Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Banqer's Kendall Flutey on disruption, diversity and cash money

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business accelerator, Idealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. In this episode, edutech entrepreneur Kendall Flutey talks with Idealog's publisher and editorial director, Ben Fahy.

Ben Fahy, publisher and editorial director of Idealog: Kendall, money has become increasingly intangible. We're using cards and often phones rather than coins and notes to pay for things. It's very convenient, but as with all technologies, you lose something as a result of it. Many people think that kids are losing the ability to learn because they can't touch and feel. Is that something that Banqer, your system, is trying to solve?

Kendall Flutey, co-founder of financial capability tool Banqer: Certainly, I think we are one more step removed from our finances now, the concept of money is a lot more abstract than it used to be. If you can't touch something, it is a little bit less real to you. Enabling the students to experience what we experience as adults, and bringing finances right in front of the eyes instead of just seeing mum and dad swipe the EFTPOS card at supermarket; letting the kids log on and see their finances and engage with them as well, that's a really positive experience.

You started off pretty young as an entrepreneur, with a few schemes at school, I hear. Can you run us through how that started. Do you feel as though you were born an entrepreneur, or have you been made into one as you've gone on?

I'm not sure if I can give myself that title as a young kid, but I was certainly scheming often. I've shared the story in the past where I started my own wee subscription-based newsletter. The kids, [fellow] students thought it was a great idea. 20 cents is a real bargain. But parents, when they got wind of it they didn't really have the same expressions as me. My writing probably wasn't warranting 20 cents either. I also did silly things like kids did, the equivalent of the lemonade stand, I remember we were living in Australia at the time, I gathered up pretty much all of my toys, and sold them at what I'm sure is a ridiculously reduced cost than what they cost my parents for my birthday and Christmas. I was just constantly doing little things like that.

What kind of support networks did you have in place to then take that leap into starting your own business?

I guess my first foray into business was at university. I started a crash course provider where we basically gave kids access to a tutor for eight hours just before the exam, so a real crash course. That was a venture on my own with a business partner who was equally inexperienced. I think more than anything, making those mistakes early on and learning from them held me in good stead for when the real business came along. I've certainly had support along the way as I've grown the New Zealand network for entrepreneurs and startups is super evolved so I've never been shy of support.

The tech scene often comes up with ridiculous buzzwords, 'gamification' is one of them, but there is some science behind that, and you look at the way people learn when they're having fun or they're interested in something, that generally tends to stick. Can you explain how Banqer works and what the philosophy is in that regard?

Sorry to get really technical, but we wouldn't really call ourselves gamified, or gamification. We're more of a simulation, so if you've ever played The Sims or Sim City, we're kind of similar to that in that we're a mock-online-banking experience with a little bit more. You go on there as a kid and you've got access to your finances, but you can also do a lot of financial things that you don't realise like pay tax, take out a mortgage on your first property, take out insurance, and we simulate your life condensed down over the school year.

Like a better, maybe less capitalist version of Monopoly.

Yes, perhaps.

What had to happen for you to realise that the business had potential, and does it have bigger potential than just New Zealand?

So much. The whole journey I've been on was somewhat accidental, stemming from my past job as an accountant all the way to becoming a software developer, and in just a simple conversation with my brother which is what sparked all of this. Even when I intentionally took that idea that my brother essentially gave me, and wanted to intentionally do something with it I didn't have these kind of aspirations. It was when users started using it and we started hitting those milestones that we really had to take a long hard look and say ‘hey, we've got something here, what is it that we have?’ Definitely, the problem of financial literacy is borderless, so our product too can be borderless.

You see a lot of opportunism with business. I think that being able to see them and then obviously react rather than just watch them go by. Is that innate do you think, or have you had those other mentors or people to sound things off with to decide whether it's a goer?

I think it's been a bit of both. You've got to have that drive and that belief even if the steps don't stack up that week or month, but then hearing the reassurance from the mentors and advisors is really what keeps you going in there as well.

Technology is changing the way we learn, and historically it's been an industrialised system based often on rote learning. Now we see it's becoming personalised, often more fun, more creative, as you can see with things like the Khan Academy where you can learn through YouTube. What do you see as the future for education and do you think New Zealand is in a good position to ride that wave?

We're absolutely only scratching the surface in edutech here in New Zealand and globally. I would say education, along with agriculture and a few other industries, are the last tapped tech industries. We're not the first to revolutionise education, that's been done by some great systems like Khan, as you said. But I think here in New Zealand we are positioned really uniquely to run with this technology. Our schooling system and our curriculum is actually really flexible and teachers are able to pick up Banqer and give it a go in their classroom without seeking higher approval. That's pretty special and we should certainly take advantage of that here in New Zealand.

You've also taken advantage of the growing desire for companies to get involved in financial literacy from a corporate social responsibility perspective. Kiwibank in particular has come on recently and funding it into different classrooms. How important has that partnership with a big player been to show momentum and to get your secret out there?

That's been massively important to our success, to stand on their shoulders. They're Kiwi giants, and they've got a great Kiwi brand that we want to be aligned with. That was so valuable to us in the very early days and even today. Any startup would kill for that kind of exposure and we're really grateful to start forming those relationships.

You're 24 years old?

25 now.

25 now, you're female, so I guess you could say you're a little bit of an anomaly in the tech scene, and there's been a lot of discussion about that, about diversity in the tech sector. Has that hampered you in any way, have things changed recently, and what do we need to do to address that issue in the tech sector?

It's really interesting, I feel really fortunate. I attend this monthly lunch with a lot of females in tech around Canterbury. The average age is a little bit older than me, and they'll share stories of their experiences in tech as a female. Some of them are quite frankly horrific. I've never experienced any of that and I think we've had this really strong generation within the last decade or so of women who have experienced terrible things, general inequality based on their gender, and they've changed the system for me and for women after. I'm not saying it's fixed by any means, but there are a lot of programmes, processes in place to address that problem now. I'm really thankful I haven't seen the hard sides of that gender inequality.

From your experience working with other tech companies and your own business, do you feel as though New Zealand has an opportunity to become a bit of a hub for that globally?

For improving diversity?

Well, for improving diversity, but also in tech in general as an export sector ...

Oh, absolutely, I think New Zealand is your perfect wee playground for getting a product out there early and engaging with users. We've got that built into our DNA, No. 8 wire mentality, DIY, so we do also encourage others to give it a go, and we'll support them. I think we're the perfect springboard, the only problem in the equation is then ensuring you get out of New Zealand and you do export to whatever region suits your product best next.

Have you always been good with money? What's your weakness? You must have one.

I'm definitely a big saver. My weakness is that perhaps sometimes that plays out poorly into my social life. I'll forego a wine here or there, or a trip away with the girls to scrounge my money, which isn't the most exciting life.

It's often what you see successful business people doing though. They have a very specific focus, and they will often remove everything else in their life to get there.

That's good to hear it's not just me then.

There are thousands of startups trying to disrupt the big guys in banking and payments and, another abbreviation or buzzword, "fin-tech" is what it's often referred to. There's a lot of money at stake there. Is that something that you want to get involved with, an area that you maybe want to branch into?

No. We know what we're good at and we want to keep running with that. There's a lot of different ways we can branch our product though, be it through high school or young adults. Financial literacy capability is our game, and sure banks have offerings in this regard, but that's not their core product, and this is certainly our core product.

What do you see as the future of money, I read a great story actually about the co-founder of Abba, Bjorn Ulvaeus, who's currently engaged in a big battle in Sweden to completely get rid of cash. His take on it is that it's the only thing that is keeping the black market alive. Increasingly you see, as we've discussed, people using cards and phones. What do you see happening in 5, 10 years with money?

Certainly we're heading towards a cashless society globally. Culturally here in New Zealand we're moving a lot faster than say the States. We're still quite reliant on tangible cash. It is a generational thing though, I know my grandparents don't have EFTPOS cards, they actually go into a physical bank to withdraw any cash they need.

Cheques?

They use cheques, so I think the learning curve is quite steep, but as we move on as a society, that's definitely where we're heading. Phones will come into play a lot more, phones or whatever the popular device is at the time.

I guess there will always be a place for certain technologies, and they'll take longer to be removed I think than people realize. Particularly giant cheques. They'll always have a place, won't they?

They always will on a stage somewhere.

What's the one piece of advice given your experience that you would give to other people who have an idea or are, as you've said, forced into a particular idea, to make it happen?

The problem with a lot of people who do have an idea is they just leave it at that, they think the idea has some kind of inherent value. An idea, essentially, is worthless. I place no value on any ideas I have. It is the doing that matters, and the doing it well, the execution. It is literally just making   and doing it. Like us, you don't have to have the end goal in mind when you actually write the first line of code or put your team together. That can come over time but you do actually need to make a start.

Some of the fastest growing companies in the history exist at the moment. Is that a good thing for you? Are you scared of that? Is that something that you're trying to tap into?

I think it is a little bit scary that these startups are growing so rapidly because I think of the way we measure the growth and their value. Perhaps it's justified, perhaps it's not. I also think it creates a culture on raising capital very early, perhaps not so much here in New Zealand, but certainly abroad, when that's not the right step for everyone at those early stages. We shouldn't place so much value on how much capital you've raised, that shouldn't be the only measure of success. They're great goal posts for certain businesses, but not every tech startup needs to follow that mantra an go down that same path.

Is there any kind of quantifiable result that you could look at that isn't cash based, in terms of the social benefit that you can maybe provide through your service?

Absolutely, but I think the problem with any social benefits often they're hard to quantify. We've tried really hard to enable our platform to collect that data and say this is the social difference we're making this year, and projected out over 10, 20 years, this is the way it's going to affect our economy. Ensuring that you can quantify social will put it up in good stead alongside raising capital and those other metrics we use.

How has business changed in regards to releasing things in terms of products and going out to the market maybe with something that isn't fully formed, and then maybe dealing with the feedback as it comes in rather than as you said having an idea and thinking your idea has a market and then finding out it doesn't.

It's so easy and so cheap to get something off the ground now. We did it in a weekend, we started it in Startup Weekend and on Monday we had our first users. Our product looks remarkably different from that day than it does now, but that's all largely thanks to the advice and support of our users. We've crafted something with them along the way that meets the needs of our users, which is outstanding. That's exactly what you want, you want to build a product that people actually want to use to why not seek their advice. There's some issues that come along with rapid release and live iteration, yesterday we broke something on a pretty big day for us, so you do suffer those consequences.

What's the Zuckerberg quote, move fast and break things.

Yes, move fast and break things, but fix things and move faster, he forgot to add on at the end. You take the good with the bad when you're iterating like that.

We've got a reputation for invention in New Zealand that may have been slightly romanticised in the past, but do you feel as though entrepreneurism is an accepted goal for younger New Zealanders to strive for?

I think it's heading that way, but it's certainly not the default. We are still pretty risk averse, New Zealanders, we're quite straight-laced in a lot of senses, so the default would certainly be your profession, which is certainly what I fell into, and escaping that was very nice because this is what I do feel I’m meant to be doing. There's a lot more programmes out there that encourage entrepreneurship and stand it up there equivalent to the more traditional professions, doctor, lawyer, accountant, whatever it may be.

It's a pretty appealing profession in a way, I think there might be some mythology around the hero entrepreneur, but it's still making your own mark on the world and going the way that you want to rather than for a big company. I think there's inherently a New Zealand attitude to that independence that helps with that.

Absolutely, it's an incredible feeling, and in a lot of ways it's a little bit of a selfish pursuit by me and anyone else on a similar journey, in that we don't like to be a small cog in a big wheel, we'd rather scrap the wheel altogether and run or do whatever we have to to, like you say, put our own mark on the world, or more than anything, feel like I'm contributing. At other jobs I've been in, I did my work but it didn't really feel like I was making a difference. Had I been sick that day or that week would it have really mattered?  Just answering those questions I guess.

I wouldn't say selfish is the right description then.

Okay, cool.

So what is the purpose? What's the big goal that keeps you moving? Is it a "what", is it a "who", is it the people who use your product?

Increasingly so, it's becoming the users and the difference I am seeing us make. We've got some really cool data, knowing exactly the financial literacy and capability differences that we're having on a whole generation of Kiwi kids. That's exciting to make that kind of difference. I'm not driven by ... I don't have financial aspirations of my own really, it is more I enjoy doing this and I'm going to keep doing it as long as I do enjoy it.

Cheers.