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StreetsTalksTo ELEMENTARYb: Karen Rudich, CEO and Israel Obinyan, COO

In this episode we discuss the current environment of low growth and continued uncertainty in the face of Brexit and the pandemic, the effect of Covid on MMEs and how innovation is key to moving forward, how Open Banking and Open Finance are solving problems like data standardisation. We explore the importance of MMEs, the underappreciated backbone of the UK’s growth economy, and how ELEMENTARYb is focused on helping MMEs needs.

Karen Rudich

Karen has nearly 20 years experience in the banking sector, and is known for Identifying opportunities to make more money, denoting the 10,000+ things that need to happen in order to deliver that ambition and landing the teams, programmes and structures in place to see a bottom-line P&L impact. She has led large-scale transformation programmes at UBS, BNP Paribas, Barclays and Lloyds. Most recently she was Founder/CEO of a challenger firm focusing on speedy P&L-driving transformations and technology integration for top tier banks and cutting-edge FinTech firms.

Israel Obinyan

Israel is a specialist in building teams across the globe and bringing new customer products and services into the digital space. He has led customer focused transformation programmes and developed enterprise software solutions within the financial services sector for over 20 years, delivering digital products and services for Barclays, RBS and HSBC. He takes business strategy, identifies customer needs and designs innovative solutions to meet and exceed their expectations, ensuring increased operational efficiency.

Transcript

Julia: Hello. My name is Julia Streets, and welcome to the podcast series, StreetsTalksTo. In each episode, I’ll be interviewing CEOs from some of the most influential firms, bodies and initiatives in the financial services industry. As every CEO will testify, one of the critical factors of success lies in the strength of the team. On each episode, we invite the CEO to bring along a colleague and together we’ll be looking at what’s at the very forefront of innovation and change. We’ll be thinking about the challenges facing their clients and the industry at large and uncovering the opportunities that exist both today and as we look ahead, particularly as we all navigate these extraordinary times. I hope you enjoy the series, which you can find on all good podcast channels. All the episodes are listed on our website, streetsconsulting.com. Thank you for listening.

Hello, welcome to StreetsTalksTo ELEMENTARYb. Today I’m delighted to be joined by Karen Rudich, CEO and Israel, or “Is”, Obinyan COO. Middle market enterprises, or MMEs, are the underappreciated backbone of the UK’s growth economy, currently under served by the UK financial services industry. In an environment of low growth and continued uncertainty, think Brexit, pandemics, and all manner of other challenges, MMEs need new allies and need to be served better more than ever before. ELEMENTARYb is creating a future model of banking for this market segment by deploying a core platform, overlaying financial management tools and integrating aligned high-performance modern technology. They will help MMEs build resilience, compliance and security fit for both today and tomorrow.

Let me tell you a bit about our guests. Karen Rudich is the CEO. She has nearly 20 years of experience in the banking sector and is known for large scale transformation programs at UBS, BNP Paribas, Barclays, and Lloyds. Most recently, she was the founder and the CEO of a challenger firm focused on speedy, P&L driving transformations and technology integration for top tier banks and cutting edge FinTech firms. Israel Obinyan, COO, is a specialist in building teams across the globe and bringing new customer products and services into the digital space. He has led customer focused transformation programs and developed enterprise software solutions within the financial services sector for more than 20 years. Delivering digital products and services for the likes of Barclays, RBS, and HSBC. Karen and Israel, welcome to the show. It’s wonderful to have you here.

Karen: Thank you so much for having us.

Israel: Hi  Julia.

Julia: I want to start with, you’re looking at the MME market – what are the issues that are keeping that market segment awake at night, Karen?

Karen: Oh my goodness, what isn’t keeping that target market awake at night? Unfortunately, we’ve had wave after wave of challenges in our economy. I mean, it was supposed to be the tail-end of Brexit before we got hit by COVID. And that’s just amalgamated to, “How am I going to pay my bills? Am I going to have a business to keep up tomorrow? Am I going to be able to pay my employees? Do I have access to funding?” It’s just a terrible situation, particularly for the heart of the UK economy right now, as to what is in our future and how are we going to stabilise and maintain, let alone grow, going forward.

Julia: As you think about the context of, obviously, COVID and lockdown and what that’s meant, but actually as we look ahead to the economic reality that these organisations are facing – they’re often thought of as the squeezed middle that is being under-served as well. Let’s bring that into the operational perspective. Israel, I’d love to get your thoughts on this, about what are the day-to-day realities of that market segment?

Israel: I think you’ve got to take a look at how they serve their customers. At least, the customers they served before the pandemic. I think within the market, they will be looking at their core competencies, the things that make them real differentiating businesses. Thinking about areas where they planned expansion. Maybe it was a growing office, maybe it was an increase in headcount in support of strategic changes that they were planning for 2020, recognising that they can no longer have the certainty around income to support the expansion. I think operationally, companies will be thinking about reducing their footprint and how they consolidate around their key markets and key customers. Just to ensure that they remain present and then relevant as we come out of this pandemic.

Julia: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because a part of that says there’s a mindset of survival, actually getting through it. But you mentioned a couple of things there, people did have plans to innovate and they did have plans to expand and to grow, and to invest as well. One of the things I’m asking a lot of CEOs in the business, Karen I’m going to come to you on this, is what are we at risk of overlooking while people are just simply getting through market conditions today?

Karen: I think the lack of innovation always comes back to bite you. The first natural reaction is to freeze and have a little bit of a panic, but we’ve seen over the pond in North America, they were able to come back a lot faster. I think it’s a cultural need, or it’s a cultural drive, that enables them to move beyond that freezing. It’s also a risk adversity, a difference in risk adversity. I think it’s important that yes, we learn, we figure out what’s going to happen, we take stock, but then we make our move and we take advantage of those opportunities. We are able to then continue to innovate, because you just normally hit the pause button. Depending on how long you hit that pause button, it means that your competitors might hit that pause button to start playing again a lot faster than you can.

I think it would be a great loss for our nation if we were hitting that pause button for too long. We see that with young people, internships have been pulled, big transformation programs, big builds in engineering programs on an infrastructure basis. They’ve all been pulled back and held out. We do see some of that treacle starting to unlock by the government, but we don’t really necessarily see on this side of the pond, a lot of big organisations or midsize organisations starting to activate that. Because they’re still in that frozen panic mode.

Julia: Just to give everybody a sense of how important this market is, the MME market, what sort of size are we talking about?

Karen: You’re talking about £1.3 trillion annually of business turnover to the British economy. The midsize sector compiles over 30% of employment opportunities in the UK, and they also make up over 30% of businesses in the UK. This is a material segment, and any changes, and any pains, felt by the segment are obviously going to expand wider into the economy.

Julia: ELEMENTARYb is a FinTech company, early in your growth and your expansion. You’ve obviously looked at the market, this huge market you just described, and realise that there’s a way that you can help. Talk us through your thoughts on that.

Karen: We started with basics, by listening to our customer’s needs, by understanding their pain points. By taking a step back and forgetting about how much money we’re going to squeeze out of them, but actually, how can we help them? How can we put these midsize companies back in control? Where are they suffering in terms of facilitating their decision making, in terms of accessing the right tools, the right services, the right products, let alone the best price and the best opportunities out there. That really is how we started to design our proposition. It was about putting them really, truly at the heart of the future, then figuring out what do we need to prioritise in order to get them that control and that stability for being in the driving seat of what happens to them. This is really what Israel looks at every single day in terms of how do we make that happen?

Israel: I think it’s really interesting to think about some of the things you touched on. You talked about control, you talked about critical decisions that need to be made. And you talked about the MME as an entity. What I’ve been thinking about more directly are the individuals within the MME, the users that we’re basically building a proposition to support. Specifically, thinking about the CFO, and the CFOs need to be a driving strategic member of the senior leadership of any company that they’re in. Moving them away from the mayhem of trying to aggregate data from disparate systems and to operationalise things that typically are quite difficult, at a time where they absolutely need to be making informed decisions.

The proposition for me, is primarily thinking about taking away that complexity, and providing insight and input into their decision making process that allows them to leverage the knowledge that ultimately the platform would provide. It gives them the ability to then focus on exactly what that business is engaged in doing, which isn’t data mining. It will be very specific in their sector, and I think they just need the support. That support for me manifests itself through identifying what their historic financial trends look like, applying some insight to derive some future forecast and benefit. Using that to help them identify key products and services, particularly to address any short term or medium needs that they might have. Really just taking all of the pain of trying to scan the market and figure out what is best in class for them, and literally serving it up.

Julia: Israel, just expand on that a bit more in terms of how that is delivered.Are there lots of discreet products and services? Or are you driving a platform proposition?

Israel: I’d like to maybe just paint a context of an ecosystem. We can talk about a platform as a service centre for a whole raft of features that might be interesting to someone in that CFO decision making process. They typically may interface with maybe nine different platforms, something covering their accounting, something covering the various bank accounts that they transact in, an ERP system that they use to piece together all of their financial and people data. Effectively what we’re looking to do is, to take that data as an insource into our world. To run some AI and analytics over the top, derive some really structured views. Then present those views back to them through a customised dashboard that allows the key user to really pinpoint data that is supportive of their role.

At that point, what we want to do is use that as a jump-off point to allow them to have access in our first foray into the market, so our MVP, access into specific financial products, typically loans or working capital, that allow them to address any short to medium term challenges. That will require us to really go into this with an ethos of independence, so that we can get them the best opportunities that serve them at the point of their need.

Julia: Karen, so where are you in terms of corporate evolution? Israel was just talking there about an MVP. We’re obviously pre MVP at the moment. How is the corporate journey mapped out ahead?

Karen: We’ve been running full steam ahead, really focusing on setting up an organisation that is going to be there to protect clients. That means actually having done a lot of interviews and customer research directly with those MMEs. Understanding what it is that they need, having some kind of mechanism to test out different features and functionality in terms of how that translates into a technical road map. Really making sure that we bring to market something that is going to meet a market need. We have padded out our management team, the key brains that will make this come to life very quickly, and we are now moving into the technology work stream, so we’re about to stand up a delivery team to start putting the magic together, to make it happen.

Julia: A couple of questions come into my head on that. One of them is, why couldn’t another bank do what you’re planning to do? Also give us a sense of where you are in your investment journey as well?

Karen: In terms of why couldn’t another bank do this, I think it’s a matter of a foundation base. Banks are fantastic at being able to service their products, and actually we’re looking at customer needs. That may not necessarily always translate into a product being a solution. It might be a service. It might mean for us to collaborate with other organisations to make sure that that is delivered and that need is met. That in itself is a challenge to the way that banks are working and they’re regulated.

From a technology perspective, it’s fantastic to be able to start from a blank sheet approach. We don’t have legacy that we need to try and modernise. We can actually go and scan the market, and get the best of breed, and be able to innovate with different technologies and different approaches, because we can also partner up and use suppliers that others may be prevented from using. We also like to challenge the status quo. So I think a little bit of the cultural thinking and the approach to make sure that it’s okay to say, “Wait, have we thought about this a different way?” it’s not going to be a career killer.

A lot of the challenges that banks have are in the cultural legacy and perspective. Why couldn’t a bank do it? They could, we were seeing some of the banks trying to move from a product and commissions business model towards a more client centric data-driven model. But they have a lot of legacy in their technology and their people and their governance, and their risk appetite and the risk models, that’s something they need to get around. It’s like turning a destroyer and helping them to make a very quick 360 degree point turn.

To the question of growth, we are fairly early stages. We closed our pre-seed investment round just before Christmas. We are now just about to start our pre-round A fundraise, to deliver a revenue generating MVP in 12 months, and we’ve had some very positive early interest ahead of our start.

Julia: Clearly this is a really exciting phase for you, because as you said, there’s an MVP in planning, you’ve done the market scoping. You’re gathering the people together around it, talking to investors, who from what you say seem very interested, and more are very welcome. And all of this happening during lockdown, which of course is really fascinating. One question I’m asking all CEOs and senior guests on the podcast is, really just as human beings, as individuals, how have you personally been navigating lockdown? Israel, let me come to you first of all, how has that been?

Israel: Challenging. Challenging only because I’ve had to drop out of a pre-established routine into a completely new one and not lose step. I think, just the lack of sporadic human interaction as you wander down the corridor and talk about something that isn’t directly related to what you’re focused at on your screen. And the travel time, I didn’t realise how much thinking I did in the travel time. Even though 

travelling through London is somewhat chaotic, there are quiet moments where you can step aside from someone trying to hit you in the head, where you are actively able to think and just take a moment as you transition from work to home, and from home to work.

I think I’ve missed certain things, but I have begun to incorporate some new things. I’m certainly enjoying the full range of family life more, just my availability in the home environment. Although we do respect the boundaries of work and family. The saving of time and the being present for key moments that you really can’t get back as children grow up. Also I’ve discovered some open green space where I take time in the morning and I just literally walk and stretch and get some exercise. So I feel a little bit more integrated to my local environment than I did before

Julia: It’s important, isn’t it? It’s interesting to think where you lose on one, it’s like a ledger, you lose on one side, you gain on the other as well. Karen, how about you? How’s lockdown been for you?

Karen: Fattening. I’m not sure if that’s appropriate to say? But I think everyone needs an escape, right? You don’t realise how much walking through London translates into activity. How much going in between meetings and talking to people, your entire body and your mind are always constantly working. When one of those gets taken away, something else has to kind of take over that, I guess, exit for you to do something, and mine has been baking. And I love baking and clearly I love eating baking as well.

But it’s been like Israel said, it’s been a wonderful discovery to reconnect with my home life. I’ve had a career where I have been travelling a lot and I got used to it. In fact, that is one area that I still miss, being able to go to the airport, sit down, have my own me time. Whether it’s at a lounge or meetings overseas, and then sit down at a hotel, that is something that I miss. But that was also something that prevented me from having those valuable moments with my daughter that I will never get back again.

Yes, it’s been challenging. I think I’ve had to do a lot of rewiring from my corporate life into connecting with my environment, like Israel mentioned as well. That said, I think it’s been eye-opening. Eye-opening in the ability for communities to pull together, and the abilities to really work with amazing people that are in it for the passion, that are not going to be stopped from their ambition by the fact that we suddenly have to do video conferences all the time, by the willingness of people to think outside of the box to say, “Hey guys, we’ve got to do a technology business workshop, how, how on earth do we do that? Because we can’t whiteboard, we can’t post it.” And being open to new techniques, being open as well, because you can’t bring certain cues to a brainstorming session when it’s being done through video conferencing.

I’ve also learned that it’s a wonderful thing that so many people are taking the opportunity to learn new skills, to connect with people that they hadn’t connected with for years, if not decades. Again, I think that just shows the resilience of people, of human beings, of our nation. It’s a terrible situation, the one that we’re in. But we will come out on top, we will come out stronger. I think that’s just been really heartwarming to actually see.

Julia: It’s fascinating, isn’t it? When you look at how that runs through organisations from literally the grassroots level. Everybody’s got their own COVID story, everybody’s got their own COVID reality, and how everybody’s navigating their way through that and staying well, trying to stay actively well through all of that. Whether that’s baking or whether it’s exercise, or however that that reveals itself. Of course, at the other end, which is going to be a slightly weird segue, but I’m going to go with it anyway. The other end is of course policy and regulation. I started the show today talking about the impact of Brexit, and the fact that the impact that has on the MME market. I’d love to hear your thoughts about in the world of policy and regulation – are there any particular pieces of regulation that you’re paying particular attention to at the moment?

Israel: At the moment, I am thinking a lot about the next wave of open banking. Moving into open finance, particularly what we’re trying to do is very much a data-heavy engineering approach to delivering new products and services. One of the key challenges that I think open banking has solved is this idea of standardisation of data. Also the leverage it’s brought to the market to have organisations that maybe wouldn’t necessarily volunteer customer data in the way that they’re doing now. They are providing, effectively, opportunities for new entrants into the market to rethink the use of that data in creating new business value.

Going beyond, I think, where open banking ends, at the moment at least, around customer accounts and providing transaction information. Open finance starts to think about the wider ecosystem of financial transactions across accounting, across payments, across lending. All with a sense of trying to give consumers and SME businesses more control. I think they’re at a very early stage, they’ve done an invitation for comment. Not quite sure how they’re going to complete the work they need to do during the summer, but what we’re expecting are some clear guidelines in the direction that they’re intending to take. Which hopefully for us, thinking about our roadmap and how we start to utilise these new data standards, it will be a really, really good way for us to move and accelerate our journey for ELEMENTARYb.

Julia: Of course, that plays back to what Karen was saying earlier about the big drivers. Going back to the beginning of the episode, where we’re saying it’s about control, it’s about critical decision making. At the heart of that lies exactly what open banking and open finance is aiming to do, which is to collect all your data into a central place. Which means that you can actually properly take a holistic view of how to run your business, no matter what the climate. Anybody who wants to find out about ELEMENTARYb, it’s elementaryb.com, that is the website there. And of course you can find them on social media and Twitter as well.

As we close out the show, let’s take a look at the road ahead. So life post the summer, looking towards the end of the year and beyond as well, really keen to hear what you’re thinking about as a business, but also what the MMEs are thinking about as well?

Israel: The road ahead ultimately is to build a really cool product. We’re looking to build out the next layer of our organisation, focused on delivering our MVP and getting new customers in to co-create and help us build this platform that we really believe will serve the purpose of supporting key decision makers, going forward.

Julia: Karen, finish us off here on the episode, thinking about MMEs – what does the road ahead look like for them? And how are you engaged with that?

Karen: The road ahead for MMEs is about knowing in real time, what is your situation? What’s your position? Having the access to all the tools and products that you need, or you may need. Being able to play around with options, but understand what that means for your organisation before you make a decision. Being able to have everything that you want, and you need, at your fingertips. That really is something that’s achievable today for the smaller market. And it has to be achievable very soon for the midsize sector.

Julia: Karen and Israel, I can’t tell you, it’s been a joy having on the show. Thank you so much. For ELEMENTARYb, we wish you every success. And thank you for joining us on StreetsTalksTo.

Karen: Great, really appreciate you having us on.

Israel: Thanks, Julia.

Julia: Pleasure. And to everybody who’s listening to StreetsTalksTo, my name is Julia Streets. Once again, thank you for listening.

Kieron: This episode of StreetsTalksTo was produced by me, Kieron Yates, on behalf of Streets Consulting Limited. Streets Consulting is a business development, marketing, communications consultancy that’s focused on helping FinTechs from the smallest startup companies to some of the world’s largest global organisations. Everybody’s trying to innovate and everybody’s trying to grow. You can find this episode on Streetsconsulting.com and using the hashtag #StreetsTalksTo. We can be found on LinkedIn and on Twitter at @StreetsConsult. Thanks for listening.