Five Minutes With: David Messenger, CEO of LianLian Global

David Messenger is the CEO of LianLian Global, a leading cross-border payments fintech based in China

David Messenger is CEO of Hangzhou-based LianLian Global, where he focuses on helping merchants around the world successfully start and grow their cross-border eCommerce businesses.

Before LianLian Global he founded Nuna Network (acquired by LianLian), Mast Mobile (acquired by  Hearsay), and was a senior executive at several companies including American Express and Virgin Mobile USA. He was also a principal at Towers Watson and Price Waterhouse, leading major M&A integrations and transformation projects.

As an entrepreneur with extensive fintech experience, David is particularly excited by the potential of fintech to increase financial inclusion.

1. Who was your childhood hero, and why?

Odysseus - sometimes known as Ulysses.  As a child, I was fascinated by Ancient Greece, and read the Iliad and the Odyssey multiple times.  Odysseus captured my imagination with his epic journey, never giving up on his quest to return home even when it seemed impossible, and the intelligent and creative ways he overcame all the challenges and temptations along the way.

2. What's the best piece of advice you ever received - and from whom?

I always remember my grandmother telling me when I was about eight years old that 'It’s not the hand of cards you are dealt, it’s all about how you play it’.  Many things are always beyond our control, as the pandemic has dramatically illustrated, and the only things we can control are the perspective we choose to take on a situation, and our own decisions and actions.  I always try to take a constructive and positive mindset even in the toughest situation and to focus on what’s the next best action I can take. This often opens up bigger opportunities than I could see initially.  The other great piece of advice my grandmother gave me was ‘footprints in the sands of time are not made by sitting down’ - she was a very strong, determined woman!

3. What was the last book you read, why did you like it - and how long ago did you read it?

I just finished three weeks of quarantine coming back into China, and have almost finished “The Long Game” by Rush Doshi.  It is a thoroughly researched and insightful analysis of the last 40 years of China’s economic development and international relations but also sets the analysis in the context of the history of the last two hundred years. China is so different and largely misunderstood by the West, and most of the media coverage doesn’t help. There is a huge information asymmetry between China and the West, because so many Chinese people have studied and worked in the West, but so few Westerners have spent any time in China. I have been coming to China for over ten years and feel I am still just scratching the surface of a country and culture which have developed over thousands of years.

4. Name one piece of technology you couldn’t live without and tell us why?

I recently got a digital notebook which really is like writing on paper and it's quickly becoming indispensable.  I was a bit unsure about buying it because I have so many screens and apps already, which are amazing productivity tools but can often be distracting. This tablet's value is completely different from other types of screens because it enables me to think and focus better by writing things out. 

5. If you hadn’t been involved with fintech - what would have been your other top career choice?

I’ve worked in other tech sectors and mobile before, and while I think fintech is the most exciting area to be focused on for the next five years at least, I do have an interest in the future in looking at new approaches to education. I was lucky to have a great education and know-how it completely changes lives, but I think education can be reinvented for the future.  Leveraging technology will be a key part of this but seeing the limitations of all-virtual education during the pandemic, it will also be about reimagining the broader model of education.  

6. Who do you look up to in terms of leadership and mentorship?

I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from several great leaders during my career, but one who stands out for me is Dan Schulman who I worked with closely at Virgin Mobile USA and at American Express.  The most valuable thing I learned from him was that the core of leadership is that it is different for each person - it needs to be an authentic reflection of who you are and your values, adapted to the context and responsibilities of your role as a CEO, and every CEO has to find their own leadership voice.  

7. Which activity are you most looking forward to doing when normality resumes?

I have recently started travelling internationally again after being in China for 20 months, and it’s fascinating to see how different countries are adapting almost two years into the pandemic. In some places, things are much more normal already, like China, with only very targeted lockdowns to tackle local outbreaks, and the UK, where people have moved into accepting the risks of getting on with life relatively normally despite Covid. In parts of the USA and Europe, life is still very constrained.

The thing I have missed most is spending time with important people in person, especially with my children who are in the USA.  We have stayed close through FaceTime but it’s not the same as being together, and it was so meaningful for me to be home with them last Thanksgiving. It was also good to reconnect with friends, colleagues, and partners and I’m looking forward to doing this more this year, splitting my time between China, US, and UK/Europe - even though I’ll have to go through quarantine a couple more times!

8. Is there a personal achievement from the past 12 months of which you are particularly proud?

In the last twelve months, we have evolved to become a much more global business.  We now support cross-border businesses across the USA, UK, Europe, China, and most of South-East Asia, leveraging the capabilities and learnings we first developed in China.  We’ve been patiently laying the foundation for this over the last four years, building out our end-to-end global payment network, and it’s exciting to see all of this work come to fruition.  I’m proud of our team who have embraced the challenges and opportunities of thinking and working from a global perspective, combined with their local expertise and knowledge.

9. What inspires you in fintech today?

This is an exciting time for fintech because of the positive impact it has had during the pandemic and will have going forward.  Fintech is the most powerful way to drive financial inclusion, particularly for small businesses. Harnessing new technologies like AI, blockchain and digital currencies will accelerate the drive towards greater inclusion. The growth of e-commerce during the pandemic has dramatically opened up opportunities for small businesses and we are focused on supporting local entrepreneurs become global entrepreneurs and take advantage of these new opportunities.

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