Saturday 17 March 2018

Hip to be Square: meet the most important Irish tech boss you've never heard of

Sarah Friar, who grew up in Co Tyrone during the Troubles, has now established herself as a key player with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey's credit card venture Square. Our Technology Editor met her at the Lisbon Web Summit

'My dad drilled into me that you had to put people first,' says Sarah Friar in Lisbon. Photo: Adrian Weckler
'My dad drilled into me that you had to put people first,' says Sarah Friar in Lisbon. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Twitter and Square guru Jack Dorsey
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Sarah Friar may be the most successful Irish tech executive you've never heard of. From Co Tyrone, the 43-year-old scaled some of the biggest, most established blue chip companies before arriving as chief financial officer of Square, the mobile credit card machine company jointly run by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

Compared to her doctor brother, though, she says she'll forever be regarded as the family disappointment.

"At home, everyone knows what he does and they all think he's amazing," she says. "And then there's me. They don't quite know what I do. So yeah, I'm totally the disappointment of the family."

Some disappointment. According to Bloomberg, Friar made over $7m in pay and stock last year. She has also climbed the ranks through firms such as McKinsey and Goldman Sachs before landing as the all-action chief financial officer in one of the world's fastest growing financial tech companies which is set to take $1.7bn in revenue this year from $50bn in customer transactions.

Twitter and Square guru Jack Dorsey
Twitter and Square guru Jack Dorsey

Last year, Friar led Square to the seemingly impossible: a successful public flotation in what were the most difficult market conditions any tech company has faced in 15 years.

Although not (yet) available in Ireland, Square is best known in the US for its small square gadget box that connects a smartphone to a credit card. It allows small businesses, in particular, to accept credit cards payments from customers without the hassle of more elaborate machinery or messy merchant accounts. It also has a small business loan arm called Square Capital and a food delivery business.

Its most recently published financial results saw it beating market expectations, although it has yet to turn a profit.

Friar started her journey in a border town between Tyrone and Donegal.

"I grew up in a wee village called Sion Mills, right on the Border," she says. "In the 70s and 80s, that was a pretty troubled area."

Friar wanted to go to Oxford but didn't have the money. So she entered a competition to win a scholarship from the accounting firm Arthur Andersen.

She won and went to work with them for a year before studying engineering at Oxford. "Taking a year out was the best thing I could ever have done," she says. "I became a little bit more sophisticated in that year. Because Oxford then was much more public school than grammar or state school."

Oxford, she says, was posh and intimidating. But a combination of good tutors, strong academics and a love of rowing got her through it.

In business later on, being Irish became a big advantage. "It's great," she says. "Firstly, it's just the personality of the Irish. My dad drilled into me that you had to put people first. If you do, everything else will work out. My mum was a district nurse. My dad was the HR manager at the local mill. So people would either come to my house for one of two reasons. They would either be dying of something or they would have a social problem like a drink or a money problem.

"There were always people coming to our house to get helped. Learning the people side of things is an Irish nature type of thing and was really key."

Even in high-octane Silicon Valley culture, she says, this is a critical advantage. "Although cfos are perceived to be less people-oriented and to have a higher IQ than an EQ, I have always thought that if you get your people right everything else just falls into place. That's how you get to retirement because they'll do the job brilliantly for you. So hire well, retain them and have fun."

Today, you'd struggle to catch Friar's Irish accent. She holds her head.

"Unfortunately I've lost a ton of my Irish accent although not on purpose," she says. "It's truly a terrible thing to have done. Because it's a huge positive when you're in business. When people think you're Irish they always want to come talk to you."

Friar's role as a chief financial officer is an unconventional one. With perhaps a nod to her engineering and scientific background, her team includes product builders and engineers that help customer processes.

"We have broader operational control," she says. "It's different from what a normal cfo organisation would be. Beyond accounting, we have a finance strategy team, tax treasury and also risk operations. I have a large team that builds all of our internal products, amazing products and amazing engineers. The only way to scale a company is to keep bringing in amazing people underneath you."

That Square is growing and scaling isn't in question. However, its leadership is considered to be unconventional in that founder Jack Dorsey is also busy trying to sort out things at Twitter.

For those who missed it, Twitter turned to Dorsey last year in a bid to re-energise the social platform against a backdrop of stagnant growth and struggling financial progress. Dorsey didn't want to give Square up, so he's chief executive of both companies, dividing his time between them.

Is this a problem for Friar and the rest of the Square leadership?

"At the end of the day Jack handles it brilliantly. Is it perfect that he's the ceo of two companies? No. And I say that frankly. But he has managed it incredibly well. He's very structured. So we know exactly what's happens. Mornings it's Twitter, afternoons it's Square. Our buildings are right beside each other so we can run between the two."

Friar says that Dorsey's strengths are such that micro-managing isn't a necessity.

"What Jack is really good at is focusing on what he's good at," she says. "He's an amazing recruiter. He has such a great sense for product and design. So he inserts himself heavily into product design and so forth.

"But he also really empowers you to go and do your job. He wasn't a micro-manager before he had two jobs so now he absolutely can't be one because he has to manage his time.

"But I'll tell you, as someone who works for him, that's the best manager you can have. He is someone who lets you go really broad and do all sorts of things. In the course of my job at Square, I've run chunks of the company that a cfo normally has no business running. But I've also gotten to help see products grow like our Square Capital product.

"That's been a big part of why I love the company and why I've been there so long - because Jack empowers me to keep learning new things that maybe someone else might not do if they were micro-managing."

But if Dorsey gets credit for product design and putting together good teams, it is Friar who led the company through the IPO last year. With so many hotly-tipped tech firms staying in well-stocked private funding markets, why did Square press ahead with a flotation?

"For us the reason was credibility and credentialing ourselves," she says. "We are, at heart, a financial institution and it's good to be able to show a lot of transparency on the health of our business. How strong is our balance sheet? How much cash do we have? How is the business growing? Those were good reasons to go public. We felt that last year was the right time to do it."

Nevertheless, last year was particularly lean for tech companies looking to float on public markets. Very few made it.

"I don't know if we could have picked a worse market time," says Friar. "It was a brutal market, but that goes back to the health and strength of the company.

"The fact that we could do it says a lot. Most companies could not have gone public last year.

"But when you decide to go public, you need to be doing it for the right reasons. You can raise a lot of money in the private markets and stay private for longer.

"We didn't need to go public or raise money, but we thought it would be a good thing if we did."

Will we ever see Square in Ireland? And if so, when?

"We absolutely want to be global," says Friar. "When we think of where we want to go next, we look at a country's GDP, the density of its small businesses and how much the country has embraced mobile.

"For Ireland, I would never say never. I clearly have my own vested interest in wanting to see our product used there. However, we still have a lot of bigger economies to go to first.

"As we go we'll get faster as well. So my hope is that we can get better and better at doing international."

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