Operator Spotlight: Credit Karma Co-Founder & Chief Revenue Officer Nichole Mustard

“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them – operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next. 

This month we spoke with Nichole Mustard, Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer at Credit Karma, which was acquired by Intuit in 2020 for $8.1B and has more than 120M members globally. The company operates independently. A true customer champion, Nichole is the architect of Credit Karma’s win-win-win business model and has been instrumental in scaling it, finding the right mix of financial partners, and optimizing data science capabilities to ensure members and partners get the most value from their products and services. 

Credit Karma is built to last and has been through a few evolutions in its 15 years. How has your role changed since you first took the CRO seat in 2014? 

NICHOLE: In the early days of Credit Karma, I was doing marketing, data partnerships, even PR–I had many jobs back then. I worked in the trenches signing partners and maintaining those relationships and ensuring our business model put equal emphasis on helping our partners’ bottom lines while putting the member first. I still do all of that in my oversight of our data partnerships, which is really the foundation of our business but I now also have helped build our international footprint. 

My day starts somewhere between 7-8 a.m. on business review meetings with our international team to help localize the successes of Credit Karma in the U.S. to Canada and the U.K. and innovate in those geographies. I have learned so much in this role, I really believe the U.K.’s technology is far ahead of the U.S. with things like Open Banking. When I am wearing my data partnerships hat, a big part of my job is maintaining those relationships with the bureaus that I put a lot of energy into forging some 15 years ago. It’s a unique opportunity for me to help usher them towards being digital-first. One of the most fun things for me is when I have the chance to work with a relatively unknown data provider and we get to work together to solve complex consumer problems. Due to the sheer scale of Credit Karma with more than 120 million members, those startups then become the most advanced, most compliant data providers setting the benchmark for the next generation of technology. 

What are 3 key traits you hire for when building out a sales org? 

NICHOLE: 

-Be authentic: Don’t try to be something you’re not. Business prospects –and employees–will see right through it. You can stay true to yourself while still selling your business. 

-Being data-oriented is key: No matter what your business is, analytics matter. Those who can speak data will always have an edge on my team. 

-Be empathetic: The numbers are important but don’t lose sense of the people. You’re doing well if the person you’re working with is getting promoted. Never lose sight of what matters in the big picture. 

What are the sales metrics you pay most attention to, and why? What’s the first thing you look at on a dashboard? 

NICHOLE: At Credit Karma, it’s less about sales metrics and more about how we are giving our members the best available data to make smarter financial decisions. One key metric I track very closely is what we call share of wallet–essentially, are consumers taking out financial products at Credit Karma or elsewhere? We are building a platform that is valuable to our members and keeps them coming back. We want to be the destination where consumers engage, transact and ultimately, make progress. 

Where have you made an impact in your field? Have you broken any rules that led to interesting results? 

NICHOLE: One of the things that we did early on that isn’t touched on often but I think is worth calling out is our transparent business model. We built a really great business by doing right by our consumers and partners. We believe high value experiences for consumers lead to exponentially better business outcomes. This was unheard of when Credit Karma was founded in 2007. In the end, that transparency has paid off in dividends. We proved that you can build a successful business free of “gotcha!” and that paved the way for other companies to follow suit. 

Beyond that, Credit Karma is in a very unique position from a regulatory perspective. We sit in between the financial institutions and the member but we are not a bank or a financial institution – a lot of the rules don’t always directly apply to us but the spirit of them very much does. It’s worth noting that a lot of rules in the industry were written at a point in time when fintechs didn’t even exist or were a novelty. Those rules haven’t necessarily aged well with technology. Technology is constantly innovating and evolving so there is a need for a lot of fintechs to interpret the spirit of the law and work with partners to be on the same page. We can’t pick and choose to suit a given situation. An enormous part of Credit Karma’s success lies in the trust we have in our members so we always prioritize doing what’s right so as not to jeopardize that, without exception. 

Having been in a visible leadership role over the years, what’s a key piece of advice for founders who are leading through uncertain times? 

NICHOLE: So many times when you are building a business, you utilize optionality to make a decision at the last moment. But during times of uncertainty, focusing on your employees, members and partners is the most critical thing. Never lose focus on that sacred trifecta. Avoid the knee-jerk reaction to make fundamental changes to your business during times of duress. During the last recession, there were opportunities to increase revenue by changing our revenue model but we were steadfast in doing right by our members and partners. That continues to pay off for us as a business in the trust we have with our members. 

Be crystal clear in your prioritization, be clear on the why and over communicate to your employees and partners. 

What was one of your first jobs and what’s one big lesson you learned? 

NICHOLE: I worked at the beach water park in Cincinnati as a lifeguard for several summers. It taught me to be nice to people, everyone is doing their best. I made $5 an hour and was just trying to do my job and keep people safe but many blamed me for what they deemed unfair rules, even though I had zero say in making those rules. Looking at it from another lens, it helped me realize what people have control over and what they don’t. That translates now as an executive who works for the employees, not the other way around. For that reason, I try to always take a coaching over yelling approach to leadership. 

What’s the best advice you’ve received – or given – about how to manage people?  

NICHOLE: Remember that every person is different. Don’t treat people the way you want to be treated, treat them the way they want to be treated. 

Also, you have to let your team get to know the real you and in turn, you must get to know the real them. As a leader, I try to make myself vulnerable to my teams. If there is something I want to actively work on, I ask my team to hold me accountable. On the flip side, with getting to know your employees, instead of asking yourself whether you want to work with someone, I always ask myself if I would want to travel with a person. I don’t have to be their best friend but would I learn something sitting across from that person at dinner on the road? Caring about a person is critical at the manager and leadership level. 

What’s your secret super power? OR What’s your biggest kryptonite and how do you manage around it? 

NICHOLE: I always try to work myself out of a job…almost! I remind my direct reports that if you delegate and empower your own teams then you have the opportunity to work on things you hadn’t considered working on or maybe didn’t have bandwidth to prioritize. That helps scale your business, grows your people and allows them to be bigger owners in the organization. Everybody wins.