Simon Dixon is a former banker who decided to leave the murky world of investment banking to lead a new peer-to-peer crowdfunding platform, aimed at helping businesses to raise donations, equity and debts from consumers and investor.
Now, after being shortlisted by Sir Richard Branson in his Virgin Unite 'Screw Business as Usual' competition, Dixon speaks to Huff Post UK about using angel investors, regulatory hurdles and what motivates him to keep going.
Take us back to the beginning; how did you start?
Seven years ago, I’d spent years in investment banking and had met lots of chief executives and venture capitalists and eventually decided I was on the wrong side of the desk and quit. Just like that.
Initially I launched a training company and got invited to lots of univerisities to talk about investments and where banking was going wrong - at first professors didn't really get what I was saying, and then the crisis really hit.
After a lot of talking, my wife and I decided we wanted to go back into the banking space to help entrepreneurs, but we realised that would need a huge amount of cash that we didn’t have, so we had to scale it back a notch.
We decided we wanted to take the processes bankers use, strip out the cost and make getting funding more accessible to SMEs.
What happened next?
I spent two years trying to get the relevant regulations! There were two spaces we were interested in; crowd funding where companies offer rewards to those who donate to their companies, and crowd investing where they offer shares in the business for much bigger sums.
The interesting thing is there’s no real concrete regulatory regime for crowd lending - it's always been governed by the Office for Fair Trade, but not the FSA.
We’re actually part of a group setting up a self-regulatory authority for peer-to-peer lending.
How did you secure the funding to set up your own business?
I set that up with all my own money, we just came out with what the market wanted and built revnue off the back of it, which led to growth and angel investors.
That was good initially, but a week before we launched they changed the terms to say they wanted one third more of the shares for half the price of the original ones, so I politely declined the offer and put out a few private pitches and raised the money separately.
What’s your view on banks and the ongoing row over lending to SMEs?
Banks were never supposed to lend to start-ups. Most businesses are started using credit cards secured by income and using property.
What hurdles have you faced in setting up your business?
There hasn’t been a single week without a hurdle – that’s what business is. Everybody looking to go into business needs a team around them who can overcome immense challenges.
For us, we had no credibility, no finance and no products initially and for three years everything’s against you and the whole world hates you.
When you’re in a business that deals with money, you have to navigate your way through compliance and regulations, and handle money in a responsible way.
There’s a technical challenge too in terms of getting the banking processes right and putting the whole venture online.
BankToTheFuture began with a pitch, then we got a team around us and the resources, expertise and finance followed.
What do you consider to be your biggest successes?
We’ve had more than £100,000 pledged through the platform to help SMEs – we had our first customer come on who wanted to put in an event in Sheffield, and decided to crowdfund to fund it. We were able to help them put on their event.
A second project saw our platform raise more than £10,000 in shares in a company that helps [police officers and ex armed forced to move into business after they lose their jobs – that felt good too.
What advice would you give to others?
If you’re looking to move into a money business, you need to make sure you’re sensitive and that you recruit a team that are used to such a compliance-filled arena. Finance is probably not an area you should move into as your first entrepreneurial adventure!
Also, you can’t be in this for the money – it’s about having the opportunity to build a financial future, and if you can do that without feeling like it’s work that’s a nice motivator.
But for me, the main motivator is making a big difference to others – and knowing that I couldn’t do what I’m doing in the framework of a big corporate institution.
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