Douglas Orr: Novastone

By 2014/2015, the world of chat had taken over my life. I love how it brings people emotionally closer together than email, and the less effort it takes to engage with chat. Why can’t we bring that to banking? It turns out there were like 15-20 reasons why.


His lessons from failing fast. Douglas explained how instant messaging technology brings people closer together and keeps conversations secure in industries like finance and healthcare. He shared his inspiring story, from humble beginnings selling computer products, to building and selling a £11m company and now taking on the next challenge: Moving conversations out of the mailbox and finding smarter ways to communicate. 


Douglas started out studying how to build silicon chips but ended up with 8” floppy discs by the time he graduated – that’s how fast technology was moving. He could see how personal computers could soon disrupt IBM System/360 mainframe computers, and so he decided to disrupt his life. He moved from Toronto to Sweden and found a position working in the emerging field of banking technology. After working for several large corporate companies and feeling like the third violin in a large orchestra, he noticed how routing technology was disrupting the industry once again – and he decided to strike out on his own. 

So what was happening with hard drives? At that time, it cost $5,000 for 10GB at a 50% margin, but this was changing fast. In other words, data storage was experiencing exponential growth, but the tools were still archaic. Douglas approached a Californian company with the aim of becoming a distributor for Norway and soon started outselling the established channels as a one-man shop. Lagato caught wind of this and made him their distributor, and before long Douglas was outperforming distributors in the other neighbouring countries put together. Back them, distribution of computer products was based on selling thousands of units at a low margin – but he had three or four product lines with high margins. They had a growth margin of 35%, which was remarkable for a distribution business. He ended up selling the company for £11m before becoming an angel investor.

He invested in several companies – some went bust, some took off. One of these companies had potential, but there were issues with the people. During the administration process, he took out the IP he was interested in. The software was built to find information on the web the same was a human does. This was pre-AI. Douglas sold the technology into healthcare and eventually modified the offering for Dixons. This led them to develop a SaS model and become the leading provider of pricing intelligence, with John Lewis as their biggest client. They exited the market six years ago to GFK.

This might sound like a lot of pivots – and that’s exactly the point. Douglas has moved at an extraordinary pace, keeping up with industry changes to distribute and develop new technology. His latest venture came after frustrations with transferring money to his mother, who lives in Canada. After months of accepting this transaction, one day he received a security check phone call from the bank asking him to confirm that he wanted to make this transfer. The problem? Banks no longer trust email. 


Douglas partnered with a friend who had just left Barclays and together they set up Novastone. He wanted to use everything he loves about instant messaging (that it brings people closer together and takes minimum effort) and come up with a solution to replace email. It turns out there were 15-20 reasons why they can’t use instant messaging in the finance sector, mostly to do with compliance. After six months of studying security architecture and the solutions needed for them to be accepted, they launched with a product and made their first sale last year.

They are now working with banks to help evolve communication, embrace new media channels and improve operations by taking conversations out of the mailbox. This means bringing platforms like WeChat and WhatsApp into the mix and integrating them with CRM systems – basically replacing paperwork and reducing workload. In Asia, it’s commonplace for bankers to use instant messaging like WhatsApp, and the banks turn a blind eye. But what if the software was approved? One bank in the UK tested Novastone with their clients in a FTSE 100 company and found a 100% move away from email in 90 days and a drop in telephone calls. That's a huge shift in productivity.


Novastone is currently working to introduce secure messaging to banking and healthcare. They aim to deepen and enhance valuable relationships within organisations, reducing paperwork and ultimately moving away from email as a primary means of communication. At the end of his talk, Douglas shared three lessons that helped him disrupt: fail fast, be tenacious and have courage.