Last week I sat down with Luke Howes, serial entrepreneur and notably, CEO of Proviso. Proviso is now a staple of the FinTech ecosystem in Australia; from a consumer perspective perhaps one of those businesses you’ve not heard of but had a massive impact on your life, and from a client perspective, one of the most important tools for accessing customer data to improve the quality and speed of lending. Either way, Proviso has an awesome impact on Financial Services business across Australia. But that’s enough from me, let’s hear hear what Luke has to say about building this Adelaide-based FinTech business.
Matthew Parker (MP): Why did you feel it was necessary to start Proviso, what were some of the key challenges you were trying to solve?
Luke Howes (LH): If we go back to the start, we already had a financial comparison website, but wanted to get more involved with users with our own product. We were looking at building a budgeting app and showed it to some lenders. They thought it was interesting, but felt that their biggest problem was getting bank statements to improve the automation of lending, so we saw this as a potential opportunity. We didn’t do anything with this immediately, but it kept coming up over a couple of months, so we built an MVP and managed to acquire some good clients and it’s been growing from there!
That second MVP initially had data retrieval from 10 banks in Australia which lenders found really valuable. It took us a few months to onboard our first clients, but the feedback from lenders was really positive about what we were doing. Additionally regulatory changes that meant this was the perfect time. Our initial clients were online lenders and non-bank business lenders. We also started working with Mortgage brokers, and in the past year we have now signed up some credit unions and banks. We also provide bank data for a range of fintech applications in accounting and all the new wonderful ideas people are dreaming up nowadays.
MP: What do you feel have been some of Proviso’s biggest successes?
LH: We’ve been running the business for 3.5 years. I feel we’ve really made a great difference for Financial Services in Australia. We now have over 900 clients and it feels like we influence a lot of business and impact a lot of people in making financial services easier to deal with. When we started out we had 2 core beliefs; make processes frictionless and customer experience wins. This has really played out over the past few years.
To quote Chris Hadfield, we’ve also been “lucky” - the timing has been great, when we went out early with our MVP, asking questions of what lenders needed, we were lucky to get great feedback. Regulatory changes to responsible lending have been a significant help as well.
The product we built has competitive advantages in speed that we didn’t realise in advance that would be so important. We’re the fastest to get the data in the market and it’s made a massive difference. We built all our own technology which has become a defining competitive advantage in terms of speed, quality and flexibility.
We’ve also been persistent and patient at the times when it has been required. For example, we’re on-boarding a big lender this week which was the second demo we ever did almost 4 years ago. Startup technology companies are not all overnight successes. These things take time - you have to have patience, you have to have a long view with everything, relationships with employees, customers, everything. This all pays off in the end.
MP: At the “Finnies” this year you took home three awards, why do you think Proviso was recognised and what has that done to support the growth of your business?
LH: We probably didn’t have too many companies competing which helps! We have good sentiment from our customers, we were really grateful to win the awards, but also really conscious of our internal shortcomings and knowing where we need to get better. It’s great recognition of course, that we’re on the right track for our customers and clients, but also no business is perfect and we know there’s more to be done. But I think people like working with us and we like working with our clients. We try and be really good people in everything we do and this builds goodwill and trust in the market.
Looking forward, we’re planning to double the size of our business in the next 12 months from a revenue perspective. We are self funded and haven’t taken on any external investment capital. We manage profitability and stability and grow our team to fill the needs that we have. I don’t know what the headcount is going to look like in 12 months, but in the past 6 months we’ve doubled the size of the team to 15. We will continue to grow our team as we add more clients.
From a product perspective we’re always looking at features and data points that improve the customer experience and help our clients become more efficient and profitable.
MP: At the start of the year i spoke with Jost Stollmen in our 2016 Fintech Retrospective who mentioned the growing pressure on banks to open up their data and APIs in order to create a flourishing FinTech sector in Australia. How do you feel this has evolved over the year and what still needs to happen?
LH: The conversation has progressed immensely. The Federal Government has started the open data enquiry and seems very interested in fast forwarding the progress on this - the progress definitely hasn’t been coming from the banks.
Moving forward, there needs to be a mindset shift from the banks from seeing open data as a threat to an opportunity. We’ve seen some examples out of the UK and Europe on how open data has been leveraged to create better products for the banks who can then provide them to their customers. Currently they see it as a threat giving up data and not the opportunity to improve experience for the customer with an ecosystem of Fintech companies making amazing and innovative products.
We are strong believers that customers should be able to control their data and who has access to their data, especially banking data. We provide a customer authorized service where they control and direct who receives their banking data.. There are a lot of unknowns for open banking data but it will progress step-by-step. We likely overestimate progress in the short term, but also underestimate the transformation of financial services in the long term as banking APIs start to open up. This will create a lot of new opportunities. My hope is that Australian consumers become more financially literate and gain access to more financial products that are competitively priced. Hopefully there will be more financial services available to people who are currently financially excluded.. As a country if we can address those objectives open data will contribute to growth of society as a whole.
MP: Changing tact a bit; why did you decide to set up Proviso in Adelaide? How have you found growing a business out of Adelaide?
LH: I grew up in Adelaide but had been living in Sydney for about ten years. The co-founder of Proviso is Dallin my brother who heads up the tech team and he has always lived in Adelaide. We initially started the business with me based in Sydney and Dallin based in Adelaide.I made a family decision to move back to Adelaide at the beginning of 2015 and have seen many benefits of being in one office. I’ve also been surprised how good it's been to grow the business here in Adelaide. It’s a great place to find talent and it’s certainly more affordable for talent compared with Sydney.
The downside is probably the travel as most of our clients are interstate, so we are on planes most weeks. But on a normal dayit only takes 10 minutes to get to work and it’s a great lifestyle for family which meshes well with entrepreneurship.
The other interesting thing is that in Sydney we would be a small fish in a big pond, but here we are more of a big fish in a small pond. We’ve received a small grant from the state government and had some great visibility.
MP: Final question; you’ve set up a few different businesses, what have been some of your key learnings?
LH: Sometimes I look back and wonder if I could have fast tracked this business or the development of certain things, but looking back of 12 years of running my own companies, each have been a massive learning process. It’s all been part of the experience and education of being an entrepreneur and every mistake has fed into the learning for the next business. Failing isn’t terminal it’s just part of the process. It’s helped me develop resilience for when things haven’t been going well.
A lesson that’s been difficult for me to learn is that I can’t do it all myself. It’s been great to build a fantastic team with Proviso.I used to have a view that having employees would add complexity and difficulty, but building this team has been an amazing experience.
Another key learning has been the power of focus. There are so many opportunities and over many years of building businesses I tried to take advantage of many of them, but realised that doing many things poorly was not going to lead to anything substantial. So with Proviso from day one we have had a razor sharp focus, really trying hard to eliminate all the noise.
Finally you have to ship product and get it in the market so you can get the feedback and make it better rather than sitting on the sideline and guessing or projecting how the product is going to grow. You have to build, you have to ship and then learn from those experiences. We have definitely tried to do that. It’s the basics of the Lean startup, get it out early, get feedback and charge for it!
If you’d like to learn more about Proviso, check out their website here. Stay tuned for my upcoming interview with Mario Hasanakos from Spriggy, talking about his cradle to Series A experience.
If you’d like to chat about hiring awesome talent for your business, no matter where you are in the country (even Adelaide, sounds like we should all start our businesses there), please email me at [email protected]