After a year of economic contractions, the world is looking to grow again. The outlook is still rocky, thanks to soaring infection rates and Brexit-related supply chain issues, but for tech companies looking to solve some of the problems facing society, there are opportunities.
Even in an ideal economy, growing a company is a difficult proposition. Yet, despite everything, many startups were able to defy the pandemic and prosper. There were many reasons for this – providing services and products that helped meet new demands, especially for digital solutions.
For some, it was just ensuring they had solid fundamentals – a good team developing and deploying sound products and services.
One of these companies is Exizent. To better understand how startups can grow in a post-pandemic economy, DIGIT spoke with Nick Cousins, Co-founder and CEO of the fast-growing fintech.
As a financial services veteran with 20 years of experience, Cousins has access to a wealth of research that revealed some of the problems facing the UK population.
Exizent was founded when he noticed a problem in need of solving – that the financial processes around end-of-life and bereavement were not fit for purpose.
“The administration of death struck me at the time as being the least 21st century process we had ever had the misfortune of going through,” he notes.
“I thought, is there something we can do to make the process easier for people, particularly by applying some sort of innovation.”
An Opportunity for Growth
Despite its short life, having been founded late in 2018, Exizent has experienced impressive levels of growth. It raised £3.6 million in September last year as part of a major investment fundraiser.
This was believed at the time to be the largest in Scotland since the start of lockdown. That funding has enabled the company to grow its team – at the start of the pandemic, it only had three permanent members of staff.
“Growth for us is going from a couple of pages of PowerPoint to a fairly big team in a relatively short space of time, through a pandemic” Cousins says.
“We’re still in the relatively early stages. The market growth will take time, and team growth, which is probably the key thing for us, is getting that team capable of scaling up the business at pace.”
It was his long experience that led Cousins to implement a service design-led ethos at Exizent.
This approach focuses on the problem and the customer experience. It aims to engineer the solution to the problem, not the other way round.
“It was very clear to me that the way to build good solutions is to take service design very seriously,” Cousins says. “It means taking a big step back from the thing you think is the problem, looking at it more holistically, talking to people in the market and going out exploring the subject and really trying to hone-in on the problems you think you can solve.
“The journey was very different to where I thought we would start, because we actually looked at things from different perspectives and that that I think is a really crucial part of the process.”
This groundwork helped create a roadmap for Exizent and its platform, one that helped sustain them throughout their journey so far.
“We still fall back on things that we discovered back in 2019 as we continue to evolve the product and service but a lot of what we’ve discovered really helped shape the roadmap,” Cousins adds.
However, Cousins says there is a delicate balance between creating and following a plan and remaining flexible when encountering new challenges or opportunities.
“I view it more as insight rather than planning,” Cousins explains. “The moment you start, you throw that roadmap out the window. But you take what feels like the right first step, a good foundation.
“And the foundations that we set in place through design work continue to bear fruit because we’re repeatedly asking what’s the next most valuable problem we can solve.”
Ultimately, this approach helped the company maintain its growth despite the massive upheaval and challenges caused by the pandemic. As a company in its relative infancy, having only started product building at the start of 2020, Exizent’s operations were still relatively flexible when the coronavirus struck.
“This meant we didn’t have a lot of organisational norms and infrastructure and patterns that we had to adapt,” Cousins says. “We didn’t have to chuck out a load of culture that had been in place for years, like suddenly learning how to be remote.”
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In a troubled market, it doesn’t matter how well your company is doing. Pitching and selling to customers can be difficult when they are struggling.
“When you’re selling to a b2b market, nobody’s really thinking about anything in the early stages of the pandemic other than survival,” Cousins explains.
“When you’re trying to sell new products, new ideas into that market, it’s quite difficult to get people to pay attention, because the focus for probably five or six months of the pandemic was how to keep your business moving forward.
“We made sure that we gave people space and talk to them about what we were trying to do, to relay the fact that we are building things that hopefully will help them now help them in the future. “
“We benefited from the world being shaken up,” he adds. “Things were changing and so there were great people out on the market looking for opportunities that we managed to hire some great people.
Having launched its product late in 2020, deep into Covid-19, Exizent was able to maintain growth, in part, due to its flexibility. Cousins pointed to several lessons he learnt that helped the company grow during this time.
“Spend a lot of time with your customers,” he says. “Make sure that listening and feedback loop with customers is constant. You don’t want to invest a lot of time and energy building a product in a cupboard somewhere and the world has moved on.
“We have a really good design team and customer success function that is core to what we do. Really invest time in the team, help them adapt to this new model, find people who are very comfortable in a remote first model.
“Those two are probably the biggest lessons for me. Just keeping yourself very close to users and the people you’re trying to sell the product to being adaptable to what comes out in the market and really investing time with your culture and the team, listening to what they need.”
The pandemic and its aftershocks have posed numerous challenges to society. Just as Exizent was created to help streamline the bereavement process, startups have many opportunities to solve some of the post-pandemic problems.
“That’s always been the beauty of startups,” Cousins says, “they can move really quickly.
“Greater economic division has been created by the pandemic that we need to try and help solve. So, job creation, better financial support for people, the whole fintech ecosystem has a huge opportunity to help bridge that gap to stop this wealth division getting bigger.
“There’s a whole area of the build back better world to help the kind of financial recovery of families and people who just take a huge step backwards through the pandemic through job loss or just not being able to cope in a way that some of us may have been able to.
“It’s easy to be daunted by a big problem and get put off by it,” Cousins adds. “If you actually take a step back and go and spend the time doing that sort of research, and service design led type approach, you can boil things down into something more manageable.
“There’s always an assumption that tech solves everything. Tech is definitely an enabler of many things but some of these things are not all tech driven – there can be changes in policy, bringing people to the problem.”
Join the conversation | Fintech Summit 2021
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