements, they could provide clarity not only for current employees but also for candidates who were looking at what Happy Money has to offer. And in the war for talent that is underway, distributed-first could be a winning strategy.
In the spirit of increasing diversity at his company, Scott had already been thinking about whether a redesign of work would be necessary; now he is sure that is the case. He believes he can unlock work for people who would not otherwise be in the workforce if work is designed differently than pre-pandemic. He believes that it will also be simpler to bring your whole self to work. Happy Money has always been about creating an environment where people can be who they really are and that this will have a positive impact on work and on society as a whole.
Scott has left his early fears of remote work in the past. He believes his team demonstrated tremendous hustle (Love, Trust and Hustle are the Happy Money values) during the pandemic, even going so far as to say that hustle is more easily measured because of its purity in the remote setting. He explained that hustle can be confused with being well-liked in an office setting. In a remote environment, your work speaks directly for itself.
Scott is ready to “make the trend his friend” by embracing this new way of working, both for himself and his company. With great clarity of vision and true conviction, he has guided his company to lead on this topic, creating and living their distributed-first work thesis. And my prediction is that Happy Money will come out a winner!