Founding WIRED 2014's Winner, with Mutaz Qubbaj, Founder @ Squirrel

Summary Notes


In this episode of the 20 Minutes VC, host Harry Stebbings interviews Mutaz Qubbaj, the MIT-educated founder of Squirrel, a financial wellbeing platform designed to help employees manage their finances directly from their payroll. Qubbaj, with a background in investment banking at prestigious firms like Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, transitioned to entrepreneurship, driven by a desire for more fulfilling work. He discusses the challenges of leaving a secure job for the uncertain entrepreneurial life and the value of immersing oneself in the entrepreneurial community. Qubbaj also shares insights from his experience with the Barclays Techstars accelerator, emphasizing the importance of mentorship, aligning with accelerators that truly accelerate startup growth, and the necessity of constant fundraising. With recent accolades like Wired 2000 and Pitch at the Palace, and a successful funding round of over 1.1 million pounds, Qubbaj and Squirrel are on a mission to scale globally and assist people in achieving financial freedom.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Mutas Kubaj and Squirrel

  • Mutas Kubaj is the founder of Squirrel, a financial wellbeing platform.
  • Squirrel helps employees manage their finances by partnering with employers.
  • The platform addresses issues in payday loan and overdraft markets.
  • Mutas Kubaj has a background in finance and technology, with experience at Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and Pimco.
  • Mutas is an alum of Techstars London and has received recognition from Wired 2000 and Pitch at the Palace.

"So I'm delighted to interview Mutas hubadj today. Founder at Squirrel, a financial wellbeing platform that allows employees to regain control of their financial lives."

This quote introduces Mutas Kubaj and his venture, Squirrel, setting the stage for the interview's focus on entrepreneurship and financial wellbeing.

Mutas Kubaj's Background and Career Transition

  • Mutas Kubaj has an MIT background in electrical engineering and computer science.
  • He transitioned from a career in investment banking to entrepreneurship.
  • His decision to leave banking was driven by the desire for more fulfilling work.
  • The transition involved embracing uncertainty and the potential for failure.

"I'm an MIT grad...was a trader, salesperson, builder of businesses...until I realized I wanted to do something that much more fulfilling with my life."

The quote summarizes Mutas Kubaj's academic and professional background, highlighting his shift from a traditional finance career to founding a startup.

The Mission and Mechanics of Squirrel

  • Squirrel aims to improve financial literacy and empower individuals to manage their money.
  • The platform offers tools for saving, budgeting, and bill management via payroll.
  • It is a response to the predatory nature of payday loans and overdrafts.
  • Squirrel's mission is also aligned with social concerns, such as those expressed by the Church of England.

"Squirrel at its core or in a a financial wellbeing platform...partnering with employers to give their employees ways to save budget and manage their bills directly from their payroll."

This quote explains the core functionality of Squirrel and its goal to provide financial wellbeing services to employees through their employers.

Entrepreneurial Challenges and Advice

  • Leaving a stable career for entrepreneurship can be daunting.
  • Mutas Kubaj experienced discomfort in moving from a structured environment to one of uncertainty.
  • He advises prospective entrepreneurs to immerse themselves in the entrepreneurial community.
  • Sharing ideas and overcoming the fear of them being stolen is crucial for progress.

"I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't...uncomfortable to begin with, but I guess it's been an amazing learning experience so far."

The quote reflects the emotional challenges faced by Mutas Kubaj during his transition from finance to entrepreneurship and acknowledges the growth that comes from such experiences.

"I'd say immerse yourself in the entrepreneurial community...your idea is nothing while it's still a thought, or while it's still on paper."

This advice encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to engage with others and recognize the value of action over secrecy when developing business ideas.## Transformational Points in Entrepreneurship

  • Entrepreneurial communities are essential for testing and improving ideas.
  • London offers a variety of entrepreneurial resources, including meetups, accelerators, and educational forums.
  • Techstars, Wirea, General Assembly, and Three Beards are notable venues for entrepreneurs in London.

You've got to embed yourself with the entrepreneurial community for that to happen.

The quote emphasizes the importance of integrating with the entrepreneurial community for the development and refinement of business ideas.

Squirrel's Experience with Barclays Accelerator by Techstars

  • Squirrel was one of ten companies selected for the Barclays Accelerator in 2014.
  • The accelerator was a three-month, mentor-focused program that was pivotal for Squirrel.
  • The program shifted Squirrel from a product phase to a vision phase.

Yes. So we were one of ten companies that were chosen out of close to 400 companies that applied during 2014.

This quote highlights Squirrel's selection for the accelerator, indicating the competitive nature of the program.

Impact of Mentorship in Accelerators

  • Mentorship is a key component of accelerator programs.
  • Mentor madness involves intense questioning by mentors to refine a company's core value proposition.
  • The feedback loop from mentors helps shape a startup's value proposition and increases the probability of success.

You're thrown into one month of 100 mentors asking you the same question over and over and over again.

The quote describes the intensive mentorship process designed to challenge and refine a startup's fundamental purpose and strategy.

The Value of Accelerator Programs

  • Accelerators provide access to resources within their ecosystem.
  • For fintech startups, the combination of tech and corporate resources can be particularly valuable.
  • Accelerators help startups craft their messaging to attract stakeholders, insights, connections, and funding.

The mentorship is definitely a key part of the value of the accelerator program.

This quote confirms the significance of mentorship in the accelerator experience, contributing to the startup's development.

Choosing the Right Accelerator

  • Founders must understand what they want to gain from an accelerator program.
  • Accelerators should offer an "unfair advantage" and a significant boost to the startup.
  • Key considerations include traction, product development, and access to crucial resources such as networks, funding, and internal resources.

The whole idea of going to an accelerator is you want to give your startup, you want to give your company an unfair advantage.

The quote encapsulates the purpose of an accelerator—to provide a startup with significant advantages and resources to accelerate growth.## Mentorship Retention Post-Accelerator

  • Mutas Kubaj has retained mentors from Barclays and the Techstars community after leaving the accelerator.
  • Mentors provide ongoing support, insights, and help track progress.
  • The frequency of meetings with mentors has decreased, but they remain a valuable part of the network.

"So we have many mentors from the Techstars community, many mentors from Barclays as a corporate that are always there to provide additional insight, or always there to have that extra cup of coffee, just to make sure that we're still on track with metrics that we continue to set with them on an ongoing basis."

This quote emphasizes the importance of maintaining relationships with mentors from previous engagements, who continue to offer support and ensure that the business remains on track.

Identifying Red Flags in Accelerators

  • Founders should be cautious when selecting accelerators and look for red flags.
  • It's essential to ensure the accelerator provides proper attention, support, and structured acceleration services.
  • Founders should inquire about experiences of those who have completed the program, focusing on product development, investor access, traction, client acquisition, and talent acquisition.
  • A red flag is if alumni report insufficient attention or if the accelerator functions more like a co-working space without substantial value-add.

"Just any startup coming out of those accelerators saying that they didn't get the right amount of attention, or they felt that certain things fell short, or that the accelerator was more of a co working space which you can get out of an incubator, which is just, hey, effectively, I've given up equity for rent, which isn't exactly the best situation to be in as a startup."

The quote warns about accelerators that do not provide adequate support and may end up costing equity without offering significant benefits, essentially equating to paying equity for rent.

Equity Exchange in Accelerators

  • Accelerators typically take between 6 to 10 percent equity.
  • Techstars specifically takes around 6 percent equity.
  • The alignment of interests between accelerators and founders is crucial, as accelerators become like co-founders rather than passive investors.

"So tech stars is typically 6%."

This quote provides specific information on the equity percentage taken by Techstars, which is at the lower end of the typical range for accelerators.

Maximizing Value from Accelerators

  • Founders should be proactive in utilizing accelerator resources by setting clear, specific milestones.
  • It's important to do homework before joining an accelerator and to communicate needs clearly to the organizers.
  • Founders should aim to extract maximum value from the program by actively engaging with resources and monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs) with accelerator staff.
  • The goal is to accelerate business growth, equivalent to one and a half to two years, within a three-month period.

"It's making a beeline to those resources, making sure that you tap into those resources in the most effective way possible, but more so setting key performance indicators that you can monitor with people who run the accelerator to ensure that you're getting the value that you want out of the program."

The quote advises founders to focus on efficiently leveraging the resources provided by accelerators and to establish KPIs for regular progress checks, ensuring they receive the intended value from the program.

Achievements Post-Accelerator

  • Mutas Kubaj has achieved significant milestones such as winning the pitch at the palace with Squirrel and the Wired 2014 competition.
  • These achievements suggest successful utilization of the accelerator program and its resources.
  • Following these successes, external funding has been secured, indicating progress and growth post-accelerator participation.

"And you clearly did brilliantly well in getting the value out of the program as you recently won the pitch at the palace with Squirrel and the Wired 2014 competition."

This quote acknowledges the success and achievements of Mutas Kubaj post-accelerator, highlighting the effective use of the accelerator's resources and mentorship.## Squirrel's Recent Achievements

  • Squirrel made it onto the Fintech 50 list, highlighting it as one of the top financial tech companies in Europe.
  • A trip with Boris Johnson to the US increased exposure for Squirrel.
  • These achievements attracted the attention of angel investors and funds.

wins. And more recently, the fintech, making it onto the fintech 50 list, which profile us as one of the 50 hottest financial tech companies in Europe, as well as a recent trip with Boris Johnson out to the US, has added more exposure to squirrel.

This quote emphasizes the recent accomplishments of Squirrel, including recognition as a leading fintech company and increased visibility through international exposure, which has been beneficial for attracting investment.

Fundraising as a Continuous Effort

  • Fundraising is described as a never-ending process, likened to a full-time job within a full-time job.
  • The mantra "always be raising" underlines the continuous nature of fundraising.
  • Squirrel has successfully raised over 1.1 million pounds from a mix of angels, funds, and grants.

Absolutely. Fundraising never stops. Never stops. There's that mantra of always be raising.

These quotes from both speakers convey the idea that fundraising is an ongoing and essential activity for startups like Squirrel, requiring constant effort and attention.

Squirrel's Fundraising Success

  • Squirrel raised funds through angels, funds, and an Innovate UK Smart Fund grant.
  • Building relationships with potential stakeholders was crucial, including the Innovate UK team, angels from the Techstars program, and seed-level funds.

So to date, we've actually raised upwards of 1.1 million pounds through a combination of angels funds, as well as more recently receiving an innovate UK smart fund grant.

The quote details Squirrel's successful fundraising efforts and the diverse sources of their financial support, highlighting the importance of building strong relationships with various stakeholders.

Favorite Book: Exponential Organizations

  • Mutas Kubaj's favorite book is "Exponential Organizations" by Salim Ismail.
  • The book provides insights on building and scaling businesses, challenging the status quo, and ensuring team alignment for growth.

Have to be exponential organizations by Salim Ismail. And it just got a number of great focal points about a number of great ways about how to build your business, how to scale it, and just dismissing the status quo and making sure that everybody on your team is aligned to hit that hockey stick moment.

This quote explains why "Exponential Organizations" is Mutas Kubaj's favorite book, as it offers valuable advice on business growth strategies and team alignment, which are key to achieving rapid scale-up.

The Surprising Aspect of Being a Founder

  • Embracing uncertainty is a surprising and essential aspect of being a founder.
  • Letting go of a regular paycheck for fulfilling work is a significant shift.
  • Fulfillment and monetary returns are both important rewards for entrepreneurs.

Founder, having to fully embrace uncertainty and just say that this is my new life and I no longer need that paycheck because I'm doing something amazingly fulfilling that will see its own returns. Whether it's in terms of fulfillment as well as monetary.

The quote captures the surprising change in perspective required to be a founder, where embracing uncertainty and finding fulfillment in one's work become more important than a steady paycheck.

Entrepreneurial Passion

  • True passion for one's work is a key indicator for becoming an entrepreneur.
  • When a job becomes a series of tasks and does not align with personal happiness, it may be time to consider entrepreneurship.
  • Being passionate about entrepreneurship can lead to working at odd hours with enthusiasm.

Most definitely. And then the other one is if your past job goes from becoming a job to a series of tasks and you can't align your brand of happiness with the happiness that is tied to major success within your current role, just start taking a look at the entrepreneurial side.

This quote suggests that a lack of alignment between personal happiness and one's job can be a sign to explore entrepreneurship, where passion can drive one to work tirelessly and with excitement.

  • Mutas Kubaj regularly reads TechCrunch to stay informed about market developments, funding news, and trends.
  • Staying updated helps him identify important changes and opportunities in the tech industry.

I typically read Techrunch all the time. It's just a good way to keep up with recent developments in the market, recent fundings within the market, recent trends.

The quote highlights the importance of staying informed about industry news and trends, which Mutas Kubaj does by reading TechCrunch, to remain competitive and aware of opportunities.

Successful Founders

  • Elon Musk and Richard Branson are considered successful founders by Mutas Kubaj.
  • Both entrepreneurs represent success in innovation and business leadership.

It's got to be a combination of Elon Musk and Richard Branson. So it's a nice toss up between the two.

This quote reveals Mutas Kubaj's views on successful entrepreneurship, with Elon Musk and Richard Branson serving as examples of successful and innovative business leaders.

Squirrel's Future Plans

  • Squirrel aims to go global, helping people worldwide with their finances.
  • The vision is to enable financial freedom for as many individuals as possible.
  • Mutas Kubaj is dedicated to leading Squirrel to achieve this vision of success.

With in, with the type of attention we've gotten across the globe, whether it's from across the Atlantic and the US, across Asia, also through some investors we have out there in the Middle east as well as emerging markets, we're looking to make people better with their money.

The quote outlines Squirrel's ambitious global expansion plans, aiming to improve financial literacy and help people achieve financial freedom, with Mutas Kubaj at the helm to guide the company's vision to fruition.

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