Interview: Jon Richards from Compareit4me.com
Native Welshman Jon Richards is the CEO of Dubai-based financial comparison site Compareit4me.com. We talk to him about his start-up, the industry and region in which he works, and himself as an entrepreneur.
He was recently shortlisted as Expat Entrepreneur of the Year 2015 in the Entrepreneur Wales Awards. The award ceremony for the latter is set to take next month in the National Museum, Cardiff.
TD: Can you tell us a bit more about your business, please?
JR: Based in Dubai, compareit4me is the largest finance comparison site in the Middle East. We allow users in seven countries to compare financial products, such as loans or credit cards, from the leading banks in the region. We take this for granted in the UK, but in the Middle East, it’s extremely difficult to find product information and that’s where we come in.
At the same time, it gives banks access to educated users, people who are ready to start talking to them and make a decision.
We’ve just closed a $3 million round of investment from three of the largest Venture Capital funds in the region. This gives us the ability to grow quicker, expand further and add even more talent to the team.
TD: What makes it unique and appealing to your customers?
JR: We’re the only site in the Middle East dedicated solely to finance and insurance. That means we’re really able to perfect our offering which isn’t only good for the consumer, but it’s also good for the banks, because they know anyone coming to our site is looking for a finance product. I think it’s better all round for us to just be dedicated to those two things; it just keeps us focused. There are a million things we could compare, but being focused on just those two things is already paying off.
The idea is win-win for both consumers and banks. It’s a good way for users to compare financial products and get that clarity that’s so important when you need to make a financial decision. It’s free and really a ‘why wouldn’t you?’ type of product. At the same time, it gives banks access to educated users, people who are ready to start talking to them and make a decision.
TD: Why did you set it up and move to Dubai to do so?
JR: I spent around eight years working in digital in the UK, working for a range of companies from banks to job portals, mainly start-ups. I came to Dubai in 2011 to head up the digital team for propertyfinder.ae. In many ways, Propertyfinder was like start-up school. I learnt from the highs and lows and enjoyed helping the site grow and expand.
Like every other new expat to Dubai, I needed a bank account and didn’t know which bank I should go with, I didn’t know which products were right for me and there was no way of comparing finance here back then. In the UK, you wouldn’t take a financial product unless you’ve compared it.
Back in 2011, when we first launched Compareit4me, the banks weren’t fully utilising digital as a performance marketing channel. There wasn’t a great deal of product information available online so there was a gap we could fill. It’s fair to say they have subsequently changed all of that and now all the banks understand the benefits of digital and the advantages of performance based campaigns like those found with Compareit4me.
TD: How different is the tech scene there compared to Wales?
JW: The Middle East tech scene is very different. It can be challenging at times, but it does also offer up a lot of opportunities. There are a lot of sites/ideas that are live in the UK and don’t exist here yet. Coming from the UK, it took me less than a month to see that compareit4me was clearly needed.
The Middle East is currently going through a tech revolution with incubators and co-working spaces popping up all over. Dubai in particular is a great place for start-ups, and there’s a lot of talent in the region. There are numerous angel investors and VCs ready to take part in seed, through to series C and D rounds.
There are, however, far less investors when it comes to the $20 million investments. Currently, there have only been a few examples of tech exits from the region, so US investors are still not playing a huge role here. That is slowly changing as some of the larger dot coms in the region grow.
TD: When did you know you wanted to develop your own business?
JW: I started my first business when I was a teenager, and since then I’ve tried many different businesses. Some failed but some did make money. But it was the whole process, including the failures, which proved to be an amazing education. Each new business taught me something new, and I was able to take the new skills and knowledge to the next business.
TD: What motivates you to be successful?
JW: There is no one person or thing. It was just the idea of working for myself. The idea of building something and being proud of it. No matter what I did before, however much I earned, I was always driven by having my own business. I’m a product guy, I have a ton of ideas but need people around me to execute them. My dream was to be surrounded by really talented people, people who can brain storm amazing ideas and then actually put them in to play. That’s what we do now every day, which is the best feeling for an entrepreneur.
As for what keeps me going: that’s my daughter. Every early start and late night is to give her the best possible start in life.
TD: What has been your biggest win?
JW: Closing the $3 million round of investment from STC Ventures, Wamda Capital and Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority has definitely been our biggest win to date. It changes everything. Now we can go full steam ahead with all the ideas we have for new technology, marketing and expansion.
As part of our marketing efforts, we’ll continue to promote the benefits of comparing financial products to the region. We’ll be spending a significant amount of ad dollars on raising awareness around that concept, which not only helps us, but actually grows the size of the industry as a whole.
We’re already in seven countries, but will be continuing our rapid expansion and launching in more. We just want to continue doing what we’re doing and growing…and we’ve got some very big announcements to come shortly. I also think us raising money will put the spotlight on the comparison industry as a whole, and it’s never a bad thing for local and international investors to see transactions like this taking place in the region.
TD: What has been your hardest lesson to learn?
JW: We’re constantly learning and seem to find new things to challenge us every day. The hardest thing for me has been planning. I’m a product guy, a million ideas and multiple solutions for every problem, but I need people around me to execute. I hate planning; I hate budgeting and prefer to go with my gut.
This comes with problems if you don’t have people around you thinking of the long-term impact of today’s decision. Cash flow planning is one example where a lack of planning could really hurt you. Our clients often take 90 days to pay invoices. This means we have to cover expenses for at least that period and the bigger we get, the higher our account receivable becomes, the more we have to manage the cash flow.
TD: Would you do anything differently?
I would have raised money sooner. We went years bootstrapping and making do when we could have go out and killed it from day one. It’s very easy to say that now because I now release investors are keen to speak to you if you have a good idea. At the time, we thought no one would talk to us so struggled with no team and a tiny budget.
TD: Where do you see yourself in 5 and 10 years?
Having recently taken VC investment, the goal for the next 3 to 5 years is to aggressively grow the business then seek an exit, which could be through trade sale, merger or even an IPO in the Middle East. After that, I plan to return to Wales and hope to start investing in start-ups, mentoring young start-ups and creating new start-ups for myself.
TD: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to go into the tech and finance industries?
JW: Do not invest too much money until you have proof of concept. You can get a pretty good site built for very little money and prove there’s a market for your product or service. This approach allows you to fail a few times without breaking the bank. Remember that perfection is the enemy of execution when it comes to testing. The first version of compareit4me cost less than $5,000 but enabled us to generate some revenue and demonstrate a business case to investors. At that stage, you can invest in the big team, the outdoor ads and the bleeding edge tech.