Richard Steggall: Co-Founder & CEO, Urban FT

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A successful serial entrepreneur, Richard co-founded Urban FT, which he leads as CEO of Waspit Group, Inc. In 17 years in IT&T, he honed skills in global growth strategies and led IPOs on three continents.

How did you get into the industry?

Totally by accident. I was the first angel investor in Waspit, the precursor to Urban FT, the company I now run. Waspit, an alternative banking product aimed at students, was based in London, where I lived at the time. Through this investment, I realized that many financial institutions as well as nonbank brands have loyal followings, but they don’t have the capabilities to deliver the sort of payments solutions that today’s consumers now expect. I was so intrigued by the potential opportunity that I took over management control of Waspit for what I thought would be 12 months. That was in 2010!

Then, I had a conversation that profoundly changed my direction and my life.

I’d been invited to speak at a conference in San Francisco, because at the time Waspit was Mastercard’s first mobile RFID issuer in the U.K. I decided to stay behind for the PayPalX conference and I happened to sit down at lunch next to Anil D. Aggarwal, having no idea that he was the person largely responsible for creating the prepaid industry in the U.S. A week later I visited him in New York and he shared the journey that led him to found two financial transaction processing companies, Clarity Payments and TxVia, and I told him more about the traction Waspit had achieved in the U.K. He was intrigued by what we’d accomplished and pointed out that the U.S. market was ripe for disruption and also predicted a huge opportunity for us in the U.S. He opened my eyes to the obvious—that I had a choice to be a big fish in a small pond or come to the U.S. to see how much of the market we could penetrate in an environment that was far more likely to be receptive to the new technologies we were taking to market at the time.

With the help of the U.K. Trade and Investment Commission, we opened our first U.S. office in April 2012, and a few months later we divested our U.K. business to fund our U.S. growth strategy.

That was five years ago, and I’ve never looked back. The U.S. has now become home for my family and me.

Any emerging industry trends?

I have more of an observation, really—that the period of intense disruption within retail payments has settled down. Big banks have been able to appropriate the features and functionality that emerged from the work of the exciting young fintechs—either by buying the fintech businesses or replicating their solutions. The opportunity that has emerged is making financial services—digital payments in particular—available to clients outside the typical framework of financial institutions; that is, coupling financial services with the core competencies of consumer brands.  

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

Opportunities and challenges are the opposite sides of the same coin, and, for me, coupling financial services with the core competencies of nonbanks is the perfect example. On one hand, there’s the opportunity I just mentioned—nonbanks using digital payments as a brand differentiator that complements their core businesses.

Take airlines, for example. Think of the huge asset they have in their loyalty programs—with thousands, maybe millions, of members. Monetizing those relationships is the opportunity. How to do it is the challenge. I contend that coupling those programs with a well-conceived digital banking complement is an extraordinary way to drive value from their asset by making the brand integral to the customer’s daily life--generating loyalty and incremental revenue. The airline goes from being a brand customers interact with several times a year when they need to travel by air to one they carry with them always on their mobile phone and engage with daily.

That’s what we’re focusing on today at Urban FT, and it is, undoubtedly, the most exciting concept I’ve ever brought to market.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

My business inspiration always has been to design and deploy an exceptional consumer experience—different from anything they’ve gotten anywhere else or will get in the future. We did it with Waspit by bringing together elements that were totally unexpected in an alternative banking platform. And, we’re doing it again at Urban FT—this time through the B2B and B2B2C channels—helping partners inside and outside traditional financial services deploy amazing solutions that complement their core competencies to delight customers and build loyalty.  

What's next for the Business in the near future?

During the past three years, Urban FT has experienced phenomenal growth, with revenues surpassing even our investors’ expectations. We have the absolute objective of being the #1 provider of digital payments solutions in the U.S., and we intend to grow market share aggressively through a combination of organic growth and strategic acquisition.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

That’s easy, we focus on providing exceptional end-user experiences that deliver increased value to our B2B clients.

And, although it may sound corny, we do this by sticking to three key goals: (1) accelerating our clients’ success by expanding their potential to acquire incremental customers, increase usage and build loyalty, (2) delivering the most compelling SaaS-based digital payments platform and (3) being the best partner our clients can imagine.

If we stay focused on these goals, we’ll achieve an important fourth; that is—being recognized as the industry leader and go-to provider for brands that want more value from their customer relationships.  

That’s what drives us every day—to be #1.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

It’s the difficulty every entrepreneur faces—staying in business long enough to get past the startup stage.

Countless times, in the early days, funding fell through, commitments weren’t honored or we had to make difficult decisions. During those times, the strength of our staff, the board and key stakeholders pulled us through and enabled us to continue working toward achieving our vision.

What did I learn from those experiences? That all of what people like to call the “soft stuff,” like relationships and open communications, gets you through the tough times. I learned the benefit of creating a team—that is, going the extra mile with staff members to make sure they understand they’re more than “just” employees. And, I learned the benefit of being transparent with clients and partners; for example, if we weren’t able to deliver on time, to share the bad news sooner rather than later so the other party had time to adjust. And, I learned that stakeholders expect problems in a startup and, if you bring them a problem before it becomes a crisis, they’ll work with you to fix it.

The tech and all that—that’s the easy part of business. The hard and most important part is building the relationships that see you through it all.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

The ideal experience for an Urban FT client is seeing the immediate impact of deploying our solution—that is, attracting new customers, increasing sales or usage and improving customer retention. Adding to the ideal experience is for the client to achieve all of those benefits with minimal capex and without significant incremental operating expense.

How do you motivate others?

By creating a culture in which employees know they’re valued and their contributions have a direct impact on the success of our business. And, treating employees as individuals and having fun together—at impromptu lunches and for drinks, for example. I’m also a big believer in respect and empowerment, and treating every person I meet—not just employees—as if they’re a friend. The latter is very much an Australian way of looking at relationships. And, yes, I’m Australian.

But, as the Urban FT staff is only too happy to point out, I also believe an important part of motivating others is setting a high bar and holding them accountable. I have no issue calling out employees—not because they’ve made a mistake, because mistakes are an important part of learning—when they don’t deliver their best. Letting an employee get away with less than his or her best, I believe, shows a lack of respect for that person’s potential.  

All of this is especially important at Urban FT, because our employees skew quite young. I realize that I—along with some of our more seasoned employees—have the responsibility to mold these young people and harness their tremendous energy and fearlessness to do great things at Urban FT and throughout their entire work lives.

Career advice to those in your industry?

My advice is to work hard at something you’re passionate about and to let that passion shine through, so you light up a room when you walk in.

And, on a very practical level, I’d advise everyone to track the positive impact his or her contributions make to the success of the organization.

Finally, to have fun, because life is too short not to enjoy what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with—even at work!