12 January 2023 |

Marqeta CEO Jason Gardner Talks Getting Started, Going Public, & Scaling A Fintech Company


There are very few companies in the fintech space that have the same CEO from company creation to IPO–Marqeta’s Jason Gardner is one of them. And even though the company is public, it’s still iterating and creating new products to grow and expand—most notably, Marqeta for Banking, a solution for clients enabling them to build complete banking propositions on Marqeta’s platform, which the company announced in October 2021’s Money 2020 conference. 

As we enter 2023, Gardner has already announced his intent to shift to a new role —executive chairman—and hand over the CEO reins to someone else. In this wide-ranging email interview, Jason and I talk about everything from getting Marqeta started and iterating to find the right idea, to hiring in the early, pre-hype, days of fintech, and landing big clients like Block and Instacart. 

I personally learned a lot from this interview—I liked Jason’s comment about how companies don’t die from starvation but overeating, balancing being a founder and a father & husband, the different dynamics of being the CEO of a publicly traded company, and hiring to replace yourself. Hope you enjoy it! 

Tell us some of the motivation behind starting Marqeta. What was the problem you were trying to solve and how did you end up discovering it/how did you realize it was such a prevalent problem? 

I was eating dinner with my friend Sukhi Singh in late 2009 and he had a bunch of tattered Groupon coupons in his pocket and he pulled them out. He said, “Well, you’re a payment nerd, try to put these on a card.” I was frozen. It was a very technically complex problem. I love technically complex things. What does it mean to go do that? Even though my last company was in the payment space, I knew nothing about these card products. I remember looking at the terminal and restaurant, I was like, well, that terminal, there’s something about that piece of hardware that has to be globally unique. 

I wanted to understand what was generated when you swipe a card, and when I started making notes about what I wanted to do and calling people to pick their brains, they all said the same thing: that no one had built this in a dozen years and anyone that had tried had failed. It was like being struck by lightning. And then when I mapped this onto what was happening in technology, you had all these developer-led companies being founded who were going to need new payment solutions that legacy technology couldn’t support, it became clear that I was asking the right questions at the right time.

Fintech when you started Marqeta in 2010 was a completely different ecosystem. How was it raising your first rounds of capital back then? Any funny stories/horror stories you can share? 

Fintech wasn’t even a word in 2010. And on top of that, what we were doing was complicated. Even at the best of times fundraising you’re going to get a lot more nos than yeses. Which can be frustrating: they’re not in the industry. They don’t understand. They don’t see the vision and they’re not going to admit that. You have to learn to use those nos as a learning moment and lean in with curiosity. Ask some questions. What are you not hearing from me? Where am I not focusing? It allows you to sharpen your pitch and sharpen your business. 

How about hiring? Nowadays there are a lot of operators with deep fintech building experience. Back then it was a different story. What are some hiring tactics you employed back then, and how did you find and vet folks that were passionate about the ecosystem but might not have a ton of pertinent previous experience? 

When Marqeta was first founded we faced the same challenge as any other new company: how to convince people to leave better paying jobs and maybe more security to join you on a journey. You have a spark of an idea, and you have to show that fire to potential employees, letting them see your passion and conviction that you know that it’s a fait accompli that your little company will change the world. It was less about finding people with payments experience, than it was people who believed in what you were trying to accomplish and could help build that out. 

It took you a couple tries to find the right product at Marqeta—there was a loyalty card product built on debit rails and then a gift card product. How did the process of building those products inform your decision to build API’s for card issuing? What was it like building consumer facing experiences and then pivoting towards an enterprise company?

When we launched the Marqeta Card, I could see that it was going to take too much capital to scale that business. Leading a consumer business wasn’t my strong suit. I like the complexity of building infrastructure. But while our business model adjusted along the way, we never stopped building the Marqeta platform. To build the consumer card, we had to build an entirely new issuer processor system. Which no one had done in a long time. That got the attention of Facebook and eBay, who had very specific products in mind they couldn’t build on legacy infrastructure. Which led us to opening up our APIs and turning things on their head, by allowing people to build on top of the Marqeta platform, building new products in very specific ways that could disrupt entire industries.

Some of your first big clients were Block and Instacart—how was the process of getting a client like them, and how was the experience growing with them as they became massive customers over time? 

We signed Block and Instacart as customers in 2016. It was a great fit of technology and culture. We could help them handle the complex lift of building payments infrastructure and let them focus on what they did best. Both Block and Instacart were looking to do really innovative things with cards, and had built out customer experiences and large customer bases. Our platform could help them build card programs that they just couldn’t with legacy infrastructure. 

We were all considerably smaller companies then than we are now. We’ve been fortunate to support massive growth for both of them. Our relationship with each of them has been built on our company wide, laser focus on the customer. We support core parts of our customers’ businesses and we take that very seriously. Payments need to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and our customers run on top of us. We take that responsibility as the number one most important thing for the company. Block and Instacart are shining examples of the power of modern card issuing, and the scale of their success has become one of our biggest calling cards for the type of innovation we can support at scale. 

Let’s talk a bit more about growing Marqeta. There are only a few public companies in the fintech ecosystem, and even fewer when you think about those that are founder-led. From a personal perspective, what’s some advice that you have for founders that are dealing with fast growing companies? How did you manage to balance your personal life and professional life as one became increasingly demanding? 

Founding three companies and leading Marqeta these past 12 years I’ve really come to believe that companies don’t die from starvation. They die from overeating. I became hyper-focused on modern card issuing as we found product market fit and started to scale quickly. It was the right strategy for us as it tightened our focus and helped us extend our market leadership. On a more macro level, I think the secret to building a business is you fail a lot more than you’re successful. Find out what you don’t want to do. That’ll lead you to the direction that you should be on.

Balancing being an entrepreneur and a father and a husband at the same time is difficult. It takes an incredible balance. I’ve been married to my wife for over 20 years now. She went through all three companies with me, and she knew what was important to our family and what was important to me. I really couldn’t do this business without her. Having a great partner, whether it’s your wife, your husband, significant other, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, family, that is really important. It helps you through the very hard times when you’re horribly depressed, and it helps you through the great times when you’re finding success in the things that you’re doing, but they’re keeping you very focused.

Marqeta recently launched its newest product at Money 20/20—banking-as-a-service, a portfolio of 7 different banking products all in one, including deposit accounts, early direct deposit payments, and bill pay. What about this sector is exciting for Marqeta specifically? Isn’t the banking-as-a-service sector crowded enough? What competitive advantage can Marqeta apply here that creates a unique value for potential clients? 

Almost every company has the capacity to become a financial services company. We created Modern Card Issuing, and this new product suite is an extension of that. How do we help our existing customers enter this space and more easily launch banking offerings? This new portfolio benefits from all of the things that make Marqeta great, from flexibility and control over practically every aspect of the experience, to our trusted expertise to truly partner with you to design a product that your customers will love. 

The combination of our modern card issuing platform with this new product suite we feel really sets us apart, allowing us to offer more customization, flexibility and modularity. If we look at a customer like Coinbase, I think the possibility speaks for itself. Coinbase is an early Marqeta for Banking customer. By adding a card to the Coinbase platform, they increase engagement. By adding in a deposit account that their customer can easily fund, they can create a more comprehensive customer experience. It’s a level of engagement that benefits every part of their business. 

What’s the main difference between being a private company and public company CEO? Are there any similarities? What’s your perspective on Wall Street’s views on the fintech ecosystem and the fintech infrastructure ecosystem? 

As a private company CEO, you have autonomy and flexibility to make changes or adjust plans on a whim. As a public company, you really can’t do that. You go from a state of confidentiality to radical transparency, and when you set guidance on different factors, you need to execute against them. It really is a foundational difference between the two roles. 

I don’t want to comment on how Wall Street values or sees fintech and infrastructure, but I will say though how much I enjoy interacting with our investors. The level of preparation and intellectual rigor they show in understanding our business always leads to great conversations, whether they’re agreeing with you or pushing back. It’s exciting to see people really take that time to try and know your business.  

You announced in August that you’re planning on stepping down as CEO—how’s the search going for a replacement? 

It’s an unusual experience interviewing your replacement. You both want someone completely unlike you, but completely like you, at the same time. I plan to continue to be fully engaged with Marqeta. I see my next role as executive chairman as really being a long term commitment, and plan on spending a lot of time around Marqeta, focusing on our people, products and customers and partnering with the new CEO to help drive the business.

Lastly, what’s one piece of advice you’d wish you told yourself when you were raising your Series A? 

Founders have a vision for what company they want to build, but rarely know how to build out hiring and people growth. What I would tell any first-time founder is to think about how to hire and support people, from your employees to your customers and investors. Businesses are built with people, and they all need different things to thrive. When I started my first company, I had to learn about the human side of the business and focus on what our team needed to succeed. You can have all of the drive and passion in the world as you’re starting your company but you cannot do it all alone.