I spent 30 years solid in Financial Services firms. I wasn’t a bank clerk or equivalent. Having paid my dues in the early days I enjoyed (is that really the right word?) some senior roles in a variety of brokerage firms, mostly big and successful ones.
When I was made redundant again at the end of 2016 it really felt as if my time in Brokerage was up. I had fallen out of love with the industry and it sure had fallen out of love with me.
When I was offered a role and a stake (instead of a salary) in a small Brokerage business that had been run by a friend it seemed sufficiently different for me to give it a go. Despite the fact that my friend had been running this business for some years it was effectively run as a start-up. I thought I could make a difference in developing this business. I was quite wrong and after 3 months I realised that there was no shared vision to guide us to success.
But the start-up seed had been sown. In fact, I had been chewing on an idea for some time. I was keen on personal budgeting and had developed some fancy spreadsheets which helped me
- manage my short, medium and long-term cash flow.
- understand forensically where my money was being spent.
- make decisions about big ticket spend items such as holiday, home, car, kids etc.
However, the fancy spreadsheets took too much time to maintain and I was convinced that there would be an app or software that would do all that my spreadsheets were doing and more. And I was prepared to pay a monthly or yearly subscription for someone else to do the heavy lifting of maintenance and development.
I found hundreds of digital personal finance and budgeting tools, none of which rivalled the usefulness of my fancy but high maintenance spreadsheets. Here was my start-up opportunity. I was going to build a personal finance and budgeting tool that would make managing your finances fun and easy and enable you to live an extraordinary life.
The business name was next. Coming up with a name is quite tricky and can take an awfully long time. I started by registering a domain ‘Budget for Life’ but soon realised this name was quite limiting long term. I wanted a less literal name that would offer more flexibility. I stumbled across the fact that the ancient Roman words for a budget and a small holdall were the same so I went with the name Knapsac. The spelling was determined by domain availability.
Looking back, my interaction in the early days leant heavily on my sister in law Vicky who had worked in marketing for years. She was a brand expert and enthusiast and taught me a great deal about the power and purpose of brand and the value of developing the brand proposition before all else. She helped me understand the value of brand as a north star to keep you on track.
Again, in the early days I was talking to firms of software developers and trying to explain my product vision. I didn’t have a tech background and thought that I should somehow team up with someone who did have that tech experience in order to be able to more meaningfully talk turkey with these software developers. Matt and I had worked together some years earlier and when I reached out to him he was immediately enthusiastic and generous with his time.
Perhaps oddly, Matt persuaded me not to pursue engagement with software developers but to spend time trying to find people who needed day to day help with their personal finances. This way we could hone our client proposition first and fast and build thereafter. He was right except it wasn’t fast. It wasn’t fast at all. We spent a year holding events and meet ups looking for people for whom I could offer to build budgets using my fancy spreadsheets. The fancy spreadsheets that I was so keen on ditching in favour of something more modern was now my fall-back research tool.
The research was surprisingly fulfilling in as much as I felt that I was genuinely helping people. However, the help I was offering was more therapeutic than it was behaviour changing, and it was the latter that I was looking for. Whilst I appreciate the importance of getting in front of prospective clients as early as possible and to honing your value proposition, I was not learning enough.
Ultimately it became increasingly apparent to me that Matt and I did not share the same long-term vision for Knapsac and we parted ways. Although Matt did leave me a valuable parting gift which was the introduction to Orange Jellyfish, a software start-up who have become Knapsac’s technology partner.
While Vicky had sowed the brand seeds, Sharlene Lopez at a digital marketing agency called EyeCatcher developed the brand proposition. I had seen Sharlene present at a tech event in London and recognised someone who was both personally engaging and made her digital marketing pitch really easy to understand. I reached out to her and we have worked together ever since.
When I think about my people interactions in the early days of Knapsac, I was drawn to anyone who thought that we were onto something. Enthusiasm was the oxygen that I craved due to both the solitary nature of early start-up life and the doubts that besiege you during the ideas stage. I definitely wasted time trying to build a team of enthusiasts and ignored the lack of a shared vision. Fortunately, this cost me only time as I recognised the fault lines before facing any long-term damage.
To summarise, the early ideas stages of start-up life are fun but fraught with doubts and contradictions. If I could offer any advice it would be to stick to your original intentions until they have been demonstrably disproved. Hone your business proposition such that it is crystal clear when a co-founder, partner or colleague has a different guiding star. When that happens, as it almost certainly will, have the conviction to part ways early. Finally, surround yourself with people that strike a good balance between challenging you and delivering on your requests, with minimum fuss.
Even though Knapsac is still most certainly an early stage start up, the lessons are never ending………