Q&A with Saberr, Novastone, Finimize

Q: I’ve been reading a book called Powers of Two, and it’s about chemistry within relationships. One of the things that stuck out from that book was Steve Jobs saying that he wants to build Apple like the relationship between Lennon and McCartney because they had a certain amount of conflict as well as collaboration.

Alistair: There are two types of conflict you can have in teams. There’s constructive conflict, and there’s destructive. You want to maximise constructive conflict. That’s when you and I disagree about the approach we take but have a unified goal and respect each other, and after having this conflict there is no damage to our relationship whatsoever. This means we are more likely to get into a discussion in the future because it wasn’t painful personally. That is what you want to maximise within teams. Lennon and McCartney is an interesting one because it turned quite destructive towards the end. What you want is to have teams where there is a psychological safety to discuss these issues. There are a bunch of predictors of psychological safety – things like, do we share core values as people? Do we have the same motivations and the same understanding of what is morally right or what is a good outcome? But then we might want to maximise the different experiences we have, the different sources of information we are coming at or the different skillsets. So you want to minimise values diversity but maximise cognitive diversity, and that produces that beautiful conflict state that we’re looking for.

Q: In some organisations, you actually need to create disharmony to identify which are the elements you need to get rid of. It’s not always easy to form a pure external analysis without understanding what the company needs to do to succeed in the marketplace.

Alistair: Yeah, I agree. This is one of the reasons we broadened into team development rather than team design, which is to say there are more than relationships at play that create a successful team. One of the things that all of the research agrees on is that if the teams have clear goals and a unified purpose, they will be more successful. In the process of agreeing what your purpose is and defining your goals, you weed out the people who don’t agree with the direction the company is going. Now sometimes it’s not a case of weeding them out, it’s a case of making sure everybody is aligned. But sometimes if the direction that people are aligning around doesn’t fit with someone else then they have the questions of is this where I want to be, or do I want to be somewhere else? So I absolutely agree, it’s not just about the relationship.

Q: Could your learnings and practices apply to teams of consumers as much as it does to teams of employees?

Alistair: I think the important thing is to understand what is a team and what is not a team. With consumers it’s an individual – can I change my individual behaviour, can I do the individual things that will make me more successful. We’re not focused on individuals at all, we’re focused very much on teams where people have to work together in order to achieve a particular goal. Now, if your goal in your personal life is to lose weight, helping the people around you understand what your goal is will be useful. But unless they are also working towards that same goal – which is your weight loss – it will be difficult for them to really help you do that. So we’re focused on environments where you have collaborative teams and people need to work together towards the same goal, rather than an individual person with an aspiration.

Q: Max, you clearly built an impressive following within a specific demographic. What were the things that contributed most to people’s love of the Finimize brand? How did you identify the things that people really love and then extrapolate those to maximise your following?

Max: It’s a good question. The short answer is that I don’t know. First of all, I have no experience in brand whatsoever. Again, that was one of those things that I thought was a soft area. I think what resonated with people was that one of the mantras we have at Finimize is ‘eat your own dog food’. So if we don’t use our own product, why would anybody else. We became very focused on how we can make this more interesting. Then one of the things that we really try to push for is just to embrace reality. One of the things specifically with what we’re doing was finance and personal finance is pretty dull for most people. We never set out to make it super sexy or exciting. Everyone kind of wants to understand it, but people aren’t willing to sit down on a Sunday and really understand it over a couple of hours, so maybe every day we can fit into their habits. That’s why, for example, we just have three minutes every day that it takes to read the newsletter, and that’s why we’re also designing the platform in a way that makes it a bit more snackable. Embracing that fact and not saying hey we’re just going to take this and we’re going to make it super exciting – but saying you know what, it is pretty dull and we’re not going to make it less dull, but we’re going to make it more digestible and more accessible and try to help you that way. I think that’s one of the things that seems to have worked very well. Then I think the other thing is just being super, super user-centric. Again, nothing super controversial, but some of the people that we hire specifically for content and substance side are from very corporate backgrounds, from large banks. They came up to me and said you guys are super obsessed with your users, why does it matter that you answer an email within a couple of hours? I think these tiny little things add up. Again, a very small example is that anyone can write me an email. I give out my phone number in the welcome email. Stuff like that. I don’t get a lot of phone calls from users. I get the occasional text message. But it shows we’re humans, which is unusual in the finance space. These small things that we try out that make us a bit more accessible seem to have worked really well.  

Q: You’ve all talked about your products, which are cutting edge and ahead of what the market wants and recognises it needs. And you’ve talked about issues around how do we get people to understand or how do you make that first sale. Is it luck that you get that first sale or is it tenacity, and what have you actually done to make those things happen?

Douglas: Yeah, every time it’s like fighting a war. You’re poking across in a lot of different places and trying to find a place to transition. There’s a book called Crossing the Chasm by Jeffrey Moore in the ‘90s talking about the days of enterprise sales in its glory where you find a beachhead across a chasm, and you’d own that beachhead and spread left and right down the coast. For me, the very first business was about backup infrastructure, but I had a second product when I first started selling in that company. I thought that was the one that was going to make me the money, but it turned out the people I was talking to were much more interested in the backup software. So I dropped the first product and I focused on the second one. The second business I had a product that was too far ahead of its time. People didn’t have the budget for it, they didn’t know how to buy it, we did not know how to sell it perhaps. Then we had a meeting with PC World Business and transformed it dramatically and pivoted the whole business, then we tested it with every retailer, and every retailer said we have the same problem. Originally I was thinking about how women shop, actually. I’m generalising here. Women shop in a social way. Women enjoy shopping the way men enjoy winter rugby matches, except they come back with something tangible and the men come home smelling and having spent a lot of money on beer. It was about that social side, but there was no money in fashion. I turned around to my own personal relationship with my banker and said there’s a customer service industry that is willing to pay money to solve compliance issues and cost of engagement issues. I would say that every time it has been a bit of luck, but also tenacity – looking across for that spot where we’re going to cross the chasm.

Alistair: Our first sale was in cash. We had done this experiment in Seedcamp, presented our results in front of a whole bunch of people. Someone came up to us afterwards and asked if we could profile this candidate he was about to hire. And we said, oh no we’re still in development and we don’t want to do it. He pulled out cash from his wallet and he said, profile my candidate. So we took this cash and we’re were like, alright. I guess we can do that. We were really focused on whether the product worked – is it robust enough, can we trust the outcome. But we kept doing these showman stunts where we kept trying to showcase it in a very public forum. Some people kept coming up to us afterwards and asking us to do this for them and take their cash. Of course, we now take a more structured approach to sales. But the early ones, we weren’t focused on selling at all. We were interested in showcasing the effectiveness of what we were doing. I think where you can show value, you will generate sales.

Q: Do you ever worry about the mental health impact of what you are doing if a person gets pulled up as being the weak link? Maybe there is more going on than just the numbers.

Alistair: Yes, absolutely. This is another reason that we shifted very much from this judgment model where we were judging or assessing how good you were to this other model. So now our product CoachBot doesn’t judge you at all, as an individual or as a team. If you’re one of the worst teams in the company, if you’re really terrible at goal setting, rather than scoring them as a 2/10 on goal setting, we just say that one of the areas you could benefit from is setting clearer goals, here’s how you can do that. So the best teams in the organisation, all they want to know is what they can do to stretch themselves and be better. The very worst teams in the organisation want the same thing. So, you’re absolutely right. Every time we introduce judgment into grading people at work, it has a detrimental impact on all sorts of things, particularly performance. This is why a lot of large organisations are throwing out performance management systems at the moment. 

Q: This is a question for Max. If you’re answering phone calls or emails, how are you going to scale up the business? It seems to me that it is going to go big.

Max: One of my favourite stats is that the founder of WhatsApp handled customer requests up until they had 150 million users. If he can do that, then I think we’re very away from reaching that point.

Q: One more for Alistair. You mentioned how your products are used by businesses to look at employees, but can you use it the other way around for people to rate businesses and see where they might best fit in? 

Alistair: We’re talking to a couple of companies who place candidates into organisations to do just that. Again, I think the direction we’re really pushing for is less about matchmaking now and more about being in a situation and how you can make the best out of it. For us as a team, that’s the most exciting prospect.

Q: Alistair, is this platform not just a reinterpretation of traditional psychometric testing?

Alistair: No. Traditional psychometric testing is very much about an individual, understanding in as much detail as you possibly can about the individual. There are two types of model. There’s a type-based model like Myers-Briggs where you are a type. And then there’s the trait-based model where you have different traits that define your character. The type-based model has a lot of problems because Douglas and I might be the same type, but we would have a very different relationship with another person. So the type-based model fails to understand the differences between us and the differences in the relationships we form. The trait-based model is much better because it can understand in more granularity who we are as individuals. But that’s where the similarities between what we do and what other providers do stops. We focus on the relationships between people, not the characteristics that define you. We focus on what is it that is going to make Douglas and I work well together and what is it that will make Douglas and I struggle to work well together.

Q: If there’s a missing link, can you find the missing link in terms of the dynamics of the team?

Alistair: You can. You can say to a team that it looks like you’re struggling with this process. None of the people in your team are particularly process-minded. But the point, again, is not to point out the flaws and inadequacies in the individual or team. For us now, the focus is about how we can take this group of people and make them the very best version of themselves. That for me is the most exciting application of AI or machine learning or any technology – not to judge us as humans, but to empower us.

Q: Max, what in reality is the age demographic? Is it really advice for the new generation?

Max: Our core target group is people in their late twenties and early thirties. They make up the majority. But we have kids who are twelve in school all the way to – this is kind of a funny story. A hedge fund manager in New York gave us a call on a Friday, or his hectic analyst set up the call. Then the first attempt he didn’t show up, then the second attempt he showed up. He said that he had just found us and that he had been in this business for 25 years. He works on Wall Street, he has his own hedge fund, he manages $5bn in assets. He wanted to tell us that he has access to all of the information in the world, but that what we produce every day is the best thing he’s come across. That was crazy to us. We have quite a lot of these very, very, very senior people who read us every single day, but that’s not our target group, and it’s not really who we are aiming for.

Q: How is it in reality utilised? Is it just great as an application tool or is it the new platform for financial advise for millennials?

Max: We have these two products right now. We have the newsletter, and then we have the platform. The platform is still in testing mode. The idea is basically that we educate you and get you interested in the world of finance through the daily newsletter and slowly onboard you into the world of finance. Then on the platform, the idea is to concrete how we can help you and sort out your own finances. It’s very much about educating and then providing the tools to actually help you. Today what you can do is go on a price comparison site, and if you click on a savings account it tells you there are ten different savings accounts, and you’ve already lost any interest in pursuing that. We want to go beyond the educational part and say specifically that this decision makes sense in your case. So it’s education and then execution.

Q: Does that fall into the category of advice?

Max: Good question. The short answer is no. It’s considered guidance if you want to use the legal terms. That is currently one of the things that we’re exploring because the model we are proposing is quite new in terms of the nature of the model.

Q: This is for Alistair. Who functions as the main buyers for Saberr in a business?

Alistair: I think there are two main buyers within organisations. There is the learning and development department, which sits within HR, and HR more broadly, whose job it is to centrally help the teams within an organisation. They have the big budgets and can say that this is a programme that they would like to send out to their employees. That can come from that L&D function, sometimes it comes from the C-suite or other centralised management functions, but most often learning and development. The other buyer is managers who think it would be great to help their team perform better and become more unified. But we see most of our business come from the central functions.

Q: Do you think culture is understood by HR, and if not then by whom in the business?

Alistair: Well, the culture of any company is simply the addition of all of the individuals within that company. It is heavily influenced by senior figures within the organisation. In younger companies, it’s very heavily influenced by the founders or the early employees within the business. In larger organisations that have been around for a lot longer, one of the challenges they find is how does senior leadership influence the culture of the business because it really is owned by the employee base. So one of the things that we are trying to help companies do is to view their culture as a team of teams, rather than this lumbering thing that kind of has no meaning to anyone. Instead, let’s start at the team level because that’s where things get done and also where things get undone. So let’s focus there and get each team performing at their best, and will cascade up into creating a good culture. If you combine that with some top-down clarity then you can really do good things.