Zan Aronowitz studied literature in school. But learning to code at a post-college temp job sparked his passion not only for technology, but also for how things fit together, and helped propel him into a career that’s included stints at Realtor.com, eBay, and Apple. Along the way, he gathered a range of experience, from running product teams to program management. And seven years ago, he moved into the C-suite, as Chief Operating Officer of Clover, a technology company that provides point-of-sale solutions for companies around the world.
Hiring a COO with non-traditional experience may not be standard practice for most companies. But Clover isn’t a standard company—it’s one that’s blazed a path of disruption through a part of business operations that consumers may not think much about: payments.
Here’s how they became—and have remained—an industry leader.
The Origins of Innovation
Clover was conceived in 2011 as a person-to-person payment tool, like PayPal or Venmo. But the founders soon discovered that this was a crowded space, and the expense of acquiring new users was too high. As they strolled past the shops near their office in Mountain View, California, they realized there might be an opportunity with payments for small businesses.
They started checking out the stores’ cash registers and found that most merchants were using a generic system or cobbling together several systems. It didn’t make much sense. After all, each type of business—key makers, dry cleaners, nail salons, sushi restaurants—has different requirements for tracking inventory, reporting sales, managing employees, and ultimately, keeping customers happy. Those systems should be customized.
They scrapped person-to-person and pivoted to small businesses.
The founders built hardware and software and created a platform tailored to small businesses. But they had two problems: First, they needed a truly innovative system that would work for all kinds of small businesses; and second, they needed to sell a lot of them.
To help solve the first problem, Clover decided to allow third-party developers to build apps for their platform, much like the Apple App and Google Play stores. “We never pretended to know anything about running, say, a bookstore or bike repair shop,” says Aronowitz, who joined the company when there were just 20 employees. “But with our core components, we realized that someone else could add their own layer of expertise.”
When it came to distribution, they thought that banks—which provide loans and set up accounts for small businesses—could be a way to sell their product at scale. But while smartphone users had grown comfortable with the idea of third-party developers, the finance industry had not. “An open platform that served small business and was distributed through banks—no one was doing that at the time,” Aronowitz says. “It was a pretty radical idea, and it took a while for banks to wrap their heads around it.”
But banks came around, developers built apps, and Clover took off. It proved so successful that First Data acquired the company in 2012. Yet having a smart product, wide distribution, and corporate backing didn’t mean they could sit on their heels. In order to compete, the company continued to expand its capabilities.
Building the Brain Trust
From the small team that Aronowitz joined, Clover has grown to become a company of 500 and opened several new offices across the country. (And the parent company became even larger when First Data was acquired by Fiserv in 2019.) How has Aronowitz hired the innovative minds that have helped them get there?
“I look for something extraordinary,” he says. A successful candidate doesn’t necessarily have to have a 4.0 from a top school or even direct experience for that position—after all, Aronowitz didn’t have COO experience before joining Clover. But, he says, “We run pretty lean, so we want people to be very entrepreneurial; I need to know they have the ability to go far with something.”
That “something” might be engineering side projects or interesting GitHub submissions—it could even be an effort unrelated to tech, like a longstanding blog about music. “I want to see someone who has had interesting ideas and has acted on them,” he says. “I think, ‘Will they do as they’re told or will they find something and go experiment on their own?’”
In return, Clover offers a unique balance of opportunity and stability. They’re still small enough that everyone has a direct line to him and to the CEO. But as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fiserv—which has 40,000 employees—Clover also has the backing of a large company, which can be a comfort in unsettling times.
Looking to the Future
Hiring an innovative team is one thing; continuing to innovate is another. One example: Clover Dining—a ground-up rebuild of their tools for restaurants, featuring new ways to slice, dice, and display data, in order to provide a better experience for the merchant.
Aronowitz says his diverse background has helped him keep a fresh eye. “Maybe it’s because of my literature background,” he says, “but knowing that there’s no ‘right way’ to do anything and to be able to look at things from the outside has been essential.”
That passion for innovation is one shared by the entire leadership team. “We try to infuse everything with a level of creativity, thoughtfulness, and passion that hopefully creates a lead-by-example environment,” Aronowitz says.
Still, he acknowledges that inspiring 500 people across several locations is hard—and even more so now that everyone is working remotely. “We had anxiety going into this situation,” he says, “but the team has rallied.” And remaining flexible will be essential as Clover—and everyone—moves ahead in a world where physical office space may look very different.
In fact, says Aronowitz, it may be a time to rethink the office concept entirely. “When people can work from home,” he says, “what should the office represent? What are we optimizing for?” As he asks the questions, it’s clear that the wheels are turning. It’s a time for innovation and evolution, and Aronowitz is ready to take on the challenge.