Philippe Sahli
how we deal
with costs

Journalist: Andrea Schmits | Photographer: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Bigger, better, stronger – December 2023

Yokoy revolutionised the management of expenses and invoices using artificial intelligence. The Zurich-based start-up has grown rapidly in a short time. CEO Philippe Sahli explains how it all began.

Yokoy’s website says that your mission is ‘deeply personal’. Have you had to deal with tedious expense claims during your own career?

Yes, absolutely. Yokoy was born out of a problem. During my time as CFO at other companies, I saw how much effort can be involved in processing expenses. The hassle for people creating the expenses – keeping receipts, photographing them and so on – is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the work lies with the finance managers and is done after a business trip or a business dinner. Authorisation, accounting, reconciliation with company cards and archiving are just some of the many tasks.

“If you don’t have any challenges, then you haven’t tried enough things” 

What makes Yokoy different?

For me, it’s all about simplifying the entire process, from submission to payment. At Yokoy, we do this by using artificial intelligence (AI), which allows us to automate 80% to 95% of all steps. We have our own AI research lab at our offices in Zurich, where the focus is solely on improving this model. How can it learn even better? What additional work could it take on? Where does it have errors? AI is what makes Yokoy different from other solutions. Thanks to the high level of automation, finance managers can focus on the receipts for which their judgement really is needed.

Yokoy has already been rebranded since it was founded in 2019 and has greatly expanded its service offering. Was that part of the plan? 

The rebrand definitely wasn’t (laughs)! We started out as Expense Robot but it was quite a bad name as you couldn’t find it on Google. What’s more, the old name was all about expenses. Even then, the vision was much bigger. We wanted to offer a solution that would allow a company to handle all its costs, like expenses, invoices and card transactions, using a single tool. We want to make people’s lives easier.

“At the beginning, what matters most are your own people. A start-up needs employees who share the vision.”

How did you know when it was the right time to grow?

Some of our customers said they’d like to use our tool to do more than just expense accounting. So we decided to extend the product to cover invoices and corporate credit cards. But I’m glad we started with expenses, as this meant we could build on our existing AI. If we’d wanted to do everything right from the start, it might have been too much.

“Artificial intelligence allows us to automate 80% to 95% of all steps.”

Did you ever doubt whether expanding the business was the right way to go?

No, never. Instead of doubting, we’ve focused on making Yokoy so good that customers want to use all three Yokoy modules – Expense, Invoice and Pay – 
together to get the best value from our product.

What role did scalability play in this?

A big one. While our aim was still to acquire as many corporate customers as quickly as possible, we took a different approach to the expansion. We set up the new service together with one customer and then gradually rolled it out to other customers. This made the development phase slower, but more prudent. It was only after about 18 months that we offered the product to all customers.

“The longer the growth process takes, the bigger the challenges and the more interesting it becomes.’’

What are your success factors for sustainable growth?

There are many things that have to work together. They include building up a good reputation and finding the right customers, investors and partners. But at the beginning, what matters most are your own people. A start-up needs employees who share the vision. We were extremely lucky to have found people like this from day one.

What kind of mindset do Yokoy employees need?

We look for people with an entrepreneurial spirit, who want to build something and change the world. People who come to work for the cause and not for a high salary or a fancy office. They also need to have a good work-life balance so they don’t burn out. The ideal employee is also able to switch off sometimes, and has a life outside of Yokoy too.

At Yokoy, are you also noticing the shortage of skilled workers?

We’ve been able to fill every position so far, even though we’re very choosy. But yes, sometimes it takes a little longer – unless there’s a wave of redundancies at other tech companies. We have the advantage of being based in many cool locations like Zurich, Amsterdam, Munich and Vienna, which also have good technical universities.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

Without a doubt, the Corona pandemic. We’d only just founded our company and it was a long time before we were allowed to see new employees for the first time. That was not cool. On the other hand, this time also brought us many new customers, because companies had no choice but to digitise certain processes during lockdown. People stayed at home while bills were delivered to the office by post. That’s when many people realised that a new solution was needed.

And has everything been running smoothly since then?

We’re always facing new challenges, like a new feature that isn’t working properly or that people just don’t understand. But that’s all part of it: if you don’t have any challenges, then you haven’t tried enough things. In technology companies especially, having a healthy error culture is simply par for the course.

What’s the next step? Will there come a point at which you’d say “we’re big enough now”?

No, that point doesn’t exist. What we want next is to expand into as many countries as possible. We’re also constantly talking to governments and tax authorities around the world. Our goal is to drive change in order to simplify expense management for businesses.

Yokoy was founded in March 2019 under the name Expense Robot and was rebranded 18 months later. The aim of its five founders is to make expense management easier and more efficient for companies through AI. The Zurich-based start-up began with an expense management tool, which has since been expanded to include invoice management and corporate credit cards. Today, Yokoy is represented at six locations and employs over 250 people. Its customers include Breitling, V-ZUG, ISS and Stadler Rail.

Yokoy CEO and co-founder Philippe Sahli (30) began his career at Novartis as a chemical lab technician. After studying economics in New York and graduating in London, he moved to Zurich to work for EY and later for UBS, and as CFO for the Swiss software start-up Beekeeper. As a former CFO, he knows how tedious managing expenses and invoices can be. Sahli, who is originally from Thun, started Yokoy together with his four co-founders from an office in Zurich’s Niederdorf district.