A conversation with Chris Kronenthal, President and Chief Technology Officer at FreedomPay
Editor’s Note: I met Chris Kronenthal several months ago at a function here in New York City so we already had something of a basis for this conversation. In the course of my work here at TheCustomer I have occasion to talk with a lot of senior people in various sectors that serve and are served by customer engagement technologies. What’s interesting, and what struck me about my earlier conversation with Chris, is that FreedomPay is both of those. And that, it seems to me, is largely a function of the personalities at the top of that organization. On a personal note, it is always refreshing to talk with someone who operates at that level – without the jargon, without the pretense. As you’ll see, Chris is that kind of a person. Honest. Real. Forthcoming.
When we met several months ago, you talked a lot about what you called “the groundwork”. At that point, FreedomPay had just won several major accounts and you attributed those wins, in large part, to the groundwork. More recently, FreedomPay won Marriott’s global business – no small thing. Tell me, what do you mean by the term “groundwork” and did that play into your conversations with Marriott
You know, it’s funny, everybody starts out with a vision of what they think success looks like. And then reality just kind of happens. So, I think from that perspective, in order to get to what FreedomPay is today, you really have to go back 20 years. The original vision of the company was mobile payments. And if you think about mobile payments in 2000 – 2001 none of the infrastructure was there. You’re talking about Nokia clamshell phones, you’re talking about basically a non-existent cellular network, certainly minimal in regards to data and all the foundational technology you need.
So, the company decided to turn it into a ground war. They basically said, let’s take a Nokia phone and an RFID sticker (we literally they called them sticky backs) and put it on the phone so that you turn the phone into an NFC capable device. And then you put a proprietary reader at the cash register.
All the things you take for granted today like having a strong cellular network, about having a strong internet, about having e-commerce – none of that was really there. So, they created a company gestalt around field services. So, for us, payments and field services were a tightly coupled concept.
Tell us what you mean by “field services”. That could mean different things depending on your industry and point of view.
Banks created payments as a function of underwriting so I could walk into a store, I could give you my payment method, and as I walked out, you knew you were going to get paid. But banking really never focused on what it took to make that happen. It’s a financial process and you’re injecting it into technology.
Field Services means you’ve literally got to work with a merchant customer and say, what’s your network? How do you connect your point of sale? Do you have enough power at the lane to run this device? Do you have a manager in the store that can plug in devices? Do I need to send a third party to go out and do that for you? Are you part of a corporate or franchise network where they mandate what that needs to look like? Does your does your point of sale partner have the right type of operating system – that’s what field service is.
How do you do that on a massive scale? How do you scale that for FreedomPay that has hundreds of thousands of implementations?
You know, there was this point when payments was just a stand-beside reader and then all of a sudden e commerce happened. Fast forward 20 years later and 85% of transactions still happen in a physical world and nobody had perfected the ground game. That’s the genesis of the ground game – everybody wants the richness, the complexity of a fully integrated ecosystem that they can get online but they want it offline where the payment action actually stayed.
How did that evolve? Because right now FreedomPay operates at a scale which is preventative for a lot of other people to enter into. You don’t just don’t show up with a checkbook and suddenly you’re able to operate with this kind of complexity and this kind of scale.
You can imagine as a startup, you talk about all the different paths you take to get somewhere. It was a very complex process to transition FreedomPay from an early innovator in mobile payments, to a cashless company, to a broadly-adopted global commerce platform.
FreedomPay managed to grow into what it is through a lot of hard work from a lot of people. They a developed ground game which integrated a cashless system into vending machines, into kiosks, into point of sale registers, and somehow getting all that to work reliably on an internet that wasn’t that sound. We realized very early that the only way they were going to get into market was to learn how to wrap around everybody else’s issues and to solve those issues and still provide a really slick experience.
The best thing that cashless ever did for us was: 1) it created a DNA in our company to embrace the ground war, don’t shy away from it, don’t try to work around it and just deal with the fact that it’s ugly. And you’ve got to have processes, people and product that solves for those nuances. And 2) it gave us a runway because a traditional approach would mean having to go raise a lot of money. They’d have to burn through a bunch of cash. The cashless system for us gave us enough of the customer base and enough of a recurring revenue stream to pivot the company hard.
How did you do it? What was that process of scaling up your groundwork like? How do you account for every possible use case?
It’s really a testament to some of the folks FreedomPay. You have to assume you’ve no idea what you’re going into and build your software for that. Because, to your point, it’s impossible to guess what every use case looks like. The fundamentals of our current system focus extensively on what does offline look like? How do we make our middleware available to third parties assuming that they’re not going to help us get integrated? Our platform was built on the assumption that our back end connections would fail or that our internet would be unreliable. Our entire system was built very defensively, expecting it to just go wrong.
Let’s talk a little bit about Marriott. I think that’s a big deal that any payment company would love to have. But FreedomPay won the Marriott contract on a global basis, correct? That’s a big deal.
Yes, it’s a global contract. We’re focusing on North America and Europe as the first two regions but ultimately, we are building out and executing on a global roadmap. And a big part of that was their confidence in the groundwork. Because when you think about deploying across 127 countries, in all the languages, all the currencies that go into that all the different partners that you would need, we were in a position to give them the confidence that they were looking for.
We’re the one company that focused on what it means to build the ground game. So as we work across the globe with them, we have a repeatable, trackable, executable process to engage the third parties that we’re going to use in that region. Here’s how we evaluate them. Here’s how we expect their pricing to come in. Here’s how we meet local requirements, jurisdictional things, etc. A big part of being able to deliver for them confidently, was knowing that we have a real strong sense of how to execute that ground game.
That, folks, is how it’s done – the hard way. I feel like we could have titled this conversation “How FreedomPay took over a corner of the payments world – one square foot at a time.” And that’s actually quite a feat. Chris, it’s always a lot of fun chatting with you. Thanks for your time and best of luck with Marriott.