Funding Options CEO Conrad Ford on Entrepreneurship and his journey in business
23 July 2019
Your working capital is slipping away. You’re worrying about how you’ll pay your team this month. Suppliers are knocking on the door for their unpaid invoices.
You’re running a small business and it’s tough. I’ve been there.
I started Funding Options, in 2012, and I went through all of the turmoil above, and more besides. Funding Options is now Europe’s leading marketplace for business finance.
I was grateful and surprised to win the Entrepreneurs’ Champion of the Year award at the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards in 2018. Since then I’ve been reflecting on my own story as an entrepreneur and how I could help business owners who are just starting out on theirs. Here I’ll tell you how you can prepare yourself and your business for those storms and build a business that’s able to survive and, crucially, thrive...
Why I started Funding Options
Before I founded Funding Options I’d worked at major banks, eventually becoming COO of Barclays’ high-growth tech subsidiary. Working in banking during the credit crunch I saw first-hand that promising young businesses were struggling to borrow, because the big banks found it hard to lend to small businesses. Big banks simply aren’t designed to lend to all types of business, particularly to small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Out of this chasm of business finance, the alternative finance market began to grow. But it was a slow start, because entrepreneurs simply didn’t know about the alternative finance available to them. The mentality of many business owners has long been to stick with their trusted bank, even when their bank can’t give them the ideal option for their particular situation, or might not offer them funding at all. But when banks are all they’ve known, they don’t know what else is out there to help them.
I made it my goal to support small and medium-sized businesses by finding them the most suitable funding for their unique situations. This is a goal that we’ve now crystalised into our mission statement: helping the small walk tall. Businesses have been made to feel small for too long – we set out to change that.
I quit banking and started Funding Options in 2012. Now we source more than £100 million of vital business finance for thousands of small and medium-sized businesses in the UK every year. There are more than 80 people in our rapidly growing team and we work with more than 70 of the UK’s best active lenders to give businesses a comprehensive and varied selection of funding options.
The rough ride to success as an entrepreneur
I don’t know of a single business whose journey to success wasn’t bumpy. In fact, bumpy doesn’t even begin to imply how difficult it is. It’s perilous, can be soul-destroying and is seemingly impossible at times... but ultimately worth it. The thrill of seeing the business you’ve poured all of yourself into grow and become its own immense, organic system of people, projects, platforms, partners and customers is the greatest reward for all of that dedication.
Through the process of getting Funding Options to where it is today, I’ve learned some invaluable lessons in entrepreneurship and how to succeed, despite the odds...
Adopt a startup mentality
In large organisations, teams of people spend months or years working on drawn-out projects, many of which come to nought. When you start your own business, you can’t afford to do this. The sprightly and agile (in all senses of the word) attitude adopted by most startups exists for a reason: because that’s the only way to survive. That doesn’t mean decisions are unconsidered, that you rush into badly thought-out ventures with a gung-ho approach. It means that you have to work efficiently and with a clear direction so that you and/or your team know what the outcome of your work is.
There’s some luck involved with building your team. The chances are that you won’t find the innovators straight away. In the process of building your team, people will come and go, either because the opportunity you presented them wasn’t right for them, or their contribution wasn’t right for you at that time. And that’s okay. Don’t dwell on that and consider it a failure. It’s just part of the process of determining what it is you need from your team, and it might even be a reality check if your expectations happen to be unrealistic. Remember, you’re learning too.
Don’t be afraid of failing
With that fast and scrappy startup approach, you’ll likely experience some failures. Don’t get hung up on them. No business can claim they’ve never failed at one time or another. Remember Virgin Cola? Neither do I.
Embrace the failure and learn from it to improve what you do next time. The next time might also be a failure but if you apply what you learned the first time, it won’t ruin you. If you enhance your processes each time, soon you’ll get it right.
Adapting to the changing course of your business won’t be too difficult with the startup mentality. Use your agility to move on to the next stage of your growth. You can afford to get it wrong right now. That might not be true once you’ve got customers, investors and a board lining up to hold you accountable.
Don’t get too big too soon
In the last three years I’ve seen revenues at Funding Options increase more than ten-fold. We’ve also gone international with global bank ING, who invested £5 million into the business. This sounds like stratospheric growth, but given that I started Funding Options in 2012, it took time to get to this stage.
I don’t see this as a bad thing. If we had raised lots of funding early in the company’s life, we wouldn’t have been ready for it. We’d have spent investors’ money without really knowing the best way to spend it. In 2019, I can truly say that we’re wise and we know how to use that investment.
The funding gap between 2012 and now has also meant that the team didn’t grow too quickly. Within the team we have at the moment, we have a group who’ve grown with Funding Options. They’ve lived through the storms and grown from them. And as we continue to grow, of course we’ll bring new people on board. But because we didn’t grow too quickly in the early days, our solid team is the perfect one to join – we’re resilient, experienced and humble because we didn’t do too much too young.
Perhaps the most important single lesson I’ve learned is not to be complacent. Even when things are going well, don’t lose sight of what could go wrong. You can do that even when you’re a startup – complacency will sink any business. If you’re naive or misguided, complacency will be what tips you over the edge. If you don’t take for granted the potential failures in your business, you can survive through naivety and misguidedness. You’ll learn, you’ll do things better next time around, and you and your business will grow because of it.