Entrepreneurship

I Started the 'Bank of the Future' While Still in School. Here's What I Learned


The FLIP bank website

The FLIP bank website

A certain school of thought holds that going to business school is a waste of time and money if you want to start a company, soaking up scarce resources better used to get your idea off the ground.

In some situations, this is undoubtedly true. But an MBA program accelerated my startup by giving me analytical skills and global connections that opened doors to potential investors, partners, and customers.

My business partner and I met during our MBA studies and quickly discovered a shared interest in using the latest digital tools to help people manage their finances. As our discussions continued—in and out of the classroom—we thought about what the “bank of the future” would offer and the role it could play in the lives of customers.

Before long, we were using what we learned in class to start a new retail bank in Europe. There, poor customer satisfaction and a lack of innovation had left an opening for smaller, more agile financial institutions. What began as an academic exercise became real in 2013, when we decided to leave the corporate world and focus on building our company, FLIP, while finishing our coursework. Here are some of the lessons we learned along the way.

Assume Nothing
An MBA helps sharpen your ability to spot opportunities, but having a great idea is just the beginning. To prove our business case, we went to summer school—specifically, the Entrepreneurship Summer School offered by London Business School. The program paired us with a mentor who encouraged the use of market research to test our idea.

What we discovered was reassuring. While nearly 80 percent of people regularly use digital banking tools, the majority visit a physical branch only a few times a year. This behavior encouraged us to build a bank for today’s mobile consumers with such features as an app that lets customers upload checks without physically depositing them (commonplace in the U.S. but largely unavailable in Europe), and software that will use past behavior to predict if you’ll run short in your account.

Design Matters
Becoming an entrepreneur is inherently risky. In fact, recent research by Shikhar Ghosh at Harvard Business School found that 75 percent of startups fail. And this doesn’t include those that never get off the ground because they couldn’t scrape up initial capital.

Raising money is not just about having an innovative concept; it’s also convincing investors that you have the ability to execute. One simple way to stack the (PowerPoint) deck in your favor is to recognize the importance professional design can play in showcasing your idea.

We asked our school’s marketing professors to introduce us to a few small, local agencies and independent designers. I recommend this approach—often these people are looking for projects that will help them branch out from a particular industry and will team up with you for little or no cost.

Having a polished identity and consistent brand not only gave us confidence in front of investors and partners, but also demonstrated to them that thought had gone into every detail.

Leverage Networks
We constantly reached out to alumni and were frequently surprised by the amount of support they offered. These alumni meetings forced us to explain our concept repeatedly and answer tough questions from experienced professionals. This nearly constant pitching helped refine our approach, even paving the way for connections to potential partners and investors.

A tip: While most business schools have online alumni portals, the information contained may be out of date, and sometimes people do not check the associated e-mail. We had the most success using LinkedIn (LNKD), filtering by school and e-mailing individuals in related industries directly.

Travis LedwithPhotograph courtesy of Stern AssociatesTravis Ledwith

We are still raising the funding needed to launch FLIP, because bank regulations require a sizable pile of capital before you can even approach the central bank in each country to begin the licensing process. Once we have the funds necessary, we plan to start in Ireland and then roll out across Europe.

While building a company is certainly not for the faint of heart, having the right MBA program behind you can prepare you for the roller-coaster life of an entrepreneur, where your ability to analyze complex situations quickly with limited information can mean the difference between success and failure. Besides, it doesn’t hurt of have an alumni network to tap for expertise—and money.

Ledwith is co-founder of FLIP Bank and 2014 graduate of the Global Executive MBA offered jointly by Columbia Business School, London Business School, and the University of Hong Kong. Follow Travis on Twitter @TravisLedwith.

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