Funding through Crowdcube

Equity crowdfunding platform, Crowdcube, allows anyone to invest as little as £10 in businesses in exchange for equity. It is also possible for venture capitalists and other large investors to fund businesses through the platform. In December 2014, Crowdcube was selected by the London Co-Investment Fund as one of six recipients of government funding for co-investment in startups. Along with consortium partner Braveheart Investment Group plc, it was awarded £5m to invest in digital businesses based in London. Although it is headquartered in Exeter, the platform also has an office in London.

Man in blue T-shirt in front of green background
Luke Lang, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Crowdcube.

The co-founders Darren Westlake and Luke Lang understood the difficulties entrepreneurs faced when trying to raise funding. Lang had experience running his own marketing consultancy and had worked in startups while Westlake founded and exited two VOIP businesses. They set up Crowdcube in 2010 to make it easier for founders to raise finance from their own network of friends, family, customers and supporters. The platform received £3.8m from Balderton Capital in a £5m series B round, and has 125,000 registered users and over 2,000 active users making investments every month.

Since 2011, over 180 businesses have used Crowdcube to raise more than £50m of equity finance. High profile entrepreneurs like chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Sir Stelios Haji-Ionnou of the easyGroup have used the platform. Lang says: “Crowdfunding and Crowdcube have really democratised investment and made it so much more accessible. Anyone can get involved and invest and that’s opened up a bigger flow of capital to the businesses.”

Headline investment criteria

Crowdcube allows all types of businesses, at different stages of growth to launch a pitch on its platform to raise money from the crowd. According to Lang, investors can find a really good mix of businesses from different vertical markets on Crowdcube including tech, food and drink, manufacturing, environmental, and fintech businesses. However he maintains that Crowdcube remains committed to helping early stage companies looking to raise between £50,000 and £150,000. He adds that Crowdcube has funded businesses that were just ideas or business plans.

Before allowing a pitch on to the platform, the Crowdcube team must feel that it is offering something their investors will be attracted to. An open discussion will take place among the team to decide whether a business is eligible.

The entrepreneur has to demonstrate that the business has a clear market opportunity and is making progress with its traction.

According to Lang, the team are also looking for entrepreneurs who have got a “real bit of hustle”, tenacity and who understand how to reach out to and tap into their network and giving people they know the opportunity to invest.

Crowdcube has a team of six business development analysts who talk to the entrepreneurs to understand their business and see if they qualify to be placed in the Crowdcube website. If they do qualify, they’ll be passed on to an investment analysis who will look at the business in much more detail. Only 20% to 30% of businesses that apply will make it on to the platform. The team points those that do not make it in the direction of a different source of funding or tells them what they need to improve before trying again. In the last six months, 38% of the companies that made it on to the platform went on to reach their funding target.

Lang says that the majority of the businesses that have been funded on Crowdcube were tech businesses or had some kind of tech element to them. These companies have a lot of potential to scale, which is what Crowdcube investors are looking for.

Approach to investment

Crowdcube allows companies to raise money with debt through a mini-bond, or equity. The mini-bonds offer investors a fixed rate of interest over a specific time period. The mini-bonds are like IOUs where the investor lends money to the business. These bonds cannot be traded or cashed in early.

The platform’s main offering is to allow investors to get equity in return for the money they put into a company. They can do this individually or get a professional fund manager to create a portfolio for them.

Lang says that with Crowdcube investors get a “real down to earth feel about the business” and understand the entrepreneur, the team, their journey, and the product. He adds “people really feel they’ve got a connection with the business which they wouldn’t get if they were investing in property or stocks and shares.”

Crowdcube doesn’t charge its investors anything. “Our view is, it’s an investor’s money, it’s their risk, it’s their reward. We don’t want to give our investors a reason to say no”.

Shape of investment

The minimum target amount is £10,000 and there is no maximum. Crowdcube advises entrepreneurs to go for between £100,000 and £150,000.

Crowdcube doesn’t charge listing fee, set up fee or membership fee. Lang says: “It’s not in our interest, it’s not in the investors’ interest and it’s certainly not in the interest of the business.”

However Crowdcube does charge a 5% success fee on the total funds processed when a business reaches its funding target.


For entrepreneurs to get their business on the crowdfunding platform they have to provide a business plan, financial forecasts for the next three years, and a video pitch that clearly sets out the investment proposal.

Lang explains that each pitch is approved financial promotion and so must comply with Financial Conduct Authority regulation. This means that every statement that an entrepreneur makes must be factual and it is the job of Crowdcube to verify those facts. Lang says the information must be “fair, clear and not misleading”.

The Crowdcube team also helps the entrepreneur to craft and refine their pitch deck and give them advice on what to include in their video, and to value their business at the right level.

The team will also help them to set the right target for their raise to make sure it is at an achievable level, and discuss their marketing strategy.

The entrepreneurs are expected to keep their investors up to date with their progress by reporting the key milestones along the fundraising.

Reasons not to invest

The Crowdcube team would not allow lifestyle businesses on to the platform. Also if an entrepreneur does not have any real ambition to build and grow a big business that could be sold in the future, they will not make it on to Crowdcube.

If an idea is too complex or the entrepreneur is not able to clearly articulate what the business is, or they have overvalued their business, Crowdcube would not allow it on the platform.

A big mistake that Lang sees entrepreneurs making is writing unclear business plans that do not explain what the business does.


In June 2014, serial entrepreneur Brett Akker, raised £1.6m for his storage company LOVESPACE, in June 2014.  It took 24 hours to reach his initial target of £600,000. In total, he raised £1.6m, 270% above the target, in 12 days. Venture firm DN Capital also invested in the crowdfunding round on the same terms as the rest of the crowd.

“The company was already VC backed by a company called Smedvig Capital. It knew Brett Akker from their previous investment in Streetcar and Crowdcube knows Smedvig Capital very well and they recommended to Brett that crowdfunding would be a good opportunity,” explains Lang.

Lang says that Crowdcube was able to use LOVESPACE’s ‘passionate’ customers in the successful marketing campaign, which resulted in a lot of press coverage and the company being featured in the Daily Mail, Crowdfund Insider, and Inside Self Storage.

“We met one of their investors and she was extolling the virtues of LOVESPACE. She’s a big fan, a big customer and now she’s a shareholder in the business,” says Lang.


Your future investments

In the future Lang sees more London-based tech companies raising money through the platform, as a result of the London Co-Investment Fund. The LCIF stipulates that recipients of the money must be London-based science and technology companies.

Founders will apply to Crowdcube, which will do all the necessary background checks on their business. Once the pitch is ready to go live, Crowdcube’s, fund management partner will choose which companies it feels are appropriate for investment and invest one third of the fundraising target. The remainder will be funded by the crowd on Crowdcube. To be eligible the companies need to be based in London and looking to raise between £250,000 and £1m.

“In the last six months of 2014, 50-55% of the businesses that were funded were tech in some way or had some tech element. I suspect that will probably grow. I firmly believe we’ll have more tech business coming but they will be better tech businesses,” Lang commented.

He also sees a blurring of the lines between investment from friends and family, crowdfunding, angels, and venture capitalists at present and thinks that will continue.

Another trend Lang is seeing is the increasing interest in crowdfunding from VCs, and more businesses that have or are in the process of getting financing from VCs are launching campaigns on the platform.

He has also noticed that larger companies are launching on the platform. “We’re certainly starting to see a trend towards more established companies, and more established serial, proven entrepreneurs using crowdfunding, as well as bigger raises. That’s an interesting development.”

Tech funding challenges

Lang thinks there is a funding gap at the level between £250,000 and £1m. He sees more and more venture capitalists investing at the £1m to £2m plus stages, but this leaves businesses that are raising less than that with few sources of funding to approach. He thinks that crowdfunding is doing a lot to solve this problem.

Funding Advice

Lang advises entrepreneurs to always have fundraising at the back of their minds. More specifically he says they should keep a mental note of the people they have encountered along their journey who have shown some interest or excitement about their business.

“You never know. At some point in the future you may need that little black book. Keep them informed of what your business is doing, keep them warm to the company and keep them warm to the idea of investing.”

Other than that, he says that founders should try and grow a great business and demonstrate growth and progress.

*This article was first published on TechCityinsider in February 2015.

Been there, done that, Seenit

Seenit, a collaborative video creation platform, is allowing brand marketers to outsource the creation of their video content to their employees, brand advocates and experts. Founder Emily Forbes tells Toni Sekinah how using her platform can help to document conversations instead of just events.

Emily Forbers, founder and CEO of Seenit


This year is the year of video marketing. So says a Forbes magazine author who gives a couple of reasons why people connect to videos over text. He cites the comparative ease with which the brain can process visual information and the way videos offer a multi-dimensional experience. According to a Cisco report, by 2019 video will account for 80% of all consumer internet traffic.

Emily Forbes (no relation) who has a background in film and film production, has long felt that there has been a huge shift in type of videos being watched online. She feels there is a trend away from polished content and toward user-generated content.

However she set up her company, Seenit, to create a bridge between the two types of content. The SaaS platform allows brands to harness the creativity and enthusiasm of their employees, fans, customers and experts by turning them into mobile film crews.

Seenit provides a private online studio into which clients can load a filming script and direction. These instructions go into an app that is pushed out to an unlimited number of specifically chosen contributors who then know what to film and for how long.

“The clients are easily able to direct and collect videos from the ‘film crew’ and can produce much more collaborative, authentic and creative stories,” says Forbes.

She gives the example of the BBC, which uses Seenit to facilitate the creation of a series called ‘You the pundit,’ a show that draws on content from a community of football fans.

“Fifty football fans from all over the UK respond to different questions about football – gossip or something that happened on the weekend. The fans can answer questions in the app, film their responses and everything is uploaded to the BBC,” she says. In one particular episode, 10 fans discussed whether or not manager Rafael Benitez could save Newcastle FC.

Seenit also works with The Body Shop, which is using the platform to draw on the talent and influence of its beauty consultants and create branded marketing.

Forbes says that the beauty consultants download the app, film their make up looks, tutorials and tips. They upload them and then they are edited, branded and pushed out to social media channels like YouTube.

The filmmaker founded the business after a revelatory experience in South Africa three years ago, where she was able to fully understand the power of crowd-generated content.

Forbes was in Cape Town to make her own film, after working for a production company in London. She set out to film a protest but as soon as she got to the demonstration, she realised that everyone was already filming the event on phones, cameras and on GoPro.

“The people within the crowd were so opinionated, so passionate and telling a far more fascinating story than I was ever going to be able to tell,” she says. She ran around the crowd and collecting their videos and later sat down to edit them in her kitchen.

Forbes realised that despite having no budget and no camera equipment, the footage she had was very powerful.

She says: “I realised I was documenting a conversation rather than an event. So I was much more excited about the new way of storytelling. It is ongoing, it is a narrative.” Forbes returned to the UK and set up Seenit in early 2014.

The platform allows the brands to be very specific with their contributors about how they want that story to be told. They can dictate camera shots and the length of time they want a specific clip to be.

“The brands can guide the person filming and give them feedback so that they get much higher quality, more concise sound bites,” she says.

The members of the film crew upload their clips through their Android or iOS apps and the footage arrives in the online editing studio. The clips are ordered according to the script that the brand created. They can be edited in the Seenit platform or downloaded and edited with a package like Final Cut Pro. Seenit also has a third option as there is a network of freelance editors who can edit instead.

Seenit allows its clients to white label the technology and put their own branding on it, which Forbes says allows for much faster engagement with the community. She adds that there is also an SDK so Seenit can sit within an existing app.

Chief technology officer Dave Starling built the platform in Python. He says that Couchbase, an open-source database software, is used for a lot of the “heavy lifting,” storing of things like metadata around photos and videos as well as user profiles.

Starling says: “Seenit has been designed and built from the ground up to scale. We’ve used the best technology and suppliers such as Couchbase and Google to ensure that we’re able to operate cost-effectively while still providing the performance and security that our clients need.”

He adds that Seenit operates entirely in the cloud, which allows them to rapidly react to change in demand and capacity within minutes.

Seenit has raised just under £1m in funding from Force Over Mass Capital as well as from angels like Rod Banner and Steve Parish, chairman of Crystal Palace Football Club.

This has allowed Forbes to almost double the size of her team in recent months to 15.  One new recruit is Nick Verkroost the new chief operations officer, formerly of DC Thomson, who was mentoring Forbes for about a year prior to joining.

“She says: “When you are looking to scale your team, you really want to brig in people that you trust and know your tech and your product and align with the same vision of what you want to create, so it was great to be able to bring Nick on board.”

Buoyed by the recent milestone of hitting £1m in revenue Forbes wants to ensure that her company can scale within its client organisations. This will mean that different teams with one company could all seamlessly use the Seenit platform. She also looking to grow Seenit in its own right and do so quickly.

“For the next 12 months there is a lot of focus on on-boarding, automation and scale.”

*This article was first published on TechCityinsider in May 2016.

Lost My Name captured kid’s imagination

Lost My Name produces personalised picture books that takes young children on a journey in which they are the central character. Co-founder and chief executive Asi Sharabi tells Toni Sekinah where the idea for the book came from and what other customisable products he and his team will create in the future.

Lost name books front coverImagine being a fearless adventurer, traversing through magical lands on a quest to collect clues in order to piece together your own identity.

Imagine this story being captured for posterity in a beautifully illustrated storybook with a protagonist that even looks a little bit like you.

That is exactly what Asi Sharabi and his three co-founders allow youngsters to feel with the first book created by their tech publishing company, Lost My Name.

Say I buy a book for my goddaughter Sky. In her book, which is written in English, a young girl – with brown skin and an Afro puff – has lost her name and travels through magical lands to find it. Along the way she meets a squid, a knight and yeti. The creatures gift her the first letters of their names so that she can put together her own. And so hundreds of thousands of children and parents were enchanted.

It was the biggest selling picture book of 2014 in the UK, shifting 132,000 copies. In September 2013, a few months after launching in public beta, sales were at about 200 a month. They jumped to 1,500 in two days when Not On The High Street featured the book in its newsletter, a jump of 750%.

Investors have been equally enamoured. When Sharabi and his co-founders Tal Oron, David Cadji-Newby and Pedro Serapicos appeared on BBC’s Dragon’s Den, dragon investor Piers Linney loved the concept so much that he invested £100,000 in return for a 4% stake in the company. This gave Lost My Name a valuation of £2.5m, the highest in the show’s history.

To date they have raised over $10m from what Sharabi calls “some of the best funds in the world” including Forward Partners, Google Ventures, Greycroft Partners, The Chernin Group and Project A Ventures.

In 2015 the Lost My Name team released a second book – The incredible intergalactic journey home. It takes the child on a journey through outer space with a robot best friend lost in space, light years away from home.

Again it is personalised with the child making his or her way through the universe to the solar system, planet Earth, back to their continent, country, county, street and home. The book – presently available in the UK and US – hones in on the child’s exact address.

In total, the LMN team has sold over 1.5m copies, which cost around £20, in 169 countries around the world.

This series of adventures for Sharabi and his team began when he received a personalised book for his daughter, and was less than impressed.

“I saw the book and that warm and fuzzy feeling of seeing my daughter’s name in a book lasted exactly two seconds,” he says.

He called on friends, creative technologist Oron and writer Cadji-Newby to help him develop something better.

Sharabi says: “We sat around my kitchen table and we started as a self-funded, self-published side project.”

The problem for Sharabi was that personalised books “sucked” and he wanted to create one that was actually good.

Once they had decided to create stories based on the letters in a child’s name, they made a prototype.

“We picked Andrew as a name. We wrote a whole book for Andrew, illustrated the whole book for Andrew and that was our MVP,” he says.

To scale up and be able to create books for every single name for children aged five and under, Oron downloaded, from the UK census, of all the names that were given to babies in the past five years.

When they saw that there were 14,000 names, the enormity of the task hit the team. Sharabi remembers saying: “Holy crap. How are we actually going to be able to fulfil and be able to create a book for every name?”

So they started to crunch the data and looked at the average length of a name, the longest name, the shortest name, the distribution of different letters within the names and more specifically the most popular letters that occur in names.

It was important for the LMN team not to repeat any of the creatures, even if a name had the same letter more than once. For example, if a book were to be created for a child named David, the first D could be gifted by a dinosaur and the final D by a donkey.

Sharabi was clear from the start that Lost My Name was a technology startup side project instead of a publishing side project.

“With all the operational implications of running a print-on-demand business, from day one, even just as a creative side project, it had a lot of technical operation and commercial implications that we had to walk through,” he says.

Lost My Name is a full stack vertically integrated business says Sharabi, with the majority of the software having been built in-house. The creative technology aspect relates to the creation of the assets for every letter story and a database with hundreds of memorable structures.

“We wrote software, that based on your postcode input, will give you the most iconic landmarks in your city or country,” says Sharabi. There is also integration with a third-party geodata provider so in the last few pages of the intergalactic book, there is an aerial view of the child’s neighbourhood, street and even their home.

The technology the team created also allows the buyer to see a preview of the book before they order it. Sharabi says: “That means a very, very complex rendering engine that takes your inputs and, sends your query to the database, and effectively creates a book and gives you a full preview on the fly.”

The books can be printed in US English, German, Spanish, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish and Danish.

Once ordered the digital, print-ready file is sent to one of the 15 print partners around the world that closest to the customer. It is printed with 24 to 36 hours depending on the print queue and sent out with most customers receiving their book within a week with free shipping.

With 30 tech people in the 75-strong team, it is unsurprising that Lost My Name is trying to push the envelope in terms of what it will create in the future, with Sharabi looking beyond the printed word.

Sharabi says: We’re trying to come up with something that has never been done before. Our personal and commercial aspirations go beyond books. It is something we are experimenting with now and it is very much in R&D.”

*This article was originally published in April 2016 on TechCityinsider.

**Lost My Name rebranded as Wonderbly in July 2017.

Onfido on track for ID checks

Husayn Kassai co-founded background checking software company Onfido in Oxford and expected it to be used by the HR departments of traditional employers. But Onfido has found favour with many businesses in the sharing economy. He tells Toni Sekinah how it happened.


 In August 2012 three university friends had to get background checks in order to take up internships at a major banks in the City of London. However it was such a labourious process that Husayn Kassai decided it was a problem to needed fixing.

The result is Onfido, an online platform that lets employers perform time and cost-efficient checks on job applicants.

Kassai and co-founders Eamon Jubbawy and Ruhul Amin all experienced the same headache so together they created a solution. They studied at the University of Oxford and were active members of Oxford Entrepreneurs society with Kassai and Jubbawy even serving as president and vice president.

Through Oxford Entrepreneurs – the largest free business and entrepreneurial society in Europe – they contacted human resources departments at companies like BP and Deutsche Bank. The feedback they heard was that traditional background checking services were not satisfactory for employers either.

“We felt that from an applicant perspective it doesn’t seem to be a working model and also from a client perspective there is scope to improve,” he says.

The HR departments complained that paper-based procedures were cumbersome and could take up to eight weeks. Furthermore they were expensive, with each check costing between £150 and £200.

Amin, with a background in engineering, built the first version of Onfido after the trio secured seed funding in mid 2012 from University of Oxford’s Said Business School and Isis Innovation – the university’s software incubator. Isis Innovation has also backed tech startups Bounts, Esplorio and Brainomix.

The first version of Onfido was a basic aggregator of the important pieces of information needed to thoroughly check a person’s background. It pulled data from credit agencies, utility companies and government and police databases.

It also had a dashboard so the employer could track the progress of the checks and view the results.

The current version of the data aggregation engine has those same components but is now more robust and smarter. It can draw in data from around the globe, gather and present the information more intuitively. Machine learning has also been incorporated into the Right to Work check which now includes a visual image scan that analyses passports and other right to work documents to make sure they are genuine.

Onfido offers include more than 10 checks including employment history, education, adverse financial and negative media.

To use the service employers enter the name and email address of the applicant indicating which checks they would like carried out. Onfido sends an email to the applicant with link to a secure online form where they complete their details and give Onfido consent to carry out the checks. Consent is essential for the company to be in compliance with the Data Protection Act.

Onfido cross-references the information provided by the applicant against hundreds of data sources to verify it. All data, checks, records and documents are stored on Onfido’s secure servers and data is fully encrypted in transit and at rest.

The 15-person technology team develops on the Ruby framework and is trying to integrate Elixir and Erlang “two really cool pieces of tech” into the workflow to increase performance and fault tolerance. On the front end, they use Javascript and Ember.js to present the information in a more-user friendly way.

Onfido has now gone global and is doing checks in the US and 28 European countries. Kassai’s plans for continued global expansion and a bigger sales and marketing team will be fuelled by the closing of a series A round in February of £2m. Investors include the founders of, One Fine Stay, Blablacar, and the former managing directors of Google UK and Waterstone’s among others.

Kassai is just 25 and his co-founders are also in their mid-20s but he says their youth was not an obstacle to setting up the business or securing funding as they built their track record in small increments.

“We said ‘Yes, we are young but we can commit to doing a very good job. Just give us the opportunity’ and they did. We told them from the outset what our targets were and exactly how we were going to achieve them and they could see that with every passing month we achieved the targets we had set,” Kassai explains.

Onfido’s competitive pricing and fast turnaround times have made it popular with companies in the sharing economy. Platforms like Handy, a platform for hiring home professionals like plumbers and electricians, need to verify that the people they work with are trustworthy. With checks ranging in price from £10 to £44 using Onfido is more startup-friendy option.

Hassle was Onfido’s first sharing economy client and came on board in early 2013.

“We saw huge growth in that market with the way Hassle was exponentially adding users to its platform and needed this level of verification to be able to build trust into it,” says Kassai.

More sharing economy clients followed and Onfido is now the largest provider of verification services for the sharing economy, which helped build credibility in the eyes of the investors.

Kassai says: “A lot of sharing economy platforms have raised a lot of investment themselves so when the VCs did due diligence on them, they could see that a key enabler for these businesses was Onfido so they either heard about us or knew what we were doing.”

He says starting their business in Oxford had two great advantages; the support infrastructure and access to talent.

Oxford Entrepreneurs, the Said Business School Entrepreneurship Centre and Seed Fund, Isis Innovation Software Incubator and the Student Entrepreneur Network run by the Careers Service provided invaluable support.

Kassai added that as the location of the one of the highest-ranked universities in the world, “in Oxford we had access to a world-class talent pool to tap into for advice, test out new ideas and most importantly, find team members almost a third of the Onfido team of 28 come from Oxford.”

Conceived among Oxford’s dreaming spires and now located in on the edge of the City of London, Kassai and the Onfido team have already achieved their ambition of having a global presence. He sees no reason why European companies in general can’t compete with those from the US.

“If you’re a tech business you have to be ambitious and global. US companies do this very well, they think global and UK and European ones should do the same. The technology in Europe is just as good if not better.”

He goes on “There’s no reason why European companies can’t do as well. It just means you have to learn what works and do the same.”

*This article was first published in March 2015 on TechCityinsider.

How now carwow

Carwow is a reviews and deals site for potential purchasers in the market for a new car. It presents them with offers from dealers that could save them thousands of pounds. Co-founder and chief executive James Hind tells Toni Sekinah why he did a U-turn on the road to a career in finance and what unusual beverage almost ended up in his cup holder.


James Hind never saw himself as someone who could start a business. “I always thought to start a business you had to be 40 and look like a businessman,” he says. But he shattered his own preconception and now his startup Carwow is accelerating at top speed.

While at a crossroad a few months after graduating, his friend Alexandra Margolis persuaded him to join her in starting up a venture.

“I didn’t realise just how easy it is, how low risk and how little capital you need so I just jumped into it,” he says.

Now Hind, Margolis and chief technical officer David Santoro are the driving force behind Carwow, an online platform for new car buyers that is in a class of its own. “There’s nothing close to us in what we do,” says Hind.

Carwow is a site where potential buyers can read reviews of new cars and compare offers on those motors from dealers around the country.

Users type the name of any make and model in the search box and Carwow will return a comprehensive review and a ‘wowscore’ out of 10, which gives the average review scores from different automotive publications.

“People can make an informed decision on which car to buy through reading just one source,” he says.

Carwow also shows the user three pros and three cons of the vehicle, as well as the price bracket, number of seats, fuel efficiency and a fun fact. Did you know that the Fiat Panda is Italy’s best-selling car ever? Or that the Nissan Micra is known as ‘March’ in most of Asia and South America?

The site even includes extracts of the reviews from other sources like Top Gear and Autocar.

Then Carwow cranks its value up a gear and shows the users how much they could save if they buy that car through one of its dealers.

Users choose the features they want their ideal car to have – Hind calls it ‘building’ a car – and once they register their email address, they can see offers from up to 800 dealers around the country for that car.

They can also see the location of the dealers and how well other Carwow users rate them. “You have that social proof,” says Hind. “Then they go forward, contact the dealer and buy directly from them.”

The handpicked dealers offer their best prices through Carwow as they know that doing so will generate higher volume of sales.

It’s free for the consumer but the dealers are charged depending on how many cars they sell through the platform.

When the business was set up in 2012 it was called Carbuzz and was just an aggregator of new car reviews.

“You have all these ‘geek speak’ car magazines that aren’t very accessible to people but people are using them to help them work out whether a car is good. We thought we’d read all that content and summarise it,” he says.

Because Hind is a bit of a petrol head, his friends would always ask his advice when they wanted to buy a new car. He admired the set up of film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and decided that their business would do the same for cars. Carbuzz was founded after Hind was put off working in the world of finance for good.

After completing his undergraduate degree in finance, James Hind began his career with an internship at a fund management group in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. He stayed for three months.

“That started in September 2008 and I watched the financial world collapse. The fund management group I was in got hurt really badly because they had absolutely no control over what they were doing,” he says.

Not knowing what to do, he worked as ski guide and travelled until Margolis suggested that they work for themselves. They looked at various ideas including importing Bubble Tea, a tea-based, milky, fruity, smoothie with balls of tapioca at the bottom. “It’s this weird tapioca pearl drink. I’m very glad we didn’t go down that road,” he admits.

They set up Carbuzz and used an agency to build the website but after a year brought in Santoro as the third co-founder.

“We didn’t have any control of the website, we couldn’t make changes. So we thought, ‘Let’s scrap this, build a better site and have it all in-house’,” he says.

As the number of visitors grew they realised that there was a bigger problem for car buyers than just access to easy-to-understand information.

They realised that consumers wanted a way compare offers from different dealers on a particular vehicle without having to clock up the miles visiting all several dealerships.

They developed Carwow at Hind’s kitchen table and in mid 2013 raised £250,000 from angel investors to automate the process and hire a small team.

The hunt for the second round of funding was much more arduous than he anticipated but he managed to get a meeting with Simon Murdoch, a partner at Episode 1.

Murdoch invested and brought along a host of other angels, including Alex Chesterman, a LOVEFiLM founder, who signed a cheque without ever having met Hind.

Carwow raised £1.3m from Episode 1, Samos investments, Balderton Capital in Feb 2014 and was able to raise a further £4.6m less than a year later from the same investors because the business looked so healthy.

“We demonstrated really quick growth and we knew we could put more money to work, largely though advertising and hiring.”

The team has grown exponentially in the last 12 months. Last year they were a team of six, which has since grown five-fold to 32.

The AWS hosted-website is built in Ruby by the four-strong team of developers; Hind is very keen to increase their numbers.

“We’d take five developer today if they were great,” he says. “We’re a technology company first and foremost and developers just automate and improve anything.”

Hind says that since launching Carwow customers have bought £250m worth of new cars and saved on average £3,250 on each purchase. It looks like he’ll continue to drive a hard bargain for his customers.

*This article was first published in June 2015 on TechCityinsider.

Those who Kano, do

Two years ago the creators of Kano, a build-it-yourself computer kit, smashed their crowdfunding target and picked up some high profile backers. Co-founder Alex Klein tells Toni Sekinah about his mission to make programming easy and fun and why the kids were initially suspicious of the keyboard.

Kano computer kitAlex Klein is doing his part to create a generation of “superchildren.” These are kids who can get under the hood of and tinker with their tablets, smartphones and computers.

He’s doing this with his invention Kano. Klein describes Kano as a simple, fun computer hardware kit built around the Raspberry Pi. The kit includes a set of software packages that allow users to be creative and express themselves with code-powered projects once the computer has been put together.

The project went on Kickstarter in late 2013 and hit its target 15 times over raising $1.5m from 131,000 supporters including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler. To date 45,000 Kano kits have been sold to customers in 86 countries. Roughly half of Kano’s sales are to customers in the UK and the US but in May the company raised a $15m series A round to facilitate a push into other markets as well as improving and extending the products.

Klein says: “If you want to get yourself or your kids ready for the future, wherever you live, Kano is a simple and fun way to do it.”

The kit costs £120 and includes a Raspberry Pi board, speaker, keyboard, case, cables, a micro SD card, power plug and wifi dongle and of course the picture book assembly guide as well as a coding booklet.

It all stems from Klein being an amateur hacker and spending two years as a reporter. “The aspect of journalism I enjoyed the most was using stories, characters, anecdotes and humour to make the complex simple, to demystify the world.”

Klein became fascinated with the Raspberry Pi computer, after interviewing Eben Upton of the Raspberry Pi Foundation for an article in 2012. The Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized, single board computer developed to help kids around the world understand how computers work. So Klein was surprised when Upton said not many kids were using it because it was “too techie” for them.

Klein bought one and a 400-page, black and white, small print guide. His then six-year-old cousin Micah asked him to create a manual that was super easy to understand.

“He said ‘I want to make my own computer that is as simple and fun as Lego. It has to be so easy that no one teaches me how to do it’,” Klein recalls.

Micah’s challenge became the mission behind Kano and Klein set to work on an illustrated instructional storybook, intentionally using simple, direct language.

The first words Klein wrote in Make a Computer were: ‘This is your little computer. It looks a bit complicated but you can make it yourself and use all its powers.’

Along with Micah’s father Saul Klein – partner at Index Ventures – and entrepreneur Yonatan Raz-Fridman, Klein produced a kit of components and set up Kano Computers in early 2013.

“We thought ‘what if it was as easy to be creative with technology as it is to use it’ and that was the spark,” says Klein.

They tested a prototype at primary schools but quickly realised that the keyboards were not suitable. The original ones were designed for businesspeople and came with built-in laser pointers. The kids kept zapping each other in the eye.

Klein and Raz-Fridman noticed that despite the fun factor, the children were suspicious of using the keyboard having spent their whole lives using touchscreen displays. They had to come up with a keyboard that was exciting for young people to use and developed an orange keyboard with a touchpad that can be held like a games controller.

Kano is not just hardware but software too. The free, open source Kano operating system, which Klein calls the fastest simplest and most fun operating system for the Raspberry Pi, comes preloaded on micro SD card.

Once Kano is connected to a monitor and booted up, users have the option to use it as a computer, play music or play video, or play the games Pong, Snake or Minecraft.

The Kano users can also do projects, if they choose, on the Kano Blocks platform. Klein explains that the platform is a like a code-powered Lego set. “It breaks down code in programming languages like Python and JavaScript into these really easy plug and play visual blocks,” he says. This means that users can manipulate the games and change the size of the Pong ball, for example.

Klein says the inclusion of the projects was made possible when Alejandro Simon from the PlayStation 4 team and Tommy Sahl from the woods of north Sweden brought some “serious development talent” to the team.

Through Kano, Klein is giving kids a route into the world of programming that he found difficult to enter when he was growing up.

In 1999, after watching The Matrix, he decided he wanted to be a hacker. “I wanted to be like Neo and see though all the codes that control the world,” he says. But his youth worked against him when trying to access online resources.

“I’d go to online forums and ask what I thought were pretty simple questions and people would give me grief and say things like ‘what are you? Eleven years old?’ And I was 11 so it was a bit of a bummer.”

The difference between Klein’s experience and that of the kids that use Kano is night and day. Klein and Raz-Fridman did a workshop in King Solomon Academy in central London with a group of primary aged children.

The class remained quiet when Klein asked who had seen the inside of a computer before and who thought they could make a computer.

But when he asked how a computer thinks, all the hands went up and the class responded with theories ranging from magic waves, to space, to the computer talks in secret letters to the matrix.

When he told them they would build their own computer by following the instructions in a picture book, he remembers the atmosphere becoming electric and the kids tearing into the boxes.

“By the end of the hour they had made the computer. It was incredible. One child told me: ‘adults think we’re incapable because we’re so young, but today we made a computer. We’re like superchildren’.”

*This article was first published in July 2015 on TechCityinsider.

Gelbard delivering on the Wild side

Flower delivery company Bloom & Wild has revolutionised the way flowers are sent and delivered, making it as easy as getting a card through the post. Co-founder and chief executive Aron Gelbard tells Toni Sekinah why a desire to please people powers his business.

Bloom and WildCelebrations, congratulations, commiserations and appreciations are the main reasons people send flowers to one another.

But there is a small complication if no one is home to receive them as they may have to be left with a neighbour, which is not convenient on either side. If the bouquet is returned to the sorting office to be collected at a later date, there is a good chance they will have wilted beyond recognition by the time they get to their rightful owner.

Aron Gelbard’s company has come up with a solution so that flowers can be delivered at anytime. The flowers from Bloom & Wild arrive in a box, that though is 60cm long, can fit through standard UK letterboxes.

In the box is a personalised card and the ribbon-tied flowers with each flower head encased in protective netting. They come with a small sachet of plant food and there is even a little instruction card from Bloom & Wild that explains how to arrange the bouquet.

“We started Bloom & Wild to make sending and receiving flowers the joy that it should be,” says Gelbard.  “We think that people send flowers at times that are really emotionally important to them and they should have a great experience every time they do so.”

With his co-founder Ben Stanway, Gelbard set up Bloom & Wild in 2013, to be a flower delivery service that would give its customers a better retail experience than with traditional bricks and mortar and other online florists.

Bloom & Wild deals directly with flower growers, who pack and send out the flower boxes, from their own warehouse facility in Lincolnshire. This means that the middleman is cut out and the blossoms can be in customers’ homes within four days of being cut.

“That compares to 10 days plus in the traditional flower supply chain which means that the flowers are not only longer lasting but also that we can offer more attractive prices,” says Gelbard.

The bouquets also have attractive names such as The Luna with blush roses and cream lisianthus, as well as the The Imogen with Asiatic lilies and alstroemeria, also known as lily of the Incas.

The bouquets range in price from £20 to £37 for one-off bunches with delivery included. Users can also get weekly, fortnightly or monthly bundles for three, six or 12 months. They can also have an on-going subscription that can be paused at any time. Delivery is next-day across the UK with Royal Mail and DPD. In parts of London is can as little as two hours with an express service powered by Shutl.

No doubt, Mother’s Day was a busy day for Bloom & Wild and incidentally part of Gelbard’s motivation for setting up the business comes from his childhood and his relationship with his mother. He grew up as an only child raised by his mum so pleasing people was very important to him.

“If I could create something which would bring pleasure and happiness to large numbers of people everyday that would be something that would really motivate me,” he says.

He met Stanway through a mutual friend and they realised they had both been looking at the workings of the flower business – Stanway from the supply chain side and Gelbard from the direct-to-consumer ecommerce angle.

Gelbard was particularly inspired by Warby Parker, a vertically-integrated eyewear brand in the US and a British personalised postal snack company that is also letterbox-friendly.

The pair was going to New Covent Garden Flower Market, trying to understand how the auctions in the Netherlands worked. Then at a birthday party, Ben was serendipitously introduced to someone who worked for a fruit and vegetable grower who was also cultivating flowers. This led to the direct relationship with the flower producers.

During the summer, Gelbard says that as many flowers as possible are sourced from the UK, especially peonies as they are now coming into season and “English peonies are beautiful.” However in the winter, some of the flowers are sourced from further afield.

Gelbard and Stanway created their own tech for the company with the backend platform running on Ruby on Rails with their own API. The API powers the website which is built in Angular and JavaScript as well as the iOS and Android apps.

Bloom & Wild closed a  £2.5m series A round in July last year led by MMC Ventures as well as earlier SEIS and EIS rounds from angel investors. MMC also invested in Pact Coffee and Gousto, similar direct-to-consumer businesses, so Gelbard feels there is a good fit with the investor. However the co-founders initially put their own savings into the business and learned an important lesson in prudence early on.

“We thought we had finalised our box design and ordered 1,000 boxes. We sent out 20 test orders to people we were talking to about Bloom & Wild and flowers in 17 boxes arrived with a disease,” says Gelbard. Botrytis, a necrotrophic fungus, had blighted the blossoms as the boxes did not allow for sufficient ventilation.

Gerlbard and Stanway had to throw away 980 boxes that weren’t fit for purpose. At £2 a box, that was £2,000 of the founders’ own money that had to be written off.

“It’s a lesson that I’ll always remember because we were trying to go probably a little bit quicker than we were ready to whereas we should have focused on continuing to learn as quickly as possible and minimise the absolutely spend,” he says.

The business has since flourished and Gelbard and Stanway are now working with a team of 25 across, development, branding, creative, marketing, floristry and ‘customer delight.’

An interesting discovery he and Stanway have made is about their ‘delighted’ customers. Gelbard says that 75% of their customers are female who are often buying flowers for other women – whether they be their mothers, daughters, sisters or friends.

“I think when a man buys flowers for a wife or a girlfriend, there is still quite a traditional notion of the partner opening the door and the man presenting this big prearranged bouquet and it is a bit of a macho moment almost for the gift-giver,” he says.

He assumes that with women, they are less interested in making a grand gesture and a good impression of themselves and are more interested in giving a really thoughtful gift.

Bloom & Wild is constantly experimenting with new creative bouquet designs, some of which are limited edition with some luxurious options coming up in the future. He says that this creativity and attention to detail led to its customers constantly rating Bloom & Wild the top flower company in the UK.

“The entire system we’ve created is delivering an experience that people prefer and it’s a brand that people are starting to really love in flower gifting.”

*First published in May 2016 on TechCityinsider.

Mondo, the pocket-sized bank breaker

Mondo, a mobile-first banking app and debit card has a legion of loyal fans who helped it raise a record-breaking crowdfunding round. Jonas Huckestein tells Toni Sekinah why he wanted to work with founder Tom Blomfield and how he almost ended up living la vida Latina in South America.

Monzo 1

Mondo is a bank with a difference in that it is solely digital. There are no branches, cheques books or bank staff, but instead a snazzy smartphone app and a pre-paid debit card.

The mobile-first ‘smart bank’ allows its users to manage their money on the go, as co-founder Jonas Huckestein says it is for people who live on their smartphone.

“They are used to pressing a button and a car arrives, pressing a button and their food arrives. They really don’t want anything to take more than 30 seconds,” he says.

The Mondo dashboard shows its users – who are only on iOS at the moment – an interactive display of their transactions. Instead of just using figures and numbers, the balance can be viewed in the form of a graph.

There is instant notification of transactions as well. “If I go to Sainsbury’s, a split second later even before I get the receipt for my purchase, I just get a notification that says ‘you spent £5 at Sainsbury’s, you now have £160 left’,” says Huckestein.

Mondo also shows users the location and the logo of the shop they spent it in. It even compiles the data on their spending to show how much has been spent in a particular shop or in a particular category over a certain period of time.

With Mondo, users can block or freeze their MasterCard pre-paid debit card immediately if they lose it, through the app. However they can just as easily unblock the card if it turns up again.

Huckestein says that the Mondo team made a decision early on to not build a minimum viable product and rebuild it once the cracks and flaws appeared.

Instead they wanted to have a “rock solid platform, resilient enough to withstand a sledgehammer or a natural disaster”

He says they concluded they would build an in-house platform using the programming language Go.

“We’re beginning to see the return on that investment. If we wanted to build a completely new feature, say a travel report feature that sent push notifications when you enter a new country, we could literally build that in one afternoon,” he says.

Although the bank has not fully launched – the team is waiting the approval of a full deposit taking and lending license from the FCA and PRA – it has already got customers testing its services.

“We did not want to just build the product in a vacuum, so we decided to launch the alpha programme and now it is in beta. We got the first functional cards out at the end of November and by last week we had about 3,000 active users on that card,” says Huckestein.

There is also a waiting list of 75,000 who have signed up ready to use it when the license is approved, which Huckestein says will probably be 18 months from now.

Those users and users-to-be helped Mondo to raise a record-breaking round of crowdfunding in February. The team had already raised £2m from Passion Capital in spring 2015 and was looking to raise another £6m in Feb. Five million pounds of that was provided by Passion with the remaining £1m raised via the equity crowdfunding platform Crowdcube.

“In general we have a transparent attitude and we would like everybody to share in this experience,” says Huckestein.

The response was overwhelming with 8,500 people registering their interest. “The day we announced we would start crowdfunding, we had some technical difficulties – the Crowdcube website crashed.”

The Mondo team ended up putting a registration form on its own website three days later and ran a book in the office of how quickly the £1m target would be reached.

It was 96 seconds. “Paul Rippon, our deputy chief executive, said three minutes and won the bet but that is only because when he came in so many bets were already taken that he just to go either super high or super low,” says Huckestein.

His journey to Mondo began when GoCardless founder Tom Blomfield joined a startup in New York and became his colleague. The German knew it was just the start of their working relationship.

“We worked together for three months and I was really impressed with him and thought that this is someone that I would really want to work on any project with,” remembers Huckestein.

He also remembers Blomfield stating adamantly that he wanted to set up a bank because he felt the banking system was in the danger zone with all the banking systems on the point of breaking down.

Huckestein took note of Blomfield’s bankable dream but forged his own path – travelling the world and setting up SaaS businesses and in 2014 he was offered place at an incubator called Startup Chile.

“I was trying really hard to get Tom to go with me. Then, unfortunately or maybe fortunately, one day he said ‘listen, I have an opportunity to start a bank in London’,” he says.

Huckestein agreed to move to London for three months to “look” at Blomfield’s new venture with the intention of moving to South America afterward.

“That was at the end of 2014 and three months later I did not go to Chile.” But there are no regrets as he sees himself as helping to build something that could change consumer finance. New features are in the pipeline for the app and Mondo is looking to double the size of its 25-strong team by the end of the year.

“We’re making the best current account in the world. We expect a certain level of service from the financial industry and that’s what we’re challenging,” he says.

*This article was first published in May 2016 on TechCityinsider.

**Mondo rebranded as Monzo in August 2016.