Exclusive Interview. Dexter Cousins chats to David M Brear CEO of 11:FS, the globally renowned Fintech and digital banking consultancy. Find out David's secrets on leadership, attracting the very best talent and how to bootstrap a global business.
David: We've been up to a few things other than just hanging out with microphones and doing podcasts.
Over the last three and a bit years, we've built Mettle, a SME challenger bank with NatWest in the UK. In Hong Kong we’ve worked with WeLab and Standard Chartered and in Singapore we’ve worked with our good friends Grab. We’ve also worked with a number of different companies in South Africa and we are midway through building out a consumer bank in the US.
From an 11:FS perspective, we live by the mantra that digital financial services are only 1% finished. Our mission is to change the fabric of financial services. And we do that in many different ways.
On one side we have a consulting services business working with people around the planet, whether it's regulators or banks or tech players or whoever wants to build out new green field propositions. We help to define strategy and move the ideas forward.
On the other side, it's about building products that actually solve problems we've had ourselves, whether it's things like Pulse, a global benchmarking tool, or the blockers we’ve come up against for delivering truly digital services at speed and scale.
That directly led us to establish 11:FS Foundry, which is a digitally native approach to core banking with a full stack architecture.
David: Four years back we struck on a thesis that we are so early in the cycle of change. The promise of everything the Internet brings to an industry that fundamentally hasn't changed for 300 years was nowhere near being realised.
Digital is really about using the power of data to create an ultra personalised experience with much better services and products.
Unfortunately the way in which big banking organisations have implemented digital is more about taking people and paper out of the process. That’s digitisation, not digital.
The justification of every bank's digital transformation had been cost driven. It has only been in the last few years where banks have realised they need to revolutionise their approach and provide better services and products.
The change has predominantly been led through major changes globally, in the regulatory space and through competition. New players have come into the space, whether that be Fintech startups or Big Tech companies like Apple, and they are showing the banks that people just want better services.
We are just at the beginning of fundamental shifts in banking and financial services.
David: We’ve taken no money. From month three of founding the organisation we were profitable. This pre revenue nonsense is definitely not for me. I don't think you can call it a business unless it makes profit and makes revenue. Call me old fashioned on that one. But for me, it's all about creating something of value for people. And if you do that then you should be able to monetise it.
There have been key moments where we have been very lucky and times when we have been ballsy. Episode One of Fintech Insider is an example. We had no listeners and no idea how we were editing the show, but managed to get a sponsor because they believed in what we were doing.
The first client of 11:FS Pulse was brought in as a partner before the product even existed. DNB invested in Foundry when it was no more than 11 slides.
We've been lucky to find people who believe in what we are doing, are probably as crazy as us and share the same vision, which is awesome. But ultimately our success comes down to creating things that are of great value to our clients.
David: I'm 39 years old now. Entrepreneurs my age can attract the right talent more effectively than people who are starting out a lot younger. You build up a network of people over your career where you think I don't know when, but we're gonna work together again.
I met Jason Bates (11:FS cofounder) back when he was at Starling, I was still at Gartner. I knew with Jason we'd work together at some point. Similar to Ryan Wareham, our COO. We worked really well together when I was at Lloyds Banking.
You get a feel for people in terms of their unique strengths. If there is a pre existing relationship you already have an understanding of each other. From there you build a founding team.
Beyond that, I honestly think success is fundamentally about momentum. One success leads to another success, which over time creates a magnetic pull where you attract the right people.
David: Yeah, 100%. It’s crazy, we get hundreds of emails from people interested in working with us either as employees, partners or clients. At the beginning of the company you're five people sitting around a table trying to figure out how you can compete with Accenture and McKinsey.
We couldn't outspend them from a marketing perspective. So, we decided to out play them with brutal authenticity and a level of distribution that would create a fundamentally different way of engaging with our customer base.
Even now we could not reach the amount of people that we do with the level of content marketing that we put out using our competitors marketing approach. We have focused so much on brand narrative, it’s not about the products or services we offer. Our brand narrative is fundamentally about what we believe in and our values.
When you align with people on your belief system or your aspiration about what the industry could be, then you find a higher level of connectivity that you can never achieve by sending out a bullshit brochure.
David: 11:FS is my first CEO role. I have worked for some really good CEOs and one or two really bad ones in the past. But I’ve probably learned more from the really bad CEOs, especially on what not to do when it comes building a winning culture!
The 11:FS culture is based on servant leadership. We are not a hierarchical company and believe bad and good ideas can come from anywhere. Whether it's bad ideas coming from the very top or good ideas coming from anybody across the organisation.
Trust is a huge thing from my perspective as a leader. If you have 360 degree trust of your people in the business then there is a positive intent running through the whole company.
When it comes to leadership I don’t consider myself a businessman. I'm more of a sports guy. So, I always look to bring the same mentality of a very successful sports team into the 11:FS team culture.
I think there's an honesty to sports that is often very much missing within the business world. Transparency and accountability are key to a sports team.
If somebody's playing badly on the team, they know and you know really quickly. There is nowhere to hide, but as a sports team you'll do everything you can to increase the productivity of the team and increase the impact you can make from an individual perspective.
With sports teams it is as much about psychology as it is physiology. And I think that is missing in the business world.
Good leaders really understand that it's not really about them. It's about what they can do to get the best out of everybody else around them.
Whether it's creating a sense of urgency, whether it's creating a vision and reinforcing it until the goal is reached, whether it's giving people a level of motivation to run through walls they wouldn't have tried to do before.
In big organisations leadership stops being about getting the best out of the people and focuses on managing the board or managing a group of shareholders.
And that's where I think you start to see a significant drop in the productivity of people within an organisation. And unfortunately, it's where you start to see an almost unrecoverable position from a cultural perspective.