FinTech Market Analyst at Relevant Software

Startups Stories: From Idea to Paying Customers

December 23, 2022

Relevant Founders

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Have you ever wondered how the products and services you use daily came to be? Whether it’s the difficulty of getting funding or the need to rebrand, startups rarely succeed overnight. But our guests’ entrepreneurial success stories highlight the resilience, creativity, and, in some cases, luck that has helped them stand out from thousands of other offerings on the market.

If you’re ready for entrepreneurial inspiration, keep reading the startup backstories. These help you in several ways: you see how other entrepreneurs think and approach their startups, and you can evaluate the strategies they used to build their businesses.

Meet our guest speakers 

David Haines Co-founder and CTO at SteelEye. London-based regtech startup SteelEye provides a holistic compliance platform for record keeping, trade and communications surveillance, and intelligent insights for regulated financial services firms. The platform helps capture, index, and analyze vast volumes of clients’ structured and unstructured data. 

Matt LaceyCo-Founder and Head of Development at Proximity Insight which brings tools to empower sales associates, uplifting sales across all channels. Their clienteling solution is specifically designed to fit within the retail space, prompting associates as to when and how they should engage with customers to nurture relationships.

Bo JiangCo-founder and CEO of Lithic. Lithic encompasses two business lines. Privacy.com is a service that helps customers protect their online payments and block hidden charges. With Privacy, users can generate unique card numbers to mask their true financial information at checkout and avoid fraud. Sister company Lithic provides card issuing APIs so developers can build custom card products for various use cases, such as corporate cards, rewards programs, payouts, Buy Now Pay Later, and custom-branded card programs.

Startup aim: to innovate and create new categories of goods and services

Launching a tech startup has always been a hit-or-miss proposition. According to the decades-old formula, founders write a business plan, introduce a product, pitch it to investors, assemble a team, and start selling as hard as possible. Therefore, our first question to our speakers was about the purpose of their products.

David Haines

“SteelEye’s mission is to make it easier for our clients to accurately comply with regulations that have been designed to build confidence and trust in the financial markets. Our comprehensive RegTech suite covers trade surveillance, communications capture and surveillance, best execution and transaction cost analysis, record keeping, trade reconstruction, eDiscovery, MiFIR reporting, and analytics.”

Matt Lacey

“Proximity Insight helps you to get closer to your customers. Our end-to-end connected retail solution allows brands to equip their teams with the tools to personalize, surprise, and delight customers wherever they are and wherever they want to shop. We help smooth the jagged line between physical and digital channels allowing teams to get to know their customers and build even stronger customer relationships on the Salesforce platform.”

Bo Jiang

“In 2014, three friends – Jason, David, and I – had an idea for building an easier and safer way for people to shop online. That idea became Privacy.com, which today is the leading provider of virtual cards to consumers in the US. A couple of years after that, we realized that other companies and neo-banks needed this, too, so we decided to launch the platform we had built for Privacy as its own business called Lithic. With backing from our investors, we’ve doubled down to build the fastest, simplest card-issuing tools so developers can programmatically create virtual and physical payment cards and monitor their transactions.”

Working on a cool idea is easy. It’s much more difficult to turn an idea into a profitable business model.

Way to the first MVP

The key factor distinguishing startups from other companies: is speed and growth. Startups aspire to build on ideas very quickly. They often do this through iteration, constantly improving products through feedback and usage data. Usually, a startup launch begins with a basic product skeleton called a minimal viable product (MVP) that will be tested and revised until it’s ready to go to market. We were extremely interested in how our guests approached this process. And here’s what we found out.

Matt Lacey

“We quickly realized that many retailers need help to get customer information promptly on the shop floor, there’s often a green screen system behind the counter doing everything via a terminal, and sometimes old backends slow the uptake of newer technology. 

We then thought: Rather than popping things up automatically with beacons, just let them get to customer information where they need it. That’d be a good start”. And we threw an email tool into that. We wrote the first lines of code for our solution in 2015. We built the initial version over three to four months; it was reasonably fast. Then we officially launched MVP with our first customer.” 

Bo Jiang

“In building our consumer virtual card product, we had to build a lot of payments infrastructure for generating card numbers, PCI compliance, transaction processing, ledgering, and interfacing with the various payment networks and banks. But when we had to move from one client to multiple clients and support a wide range of use cases, it took a lot of effort.”

David Haines

“While working in the global engineering group for a large asset holding company and trying to find solutions to the complex regulatory challenges we were facing, we (original co-founders of SteelEye) discovered that there was no data-centric solution to compliance available in the market. Yet, the core of all regulatory obligations is the need to collect, analyze and store huge amounts of data for accounting, reporting, oversight, and control. 

So we set up SteelEye and started building our own data platform on top of ElasticSearch. This is the heart of the SteelEye platform, which at its core is an extremely powerful canonical data model, and, secondary, a regtech platform that uses that data. About a year after launching commercially,  we were able to complete our first contract with our very first client.”

Launching an MVP allows you to conduct a thorough market analysis before starting the development. This way, you can eliminate the risk of investing your effort and money into a failure. Review how Relevant helped with the full-stack development of a startup SaaS company’s MVP.

How Are Startups Funded?

Raising funding for a startup is one of the most exciting and challenging moments in a company’s life. The entrepreneur is looking for investors, loans, grants, and other forms of funding to help his business grow. If successful, the startup receives capital to continue building its products or delivering new customer features. If not, then it disappears. We asked our guests how they attracted investors, and that’s what we discovered.  

Matt Lacey

“We needed the funds to pay for development. And we’ve been in contact with a few retailers; we went out to them and said, “If you pay us $50,000, you can come in on this pilot scheme and help inform this roadmap as we build this thing.” And we gave them a deadline saying, “You need to sign up by this date.” It was a completely artificial deadline, but it forced people to decide. And two out of the four people we approached went for it. They paid us probably four times as much as initial license revenue would have been”.

Bo Jiang

“Since launching Lithic, the demand for our API platform has grown by leaps and bounds. We’ve raised over $100 million across four financing rounds. From the beginning, we’ve been fortunate to have investors who believe in what we are building and are in it for the long term.”

David Haines

“In September, we closed our series B funding of $21M, taking our total raised capital to $43M. I am so proud of everyone at SteelEye and what we have achieved together. With our latest cash injection, we look to expedite our growth, particularly in global markets such as North America.”

There are many paths to funding a startup, many of which vary based on the founders’ experience level and track record. And, of course, luck.

The startup dilemma: should they outsource software development?

The answer varies from industry to industry, company to company, and person to person. While outsourcing can be cheaper and more efficient, an in-house model can provide more direct control over day-to-day operations. Still, there are countless stories of business owners realizing that they should have outsourced sooner and taken advantage of time, money, and energy savings. Let’s see what choice our guests made.

Bo Jiang

“The classic challenge you face as an early-stage startup is having a high-quality team. You’re very resource-constrained as a startup, so you can’t pay as much money as bigger companies. You need to find people who believe in what you’re doing and are willing to take that leap of faith.

Аt the first six years of our company life, we were about 30 people; we hired very slowly. Despite talent being evenly distributed worldwide, most of our team today is in the US.” 

Matt Lacey

“When we started, there were three of us involved. And we had other people come in and out of the first few years, but I was the primary developer for the first three or four years of that product. We were always, at most, two developers on the team for the initial period. Even now, we’re a relatively small team. It’s six or seven developers in total. That’s something that’s quite a big concern for us at the moment to get more developers in.”

David Haines

“We’ve had decent luck finding talent in the UK, but it is a very small subset of our roles. We have a far greater applicant pool in India and Portugal. So mainly, we’ve been focused on our offshore locations. 

We have used external talent companies from time to time throughout our history. There have been a lot of lessons learned for us around this, and one of the biggest sticking points is integration. We have had situations where employees of an external company were an extension of our team and even joined stand-ups. But in some cases, employees preferred a weekly black box to catch up.”

Not all companies require outsourcing, and not all need full-time, in-house staff. It all depends on your specific business needs. For example, you can have an offshore team working on some tasks and an in-house team working on the core of your solution. Read our guide on how to outsource software development in the right way.

Plans for the future

As they grow, many startups launch new products and/or services that expand their business offerings. It sounds obvious and simple, but scaling will cost you time, money, or both. However, this investment means that your tool will now be of interest to more potential future customers.

Bo Jiang

“We recently launched Lithic Send – a new suite of products designed for companies looking for faster and more flexible ways to build card disbursement programs. Using Lithic Send, you can create custom payout solutions for many use cases with fewer resources and partnerships and on a much faster timeline.

But Lithic Send is just the beginning of our strategy to standardize how all kinds of card programs are built and implemented. Our next set of products will focus on streamlining programs with different fund flows and funding models. We plan to release additional products and features to reduce the time and money required to bring your custom card programs to market.”

David Haines

“There are always new regulations in our changing space – it is not static. And our clients and prospects naturally need to keep pace. Along the way, there will be continued interest in holistic surveillance, like consolidating all the siloed compliance systems and the associated staff into more of a single system. We focus on the best-in-class products we’ve built, making them even stronger. With AI and ML already within the platform, we can tap into their capabilities in the surveillance space.”

Matt Lacey

“Many of our early adopters are still our clients, and we have onboarded many more customers across the retail sector. Our goal of being the #1 clienteling platform on Salesforce has been achieved, and innovation continues to be at the core of everything we do. We have expanded our feature set through digital retailing and mPOS to be the best digital retail platform in the Salesforce ecosystem.”

Technology makes it easier and cheaper to scale a business. You can achieve huge economies of scale and greater productivity with less labor if you invest wisely. Contact us to know how Relevant helps companies to scale with technology.

Founders’ tips: filter advice, check the market and invest time in your employees

Regardless of the industry, the world of startups and businesses is filled with inspiring and unique stories. Whether you’re a startup founder or just interested in the startup industry, learning from those who paved the way that exists today can be one of the most powerful tools for success.

Bo Jiang

“There’s no shortage of advice, but the advice is always contextual. People often advise with a high degree of confidence, but every situation is unique. My second tip is about commitment. Startups are a long game. To build something meaningful, you should be committed for 5-10 years.”

Matt Lacey

“Look at the market and identify your competitors in that vertical space. You must take this into account. But I would also look into what integrations are needed to get your solution up and running. For example, it’s convenient to have a turnkey solution that doesn’t require a bunch of integrations and professional services to work around it. As a customer, you can sign up, and it’s up and running; you might have a few setup bits to do and to configure a few things to match your business. But essentially, you’re up and running in a couple of hours.”

David Haines

“The first tip is to be prepared to invest your time in your team. Like Arjun Shivraj, the Head of our India Operations, recently reminded me, “You can teach skills but can’t teach a good attitude.” Therefore, it is very important to determine from the very beginning whether the person corresponds to your corporate culture and whether they have the right fit. 

You have to empower good engineers; they have to feel responsible and equally accountable. Be patient because the payoffs can be huge if you do it right.”

If you take away only one thing from this article, let it be this: believe in yourself and seize the opportunity as soon as you see it, as our guest speakers did.

Written by
FinTech Market Analyst at Relevant Software
Featured in Fintech Top 100 Influencers by Onalytica. I'm keen on constant exploring the FinTech sector and am eager to talk with market players. At Relevant, we partner with FinTech companies to help them launch MVP fast, build scalable solutions and set up a dedicated engineering team.

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