We spoke to Liberac CEO Sulu Fiti about the importance of mentors, business with a cause and the underrated art of the pivot.
Idealog: So what is Liberac? What are you trying to do here?
Sulu Fiti: My intention with Liberac was to be part of the global sea change to lower remittance costs in the Pacific Islands, using innovative technology. Our initial focus was to use Samoa as a testing ground, before expanding out to Tonga, Fiji, and further afield.
Also, there is a dearth of Pasifika people who are leading businesses here in New Zealand, particularly in the fintech space. Hopefully other Pacific Islanders can be inspired by our journey at Liberac, and start putting their creative minds towards creating innovative business ventures.
I come from a culture where education is - quite rightly - valued very highly. Where the traditional fields of medicine, law, and accounting are the marquee occupations that are at the forefront of Pacific Island parents’ hopes for their children. I know that jumping into the startup scene doesn’t command quite the same cachet within our culture, but that is changing. It’d be encouraging to see that mind shift gradually move to where the alternate routes for younger Pacific Islanders are just as valued as those more vaunted traditional paths.
Who’s on the team?
Liberac consists of myself, and my co-founder Adiraj Gupta - he came on board just two days prior to the start of the accelerator, after my two previous co-founders pulled out. I literally met Adi the day that we signed the contract to join the accelerator. It was a bit of a roller coaster of highs and lows before even starting the accelerator, but I got there in the end. It’s all part of the journey.
Speaking of which, how did you come to participate in the accelerator?
I’d been wanting to get back into the startup scene for a while, after a previous foray a few years ago. I came across the Kiwibank Fintech Accelerator via my tiny tech bubble in Twitter, as it’s the only social media platform where I have a presence. In August last year I started exploring blockchain, and became excited about its potential for enterprise. My research led me to a company called Everex, who are doing some interesting things in the cross-border payments space, and that piqued my interest about doing something similar in the Pacific Islands. I also went through an online pre-accelerator validation course that was run by the fantastic Natalie Robinson of Mum’s Garage. Her continued and ongoing support has been tremendous.
What benefits have you found participating in the accelerator?
Just having exposure to a huge network of people and resources that I wouldn’t normally have access to has been incredible. We’ve been mentored by leading industry figures, introduced to investors, other startup founders, and the government agencies that we have dealt with have had the Kiwibank Fintech Accelerator on their radar - making the process of working with them much easier.
There has also been a huge amount of support and help from the Creative HQ team, and those associated with the accelerator. In particular, programme director Kristen Lunman has been fantastic and Rick Brown has been our 'guiding light’ mentor throughout this experience. Special mention must go out to Kiwibank, and their digital advisor Peter Fletcher-Dobson - they have some great people working for them, and have been a pleasure to work with.
So what did you actually learn from all this?
As much as building a fintech business, the Kiwibank Fintech Accelerator has helped build founders. So my biggest learning was developing and honing those particular founder/leadership skills which has put me in good stead going forward.
As a result of this, having the confidence and clarity to make the call to pivot from our original idea just the week prior to Demo Day made that decision much easier. It was a tough decision, but in the end, it is one the I believe was the right one, and one that I’m entirely comfortable having made. Failing fast is all part of the journey, and embracing that philosophy has been liberating. I’ve been involved with a startup in the past where I held on until it crashed and burned. So, lesson learned.
What's the secret to getting a viable fintech project off the ground in such a short time?
There is no secret - just hard work, tenacity, focus, momentum and having a dedicated team that can execute. Also being clear and decisive, so that if, like I did, you decide to pivot, then you do so from a place of strength.