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Nov 20, 2020

How ops helped Brex scale 9x in 2 years

Clare McClintock
Head of Operations Strategy at Brex

Clare is currently Head of Operations Strategy at Brex. She has spent the past two years helping to build and scale Operations and Risk at Brex in San Francisco and Salt Lake City. Prior to Brex, Clare was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

0:34   Who is Clare?

1:04   Clare's experience at Goldman Sachs

2:40   How to convey information effectively

3:15   Why Clare joined Brex

3:57   What is Brex

5:18   What is operations strategy

6:12   Clare's day to day

9:36  How Clare defines operations

10:31   How operations has changed at Brex

11:48   The role of documentation for processes and scale efficiency

13:05   Different types of operations at Brex

15:22   Internal tools at Brex

17:28   How Brex uses checklists

18:52   All hands during COVID

21:43   Reviewing past operations workflows and improving for the future

22:53   The keys to operational success at Brex

23:53   General career advice for people interested in ops

24:54   Remote and the opportunities around it

[Apologies for spelling mistakes as the transcript is machine generated]

Derrick: [00:00:27] Hey Clare.

Clare: [00:00:28] Hey, how are you Derrick?

Derrick: [00:00:30] Great. Thanks for joining us.

Clare: [00:00:31] Thanks for having me.

Derrick: [00:00:34] To kick things off. Maybe we can start with a very broad question, which is, who is Clare? What is your story?

Clare: [00:00:41] Yeah. So I'm Clare. I run the Operations Strategy team at Brex.  I'm from New York and now based in Salt Lake just recently moved from San Francisco.

and I joined Brex a little over two years ago, actually, exactly two years ago as of tomorrow. , as the second operations hiring,  I've been with the company ever , since

Derrick: [00:01:00] Congrats on two years tomorrow.

Clare: [00:01:02] Thank you.

Derrick: [00:01:04] Before we jump into what exactly operations strategy means as well as what Brex does.

Maybe we can just back up a little bit and, zoom out to two or three years ago before you joined Brex. I think you were initially atGoldman Sachs when you graduated from school.

Clare: [00:01:19] Yeah.So I joined Goldman TMT group right out of school in San Francisco. And I think  what drove me joining Goldman is I had a really big interest in tech, but I didn't know where exactly I wanted togo or what I wanted to do.

And thinking gave me a really broad exposure to all sorts of different tech companies that I could. Get involved with as well as , what was most important to all of their leadership teams. So it was really, really awesome.  first job out of school.

Derrick: [00:01:49] So do you think that role helped influence where you are today?

Clare: [00:01:54] Definitely.  one because I was referred by Goldman people to Brex, so that is very important. And then two, I definitely learn this ton of valuable skills from Goldman.   so many things, including. One, what management teams are really looking for and how they drove results in their teams. And then also this sounds simple, but it's actually quite important how to present information and convince people to do one thing or another, which with Brexit make a ton of decisions every day and knowing what data to use to back up.

Why I think we should do something X way instead of Y way, ,has been super valuable. And Goldman definitely is the gold standard for that.

Derrick: [00:02:39] Is there any sort of a secret that you can share with the audience in terms of how to best convey information and make sure people  get their work done, that you're describing?

Clare: [00:02:47] Yeah.  everything's changed with the zoom world, of course, but. If you're doing a PowerPoint presentation, making sure that there's a point to every single slide is just critical. And I know that sounds perhaps trite, but it made a big difference for me in a lot of stuff at practice. .

Derrick: [00:03:06] And so you talked earlier how Goldman introduced you to Brex.

I'm assuming there are lots of other companies that you got exposed to while you were at Goldman. And yet you chose to join Brex.  why did you see Brexit as an interesting opportunity to be a part of two years ago?

Clare: [00:03:22] Yeah, I think for me, there are a lot of great clients I've worked with atGoldman, but most of them were larger than bricks.

And should I have jumped ship to one of those?  I think my role would be a lot smaller in scope. What was really perfect for me about breasts is because I was joining the team relatively early. I got to. The manager one year out of school, I got to build teams, help open offices, , opportunities that I knew.

One I wasn't going to see at Goldman, which is what led me to leave. And then two that I wouldn't necessarily see at large tech companies either.

Derrick: [00:03:57] What exactly is Brex?

Clare: [00:04:00] Brex is a, we used to be the corporate credit card for startups when we were first getting going. And now we're the financial OSTP for all growing businesses.

So Brex seeks to provide financial products for every growing business.

Derrick: [00:04:17] And how big was Brex when you joined versus how big is it today?

Clare: [00:04:21] Brex was around 50 people when I joined and now we're over 450 people.

Derrick: [00:04:27] Wow. So  that's like a nine X growth in two years.

Clare: [00:04:30] Yes.

Derrick: [00:04:31] And is that, doesn't say where it was that kind of the expectation when you joined them that, you know, you were expecting it to grow nine X in two years, or what were the expectations when you joined Brex?

Clare: [00:04:41] I don't think I could have ever had the expectations that we would have grown that fast.  I knew the company had ambitious schools. One of our core values is dream big. So I knew I was jumping into a company where leadership really wanted to grow and scale as quickly as possible, but I sort of expected to build a small team, maybe.

I think everything I've done over the past two years, I probably would have expected to take more like five.

Derrick: [00:05:10] Got it.   I'm sure the amount of learning and growth has just been unprecedented.

Clare: [00:05:15] Yeah. It's been really fun.

Derrick: [00:05:18] So earlier you talked about how you lead operations strategy at Brex.

I think for a lot of the audience members, maybe when they think of operations, they don't really equate it to. Maybe a software company or a credit card company or, or a financial services company. What exactly is operation strategy?

Clare: [00:05:36] Yeah, so operations strategy is a whole host of things, but in summary, I do everything I can to make our operations team as efficient and effective as possible.

So looking into how do we plan out headcount for the next year when we're expecting crazy growth as always, how do we automate processes that don't actually need human involvement? How do we fix inefficiencies within operations? Basically? Wherever there's issues. What can we do to resolve and plan for them?

Derrick: [00:06:12] It sounds like there are lots of different types of projects that could be involved in that role. Would you say like your day to day is very similar or would you say that,  things pop up out of random and every single day is   very different.

Clare: [00:06:25] I'd say every day is very different.

There are definitely core functions that I do that are recurring, like headcount planning, but, , various problems that arise. That's outside of our strategy operations in general. Typically deals with, Oh, when there's a fire, how do we solve it? And I usually am jumping into those. So those are always different and fun and exciting because it's something usually the accompanies never encountered before.

And it's usually a pressing problem. So you have to move fast. So that's  what I like about my role.

Derrick: [00:07:00] Would you mind just sharing maybe one of these stories of a fire?

Clare: [00:07:04] Yeah.  it's sort of a unique project thatI worked on. That's a little outside of ops strategy, but when a paycheck protection program launched in the spring with the start of COVID, , all of our customers were writing in asking how they could get PPP loans through Brex.

And because we provide Brex cash and Brex card for a lot of our customers where the sole financial institution they work with, and we were not an SBA lender. So I needed to figure out how to. Get all of our customers,PPP loans, even though we weren't allowed to give them out.  so that was definitely a fire, , because PVP was constantly evolving and we needed to figure out who we could partner with to ensure that.

All of our customers who wanted PPP loans could get them. SoI worked with ops to think about, okay, how, when customers are interested in these things, how do  we direct them to a partner? How do we find a partner who's willing to take our customers? And how do we ensure that we don't overflow volume from our customer base to another financial institution, which would just end with customer unhappiness because they might not get access to a loan that we've promised for them.

Derrick: [00:08:13] How big was the team that worked on this project?

Clare: [00:08:16] It was me, it really, but a lot of other people helped. we had amazing partners at Radius and Wombley who those were our lending partners, so they were awesome. And then within Brex, I worked really closely with our customer support team, with a host of other teams and operations, to just make sure that we could easily direct our customers to Radius and Wombley.

Derrick: [00:08:43] How many people have Brex works in quote unquote operations. And  which departments within Brex do you mostly interact with?

Clare: [00:08:50] Yeah. So our operations team is 29 people I believe right now and growing.

but we work with every other team at Brex truly, which is another thing I love about my role is if you want to automate a process, likely the operations team, isn't going to be the team doing that. So you have to work with product and engineering to really get that going. Or we're launching a new product,  same sort of situation there.

PM might be leading that process, but they need operations input on what's feasible on the ops side versus not.  and then, because operations handles application review, we work really closely with sales. So we really touch every single team at Brex, which is actually quite fun. , and sometimes stressful.

Derrick: [00:09:36] We ask every,  every guest this question, because I think every answer is somewhat different. But what does operations mean to you?

Clare: [00:09:45] Yeah,  it's funny because operations can look really different at different companies and it's definitely evolved overtime at Brex. I think first and foremost, operations is the team that keeps the wheel on the car wheels on the car.

If there's any issues, any problems ops is the team that's going to one first, identify it and then to dive into fixing it.  But, yeah, it's definitely evolved over time at Brex. A lot of our operations have to do with,  what type of risk tolerance truly. How do we assess risk tolerance for all of our customers, which a non-financial institution, non-financial business wouldn't necessarily be touching on their operations team, but it's definitely a huge piece of ours.

Derrick: [00:10:31] You're saying operations has changed at Brex, over the last two years. Do you mean that the types of operations have changed or  just the process itself has changed.

Clare: [00:10:41] I'd say both. So when I joined, there were quickly four of us on operations and we  did everything.

Fraud, payment, ops, application processing, underwriting, all of the things that kept the wheels on the car for Brex at the time. since then, We've launched new products. So we've had new teams and we've also scaled a ton. So we've further fleshed out the teams to be , much bigger than just the four people we were when I first joined.

and what that means, and  that ties really closely to how you change processes as well, because a process when it's just me doing it, and I know how to do it, and I can do it every day. perhaps isn't as beautifully recorded as when you have 10 people doing it, and that could be constantly changing and you need everyone to be on the same page.

And I think we've focused a lot on how do we streamline processes, make them clear and easily followed, , and  build an operations team that can scale versus be handled by four people.

Derrick: [00:11:48] So what's the secret sauce there? How does it go from four to 29? Is it more building internal tools or is it,  just better documentation?

Clare: [00:11:56] Documentation is critical, definitely critical, especially for someone like me.I have a tendency to keep things in my head and changing that habit has been very important. , but. Tools as well, have been a huge piece of scaling our operations.

being able to have efficient and effective tooling when your customer base is growing as fast as ours is just so important because otherwise processes that used to take five minutes. Now take 10. And then when you have 10 X, the number of. Processes that you have to go through it. That's a whole heap of time to making our tools super efficient and easy to use has been really top of mind.

Derrick: [00:12:35] When you say documentation, do you just mean Google docs or is there a specific type of documentation

Clare: [00:12:40] We use GRU. For all of our SOP documentation. And what's great about GRU is,  you can make changes and publish them to your team. So anytime you update a doc or add a doc, you can ensure that everyone on your team is alerted about it and gets a,  Notification that they have to read these changes, so great way to keep everyone up to speed on our processes.

Derrick: [00:13:05] Gotcha.  earlier you're talking about, I think some of the different types of operations and processes at Brex, like fraud, do you mind just deep diving into two or three,  specific processes that Ben you deal with that Brex?

Clare: [00:13:19] Yeah. So one is the underwriting team. our card product has a unique underwriting model.

That's fairly automated, but should there ever be  customers who don't behave as we expect the underwriting team will review them and understand whether or not they meet our credit risk tolerance. So that's  unique to any lending product because it. If you don't have that, you don't need an underwriting team.

but it's been fun because we've brought in people with more traditional lending backgrounds  or just finance backgrounds in general, and  introduce them to our underwriting model. That's very different from a typical credit card. And everyone's been super creative about how to evolve that and automate it further and think about where our risk tolerance really should be.

And then a second one.    We can talk about fraud. Fraud is a great example. , there's fraud across fintechs.  fraud team deals with preventing and monitoring    transactions across all of our products to ensure that we protect our customers from fraud.

And we stop any bad actors who come to Brex. That's pretty cool. It's very investigatory.

Derrick: [00:14:39] And  for those types of processes  are there specific internal tools built in house for that? Or is it  a case by case basis? Here's like a Google doc just document what's happening.

And then  we'll try to figure this out, right?

Clare: [00:14:50] Definitely not a Google Doc. We have. Great. So we use retool for almost all of our internal tooling and the fraud team has built out. Great fraud, trackers to track any instances of fraud that we noticed, track reviews, track. If a customer says a transaction  wasn't done by them and they want to charge it back to the network.

We do that as well via Retool. So if we did Google docs, it would be very scary for us.

Derrick: [00:15:22] What's the what's I guess, what are the advantages of building internal tools, especially the advantages of reason retool. Versus maybe some of the headaches of having to build internal tools.

Clare: [00:15:32] Yeah. So Retool is kind of a, a nice in-between between building your own tools from scratch and using a software company that makes tools for you.

they allow you to build tools off of sequel, , and create a really simple user for the customers, which is really the operations team. , benefits of that is you can build. Pages really fast. You can build processes super fast and everything's  in the same format and relatively standardized.

I think negatives are, , there's always going to be limitations to what a vendor can do for you besides instead of what you could do for yourself.  and. As breakfast scaled, we have to be really thoughtful about  how we import our data into retool so that things are fast enough.  and ensure that we don't get slowed down with scale.

Derrick: [00:16:26] Maybe just touching on internal tools for one more second.  earlier you talked about how one of the operations is underwriting. It seems like most of the underwriting processes are automated. So what types of internal tools need to be built for underwriting? Even though it seems like most of it are already automated.

Clare: [00:16:44] Yeah. So even though most of it is automated, you always want it way for someone to check on a customer. So we have tools to be able to search through our whole customer base. See what decisions have been made automated or manual in the past so that the underwriting team can deep dive into. All of those decisions.

And that's really important because what you'd hate with an automated system is if system made a mistake and you have no visibility into how that decision was made or why it was made, that becomes very hard to fix.So having tooling, where the team can dive in, looking at specific account, understand what happened and why is critical.

Derrick: [00:17:28] Does Brex, you see any sort of a checklist, whether it's out of the box or whether any of the internal tools are checklists.

Clare: [00:17:35] So we have internal tools that are similar to checklists,  but not exactly checklists. I do think checklists are very valuable and as we grow the team further likely will be something we look into because it just creates an easy way for someone to know that they've done every step of a process.

And I'd say that while we have some of , that can always be improved.

Derrick: [00:17:57] And so  going off of checklists and documentation further,  do you find that when the team is using guru,  even though it's a documentation tool, they actually follow through with the updates versus just glancing through it, and then a month down the road, you realizing that they really haven't been following the updates at all.

Clare: [00:18:17] I think we're pretty good with group, but before we use group, we definitely had that problem. If we had Google docs, keeping everyone up to speed. , but because grew so easily reference-able,  it makes it a lot easier for us and the watch and is almost just the notification.

Derrick: [00:18:32] Whenever something changes, the team just has to read through it again.

Clare: [00:18:39] Exactly. And usually team manager will also say, Hey, check this out. Sort of use  multiple means by which you can inform the team and force a force, a review of a new process.

Derrick: [00:18:52] How has all hands and communications at Brex changed? Especially from an ops perspective, both as the company grew from two years ago, but also during COBA times.

Clare: [00:19:04] Yeah. So when I first joined Brex we had a, all a weekly, all hands with the co-CEOs Pedro and Enrique.  and we still do that, but now it's switched to one week as a Q and a forum where you can ask them any questions. And then the other weeks. Week as an all hands where we actually go through specific topics that they want to cover.

for example, we just hired a COO. So bringing her in was a topic in a recent week,  sort of company level announcements that they wanted to spend more time on. But in addition to all that, Since I've joined, we've also added a all hands for my org. So operations is under our CFO, so he has an all hands for everyone who reports into him.

So , operations, finance, accounting, all of the teams that are under his umbrella. And then we also have an all hands for just operations.So that's. All of operations and customer experience. And those have been really valuable because as the company has grown the transfer of information, just.

You need new means to do that. And not everything that we do can be covered in an all hands anymore or deserves a 450 person audience, but a lot of items are super important. So those two additional all-hands allow us to  ensure that everyone in an operations is properly informed on everything they should be.

Derrick: [00:20:31] How often do you have,  An all hands with the ops team. And how do you keep on top of the ops team to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks? because I think things are moving so fast. Oftentimes it's hard  to really know what people are doing within the organization on a day-to-day basis and keeping on top of the projects that needs to get.

Clare: [00:20:49] Yeah. So we have our all hands on a monthly basis, which is great right now. I think it. Balances keeping people informed while not invading everyone's calendars with meetings, which is super important in a zoom world. And then on the sort of quality assurance side, we actually implemented QA for all of our ops processes.

And what that is is. Quality assurance review of the work that everyone's doing. And that's a great way to understand how much work are people doing and are they doing it well, as well as are there things we can improve about these work streams in general, but when we review them, do they make sense?  so that's definitely been a critical way for us to track performance and understand that we're doing our job as we should be.

Derrick: [00:21:38] There's so much like how software has QA ops now has QA too.

Clare: [00:21:42] Yes.

Derrick: [00:21:43] How is there a software for this or is this more just reviewing what people have done and talking about it in a leadership setting?

Clare: [00:21:50] So we have an internal tool built way to review a percentage of the work streams that. Various people have handled.

So a manager or a peer will review a decision that someone in operations made. And then we have  a rubric for understanding. Did they make the right decision or not? So unlike software where, and correct me if I'm wrong, because this definitely not my area of expertise, but usually do QA before you ship code, someone else reviews it before you ship it.

This is actually a retroactive. This decision has been made.Was it the right one or not?

Derrick: [00:22:27] And is it for every single decision that's been made or is it for less out of a random pool of a hundred cases? You pull out two or three of them to go to QA you a random pool.

Clare: [00:22:35] Yeah.If we did everything, we'd need a lot more people.

Derrick: [00:22:43] So breakfast, numb  for having awesome operations.What do you think that the secret to success is?

Clare: [00:22:50] There are a lot of things that I think our operations team does.  one is being super organized,  documentation and. Processes go along way.And another is creating opportunities for scale and growth.

I think something that our customer experience team has done really well is creating opportunities for team members to move into operations or move into business development.  and that really creates a platform for internal growth that I think we're extremely proud of. And. Maintains employee happiness and keeps people excited about being at bricks and this growth  doesn't just mean you can move to other teams.

It's also growth internally within breaths. Like everyone,I. Pretty much everyone I hired in my first sort of go as a manager is now a manager of Brex and being able to have those opportunities has been super important for us scaling our operations.

Derrick: [00:23:53] What advice do you have in general for folks who might be interested in career in ops, but maybe they're at Goldman right now?

Clare: [00:24:02] Yeah, I think,  Ops is a great way to really dive into a business and understand how it works in a very granular level.  for me, I have a background in math and I always liked to dive into a problem , and spend a lot of time understanding the mechanics of how it works. And if you're, if that kind of excites you, operations is a great place to be because you're always diving to new problems and you  really deeply understand how the business works.

So that would be. My advice, seeing if it's a good match,  because if it is, you'll thrive in it and you'll really enjoy it, but it's not like it's very, it's a very internal role.Other people might prefer it to be more external or my preferred to be focused on something else. And if you like diving to problems and you like  getting super granular ops is a great place to be.

Derrick: [00:24:54] And to close things off, just a fun question. what most excites you about the world at this moment of time?

Clare: [00:25:02] What most excites me. I think the sort of innovation that we've seen in COVID has been really exciting thinking about, at Brex we've turned into a remote first company, which if you told me that a year ago, I think that's crazy.

But the way the world has gotten thoughtful about. How to celebrate birthdays, remotely, how to buy products online, even more so than we were doing before.  I think it's a very weird time when we're all  locked in our homes in quarantine, but seeing how people are making the best of that and being really innovative in how to solve for our current living environment has been really cool and exciting to see.

Derrick: [00:25:46] The future is right.

Clare: [00:25:47] Yes.  

Derrick: [00:25:48] Well, thank you so much  for the time and for sharing some of the insights from Brex. We really appreciate it.

Clare: [00:25:53] Yeah. Thanks for having me.