This interview is part of Scaling Enterprise FinTech | The Handbook, launched in Sep. 2021 in partnership with SixThirty Ventures and Money2020 Europe. Whether you are a founder with an idea, an early stage startup looking for inspiration and learnings, or an investor or financial institution looking to understand the difficult but rewarding journey to building a world-class Enterprise FinTech firm- download The Handbook.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your company.
I was born and grew up in South Africa to a German household. I started my first company when I was 16, selling computer hardware, and went on to study Actuarial Science in South Africa. I began my career in the insurance industry and spent over 13 years in various roles across South Africa, UK and Switzerland before founding Imburse. Headquartered in Zurich, with offices London and Lisbon, Imburse is a modular middleware that enables insurers and other enterprises to connect more easily to the global payment ecosystem. By connecting to us, our clients can quickly deploy any payment provider or solution, in any market, for collection or payout with no IT project or resources required. We are a technology partner that allows companies to transform, digitalise and modernise more efficiently and more quickly.
2. Give us the backstory- how did you get the founding idea, and how did the first sale come about?
We are quite a traditional startup story in that we are a pivot. We started as one of the first flight tracking apps (Flynrate) on the Appstore in 2015. As a way of evolving and commercializing our app, we looked to deploy the early versions of flight delay insurance. There was a great demand for clients who do not want to queue for vouchers when flights get delayed or cancelled. The global insurance partner we worked with was not able to support real-time payments (only bulk files to banks) and clients were not willing to wait 2 to 10 days to get their payout. That insurer said that bringing in real-time payments, while of great interest, is a 18 month, $ 1 mil IT project with no definitive start date.
As there was also no internal payments expertise, they said that if we wanted real-time payout capabilities, we would need to find a way to bring that technology to them without touching their core IT system. We spent 3 months building an alternative solution (which we thought would be temporary) and when we presented this to the insurer, they were very keen to buy the technology service from us. That is when we realized there is a much bigger market to solve the integration problem into the payment world, and made the pivot. We raised angel funding to build the first enterprise-ready version of our product and started selling officially in 2019. Since then we have been growing strongly and successfully fundraising to invest into the growth of the product and the business.
3. Could you summarize your journey to scale from a sales, go-to-market and business development perspective, perhaps split into 2-3 key phases?
As we are in the enterprise space, our sales cycles tend to be longer. A lot of our focus to scale has been on how we can reduce the amount of work needed to connect to Imburse, how can we reach more leads in addition to our own sales team and how do we source new leads. This has lead us to have a well-tweaked GMT that targets insurers across Europea, UK and Switzerland, through core-system and SI partners, with a land-and-grow strategy. This allowed us to shorten sales cycles, deploy faster, grow our existing contracts and significantly scale our pipeline.
4. Which was the most challenging phase, and what would you have done differently?
The most challenging days were the early days, right after raising the angel round. We raised some money to start building but in hindsight, we did not raise enough. We should have raised more, built a bigger team from the start, and evolved the product and sales capabilities faster. This, I think, is still a European startup problem. Compared to the US and UK startups, not enough capital is made available early on for startups to develop ideas. I would have more quickly raised funds from investors from outside Europe or leverage them to connect with the right investors in Europe who have a more growth investment mindset.
5. When did you decide to expand to the international/ US market, and how?
We have not yet decided to do this. This is on our roadmap for 2022 but we still have a massive market to grow into in Europe and we are working with US clients from Europe. The operationalization for startups in the US and other markets is incredibly expensive and needs to be taken very seriously. The best approach is to do that with a more mature product than what we currently have and significantly more money. Then we can really attack those markets properly and set ourselves up for success rather than hope for client meetings.
6. When did you first decide to raise venture capital, and what has been your approach to financing growth over the years?
We actually did not have a moment where we said, “now we need VC money”. Through our network and activities, we got connected to VCs who started to find us and with whom had constructive conversations about our future and opportunities. This way, we were able to meet more and more like-minded people on the VC side who liked and understood what we are doing. From there it was a more natural progression from one VC to the next, culminating in us now having some of the biggest names in the US and Europe onboard. We see our solution to be globally applicable, across multiple industry verticals. Thus, for a solution like ours, a higher upfront investment to develop enterprise products and services, plus growing into many markets with distribution partners, is more suited to growth financing and enables us to deploy the capital to create continued growth and return.
7. What’s on the priority list for you and your team for the next year?
We need to scale the team now while maintaining the culture we have built, keep the product quality at the high levels we have achieved and build our distribution partnerships to grow into new markets. To continue on our path of rapid growth we have to deliver a more mature product, ensure more output capability and grow our revenue.
8. Where is the financial services sector headed in the next 12-18 months, and what should we be watching out for?
The financial services sector will still experience immense pressure to modernise and transform their base IT capabilities and architecture to cope with new customer demands and business needs. We have seen an exceptional amount of focus from financial services companies on modernising the operational and backend systems after several years of putting the customer in the center, only to realise they struggle to deliver what is needed to engage the customer.
I think we will see much bigger IT project transformation announcements, more team ups and partnership, and an increased amount of M&A in order to consolidate IP and capabilities in a stressed market.
9. Your favorite place(s) for a meal, coffee or drink (pre-/ post-COVID19)?
My favourite place to go is on the ferry on Lake Zurich, be it for a meal, coffee or drink. Out on the water, surrounded by majestic mountains and landscapes makes for an incredibly serene and inspiring place to hang out.