Peter Zmidzinski’s career as a treasurer inspired him to develop a new digital risk management platform to help businesses make more informed decisions about their counterparties. TMI talked to the founder of SwissMetrics about developing his idea, bringing it to market, and the lifestyle changes that came with his move.
Many people have great business ideas and, more often than not, that’s what they remain: great ideas. It takes courage and conviction to turn thoughts into reality, especially when you have spent years building a rewarding professional career.
Indeed, while some entrepreneurs take the plunge regardless, for others it can take a major shift in circumstance to provide a catalyst for change. So it proved for Peter Zmidzinski, a professional with a number of years’ senior international treasury practice under his belt.
Following degree-level study of economics and finance in his native Australia, Zmidzinski took his first treasury position as a treasury analyst, and later as Senior Treasury Analyst, with Toyota Finance Australia. He then moved halfway round the world to join Toyota Financial Services UK operations as Assistant Treasurer, a role that saw him work on various projects across Europe.
With a keen sense of progress, and mind for constant learning, Zmidzinski took a left turn and moved into banking as an Assistant Vice President with (the soon to be doomed) Lehman Brothers. When that sorry story unfolded, he was fortunate to quickly return to treasury, picking up the Zurich-based position of Head of Treasury for aviation services firm Swissport International.
Following a period of intense mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity, and after almost a decade of service, Zmidzinski decided to move on. This time he took on the Group Treasurer role at global multi-metals business, Nyrstar. Three years later, a complex takeover effectively closing down his Zurich office in 2020, he felt he’d reached “a career inflection point”, which ultimately saw him launch his own business.
SwissMetrics offers “a single-platform solution for counterparty onboarding, compliance and credit risk monitoring”, as TMI describes it in the firm’s Innovation Lab entry. Reading the entry will give an idea of Zmidzinski’s current aims. What it does not show is that work had begun on platform development long before he had decided to launch it into to the treasury, CFO, credit risk and procurement management communities.
“I’m a risk manager and very conservative by nature, so I’d been working on SwissMetrics for a few years already in my previous roles,” he explains. At Swissport and Nyrstar he’d had plenty of dealings with smaller counterparties around the world, for which there was very little accurate or up-to-date information available through the usual channels, such as Experian and Dun & Bradstreet.
Convinced he could do a better job of providing useful and timely counterparty risk assessment data, Zmidzinski built and continued developing a prototype platform. By offering access to colleagues in various functions, he gained sufficient feedback confirming that his idea had marketable value.
When the pandemic first hit in 2020, it signalled crunch time. “I thought, ‘Do I want to continue doing the same thing, or do I push forward with my growth and learning, developing the entrepreneurial side of me?’ – and so we launched.”
While the pandemic has proven devastating in so many ways, for people like Zmidzinski with commercial ideas and drive, it has provided an unexpected opportunity. The necessary growth of digitalisation during this time has enabled businesses large and small to reach further and deeper into new markets than ever before.
With the norms of travel and meetings suspended for the duration, productivity has grown exponentially through the widespread acceptance and use of digital communication platforms, says Zmidzinski. “It’s allowed me to make better use of my and other people’s time. The meetings have been more focused, and that has been critical for me in going to market.”
Growing the business
Led by the notion that technology is an enabler of enhanced team performance, Zmidzinski believes SwissMetrics can remove organisational siloes. His aim is to bring functions such as sales, procurement, finance and treasury together, “bringing more interactivity” through a better understanding of buyer and supplier businesses. “We help extract the right information and deliver it to the right people to make risk-adjusted decisions.”
It’s no secret that many innovative solution providers have benefitted greatly from falling technology costs over the past few years. For a start-up such as SwissMetrics, this means new functions can be continually added to its base product, adding value. Today, Zmidzinski says the build, test and release process is ongoing. “We’re able to be highly agile so we have a range of proof-of-concept projects on the go to make the product better.”
As an example of new functionality, the platform now provides customs and shipping data to help firms verify the legitimacy of counterparties operating in some developing regions. Another – a work in progress – is around validating and weighting environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) factors of suppliers to help firms allocate procurement funds according to policy.
While developing the base product into a more sophisticated solution has been a labour of love that has played to Zmidzinski’s strengths, other aspects of growth have been more challenging, he admits.
Funding is always a struggle for start-ups and SwissMetrics has followed the well-worn ‘bootstrapping’ pathway adopted by many, mixing personal investment and the ploughing back of any revenues into the business. It’s brave but eminently achievable. However, he admits that sales and marketing was an entirely new area for him. As many new businesses will attest, this has perhaps been the greatest challenge.
One of the most important activities in this respect has been building on his own professional associations, leveraging his technical knowledge and industry reputation to validate his own standing in this field. As Zmidzinski comments: “It’s essential to use your existing contacts to grow your network and get more leads and prospects and to show you know what you’re talking about.”
While initially “it has been about asking for a lot of favours”, Zmidzinski noting his former life as a treasurer having proven a rich hunting ground, he has still had to build trust within his network and persuade people to trial, and then hopefully pay for, the platform. Conversion has largely been a matter of getting his foot in the door and proving conclusively that his system is an improvement upon existing methods of risk data acquisition.
For anyone similarly considering a professional leap into the unknown, on a practical level, Zmidzinski suggests being grounded with the ideas. “I know treasurers are quite risk-averse, but we’re also quite entrepreneurial. We have a very broad skill set and we’re natural negotiators, but sometimes our instinct is to overthink things.”
While the desire might be to try to come up with something completely new, he says this is not essential. “It can start just by tweaking an approach or looking at a process from a new angle. The number one rule is ‘don’t overthink it’.”
Building up personal networks is important too. “Show off your expertise and don’t be afraid to test your product with them. And always be open and responsive to feedback, positive and negative,” he advises as a follow-on point. Indeed, he adds: “I was convinced people would buy my product as it was, but then I discovered it rarely works like that. My product looks completely different to what it did when I first started out. It’s vital to accept that what you create will most likely change on the way.”
Some ideas may benefit from intellectual property protection. “I’ve investigated it,” Zmidzinski says. “It’s hugely expensive, takes a lot of time, and ultimately you have to ask yourself if you have the resources to chase any infringement through the courts.”
The best protection SwissMetrics has, of course, is that it is the first of its kind. Somewhat modestly, he says he has just taken a different approach to a common problem, using relatively inexpensive and simple tools. But he knows that to stay ahead he needs to constantly reinvest in the company and tweak and offer a better product than any newcomer to this market. “If you want to maintain first-mover advantage, you need to be aggressive rather than defensive.”
For most people there will be a natural nervousness about moving out of a relatively secure professional environment into the unknown. At a personal level, the words of one who has taken this path carry the greatest weight.
“Overall, the experience has been very rewarding,” says Zmidzinski. “I’ve learnt a lot about the business and about myself too because I’m out there working with a much broader set of functions than I had as a treasurer. And although I’ve learnt to believe in myself and my instincts a lot more, and to focus on the important aspects and ignore all the noise, I’ve seen that it’s still really important to have the support of family to help push through the inevitable ups and downs.”
As a final lesson, he says he has developed far greater persistence “because there’s no balance sheet or other resources to back you; you have to rely on yourself”. This will be essential for most, especially when the remuneration “starts going backwards”, at least in the early days. And in terms of workload, while it was “always part of being a treasurer to work long hours”, the days are now even longer for Zmidzinski.
However, he cites a significant offset to any such downside. “It’s that it feels more like a hobby than work. I’m focusing on things I really enjoy, and they’ve become part of my everyday life now.”