Protocol | Fintech
Affirm CEO Max Levchin: ‘I see an ocean of opportunities’
The fintech startup's stock soared more than 90% in its IPO debut today.
It was a blockbuster debut for Affirm. The fintech startup's shares soared more than 90% when it went public on Wednesday.
The day itself began quietly for CEO Max Levchin: He kicked it off with a Zoom call with his kids, made a latte for his wife and joined a group chat with some high school friends, one of whom is recovering from COVID-19. "We were very happy to hear that he's doing well," he told Protocol shortly after his startup began trading on the Nasdaq Global Exchange.
Affirm's stock opened at $90.90 after pricing at $49 a share, before climbing to as high as $96.07 in late trades.
Levchin took some time off to share his thoughts into what the successful trading debut means and what's next for the fintech startup.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Quick thoughts on why the stock is rallying?
I think the market does what it does. I choose to interpret it as, "People love what we stand for beyond the opportunity for financial gain." We have a story to tell, and our story is special. We built a product that actually improves lives in financial services.
What were the common questions you were asked by investors in the IPO process?
The question I heard a bunch — and I enjoyed answering — was: What makes you different? It's a hot space. There are tons of incumbents and a lot of new players. What do you do that makes you special? One big part of it is how much we attach ourselves to the idea of honest financial products, not just an opportunity for profit. It's really powerful, and that's resonated with millions of consumers and thousands and thousands merchants. That's part of our story and we tell it every time.
We took the time to build a fully universal solution. We will scale with the merchant up and down, something as enormous and complex as Walmart, and as technologically advanced and sophisticated and demanding as Shopify, and literally thousands of brands that we would have only heard of if we were looking for very specific things. We are built by a lot of engineers who are very technology-first. And that allowed us to do things right.
Some analysts, while acknowledging your growth, also point to the state of the economy. Given that consumers are still facing a lot of uncertainty given the pandemic and the economic downturn, how do you reflect on those concerns?
I think they are justified in the sense that the U.S. economy took a giant step back, in many ways, and yet also transformed itself, in some pretty fantastic ways. We saw the massive acceleration of the offline to online movement in commerce. I think the economy is being forced to modernize itself.
Are there things in the way the economy has changed over the past year since the pandemic began that worry you, that you feel could be a problem?
Part of what makes us different and special is we work with our consumers and our merchants to evaluate every transaction. So in many ways, I think our products are more important than ever to consumers. Some of them have lost their jobs, some of them are trying to be a little bit smarter about budgeting and affordability. I think these folks really benefited from Affirm. And we take great pride in helping them navigate the uncertainty and complexity around them. From a more macro view, income inequality is something that our society struggles with and is right to be concerned about.
What are the biggest challenges for you this year, post-IPO?
We are fundamentally limited by a number of things we can build and ship in per-unit time. I see an ocean of opportunities, and probably prioritizing them, and being focused and not trying to do everything for the exact same time despite the fact that it feels like we can do so much to help, is probably my personal challenge.
What was the toughest part of the IPO process for you?
The level of effort and intensity that our team brought to bear to make this happen constantly made me feel like I'm just not working hard enough. The sheer amount of work we were able to do in a shorter period of time was something else. That said, we weren't going to cut corners. We were going to do it right. We were going to go out when we were ready and when the market was ready for us.
Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Signal at (510)731-8429.