I arrived in London on 24 July, 1998 with a work permit and an attitude, knowing that what was happening in Palo Alto, where I hail from, would hit like a tsunami on these shores.
I’ve always been fascinated by the egoless entrepreneurial talent in London – for Brits are the epitome of self-effacement. I’m starting to imagine how they must feel when they go to the US, as I’m tired of loud US hyperbole. Americans are eternally the self-marketers. Brits have the same desire for excellence but the culture expects others to point out your greatness. I’m hooked – it’s very cool.
London was always going to dominate in fintech, but I never expected that I would get involved in so many financial services businesses. First I met Richard Duvall, the founder of Egg, the original online bank, who went on to found Zopa, the world’s first P2P lender, in 2003. I introduced Zopa to Tim Draper and Rowland Capital, who invested in the Series A in 2005, and also helped them find their early lenders through my network of HNWIs.
Richard’s vision was that peer-to-peer lending could solve social problems. But sadly, he never got the chance to see it all the way through, as pancreatic cancer took him in 2006.
I first met John Paleomylites in 2006, and then I started advising him when his firm, BeatThatQuote, one of the price comparison financial services plays, was approached by Google in 2009. What is interesting about what BeatThatQuote was doing is that it was giving cash back to individuals to incentivise them. This was ahead of its time, and not what the rest of the bigger players in their space were doing.
My firm, Ariadne Capital, wrote a valuation paper valuing BeatThatQuote (with £250,000 of EBITDA at the time) at £100m. I’ll never forgot John’s reaction to seeing Ariadne’s view of the value of his firm: “That’s optimistic, Jules.” I still have that email, which makes me smile. Ian Findlay, my director of M&A, who worked on the deal, countered that the £100m valuation for a £250m EBITDA startup might make Google gasp, but it would enable John to close the deal at £40m, which we did. BeatThatQuote’s acquisition by Google for a 122 EBITDA multiple of £37.7m was the largest UK acquisition by Google at the time. There’s nothing better than startup success, and knowing that your optimism and work helped someone make north of £30m of personal wealth.
But it was Monitise, which Ariadne advised for eight years, that epitomised the growing influence of London as a fintech global ecosystem. Alastair Lukies, the founder and CEO, built Monitise out of Morse, a listed systems integrator, led by Duncan McIntyre. He had a simple premise: building the leading mobile payments business would require building the mobile banking ecosystem, not just selling software to banks. I remember writing an email strongly encouraging Alastair to focus on the smartphone market for early adopters – ultimately what helped Monitise to take off. Through 2012, Monitise’s stock rose and gave a halo to the fintech ecosystem out of London.
It matters where the heart of the fintech ecosystem is. Is it in Silicon Valley or New York or London? Is it driven by capital or capital efficiency? Let’s consider Zopa, BeatThatQuote and Monitise: each represents a different approach to creative destruction.
Zopa was a digital disrupter. It wanted to be a bank, not help them. It was creating banking infrastructure updated for the social media world.
BeatThatQuote was disruptive in its approach to consumer data. John was early to understand that consumer data is the gold. So BeatThatQuote had strategic value to its customers, who were mostly retailers and media firms, which led to the strategic value it had for Google. It was a digital enabler.
Monitise is also a digital enabler to banks. It ratcheted up its game with a global partnership with VISA. Although it was worth nearly a billion at one point, it allowed itself to get pulled into the engine room instead of realising that its value lay in the consumer insight it could bring to its partners.
So London has both disrupters and enablers of the existing financial services landscape. But I have a hunch: it’s more of an eldest child than a baby of the family. The City of London and its financial institutions value the ‘estate’. They don’t think of wiping out the infrastructure, but enabling and extending it. That is classic eldest child thinking and behaviour.
Most people sing the song that they left their heart in San Francisco. Mine is lodged deeply and eternally in the great city of London, where commerce, finance, arts and diplomacy merge.